February 27th, 2011
In the wake of the deaths of Connor Ausland and Jack Harnsongkram I’ve spent a lot of time recently reflecting on the meaning of life, or, more specifically, the meaning of what we leave behind us when we die.
I have some friends who maintain a level and type of faith that leads them, in the wake of a loss of a loved one, to focus on where they believe the deceased are going, rather than what is left behind in their absence. As I suffer from just enough doubt to be unsure of the path ahead, I have tended to spend this time contemplating what we leave behind us – the mark we leave upon this world.
In thinking about this, I realized that the three people whose deaths most shaped my feelings on this subject, were actually people with whom I had a tenuous connection, at best.
Jenni, Melise and Jack.
Jenni was a person I knew a number of years ago from an email list that was a member of. The majority of my friends on this list, including Jenni, lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and I only saw them occasionally. At that time, while I had met many of the list members on more than one occasion, the majority of our connection and communication was via the email list.
One night in 1998, Jenni was killed in a hit & run accident. I knew Jenni mainly from her messages on the email list over the previous few years but…when she passed away, I was shocked to realize that I wasn’t really sure if I had ever met her in person. If I had, it would have been in a large group setting with many other names and faces, and I might have confused her with one of the numerous other Jennys & Jennifers on the list. It seemed so strange to me that someone who I had felt so connected to, and yet I might not have ever met face to face. But what I did know, and still remember, is that regardless of whether we had ever looked into one another’s faces, we HAD communed, and we had connected, and my life was enriched by having known her, even if only ‘electronically’.
The night of Jenni’s Memorial in California, I was woodworking in my garage here in Oregon, listening to the radio, when a song came on about a person dealing with the loss of a friend: ‘Down To A River’ by Connie Kaldor. The song told of the process of grieving and how, the singer would honor their friend by planting a tree by a river…”something strong wild and living” that represented her memories of her lost friend. It is, to this day, one of my favorite songs, and one that I listen to whenever someone I know passes away.
It was while mourning Jenni’s passing that I also realized another person who directly affected my philosophy about the ripples we leave behind us in our wake. I wrote the following the night of Jenni’s Memorial:
* * *
June 9, 1998
As to remembrance and reincarnations…
Last year I had an experience that solidified my belief in, well, if not reincarnation exactly, then perhaps a continuity of spirit: Every summer for the last 9 years I have worked at a booth at the Oregon Country Fair selling homemade ice cream. The booth just adjacent to ours is The Blintz Booth. This booth, like many at the OCF is run by a conglomeration of friends & families that have been running their booth at the Fair for many years. They are a great bunch of people and over the years we have laughed a lot together and enjoyed each other’s company. I have watched their children grow up, seeing them only once a year, like a time-elapsed camera taking only one frame per year.
Anyway, I had noticed that they had a gathering in the small pathway between our booths every year on the fair’s opening night (after the fair had closed to the general public). It had always seemed like a private affair. Well this last year I had been standing nearby when one of the Blintzes (well, that’s what we called them), asked me to come sit with her as they had their yearly ceremony. As I sat there I listened and learned what their ceremony was about.
The Blintzes involvement in the Oregon Country Fair was due it seemed, in a large part to one woman, Melise, whom most of them considered to be the extended family’s matriarch. She was the one who kept them going when adversity hit, did the things that reminded them of the joy of living and pretty much had instilled in them some of the common spark that they all seemed to share. I had seen pictures of her in their booth where they had 20 some odd years of Country Fair pictures hanging on the wall.
One year, just before the Country Fair, Melise passed away suddenly. The Blintzes were so heartbroken they almost didn’t come to the Fair that year, but they somehow managed to do it anyway. That year someone made a special handblown bottle with many beautiful accouterments and some special liquor (homemade?) and they all took a sip, said a remembrance to Melise. Every year since then they made a new bottle, and repeated the tradition. Before this night I had seen the slew of bottles hanging from the ceiling of their booth but I never knew the significance. Each bottle had the year it was from either painted or engraved on it. Little glass curlicues stuck on here & there, colored ribbons strung through them, some years’ bottle wilder than others.
Well I sat there and listened as each of the Blintzes, young & old, took the bottle, told of a memory they had of Melise, took sip from the bottle, then passed the bottle on. Those who were too young to remember her related a way in that she had touched their lives.
Brothers, Sisters, Cousins, Daughters, Friends.
Each took their turn.
Eventually the bottle came down to where I was sitting next to one of my Blintz friends, Carolyn. Feeling like an intruder of sorts, I politely took the bottle went it was handed to me and tried to pass it to Carolyn and she said no. She wanted me to partake. She said that I was part of their extended family and could say anything that I wanted to share whether it related to Melise or not. The entire group (all 25 or so of them) nodded in agreement. I, who am usually not at a loss for words, cannot adequately express how deeply moved I was by this.
So I took the bottle, thought for a moment, then I told, as best I could, what sitting there with them at this gathering meant to me. I was honored that they invited me to sit & share with them. I told them how I had realized just a few minutes before, from listening to the conversations, that Melise had died just a few weeks before I came to my FIRST Country Fair.
I had never met her in person, but I knew her, or at least a part of her through the reflection of her that shone off of the people that she had touched in her life. I now knew, from listening to her friends and family who had spoken before me, things about THEM that showed the reflection of Melise…like the fact that one of those Blintz kids that I had watched grow up – who’s laugh that I loved so much – had gotten that laugh from Melise. It was Melise’s same laugh… I also had learned that much of the Blintzes spirit that I loved so much was a direct expression of Melise’s spirit. And that a part of what I had experienced with them had been a part of Melise showing through.
I told them that what it really came down to is that through them a part of Melise had become a part of meand that I would, and do, cherish it.
I believe we do carry parts of each other’s spirit on with us. Whether friend, family or stranger, the people who have an effect on our lives, no matter how small, become a part of our consciousness. It’s not necessarily a mystical thing and you don’t have to be a Shirley MacLaine / mysticism fan to be able see it, you just have to look closely.
I know, for example, that my Daughter Sofia who only met her Great Grandmother, “Nonny” once when she was very young, carries a part of Nonny’s spirit with her. It shows most notably in her stubborn streak.
I know that I carry part of my Great Grandma Harriett’s spirit with me – it was handed to me by my Father, who she raised in the Georgia Backwoods. She died 15 years before I was born, but the part of her that I carry with me will be here always – I will pass part of it on to my daughters Sofia & Isabel and they will pass on part of it to their friends & family.
So even if it is just the small word here or there. Or an enthusiastic email or two that you read from someone far away, it makes a difference.
* * *
The last few weeks I have thought about Jack Harnsongkram and Connor Ausland every day. Especially Jack. I did not know Connor at all, and it would be a stretch to say I knew Jack more than in passing. He was a friend of my daughter Sofia. I believe he’s been to my house a few times, as I recall, usually one of a gaggle of teenagers there when Sofia had friends over. If you had asked me 4 weeks ago if I knew Jack Harnsongkram, I would have had to think long and hard about it, and would probably only realize that I did if you had shown me a picture of him. “Oh THAT Jack! The one with the smile!” Even in a living room full of babbling teenagers, you couldn’t help but catch that smile. Wide open to the world. And there was something about how he moved through the room. Something very….present.
I clearly remember meeting Jack, exchanging pleasantries, and then him diving back into the throng of teenagerdom in the living room.I remember thinking what a nice kid…great smile…and noting that when we were talking it was as if I was one of the most interesting people he could possibly be talking to at that moment. You don’t get that kind of feeling from everyone.
And you know…all in all, I don’t think more than a dozen words passed between us.
But I remember him. Even though we only shared a few words and a smile….sometimes that can go a long way. And those few words and a smile leave a mark…
And Jack’s mark…what he leaves behind, that openness, that smile, that presence…the things his friends and family are missing so much right now….will ripple out…everyone who knew Jack…even folks like me, who only knew him a little…everyone who was touched by him…will carry a part of his spirit on with them…and who knows how it will ripple out from them. Maybe it will just be in a smile to a stranger…or a kind thing done for another…or just someone taking the time to appreciate a frend with a word, a gift, a touch.
As Maya Angelou once said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Jenni, Melise & Jack. Three people who I didn’t know well, but whose lives touched me just the same.
And people will remember the three of them made them feel for a long time to come…and we will pass that feeling on to the people we meet…
And the ripples will continue on out….
And, I think, the world will be a better place for it.