So many words have already been written, I’m not sure mine matter. No, that’s not what I mean. They matter. They matter to me. I want them to resonate with you, too, but maybe you’ve already found the words to do that. I haven’t. I’m not sure I have even as I start typing this.
I was fifteen and had just finished my first school year on another planet. Having moved from the city to cornfields, I was lost and angry and lonely and entirely out of my element. My mom enrolled me in a summer theater workshop a few towns over and called in all kinds of neighborly favors to make sure I could get a ride there each day. I was cast as the Queen to a lanky, awkward Prince Charming, and one day at lunch I was invited to sit with a group of other girls in the show.
After the workshop, after the performances, after I said goodbye to this new tribe I’d stumbled into, I got word that VHS copies of the show were available. My brother drove me to pick one up; I can still picture his ’89 Grand Am. Take the second entrance into Lake Holiday and follow it past this street and that curve; you’ll see the big willow tree in the front, she said. It was nighttime, the house was dimly lit.
I nervously tapped on the front door, a timid knock. I didn’t know yet that this was everyone’s house, always open, always welcome. I don’t even remember who opened the door, who handed me the tape. I don’t know where that tape is today. I just know it was my first visit to the house that would become my second home, the nucleus of a life I didn’t know then how badly I needed.
I didn’t do anything special that summer to warrant the lifelong connections that would come of it. I wasn’t exceptionally charming (probably the opposite, exceptionally awkward). I went to a different school. I hadn’t known everyone since first grade. My parents didn’t hang out with their parents. I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t on the speech team. But none of it mattered. Their circle was big enough for me, too. And over the next twenty years, I’d be there as it expanded across continents and over generations.
Through high school and college, boyfriends and girlfriends, weddings and births, new jobs, new homes and far flung travel. Through it all, we all always circled back to that nucleus, that little blue A-frame and the love that emanated from it like a light, guiding us all home.
Wednesday morning, a light in a window of that home went dark. Instantly, my world came to a screeching halt. Everything around me continued (inexplicably) to spin, but I was motionless, frozen in disbelief and shock. If I’m being completely honest, the intensity of my own reaction, the depth of my pain surprised me. Who am I to be so devastated? What right do I have to grieve this way, loved as he is by so many so much closer to him?
As happens in these defining moments, a million thoughts rushed into my head. Days later, I’m still not sure I’ve sorted them. Immediately, I thought of his people, his best people. Wife and best friend; children and children-in-law; grandbaby boy. Brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. What agony must they be in. And here I am, miles away from anyone who would understand, from everyone I wanted to hug, stranded in my confused, confounded grief.
The news seemed to spread like a stone dropped in still water, the ripples drifting into ever larger circles as the full impact of one exceptional life came to light. My phone buzzed with alerts, and I watched from a distance as the tributes rolled in. As teacher. As coach. As friend. As colleague. As family.
Because in the end, that’s what we are. Those of us hurting today, we are family. We are hurting and heartbroken because for a minute or a decade or a lifetime, we were – we are – a part of the family that Gil built.
If my grief confused me at first, it makes more sense now. I am family. I am just one of the hundreds better for having known him, though not as a teacher or a coach or colleague. Not since I was a little shit (just an adolescent shit), and not in a way chronicled by specific lessons learned or even a long list of anecdotes (though I have those, too).
What makes sense now is that nothing diminishes how much I love him and how much I grieve with this family of ours. The capacity in which I came into the family, in which any of us did, is not what matters. What matters is that we are here. These are my people and I am theirs. These are the souls I know and who know me, who have loved me at my worst and cheered me at my best, and I them.
Another twenty years will go by and these will still be my people, I will still be theirs. We’ll tell a new generation stories of pickling in a pool, bellowing to be heard upstairs, retiring in the Keys and so much more. We’ll come and go and come back again. We’ll love and welcome all. We’ll be friends who are family and family who are friends.
Because that’s how it all started. Because that’s all that matters in the end. And most importantly, because that’s how he’d want it.
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
Then push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
Feels easier to just swim down
And so they move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable