Last night, I stood on the wet back deck of our house in my leopard-print fleece bathrobe late at night, head tilted back, counting the seconds between falling stars. It was late, the sheer clouds dissipating after a day of enormous rain. Inside, the clean house hummed its happy song after the warmth and light of the Hanukkah party, the air still enhanced by what frying potatoes and onions can do for a home.
All day, I had been thinking about a year ago when our dear friend Jerry died after either a short or long illness, depending on how you count. I heard the news in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Kansas City, just after leading a writing workshop at Turning Point for people living with serious illness. Hanging up my phone, I was shocked although the doctor in Jerry’s intensive care unit told us it would be a roller coaster when it came to knowing if he would survive. I remember walking into Trader Joe’s and putting various things in a shopping cart, but not whether I actually checked out or just wandered out of the store.
At our Hanukkah party a year ago, another way to count the time from there to here, still in shock about Jerry’s death, we sang two of his favorite songs–James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and Chet Powers’ “Get Together.” This year, right before we lit the candles, we had a moment of silence to remember Jerry and/or whoever we loved who was gone or far away.
Yesterday, the Turning Point writers gave a public reading where they shared startling images and enduring stories of what it means to find courage, meaning, even joy in the web of mortality. The reading, held on a Saturday, resonated with Jerry dying on the Saturday I was with these writers, another way to count time. Like the Turning Point writers, Jerry struggled with serious illness. Unlike them, he didn’t go on to share his story of coming back from this brink.
Considering Jerry in the year in between his death and now has brought me surprising joys, such as finding friendship with Jerry’s sisters and brothers (he had six!) after we bonded in a hospital waiting room, telling stories of him as a boy and man around a fake fire while drinking mediocre cups of coffee. I’ve seen them at his moving memorial (“Jerry on the prairie!“), and for meals and even some music several times in Minneapolis. I tell them that we’re each other’s Jerrys now.
At the same time, it hurts when someone you love dies, especially in a scenario that, had any of us known all the pieces of the crazy-quilt puzzle, we might have prevented. I’ve ferried my guilt through many layers of rationalization, disappointment in myself, and big-picture framing, understanding both that he chose this, and I still wish I had intervened more. I’m beyond grateful for the days we had during his last week, especially the night I played James Taylor and other songs I knew he loved from my phone, held his hand, told him I loved him, and chided him, despite and because he was on a vent at the time, for not holding up his end of the conversation.
Yet the conversation doesn’t end. Shivering but determined to see more falling stars, I scanned the sky, wondering where best to aim my eyes, and how to better open my peripheral vision to catch the ride of a particle of dust from the stars to the earth. “You didn’t fail me,” I dreamed Jerry said after his death. The Geminid meteor shower didn’t either although there was a long stretch between the first two falling stars and the next. Just as I was about to give up, a large white meteor flew east to west, dissolving in the dark. I wrapped my robe tighter and went back into the warm house where sleep and the rest of my life awaited me.