(an entry for the OnDisplay collab)
4 May 2002
We stood on the deck of the small ship in the middle of San Francisco Bay. "Here,
Bev...you hold on to this too," they said, extending the urn. Fog swirled around us,
the wind chilling us to the bone. The boat had stopped off the shoreline of Angel Island
and we were there to watch Gilbert go to his final rest.
I joined his sister and brother in law in holding the small urn--how little is left of
a human body when it has been cremated. Together we watched the contents pour out of the
urn, the finer bits caught by the wind and carried off toward Oakland. The heavier bits
rested, momentarily, on top of the water, and then sank slowly into the murky water,
leaving a soapy looking residue on the surface. Gilbert was now forever part of San
The sun came out as the boat headed back to shore and by the time we disembarked, it
was shining brighly. How could the sun be shining so brightly when I had just said goodbye
to my best friend?
The year was 1986. I was 43, and it was my first real experience with death. Of course
I'd lost relatives before--even my sister--but thiswas the first person to whom I was
close and I felt as if the bottom had just dropped out of my world.
There was a memorial service that night, with the theatre filled to capacity, the
orchestra playing an overture without a conductor, as is traditional when they lose their
Over the coming weeks, I helped pack up his house. His relatives sold or gave away most
of his things and sold the house. I watched him leave, piece by piece. It was so painful
that I borrowed money and purchased what was left of the contents of the house so I could
distribute "things" to people I knew he considered friends. It seemed to be the
last thing I could do for him.
On the last day, I packed up the van with the last of Gilbert's things, looked at the
house for the last time, and drove away. The "easy" part was over. The hard part
remained: moving on.
Over the next weeks/months/years, I learned a lot about the grief process. There was a
time when I became obsessed with reading about death, near death, the afterlife. It was a
strange feeling, but all the while, I kept trying to figure out why. I had the
stongest feeling that I was supposed to be learning something, but I didn't know what.
What I learned, gradually, was how to let go. As the pain began to subside, and I began
to adjust to a Gilbert-less life, a new pain took its place--the pain of realizing that I
was learning to live without him in my life. Another adjustment.
I wish I could say there was a timeframe. On such and such a day, or in such and such a
month (or even in such and such a year), I knew that I had moved on. But I can't look back
and find the time. Just one day I realized that I had finally left him there on the floor
of San Francisco Bay. I remembered the years of our friendship fondly, but there was no
longer any pain at the notion of his no longer being in my life.
I decided that the lesson I learned was that you do survive, even if you don't want to.
I didn't know how important that lesson was going to be until David died. I have given
thanks many, many times since 1996 that I went through "moving on" lessons with
Gilbert's death. I don't know how I could have handled losing a son if I hadn't gone
through the gut-wrenching pain of a great loss.
During my readings after Gilbert's death, I came across a quote by Dylan Thomas which
puzzled me. "After the first death there is no other." I couldn't understand
what it meant. Each death is a new pain, a new loss, a new adjustment. How could there be
But when David died, I understood it. There is nothing quite as painful as the
experience of losing a child...or two... But once you have been down the road of grief,
when you begin grief work a second time, no matter how painful it is, the road you are
traveling is a familiar one. It's like learning to ride a bike over the same course day
after day. The landmarks are familiar, all the twists and turns in the road, and that big
overpass that you have to go over. You know that it's going to hurt. You know that it's
going to take an incredible effort. And yet, you also know that you can only pass from one
side of the road to the other by climbing that hill.
So you forge ahead. And it hurts. It's a huge effort. You hate every minute of it. You
wonder if you can really do it, or if you should just give up. But you do get to the top.
You don't ever want to do it again, but you know that if you have to, you will be able to
As you zip down the other side, you don't forget the pain, you don't forget the
struggle, but you know that you can move forward and somehow be a little bit stronger for
having tackled the obstacle head on.
I'm not always good about "moving on." There are times when I still hang on
tenaciously, reluctant to give up the past, but I'm trying to learn leave the past behind
and enjoy today, knowing that tomorrow is unknown and I might as well make the most of the
day(s) I have now.