Oh dear Doug.
The other evening as I was motoring on a very dark highway in Wyoming about 8:30 at night, a cowboy in a truck in a rush to get home passed me. He was going about 90 m.p.h.
A good-size piece of metal came flying out of his truck bed, right at me, and I swerved to avoid it, and almost went crashing off the road. But the Bug was good to me, and physics and luck played a hand, and I made it.
But it was not the same for you, my dear friend.
Carolyn arrived at your home to tidy up, as she does so well, and was told by a neighbor that you had passed away in your sleep. No one had found you for days, but the police said there was no foul play. Kathy called to tell me the news. They found you in your bed, in your pajamas, a crossword puzzle and pen on your chest. That you passed peacefully.
You were only 52 years old.
And we've known each other 28 years. More than half our lives.
Cheez, our lives can change in an instant.
You were always part of the clan, Doug, and you always will be. Holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals. We met when we both worked a temp job when I first moved to the DC area in 1977, and you had just earned your MBA from George Washington University. It was a three-month proofreading job, and incredibly boring. You were a better proofer than I, but we learned to laugh together. You, the conservative; me, the liberal. It was humor that originally melded our friendship, and kept it solid through all these years.
The last couple of years were difficult for you, losing your wonderful parents, and helping complete the details of their lives for them. You were a good son. And at the beginning of this year, your parents' hard work and generosity enabled you to quit your job (at "The Rathole," as you called it) and you planned to retire to Delaware, to the beach. And you spoke about having the time to take a trip you always dreamed of...down the old Rt. 66, across America.
You were so excited for me about this adventure I am on. You bought me a AAA Emergency Travel Pack, with flares and flashlights, as a birthday present before I left. You wanted to add to my safety. You also told me that you were having a pain in your chest, and you did go to the doctor, and reported that your heart tests were clean, and they attributed the pain to reflux. I guess there is a reason they call 'em medical practices. Who ever knows for sure.
Remember that Christmas Eve, so many years ago, when none of us had two cents to rub together, and I talked that poor woman at Bud's Christmas Tree Land into selling me a small tree for next-to-nothing. And Kath and I tied it to the top of the van, and by the time we got home, it looked like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. But you, Ken, Kath and I set it up, and most of the ornaments were photos: Ken Jr., Yvette, Stephan, Jonathan, James, Vicky Kate, Matthew in his pumpkin outfit, Allison on her slide, Kev, Fran, Linda, Chris. My dad's childhood ID bracelet with his Bronx address on it, my mother's pen, and my Irish grandmother's brooch as the star at the top. And Kathy whipped together that wonderful meal, and for dessert, there was her wonderful homemade chocolate pudding. You always told me it was one of the best Christmases you ever had. It was for me too. 'Cause it wasn't about stuff. The good ones never are. It's about people.
And I also remember that you came to the hospital when Ken was dying, and told me you had found love. Believe me, that was a bright star that shone at a very dark time in my life. And I was so very happy for you. And a few years later, you sat at my kitchen table and told me you had lost that love. Black Lab Margaret nudged you with her big nose and wiggled her tail double time 'cause she knew you were upset. And Black Lab Walt gave you his favorite toy Kong to hold, not to throw, as he thought it might make you feel better. And I fed you and told you that it is love that helps us become the people we are, and that love, felt deeply, is never bad. And you nodded, and told me I was right.
I was in Custer, South Dakota on the night I heard about your death, surrounded by the sound of thousands of Harleys and other bikes, as there is always a big motorcycle rally in the Black Hills the second week of August. The following morning, I packed up the Bug and drove to Custer State Park, so ironic to be in a place named after a man associated with so many people dying too soon. I drove into the wildlife refuge there and came upon a herd of buffalo:
The buffalo on the left looked me straight in the eye, gave me a grunt, and moved on. It cracked me up. It would have made you laugh too.
Every culture has its own grieving ceremonies. For the Irish, it's called keening, a spiritual language meant to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
I stopped and purchased a Great Opera Hits CD. I don't know anything about opera, Doug, as you know, but it was your favorite music. So I put it on and listened to the sounds I didn't understand and cried across the entire state of South Dakota, a keening at 75 mph, surrounded by semis and tired bikers roaring by in pairs, trios, clans on wheels, heading home.
Just before Sioux Falls, a terrible storm blew across the plain.
It surrounded the Bug and bikers and roared above and around all. And soon it passed, and the view looked like this:
I know this is where you are now.
I cannot mourn you in a traditional ceremony, my friend. The only way I can honor you now is to complete this trip, with your spirit held tight in my heart. I will take you with me for the rest of this journey, and forever, as that is the way I can truly pay you my deepest homage, for it is the trip you never got the chance to take, and because you have meant so much to me.
So hang on tight, Doug. We have more to see. But there will be no more opera. The rest of this trip will feature rock 'n roll, and wonderful folk music, and the trainwhistle spirit of the Chieftains. And when we cruise around some bend with the music turned up high, I will put my head out the window of the Bug and yell "Whaaaa Hooo" very loud, for the both of us.