Things that can’t be taken away

“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.


Reflections on a woman I never knew, whose light touched my life today

This is a bit complicated. Usually I like to elaborate on a simple subject, or tell a short story, but this has been on my mind today and I just feel like I need to talk about it. Please excuse if it doesn’t all flow very well

So it’s National Suicide Prevention Week. When I saw that, the first thing I thought of was my dear cousin, who left us in March 2011. Initially I thought of writing a small memorial post for him, but I don’t want to be depressing. I know he certainly wouldn’t want that.

However, it did make me want to write something, I just wasn’t sure what, exactly. Then, I saw this obituary, which made national news because of its unusual and touching nature.

That got me to thinking about my own mortality, and how not all that long ago I was at a low point in my life, where I wasn’t exactly suicidal, but I found myself hoping to die. Every day. Hoping that something would happen to me, to end my existence. I saw opportunity everywhere, and tried a lot of dangerous things. It was a dark time and I did climb out of it, and honestly, I like to pretend that point in my life never happened. But we all have pasts that we must face, we all have regrets, and we all have to just get over it. If you’re always looking backwards, you’ll never move forward.

I’m past that now, though, and that isn’t what this post is about.

Anyway, reading that obituary made me wonder about the mark I have left – will leave upon the world. What kind of legacy will I leave behind when I’m gone? That woman, Pink, as she is called by her surviving relatives, sounds like a very extraordinary individual. Her mark is in the love she left behind, everywhere and in every one she ever spoke to.

I’m so very guilty of many petty crimes that Pink rose above.

Never say mean things about rotten people, instead think of them as “poor souls who we should pray for.”

I definitely always say mean things about rotten people. I wish zombification on every horrible driver, I regularly imagine global catastrophes hitting obnoxious crowds, I internally curse every jerk I see in my daily interactions with people. Never, and I mean never, have I pitied those people for their ignorance and lack of respect for anyone else. But what a lofty idea, what a beautiful thought. It makes me think of the book A Little Princess, and how when I was little I wanted to be the sort of person that Sara Crewe was, always behaving like a princess would. A real princess would never say mean things about rotten people, no matter how terribly they behaved. Princesses are above that sort of thing.

Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or the summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is “Peat Moss”. Offer to help anyone struggling to get their kids in a car, into a shopping cart or across a parking lot. Give to every single charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online.

Wow. That’s a tall order. I’m convinced that this woman was a saint.

Are we such a jaded society that we no longer believe in truly good people, who do truly good things? I do my “good deed per day”, most days. I give myself a pat on the back every time too. Yeah, self, there’s some karma points. But now I’m thinking that maybe to make the world a better place, I should become a better person. Not that I think I’m a bad person. I’m not. I’m actually one of the best people that I know. But maybe this world needs people who lead by example, like Pink; instead of people who preach their morality to everyone else.

Take magazines you’ve already read to your doctors’ waiting rooms for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label … “Because if someone wants to contact me that would be nice.”

Ok, so I don’t actually ever get physical magazines, but this is such a nice thought.

Growing up, there is a mantra drilled into the head of every child. Don’t talk to strangers. Granted, this is pretty good advice for a small child. As an adult, we have to talk to strangers all the time, but we keep the conversation minimal. I don’t start a conversation with anyone I don’t already know at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, not even at social places like beaches, restaurants, bars, sports games, whatever. I keep to my group of family or friends and, I guess honesty is the best policy; I secretly watch and judge everyone else there. We do this all the time. We call it people-watching. You spot a person, or a couple, or a family, and you make up an imaginary life for them inside your head, based on what you see. But you never go up to them and ask to see how their real life compares.

I just think that it’s rare to meet and cultivate a friendship with someone who is not in your pre-established social circles these days. It’s kind of sad, really. So I might make it a point to say hello to people I don’t know now and then. If they’re not interested in a conversation, I won’t push the issue. But you never know if you’ll meet someone who enriches your life in some way. And that would be nice.

It’s especially wonderful that this woman, though I never even met her, has got me rethinking my own bad behavior towards others, and the world in general. Even after she’s gone, she’s touching lives.

What a legacy. What a saint. What a wonderful person to want to emulate.

None of us are perfect. But we can try to be our best, and that’s all that we can do. The legacy we leave behind is the lives we’ve touched, the people we’ve helped, the way we’re remembered as a person, and the lessons we pass on to future generations. The more love you put into the world, the more you’ll get back.

Those who’ve taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the garbage collector and the mail carrier on a hot day, that every baby will be kissed and every person in the nursing home will have a visitor, that the hungry will have a sandwich and the visitor will have a warm bed and a soft nightlight…

Your legacy is when the love you leave behind continues to live after you’re gone.