Thursday, October 16, 2008

When the Night is Darkest the Stars Are Brightest

Somebody has to go polish the stars,
They're looking a little bit dull.
Somebody has to go polish the stars,
For the eagles and starlings and gulls
Have all been complaining they're tarnished and worn,
They say they want new ones we cannot afford.
So please get your rags
And your polishing jars,
Somebody has to go polish the stars.
-Shel Silverstein

The last ten days have run together like sidewalk chalk in the rain. Finding out Cliff was gone was unbelievable. Being so devastated and heartbroken, seeing my friends in the same sad shape, was horrible. I was in some wretched limbo; I couldn’t seem to get anything much done at work or at home. Some of you are wondering how this is different from any other week. I’ll get back to you.

Yet for all the blur, so much has happened these last ten days, and I have learned a great deal about my friend Cliff, about healing, and about the nature of things. This past Monday, I attended a memorial service for Cliff. Well, I and most of the citizens of North Carolina. It wasn’t a memorial service, it was Cliffstock! Friends and strangers alike supported each other. Still, it was a sad, solemn occasion, and I was trying not to melt down. I turned my attention to one wall where a slideshow loop was running pictures of Cliff at different stages of his life. This seemed to be a good way to take my mind off my sadness. Instead, it was an unexpected trip down memory lane.

Cliff and I were both born in 1969. In one picture, there stood Cliff, probably 5 years old, against his parents sofa on Christmas morning. But I wasn’t looking at his amazing smile, or the stacks of brightly wrapped gifts. I couldn’t stop staring at that SOFA! My parents had that sofa! You children of the 70’s know the one…dark green fabric with huge gold and red flowers all over it. ACK! The next slide was Cliff wearing a pair of vertically striped pants from JC Penneys. I know this because my brother had the exact same pair…wide bell bottom legs with a high waist and they came with a huge wide, white belt that was like a boob job for your pants. And then there were the pictures with the 80’s hair. In all of this seriousness, I managed a smile. But I guess it was okay. Cliff was smiling in all of the pictures. He was always smiling.

The following day, I went with my boss and two dear colleagues to the funeral service. It was Cliffstock, the sequel. The church was lovely and it was packed to the rafters. Greg sat on the aisle, then me, then Larry, and June. I knew it would be emotional, and realizing that none of us had tissue, I excused myself to run to the restroom to get some toilet paper. I figured it was better than nothing. I was wrong. I darted into a stall to pull off a bit of paper and it wouldn’t tear! I tugged and yanked but this stuff was like two-ply vulcanized rubber! I pulled and wrestled and huffed and puffed until finally, I had nearly pulled off the whole roll. I walked back into the church carrying the ten pounds of toilet paper like it was a small baby. June turned around and her eyes got wide. I won’t even tell you what she said. It was so snide. As the service commenced, Larry went to pull off some tissue to dab his eyes and strained a muscle trying to tear some off. He finally got a piece the size of a postage stamp, and then got huffy with me. And you really wouldn't believe what he said. Whatever. It wasn’t my fault. Later, I saw a colleague across the aisle crying. I started to hand him the tissue, but I realized he would probably think it was a bad novelty gag thing, like fake dog poo, or those handshake buzzer things. So I made Greg give it to him. No sense having someone else mad at me.

Aside from all of the issues with tissues, the service was beautiful. Many friends from work are part of the Celebration Choir, and as they filed into the church, I could see them wiping away tears, heartbreak on their faces. Yet as they sang, their expressions turned to joy and they healed people through music. And Cliff’s minister gave a beautiful eulogy. He reminded us that although Cliff is gone, the love that he had for us, and we for him, is still here.

After I got home that evening, Jenda wanted me to read to her, so I let her pick out some books. The first was about Tutankhamun, and it contained a quote from ancient Egypt. “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.” Smiling, I turned to the second book by Shel Silverstein. We read the poem “Somebody Has to go Polish the Stars.” It’s interesting, the nature of stars. In many cases, stars undergo changes and cease to exist in their ‘star form’, but the light that they emitted as stars is still travelling to earth through space and when we look up in the sky, we still see their light. That thought resonates with me.

So this week I found some new friends, and found some common ground with the one that I lost. But I guess I shouldn’t say that I lost Cliff, or anyone that I have loved for that matter. None of us should. We must speak their names so that they live, not just again, but forever. Even though their stars are different, we still bask in their light. So go outside, lay in the grass and look up at the night sky and the stars. And remember that they are not just stars. They are holes in the sky, where the spirits of Cliff and all of our loved ones shine down on us from Heaven to let us know that they are still with us, they still love us, and they are happy. And I can tell you, in these last ten days, when I have looked at the stars, they have seemed much brighter.

Thank you, Cliff.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Requiem for a Superhero

I’m quick to delete sappy emails from my inbox, especially the ones about friendship. It sounds mercenary, I know, but I get tired of reading mindless dreck like “friends come into your life for a reason, or a season, or to commit treason….” Or the equally insipid “it’s national friendship week. Forward this email to God and everybody or all of your hair will fall out and you will be trampled by chickens.” So I get rid of it and move on to the really important stuff, like how to get free Viagra online, or how to meet great singles in my area who are just misunderstood and were wrongly convicted. It’s enough to make you go back to actually talking to people face-to-face and writing letters on real paper!

It occurred to me this evening that those goofy friendship emails, so sticky sweet that they induce diabetic coma, are actually sent by well-meaning friends…people who actually care about me. (That or they are bald and afraid of poultry.) And much like anything else that is good in my life, I take them for granted. Not the emails, necessarily, but the friends who send them.

Cliff Bailey passed away today. It’s okay if his name is not familiar, since many of you did not know him. He wasn’t running for office, though he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of others. He wasn’t an Academy Award winning actor, but he had a winning personality and always acted like a gentleman. And he wasn’t one of the X-Men, his favorite comic book characters, but to many of us who worked with him, he was a superhero.

There is no way to capture the essence of a person with words. Their finer points elude us, and memory is a tough concept to versify. Our feelings lose something in the translation and transition from feeling to word. Even tonight, I can’t clearly picture Cliff’s face, but I can remember how I felt in his presence. It’s funny what you focus on at a time like this, walking across the abyss of initial shock to sinking realization. In my case, I am thinking about Cliff’s teeth.

Um, yeah. His teeth.

It is not enough to say that Cliff had the whitest teeth in the free world. I am sure that no one in the communist bloc had teeth as white as Cliff’s, either. There used to be a really stupid song from the ‘80’s, well, okay, there were MANY stupid songs from the ‘80’s, but I am thinking of ‘I Wear My Sunglasses at Night’. You might remember it. Auditory dorkiness. Anyway, I think the guy who sang it probably ran into Cliff somewhere, was blinded by the whiteness of his teeth, and then was forced to wear sunglasses. He later went on to write another stupid song, ‘Blinded By the Light.’

Okay, maybe not.

Cliff had a way of getting people out of their comfort zones. It wasn’t always about ‘strive, do more, reach for the stars’ kind of stuff. I mean, he could get you to do CRAZY walk-on-your-lips-across-hot-coals kind of stuff. One night just recently, I was going to our operations desk and Cliff was standing in the aisle nearby. He called to me, just as friendly and nonchalantly, so I bounded right over to him and then screamed! On the floor in the aisle was a long piece of dooky! Cliff just cackled at my reaction, and then I realized that it was a piece of unfortunately shaped chocolate frosting that had apparently rolled off of a cupcake and into the floor, where it served as hilarious entertainment for Cliff. Of course, not satisfied with just scaring me, he called one of our directors, Cassandra, and then laughed his butt off at the sight of her jumping straight up, ten feet into the air. I still don’t know how, or why, but he somehow convinced ME to scoop up the frosting poop and throw it away. What can I tell you, he was just hypnotic that way, I guess.

He had such personality, and a remarkable wit. And I wasn’t the only one drawn to him. He had so many friends. I can think of at least five people at work who would tell you that he was THEIR best friend. But you wanna know something? Well, yeah. They’re right. He was. He looked for good in people, and he usually found it because he expected to. Funny thing about expectations, though. They can be treacherous. I expected to go to work tomorrow and see Cliff. Just something that I took for granted. I was wrong, and I am just about as hurt and sad as I have ever been. I guess all of us who loved him feel that way. Of course, Cliff would just smile and say, “Just remember, Darlin’…you’re unique. Just like everybody else!”
I really loved you, Cliff. I’m sorry I took that friendship, that smile for granted.

You see, Cliff was truly unique, and very special. I miss my friend, even though, on some level, it just hasn’t become real. So I am going to spend this night with a glass of chardonnay and some memories, tears of regret, and prayers of thanks. And when I think that I just can’t cry anymore, I’m going to think of Cliff and all my friends, read those sappy emails about friendship, and cry out of sheer gratitude.