|November 19, 1999
November 18, 1999
November 17, 1999
November 10, 1999
November 8, 1999
November 7, 1999
November 5, 1999
November 3, 1999
||There are certain days of the year which resonate with us. Which seem to be tied up into our karma, whether we want it to be or not. Positive or negative, they stick with us -- they seem to grow and develop with us. Some of those days are obvious -- everyone resonates with their birthday, even after we grow up and birthdays stop seeming like such a big deal. Christmas. Yom Kippur. Graduation Day. Anniversary dates. They become a part of our personal landscape. They grow and develop into a part of us.
November 19 is a day that resonates with me. It has since 1985.
Before I discuss 11/19/85, though, I should talk about life since then. I've had two different girlfriends now who had the birthday of November 19. Andrea is one of them. Mason, Van and myself are piling in the car right after work and driving down to Boston to meet up with her and two of her friends to eat food and see The World is Not Enough. A lovely birthday dinner and movie, with friends with us (an important milestone, I should think, though meeting in a restaurant with parties of three each makes me feel like Andrea and I are having a high level summit meeting). The other girlfriend, Jennifer, was the worst girlfriend of my life, and if she's reading this (and why she would be is beyond me) I doubt it will come as much surprise to her. We lived together in Ithaca, and after she left I went out to Seattle like I was going to before she showed up.
(Yet a third girlfriend was born on November 8. Not quite as significant, but my mother is convinced I have a thing for Scorpio girls. I concede the possibility.)
There have been others -- I quit a job on November 19, I was in an accident on November 19, I got word of my first short story publication on November 19, a friend announced his engagement on November 19... a portentous day all around.
It all started on November 19, 1985, though. And in a way I remember that day as clearly as if it were yesterday, and in a way that day feels unreal to me. It did at the time, too.
That was the day I learned about death, you see. That was the day my oldest friend died.
Richard Stewart Grindle didn't look a thing like me. Thin to a fault (we called him Bones). Short, curly red-brown hair. Glasses. Braces (he wanted to be called TCT, or Tin Can Teeth, but that never displaced Bones). That being said, he was one of the best people I knew. We were distant relatives on my father's and his father's side. More to the point, we were born on the same day in the same hospital. (By design, and not our mothers' design at that. The obstetrician was going on vacation but he had this Burns woman and this Grindle woman waiting to pop, so he induced both births without consulting the families. He was dismissed, ultimately. Malpractice as I recall.)
Rich and I went to the same schools. We hung out together from an early age. We did the same things. We biked, and played Hide and Seek with the neighborhood gang (especially after I moved to Pleasant Street, not at all far from where Richard lived). Gang, of course, meaning "a bunch of kids" and not "a coterie of well-armed clannish warriors" as it means in today's society. We talked girls together. When we got in high school, we role played together. Richard, Andrew Paradis, J.P. Marin and I were all part of the college Dungeons and Dragons club, mostly because I'd been the DM for a lot of years at that point. Ultimately, the games were held at Richard's house, because we could play around his pool table in the basement game room. His mother enjoyed that.
Richard's father looked a lot like him. He was a professor at the university like my father was. Richard's father died young, though -- and very suddenly. It was a shock to Richard and Nathan (Richard's little brother), but Anita Grindle shored herself up and carried on. She was a grade school teacher in town -- it was an education based family, not unlike my own.
I remember playing Champions late at night with Rich and Andrew, in a tent behind my house. Chad King, another neighborhood kid, was there as I recall. And I remember Richard just sitting and talking. Guy talk. What girls he really liked, for instance. What his hopes were. How he was going to change the world. As a teenager, you're convinced you're going to change the world. I remember he asked for advice from the class playboy on getting a particular girl to go out with him. The playboy recommended he walk up to her, and say "knock on my chest." When she did, he was to say "hear that? It's hollow. <hands cover heart> The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart" in his best imitation of the Tin Woodsman from the Wizard of Oz.
It didn't work. But he tried.
Everyone liked Richard. He was utterly constant. He was an excellent cross country skier and one of the team captains. He was also square as you got. He'd go straight home after school and do his homework. Every day. Without fail. When riding with the gang in Edmunston (and they were cruising for illicit alcohol), Richard was the one who'd call his mother to let her know he'd be getting home late. Richard did favors for people, and never expected a return.
I remember November 19 very clearly. I was 17 years old (as Richard himself was). My father woke me up, as he generally did, and said in a low voice "I have some very bad news, Eric."
I grinned. I swear. Dad did this every time we had a snow day from school. It was a game. And there was indeed fresh fallen snow right outside my window. "What's that," I asked.
"Richard Grindle died last night."
I can still hear that, you see. Right in the back of my ear I can hear my father saying it. Saying it with the quiet tone of a man who wasn't quite sure how to say it, so he just came right out with it.
I was stunned. Not shocked, stunned. It was the same as if he'd said "I'm really the tooth fairy." I heard his words but they were meaningless to me.
"Richard's dead?" I asked. He hugged me for a long moment, and then I got up to get ready for school.
It was habit that I'd speak to my mother as I walked downstairs. Her bed was visible from the stairway when her door was open. I'd remind her to wake up. It was just something we did. Well, getting dressed was like being an automaton -- and they always say that one of the stages of grieving was denial. So I was doing everything as normal. I told her it was time she got up--
And burst into tears. Standing on the stairs, clutching the bannister, I sobbed my eyes out. Great, heaving sobs, like you see bad actors do on movies. I'm surprised I didn't lose bladder control. I wouldn't have cared if I had. It just hulled me then, more than I could say.
The day seemed strange and painful. I sat in Homeroom, just staring. People were very nice to me, of course -- I was his oldest friend. But we were all just decimated. We had never seen death. We were immortal -- in our hearts, at least -- and Richard was such a nice guy. He did his homework. He'd gotten accepted Early Admission to different schools. He could go to the University of Maine at Orono on a free ride, but he was leaning towards McGill. He wanted to be a Marine Biologist. He played trombone in the Band, and the Pep Band, and....
We had announcements, and the Principal announced his death, with pain in his voice. We had a moment of silence and I put my head down on my desk and cried again. I wasn't the only one.
I only cried one more time. I went to the ski team meeting Mr. Paradis (Andrew's father) held to discuss it. It was there I learned that Richard's aorta had collapsed -- a congential condition related to how thin he was -- and had died on an emergency operating table. Mr. Paradis spoke about what Richard had meant to the team, his son, and himself. And I sat there, not a member of his team but no one said a thing about my presence. They understood. I needed to be with people who hurt like I did.
Mr. Paradis looked at me, and asked if I wanted to add anything.
I opened my mouth, and felt a thousand emotions well up. My oldest friend. One of my two best friends with Andrew. So many ways to feel. So many good and bad things to remember.
I cried again, and shook my head. These were silent tears, and I turned away. Steve Boucher, a ski team member, put his hand on my back and patted it. He understood. They all did.
The rest of the day felt like a dream -- unreal, as I said before. I spoke to a lot of people, and I don't think I went to any classes. One girl I liked a lot, name of Louise, came up to me. "Eric," she said. "He didn't ask me to go out with him. Do you understand? I would have gone out with him, but he never asked me." She seemed desperate. She was a popular girl -- never one who had trouble finding dates. I think she felt guilty. I don't know that she would have gone out with Richard, but she needed to believe she would.
I touched her hand, and looked in her eyes. "I know," I said, and we hugged and she moved on. She needed absolution from someone very close to Richard, and I gave it. Rich would have, if he'd been there in body.
That afternoon, I walked to each of the college dorm rooms of the Role Players, and told them what had happened. It helped. I felt useful. And guilty -- survivor's guilt. That would finally pass, with time.
The viewing hours were closed casket. The funeral was too religious. Mrs. Grindle had asked for no religous overtones but the minister overruled her. Still, it was important. I was a pallbearer.
The following May, I graduated. One member of our class got a scholarship in Richard's name. A fund that still existed -- a plaque with Richard's face on it in the trophy case, and the names of recipiants below. The day I graduated, I walked across the street beforehand, to the graveyard of the church we lived across from on Pleasant Street. Roger Grindle, Ph.D. was buried there, as was his son Richard. I chatted with the headstone a bit, and then headed off. My grandmother watched it -- she still remarks on that moment. Later, when I went to college, I stopped to visit the headstone first again. My sister remarked on it that time -- someone was telling me I should hurry up, and Kris said "wait. He's going to say goodbye to Richard."
I never loved her as much as I did right that moment, months after Richard's death. Kris and I don't always understand each other, but she understood that very well indeed. And I understood her as well.
That was almost the end of the story, but not quite. I had a dream, later on -- maybe on November 19. I don't remember. I was in my mid-twenties, and Richard had been gone for at least eight years. I drempt I was visiting home, and Richard came by to visit.
"You're dead," I told him.
"Not any more," he said. "I was dead, but I didn't need to be dead any more, so I could come back."
And we hung out.
When I woke up, I wrote a story. A silly little Superguy thing. But in it, I had a character based on me who had a near-death experience, and he met Richard and my dog, Polly, in a bar not far from Heaven, and they talked.
I've been okay with it ever since. It was after that I wrote the poem to the left. Anita Grindle saw that poem later -- she saw it in the journal it was published in. I didn't send it to her. It touched her a great deal, and I'm glad for that.
I remember Richard well, though at thirty-one I'm not at all the person I was at seventeen, and there's no friend from high school I keep in contact with now. (The last was Andrew, and we had a falling out in college and that was that.)
But there's still November 19, which stubbornly refuses to be a normal day for me. It resonates with me.
Like Richard did, before he had to leave.
|Grey Stone with Black Letters
Grey stone with black letters
Stained darker grey with
The driving rain.
It lies next to the
Father stone, but is
Larger, just a touch.
Like a son who grows
Taller than his father --
It doesn't look wrong
But it doesn't look right.
See me stand there with him
Ignoring the cold Maine rain
And standing on brown grass
Tending at last towards green.
Winters are long here.
We were boys together
And now both boys are dead.
One man remains
Staring at his innocence
Shoved into the ground
And feeling nothing.
Wounds kill or heal
But leave a scar
Which first burns
(A constant, painful reminder)
But later passes
(Becoming an ache, then itch,
Still there, but barely even
Still part of the whole
But easily forgotten.
I cross the street
Where cars seldom pass
And climb my low rotted stairs
And walk through the door.
The fire's warm
And the rain, too, is swiftly
I sip red tea and stare
Out through old, blurry glass
At fraternal twin stones.
--Eric Alfred Burns, published in
The Black Fly Review,