Yesterday, in a beautiful ceremony, we said goodbye to Shel. Because so many of you couldn’t be there, I want to share some of the highlights with you.
Shel’s oldest friend, Rob Barnes, made a cool video talking about Shel as a young man and included recordings of him singing and playing that will probably blow you away. You can see the video here.
A dear friend in France, Eric Letessier, recorded this wonderful song by Jean Jacques Goldman, in honor of Shel, and our friend Kimberly Brown made a touching slide show with pictures of Shel that I’d taken over the years, to accompany it. You can see the slide show here.
And about a year ago, during a power outage, Shel was playing and singing for me, and I recorded, with my little handheld Olympus, this song, that made most everyone at the memorial cry. Listen to it here.
Finally, I did get a request to post here my remarks at the memorial. Here you go.
Back in 1994, when I was first getting serious about Shel, I consulted my old friends Tom and Nancy, who are sadly not able to be with us here today, but who were miraculously here visiting from California when Shel died. So way back then I told them of my trepidations about getting too involved with him: he’s from the South. They answered in unison, So? I said “he eats white bread and drinks Coke.” They replied So? And then I said “and he has cancer.” And once again, they chorused So?
And now, this is the So, come to pass. You love someone, do every human thing together, go everywhere, feel every emotion with that person and then suddenly, in the space of a breath, he’s gone. And by gone, I mean really and totally gone forever, utterly and completely gone. Neither Shel nor I believed in an afterlife, but just to hedge our bets, there at the end, we said to each other “just in case we’re wrong, just in case we’re reborn as blue-green algae or something, we pledge to find each other, out there in the swamp.”
Shel’s been gone for a month now, and he’s left a huge hole in my personal time-space continuum. People have told me things like “he lives on in you” and “he’ll always be with you” but actually, I don’t feel that at all. I feel his absence acutely, all the time, and everywhere. But I console myself with remembering how it was, when he was well enough for adventure, when he could still sing sweetly, when he loved me like nobody’s loved me, come rain or come shine.
Because that was our marriage agreement, that he would always love me, just the way I am. In turn, I promised that I would never leave him, no matter what, and also that I would never make him do any yard work. Because so many people were familiar with the intimate details of our life through my French Letters blog, hundreds of messages of condolence flooded my mailbox after his death. I probably received a message from every one of you, for which I want to say thank you. The day after Shel died I sat at my computer off and on all through the day, and just let the rush of sweet messages pour over me, soothing me on that darkest of days.
In those messages many people referred to Shel as a lovely man. I think that’s because his capacity for love shone through bright and clear, even in the hardest of times. Over the course of our marriage he mastered the art of truly unconditional love, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been the recipient of that steady and tender stream of affection and understanding.
Other people basked in his presence too. I want to share with you just a few of the comments I got after he died – some of you here today will recognize your own words:
I will always remember Shel as a wonderful, kind man, who loved you deeply.
Such a great guy, such a privilege to have been able to spend time with him.
He was one of the sweetest people I have ever known.
Long will he be remembered! Whenever we sit around pickin’ and singin’, Shel will be in our hearts.
My world is a better place for having known Shel.
The most important thing I learned from Shel was to never stop exploring and experiencing new things. Shel smiled in a most beautiful way and had so much joy in him no matter what.
And finally: Shel was one of a kind; curious about the world and genuinely interested in everything; kind and unassuming; opinionated but open-minded; always ready with a joke (usually a groaner); always an optimist, even recently when he could have chosen a different outlook. He was one of the greats.
He was all of those things, and also sometimes cantankerous, stubborn, cynical, and he didn’t like wine. Over time he taught me to love him wholeheartedly, in spite of those things. He taught me not to give up, not to walk away and slam the door. He taught me to let myself be loved, tamed, and protected – I was half-wild when I met him, so maybe he taught me all that in self-defense.
He gave me so many things: a life with someone who knew how everything works and who loved to fix things, replacing my previous life of just muddling through the physical universe on a wing and an atheist’s prayer. He gave me 20 years of being loved every day, which is something I think all of us want, but few of us get. He gave me our beautiful home, where he spent the last year of his life gazing at the beach and garden that have sustained me since his death. And his ultimate gift: to die when my oldest friends could be with me as his body was wrapped up and carried out the door.
Together he and I faced his cancer for 20 years. It’s a cruel illness, and some of you have been with us through several times when we all thought Shel would die, only to see him pull out of it once again, and sail merrily along, having lost some part of himself in the process, but still hanging in there. He managed to do that so many times that even he really didn’t think that he ever would die.
These past few months, when it became clear that this time he was really in for it, he took it hard. When I told him, near the end, how difficult it was to watch him suffer, he said, with total sincerity and no trace of irony “but I’m not suffering – aside from the fact that I can’t breathe and I can’t swallow, I’m fine.” He wanted to live so much that he bewitched us into believing that it might be possible for him to do it one more time, that this time it wouldn’t be the real thing. He never resigned himself, and refused to go gently.
On the morning he died, the very last thing he said to me, just before he took his final breath, was “I’m good now.” Whether he meant that he felt good enough for another round, or good to go, we’ll never know. But I take comfort in the idea that he was good, for whatever came next. None of us really knows what lies beyond the very next breath we take. So I propose that we all take a page from the Book of Shel: show bravery when confronted by insurmountable odds, show grace when facing irretrievable loss, keep an extensive file of jokes both good and bad to fire off at a moment’s notice, share your music with the world, hold fast to the ones you love, eat as many chocolate chip cookies as you can, and live your one and only life with boldness and passion until your very last breath.