This weekend I will attend my university's homecoming festivities, but I will also participate in a homecoming of another sort. This second homecoming is a homecoming of individuals, most of whom I don't know, who have found beauty in grief and embraced it, if initially just to keep their feet. They are Bluegrass people and they were born homecoming weekend in October two years ago.
It was a Texas fall, different from a Texas summer in name and routine only. Things felt normal and static. This was my first homecoming as an alumni. I had started my first job and was tasting independence and security in delirious gulps. Life had just shifted to second gear and then my phone rang. My girlfriend and I had just pulled up to perhaps the only non-IHOP breakfast place in town. We were about to get out of my truck, having chosen to forego what would be a crowded church service and a chance to see my friend Kyle, to have breakfast with my thesis advisor and her husband. It was Whitney on the phone. Her voice shook tightly like a kid on a bike for the first time; determined to get through the sentence and scared she might not. "Kyle has been killed."
Gut-wrenching, head-draining, emotionally nuclear and profound sense of loss.
Beer and laughter.
Laughter and tears.
I have tried multiple times to write about Kyle - who he was; what he meant to me - but my efforts seem always to have fallen flat. I'm never sure where to focus. I always get two paragraphs in and then delete the whole thing. Words in type seem so finite and so incapable of capturing the impish, child-like sparkle that always danced in Kyle's eyes. And I'm not the only one. Kyle left a wife and three kids and thousands - no exaggeration - of people who all felt they had a unique and intimate relationship with him. And they were right.
It seems to miss the point to talk about the burden of memory when describing how utterly incapable I feel in trying to write about Kyle, but I do feel incapable. How can you be faithful to a memory that is shared by thousands? Again, people would say and have said, "You're missing the point. Write about your relationship with Kyle and don't focus on the rest of it." But that IS the point. Kyle gave a sliver of himself to everyone and somehow managed to make that sliver feel like the whole world. I have tried to write about that sliver - desperately so - but it seems too big for words and yet is still just a tiny part of Who He Was.
There are so many stories. Everyone has a version of the same story. Mine start with Kyle at a barbecue taking the time to form a relationship with a confused and angry college sophomore and then opening the eyes of that sophomore just by saying, "I don't know." The stories have titles: Kyle and The Bright New Shiny Passat. Kyle and the Finger in Church. Kyle Extends an Invitation to a Punk Rock Kid to See the Movie Gladiator. Huh-uh. Kyle Becomes a Superfan at an Intramural Soccer/Football/Softball Game. Kyle's a Dad. My Friend Kyle is Dead and the Collage of Memories I Have Seems Incomplete.
Another friend of mine, Mike, felt so incapable of putting Kyle to paper that he teamed up with yet a third friend, Dave, to write a book. The book is personal, painful, and beautiful and grasps at the idea that Kyle will probably always elude pen and paper. The closest the authors get - and it's close enough for me - is the realization that all of those tiny slivers of our friend, the whole world lost over and over again, can never be grieved or celebrated alone. Those who knew Kyle, and now those who know people who knew Kyle, are Bluegrass People. Like the early practitioners of Bluegrass music, the people Kyle's life touched now form a community marked by loss and the burden of grief. Just as Bluegrass music was originally participatory - a shared experience of a community's struggles - so too is the shared experience of Kyle's loss. I find my part difficult to write, but it's important that I participate.
This weekend at least two groups will worship together in defiance of Kyle's loss. One is the church he left behind and the other forms a much less obvious connection, perhaps even to some of its members. Throughout my friendship with Kyle, soccer was a vehicle. We played for the same formal team but at different times. We played together on multiple informal teams. We talked soccer. We joked soccer. We participated in the friendships and shared experiences of the same soccer context. This weekend I will play in an alumni soccer match with old friends and with guys I have never met. I will play with young men who lost the whole world when Kyle died and kids who have never heard his name. I will think of Kyle when I play and in so doing I will grieve his loss. And the loss will become a celebration and the soccer will become music.
From Kyle's last sermon:
"Live. And Live Well. BREATHE. Breathe in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now. On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.
If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool Autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE. Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.
If you bike, pedal HARD… and if you crash then crash well.
Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done—a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed. If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all… because soon he’ll be wiping his own.
If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well. At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because-it-is-most-definitely-a-Gift."