I always try to make sure to go with my stepdaughter to the library once a week or so-- I do whatever I can to encourage the love of books and reading that both of my children have. We have one of the best-equipped Chicago Public Library branches, the Sulzer Regional Library, a ten minute walk from our home. Being one of only two "regional" branches in Chicago, there are college library type resources there-- New York Times archives, lots of back issues of periodicals, an incredible collection of books in the stacks and a great kids section.
A couple of Saturdays ago, we went to the library so that I could help her find some additional resources on short term memory for her science fair project. While we were looking for another book, I spied On Grief and Grieving, the last book published by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the author of the classic On Death and Dying. I picked the book up out of interest, and with the knowledge that I was still grieving my friend Mark, who was murdered in an attempted robbery last year. As I thumbed through the book, I decided to check it out.
On Death and Dying focused on helping terminally ill patients and their loved ones deal with approaching death. Kübler-Ross identified stages that most people go through: denial, anger, negotiation, and sometimes acceptance. On Grief and Grieving, Dr. Kübler-Ross focused on the survivors. Particularly, how we handle it. I wish I'd picked the book up earlier.
I read the book on and off as I rode the train some days to work. I was stunned to discover that many people felt the way I did. Anger-- even at the person who died. I was furious at him for leaving, and, ridiculously, for not doing whatever it took to survive that night, whether it was guile, lying, bribing, accepting humilation-- though I knew that they probably had intended to kill him whatever he did in order to prevent him from identifying them. Negotiation-- I remember having this idea, wishing that each of us, each of his large group of friends could give up one year of their own lives to bring him back. Blaming yourself-- I remember blaming myself for not being there, though this was ridiculous. Blaming myself for not being at his house on a random night at 2 or 3 in the morning was ridiculous, but that's how I felt. Denial-- I had trouble for a year afterward thinking of him as dead. As I thumbed through the book, I was astonished to see Kübler-Ross' documentation of people feeling the exact way I felt through it all when they lost a loved one, particularly when they lost them suddenly, without time for transition and without the chance to go through the stages of loss.
About a week and a half ago, I had a dream in which I was gathered with the group of college friends that he was part of. It was one of the celebrations of his life that we'd decided last year to have every year around his birthday-- one set in the near-future. Later, thinking about the dream, I realized it was the first dream I'd had in which I'd accepted that he was dead.
Last night, I had a dream in which me and some of the same group of friends were out to see a band in a punk club. We'd decided that since music had always been so important in our lives, that we needed to get out and see new music. We were in a club on the north side of Chicago, a club that had been a German restaurant or pub some time ago (a lot of old buildings on the north side of Chicago were exactly this at one time). The band members were young-- teenagers-- and were playing toy musical instruments. We knew that they played some punk classics, plus their own material. As they prepared to play, they made some jokes that indicated that they were politically aware and I kidded them, asking if they went to Salvador Allende Junior High School.
As they began to play, and my friends-- Matt, Dan, Kauchek and others crowded the stage, I suddenly realized that my late friend Mark was standing to my right. At first I wondered if I was dreaming. I looked at the others, wondering if they saw him too-- it was, it was obvious to me, that it was a ghost. I called to him and tugged at his sleeve. He looked at me as I asked if it was him, and then went back to watching the band.
I awoke both startled and amused. Knowing Mark, if there is such a thing as ghosts, and he could come back as a ghost, I have no doubt that I'd see him at a music show. He loved music. The night he died, he'd been to a concert by the English Beat, a band that we'd all listened to and loved and danced to in college.
As I thought about the meaning of the dream, I realized that I'd finally had two dreams in which I'd accepted that he was dead and that he wasn't coming back. I was a little troubled, though, about the ghost dream. Then I realized what it meant.
The week Mark died, my father also almost died. I think that if my father had not survived the operation to remove the large tumor from his abdomen, or if his cancer had turned out to be ultimately untreatable, I think I would have handled it better than I was able to handle Mark's death. My father and I had made our peace long ago. And my father has had a long, productive life. Mark, on the other hand, was cut down way too young. And truthfully, he and I had hit a slow patch in our friendship, though I think that it would have passed. Mark and I had too many good times, too many good talks, and had, in the end, too much in common for the lull in the friendship to have lasted. But his death cut off the chance for that to happen.
I'm not a perfect person, as my wife, family and friends can tell you. But the better parts of me-- a love of knowledge, learning, history, asking questions, a love of music-- he was a big part of. When he and I met, when we were young-- he was 19, I was 21. We were a couple of wounded guys who'd grown up smart sensitive non-jocks in places where dumb mean jocks ruled. When we met, we formed our own little community, a community that was joined at our college by other people, and then more and more afterward as the years went on. If, in this time of political, economic and historical stupidity, I can keep faith in people, it's because I know that I could meet a guy as smart and gentle as Mark, who grew up in the corn and soybean fields of Central Illinois, can end up gentle, strong and smart, just the same as a guy like Ron did. Or a guy like Dan can grow up in the 'burbs of Chicago and still be intelligent and rebellious. Or that a guy like Larry can grow up on the south side of Chicago and be urbane, sensitive and intelligent. Or that I could end up meeting and becoming lifelong friends with them all.
What the ghost dream meant was that yes, I realize that Mark is dead and isn't coming back. But a lot of the best of me, he had a hand in helping me save in the face of a world not too friendly to those values. I was afraid that if I moved on, I'd be leaving him behind. That's not going to happen though. To enjoy music, like I was in my dream, and to laugh and create, to nurture my children and other loved ones, to read, think and question with the tools Mark helped me find and protect, keeps him alive. He's still by my side.