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This must be the place: And we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time

Big Creek. (Garret K. Woodward photo) Big Creek. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

Slowly opening my eyes in the waning hours of Sunday morning, I could hear the last of the fall foliage tourist traffic zoom by my apartment on nearby Russ Avenue in downtown Waynesville, heading out of town until this time next year.

Sliding out of bed, I headed for the refrigerator and grabbed some water, a handful of mixed berries from a container, pulled up the blinds on the front window, and sat down at my desk. 

Scrolling through Facebook, I came across an article from a journalism colleague, Amanda Petrusich, that she wrote for The New Yorker. It was a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, with both sides of the conversation having an in-depth discussion about their personal dealings with death, and the grief that ensues in the immediate and lingering fallout.

I found such sincere solidarity with the exchange between the duo, each sharing intimate feelings about tragedy in their respective families, and how they found different ways to navigate one’s existence thereafter.

Truth be told, I made amends with death years and years ago. Growing up in an older family, I remember going to several funerals when I was kid. Standing in line amid taller, well-dressed and sad adults, each approaching the casket and kneeling down, peering in at the cold, wrinkled flesh of a former family member now crossing over to the other side, wherever that may be. 

Kneel for a minute or so at the casket, say a couple prayers learned from my time attending a Catholic elementary school and countless grueling Sunday masses. Do the sign of the cross, stand up, and head for the door with my parents, little sister, and extended family, ultimately making our way to the post-funeral reception at the Knights of Columbus or American Legion just down the road, depending on the size of the crowd, usually a beer and liquor drinking Irish gathering to celebrate the dead and their impending legacy through song and stories. 

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Although I’ve always been a deeply sentimental old soul, the notion of one’s passing has always conjured more appreciation for the time spent with that now gone loved one, where the gratitude of memories and interactions outweighs the sadness and sorrow of what’s been lost, and lost forever — knowledge, moments, and whatever else that human entity encompassed with their time on this earth. 

When you’re young, most of us don’t really think or ponder too much about death, or at least about one’s existence in the grand scheme of things. Death seems so far away, this dot on the horizon that won’t come into focus for decades or more, if you’re lucky. When you have youth, death is more of a drag to those ahead of you in line amid that grand march to “the end” — “Can’t stop and reflect, Gramps, I’ve got a hot date waiting for me,” kind of thing, you know?

But, even with my respect and acknowledgement of what death “is,” nothing prepared me for the way my world was shattered with the untimely passing of my childhood best friend, Jason, as a result of a motorcycle accident. He was 19, soon to turn 20. I received the news from my grieving mother the night I had just returned back to my native Upstate New York from the spring semester of sophomore year of college in Connecticut. 

Jason had passed away the night before, with word of his accident working its way around our hometown throughout the day, all while I was en route back to the North Country. I’ll never forget carefully making my way up the stairs of my parents’ farmhouse late at night, to not wake anybody up, only to hear my mother sobbing in the dark in her bedroom as I received the news. 

At Jason’s funeral, I remember walking up to his casket to say goodbye. His parents and little brother were crying on the other side of the freshly dug hole. I grabbed a clump of dirt and tossed it onto the casket before it was lowered, but not before leaning down, kissing the cold container, and muttering under my breath in truth, “Jay, I promise to live a life for the two of us.”

That funeral in that field in the rural Champlain Valley was over 17 years ago. Many of us young kids back then in mourning have moved on with our lives, whether physically or emotionally. But, the photographs and mental images of Jason remain. For me, I’ll always carry my memories of him as a reminder to seek gratitude amid the organized chaos of the unknown universe. 

And, when I do return home to Clinton County, and find myself passing by the cemetery where he’s buried, I’ll usually make sure to swing in and pay my respects, always saying hello and kissing the headstone before I crank the truck engine and continue on my whirlwind journey to somewhere, anywhere.

Grief never gets easier, where the weight of another passing, whether unexpected or of natural causes, always seems to add layers to the intricate dynamic of your emotions, and to the lens by which you view the world, your interactions and reactions, in your own time and place. As they say, “life is a mystery to be lived, not a puzzle to be solved.”

I, for one, have used my past grief as a way to truly appreciate the present moment, and what the future may hold. Grief makes me aware of “the now,” and to be cognizant of a beautiful and unfolding moments with another kind soul as it happens in real time, where, eventually, you turn to that person and say, “You know, you’re someone I’m supposed to know in this lifetime.”

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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