Dreaming

In the dream, Joe picks me up like a little girl… high over his head… beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me up to the ceiling.

“Put me down,” I tell him. “You’re going to pop my implants.”

Joe laughter. Loud, unbridled joy guffaws from Joe. I’ll miss that the most.

Joe’s last will and testament directed The Stockpeople to join the extensive Burke clan and other good friends to celebrate his life. So we did just that, meeting in gorgeous Shoreham, his childhood home. We came from all four corners of the country to live like nuclear Stocktons before there were any husbands or babies or faraway jobs. The only thing missing was a golden retriever. It was exhilarating and exhausting, full of giggles and tears, ocean panoramas and pink skies. It was perfect.

My favorite eulogy was from Nancy. With classic Burke humor and love, she reminded us that Joe’s bigger-than-life persona included a larger-than-human ego. Joe was quite aware of his handsomeness, seductiveness, magnetism, and crowd-wowing abilities. He wasn’t perfect (who is?), but we adored everything about him. I read The Joy Vacuum out loud. I couldn’t get through that without ugly, gasping tears. But Joe appreciated things that were real… even if they were messy. So there was that.

I miss them already: Erin’s not-aware-how-stunning-they-are daughters, the overtall boys, the staggering beauty that accompanies the Burke genes. Why didn’t we do this sooner? We kept asking ourselves that. Joe probably had, too, as he traveled thousands of miles to visit everyone– one last time. Did he know we’d do it? Did he know we’d quit work early, board planes and ferries, rent houses, and buy cases and cases of wine? Maybe not. But if he knew we did (and we think he knew), it was just what he had imagined. We loved each other all over again and for the first time.

It was supposed to rain. Instead: this.

Joe's Sunset

One thing Joe did beautifully in his later years was to live soberly, with purpose, mindfulness, awareness, and kindness. In the past five years, Joe had introduced me to a handful of people I now call friends. If Joe thought you should probably know so-and-so, he’d broker the introduction, and then watch with great satisfaction as it all played out the way he knew it would. At his own memorial service, we could feel him mayonnaise-smearing his joyful love all over us, forcing us into a huge Dagwood sandwich of piled up people—messy and delicious.

*          *          *

At least an hour late, the Burke family pulls up to the Stockton home, noisily spilling out of the family car. Joe’s body fills the frame of the doorway, and announcing in his made-for-radio voice he bellows, “THE LOUD FAMILY IS HERE.” I’m 11. He picks me up, beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me to the ceiling.

I don’t want him to put me down.

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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.

Teachers

Professor Simmons (of Fromage fame) sent the perfect gift: a book! Selected from his favorite purveyor of pre-owned texts and wrapped up in plain brown paper, my darling Professor delivered the syllabus for our next bubbly reunion. If you, like me, are a writer who enjoys reading about writing, then Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, by Jacques Barzun is Manchego on your apple, Devonshire cream on your scone, sherry by the fire. (And if you, like me, enjoy talking about reading about writing, then welcome to Britt’s Book Club, champagne included.) Although written words about the written word may have the city-slickest of you crying, “Meta!” Mr. Barzun will insist that you resist. After many elegant and witty chapters illustrating ways to sidestep common writing errors, the author reminds us not to take it all too seriously, either.

 Pedantry is a misplaced attention to trifles which then prides itself on its poor judgment.

I assume these beauties slide off of his brandied tongue at any given cocktail party. I want to fill his pipe, TA his class, and write (better). I read the entire text in two sittings and now I am savoring a second study to collect my favorite sentences for the pleasure of saying them aloud. Try it with the quote above and enjoy channeling your best Dowager Countess. Here is another little gem, equally applicable to braving the blank page, choosing a Halloween costume, and approaching the pretty girl at the bar:

Once committed to a cliché… you must not tamper with it.

Regarding the construction of a perfect sentence (or outfit, or one-liner), one may go whole hog (but not pan pig), and the key to success is a steadfast dedication to your point… even if your point is not having one. Here’s mine, tucked into third paragraph and written plain: I just love Professor Simmons and all of the Great Teachers with their easy eloquence, unsolicited gifts, and scholarly encouragement to write (better).

Earlier in the week, I found another treasure in the mail, sandwiched between the piles of glossy encouragements to buy rustic coffee tables and resort clothing. My elderly editor (of Pom Pom fame) sent an amused reply to my chatty letter… and requested a meeting! Luckily, I have the sort of husband who will surrender his wife to another man for a few stolen moments at Church coffee hour. The summons was printed on a thick card embossed with the university library that bears his name, and it directed me to look for him in a red jacket, green cap. I’m so excited to meet an outfit-planning, tryst-arranging, letter-writing, library-naming fellow. This man has ninety brag-worthy years of academic, business, and personal successes, so I feel compelled to bring more to the meeting than my silly, pom pon-wielding passion for the written word. I think baked goods are in order.

Thinking about these delightful Professors Emeriti recalls another: A Gong. I’ve written about my father-in-law oodles of times, so that regular readers know all about energy work and wasabi peas and the understated brilliance of this kind man. Bernie’s father is a student of Qi Gong, a Tai Chi master, a healer, and the former Chairman of the Psychology Department. His East Meets West philosophy elevates all of his pursuits– golf, photography, YouTube videos– to a search for their essence. We all believe that A Gong is a little bit magic. This is a man who can unknot your back, lessen the chemo pain, improve your putt, win the photo show, and introduce you to God. Over the past dozen years I’ve met, hosted, housed, and fed students of all ages who call A Gong, “teacher.” They come from all corners to sit at our table, drink many pots of tea, and pocket bits of A Gong wisdom that we take for granted. Like this:

The tall tree invites the wind.

In the bloggy brouhaha of weeks past, this was A Gong’s take on being so very… public. The image of a proud, towering tree laid flat by the forces of the universe is such a stark contrast to my sunny worldview. But A Gong’s concerns as The Family Patriarch trumped his consideration of these musings as Professor. This is understandable, honorable, expected: his job is to make certain no Evil Things slither into our God-fearing bubble. Unfortunately, Cancer already did… and these pages (and your words) kept that scary beast at bay. Also, these very posts prompted a welcome letter-exchange (a dying practice) with the Great Professor Simmons. It’s also possible that Pom Poms has inspired the beginning of a beautiful, new friendship! Good Things can come of shared writings… not the least of which was three hours of discussion about Love, Truth, and Internet Evils with my father-in-law. Writers must write… but psychologists must analyze.

And now, I leave you with the words of another teacher (Liberal Joe) who, because of what I was writing (and omitting), sensed I wasn’t my bubbly self. He inspired me to remember the point: why I began writing these little essays a year ago… and maybe even why the Great Professors are sending books and letters of encouragement.

On your last thought on the loss of peace: So find peace. Be peaceful. Beautiful, bright, thoughtful and well written go real well with peaceful.

Jacques Barzun wouldn’t say it any better.

That's me... still standing.

That’s me… still standing.