(Indroductory Note: This article was originally posted on my Facebook page, July 11th which would have been Diane’s 49th birthday.)
I noticed today is your birthday, my friend.
People’s birthdays get noticed on Facebook. A little reminder automatically comes up and suddenly their “friends” send lots of sweet well wishes and comments to their walls. It’s kinda fun and uplifting.
There wasn’t a notice for your birthday (and I know why), so I wanted to find some way to acknowledge yours . . .
Happy Birthday, Diane. You would have turned 49 today. . .
Being a year ahead of you in school, I turned 50 last December. What a milestone! I’ve been watching several of my classmates the last 6 months turn that corner and I’ve been telling them all the same thing – “It’s not so bad.” Somehow, I have a conceit you would have snickered and taunted me on how “old” I had gotten and you would have milked that all through the 18 month difference between us.
Right now, I would enjoy enduring that more than anything else in the world!
(Because it still stings to remember you only just made it to 40.)
But I will try not to digress on that – ONCE AGAIN!
(Yeah, right . . .good luck!)
It’s been a little over 8 months since I learned of your departure (read: crashed to the ground). During that interval I’ve still had moments of trying to work out the math of your untimely death, Diane – and I still crumple up the sums, toss them away and nurse the ache.
But yes. . . I’ve also had gradually larger seasons of breaking sun. I’ve made stronger, more purposeful strides down the path, and there have been days where I’ve caught myself not even thinking of you. I know you would approve – watching, as I believe you do, from your vast, intimate vantage point. Yours was a spirit that sought ways to overcome such obstacles undaunted.
I was told, after all, that when the hospice workers showed up at your door – you sent them away – with great indignation.
(8 months and I still can’t decide whether to laugh or cry at that image.)
I’ll be honest, Diane – Sometimes I’ve been worried and annoyed with this permanent wound you’ve left me. It brings out the best and worst in me: Compassion and compulsion, resolve and despondency. You’ve given me a new voice, yet I don’t always know how to stay in tune – or when to shut up!
I’ve learned that grief is a paradox: it always cries out for expression, yet it’s a maddeningly private experience. There is loneliness in the unique shape it takes for each one of us. When we seek the solace of connection, we find at best, it can only overlap with the grief of another.
Grief may not placate, but it wonderfully resonates. It’s like the song of the first bird in the morning or the howl of one wolf at the moon; the song is joined, the cries are quickly taken up, adding a chorus for other loved ones lost. Because I miss you so, Diane – others join in and harmonize for the one’s they miss. Duets for the dearly departed.
Greg Haegele was one of those. Did you know him, Diane? I knew you both. He was the scrawny, blonde kid a few houses down. I loved going over to swim with him at his dock and play his bumper pool set. Like you, he lived passionately for his causes, and he was too young to go! (I have a few choice words to the sky about that, too!)
When I sang my song for you, many felt the tones echo for Greg as well. If they observe your birthday where you are, and he comes to the gathering, tell him I said hello. Tell him many hearts on this side miss him dearly, and wish him well. Tell him special thanks for that day I came over unannounced . . .and scared. He should know how much it meant to me that I could go there.
As a result of my howl at the moon – I also exchanged words with two people I’ve never met, who remember you from such different stages of your life.
One remembers you as a member of her Girl Scout den. Your mother taught her to sew so she could earn the badge. She can remember you happily singing the song “Feelin’ Groovy.”
Another woman met you just two years before you died. Your sons played soccer together. She loved chatting with you during the games while your children played together – and she had hoped to become your friend. The following year, she finally asked your husband Craig why you hadn’t shown up for three games. When he told her how sick you were, she went to the car and sobbed. She couldn’t bring herself to attend your service, feeling she didn’t know you well enough – yet she misses you to this very day. She treasures a recipe you gave her for Avgolemono soup – in your own handwriting.
See how much you touched even people on the edges of your life? Take those memories as part of my birthday present to you . . .
Here’s another gift I would give you (if it were in my power). At first, it was hard for my wife Terri to understand the nature of my grief. But her graciousness humbled me as she came alongside me. Near Christmas time she found a lovely cross (at Wal-Mart of all places) and gave it to me as an early gift. It says, “HOPE” on it and it looks Greek Orthodox. I remember both of you when I wear it.
I would ask heaven for an hour where I could leave her with you and walk away. Your spirits are akin in many ways; particularly the fierce tenacity with which both of you grappled that dirty, cheap monster – cancer! (Alas that both of you could not prevail). You were so good with people, Diane. I think together you would fill the hour with happy words.
You’re lucky to still be 49 (hypothetically) . As Bill Cosby says, “That’s a whole ‘nother decade.” I turned 50 and my hips started hurting as if on cue! (There’s one of many things you won’t have to experience.)
Unfortunately, it’s the same with my grief for you – just when I think the ache is gone, you sneak up on me in unexpected ways. My oldest son is now the age I was when I first met you. I watch him get out of the car and walk into those school halls – fresh, inexperienced, keen and just on the cusp of things! I remember our time, and it’s as if I can see right through his eyes.
My iPod shuffle ambushes me with Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” from SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (which came out when we were in Junior High). It soars and gallops along, and when that lithe, mocking flute dances at the end of the song – I feel it now as I felt it then – and I just have to lower my head into my arms.
One of your dear friends told me, Diane, that aging another year used to trouble her. But after your departure, she considers every birthday a blessing.
It’s ironic; I never really knew when your birthday was until I read the obituary. But now I will celebrate! Indeed, with a kind of wistful, cosmic defiance – I WILL celebrate – together with those who remember you in love and with tears – I will stare mortality in the teeth and acknowledge the blessed day of your earthly advent! (Take that, O Death – you heartless cheat!)
My sister wisely observed, we did not learn how to express “the deep rivers of grief and loss” in our family – and that your influence at a formative time in my life was of such “rich, emotional, soul quality.” That’s why I will remain a pest on this one, Death. This time, it’s personal!
(Tossing out those hospice workers – you go, girl!)
But enough of that. Since it is your birthday, Diane, let me share a memory of you; a memory I had lost and only just recently had found again:
We were talking somewhere a few weeks ago, of birthdays. As a kid, mine were frequently celebrated at Farrell’s in Bellevue. Ooh! I smile even now to remember the loud drums and the screaming sirens, men in skimmer hats rushing the table of the birthday victim! How scared I was as a little tyke by the Boom, Boom! I wanted them to go away. I gradually grew to tolerate, then enjoy those birthdays as a teenager at the zany emporium with the 1920’s décor!
Then it flashed back into my mind – leaping out of some dark, forgotten corner in the attic of my lost memories. Do your remember, Diane? The double date at Farrell’s – you and Raymond sitting across from Melinda and I – and that devilish trick that only a teenager would dare to do? We take the change for tip and drop it in the full water glass, then placing a card over the mouth it is carefully turned over onto the surface of the table – those smooth, tight marble surfaces at Farrell’s. It’s a dicey operation to remove that card in such a way that the change lies on display, underwater in a makeshift water glass aquarium – but. . we. . DID IT! What hilarious obnoxiousness! And how richly we four enjoyed the moment, huddled at the cashier, watching the waiter discover his tip under that trap as he puts his hands on his hips in exasperation before reaching for a towel to clean up the inevitable mess! That’s when you laugh, Diane – a lovely, satisfied sound I can still hear in my mind – and the playful joke was your idea!
(Oh, glorious memory! Oh, joy! Oh . . . heartache.)
And then, Diane . . .there are moments like I had today. I walk out of Costco, and the mid-Summer heat wafts against my skin – I stop at the edge of the parking lot, breathe in and feel the baked, windy air fill my lungs; I see the distant, auburn rolls of glacier carved hills dwarfing the city – light and vivid color dazzle my eyes as clouds roll across an enormous sky. I smile at little red tennis shoes on the brown skin boy absently following mom into the store.
And all this I feel in a moment’s time. For your sake, I LET it wash and swirl around me: a responsive being with a beating heart. I open the pores of my life on your behalf. I receive this living moment in grateful astonishment – because I know such moments for you are gone.
My lame birthday song is almost done. I feel like it meandered all over the place. It still feels kind of sloppy to me – not as celebratory as I wanted it to be for you. But I believe that wide heart of yours will still accept it.
Let’s just . . .play happy birthday together, shall we? Me on the piano – one of those clunky, black uprights in Mr. Layer’s practice rooms in stage band. I’ll start the chords – you take up the melody on that flute of gold – there where you stand tall – just beyond the doors of time. (Think we could get Keith on bass?)
I’ll play as soft as I can – and let you improvise the melody first – and I will listen close – to hear some Bach, some Rampall – maybe even a little “Dreamboat Annie.” I’ll hear its distant sound just over the hills – and in the corner of my heart. Then, I’ll pick it up from there, Diane.
I promise . . .
I’ll pick it up a little more. . . As I go from here. . .
An elegant song won’t hold up long
when the palace falls and the parlour’s gone
we all sleep – but it’s not the end.
We’ll meet again at the Festival of Friends
Some of us live and some of us die.
Some day, God’s going to tell us why
Open your heart
and grow with what life sends;
That’s your ticket to the Festival of Friends