We were unlikely friends. He talked slow, walked slow, thought slow and deep. I tend to run fast. I can’t even say when I met him, although I know it was through the Kansas Area Watershed Council, our local and long-lived bioregional community, and sometime, somehow, we became great pals. By 2001, we were doing the lion’s share of the work to organize the Continental Bioregional Congress on the Prairie — Jerry in charge of bookkeeping, travel arrangements and registrations, and me in charge of the program, publicity, and the overall coordination. For the next two years, we spoke on the phone or emailed often 4-5 times each day, just about finishing each other’s thoughts about how to handle any issue that arose.
He went from Jerry Sipe to Jerry to Jer, aka #7 (his and my favorite number) on my speed dial. He was around us often, and quickly became the only adult my three children — through teenage years and beyond — always hugged. I hugged him a lot too, both of us close to the same height, as I felt his heart beat in mine.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, I discovered what many already know about wandering through the world of serious illness: some people fall away, and some people run toward you, ready to help in any way possible. Jerry just about moved in with us, joining us so often for dinner that when I fetched groceries, I aimed for his favorites along with our own. He was quiet, patient, and utterly present. The night before my final surgery, he called to find out what time I was going to the hospital. “But don’t you have to work?” I asked, knowing he had taken off a lot of time already for my previous surgeries. “Work? There’s no way I can go to work tomorrow,” he answered, and sure enough, he was there with other close friends and family, praying, singing, chanting and lifting me through surgery and its aftermath.
From there, he built our front porch with Ken. The project that was supposed to take a few months took over two and a half years, and although it was slow-going, the craftmanship is superb as was his installation of our pellet stove, which kept him hanging out at our place for months. There are signs of Jerry everywhere, not the least of which are the photos he gave us over the years, each visionary and perfect in what he shows us of wind, spider webs, the moon and sky.
Jerry seemed quiet from a distance, but up close, he could be a regular chatterbox, although not in the conventional way. When he started to tell a story, like the time he went AWOL in the early 1970s because he no longer believed in the Vietnam War, it was advisable to get comfortable because he had a lot to say. When it was his turn in the circle — at KAW Council or other bioregional gatherings — he often had a lot to say about what the earth and sky were saying to him. It was obvious he had long conversations with the natural world. He often told me of fields, including the field just south of our house, that he was friends with, and how, in the presence of such places, he entered into deep communion.
Each morning, at least for many, many years, Jer would step outside, lift his arms overhead, close his eyes, open his heart and then his arms out wide, asking the living earth to tell him what its will was for him today. “Thy will be done,” he answered the call.
For many years, I counted him as one of my besties, yet in the last three or so years, we were at a bit of a distance. To be honest, I was pissed at him for not getting all possible medical and other healing help for what sure seemed like major memory issues to me. I wanted him to put up a good fight, reach out for support, and be relentless in his own healing. Like others close to him, I was also worried about him living alone and how, in time, he might be found close to death in his apartment. I didn’t understand that he, being himself and not me, was making his own choices and/or that his health issues may well have precluded him from choosing differently. A man close to the earth, he basically, as one dear one of his remarked to me recently, went to the woods to die. He was found last Sunday in his apartment, profoundly dehydrated, having lost close to a third of his body weight, and suffering from double pneumonia and other issues.
This last week, any distance dissolved. I’m eternally grateful to Jerry for this gift of forgiveness, intimacy and friendship. He held tight to my hand while, in his hospital room, I sang prayers and chants, off key and scratchy-throated, to him. One night, I sat close to him for a few hours, sharing song after song from my phone. When I got to James Taylor, particularly “Blossom” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” — music I knew he loved — he opened his eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and looked for moment, even while on a ventilator and in ravaged body, peaceful. He also looked into my eyes as well as into the eyes of many of us who visited with a kind of intensity I’ve only seen in the eyes of my son Daniel right after his birth and in the eyes of my father a few months before his death.
I remember telling Jerry about that moment with my father, and how my father asked if I recognized him. “Yeah, you could have said, I finally recognize you,” Jerry told me. With Jerry, it wasn’t an issue of “finally” recognizing him or being recognized by him. Jerry was born to see, evident in his photos of the prairie as well as his friendships and family connections.
He was also born to make it rain. He once told me that according to a native person he knew, each of us had to make it rain at some point in our lives — we had to save lives and land in some small way. Jerry said that shortly after learning this, he was marching with others to save the Haskell Wetlands when a car sped through the intersection toward the marchers. Jerry saw that the car was about to strike a woman and her baby, riding in a stroller. He left his slow ways behind and raced into action, positioning himself right in front of the car to save the mother and child. Then he stared into the eyes of the driver, who hit his brakes in time. “I made it rain,” Jerry told me.
Tonight, a little over a day after he died, he may be making it rain again, in the hearts of many of us who love him and also all around us as a very unusual December thunderstorm moseys on in, slowly. It hurts so much that he’s gone, but I’m so grateful for this rain, feeding the parched earth and and reminding me that love heals, always.