We gathered in the small hall of a church in Harlem, a room almost stark in its simplicity yet emanating a warmth that eludes the ostentatious bellies of Catholic churches, arcane and baroque. Inexperienced in these affairs, my friends and peers early on our crawl towards inevitable mortality, I wore all black. Glancing about the room, old friends and neighbors of his croaking introductions, shouting to acquaintances, I feel nervously conspicuous: my youth, my black jumpsuit. The room is full of aging hippies, musicians, and artists, gray hairs donning muted autumn tones, also stark and simple, that complement their sallow hair and skin, drained of color. Sweaters likely woven of alpaca. Soft brown clogs. Orthopedic shoes. His peers. Selfishly, I wonder if they, upon seeing me, wrack their brains to establish the potential connection between this man, now dead at sixty-six, and a woman in her late twenties. Illicit affair pounded at my brain, despite my grave attempts to banish such foolish thoughts, tainted by a culture that is quick to make that assumption when confronted with an older man and a younger woman.
This social anxiety is an unfounded one. His friends and family take no overt notice, or are kind, gentle, meet my gaze and give me a knowing and sad smile. He was beloved, by near strangers who spent a mere few hours with him and by close intimates who knew him for decades. He did not allow age or life experience or social convention bias his relationships. It was a quality that I admire deeply, and now seek to emulate: refusing to assess an individual by prescribed societal standards, instead seeing each new person as an opportunity to learn, grow, share. Every and all who wished to honor his memory were welcome to flood this simple room, to share their stories, to say good-bye, the young and old, friends, family, and lovers.
This was the second time I was, ritualistically and communally, processing the sudden death of a friend this year. The first a tragic car crash, now a tragic brain aneurysm. Seeming nonchalance hung about the church room, and I felt the power of an additional four decades of life on shock and on mourning. Perhaps this assessment is rash, is unfair. After all, this Harlem memorial for Harry comes three months after his unsudden death, giving this group three months for tears and for anger and for bitterness and for happy laughter remembering a beautiful life fully lived. For my friend Phil, twenty-eight, crushed by a car, the memorial followed mere days after the devastation. Wounds were raw, the despair in the church heavy and palpable.
In both instances, time, its acuteness in relation to the death and its potential to buffer and attenuate feelings and memories in longer increments, was unable to assuage potent feelings of regret. Regret. One of the most miserable and desperate of feelings, which tears away violently at your innards, gnashes on one's heart with teeth dull and terrible. I regret not making that phone call to Phil, one that as months and years pass still looms and seems like something so easy to accomplish, is something so easy to accomplish, but remains an activity deferred. I regret relying so heavily on superficial and prosthetic modes of social engagement via digital media, not actively maintaining our friendship because of a false sense of being connected and caught up and present in someone's life. I regret missing what, at the time, I would have no way of knowing would be Harry's last show with his band, regret not squeezing one last time into the intimate space of that warm cafe, dancing and shaking as Harry wails on his guitar. I regret not learning until his memorial that Harry and I share a history of disappointing childhoods, regret not intuiting that he was someone I could share my fears and my sadness. I regret not being more effusive about how important each of these men were to me, are to me, and telling them how grateful I am for how our friendships shaped me.
(image taken from Huffington Post)