Can you experience grief on behalf of someone who’s been dead for almost two decades?
I got word of a friend’s ill health the other day. He was a childhood friend of my late husband Hugh – their parents were close, the kids all hung out, played in family yards together.
I got to know him – let’s call him Wes – in high school, when Hugh and I started dating. Oh, there was a feeling you’d get when you skipped school, huh? What is there in this world, in life, that can ever hope to recreate that feeling of pure bliss? Freedom? Wild abandon? Wes’s folks were somewhere, Florida maybe? Who cared, they weren’t there. We’d have a drink, a toke, listen to our albums: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. We were hangin’ with our friends, man. Nothing else mattered.
Wes is a kind and gentle soul with a goofy kind of laugh. The kind of guy who calls you up then you have to do all the talking. His brother recently said something to the effect of him not being blessed with an overabundance of energy. (Without Jazzercise in my life? I fear my siblings might say the same about me.)
After high school, like several of our male friends, Wes followed the sage and historic advice of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” Of course, it was a different time, a different country even, but there’s oil out there and dammit these young men planned to benefit financially from proximity to it. As I recall, just like the others, Wes returned a year or two later, richer in experience but not wealth, and sorely in need of several decent nights’ sleep. Even the sweet ride he went out with – a new Jeep? – looked exhausted coming home. That is, if it even made it back to Ontario.
We’re not known for oil around here, but there’s plenty of gravel in them there farm fields. Wes’s family farm was surrounded by pits and Wes took a decent-paying job with a big gravel company. He eventually owned a cute little house in the north end of the city where he held an infamous “toga” party. I’d never been to one. It’s a simple premise, you just find a sheet and wear it. And wear what you want – or not! – underneath. I believe it was around this time that Wes came close to finding the love of his life, but she moved on for some reason and Wes continued being a bachelor.
He did things for me after Hugh died, like changing the oil in my motorcycle and warning me I needed new tires. He had me and a close gf of mine over for dinner one night. He was living in a wee house beside his parents’ homestead then. He cooked us a fine meal and showed us the various projects he had going on, like a vegetable garden and canning and beverage-making.
Apparently he had a lot of projects going on when he moved way north in Ontario several years later to be with family. There was no rush. Another friend tells me he’d load up his trailer and drive up there, come back, and do it all again. Over and over. It reminds me of the old Johnny Cash tune “One Piece at a Time”. It’s about a guy working at an auto plant in Detroit, sneaking out the parts for a fine Cadillac, one piece at at time, in his lunchbox. “I’d get it one piece at a time and it wouldn’t cost me a dime, You’ll know it’s me when I come through your town, I’m gonna ride around in style, I’m gonna drive everybody wild, ‘Cause I’ll have the only one there is around.”
Wes was working on an old pick-up truck. And planning to do a lot of fishing.
Wes has been in a hospital in the north since January. One of his legs had to be removed above the knee due to an infection. And he had a recent operation due to the discovery of cancer.
I chatted with a few friends about it. Wes has understandably been pretty down in the dumps and family is requesting we send things to cheer him up. After hanging up the phone, I thought about Wes’s life, and how his old buddy Hugh, gone so very long now, is seemingly oblivious to our sufferings down here. I pictured the pair of them, young boys, running around with their stick guns playing cowboys and Indians (sorry, that’s what we called it), their futures crammed with the promise of more adventures than a Western movie. I saw them so clearly: sweet innocent faces, tousled hair, dirty dungarees. The image was so powerful, I could even smell the outdoors on them.
The ache I felt in my chest at that moment threatened to fell me.
I’d just been to the cemetery the night before. I had these garden ornaments that glow in the dark – a blue peace sign for Hugh, a pink flower for his parents, a colourful bug for a nephew – and the ground had softened enough, I figured I could stick them in. I’m a cemetery talker now, so I told Hugh, as I wandered to his cold stone on that godforsaken windy, frigid hill, “Well, our daughter’s 40 now. You missed it.” And at that very moment? The threatening clouds parted and the sun burst through. As if to say, “No. I did not.”
And so it goes. The heart shatters, then, when there’s no rush and you just keep on living? The passage of time smooths the shards, over and over again, like pebbles on a beach. One piece at a time.