Saturday, December 19, 2009

A tribute with an olive branch

Here's the thing about growing up in a small town. Everyone knows everyone, and bad news travels fast. About 350 people came to Brad's life celebration reception Thursday night. Every scout leader, teacher, coach, playdate host, neighbor and pool mom from our childhood showed up to offer their condolences and remembrances. As such, I had the incredibly bizarre experience of seeing every adult, pretty much, with whom I ever interacted from infancy through, oh, age 11 or so.

One woman, the mother of a friend and former playdate hostess from the baby group my mom joined in 1979, greeted me with: "Oh, Angie, we worried you'd never learn how to walk!"
Me: (taking a few steps away and back) "I know! My mom always said she was worried she'd have to carry me to the senior prom. How am I doin'?"

It was so strange to see people I haven't seen since I was nine, like, pregnant.

Me to Melissa R!ce: How can you be pregnant?!? You're nine!"
Person Overhearing This (who turns around): "No, YOU'RE nine!"
Me: "Karen! HI!!! I was hoping you'd be here after I saw your comment on Facebook!" (hugs)

You know, I work at a newspaper. We do a lot of stories about people who die. We cover murders, car crashes, children who die from diseases and in accidents, crimes and twists of fate and the natural progression of life into death. There's always a tendency to glamorize the deceased, to speak only of their goodness, to bury their flaws and gloss over their humanity by recounting only the best of times. But once in a generation, there's a person who comes along who genuinely inspires with their strength and spirit. Brad wasn't perfect. He could be cranky at times, and he could hold a grudge. But he never let muscular dystrophy hold him back. He lived life on his own terms. He made the best of every situation; he really did. It's not fair how much shit he had to wade through in his 33 years. He defied all the odds and broke all the rules, and his biggest fear was that people would think he gave up.

There were no publicly-led prayers, nor rosaries or incense, not too many flowers. The three of us who spoke gave toasts, not eulogies. I, literally, laid an olive branch when I toasted him (with a martini with olives, the way his Aunt Bev liked). He never stopped fighting, so I offered the olive branch as a symbol of peace. He hated olives. We always have them out as appetizers for big holiday meals, and he would just shake his head as I gobbled them down. (His nephew Aiden spat a black olive into my hand this past Thanksgiving, so maybe the tradition lives on.)

I also spent last week throwing myself into a project that was, truly, the last nice thing I got to do for Brad. I'll never get to shoot his wedding, or make videos and slideshows of his babies like they I have for his sister and all the other friends from my childhood. I poured a lifetime's worth of energy that would have gone to Christmas presents and birthday gifts into his tribute.

I know that it was hard for people who saw how focused I was on creating it to understand my urgency, but the following tribute ran on repeat all night long at the funeral home. I managed to make 50 copies, one for everyone at the pre-memorial lunch at Brad's favorite brewery, plus extras for all the coaches, teachers and scout leaders who showed up at the funeral home. I gave his mom a way to quickly answer well-meaning but probing questions about how the memorial was and how she's doing. She can just send people the link to this tribute or hand them a CD.

If you know me in real life, if you know my family, you might recognize the kids in this video. I'm depicted here, a lot. So is my sister. Brad's sister looks an awful lot like her adult self, so she's easy to pick out. Any time you see a red-headed little moppet, that's Jason. I'm the other person parasailing, and the girl with all the hair in the pictures taken on the boat.

By making this tribute, I gave his college roommates the gift of seeing him walk. It never occurred to me that they never saw that. I mean, of course they hadn't. Brad used a wheelchair from age 14 on. I just didn't realize that they never saw him walking, because he walked for so long, by the power of sheer will alone.

And.... unintentionally.... I gave myself all new images of old memories to hold on to. I'm grateful that this footage, these images, have replaced some of the intrusive thoughts that were coming to me, unbidden, of Brad's final days and hours. Those mental images clenched my stomach and blocked my throat with a lump that couldn't be dissolved, it seemed, except by anger. It was a kind of hurt that could only be burned off by a hotter fire, unfortunately. This past week has been an absolute hell, largely of my own making, but at least I got this part right.

Remembering Brad from Angela Gaul on Vimeo.

It was a gift only I could give, and it gave a lot of people peace. So maybe it's a start...?


Julia said...

Absolutely beautiful Angie. I can tell you put your heart and soul into many hours of hard work to create this final gift and it's clear Brad lived a life full of love and friendship.

Judy said...

Thanks for giving all of us this video so we can rejoice in his life and spend time with Brad when we watch it. It is a gift you not only gave Brad but all of us, too!

Lauren said...

What a beautiful tribute. You definitely got it right, Ang.

Jillian said...

What an amazing gift you have given so many people, yourself included. Keep hanging in there and giving things time. The grief process is so different for everyone. I'm here whenever you need me.

michelle said...

That was beautiful. Truly beautiful.