In some ways I was prepared for Charlie’s memorial party, and in other ways I was not.
I had gone through my parents’ trunks and file cabinets to organize the photos and memorabilia of Charlie’s life. But I hadn’t put the photos or memorabilia in context.
I’d cogitated with my older brother and his partner about plans for the party and philosophized about what death meant with people who would not be able to attend. But I hadn’t meditated on Charlie.
I’d cleared the dresser tops and shelves, removing items that would be in guests’ ways. But I hadn’t searched for traces that Charlie had left with me.
I’d hired window-washers to wash the hazy windows. I’d moved knickknacks from the window sills so they could do their work, and then I’d moved them back again. But I hadn’t looked out the windows of my mind.
I’d written out directions for some guests and helped others navigate on their drive. But I hadn’t worked through the mazes of my thoughts.
I’d downloaded pictures and videos that a friend had digitized and thanked her from the bottom of my heart. But I hadn’t gone to the bottom of my own heart to find the loving gifts that Charlie left for me.
I’d departed early enough to arrive on time, and but in deference to the hosts, I’d pulled over in a park and stared at a river to let time pass. But I hadn’t skipped a rock in Charlie’s honor.
~ ~ ~
Charlie had made two requests of me: that I write his obituary ahead of time, and that we not have a memorial service.
Even before his death, I hadn’t wanted to enclose my memories of him into a couple of newspaper columns. Neither had I wanted to choose the facets of his life he’d be remembered for. But I wrote the obituary as he requested. He read it, and with his one word, I was appeased: “Wonderful,” he said.
Six months have passed since his death. The obituary is public, but–even with attending a grief group, talking to people with long views on life and death, and short views too–foremost, my grief is private. The loss of Charlie is like the loss of my internal chatter: I am vacant. I am devoid.
In reaction to his desire to have no service, I told him the service could be of use for the people left alive. “In that case,” he said, “of course. Or maybe some of you go out somewhere, hold hands, tell stories over a glass of wine.”
~ ~ ~
I loaded into the car from the riverside park and drove to the party. Finally, I arrived. It was too loud. I almost walked back out the door.
But the noise was people who were chatting amiably. A few stood oohing over a spread of foods — concoctions spilling from endive shells, chunks of meats, unusual chips with studded dips, fluted tarts, cherries that ranged from yellow to the deepest red. People mingled within the art- and collection-covered walls, amid the cozy domesticity of our hosts: the couch set up for afternoon TV; the rockers that faced the pellet stove. Three shaggy dogs roamed among guests, expecting love. If I turned to catch my breath I’d catch the country views out every window.
Churning. Glancing. Passing food to people trapped behind chair arrangements. Opening drinks and handing them over backs of chairs. Slowly, slowly, we spun toward the outdoor tables where there was shade or breeze. And like the guests, the dogs got up, with no apparent map, and circulated lazily from spot to spot. Who needs internal chatter, I could have thought, with all these people chattering to one another and to me?
After everyone had met, tasted foods and drink, and meandered through the home, the tenor changed. If the gathering’s goal was to keep on living and to reflect on Charlie, then we were part-way there.
That was when the stories began—and not stories shut into print or trapped on photo paper. These stories went from somewhere to somewhere else. And now released, the stories will kick up new dust as they spin into the lives of those who brought them back and those who sat and listened.
These are open-source stories, crowd-sourced remembrances, public domain impressions. These are tall stories. These are blunt stories. These are stories laced with pride, friendship, laughter, astonishment, and love.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult and swift. Not all affairs resolved in the tidy form he would have fashioned with a longer life. So be it. The outcomes may be better than he would have thought, and if not, perhaps their notability will quickly dim.
Let’s turn back to stories, instead. Like a skipping rock, let Charlie’s stories skim the waters, almost sink, then rise again. Let some stay aloft and surprise us, let some fade, and others, through retelling, amplify. If Charlie were here, he’d likely count the skips.
~ ~ ~
“How was that party, the one for remembering your brother Charlie?” you’ll ask.
“Wonderful,” I’ll answer—with Charlie’s word. It will kick up dust, affect you an atom, change you a smidge, propel you to someplace new, even if just a jot.
“Thanks for asking,” I’ll add. And these words are from my heart.
Thanks to my brother and his partner for organizing and hosting the party, to the people who came–some of them with great uncertainties about their roles, and to those who couldn’t join us but who help keep the stories aloft.