“Not only had my brother disappeared, but–and bear with me here–a part of my very being had gone with him. Stories about us could, from them on, be told from only one perspective. Memories could be told but not shared.”
It seems like so long ago now, and still it seems like just yesterday that the charismatic and charming Riley V Whitehead graced this world. He committed suicide on March 22, 2011. Riley was my cousin, but the closeness we shared was more akin to siblings. On the day I found out it had seemed impossible, unthinkable, that the world did not grind to a halt at the moment of his death. More than anything I wanted to stop, wait, go back, do something to stop it. Yet the world spun obstinately on – oblivious to the anguished cries of disbelief from myself, my family, and Riley’s incredibly numerous friends. Everyone who knew Riley knew he was special. He was bright, easy to laugh, brilliant, fun, fearless, one of those people that effortlessly became the center of attention. And you’d better believe he knew it.
I think that was part of why we all felt like we had failed him. Riley was always there when you reached out to him, and for whatever reason didn’t feel like he could reach out to any of us.
Over 800 people came to his funeral. It was one of the most mind-boggling and touching things I’d ever experienced. Everyone laughed and cried and shared memories, and from all their stories I learned about dozens of facets of Riley’s life that I’d never known about.
This post has been sitting in my drafts for quite some time now, and I think it’s about time I just put it out there.
I don’t quite know how to wrap it up though. Thinking about it now over three years later I remember bits and pieces and mostly memories that make me smile. I remember how Riley got a bag of dog food for a childhood birthday — an inside joke amongst family because Ri would eat his dog Max’s food. He said “If it’s good enough for Max, it’s good enough for me.” I remember playing tag and swimming in the pool at his house. I remember family reunions and his ridiculousness. I remember how attached he was to his car and his satchel (though some of us teased him about it being a man-purse). I remember making crowns with vines that were growing on the fence by my garage. I remember Riley telling me that he would be the coolest uncle ever once my daughter arrived. He promised to teach her the most creative curses and the best ways to annoy me.
Leonard Cohen sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
That’s how I have chosen deal difficult life situations. One of the most important (and hardest) life lessons you can learn comes on the heels of death and tragedy. You can live without money, you can get by with next to nothing and still manage to wake up every morning happy. People can be resilient. You can be beaten down again and again, and still manage to get up at the end of the day.
It doesn’t matter what you go through, who or what you lose as life goes on. The world spins on, refusing to stop and let you get your bearings back. Use it to make you stronger. There are things that can’t be taken away from you. Memories. Hold them for a while, then index them and pull them out for a dusting now and again. Just don’t spend all your time with them. You have to move on and create more.
Don’t put all your time and effort into making more money, acquiring more things, or being more successful. All that effort is better spent on creating new experiences, cultivating the relationships that are important to you, and doing things that make you happy. None of us gets to know how much time we have, so let’s just make the best of what we have while we have it. The only things you end up truly regretting are the things you didn’t do.