The Joy Vacuum

Every photo picks at the wound. Every memory aches. Every time I think of you, gone, I stop breathing. But then I smile. And then I cry. And then I go back to Facebook to find your community—your ministry of fun and kindness—to pick at the scab some more. This is where we are today, Joe. Scab picking.

You’d want me to write about it. That I know. You told me some of your best writing flowed through tears. Where you are now is beyond the effects of flattery and clever words conceding your awesomeness. But here on our little island home, we still need them. I want to fill this huge hole, this joy vacuum, with thousands of words that say, “Me, too! I loved him, too! He was the best, most human of humans.”

You were one of Dad’s best friends. The two of you, so different except for the irreverent joy you brought to every room. The two of you, so smart and loyal and hilarious. The two of you, holding court, poking fun, quick to hug, slow to end the party. Booming voices, huge laughter, enormous personalities… the Heroes of my Youth.

It’s so quiet, Joe. Jay and Heather told us about your perfect day. The best haircut, the promise of Spring, and the choice to walk home. (You’re Home now.) That helps us. So does your manifesto from July, presciently outlining this exact moment. There was no “glide path” for you. Neither fear nor anger at Nature’s timetable, you planned the ultimate road trip. I’m happy I was on one of the stops. Reading one of your essays feels like a visit with you, but actually pressing Burke flesh is food.

We’re a little bit more like you today. We’re making plans to be with each other and do the things we say we want to do… or at least figure out if we really want to do those things. We’re reaching out to everyone in your joy orbit to grieve together and marvel at the girth of your Spirit, the enormity of your Love. I think you’d like that.

Before I was born, you promised Dad to help paint my nursery. There was so much discussion about the wall paint, Chris thought that was my name. I’ve been WallPaint since birth. Except when I was Mewhinney. Or Blondie. Or whatever popped into that clever, fun-loving noggin of yours… and usually stuck. We could fill pages with the silly monikers you gave us. We’ll probably do that. We’ll do lots of things to make you feel closer. Anything to make the joy vacuum suck less.

I miss you viscerally, Joe. Though you had made peace with moving on, I wasn’t ready. But we’ll get there. Just a few more scabs, Joe. And then we promise to get to the hugs and giggles and some sort of serenity. Benny is going to help. Look at this kid so obviously infused with Joe-ness.

Benny

Me too! I loved him, too! He was the best, most human of humans!

I love you in that forever kind of way… your admirer, your friend, your Mewhinney, your WallPaint.

 

 

Grief, the sixth sense.

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The Millers: Part Two

I’m probably too pooped to be amusing. Luckily, there’s Maida. All writers should have a Maida. Endless material.

The Millers returned to their winter home in California last week, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye in person. As the Christmas Market co-chair at my church, I spent the entire week preparing for this annual event, doing the things that churchy do-gooders do for these shoppy fair thingies. But while I was running around the undercroft with good, Christian women, the Millers were packing up to leave the cold weather (and us) behind for good. Stressed with the work of it all and upset about leaving her cherished home, Maida left without her usual excitement about heading west. She left without the comfort of knowing her house would be waiting for her in the spring. She left without her purse.

I wonder how many travelers were delayed behind the Millers as Maida convinced TSA agents that she wasn’t a terrorist using a 1975 passport and her considerable powers of persuasion. Gabbing on the phone like BFFs who ignore all notions of the terminal F, I was treated to the funny details of ancients-in-air that probably weren’t so hilarious to the poor flight attendants. Maida is also so angry with her husband for planning to sell the house that she’s threatening divorce. “But FIRST, Britta, I’m going to need face lift!” I love that age is unable to tame the spunk of that gal. Someday, I hope to be a flirty octogenarian who can get onto the jetway using only my charm and a library card.

Liberal Joe (in a post-election departure from super fabulous, lefty political rants) recently blogged about spending some time with a crowd of extreme elders, and how that sucked in a going-to-be-me-soon kind of way. Glimpsing a relatively imminent and inevitable drooling decrepitude is unsettling. We all want to hold on to our beauty, our dignity, and our bowels. But the Millers consistently remind me of the Powerball fortune of longevity, as my own remains in constant query.

I’ll lead with the very good news that the lump was benign: basic scar tissue with nary a rogue cell in the mix. But just in time to taint Thanksgiving with a touch of terror, Bernie noticed a bump– a bump exactly where my cancer originated. But no matter where I get lumpy, from now until The End, any teeny bulge necessitates a biopsy, and a pathologist decides if I get to keep all of this fabulous hair. Bah. But I’ll happily endure these mini-dramas, these additional little pokes and prods and scars, if it means I can see the boys go to college, or watch them wait nervously at the end of an aisle, or hold their own, fractionally Asian kids. I just want to grow old and fall down stairs with Bernie.

Last night, we unlocked the Miller home and by the light of their 20-watt bulbs, found Maida’s purse where she always puts it after a (failed) attempt to pay me for eggs, or milk, or vodka. There in the dim light, I could almost see the house through Maida’s eyes and felt sad for her loss. And if her style of fierce, loyal love is the key to staying power on this planet, then I’m going to be just fine. We have this in common, me and Maida—a tenacious glass-half-full-ness in spite of scary lumps or removable teeth.

I hope these little saucy broad vignettes might be a bit of a foil to the daunting detection of mortality Joe faced on the arrival of his 70th birthday (still a youngster!). My dad always says, “Dying is really going to piss me off.” He doesn’t want to miss the party. But for people like my Dad, or Joe, and especially Maida, the bar is still open and the band is just getting to the good songs. In her 90th decade, and with nearly 60 years between us, Maida and I became friends. Good stuff lies ahead for those of us with the gift of time. Still grateful about my pathology report, I’d like to think the quality of that gift doesn’t depend on my dependence on Depends®. Let’s just all grow old and fall down the stairs together.

JOE BURKE

Liberal Joe… who will never be old.