Tony Vagneur: Death reminds us of privilege of being part of one’s life
Where does the story start and what is it about? Do we just read it, or somewhere along the way, do we become part of it?
We can’t always say, and perhaps we don’t think we’re in the story, but maybe we are. Others sometimes know, even if we don’t.
As Kenneth Patchen said in one of his poems: “We are plucked out of wombs and never put back anywhere.” We spend a lifetime clawing our way back, metaphorically perhaps, but it makes a life story that is like a rivulet of spring water, descending from the high country, going this way, that way, over rocks and ledges, gaining speed as it joins other streams, surging forward, until at last, it slows and returns to the Earth or the freezing white of winter ends its journey.
Sitting in the parking lot of a big-city, other-worldly church, uncomfortable at being too early, adjusting my tie and keeping an eye on things, he suddenly comes into view through the foliage, all alone, the subject of the memorial service I’m about to attend, carrying an overcoat folded over one arm and studying something on an outside wall. Ah, yes, in an instant there is the comfort of knowing I’m in the correct place and a split second later the recognition comes that it can’t be him.
“What the hell is going on here,” I think, quickly compartmentalizing the thought for later.
Up the stairs, down a long hallway, many rooms on either side (as Jesus said, “I go to prepare a room for you”), the soft sound of voices leading me on, and then I’m there, being greeted into the sanctuary. In the front, sitting all alone, is once again the man we’ve come to memorialize; the short, gray beard, the bald top of his head, the glasses, eyes straight forward and I quicken my pace, eager to shake his hand and pull him close in a manly embrace. The Biblical story of Lazarus, brought back from the dead by Jesus, crosses my mind for a moment and then without embarrassing myself, I take a seat several rows back. If ever there had been an identical twin to my deceased friend, it would have been the preacher of that very church.
And, like that sparkling spring rivulet, where is it a man’s life goes? We sat in church pews, facing the front, trying to absorb the essence of the man as presented by gifted family singers, songs from his talented, first-born son and poems and eulogies from family and friends. Everyone was part of the story, each contributing with fondness and love, giving us an idea of what the man meant to each of them. We were joined, intricately woven together by the thread of life, but also bound, briefly and inextricably, by death.
My mind wandered, back to Aspen, where we first met and the inevitable escapades that captured us. His big, booming voice, the deep laugh at a good joke, and his passion for skiing. “Let’s have a drink,” he’d say after a day on the mountain, and he’d fire up one of those long, fat cigars he loved and lean back into a satisfaction that was hard not to emulate. You couldn’t not like him.
Directly in front of me sat his widow, a beautiful woman much younger than him, a woman he brought to the valley to introduce to me. He was divorced from his first wife and now appeared to be taking an inevitable fork in the road. I envied their closeness, the enthusiasm they had for each other and wondered how it all might play out. Somewhere along the way, true love bombarded them and found a home in their hearts. We kept up for a time, between Denver and here, as best we could.
Fortune smiled as I happened to be in Denver when the first-born of this second marriage entered the world. It was an honor to trundle up to the hospital and make a congratulatory ceremony out of it. Afterward, we went outside and fired up a couple of cigars.
Tears flooded my eyes at some point as I sat and witnessed the memorial, not so much that my friend was gone, because we’ll all be gone someday, but more that I had the privilege of knowing him and witnessing the beautiful ties of two families that he created and cherished. Two handsome sons, two beautiful daughters, one from each marriage. His memory continues within all of us.
There really isn’t much more you can say about a man, I reckon. That was his story and I was blessed to be a part of it.
Tony Vagneur first met Tom Carter in 1983. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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