10 min read (8 min video)
April 27, 2020
"I'll see you again." —KC
Now Playing: “Always Something There To Remind Me” by Naked Eyes from the album Naked Eyes streaming on Pandora on my phone by my side as I write this.
People we love are dying.
The small rectangular butcher-block wood table in the basement was set, awaiting baking sheets filled with square-cut homemade pizzas and bowls of dip and vegetables which my hosts had been preparing all during the afternoon. In a small dimly lit area with a low ceiling down the hall past the basement bathroom, early-arrived guests were setting up a chair, covering it with several pillows where arms, legs, and back would go. It awaited a frail woman whose body was in pain.
“She’ll tell you about it when she gets here.” One of the guests said to me as she fluffed a pillow. “She’s not shy about talking about it.”
I set up my guitar, acoustic amplifier, and microphone stand at the corner of the table where the food was. Near a curio of what looked like someone’s grandmom’s dishes, in front of a wall which held a few framed Native American small tapestries, I placed the stool I had toted in my car from 350 miles away. It was a large wooden kitchen stool. I didn’t know at that time that I was supposed to, like a real traveling musician, have a folding stool. (which I still do not have). I was wearing a purple tank top and a black skirt splashed with a brightly colored flower pattern. I have since thrown that away. There were hoop earrings flopping about at the bottom of my ears. My guitar was strung over my shoulder with a strap I had made myself which was embroidered with pink cabbage roses. I sat on the stool. I sang sitting down. I was unrecognizable as the performer I am now.
The summer before, I had emailed a random series of bookstores all over California and this kind pair of owners in Oakland had said, “Yes” and asked me to come play. A year later they invited me into their home to sing for their friends.
It wasn’t planned to be KC’s last concert.
She arrived, externally frail, internally feisty. Long flowing straw-like blonde hair turning grey and getting that old-wise-woman coarse texture that makes people see that all old women are more powerful than we realize. Gingerly supporting her arms and back, her friends helped her move down the stairs and towards the pillow-covered chair in the cave-like basement living room. She expressed thanks even as she showed sparks of independence. It was hard for her to accept their help. She did, it seemed, as a reminder to herself that it was time to accept such things, that the time for being independent was drawing to a close. She had a comforted look in her eye as she sat down in the softness her friends had arranged for her.
She did talk about it.
It was something rare. So rare that she, a nurse who knew about these things, talked through her pain with resigned outrage about a system which had denied her treatment for it. Either it was not widely funded, or very few people qualified for the treatment. I didn’t understand. I remember her saying she had applied and not been accepted. I don’t remember the details. I remember the feeling, the twist in my stomach, and the look in her eyes as she explained that she did not have to die. There was a treatment, it was just that she wasn’t being granted access to it. She did not have to be a person who died, not yet.
Death is a strange thing. I try not to be any one way about it. I have questioned it. I have wailed at it. I have thanked it. I have bargained with it. Eventually I tell it the only thing we can tell it—to do what it will do, since I have no control over it.
The first two weeks of the current Coronavirus stay-home orders, now five weeks on, I spent some time talking with death in this way. One of my two best friends in the world came down with COVID-19. “I have sad news to report.” She wrote in a group text to two of us. “I have a high fever today. It looks like I got the crud.” She calls everything “the crud” but in the twenty years and as many flus as I’ve seen her through, I knew this was different. And so did she. And so did her doctor. We all knew. A test was hard to get in her state. Her doctor couldn’t get one for her but did confirmed the diagnosis, and so she became not a number, because she is not and will not be counted. What she did become was very sick. She is sixty-six so that put her in a high-risk group, and although she had been so careful not to expose herself, she had told me her routines of gloves, washing hands, and caution, it didn’t protect her.
I tried not to be dramatic. I wanted her to have as much peace and space to heal. I decided to send her a photo of a flower every day. She loves to garden and one of my favorite memories is of walking through the Portland rose gardens with her. I asked her how she was every so often, but mostly I was grateful that every day she found the strength and time to return my text, enough that I could breathe knowing, even if it was labored, she was breathing too.
And I dove into work. My income dropped by 80% when the stay-home orders went into effect, and I had to figure out new ways to make a new living. That felt like solid motivation for me to take a hard look at how I had set my life and my business up, so I was at my computer crafting new paths for income non-stop every day from about nine in the morning until two a.m. in the following dark of night.
And I tried not to think about her dying.
But I did. Every few days, the tears would seep through my cracks. And for two minutes at a time I would pause work, grab my head with my hands and speak. “I do not want to lose this person. I don’t want to do my life without her.” I said that out loud. Maybe death was listening and could be swayed.
I don’t call her my best friend. I don’t call anyone my best friend. I have a superstition about it. When I have called someone my best friend things change quickly and they seem to be gone soon after, not dead, just not talking to each other anymore, in a permanent way. It’s happened several times. As a result I have settled on calling her “One of my closest friends in the world.” In truth, she is the most generous person with me that I know. We talk every week and she listens to me ramble through run-on-sentences about my life that last about thirty minutes each—each sentence. I don’t talk to very many people, she is my weekly touch of human voice contact. And she has lovingly consumed every brilliant and shitty work of art I have ever made with kindness and thoughtfulness and support. And she inspires me. She is brilliant of mind, spirit, and talent. I am in awe of her and she is a singularity. I have never met another person like her in the world and I am so amazed to know her. I wish often that could get a reign on my rambling mouth so that one day I will just shut up and ask her questions about her life. She is one of those people who has lived a fascinating life and is quiet about it. She is truly beautiful.
Two and a half weeks later, I finally heard her voice, “You can take me off your worries list.”
It was the sweetest sound I had ever heard.
When we hung up the phone, I broke down in to a day of tears, shaking, shaking with relief.
KC found her way to the corner of the table with the square homemade pizzas diagonally across from where I had set up my microphone. Her friends transferred some of the pillows to her new seating arrangement. They ate. We all talked about baseball for a bit, I don’t remember why, except that I love baseball books and had gotten a book that I really enjoyed at their bookstore a year before. Oh, right it was a gift. I spied it on the shelf and cooed over it because it was written by a knuckleball pitcher I admired. They gifted it to me. I must have told them that night how much I liked it. And I sang, and told stories, slouched over in bad posture sitting on my wooden kitchen stool.
And then it was time for me to sing “Turn.” I had written this song in a time when I was really scared. A doctor had found a bunch of small lumps all over my body and sent me for five ultrasounds and a needle aspiration near my vocal cords. I had just started singing again and was not ready to have it all be taken away. That song came out of that moment, facing my own life and wondering if everything I had just started building was going to be over.
I sang it to KC.
Everyone else in the room seemed to fade into a blur. KC, weak, so frail, held me with strong eyes. At first, I was unsure. I didn’t want to draw attention to her impending death. The room was filled with it, and simultaneously trying to ignore it. But once our eyes connected I knew I had made the right decision. I gave that song to her. Every word took on a new meaning. I sent each word, each phrase into her hoping to replace the medicine she had been denied. And she, so determined in her independence, gave as strongly back to me. I’ve never had anyone hear one of my songs the way KC heard me that day. It was as if she took in every single word and then beamed it right back to me as if she had written the song. And maybe, in some way, she had. If I had even thought or wanted to look at anyone else, It would have been impossible, KC and I were fixed, locked with each other, connected in a way that I will never be disconnected from. There’s not a single time I sing that song that I don’t see KC’s eyes staring back at me.
"Turn" was the song I sang to KC that night.
The rest of the concert was as fun as it could be. My songs and self-deprecating stories about my spotty love life. Recommendations of other good baseball books. A recognition that the homemade pizza didn’t turn out as great as anyone had hoped.
And then, my songs were over. The dangling conversations ended. And it was time for everyone to leave.
It was the longest concert goodbye I had ever witnessed. KC’s long-term boyfriend came by to pick her up. A motorcycle guy driving a car. They both commented that they’d rather be on his bike. He was a musician, and gave me his CD. I was still in the process of recording my first so couldn’t return the gift. And he stood by KC as she wandered the room saying goodbye to her friends two and three times because no one could bear to see her walk out the door.
And as I watched her, I saw her do something extraordinary.
“I’ll see you again.”
I heard it over my shoulder.
I turned around to see KC taking her friend’s hands in hers. Before her friend could choke out unfathomable words, before they could say “goodbye” KC nodded, took their hands and said, “I’ll see you again.” Over and over and over again, she took her friends’ hands and said, “I’ll see you again.” “I’ll see you again.” “I’ll see you again.” I watched her in awe. KC didn’t let any of her friends speak the word “goodbye” she took that burden off of their shoulders. “I’ll see you again.” When her friends responded in nervous chatter, she just repeated herself, talking over their rambles, “I’ll see you again,” and she nodded, and she left each moment when she chose.
This wasn’t about heaven. Or hell. Or reincarnation. Or turning into a white squirrel who takes up residence in a tree in your backyard. It wasn’t about a myth of what happens after death. KC was simply speaking, teaching, the truth.
She took my hands in hers too, as she left the house that night. I was standing in the front doorway, and KC and her boyfriend were just outside on the front step. I guess I was the last person she said this to. I vaguely remember one of the hosts walking away refusing to say goodbye to her and my stepping into her place in the door jam. I was captivated by KC and I wanted to hold her, to touch her, and to accept her offering and agree with her, “Yes,” I said. “I’ll see you again.” I remember the feeling of the night air on my face, and her motorcycle boyfriend putting his arm around her shoulder, gently turning her body away from the house and leading her down the front stairs. Someone closed the door.
A few months later, I got an email from one of the women who had been around the table with us that night. “KC left us.” It said. I was glad she had been thoughtful enough to tell me. I had only met KC that one night, but this friend of hers knew that was enough for me to have fallen in love with her, to have been touched by her, to have her life so effortlessly have already changed mine.
People I love are losing people they love right now.
If you are one of these people, I am holding your hand.
Your grief is your own, and no one else can manage it, judge it, or even comment on it. Grief is a powerful experience that must be embraced fully— it demands that. I am a big believer in the gifts of grief—the gifts that come in the worst way possible, gifts that only you can decide what they are and if you will accept them or tell them to fuck off—either is entirely your prerogative. That’s the rule of grief. You get to do whatever you need to do. So I offer you no guidance, because no guidance applies. But this one thing I do know does apply, and if it hadn’t come out of the mouth of a dying woman I might dismiss it as new-agey bullshit. Except for the fact that it’s true.
I see KC’s eyes every time I sing “Turn” I think of her often, especially when someone dies. I think of my friend Dwayne whose wise words of wisdom are often quoted to me by someone who doesn’t even know him. I see him in every comic book and cartoon that was ever made. I think about my mother who died the day my first album was finished. I see her in that album cover. I see her in every Zinnia and Geranium, and every yellow rose. I think about the woman who first encouraged me to sing. I see her in every ginkgo leaf. I hear her in every Cat Stevens song. I hear her every time I hear my own voice.
We see those who leave this planet in so many ways all the time even after they are gone. They may come to us in dreams, or in mystical ways that help us to hold on to a sense of something beyond ourselves, and that stuff is great, but when we require a spiritual epiphany in response to a death, we can find ourselves disappointed and feeling abandoned. It helps to be reminded of the small, easy, practical every day ways we see those we love whom we cannot hold tight anymore. Those we lose also come to us in memories, a recollection of the sound of their laughs, in the inside jokes that pop into our heads, or a person whose voice or mannerisms reminds us of them. They show up when we remember how well they loved us. They show up when we remember how deeply they hurt us. They show up in the regret and the rejoice. And so importantly they show up in the lessons they taught us intentionally or unintentionally that now guide the way we live, in the choices we make differently because for better and worse, we knew them. They show up every time we look in the mirror at who we now are. We never stop seeing them. We always see them again.
They are KC’s words, not mine. They come from a wise woman who had the ability to look through the portal before she entered it. May you hear them as the words of those you love and are losing to that same portal. May you hear their voice, and feel their hands take yours and say, "I'll see you again." Those who go in one way stay with us in so many other ways. May we see them again—and again and again.