Cold Winds of January

A friend of mine passed away on the 22nd of December. We said goodbye to him yesterday.

I’ll just use “Andy” because I’m respecting his long term girlfriend’s wishes for privacy.  Likewise, I’m not going to identify anyone in a picture.

The ceremony was on a gloomy day in Congressional Cemetery, a rambling graveyard that was impressively run down at the edges but had a sweet, mournful air about it. Many of the graves in the cemetery went far back into the 19th century. Wind, acid rain and the elements lent it a very gothic look. Above ground crypts were dotted here and there over the landscape, as well as more recent granite tombstones. The effect was eclectic as well as respectful. I arrived early before the entourage– I had budgeted an hour and a half to get there but the surprisingly light traffic had me arriving a half hour in advance. I guess there’s some up side to having the government shut down. The elderly caretakers were very gracious, instantly knowing where to send me.

Being restless and having almost an hour to kill, I walked around looking at gravestones. I love old cemeteries, and Congressional is a very interesting one. There are some famous people resting here. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his companion Clyde Tollefson. Lincoln assassin David Herold. Composer John Phillip Sousa. Preston Brooks, who caned Charles Sumner almost to death, right before the Civil War. On a normal day I would spend hours here, walking around, taking pictures. Today, though. No, it didn’t feel right to be a tourist. I was feeling gloomy.

Restrained and quiet

It would be disingenuous to claim Andy was a great friend of mine. He was the older brother of a friend of mine, but I always liked him and found him energetic and easy to talk to.. full of life and the ability to explore grandiose concepts, political discussions, art, and social trends at the drop of a hat. He knew how to listen with a laser like focus– and he could command your intention. I found him effortlessly cool. There are a lot of posers out there, but not Andy. He was what he was, and it was very easy to like him. His totally sudden death just two days before Christmas had everyone who knew him utterly stunned. The crowd, when they arrived, were respectful and quiet. For me, even though I am middle aged, it was the first time someone in my extended circle of friends and companions had died suddenly. It felt as if we were all following an age old script of how you bury a loved one, but didn’t know what to say.It was disconcerting, to be both there and detached from there at the same time.

Old friends gather

Andy wasn’t a native Washingtonian but had settled down here, much to the delight of his younger brother. He instantly immersed himself in the local arts and avant garde music community, creating larger and larger “symphonies of maximum minimalism” at one point with 100 guitars on the stage. I wish I had seen that. Many friends attended, and helped move the simple pine box into position.

When will everyone be in one place like this again? A wedding? A funeral?

The ceremony was secular and brief, but not too short. The two officiants were Andy’s friends, and they each read selected poems and prose from a variety of sources, including Andy’s Facebook post (his last on Earth). Then there was testimony from family and friends. Andy had a large family, and a lot of friends. It took a while. I felt it would be presumptuous to say something more than a mumbling “I’m sooo sorry“. I wanted to jump in and say “what the hell is going on? He can’t be just… GONE?”… but there it is, that’s death for you. It comes like a thief in the night, and it’s always something that happens to the other guy. The ceremony ended with a ritual as old as time. We couldn’t approach the freshly dug hole because the ground was soggy. So we took earth from a pail nearby (provided by the gracious, elderly cemetery staff), and those that felt inclined scattered some on the coffin before it was lowered, which happened after we all left.

In which the silence is punctuated by awkward conversation.

Afterward, we all convened at Andy’s brother’s house (my friend Mike). The conversation was muted, maybe a little awkward, but gradually it was comforting, despite everyone there feeling the acute sense of loss of one particular person. It occurred to me that we were taking part in an event that plays out every day in America– and there was a sense of contentment in the grief, as humans chattered about .. stuff.. how are kids are doing and politics and sports and how the economy was doing. Mike and I sat out on his back porch and drank a little whiskey and talked next to the fire pit. Mike is abrupt at times but today he was reflective and melancholy. “Seize the day, seize the day.. ” he said. We’ll only have this one time to go around the sun.

In closing, I don’t have a point here, or any pithy ending, beyond my own standard: “Cherish the Living, and Honor the Dead”. It’s all we can do in this life. Cherish, while you can.

The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

One of the poems read at Andy’s funeral
Remember Preston Brooks? He ended up here, too


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