As I do most mornings, I wake early and walk the mile from home to the village diner at the far end of Main Street where I sit in a booth, and usually spend an hour reading. As I walk I tend to think of mundane things, or tasks at hand, until something distracts me: Somebody honks and waves from a car (who was that? I have no idea), a tree branch hanging too low into the sidewalk path (should I break it off?), the time and temperature at the corner bank reads 6:10 and 50 degrees(10+50=60; that’s like 7 o’clock). On this particular day I was thinking about my friend Ian, whose sudden death I learned of the night before. Sorting through my jumbled thoughts while processing emotional upheaval, I’ve found it is best for me to be moving: driving through a landscape or walking quiet streets. When that movement stops, the sadness that was following me stops moving as well, becoming my temporary atmosphere.
Immersed in the pain of his death, and reflecting on his life and our friendship, I recognized the first instance in what would be a pattern in the years to follow. Ian’s wife had died in an accident a several years prior. His love for her across the decades of their marriage had been undimmed and even intensified. Her presence in his life, and from his telling were so resonant, that though I never met her, I felt like I knew her. It was a shattering loss for him. Now with his death, their house had to be emptied and sold. There was no one left to live there. I was aware of this finality, and it had happened around me already, with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even friends of my parents. But this was the first time it was someone from my generation.
When I arrived at the diner that morning I was greeted by the regulars at the counter. I responded similarly with hellos and good mornings as I took my usual seat in a booth. I brought a book to read, but this day I was unable to focus on it, so instead I took my paper napkin and started writing down the names of friends and acquaintances.
It was a list of everyone I could remember who had died (not including relatives who were a generation or two older than me). Not for a moment did it feel morose to be doing that, as I filled both sides of the napkin. I felt the very act of remembering while being in the ordinary and familiar setting of the diner made it feel honorable; that I wanted to recall them name by name in the regular flow of my life, not in a place generally dedicated for such reveries and contemplations.
The list is longer than I imagined. The names of my departed friends were not all stored in the same part of my mind. I don’t have a dead friends file. So one memory would trigger others as I made my way through my different life stages recalling those in my orbit. I thought about schools and jobs and neighborhoods and bands and spouses of friends.
I thought about my friend Chuck who died twenty years ago. I had known him since high school when we played in bands together. While most of us were playing loud riffs, finding our way to competence on our instruments through repetition and youthful exuberance, he was writing songs that had earthiness and subtle presence. Later I came to recognize that he was the first artist I knew. We stayed in touch and collaborated on musical projects over the years, but he finally wore himself out. By any expected measures he was unsuccessful, but his commitment to what he was doing in the moment, and the utter believability of what he created, set a standard for me that I still aspire to. I drove 500 miles to be at his funeral because I felt that his aging parents needed to know the tremendous impact he made on my life. And I was not alone in that, as other old friends stepped forward with similarly deep, life-affirming connections.
I can’t find that napkin with the list. I know I saved it, but, being unlike any other of the thousands of pieces of paper I have filed in various ways, this one was a category unto itself. So I put it in some special place and I’ll find it later – undoubtedly when I least expect it.
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg