Light, loss & living for others

At the time of first trying to express my grief and gratitude–the news about Christopher Seguin’s sudden passing was very recent. Three weeks have since passed since the staggering loss. His celebration of life service was held on Saturday, October 14.  While sitting in the church, hearing about his life, attempting to comprehend the moment, working steadily through a box of tissues–I marveled at how his absence was a deeply felt presence in the packed room. 

There has been rumors and revelations–and while there should be appropriate and respectful channels to discuss and dissect the circumstances surrounding his death, but I won’t do that here.  Existence is a complex experience. We navigate through frameworks of social constructs, we play roles, we love and are loved, we lose and recover, we try and fail until the clock stops ticking–and we then become constellations in the vast atmosphere that is the human condition. 

I tried to capture a singular moment that reflected my memory of Christopher. Words failed as I reeled at the magnitude of the loss.  The tragedy is layer upon layer of agony and anguish for all who were impacted by his life and his loss– his family, his wife, his children, the community, the university–and on and on and on. My heart goes out to those hurting most–and I extend my loving thoughts outwards. 

….

The flags were flying at half-mast on and while I logically understood the reason, my mind revolted against the truth. I half-expect to see him somewhere on campus. However, that towering figure, that booming voice, that presence is gone—and that reality is simply too painful to bear.
To me, Christopher Seguin was like a classic movie star come to life in the modern age: strapping, stylish and smart—a gentleman and an adventurer—like Cary Grant from somewhere between The Philadelphia Story and Gunga Din.

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We met through the Kamloops Film Festival. He became a mentor, ally and friend.

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During a period of professional adjustment—when I was feeling rather lost in the world—Christopher offered direction.  He regaled me with a self deprecating tale about himself as a young, idealistic man writing a piece that he felt so proud of—only for it to never see the light of day.

This conversation took place during a quick walk around campus.  He stopped where we had started, about to set off in another direction.  “The writing is good”—he said, smiling, assuring. As he walked away, his coat collar popped against the crisp autumn weather, he tossed a final sentence over his shoulder “…but it could be better.”
Ah, that was a cool moment.
He wasn’t one to soften blows, he told you how it was. At the same time, he showed vulnerability while sharing stories of his own personal growth. He offered insights and advice, but tasked you with reaching higher levels of personal achievement. It’s good–but it could always be better.

In the first days of shock and sadness, while trying to occupy my unraveling thoughts–I thought a lot about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief–and tried to remember the DABDA scale from long-ago Psychology classes.

Denial:  “In this stage, individuals believe the diagnosis or situation is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.”

Yes, the false, preferable reality seems reasonable to me.

As Joan Didion noted in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking“, “I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed what had happened remained reversible.”

In grief, we are at war with ourselves, rallying against reason, and struggling to reconcile the loss. My mind wanders back and forth between fact and fantasy—I strive to create a world in which Christopher could overcome death. He had plans, goals and value

This. Cannot. Be. It.

And yet, it is. Waves of anguish crashing repeatedly, threatening to overwhelm you as you try to make sense of a senseless tragedy. Wrestling with memory and circumstance, burdened by the weight of  heartbreak, the clashing of absence and presence.

You were just here.

What is one to do when great lights are snuffed out? In that darkness you begin to realize how much these people were quiet architects to our growth and successes. There lies a portion of Christopher’s memory—his legacy resides in those he insisted do better.

As Margaret Atwood once said:

I hope that Christopher becomes more than that. I hope that he carries on in spirit through acts of service. As we move forward into the wilderness of grief and loss, I hope we carry along his memory. He was someone who urged us to excel beyond our wildest expectations–and to encourage others to do the same.  Instead of envisioning a great light dimming into darkness—imagine it fracturing into a million pieces—so that we could find it everywhere. As we move forward, may we absorb even a fraction of that energy, warmth and light.

 

 

Watch Closely Now

Hot on the heels of my divine plan to lavish my husband with a post-work day feast, he falls off the face of the earth for over three hours.  He’s usually finished work at 330, and if there is even a notion that he will be late, he will call.  In the three years we’ve been together, we have been in each others pockets.  He’s been the only person I’ve known in a city or country. We have been together on planes, trains, hostels, hotels, tight places and crowded spaces.  We were sitting side by side in a movie theatre in Christchurch when a deadly 6.3 earthquake occurred in 2011.    We were in the middle of the city, and had to make the treacherous journey back to Ben’s mother’s house on the beach.  We eventually abandoned the car on the side of the road–and crossed a damaged and distorted bridge towards a wooded area. We sprinted through the forest, which was flooded from broken water mains.  The ground below was rumbling and there was an audible growl as the earth prepared to shudder once more.  It was as if we were being chased by an invisible monster; and this creature could kill us and we’d never see it coming.  Ben was ahead of me, his hand around my wrist, pulling me, his grasp refusing to let me go.  Without slowing his speed, he looked back at me with wild eyes and said: “You know I love you–right?” And for a moment I thought those were the last words I was ever going to hear.  As a consequence of this experience and the exhausting days that followed, we are very safety and contingency plan focused.  We’ve discussed exit strategies, we have decided on a meeting place in case we are separated during an emergency or disaster–no matter what, we need to be able to find each other, it is the most important thing.

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Yesterday, I rushed to do all my errands and tasks so I could have my evening free (see Good Housekeeping).  I tried to call Ben at noon and at again at three–half an hour before he was due to be off work, but both his phones were out of service.  And then hours went by without a word.  Ben is an considerate, consistent man and this was the most uncharacteristic thing ever…and it made my blood run cold.  I called my mother and we practiced the age-old art of two women cooking up reasons for why a man hasn’t called.  He was working out of town so there were realistic reasons for his not being within reach: cell phone service, driving time, working overtime etc, but feeling so alone in the house, I felt strangled by fear.  There is something so terrifying about loving someone so much, and  watching them go out into this unstable and unpredictable world everyday.  I say this to my mother on one of our phone calls, and she concurs by saying that with parenthood it’s even worse; your happiness is directly linked to their safety.  My mother suggests that I call the office, or the manager of Ben’s latest work site.  Which I do, and he has enough information to ease my nervous state from red to yellow.  But I will not exhale until my husband walks through that door.

While I wait, I try to occupy my time, but I had done already everything on my list.  I organize my office, sort out the file cabinet, trying to bring order to my life.  I can’t focus on anything else–I can’t read, I’m not even trying to write, and I can’t watch anything, which is a shame because I had Barbra Streisand’sA Star is Born“, and would have happily tucked into that bit of cinema gold if I were in a happier place.

“A Star is Born” would easily appear on my top ten-all time greatest movies ever, not because it is a perfect movie–it’s cheesy, it’s dated, it’s over-dramatic, but it’s just wonderful.  It’s a devastating love story about a self-destructive rock star who elevates a struggling night club singer to stardom, which ultimately leads to his own demise.

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I have seen this movie a number of times, and when I first saw it, my life was changed for the better.  The music! The chemistry! The tragedy! The passion, my god the passion! I mentioned it at work recently, and a co-worker, a prickly widow who does not always enjoy my presence, piped up at the reference.  “I love that film”.  And thanks to this 70’s musical, we found a wormhole of common ground.  She had not seen the movie in years, and I wanted to bring that picture back into her life.  I rented it and brought it to her the next day, so she could watch it on her days off.  I wanted to connect with this woman, I really felt for her, having lost her husband.  I worry about the kind of hurt you have to live with every single day, I worry about those who have to carry it around.  She brought the movie back, and of course enjoyed it all over again, because it is (if I haven’t said so already) an amazing movie.  I too wanted to revisit the film, but this is one of those “Cairo Time” kind of movies where Ben draws the line in the cinematic sand.  But last night, as I paced around the house, not knowing how to wait gracefully, I couldn’t bear the thought of that movie.  The agony of losing someone, the thought of that absence is too much to bear, even if it belongs to someone else, even if it’s just fiction.  Even if it’s just a movie.

This film had many writers, but two of the final writing credits belong to Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne.  I love Joan Didion, she is one of my favorite writers, she is real icon in the world of essays and creative-non fiction.  In recent years she wrote the memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking“, which examines the year following her husband’s death.  I read it once, cried about seventeen times and I swore I would never read it again.  It was that good;  good in the most devastating possible way.  The loss was too much to bear so in order to release it or make sense of it,  she has write about her pain, and thus, continue that relationship by recollecting it and repeating it in her own words.  At the end of “A Star is Born”, Esther Hoffman sings her own version of her John Norman Howard’s famous song “Watch Closely Now” along with her own “With One More Look at You”, and nobody have ever grieved through a musical medley quite like this.  Both women find their own path through the mire because there is no other way to survive.  But they’d much rather have their partners than the art form that remains.

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Ben walks through the door after seven, and he knows what the worry will look like on the other side of the wall.  I am so relieved to see him that I wrap my arms around him and sob into his chest.  And I do in fact, stare at him all night like a dog watches someone while they eat. Though this is my day off, I miss a rare opportunity to sleep in and I visit with Ben before he goes off to work.  He will be back at the same site, working late and out of cell phone range.  He kisses me goodbye, and walks down the street to catch his ride. I watch closely  as he moves further and further away—this large man shrinking in size.  He keeps looking back, at the pink bathrobe in the doorway and at his little wife inside of it–who is forever praying for his health and well being.  He waves one last time before edging further out of my vision.  But I don’t close the door until he is completely out of sight.