A Proper Sendoff
Dear Humans of 3020 AD,
With science and medicine accelerating at a dizzying rate even today, it is not inconceivable that death is as archaic a notion to you in your time as ritual human sacrifice is to us in ours.
Part of me certainly hopes so ... a sentiment made all the more keen this week as I grieve the sudden loss of a friend l have known and loved for thirty years.
When a loved one dies today, particularly if young or in unexpected fashion, it shakes our foundations. Cool logic, mature perspective and intellectual understanding of death as the natural process we know it to be—the yin to life's yang—is shattered, exposed, undone. For a time all is upside down, the fabric of our lives torn apart ... and what we see peering back through the hole unnerves us as nothing else can.
Strangely, part of me also hopes you have not conquered death, at least not completely. Because for all the grief, as we slowly emerge from its immediacy we are also reminded just how delicate is the thread separating the living and the dead, so that what is unnerving can also become life-reaffirming, energizing, ennobling.
It brings a focus nothing else can.
This too is perhaps a quaint, archaic notion to you, but I hope if you have conquered the agony of permanent loss, it has not been at the cost of raw feeling, or the cost of emerging from the other side of it with a renewed appreciation for the time still in hand.
To the matter at hand.
I lost a friend and brother this week … a man who with whom I connected the moment we met as young men not yet twenty. Ours was a "natural" friendship; it did not require an accumulation of shared experience. It barely required words. From the first handshake, we had known one another forever.
And now he is gone ... and I am keenly aware that with his passing begins the slow, inexorable process of his being forgotten. Oh, I won't forget him. And his friends, wives and children certainly won't forget him.
But time will. It is inevitable.
You will not know Bruce Smith, not any more than those of us alive today know the dust that lies beneath some barely legible headstone in some long-forgotten burial plot in some remote place where “just another man” was buried a thousand years ago.
Because like all but an immeasurably small percentage of the billions of human beings who have lived and died since our species first looked at itself reflected in a pool of water, and realized the face looking back was our own, Bruce Smith did not leave behind achievement on an historic scale. He did not conquer half the world. He conceived no civilization-altering invention. He crafted no universally recognized masterpiece. He was just a man.
But what a magnificent piece of work he was.
I don't ask or expect anyone who did not know this man—in my time or yours—to cry for him. Nor do I ask anyone else to experience the knot in the gut and lump in the throat his friend and brother sits here with today, slowly coming to grips with the reality that his friend is really, truly, forever gone.
But I would ask that you let him into your life, if only for a moment.
What was special about Bruce? Nothing. And everything.
He was a big man. Big in size, big in heart, big in personality. He had big appetites for many things ... things that, at times, were left to themselves to dictate when enough was enough.
He was not an easy man; he had a stubborn streak as deep as his heart was big, a fierce independence that often ran counter to the interests of his relationships, his health, his life. And as the years passed his life sometimes got away from him.
But the child behind the eyes never faltered; the child-like sense of wonder never faded. He may not always have been able perceive his flaws reflected in the eyes of his people or his world, but he was as forgiving of the flaws in others, and as loyal a friend, as any man likely to have walked the Earth before or since.
Some men go through life waiting for it to happen. Others charge through it full throttle, hair on fire, beating their chest with a twinkle in their eye, talking too loud, roaring ahead heedless of the furniture crunching underfoot, living, loving, laughing and crying ‘til the day their final sun comes up.
That was Bruce.
And now I have one last thing to do for him.
The music that played at his memorial service, sad and beautiful though it was, was not the music one friend once asked another to send him off to, should the day ever come.
I wasn't able to set him ablaze in a wooden warship along a deserted shore somewhere, while our little band of brothers leapt about singing at the top of our lungs marking his passing, as I know Bruce would have liked ... particularly had we been drunk with laughter, tears and a fine southern whiskey.
But I will burn a candle here in my home tonight, and play him off with music befitting the man … music he would have wanted echoing in his ears forever.
I'll love you always, brother.
Bruce Sherwood Smith
1961 – 2009
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