Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Losing people close to us.

We pulled up to the marina and started carrying all our gear down the plank onto a large taxi boat for the short jaunt to an island that inexplicably bore the name "Goat Island," even though there wasn't a single goat in sight.  We didn't really know what to expect; but we rarely do, as we've learned through the years that spending time and energy on anything other than a few particular logistics details is a waste. The philosophy of "we'll figure it out when we get there" is the only thing that constantly works for us anyway.  But we did know that this was a party for our friend, Keith Routh, who passed away suddenly on a scuba diving trip this winter, and that is all that really mattered.

We started setting up on a small Tiki stage, while the organizers of the party, Keith's close friends, kept busy setting up food, drink, and shade stations, in the sandy area that served as a yard to the small monolithic 3 story, 3 room house the landowners stayed in.  No pavement, no cars: just a canopy of trees, running water, power, and lots of sun on this warm Sunday. 

As the boat taxi made runs, people started walking down the long single walkway pier that connected the land to the water over the marshy mud that was ruled by the tides.  I noticed that everyone seemed to be a lot younger than Keith, which didn't surprise me at all.  Keith was full of life and an existential energy that was unusual for someone of his age, so him running with a younger crowd just made sense. 

It has been several months since we lost Keith, so the shock and sense of sudden loss had passed, and today was all about celebrating the fact that we were lucky to have known him.  Many "Keith stories" were shared, but a constant theme of the day was "He would have loved this."  A small sunny island filled with all his favorite things: friends, beers, and music from one of his favorite bands.  I'm sure at some point we all had the exact same vision, of him actually being here with us and enjoying it, raising his beer and giving that huge smile he was known for.  I couldn't help but wish there was a way we could have these types of parties before we lose our friends and loved ones.  A way to actually show them how much they mean to us before we/they check out.  Maybe the lesson is to make that message more of a daily action than a one time shot. 

There is a song that Flatt and Scruggs used to play called "Give me my flowers while I'm living."

Won't you give me my flowers while I'm living
Let me enjoy them while I can
Please don't wait till I'm ready to be buried
And then slip some lilies in my hand

In this world is where we need our flowers
A kind word to help us get along
If you can't give me flowers while I'm living
Then please don't throw them when I'm gone

I have experienced the opportunity to do just that for my Grandma Swenk after she had a heart attack and a stroke.  The Swenk side of the family has always been very close, with lots of cousins, so we all dropped what we were doing and came from all points on the east coast, and spent a weekend in Sparta celebrating someone who was still with us.  It was one of the most beautiful weekends our family has ever had and nobody will ever forget it.  Nobody had any idea that she would hang tough for several more years.  Swenks are a stubborn bunch.  

But life is temporal and tender, and we just don't get that opportunity every time.  When the time comes we do the best that we can, but I do think that we are in a position to rethink end of life ceremonies and allow them to evolve out of the Middle Ages superstition-based rituals that are still so prominent.  Why would we want to do that? Because these ceremonies are for the living, not the dead.  Personally, I've seen both ends of the spectrum--from ones so beautiful and heart-felt to one so impersonal that I wanted to just walk out. 

Through the eons of humans trying to understand the idea of life and death, most rituals were created to help the spirit or soul a passageway to some particular place --  the ceremony was for the dead, not the living.  But we've evolved past that and now most of us can agree these ceremonies are for the ones left behind. 

Several years ago I had two different experiences that affected me profoundly and have always stuck with me.  My Grandma Swenk moved to Sparta when I was young and lived within a short bike ride, so she was a daily influence on my life.  I've never lost someone who I've been so close to.  As we made our way down to Florida for her funeral, I knew it would be a pretty strict Catholic funeral with mass, which I've been through before.  But I wasn't ready for the reality of the experience.  The best way I can describe it that it was like sitting through a 60 minute infomercial for Catholicism, getting pounded with all the reasons why Catholicism is the only true way, and all the reasons why anyone with any sense should be a part of it.  The few brief personal moments came and went so fast you almost missed them: she loved UNC basketball, North Carolina mountains, and her grandkids.  Here was woman who was the pillar of a very large, tight, and loving family and yet the personal details acknowledged didn't even set her apart from any other loving Grandma.  There was one brief moment where I was able to feel a connection to the process of losing someone you love so much, and that was when the grandkids served as pall-bearers and walked the casket out.  I left thinking to myself, "we--the living and the dead--deserve better than this."

On the complete other end of the spectrum, I was able to attend an end-of-life ceremony for my girlfriend's step-dad around that same time.  Avi was a large man in every way, both physically and mentally.  He looked like Jerry Garcia with his white hair and beard and easy smile, and his temperament and doctorate in psychiatry gave him a serene, calming presence that listened more than spoke.  I don't know where Avi fell on the religious spectrum but I always had the feeling that he studied Buddhism in his younger searching years, and it affected him greatly.  His ceremony did not have many religious undertones, but instead focused on his presence on this earth and everyone he affected.  There were readings from family members, as you would expect, but the last half of the ceremony opened the floor for anyone who wanted to get up and talk about Avi.  We heard story after story of how he helped people through their darkest times.  Even though I had only been around Avi a few times through the years, I left that ceremony with one of the strongest senses of peace and comfort and love that I have ever known. It was everything that an end-of-life ceremony could and should be. It not only acknowledged our sense of loss, but more importantly it focused on how Avi made our lives better by knowing him.  Is there any better way to honor someone who has passed than that?

We don't know what happens when we die.  If you say you know, then you're confusing the words "know" and "believe."  (How many world problems could be solved if we just stopped confusing those two words!)  But people die, and the living are left to deal with a great sense of loss and confusion, as well as many great memories.  Some of us choose to anesthetize our grief with believing that we will all be connected somewhere else in a big huge party.  Who knows?  Maybe we will or maybe we won't.  But what I do know is that these people made our lives a little bit better; and even though their memory won't live forever as we like to think, it will live with us, in our hearts, for all of our lives--and I think I can get along just fine knowing that.  

Here's to ya Keith, and Grandma Swenk, and Avi.  Thanks for making our lives a little bit better. 

A picture collage of Keith 

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