I attended my first-ever church memorial service last Saturday. This coming Saturday, I’ll attend my second. The one I just went to honored Joey Maggio, one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known, a 35-year-old who died in a tree trimming mishap and whose habit of being great to others brought out nearly 300 people – and multiple firefighting units; Joey was a smoke jumper – to the service. The coming one is for my dad.
I realized in my 30s that I had less experience with the formalities following death than most people. Not that I didn’t know people who’d died. I think at one point I could count 11 people I’d known as a teenager who’d been killed in car wrecks – but none of them close enough to me that attending the funeral was required. And I’ve had in-laws that I cared for very much pass on, but they moved on from this life during a (long) chapter in my own when I was working two jobs and the only excuse for taking time off was if I had a kid in the hospital. So Bobby went to those funerals alone. It wasn’t until 2008 that death stepped close enough that I had to show up in response.
One of my best friends lost her father to cancer early that year. In February, in solidarity, I showed up at the Adorni Center, the first place where I would gather with others to mourn a passing and celebrate a life. Meanwhile, a friend of mine – more than a friend, a mentor, who taught me a great deal about both surfing and politics – had a stroke and then cancer, and so I not only attended, but helped organize a paddle-out and memorial that May.
Being still unfamiliar with the etiquette around death (and also caught up in my own grief), I didn’t know what to do once we’d all managed to join hands in a circle in the ocean, just on the harbor side of Trinidad, where the headland protected us from waves and mitigated the currents enough for us to hold position for a few minutes. To be in the ocean with my heart clenched instead of open unnerved me. And then a long-time surfer dude, a dude of dudes, cleared his throat and spoke across the water. “I owed Glenn Stockwell money!” he hollered. And we cracked up twice as hard as the flippancy deserved – we couldn’t stop laughing. And so I learned about humor in the aftermath of death and what a necessary release can be found in it.
It was really beautiful.
Five years later, another paddle-out, another memorial, another loss of a beloved member of our surf community. Oh, the love in the room! I remember thinking a thought I’ve held on to tightly since, that we should all be so loved in this life. In the sharing of stories, the words wove through the room, united us all in tears, laughter and appreciation. And I saw how a person’s life, if well-lived, can continue giving even when he’s no longer around. A keepsake from the memorial hangs on my fridge to remind of this, just a simple card with a photo and the Robert Burns quote, “If there’s another world, he lives in bliss; If there is none, he made the best of this.”
We should all love so much in this life.
But not all pain can be mitigated. Two years ago, two friends lost children, one of whom was still a child. The Bayside Grange overflowed with love, an entire community out to offer what solace might possibly be found. The memorial was so lovely as to be near-magical – and yet the magic one truly longs for, to rewind time to the place in which one can leap in, shout, “Stop!,” cradle the precious being to one’s heaving chest, breath coming in sobs from knowing what nearly was – that magic was not to be found.
Likewise, when the paddle out is for a friend of your son’s – and you have saved your own son from death’s clutches often enough that you know that there but for the grace of – and you’ve known this young man since he was a boy and the death stuns you once again as you clench his ashes in one hand waiting for the wind and water to take them away – I have yet to find words.
The day after Joey died, we lost another bright member of this world, a woman whose sons were already grieving their friend, who’d already mourned their father – what a sucker punch, life. Calling out death as unfair does nothing; we are born into such circumstances as exist at the time and exit when we can’t escape them. But still. It is.
This is the second time this year that death’s double-whammy has left people in my life reeling. Within weeks of my father dying, my stepmom’s own beloved dad passed away. Memorial after memorial – too many calendar events include the word “memorial” lately.
From a 2008 email I’d written following my old friend Glenn’s death, “We expected it and yet, to have someone suddenly gone – it’s like walking into a familiar room where everything’s been slightly rearranged. Things are the same, yet off.” Seven years later, I’d expand on that to add, “…and sometimes it’s like you pulled up in your driveway to find your house leveled.” You were barely gone, how could this happen so fast?
At Joey’s memorial, the pastor talked about the uselessness of “Why?” and directed people to the better question of, “How?” How will we get through this? The answer is, of course, love. I don’t think love alone will erase all the pain, but to hold, hug, cry, comfort – what else can one do? We lose and lose and lose in this life, it’s inevitable. So we must be diligent about finding, too: joy, people, purpose, the moment. Whether the room merely rearranged or the home swept away, we still carry a house in our hearts. May the load-bearing walls have been built with beams of kindness. “Come in,” we can then say to those who’ve been left behind. “Come in. You’re always welcome here. Stay.”