Wednesday, May 29, 2013

There will always be us

I met Jeff Eicher just about 25 years ago at a place with an unlikely name, California University of Pennsylvania. He was a student, and I was a former student who had just joined the faculty. We met at lunch, proving that lunch is the most important meal of the day.

Me and Jeff in Seattle, 1997
We discovered that we liked a lot of the same music, books, and movies. More importantly we found we liked a lot of the same people. We became friends, and when Jeff found himself in need of a place to stay for the summer when he was in graduate school, I offered to clean out the spare room at my house to make room for him and his cat, Betty. That summer turned to fall and fall to winter, and so on. Jeff was offered a job at the university, and for five years he and I operated as the very best of roommates, each guarding the other's best interests --at home and at work-- and neither placing any unreasonable expectations on the other. 

We shared our meals and we shared our dreams. We talked long into the night and watched bad movies and World War II documentaries on cold, rainy days. We hosted parties that often ended in pancake breakfasts for the most stalwart guests who slept on one of the many couches we kept in the place for just such occasions.  Jeff and I operated as a team those years, cheering each other on during good times and helping each other out in bad times. In short, we became family.

When the time came for Jeff to move on and his plans to move to Florida fell through, I suggested he stay a while with my sister and brother-in-law in Seattle to see if he liked the place. I'm happy to say that he liked it here very much. He met wonderful people. He met Ron, the love of his life. Jeff was so happy here that he persuaded me to follow a couple of years later.

And for sixteen years, we shared phone calls and emails and text messages. We met occasionally for coffee or lunch. When I met my husband, Damon, he had to be "Jeff and Ron approved". We always celebrated birthdays and New Year's Day together, marking the passage of time with great food and drink among a beloved family of friends. Jeff stood at my side as man of honor at my wedding and I was looking forward to returning the favor and standing up for him as his "very bestest man" later this summer.

So you may understand why my mind still can't quite wrap itself around the miserable fact that Jeff died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, May 19, 2013, at the age of 46. 

I've been trying to make myself write something about Jeff since then, and I haven't met with much success, perhaps because I feel that the whole Earth is horribly broken and the person I would call upon to help me fix it is no longer here.

Last year when I was reading Just Kids, Patti Smith's excellent and sentimental memoir of her extraordinary friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I kept highlighting passages and turns of phrase that reminded me of my relationship with Jeff. I called him a couple of times to read passages aloud to him, and he laughed or sighed along with me in full appreciation and understanding.

This last week, one passage has been resonating in my brain. When they were getting ready to move out of their rooms at the Chelsea Hotel, Patti felt sad and anxious about the change. She asked Robert, "What will happen to us?" He looked at her and answered, "There will always be us."

Yesterday, when we laid Jeff's ashes to rest, I told a shorter version of this story to the people gathered to pay their respects and to wish him peace. I thought about each of us there and all of our friends in distant places who couldn't be with us and I realized how lucky we all were to have been a part of Jeff's "us." 

He was a good and kind and genuine man with a brilliant mind, a generous nature, and a laugh as big as a Buick. 

And I will miss him more than these or a million other words can say.

But, Jeff, my best friend ever, there will always be us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Try as I might...

I honestly try each year to have a happy birthday.

I know that I have much to be happy about and grateful for: a wonderful life with a loving husband, a great family, excellent friends, meaningful and satisfying work, art and music, the cutest and most loving cats on the planet, a safe and comfortable home, reasonably good health, plenty of interesting things to keep me occupied.

I will do things on my birthday that bring me pleasure, like visit the zoo and a have a meal at one of my favorite restaurants. I will spend time making art and laughing with my husband. Perhaps he will play his guitar for me. It will be a good day, over all.

For the last 10 years, I have tried to be happy on my birthday, and a do manage to find some happiness, to be sure. But the day will always be bittersweet. From about the age of three, I began my birthday every year with the same ritual. Having been born on my mother's 38th birthday, I would look at her (or call her on the phone) almost as soon as I woke up and I would say, "Happy birthday, Mom."

"Happy birthday, baby," was her reply.

I have not heard those words in ten years, nor will I ever hear them again.

I wish I could say that I miss her a little less each year or that the ache dulls just a bit as time passes, but that would be untrue. 

So, I will try to be happy on my birthday, but if I'm a little blue, bear with with me.
Mom and her birthday "baby" -- letting my nerd flag fly