When my father-in-law died a couple years ago, I saw my wife struggle with every new holiday. Every special event brought with it a memory shared with her dad. Living with grief may become more manageable as time passes, but it also seems most intense on the one day dedicated to celebrating a life. When there are no longer candles to add to the cake, a birthday can become the lightning rod for accumulated sorrow.
For most of his life, my birthday greetings to Jeff Poehlmann were belated. My memory is reliable, but for whatever reason my brain locked in February 26th as Jeff’s big day. Or the 22nd. Or the 12th. Apparently, every day in February had the potential to be his birthday, and I usually got it wrong. Even back in the years where he hosted a party as a clear indicator, I figured his parents had just arranged it on a different day out of some convenience. It really wasn’t until Facebook offered regular reminders that it finally sunk in:
Today, in fact, is Jeff’s birthday.
Since attending a memorial gathering of friends from his hometown in early December, I have looked for things to distract me from the biggest feelings. At first, it wasn’t possible. I listened to the music he left behind on repeat for days. The necessities of the holiday season, however, coupled with a complicated move across town gave me reasons not to think too much about my grief. It flared up from time to time, but there was always something in front of me that needed attention, allowing me to procrastinate a little longer with the hope it would evaporate as I multitasked.
Today, however, is the day dedicated to celebrating Jeff’s life. Facebook shows me his picture, as if he were still here, and I can no longer set aside my grief and my guilt.
All you have is just a kind word
Last night, I ate dinner at a Buddhist monastery here in Indiana. After food had been served and veggies eaten, a celebration of the Lunar New Year began. Before the visiting Mongolians sang and danced, some locals with guitars made use of the microphones.
One of those songs was credited to Johnny Cash, one of Jeff’s favorite performers. Unearthed from the 5th track of his 55th album, it begins:
Well, I woke up this morning I had something on my face.
It was still there when I brushed my teeth, still there when I shaved.
I showed it to my neighbor, and he broke into a grin.
I gave it away. I gave it away.
Already braced for Facebook’s inevitable reminder, when I heard those words—first written by Tom T. Hall about the time I met Jeff in the 1970’s—my grief re-entered the room.
Much of my online time this weekend was spent digging for past birthday greetings on Facebook and email to remind myself how J and I recognized each other’s special day. The messages were mostly brief and filled with well-wishing of health and happiness. Occasionally, we would express a deeper gratitude for keeping each other in our lives, but they were mostly limited to a sentence or two meant to say simply, “I remember you.”
Jeff also made a point of replying to those messages. He would reflect the well-wishing back to me and turn his day into a shared one that became special for me, too. Looking through emails and Facebook threads, I notice how often this happened elsewhere, on the other special days of the year. Jeff’s way of being in the world was to fill it with kindness.
Smiles don’t cost money. Give it away, give it away.
Maybe all you have is just a kind word you can say.
Give it away, give it away.
Love Someone Sometime
Over the years, I watched apprehensively as others around me coped with the death of close family. Though the parade of years has taken grandparents, uncles and a few friends from me, the people I have known the longest in my life—my parents and sister—are still alive, as are the other people who have shared my home. As I suffer my grief over losing a friend, I can only imagine how exponentially more intense it is for Jeff’s family.
Today, as I celebrate his birth, I am compelled to confront his death. It isn’t easy for me.
The thing that helps me the most in such struggles is to reflect on who this man was and list the traits that defined him, both flaws and strengths. I close my eyes and imagine these traits as tangible gifts, ones that can be lifted from his body to take home and use. From my friend now, I take the biggest gift—Love. To love more is the way I choose to honor and remember Jeff.
Although it helps me to think of it that way, Jeff’s love is not really something I took. He gave me this gift a long time ago. He gave it to everyone he met, and to those he never knew. In his best Johnny Cash, he gave it away.
Love someone sometime. Give it away, give it away.