August 12th was without a doubt the hottest day in Austin this year, and I spent about ten hours of it out running errands. When I finally got home I only wanted to walk my dog, take a shower, then contact my old friend, Doug. It was coming up on the sixth anniversary of his wife’s death, and I wanted to make sure he was doing all right. (His wife had died the day or the day after I returned home from another friend’s wedding in Los Angeles, thus putting a sad ending on what had been a happy week.)
I went to Doug’s Facebook page and learned that not only was he dead, he’d died back on June 28th and I’d not been informed. I couldn’t find an online obituary, so I scrolled through threads on the Facebook pages of his family and friends to try to get some additional information.
Basically, all I learned was he’d been in the hospital only a shirt time, having checked himself in after one of his legs started bothering him. He contracted pneumonia, his heart stopped, and the doctors tried for thirty minutes to revive him, but were unable to do so.
I’d known Doug since about 1983. He was the Resident Assistant on my floor of my dorm in college, but quickly became a very close friend, as well as a sort of surrogate parent. Several times over the years he gave me a place to stay and food to eat when I had neither. He was my sponsor when I joined the Catholic Church. Had I ever married he’d have been a groomsman, had I ever fathered children he’d have been a godfather, and had I died first, he’d have been a pallbearer.
Needless to say, I was broadsided by the news of his passing.
Doug was a good man and a good friend. He had his share of suffering, losing his wife and both parents within an eighteen-month span. He battled weight problems for much of his life, and had two unsuccessful lap-band surgeries. Many a time when we were out in public I heard people mock his appearance behind his back, and he’d just get quiet, look off in the distance, and try not to let the insult get to him. But I could see that each jeer caused him pain.
Despite all this, he was a joyful person, a hell of a lot of fun to be around, and a central figure in my college life. He was passionate about music, especially the blues, southern rock, jam bands, or pretty much any music from the ’70s that was not disco. He was also an excellent cook, and a hilarious story-teller.
In the weeks that have passed since I got the news I’ve been thinking about all the things we’ll never do again: no more road trips, movie recommendations, political arguments, late-night conversations, or re-enactments of comedy skits. I’ll never get his opinion on that Rodney Crowell book and I’ll never again enjoy his corn bread or chocolate cheesecake.
But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that I only saw Doug two or at best three times after August 1989. He was married almost twenty years and I only met his wife once. We kept in sporadic touch on the phone or through Instant Messaging, but our heyday was only a six-year period in the ’80s.
This realization has skewed my sense of time, as has the fact that Doug’s death, funeral, and all those related events were very much in the past before I got the news.
While the period before, during, and after a death and funeral often involves memories of the past and concerns about the future, it is mostly about the present moment, the harsh reality of now. We deal with that by getting involved, whether by attending the viewing, wake, and funeral, bringing the family food, sending flowers, or just remembering the deceased on the day of the funeral. If you don’t participate somehow in those acts and gestures, it’s hard to catalogue and categorize that person’s death as a real event that took place at a specific time.
I’m not necessarily talking about closure. I’m not even sure I believe in closure, because most of my past, especially the painful parts, are still with me, wide open, and unresolved.
I think what is confusing me is that I last spoke with Doug at the beginning of June. He lived and worked very close to my mother and was able to give me details about a major flood that was threatening her house.
He called me up on the morning that the floods were at their worst, and we had a long, leisurely, pleasant conversation. It was a low-key ending for us. Four weeks later he was dead.
The conversation seems very recent to me. Doug’s death does not. Since I was ignorant of his death for such a long time it seems an event removed from time, removed from my experience of life and time. I fall back on the banal question, “But how could he be dead? I just talked to him the other day.”
I don’t intend to write a comprehensive remembrance of Doug, partly because no description could do the self-styled “Round Mound of Sound” justice, but I keep coming back to one image.
Doug had been promoted to the position of Hall Director at another dorm. It was the end of the school year and since all the students and R.A.s had moved out and gone home the university rules regarding noise levels no longer applied. We were standing out on his front balcony, smoking, while the Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” LP blared out of Doug’s stereo, out his front door, and out over a valley of dormitories, classroom buildings, and parking lots.
It had been a tiring school year and an annoying semester, and we were both glad to see it come to an end. It should come as no surprise, then, that while Doug was playing air guitar and singing along to “Truckin,'” he howled “What a loooooonnngg, straaaaaange trip it’s beeeeeeen” at the top of his lungs, like a lonesome, forlorn hound. He forced every particle of his energy into those lyrics. He wrung out all our weariness and frustration and replaced it with smiles.
That’s what he did best.