I have been thinking about friends, death and goals this past week, albeit not necessarily in that order. Our friend Jeremy passed away two weeks ago, a sudden death. An aortic aneurysm. One of those potentially “here one minute, gone the next” type medical events that can occur with no warning whatsoever. Inexplicable. It happened during the night while he was asleep. And today, June 24th, would have been his 50th birthday. This is not a pseudo eulogy or tribute to Jeremy, his story is not my story to tell, nor even attempt. I can only ever tell my story, and here are some of my thoughts and experiences from the last two weeks.
I don’t feel like I knew Jeremy as well as I should have or would have liked. I have been close friends with his wife for over 20 years, we met through work, I took a course from her father. I’m not the extroverted type to make and keep hundreds of friends, yet her and I have shared many a long night talking over the years. When Jeremy moved back to Ottawa, I was organizing the occasional “guys” nights for wings and ribs, and I got to know him better, as he would come out from time to time. We’d have a few laughs, talk about life, work, just some light fun for the night. We’ve also got together a few times as couples, etc.
But probably not often enough, apparently. Like most modern families, we all lead busy lives. Sometimes the schedule seems too full and you don’t make the time, thinking maybe we’ll get together one night next month. We would trade comments here and there on FaceBook, stay connected virtually, etc. And yet, even without having known him for much of his life, even without being best buds or anything, I find myself strongly impacted by the passing of a friend.
Since I feel no shame attached to tears, I readily admit that I cried when I heard the news. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be true. Jeremy died? Wait…that makes no sense, must be another Jeremy? Obviously not Aliza’s husband, that can’t be, they’ve been doing Lego together while in lockdown. They just went to Dow’s Lake to see tulips. It must be some cruel miscommunication. He wasn’t sick, was he? I saw nothing about him being sick, did I? The strange hops that brains make to deny unwelcome news.
But, no, it was terribly, horribly true. Nothing Covid-related, which people might “accept” as a random hand of fate but understandable, or a car accident, or a host of other things where your brain wants to somehow connect a rational explanation to the event and thereby help it process the news. Sudden inexplicable deaths of healthy 50-year-old men do not offer a pattern for my brain to easily accept. It probably also seemed even less real to me given that he was two years younger than me. Older is easier to fake-process; younger is not.
I was working the day I heard the news, an email from a mutual friend, and I had a lot of trouble concentrating afterwards. I was easily distracted, and often not even for things I could remember when I snapped back to the task at hand. Just with my mind gone for a moment. Or several moments.
After a death, I know most of us rely on rituals for both celebration and comfort. For everyone who knew him, the week after the news likely followed the normal patterns of shock, notifications, more shock. Of course, the rituals were, like everything else in our lives these days, transformed in a Covid world. A mutual friend summed it up nicely…”f***ing Covid”. We couldn’t all rush to our friend, his wife, and comfort her in person, no hugs could we offer, even knowing that nothing we offered would ease the pain, merely let her know we were pained by his loss and by her pain at his loss too.
The funeral by Zoom / Go Pro was odd but normal, unreal yet real at the same time, and I felt relatively fine during the service until my friend did her eulogy to mark his passing. Overall, I probably held it together less well than her, and when her voice wobbled near the end, I cracked and the tears came forth. I have done eulogies for my father and mother, lost it completely during my father’s and barely held it together for my mother’s. How she did it, I don’t know.
It also made me wonder horrible thoughts. Could I do one for my wife? Could I do one for my son? Would I even LET anyone else do that instead of me or would I feel it was my duty? I don’t know. There is a popular theory that doing the eulogy is a coping mechanism in and of itself, forcing your brain to accept the truth as you say the words out loud, as well as giving you something concrete to focus on. I understand the theory, and based on having done my parents’ eulogies, I think the theory was written by idiots who have never tried to eulogize someone.
My friend’s eulogy was brief, honest, raw, and brilliantly delivered. I felt honoured to hear it, to witness it, to see it, even if only virtually.
After the funeral, I took the rest of the day off work. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get any work done, as I had struggled the first day, and I wonder if it was partly an added “stress” on top of the Covid isolation that helped “break” me. Well, bend me I guess is a better term. I knew I needed to take the time and I did. Time to breathe. Time to think. Time to grieve a little.
Two days later, we attended his Shiva service by Zoom again, and I felt more or less “fine” until after the service, when people in the chat room started sharing little stories and remembrances. The rawness in their voices was hard to hear, but an important ritual, I felt, to share and be part of for our friend, for his wife, for his parents, and for us too. Up until my friend’s aunt spoke and her raw emotion wiped me out. I felt almost claustrophobic and had to leave the room, leaving Andrea to finish the chat portion. I was just completely overwhelmed.
A few days later, we did a Shiva dinner by Facetime with Aliza and our mutual friend Vivian, and we chatted amiably for two hours. An almost “fun time”, except for the cause, and a reminder that there is nothing stopping us from doing that with anyone anytime. Virtual dinner parties and chatting, even if you can’t be together in person. To be honest, I’ve thought about that a lot…we could have done those WITH Jeremy beforehand, we all had 12 weeks of isolation where we could have done those types of dinners. We did them with family, why not more with friends? But we didn’t. Busy lives, I guess, and we weren’t being “innovative” enough on the social side the same way we are with family and work. F***ing COVID, indeed.
As I said above, I am not trying to tell Jeremy’s story, but if anyone wants to read Jeremy’s obituary, it is published online:
All deaths are personal
Obviously, I have been thinking a lot in the last couple of weeks about death and “what it all means”, as they say. One thing that keeps resonating with me is the idea that all deaths are personal. It’s such a multi-faceted phrase. Of course, for the deceased, it was uniquely personal…we all face death and experience death in our own way. Our own experiences and beliefs, our own rituals, our own circumstances.
I feel it is also uniquely personal for family and friends in that Jeremy represented something different to all of us.
And while it seems selfish, I feel most of us experience the death of others in uniquely personal ways too…not just our own beliefs and rituals, but in that we often think not simply of the loss of life, or the impact on his loved ones, but also selfishly, self-centredly, of the impact on ourselves.
It’s ironic, but shortly after learning of his death, I happened to catch a rerun of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s from the first season where Tasha Yar (one of the main characters) is killed during an away mission and Data (the android without emotion) hosts/organizes the memorial service. At its end, he asks the Captain if he “got it wrong” as he has never experienced the loss of a friend before and while he thought he would be thinking of her during the service, he found himself thinking of everything he would miss for him. So he wonders if he “got it wrong” somehow, while the Captain reassures him he got it “exactly right”.
I miss Jeremy’s laugh, knowing I won’t hear it again. His sense of humour, his obvious love for Aliza, his concern for others. He’s one of those guys you think of when someone talks about an “all-around, good guy”, the ones who improve your life just by being part of it. A mensch, as they said during the service.
And part of what affected me most, as it frequently does, is the narrative arc of someone’s life. For Jeremy and Aliza, it is a compelling story of early love, separation through time and distance, rediscovery, new beginnings, being together “at last”, getting married, getting his “new life” on track with work too, and the time they have enjoyed together in recent months while working from home.
It’s a strange way to think about it, a strange phrase unique to me and my own thoughts, but almost like “At last, he has his life where he wants it to be with most of the pieces figured out”. If it was a movie, Billy Crystal could play the lead and talk about either finding his “one thing” (after Jack Palance teaches him to herd cattle) or a co-lead with Meg Ryan where he gets to tell her that “when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
A compelling narrative arc that resonates with me strongly. One analogy I saw online is like earlier investments are now paying rewards into retirement and hopefully old age.
I feel like Jeremy didn’t get to reap enough of what he sowed. And that saddens me beyond belief. Maybe it’s the personal side again, not just his loss or missed “opportunity” to grow old with Aliza, but thoughts of my own mortality.
So my thoughts turn to the “personal side” for me. Selfishly, naturally, strangely, realistically. If I step back for a moment, I see a larger arc at play. I feel like I too have been on a journey of discovery in my life. Finding a groove with my father (around 23 or so), figuring out what I wanted to do for work (around 24 or so), finding out who I wanted to be around age 29-34, figuring out the basis for an adult relationship with my mom (around age 32 or so), figuring out what I wanted in a relationship around age 33, getting married at age 40, becoming a dad at age 41.
Equally, I try to live my life with what I consider a “no regret mentality”. For example, with my dad, I knew when I went away to law school that there was a not-insignificant chance that I would end up coming home for a funeral. My father’s health was not necessarily sustainable, and things happen even when you’re in good health. So before I left, I made sure to tell both my parents that I loved them so there would be no chance of not having said it and then having one of them die on me. Each week, for both parents, I would say it before I hung up the phone. And while it was easy for my mom to hear and say, it took a while for my dad to be able to respond too. But he got there. So when he passed, while it was sad, I had no regrets. We “ended” on the best terms I had ever had with him.
It was different but similar for my relationship with my mother. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye on stuff, but I made sure that I loved her for who she was, not who I might have wanted her to be at any given time. And I didn’t alter who I was to please her or spite her or anything else. I worked hard to treat her not only as my mother, but as the woman who was born before the Great Depression, who lived through it, who helped raise her siblings, who lived through WWII and lost siblings overseas. The woman who worked retail early on, had eight pregnancies and six kids, who buried her grandparents and parents, and most of her siblings, who outlived her husband by 17 years and found her own way. I have no regrets about how we got along, and there is nothing I would change. Maybe little things here and there, sure, but those are “rounding errors” on a relationship.
And with most of those “elements” in place, I have a pretty good life and I like where it is headed. If I had a magic wand, I might play with certain things, sure, but overall, I’m pretty fortunate with everything. I have more blessings than I can count, and yet, I don’t feel like I’m done reaping the rewards either.
I’ve often wondered with my son if I should record “just in case” videos, and Jeremy’s death makes me wonder again. Something to leave for Jacob, an extra legacy to leave behind if I should die before he’s old enough to understand most of it. To pass along anything of wisdom or thoughts that might help him in difficult moments in his life. To download everything I possibly could from my brain to give to him. Except that isn’t what he needs.
He needs memories of us doing things together. Like Lego. Or video games. Or puzzles. Or simply talking.
But with the passing of Jeremy, there are other things on my “to do” list that seem to be yearning. Heck, some weren’t even on my to-do list.
Thinking about friendship and goals
I am an analytical introvert by nature, and over the last few years and with the impact of Covid, I have let myself self-isolate somewhat socially. I modified some online tests and advice to create a “social connectivity” test, which I wrote about earlier this week. (https://polywogg.ca/a-social-connectivity-test/)
I was surprised that my “nodal” number was 8-9 nodes. I thought it would be about 5. My wife maintains about 30, not including family. All of them I have seen more than once in the last two years, and I have actually done things with them at least once. Sure, most of the time it was meal-related. I was also a bit “relieved” to see that all of those friendships are ones that will survive my retirement in a few years. A friend noted that they can also be nurtured too through reconnection to expand the list, which is totally true, but it was meant more as a snapshot in time.
So whether it is Covid or the passing of Jeremy, I feel like I need to make more effort than I have. I don’t know what it looks like, but I need to get away from being on the computer by myself and “reach out” more.
I also find myself wanting to make sure I reap the rewards more while I can. Maybe that’s more time with Jacob, I still need to figure that out a bit more perhaps for the summer. I know it isn’t more time at work, that’s for sure. But I have three active siblings that I need to reach out more to as well.
I don’t know if that’s the lesson I should be learning, there are lots to choose from I suppose. But it is what I have been thinking about for the last two weeks. I don’t believe in regrets, but I wish I had learned the rest of Jeremy’s story from him before he died.
When my parents died, I comforted myself with an image of them doing something, a virtual “heaven” if you will where you get to repeat a moment in time seemingly endlessly or which simply doesn’t repeat but never ends either. For my dad, it was getting ready for a busy summer at the lake. For my mother, it was looking forward to having family around. For Jeremy? I suspect it would be something related to his relationship “at last” with Aliza. An almost John Keats-ish “Ode on a Grecian Urn” moment like the one captured on the Urn, a moment in time of two lovers about to kiss but not yet there:
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Keats went darker, I know Jeremy would go lighter. The gaiety, the expectation about to be realized. The reward for his life finally being about to be “complete” beside Aliza. For many, people would see that as a groom waiting for a bride at the end of an aisle, but to me, it comes way before that, before the planning, before the decisions and options, before even an engagement. A point when you both know, “This is it. This is the plan. This is really going to happen now.” That moment when the brain explodes at all the possibilities to come.
I don’t know that anyone else shares my view of a possible afterlife, but for me, I find those images strangely comforting. Hopeful even.
I miss you Jeremy. Happy birthday, mensch. I hope I can learn from your example and honour your memory.