It was a glorious fall day. I was in the Ghost Ranch Library, working on donations, when my phone rang. The call was from my ex-sister-in-law. I last saw her in August 2017, when my sister and I drove up to Oregon from my house-sits in California in order to say a graveside farewell to Aunt J. (Some ceremonies take longer to arrange than others, especially when everyone is farflung.) After the ceremony, I dropped my sister at the airport and drove out to Mulino to stay with R and L in their new (to me) home. Cousins, daughters, and granddaughters came out for a potluck, but D and my stepson K chose otherwise. I was sorry about that, as K and I are on reasonably good terms and I do love him, but I was relieved to have the uncomfortable meeting with D postponed for some other visit. He had suggested a getaway, and that just was never going to be in the cards.
Now that I was back in the States, I did plan to visit Portland, and I was happy to hear L's voice. I took the phone out to patio, where the reception was better. The heart-shaped golden cottonwood leaves were blowing about, and the sky was a deep blue. It was a gorgeous day. We talked a bit and then L told me why she had called. D took his life on Oct 1. He had apparently been struggling for the last year. He was her only sibling, and their parents passed some time ago, so she's the last of that nuclear family.
We talked about that, and about K, and to my surprise, I found myself weeping. Mainly I was grieving for his pain and despair, and for his family. I left D almost 6 years ago, so my personal sorrow was buried deep, compounded by some guilt. Could I have saved him? He never did well living alone. But then again, I did not do well living with him. And in the long run, this was his lifelong battle. I was only a small part of the army of friends and family that fought beside him and ultimately could only stand aside and watch him flailing and losing in single combat. It was heartbreaking then, and it's heartbreaking now.
October passed. My college friends were scheduled to visit that weekend and were a loving distraction and sounding board. The Ghost Ranch management continued to be dysfunctional and provide both drama and angst for most of the staff. I volunteered at the Balloon fiesta and played in an APO concert. I played trios with nearby friends. I hiked through the golden autumnal weather. And I provided pix, words, and memories for L as she and K and M planned the memorial and attended grief counseling.
Memories of his affiliations and accomplishments:
I know that he belonged to the Oregon Alternative Educators’ Association (can’t recall exact name.) He helped produce E’s play, Home to Walata. His coffee klatsch did something with Panera, can’t recall what. KA would know. He did overnights at a few homeless shelters. KL could speak to his involvement with the day shelter at UU. Lots of UU involvement: singing in Chalice Choir, teaching in the Learning Community, Men’s Group, donating to the building fund. He marched in NAMI parades and Parkinson’s walks. He was a loyal and supportive friend, which is a huge accomplishment in my book. GR included him in the thank you credits of his woodworking book.
The list of activities and involvement is long, but could be summed up by a spiritual and social activist sensibility.
In a word, a good and complicated man.
In a word, a good and complicated man.
Adjectives, good and bad:
Loving, lovable, frustrating, creative (especially in the kitchen), needy, fun-loving, caring, giving, ethical, intelligent, socially conscious, angry, depressed, fiscally incompetent, sports loving, jazz aficionado, TV-addict, fatherly, impatient, well-dressed, opinionated, abrasive, devoted (to family, friends, and causes), selfish, never boring.
I miss the good times and am grateful for the many gifts of spirit and connection, especially with his family (my family.)
My sisters came to visit from Oct 31 to Nov 7 and during that time frame I learned that E, now 103, was in hospice. I went out the next week for a farewell visit at her Berkeley care facility. While there, the dates were set for D's memorial and wake: Dec 8/9. I cancelled the next several weeks with Ghost Ranch and arranged a trip to Portland. In the midst of that, Ghost Ranch decided to make me move out during Thanksgiving week, despite the fact that no one was going to be in the farmhouse, and I wanted, as a professional, to come back in January and wind up my projects. But that's a story for another post.
So, I came to Portland, to drink the wine that L and G had been storing for me during my 18 nomadic months, to visit friends, and to say goodbye to D. I thought I was okay until the night before my flight out, when I started weeping again. I came out to the living room and told P: "I'm never going to see D again." Suddenly, I was no longer grieving for him and his family. I was grieving for myself.
For the most part, my friends and family understood, but they also reminded me that there were good reasons I gave up on the marriage and good reasons I had a restraining order for the first year after I left him. For the memorial service, I sang Fragile at the end of the prelude, the song he sang to me at our wedding. "On and on, the rains will fall, like tears from a star, like tears from a star. On and on, the star will say, how fragile we are, how fragile we are." True of our marriage, true of his life.
It was a beautiful service. Most of my personal friends and family did not attend, but those who did benefited by hearing the loving words and memories. There were good reasons I loved him. Friends talked of Big Red, Robbie, Big Unc, the boy and man with a joyous lack of boundaries, the man who held his friends and family close in love and laughter until the last year, when he shut them all out. He stopped initiating gatherings, stopped cooking, stopped returning calls and emails, stopped accessing the joy that surrounded him. His mental illness took him. But, while acknowledging that battle, the service and reception celebrated the lovable D.Still, I could not get through the final hymn, thinking how the peace it epitomized had failed him. I give thanks to the waves upholding me Hail the great winds urging me on Greet the infinite sea before me Sing the sky my sailor's song I was born upon the fathoms Never harbor or port have I known The wide universe is the ocean I travel And the Earth is my blue boat home
That night I stayed with R and L, helping with preparations for the wake. I learned how D's last year had spiralled downward. Although R and L were his lifeline and he stayed with them every weekend, he spent his time holed up in the TV room. He ignored the weekly messages from one of his oldest friends, a friend who spoke at our wedding and spoke equally movingly at the service. The last time L saw D, she told him he needed to resume therapy and he later asked her to drive him to a therapy session. When she arrived for the drive, he was not there. I asked R, who found D. And that's when I discovered how D chose to end it. It wasn't drugs, his choice in several previous attempts. As L told her cousins, "It was messier than that." And irrevocable. I don't need to wonder if anyone could have saved him. But the image of that final act is indelible, and as I watch him crying in my imagination, I cry too.
I wish I could have saved him. I wish he could have saved himself.