We had been out of touch for a few years. My life had taken me in a different direction and, depending on the week or the month, his life had taken him in new directions...or not. With some degree of shame I admit that perhaps more instrumental in my psychological remove than simply moving to a different constellation of communities, and unlike many of my friends and former co-workers, I had simply worn out. Gary -- let's just say this at the outset -- could be both exhilarating and exhausting, encouraging and disappointing in often wearying juxtaposition. And then yesterday we buried him.
At 56 years of age. Again, however, let's agree that however many years have literally elapsed since he came into this world, his body was some number of years older than that. Lifestyle issues had almost certainly levied a tax on his system; who can really be completely surprised that the bill finally came due and his heart simply gave out?
Well, I suppose we were all surprised. Gary, after all, had played the phoenix so many times before. However much his booming, resonant voice was his calling card, his real art was rising from the ashes -- determinedly pulling himself up by his fingernails and force of will every time those ashes had claimed him once again. "Pulling himself up", that is, along with the help and encouragement and advocacy of friends. There was, to be sure, a large and ever morphing circle of strength that tenaciously pulled for Gary. Like migrating geese that constantly change positions to relieve the one flying in the point position, new faces constantly cycled into seasons of advocacy when others of us fell back from compassion fatigue. There were, of course, constants in his life who refused to give him up to his own bad choices -- families by choice, if not by blood, who never closed their door -- but there were more veterans than soldiers in the war to save Gary.
And now that the war is over -- an armistice arranged by death rather than defeat -- it's hard to know what to think, let alone feel. There is sadness, to be sure; disappointment, a bit of latent guilt, and, if I am honest, something gnawing around the edges of my soul that smells a bit like anger or more likely exasperated frustration. Neither Gary nor the circle of support arrayed around him could finally pull it off.
I don't mean to suggest resentment. Once, years ago, in one of those initial forays in pursuit of some legal redemption, we approached a public figure of some influence for some kind of support and, after hearing the summary of Gary's story, asked, "How many second chances does someone get?" From my reading of scripture I think the answer is, "However many someone needs." I regret none of our efforts, nor resent none of their ultimate futility.
No, it's neither resentment nor regret. Perhaps what I feel has more to do with existential bewilderment. Never have I known a person with more extravagant gifts. Gary possessed the kind of voice that shower singers like me only dream about and routinely pay large ticket prices to hear. He had been well-reared by devoted parents, well-trained by the world's best teachers, and well-introduced to some of the most prestigious stages and most discerning audiences in the world. And his talent was up for the challenge. Unfortunately, the rest of him wasn't always that prepared. And then after his great fall and our providential introduction, Gary's innate giftedness was augmented by the circle of hands determined to hold him up and, as was repeatedly necessary, pull him back up. God had equipped this instrument with all the assets one should need to soar and yet Gary could never stay in flight for very long.
All Gary wanted to do was sing, but circumstances were such that he spent as much or more of his time groveling.
What do I make of that? Is Gary simply a poster child for the ultimate place of "free-will" -- that no matter how fully and richly God wants and equips a person to succeed, God will not finally do for that person what he will not do for himself -- or is Gary's story simply a testament to the tragic power of addiction? I am neither a good enough theologian nor an experienced enough social worker to have the answer.
I only know, as I told a friend who spoke at the funeral, that it is somehow appropriate that Gary died cradled in the space midway between Advent's Sundays of Hope and Peace. Despite all of his ups and downs he never lost the former; and now, by the grace of this God of second chances, he has finally found the latter.
Blessings, my big and beautiful and complicated friend. Life in your company has been a cherished, and I suppose "appropriately operatic", duet. Thanks for singing, and teaching us all something about aspirational determination, and the power of hope.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
Lori and I write Christmas letters. I know that not everyone thinks that’s a useful practice. They can sound grandiose and braggadocios. They can read like saccharine. All that, plus the tendency of such epistles to over-assess the reader’s interest in the minutiae of the writer’s life. If we really wanted to know the intricacies of someone’s everyday life – paper or plastic, one-ply or two, gel or paste, the current odometer reading -- we could simply read Facebook.
I understand all that. But still we write the letters. In our defense, we try our best to capture some essence of the forest of our year rather than naming every tree. We keep it to one page. This year's narrative will almost certainly make note of Lori's retirement in June and the addition of chickens to our little homestead in March. Readers might detect a note of smugness when we report how many elements of our Thanksgiving Dinner came out of our garden and coop, but the availability of such foodstuffs is as much an occasion for surprise as gratitude. The letter will, in other words, include a few details. But we assume that any interest by our friends has less to do with our calendars than our growth and well-being and try to write with that editorial eye and ear. Essentially we try our best to write a letter that we would want to read.
In truth, though, I suspect we would write the letter even if we never mailed it out. A Christmas letter is simply the mechanism we have adopted for reflecting on our lives. Who have we been this year? Where have we grown? What have we attempted; to what have we aspired? What has moved us deeply? What have we set aside; what have we moved beyond? The Christmas letter has become for us a kind of annual physical for our marital soul – our inside version of the question Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly posed to his friend Henry David Thoreau after a long separation, “what has become clearer to you since last we met?” Or, otherwise phrased, “what have you learned…?”
What have we learned in the course of this year? What has become clearer?
Today is the day we’ll be sitting down over a cup of hot tea in the company of each other and something of those searching questions. Maybe a few of their answers will find their way into a letter. It could be that someone actually reads it. But whatever words ultimately find their way polished and on the page, the point will not simply be a letter that has been written. The point will be a year gratefully lived; one, we trust, will end up piquing our curiosity about the next one beginning just around the corner.