To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
I've been meaning to write about the weekend of the 13th and 14th for a week now. On Friday I finally got a chance to do it, for an APA I'm in, so I'm adapting that description for use here.
(What I still haven't done is written up introductions explaining who all these people are. For now, you'll just have to assume that if I mention a name without a qualifier, they're a friend of mine. The rest will probably gradually become clearer from context. The one essential piece of background for this entry is that a little over a year ago, in August of 2000, the week before SH launched, my college friend Alex killed himself.)
Alex's parents, Bob and Phyllis, came out to San Francisco for the weekend, because it had been such a special place to Alex. (They stopped to visit other special places along the way, including Flagstaff.)
And they brought Alex's ashes with them.
The weekend started for me, in a way, with Mary Anne arriving on Thursday night. I worked at home on Friday, which went pretty well; there's work stuff I need to do that requires serious concentration, no distractions, and not having a Net connection (partly because Mary Anne was using my cable modem) helps. :)
Friday evening, we drove up to the East Bay and picked up my college friend Jessica, in town for the weekend, at a BART station. The three of us had a nice Ethiopian dinner, then Jessica and I dropped Mary Anne off in Oakland and came back to Mountain View.
On Saturday, Jess and I visited the Coyote Point Museum, where the gray foxes Alex liked so much live, and walked around, and looked at the exhibit on peregrine falcons, and got some info on donating money to keep Alex's "adoption" of the foxes going.
Then we drove up to San Francisco. After a brief stop in Ghirardelli Square, we met up with Bob & Phyllis at their hotel. Bob drove us all across town to the end of Geary, where there's a path that leads up along the rocky shore and around the curve toward Golden Gate Bridge. I'd gone there once a few years back with Fran & Ed and David & Allison, and David reminded me about the specific location (I hadn't been sure precisely where we'd been). It's lovely out there—views of the bridge, views out into the open ocean, evergreens, rocks, waves breaking down below.
We found a relatively secluded spot, mostly surrounded by trees but with a clear view of both the bridge and the ocean. And we talked a little, and we scattered Alex's ashes from a little promontory, out into the wind, down among the rocks and the trees and the waves.
It wasn't the first time I've scattered ashes. When I was twelve, my mother died, of leukemia. (For details, see my essay "Distances and Directions.") She was cremated, and we took her ashes out to Foothills Park, near Palo Alto, and scattered them.
I don't know how accurate my memory of that event is. (Jessica and I spent much of last weekend talking about memory, and how unreliable it can be.) My memory is that my father and brother and I walked among the trees, with a couple of family friends, and talked, and cried, and took handfuls of ashes and scattered them as we walked. I don't know if that's true or not; the more I think about it, the more unlikely it seems. The idea feels right, though, albeit a little macabre. (I'm not sure it's really any more macabre than anything about the way we handle death, but there is that old "don't touch anything dead" taboo.) But it's a direct connection (of a sort).
With Alex's ashes, there was a nice cylinder (called an "urn," though it was not at all urn-shaped), with a plastic bag inside. The ashes were in the bag. We took turns holding the bag and scattering ashes from it. It felt a little distanced to me, but that may well have been a good thing; a little distance is sometimes necessary.
Jess and I had also spent some time talking about perspective, and how hard it can be to have any. My working theory is that lack of perspective was part of what led to Alex's death, actually; there were various small events that turned out, later, to be nothing particularly serious or bad, but I think that they all came at once, at a time when he was already distressed about returning physical problems, and at a time and place where he had no local support network. I think that was enough to push him over the edge. He always had a flair for melodrama. When he heard that a former bank said he owed them money, and that his driver's license couldn't be transferred from Arizona for unspecified reasons, it was natural for him to assume it was a case of identity theft. He lived in a world of stories, and part of his story was that weird and extreme things kept happening to him. It's hard to know how much of that was that such things did happen to him, and how much of it was that they made a better story.
I dunno. I certainly don't mean to be casting aspersions here; Alex's stories were part of his charm for me. But I do sometimes think that with a little more perspective, he might've stayed alive. At least in the short term; who knows about the long term.
But it's one of the hallmarks of serious depression, as I understand it, that you have even less perspective than most people normally do, so it's not terribly surprising that Alex may've been a little short on it.
I'm afraid that I wasn't much use last Saturday in San Francisco. I couldn't think of anything to say. I was feeling a little lost; I knew that Bob and Phyllis were probably feeling a lot worse than I was, but I couldn't find any words of comfort for them. Jessica was great; she's good at saying the right things, and saying them well.
Eventually, the four of us drove up to Fort Point, where Alex had taken some photos last time he visited SF. That visit loomed large in my memory last weekend; it was the last time I saw him, in early March of 2000. (At least, that's what my records suggest; I'm not entirely certain, and memory plays tricks.) On that trip, Alex and I visited Coyote Point, I think—I'm pretty sure he'd been there before, though. (I think we took photos of the foxes then. Alex was a remarkably steady hand with a camera; no tripod, just stand very still.) The two of us proceeded up to Twin Peaks in SF, where we took more pictures and leaned into the wind. We wandered around in the Castro for a while. Then up to Fort Point, right under Golden Gate Bridge, looking out along its length, admiring the surfers. Eventually, Alex and I drove west in the twilight, looking for a place to see the sunset; finally found China Beach, though the light was growing dim by then, and watched the lights on the bridge, and the red glow of the sun setting beyond the point to the west.
But I didn't talk about any of that, as Bob & Phyllis and Jess and I stood there on that same point to the west eighteen months later, pouring grey ashes over the slope. I had a hard time thinking of the ashes as Alex's remains. Disconnected. I don't know that I found it conceivable to think of my mother's ashes as having anything really to do with her, either. There's too much of a gap between pulverized ash and the living laughing human whose body those ashes once were.
But I could think of Alex in that place anyway, regardless of the ashes. I think it was a good place to remember him; a nice commingling of wind and rock, tree and wave; a place with two lovely views, one inward and one outward, poised on the cusp between sea and shore. In the margins. On the threshold. Liminal. I think Alex would've appreciated that.
And it'll be an easy place to find again, with a clear trail leading off the path, near the base of the steps. I'll go there again sometime.
Food and Redwoods
After we left Fort Point, Bob drove us all the way across the city again, down past SoMa, to a little Italian place called Aperto, one of my favorite restaurants in the City. The food wasn't as amazing as it's been when I've been there before, but it was fine. We talked, about some inconsequential things and some serious things. We had chocolate soufflé for dessert. And then we went back to Bob & Phyllis's hotel, said goodnight to them, and drove home to Mountain View.
Jess and I stayed up late talking. Sunday we drove down to see the redwoods in Henry Cowell Park in Santa Cruz; that was nice and peaceful, except for the loud train whistles and the banjo playing and the celebration that seemed to be going on nearby.
Big trees. I think big trees help lend perspective; they're so . . . big! And old. They've weathered storms. They know a thing or two, those trees, if you'll pardon the steal from George Hitchcock.
We stopped for a hurried Indian lunch in downtown Mountain View, then I dropped Jess off at the airport. Good to see you, Jessica; thank you again for coming up.
Went home. Had about half an hour of puttering and email, and then Kam came by. We talked for a while. Later, Mary Anne showed up; later, Kam went home. Mary Anne and I ate leftovers, though I didn't eat much; I felt like I'd been stuffing myself all weekend, too full to eat.
We watched the videotape of Whoopi Goldberg's one-woman Broadway show, broadcast on HBO in the mid-'80s. It was just what I needed—one of the best dramatic performances I've ever seen anywhere, and too many years since I last watched it. Goldberg is completely stunning. Very funny, very sad, immensely moving, very wise, with a deep vein of kindness and empathy running through it. I laughed a lot, and cried a lot, and Mary Anne held me, and it helped. It didn't make everything all better, but it helped.
(And I only later realized that it was particularly apropos because of identity issues—identity was a topic close to Alex's heart, from roleplaying games to online changes of identity. Goldberg's show is a set of dramatic monologues, in which Goldberg is absolutely 100% convincing as, by turns, a junkie, a teenage Valley Girl, a little girl who wants to have long blond hair, a Jamaican woman brought to the US by a rich old white man, and a disabled woman. Heartbreaking, mesmerizing, and funny. There are maybe three lines in the show that are less than perfect. I can't recommend it highly enough.)
Monday morning I took Mary Anne to the airport. I was sad to see her go; too brief a visit. But I have to admit that a small part of me was glad, that evening, to have a little space to myself; I'd had almost none since the previous Wednesday, and much as I like the friends I was spending time with (have I mentioned how nice it is to have friends, and how good mine are to me?), I was reaching the point of needing some downtime. . . . Of course, I didn't really get much, 'cause I was way behind on magazine stuff and had to frantically rush to catch up. But I did take a little time just to sit and read, and that was nice. Relaxing.
. . . I feel like there ought to be more to say; there's no real dramatic closure here. Alex wouldn't have approved. Narrative is everything.
But for now, I'm out of words.