Saturday, September 05, 2009

Every Season Has An End-- And A Beginning

"Spring brings the rain,
With winter comes pain,
Every season has an end"

-- There Is An End, by The Greenhornes, w/ Holly Golightly

On Tuesday night, I got together with a group of old friends to celebrate the recent sentencing of the guy who killed our friend Mark "Atwood" Evans in 2006. The perpetrator also killed one of his own accomplices about a month afterward because he was afraid he was going to "roll" on him-- turn him in. He was sentenced to 70 years for that killing. Seventy years without the possibility of parole.

Before the sentencing, the prosecutor had a discussion with several of us-- friends who were there at the various phases of the trial. We talked about the next phase-- the trial for Mark's murder. He told us that in the event that the sentence was high, they would consider ending the proceedings.

On Tuesday night, my friends told me that they had gotten a call from the prosecutor. They had decided to discontinue proceedings on Mark's case, for various reasons. One reason is that the sentence for the other killing was essentially a life sentence. With time credited for the two years he has been in jail awaiting trial, there were 68 more years on his sentence. He is 22 now. It is unlikely that he will live to be 89 years old in a prison. The other reason is to spare Mark's parents-- and us-- from another trial. I was only able to make it to a couple of days of the trial, but it was one of the most emotionally draining things I've ever done. Mark's trial would have been even more so.

I was, at first, unhappy about the decision. The next day, after some thought, I realized that it was the right one. The guy who took our friend away from us is off the streets forever. He will now spend his days and nights living in fear of the predators and violent felons around him. Every day of his life, he'll live with the fear my friend felt in his last moments of his life. I can't think of anything more just than that for his fate.

In the three years since his death, a lot has gone on. I have been in school in order to change careers. After prepping for it for two years, I started nursing school last week. My kids have grown. My oldest one is now a teenager, a sophmore in high school, and my younger one will be a teenager in November.

I also managed to contact my old friend Jamie, who was also one of Mark's closest friends. We had lost touch over ten years ago. It turned out that both of us had been trying to find one another. I had ramped up my efforts after Mark had died; I knew Jamie would want to know. When I managed to contact him this summer, I told him. It was devastating for him-- I'd had three years to process Mark's death. It was a fresh wound to him.

Still, it has been good to be back in touch with a guy I consider one of my closest friends. With kids now, we're not the wild boys we used to be, which is probably a good thing. But other than that, we're the same. Same old in-jokes, same politics, same fierce loyalty to one another.

When I took Psychology I in college over twenty years ago, I learned about the ideas of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In 1969, she published a book called "On Death And Dying." It was about how terminally ill people deal in stages with their imminent deaths. Over time, it has been recognized that her ideas apply to grief, as well. It's been helpful in understanding how I've been feeling over the last three years. Knowing that I would be feeling denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has helped. But knowing you are going to feel them doesn't keep you from feeling them.

I realized this week that I have finally reached the acceptance part of this.

Three years ago, I sat down and poured my pain out in this post. In fact, I had started this blog partly in response to Mark's death, in combination with an article about the death of someone I'd never met-- one of the victims of 9/11. The article was about a young woman who'd worked in one of the towers. Her parents, who were farmers, went to her apartment and gathered her belongings, including a laptop.

They waited several years before they mustered up the courage to turn on the computer and see what was on it. One of the things they found was a list of life goals. Some were mundane-- things like "Gossip less." Others were more adventurous and lofty, such as "Hike the Andes."

I was really struck by this, and began my own list of life goals. A few months later, Mark died, and I found myself falling back to that list, and feeling an urgency in accomplishing the things I listed.

Checking my list, I have knocked off a number of the goals. Among the ones I can check off:
#3-- plan for retirement-- I started a Roth IRA
#6-- start a blog
#8-- finish teaching my daughter Mel to ride a bike
#13-- get a laptop for my son Adam. I did that and then got one for Mel, too.
#20-- read a Tony Hillerman book (I'd promised an acquaintance I do that a long time ago)
#26-- eat more dark chocolate

There are others on the list that I still need to do. Among them:

#2-- buy an Airstream trailer
#11-- write at least three books
#17-- buy more art (okay, I did buy a painting for Kim for Christmas a couple of years ago, but more art purchases will have to wait until I'm done with school)
#21-- spend more time in Oakland-- again, will have to wait until I'm done with school. But I'm missing my many friends there.
#29-- end hatred and hunger
#35-- see Tom Jones perform

#1, to have enough money to pay for my kids' college, is in the works. It's one of the main reasons I'm in nursing school.

One I added later, #38, was accomplished, with the help of others-- set up a scholarship in Mark's name. This was set up last year, and this year it will be awarded for the first time.

The Mark "Atwood" Evans Scholarship

It's for an art student from central Illinois who has a GPA of at least 2.8. Hey, none of us were "A" students.

When Mark was killed, a group of his friends mobilized to help his parents deal with everything, including clearing out the building he owned so that it could be sold. His parents told us to take anything in there that had any kind of sentimental value to us. One of the things I took was the skull ash tray pictured at the top of this post. Mark had made it in a class at Eastern, and it was always sitting in his art workspace wherever he lived, including his workspace in the apartment he, our friend Dan and I shared in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighorhood in the late 1980's. I've got it next to me as I write this, a candle inside making the eyes glow, as Mark intended when he made it.

We also divided up Atwood's liquor cabinet. Social drinking was always a central part of the gatherings of the group of people that Atwood had gathered around himself. We knew he'd be appalled if the hooch was just thrown away. I left the cheap scotch for someone else to take-- but took the partial bottles of Bombay gin and Bombay Sapphire gin.

I made the decision to save them for when Mark's killer was caught and sent to prison. In college, while rooming with my now-old-friend Larry, we would drink gin and tonics in the summer. He's the one second from the right in this picture. Mark is in the center-- appropriate, because he was always at the center of the group of friends that has lasted decades. His death was devastating to us, but in the end, our group emerged closer. This group that met in the summer of our lives-- we were all between 18 and 22 when we all met-- have grown closer.

It is funny that Mark, who predicted the rise of the internet in our daily lives, has been validated. This group kept in close touch through email-- in fact, I first found out about Mark's death via email-- and then through a newsgroup we created on Yahoo. This group of friends keeps in daily touch through Facebook.

But tonight, it's a mix of the old and the new. I post this coda to the story of my beloved friend's death on my Ibook, via our household Wifi-- technology that didn't exist even when I moved into this house 11 years ago-- along with things that are as old as the hills-- by a fire, with a drink.

As I sip the last of this little bit of a bottle I knew my friend drank from, I'm reminded of a poem I first read when I was in eighth grade, in the mid seventies, Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.

I didn't really understand the poem when I read it when I was 13 or 14 years old, but have come to understand and love it over the years. The "Macguffin" of the poem is a jar of pickled watermelon rind, which was "put up" one summer. That summer was filled with the things that friends fill the summer with-- things that are, at the time, unremarkable. The thing that we have in that summer-- infinite possibilities-- is something we take for granted then, but recognize, appreciate-- and sometimes rue-- later.

In the poem, when the writer wants to remember that summer "when unicorns were still possible," he takes out a small slice of the watermelon pickle and is transported back to that time and place.

So tonight as I sip a Bombay and tonic by the fire pit, blogging and listening to the "Atwood" Itunes mix I made yesterday, I realize that one of the reasons I loved Mark was that he, like me, looked to this day. Since that summer night in 1983 when he and I became friends, we pursued life and friendship with reckless abandon. We'd both come from difficult circumstances, as had most of the group that coalesced around him. Most of us had spent a lot of our childhoods feeling unfulfilled. At Eastern Illinois University in the early to mid eighties, we found a bunch of people who we shared the summer of our lives with and lived them with gusto. And most of us continue to let "The summer which maybe never was" be our guide.

Today, I ran into a neighbor at the grocery store; she expressed amazement that I, at my age (48) had the courage to switch careers. I've heard that a lot lately. I had to chuckle. I can't not do that. You see, I'm not ready to give up on that summer of infinite possibilities. Yes, the season has ended. Our summer has ended. But as I look around, I see that we've just moved into another season.

Earlier today, as I left the house to run a bunch of errands, I had to run back into the house and get my digital camera and take a picture of the top of my neighbor's tree. The beautiful red leaves are the first sign of autumn approaching. It's funny how trees become their most beautiful in autumn.

The reason trees "change colors" is that the chlorophyll, the pigment in the trees that is responsible for photosynthesis, shuts down, the tree starts living on the sugars it spent all summer making and the other pigments that were in the trees all along, but covered up by the green chlorophyll, become visible. It's just like us. As we enter into the autumn of our lives, the stuff we spent the prime of our lives working at starts becoming the background and the shit we worried about all the time fades. Our true colors start showing.

When I look at the list of people I assumed, besides my family, that I'd grow old with, Atwood was at the top of the list, along with a handful of others. They know who they are. I've made sure the last couple of years to let them know. This last couple of years, as I grieve him, I'm thankful for the others on the list who are still around to share the autumn of my life with.

As I accept the loss of my friend, I realize that the reason I-- and we, the whole group of us-- miss him so much is that he was always full of life and interests. Since the moment I met him, he was always full of fascination for what was possible. As much as my ass has been kicked by his death, I have not lost that. The future, as the Clash, a band that was a favorite of both he and I, and, for that matter, most of the group we ran with, is unwritten. As long as that lives within me and the rest of us, Mark will never really pass. That is the gift he gave us, and as long as we live that, so shall he live.

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity
During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
(Hollowed out
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of civilization;

During that summer--
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was--
Watermelons ruled.

Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

John Tobias


SkylersDad said...

Wow JY, this is an amazing post, full of emotion and love, well done my friend.

Tenacious S said...

I don't even know what to say. Well written tribute to a well loved friend.

bubbles said...

Wonderful and beautiful post.

Erik Donald France said...

Whoah, outstanding, heartfelt, full of wise perspective. Congrats also on your goals and accomplishments.

Churlita said...

What a great post. It's nice to see men who are that reflective and try to analyze and fix things in their lives.

I also love it that you have to remind yourself to eat more chocolate.

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