Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I got to see my friend, Craig, before he died because my friend, Eileen, thought I was being morbid. I had suggested to her that I might be back to Northern Virginia at some point to attend Craig's memorial service. We all knew that Craig didn't have long to live. However, Eileen told me I should see him while he was still alive.

I thought about it, but not long. She was right. I should see Craig. Alive. I talked to Craig's wife, Jean. They agreed.

I last sat with Craig on Friday morning, two days before he checked out. He was tired. Jean had taken us out to eat the night before at the Hunter's Head. We had a good time, with Jean reciting the local political history of the pub's name. It was pretty much intended for what it sounds like. Its logo is a fox serving a hunter's head on a platter. Yum. But the burgers were good and the three of us laughed a lot.

Someone described to me a similar situation -- his friend dying of AIDS. "There is an honesty and richness to the experience," he told me. It's as good a description as I can find. It was profoundly moving.

What do you say to a dying friend who has lost his voice and can't even write? It's real hard to resist platitudes. At one point I told Craig to "be strong" and he gave me what seemed like a disgusted smirk. "Yea, you're right," I said. "That was pretty stupid." We both smiled. It must have been so frustrating. You could see a sentence backing up in his brain wanting to be said, but he just couldn't get out the words. With a sigh, he would lower his eyes, make a sound expressive for the moment, and we would go on.

Holding his hand at bedside I recited a few lines I had memorized from a drawing hanging in the next room. It was a gift made by one of his past interns:

"Life is a sacred mystery singing to itself,
dancing to its drum,
(The author, Manitonquat, "is a storyteller and keeper of native lore of the Wampanoag Nation of Massachusetts," according to Wikipedia.)

It made sense to me at the time. I don't know what Craig thought. A few days earlier I had said to him,"Damn, I just wish I could know what you are thinking. But I figure a one-way conversation is better than no conversation at all." Craig agreed.

I think he was pretty matter-of-fact about his impending departure. One of the things I discovered after spending time with him and Jean is that there is no best way for people to respond. Do you say "goodbye" to someone before they are gone? Do you thank them for the influence they had on your life? What subjects are ok to talk or write about?

Hundreds of people had responded. The written notes alone filled a basket. Jean let me read some of them. Typical was something to this effect: "Dear Craig, You probably don't remember me but I took a class from you twenty years ago. It changed my life. As a result I became a teacher/naturalist/better mom/etc. I just wanted to thank you." The weight of all that passion and appreciation was quite overwhelming. And humbling when I think of my own meager contributions. I told some friends at a lunch later, "If I was in Craig's situation, sure, I would get a few cards. But just as many people would say, 'Hey, he was a prick anyway.'"

No one at the lunch table disagreed, even while assuring me that they were loyal friends. Among the few, they added.

I've never known anyone with more friends than Craig. I always felt it a privilege to be one of them. We had some great birding adventures together. I was blessed to be able to spend time with him at the end.

After Eileen's chastening message I had gotten on the phone with Jean and then with Alaska Airlines to get a frequent flier ticket to DC. Consider the timing. I got a ticket for exactly the dates I requested, just two weeks out. Those dates turned out to bracket the week before Craig died and his memorial service one week later. Within its tragic context, that was some timing. Maybe Eileen was right. Maybe I am morbid.

Jean had told me she had been thinking about what kind of memorial service to have after Craig died. I had only one piece of advice: "Don't let NWF control it or it will be about NWF and not about Craig." I think she did ok on that score but I must say that I found the service odd.

Craig's son, Ben, delivered the high notes of the service, capturing his father with humor and love. He told a story from his youth, obviously an important moment for him, when he asked his father whether God existed. Craig gave him a thoughtful, nuanced and ecumenical reply. I found little nuance in the Lutheran church memorial service. Stuffy with lots about Jesus. The good news: Craig wouldn't have cared one way or the other.

Next: "Eulogy"

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