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Grief has found me once again. I wish it hadn’t, but it doesn’t seem to care much for my opinion.
I find I have a story I need to tell.
Three years ago, when I first began to look at taking on my current job, I stopped by the agency for what the man who went on to hire me called a “pre-interview.” He wanted me to see the agency, get a feel for what the job was about, before we ever went through a formal interview process. As part of my tour, he took me around to the smoking area and introduced me to two men – my would be team members – Wes and Jamie.
Wes looked like a hippie: blue jeans, t-shirt, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. His handshake meant business, none of that gentle-because-you’re-a-woman bullshit, and his eyes looked straight through me and read me, then and there. Jamie, taller, balding, his face unreadable, leaned against a post and made some off handed, casual reference to the job being like an Escher painting. I had no idea what he was talking about, but pretended I did.
As we walked back into the office, my potential boss said, “I hope they don’t scare you off. They’re a little rough around the edges.” I laughed, and said, “don’t worry about me. I can handle them.” I meant it. In that brief moment of contact, I knew the three of us would get along just fine.
I tend to be a bit of a loner. And I seldom, if ever, really feel part of a group. Within a week after I took on that job, everybody was calling the three of us The Mod Squad. We connected. We understood each other. And the work we shared connected us even closer. A client committed suicide, and I saw these strong men shed tears over that. We looked out for each other, and the two of them taught me things. Important things about life and death, and being cynical and still being able to hurt for the tragedies that unfolded around us. We laughed so hard we had rules about warning each other to put down the coffee cup before opening our mouths. We argued about philosophy and religion and the meaning of it all.
It was Jamie who discovered Vivian the penguin online, a rescued penguin, outfitted with a transmitter who was meant to be swimming south to his breeding grounds. Vivian instead swam in circles before heading resolutely for the north, and ‘swimming north’ became our metaphor for being yourself and going your own way. It was Jamie who taught me about Escher, and the twisted realities in his paintings. He was so brilliant he made my brain ache sometimes trying to keep up with him. A bit of poetry, a fragment of song, could bring tears to his eyes, although most people only saw a carefully shielded, unemotional demeanor. He looked out for me, sheltered me, mentored me.
Wes taught me other things. Things like, all of our clients lie to us, and that’s okay. That sometimes you have to break the rules in order to do the right thing. That you can laugh when your heart is breaking, even when you feel that there is no hope. Where Jamie sheltered me, he pushed me. To take risks, to try new things, to step out of my shell.
I loved them both.
A little over a year ago, Jamie fell into a depression, and in the end he shot himself. I was devastated. I was on one of the many revisions of Swimming North, and couldn’t imagine finishing this book without being able to show it to him. It was full of Escher, and penguins, and the odd twists of reality he had taught me. But I kept on.
Wes was also a part of the book. In the early drafts one of the characters was based on him – a ponytailed counselor with a motorcycle, who shared his appreciation for speed and adventure. After Jamie left us, the two of us grew even closer. Wes got promoted and was now my boss. He resisted the title of supervisor, so I called him my Pseudo-Supervisor and we laughed about that. He brought me the Terry Pratchett Discworld books to read – one at a time – from his extensive library that included the entire collection. I was so close to finishing Swimming North, and was looking forward to handing him a copy.
Almost three weeks ago now, on March 26, Wes didn’t come in to work. This was entirely out of character, and when I went to check on him I found that he was dead. He died with an open book beside him, at a time of year when his amazing garden was in full spring bloom. This was fitting for him, and an easy death, if there is such a thing.
But it leaves me, where once I was part of a team, one woman alone. I miss them both. They taught me so much: about this difficult job that I still have to do, about life, about going on. The book is still undone. Every time I face it now, it is an act of love, and an act of courage, because it hurts me. I wanted it to be brilliant, something that would somehow do justice to the unique and amazing human beings that they were. But I am not a genius, and I have no magic. It is a book – an entertaining story – and maybe there is a little something more that runs through it. I hope so.
But I begin to think the real memorial to them is me. They shaped me, as surely as I shape this book. They left their mark on me, filled my head with their sayings and their thoughts and their stories. I’ve been thinking of Swimming North as Wes and Jamie’s book, but I’m beginning to realize that every thing I write will be, in some way, about them. There will be other books, as there will be other losses. And in every word I write there are echoes of my dead. My father, my husband, my grandparents, my friends.
This is comfort. This is a reason to keep on writing. More than anything, it is courage to finish Swimming North, to release it, and move on. Wes always used to say, “Drive as fast as the road conditions allow.” And then add, “Never forget that you are a part of the road conditions.” Yep. This is a writer’s motto, I think, if you think of it as an analogy. Taking it under advisement, I’m writing slowly these days, feeling my way along, but I’m still writing. As fast as current conditions allow.