“There’s no such place as far away” – Richard Bach, 1979
“See, if you got three or four good pals, why, then you got yourself a tribe. There ain’t nothin’ stronger than that.” – Billy the Kid
Last night I attended a visitation and rosary for a dear friend who passed away much too soon. It’s barely been 12 hours since I left and I’ve hardly begun unpacking and processing everything I saw and felt.
I’ll humbly and proudly leave the honor of eulogizing Kevin to his family but I will say that he was one of the dearest and most humble, loving and loved, creative and talented, cherished people I’ll ever have the profound privilege of knowing and considering a friend.
What I will share here is something about what I carried with me into the evening, what I brought home…and perhaps what I left there before leaving.
The friendships I formed early in life have shaped me. I believe that’s true for all of us. Those relationships mold our personalities…everything from little quirks we pick up from one another, inside jokes, and shared experiences to how we interact with others for the rest of our lives.
It seems like I have no early memories that don’t include the Townsend or Elbert families. Jennifer, Jim, and John Townsend were there from almost the beginning. First I met Jennifer, in early elementary. She led me to her brothers. Then one day in 1995, Jennifer introduced me to David Elbert. We became immediate friends and he led me to his mother and father, and to his brother Kevin. From that group I found Chris, Brad, Shannon, and Josh. I had a tribe.
There were good and bad times, others came and went from our tribe but it was always us and while it would be easy to gloss over things and just say something like “we grew apart” that’s not really the case.
A variety of reasons resulted in my living in exile from my tribe for the last several years. A lot of that has to do with my own poor judgments, insecurities, and ego. I didn’t know how to process so much of what I was feeling about so many different things and though I have maintained the narrative that I was “pushed away” the real fact of the matter is…I left. If I was pushed on my way out…well, I can’t say it wasn’t entirely without cause.
Wow…I can’t believe I typed that sentence.
A few years back David and I rekindled our relationship, and I’m truly grateful and humbled by this fact. I had missed him…missed him down to my core. He was my best friend.
I had resisted contacting the others…out of embarrassment and shame, resentment, anger…towards myself more than them I suppose.
I recently ran into Chris at a ballgame and he was so happy to see me, and I him. We’ve rekindled our friendship as well, anchored in mutual love of music, respect for one another’s songwriting, and baseball. I missed him greatly and again, humbled by his embrace without condition.
But again, I couldn’t bring myself to even send a Facebook friend request to Brad or Jennifer or anyone else. Too proud, too angry…too everything I guess.
I struggled with whether or not to go to last night’s solemn event because I feared I would be an intruder…that my presence would be unwanted…perhaps even offensive to those in attendance. My anxiety and shame grew as the GPS led me closer and closer….so much that once I arrived I just drove around for 20 minutes not knowing if I would actually go inside.
David presented me to his mother and I’m not sure I’ve ever been hugged so deeply, so compassionately or with such appreciation as I was in that moment. She was so grateful for my coming and begged me to visit again and under different circumstances.
I met with Kevin and David’s father next. I adored him. An intelligent and witty man, he never had anything but a loving smile and a funny story for me. When he recognized me his sadness and grief, though for just a brief moment, gave way to a hint of gladness and appreciation. He asked why it had been so long and if we could see one another again soon…and if I still had one of my guitars. Yes Mr. Elbert, we will see one another again soon.
A moment later I heard a voice from one of the pews. It was Jennifer. I was most uncomfortable about seeing her. Of all the members of our tribe, my relationship with her ran the furthest back into my childhood. We were inseparable for years….until we weren’t.
She called gently to me and thanked me for coming. It was good to see me. I could only bow my head in grief as we shook hands.
I sat alone in the back for a while but the sorrow was thick in the room…suffocatingly so. How could it not be? I stepped outside into the foyer and all of the sudden I found myself, standing in a circle, with my tribe.
David, Tina, Chris, Jennifer, Jim. Brad and Shannon would show up a bit later. For a moment it felt like nothing had changed. Jennifer made a comment about how Jim and I looked like “Reservoir Dogs.” Chris, Jennifer, and I ribbed David about the music he picked out for the occasion…each song driving a corkscrew through our hearts.
All at once I felt at home and thankful but ashamed.
Thankful to be among my friends but…our tribe had lost one of our own…the best one of us and while we stood there supporting one another in our collective grief, I also felt ashamed that it took such a tragic event to lead me back to these people who shaped my life, even in their absence.
For years I’ve thought about what I would say to any of them if we ran into each other in the frozen food aisle. I thought I knew what I would say to Chris, for instance. But when we met there was nothing to say except for “how the hell you been?” and “how ‘bout them Astros?” Within a few hours we were texting away like teenagers catching up on music and trading stories about Beatles recording sessions.
I thought I had volumes to say to Jennifer but standing next to her in our circle, there was nothing to say. We were in our circle, sharing and supporting one another in our grief…and that’s what mattered in that moment…and nothing else should.
I gave Brad a long-overdue hug. We were roommates and I wasn’t a very good one. It seemed what was once a deep and true friendship ended with the official matter of course of a rental agreement. He married Shannon and they have a beautiful daughter. I’d love to introduce her to my son Oliver.
After a while of trading fond and tender stories about Kevin, hugs, and remarks like “Let’s get together soon” I left….again.
The drive home was difficult. I spent the night tormented by nightmares and when I couldn’t stand it anymore I got out of bed and started my day.
I didn’t even intend to write this, much less publish it but I think it’s important to make these words public.
I want to own these words.
I want David, Jennifer, Tina, Chris, Jim, John, Brad, and Shannon to know I appreciate the roles they have played in my life, individually and collectively.
I want my tribe hear my apology. I’m deeply ashamed that the toll paid for my facing you was the death of one of our own.
There’s no excuse for that.
Be Well and Kind,