Monday, June 25, 2007

Remembering Him Best

“It’s going to be like that first morning when you found out about Bryce’s suicide. Each time you experience something for the first time it’s going to be hard.”
I picked up a piece of corn bread, layered it with butter and jalapeno jelly, and realized that the memorial service would be the first time I would see his parents since my boyfriend, Bryce, had taken his own life. It would be the first time I would see his friends, and the first time I would meet some of his friends that I only heard about from the few memories that Bryce had shared.
A friend explained the concept of “experiencing firsts” to me while I sat weepy across the table picking at delicious baked goods that I could hardly enjoy.

It would be the first time back in the town where we had lived together, the town Bryce had called home for thirteen years before the almost four that we had dated. He had talked about the timberframe building he would design and build for us: three stories and a penthouse apartment with floor to ceiling windows that would overlook the mountains and valley. It would also be the first time that I would go into Bryce’s office in his timberframe shop, the one that had taken me four days to paint cerulean blue. I had chosen the color to remind him of the oceans in the world that we would swim and sail. I had gotten the paint free from a local painter because he happened to have that color leftover.
“Hell, if you don’t take it, it’ll just sit in the back of my truck,” he had said while he coughed out the remnants of his Marlboro. When I would walk into that office now it would be another first, Bryce wouldn’t be sitting there, and his absence would be permanent.

Two of his friends on my radar still didn’t know about Bryce’s suicide. One named David was unreachable because he spent winters surfing the Pacific in Mexico and turned off his cell phone for four months. My quest to contact him became obsessive (which I had noticed was one way of dealing with the shock and grief). I went as far as emailing random surfers that I found by goggling surfing forums to see if they might be catching the same waves as my described friend. One e-mailed back.
“Yeah, I know that guy. Have never talked to him, but have seen him on the beach.”
I grew frustrated and wanted to e-mail back, “Well, do you think you could go up to him?” but knew I should monitor where I channeled my anger.
I never heard back from the surfer, chalked it up to the fact that catching righteous tubes was more important than connecting strangers and wondered if I had put the words "death" or "suicide" in the email would I have gotten different results. I had to let go of the fact that our friend might miss the memorial service, and wondered how long it would be before he learned the news.

It took some time before anyone could even think about having Bryce’s memorial service, but once the date was set, each family member and close friend worked out his or her own part. His family, aunts, uncles, cousins, four close friends, and I gathered beneath one of Bryce’s timberframe at his parent’s home for a light brunch. Then we moved into the living room and formed a circle on chairs and couches. One by one, we went around sharing our thoughts, a poem, or something we had written to explain what was special to each of us about Bryce. As we reached for Kleenex to wipe away our tears, we reached into our hearts to share about his life.

We had scheduled a larger service for the community that evening at the timberframe shop. Earlier the day before, I had driven to get poster board and as the sun reflected off two feet of snow, I veered off and got myself stuck. In this rural area without four-wheel drive, I had to wave down any car that decided to pass in the thirty minutes that I stood there wishing I had remembered gloves. An older woman, stocky and strong like most of the rock climbing, mountain biking type that lived in these parts, stopped her truck.
“Oh, did you get distracted putting on make-up?”

Her condescending tone had put me off, it was the same masculinity that made me miss the femininity that always surrounded me in San Francisco, but I was in such a sorry state wondering how I had gotten stuck in the first place that it didn’t occur to me to give her my real excuse. I didn’t bother telling her it was because I had reached for my ringing phone and couldn’t distinguish between the side of the road and the snow bank, and I didn’t bother asking her to give me a little compassionate break. She left me with a tow rope, a shovel and brief instructions as to how I could get out once someone came by, then she waved me off to make it to her appointment on time. I stood their shoveling around the tires and couldn’t recall anyone being worried about making it anywhere on time in this town. Then I looked up, a habit you do after someone dies, and I cursed Bryce. Though I didn’t put too much faith in there being a heaven, I didn’t know where else to look. I knew that wherever he was, he was looking down on me laughing, because he used to say, “You could never handle winters here.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t, it’s that I never would have wanted to.

Once the third truck came by and towed me out of my winter nightmare, I went to the timberframe shop and covered the entrance wall with photographs that I had taken of Bryce over the years. The photomontage started with our first road trip around Idaho. Then the photos and descriptions moved across the wall like the travels that had moved us around North America. There was the circle trip through the Canadian Rockies, the camping trip on the big island of Hawaii, our discovery of the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Island, and finally our trip from last year through Mexico. Bryce had rebuilt a refurbished Japanese motor for a 1986 Toyota van that we drove from San Francisco down the Pacific coast to the middle of Mexico, onward through Mexico City, up into Texas, over to Florida, up the Eastern seaboard and across the states back into Idaho. He had bought the van for one hundred dollars, the motor for three hundred, and spent two weeks comparing the old motor to the new motor with the keen eye of a self-taught expert.

Next, he build a pine bed frame for the van which he cut down the center, installed some hinges, and made the piece so that it could fold up one side in order to get our personal items stored in laundry baskets underneath. It was in these glimpses of Bryce’s ingenuity that had attracted him to me. It was the way he could create and solve any building or mechanical mystery and turn it into a project that kept him focused. When he had finished that project, I crawled onto our tri-fold mattress with him as we lay like spoons. In that moment, I waited for those three words that I always wanted to hear from him. I realize now that the safest way for Bryce to communicate those words was through his accomplishments.

Back at the memorial service, faces I knew and faces I always wondered about filled the shop a hundred people deep. I was nervous to see anyone who recognized me, but as it goes in small communities, once you’ve left your mark, a hug awaits you around every corner.
Bryce’s best friend came up to me.

“Amanda, you won’t believe who’s here,” and he led me around a crowd of people.
Standing before me was our surfing friend, David. I ran into him for a hug as I started to cry. “They found you. You got my emails.”
David shook his head in grief, “I can’t believe it,” he said in the same shock I had had for a month already. “Wait, what emails?”
“You didn’t get my emails? I was emailing surfers in Mexico to find you. They didn’t tell you? Then how did you know to come?”

David explained that he had had problems with his Achilles' tendon, (which ironically to me had been Bryce’s same physical issue when I had first met him), and that he had come back into the Valley for one day and night to see his doctor. He had driven into town for dinner and someone had said to him, “Hey, you going to that thing for Bryce?”
David said, “What is Bryce having?”
I cried wondering if Bryce was up there orchestrating this all.
Moments later, while I stood in a circle of women blubbering about how strange it was that David had shown up, Bryce’s Aunt Ellie came up to me.
“Amanda, this is Katy. I think you two would have a lot in common, you should talk.” Katy was one woman that I didn’t recognize from the Valley, which meant nothing since it had only been my second summer here.
“Katy, I need to eat. Let me grab something.”
I trusted Bryce’s Aunt Ellie that she wouldn’t give me something I couldn’t handle. I also trusted her because it was one of the few relatives in Bryce’s family that he had recently grown close to during a time when he started to separate himself from so many others.

Katy and I went to the front of the table that was next to the microphone we would all begin using soon. As I tried to eat bite-sized spinach quiches, Katy started in on her story. “I don’t really know where to start?” she said.
“Just talk,” I said, knowing that after experiencing David’s arrival, nothing would faze me.
“Well, I didn’t really know Bryce, but I felt like I should be here. My boyfriend killed himself ten years ago.” I started to tear up again.
She told me how it had happened in her early twenties right after college graduation, how she had gone on to travel on her own, had gotten knee-deep into drugs and alcohol, had met another man and had gotten pregnant (and since had had a daughter). Then she told me how her boyfriend who she had recently split from had said to her, “You’re still not over him.” “Him” was her boyfriend that had killed himself ten years before.
“So, I thought I should come tonight because I don’t think I ever really grieved for him properly.” She mentioned how Bryce had sounded a lot like her boyfriend: brilliant, intense, talented, a perfectionist, and needing to be in control of his life. She told me how she had gone back to Chicago for his memorial service to be with his family after her boyfriend’s suicide, and then something struck me as a coincidence, so I spoke up.
“Where in Chicago was your boyfriend from?”
I had asked because I had already learned the world was small in these circles.
“Winnetka,” she said intently.
“Wait, what was his name?”
Katy revealed his name and I dropped my head into my hands.
“What is going on here?”
I didn’t think my body could handle any more shock.
“I knew your boyfriend.” I looked up at Katy whose face was now red with tears and in the same state of shock.
“Are you kidding me?” As she said that, the memory from my past that I had totally forgotten until now flooded my brain.
“Well, I knew him one day. I went to see a swimming meet. He was a strong swimmer, right?”
She cried harder. “Yes.”
I told her how I had gone to a swim meet with some friends to cheer on one of our friends and how I had remembered seeing her boyfriend. I admired his strong shoulders and chest, and how I had recalled how cute he had been and remembered his name since he had won the meet. It was a single memory from one day that I hadn’t thought about in seventeen years until this moment.
We sat there staring at each other not knowing what to make of our meeting. 

“Did Aunt Ellie know this when she met you?”

Aunt Ellie had been standing near the door and walked up to Katy to ask her how she had known Bryce. Katy told her that she had come with a friend of Bryce’s, and that she had never known him, but that she had lost her boyfriend to the same tragedy. I wondered what the message was to be in our meeting, but instead just sat with Katy holding her hand while we cried together.

Bryce’s business partner got on the microphone to help wipe away some of the devastation. We sat listening to friends and strangers do their recollections on what they remembered most about Bryce. One new friend of mine, a man who had lost his daughter to suicide years before, had told me to ask one friend to be within arms reach of me throughout the service. He had told me that I would need it. As I sat there listening to these people’s stories about Bryce, with my head spinning at the small miracles that had already been placed before me at the service so far, there was my friend who I had appointed as the person I could reach for. She pulled a chair up next to me, put her hand on my leg, and whispered, “How are you doing?”
“You have no idea,” as I blew my nose and smiled.

There were old backcountry skiing buddy’s who spoke of Bryce’s ingenuity again, how one time when his pole basket had broken, he had squashed a Budweiser can from his daypack to use it as a replacement basket. Then there was the architect in town who spoke of Bryce’s incredible talent for building timberframes and his impeccable work ethic. Next was a woman I couldn’t place in Bryce’s life. She talked about how Bryce would show up at her grandkids’ birthday parties over the years and how she had appreciated Bryce’s kid-like mentality. She talked about how Bryce would line the girls up on a hillside lying down, and then he’d play “Steamroll” and roll all 180 lbs. of himself down the hill over the girls while they giggled. Everyone in the room laughed as if we all knew that devilish side that had Bryce do things that might not always look like a good idea but somehow he managed to pull off. When the woman left the microphone, I realized where I had recognized her. When I had stopped at the corner drugstore the day before, I had broken down into tears seeing an old friend. While I had broken down to my friend explaining the photomontage I was making of Bryce, this woman had rung me up at the cash register. She had been the first person in town who couldn’t look me in the eye, now I knew why.
I got up and ran to the bathroom to see one of Bryce’s kayaking friends leaning against the wall.
“Amanda,” he whispered, “how many times did you run out of gas when you were with Bryce?”
I smiled, “Hold that thought,” and closed the bathroom.
There had been that time we had exited the highway onto the off-ramp and then coasted around the corner to gain momentum to land in that exit’s gas station. I remembered how we had been in hysterics with the luck of it all. Then there had been another time on our way to a friend’s wedding when I had forgotten that the gas light had come on (because Bryce had taught me that you always had more time than I’d think with a gas light), and we had to hitch to a gas station with an older couple in their cross-country RV. Then there had been the time in Mexico last winter. One of the tricks of the Toyota van was that the fuel gauge was broken. We had to watch it go down to Empty immediately after fueling up and then remember that during the second time the gauge went down to Empty, that this was the true gauge of our fuel. Bryce had confused the two, so we had to walk off the Mexican toll road into a town, spend twice what gas had cost back in the States, and barter the rest with some beer since we had run out of pesos.
I came back out of the bathroom and whispered to Sam, “I remember running out of gas three times, but it was probably more than that.”
“Yeah, it was four with me.”
I gave Sam a hug and went back to my seat to try to wring out a little more happiness.

On a back table, there was a book where people could write in their thoughts about Bryce, which was helpful for those who couldn’t have shared them in front of a crowd. On the cover of the book was a photograph of Bryce riverboarding. He was smiling as if he had always been in that space, though in the last year I knew he hadn’t. His smile reflected how we all wanted to remember him, as the adventurer, the free spirit, the kind of person who would try just about anything. However, what Bryce had become behind closed doors was in the other photographs that I had taken. He and I would go on afternoon hikes or drive out into the country to discover abandoned barns, and he would usually walk ahead of me. When I put together the photomontage, I noticed that I had taken so many shots of Bryce from behind that you would have thought I knew we might lose him someday. The contrast between these two types of photographs mirrored the exact contrast that was our relationship, and a life that he compartmentalized in order to hide what ailed him.

On the next table was a bowl full of polished rocks called thought rocks, rocks where we could write our thoughts with a silver Sharpie. A psychologist friend explained the thought rocks idea, that friends should write and decorate them to give to his parents to plant in their garden or keep in a special place. I photographed the rocks for my memory. Some read as: Peace, ’07 season is for you (which must have been from one of Bryce’s kayaking buddies), and Pure Love, which is what I had written as a reminder as to what I kept telling Bryce even in those final days when we had talked, that no matter what had happened in the past, he was always loved. The one fact that I had learned early on after I had left the relationship was that my love for Bryce was never going to be enough to save him. So I left my rock, hoping that if he was indeed coordinating the few miracles and moments that kept blowing my mind during this memorial service, at least he knew that even when it grew so bad, underneath that top layer of sadness was the pure love I kept trying to give him.

I walked around taking more photographs to have for my memory of this special night. There were a few stragglers next to the kegerator, resembling some off-campus parties in college. Men dressed in fleece, Carhartt pants and hiking boots topped off their plastic cups and laughed here and there. I walked over to a couple I knew and leaned into them, something I had done for myself throughout the night to old friends and new. Then I looked at the woman standing across from me, looking familiar but more dressed up in a skirt and a little mascara.
“Wait, I know you?” I said.
“Yeah, I’m the one who helped you in the snow this morning.”
My swollen eyes must have reminded her of what I needed to hear.
“And yeah, now I understand why you went off the road.”
I smiled, welcoming her forgiveness, and went back to taking photographs of what we had created here: words, thought rocks and memories, the very things that were the most important for us to remember him best.