It's funny how one of the first things we do when someone dies is look for pictures of them.
It's like we need to recall, right away, the things we no longer get to have. Their smile, their hair, the shape of their hands. The size of their body. Who they were.
I was thinking about this in the aftermath of my friend, Eric's, death this week. When we were in college together you had to have had a camera to take pictures, and not many people had cameras then. We weren't recording every move we made, which was probably a good thing.
The pictures surfacing are grainy and faded. It's hard to believe it's been thirty years since we were all together at St. Lawrence.
The pictures that are surfacing now show Eric as I remember him: radiant. He was fair-skinned and light-haired and slight of frame. And a kind of light came from him. He made you smile simply being who he was. And also because he was always smiling.
Eric's death has dredged up all kinds of memories of our college days, which, looking back now, seem like nothing but fun. I don't recall any of us getting too stressed-out about grades or classes. It was like this surprising and delightful concentration of funny, smart, interesting, creative people there in Canton, New York, middle-of-nowhere. Today we are farmers and doctors and teachers and presidents of things. We are artists and preachers and writers and makers of cool stuff. Sturdy, upright people doing good work in the world and raising interesting people to take our places. Good things happened back then, when we were all together in that weird little place in upstate New York, under formation.
We know this about the silver lining of death, that death, ironically — the great separator — brings people together. In no time at all a group formed online to express sorrow and disbelief and to share photos and stories. Eric meant something to a lot of people. I hope that he knew this, but I fear that we all didn't say it often enough: you're great, you matter, knowing you makes a difference for me, in my life; thank you.
We do what we can, right? And then death reorients us, for a while anyway. Slow it down; take the time; say the thing; hug the kid; stare at the stars.
The photographs allow us to time travel, and, too, the music. It was a glue for us then, the Dead shows, tapes, tie-dyes. The traveling, the good food, all of it. I wonder sometimes what the glue is for young people today, if there is any glue.
I listened to a bunch of it yesterday, driving over to Saratoga to see about an old friend and his mom, in hospital, and I thought about how the lyrics take on a very different flavor now that one of us is gone, how the songs seem to say different things than they did when we were twenty.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs...
Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light, rising up to paradise...
All I know (s)he sang a little while and then flew on...
May the four winds blow you safely home.
Good-bye sweet Eric of life. Please show us how to care for your family, show us how to love each other, and be with us when we head to Canton in June to see what thirty years gone feels like. Amen.