Last Wednesday had been a crummy day but I made a valiant effort to shake off the gloomy mantle weighing me down as I prepared to see my favorite band in concert: Portland home town favorites Pink Martini. I had been so excited when I bought the tickets, vowing to pretend to be young and carefree, off to a concert at the Ace Hotel, on a week night, no less! So I tried to ignore the bad Mexican food sabotaging my stomach, and the immoveable LA traffic, but there was no way to lighten the heavy weight in my chest. My heart felt like it was tied up, bound by those plastic straps used on particularly heavy shipping cartons: no give, no room to breathe.
One year ago this week, my beautiful, talented, loving nephew died in a fire that took 36 souls at a warehouse concert. In only a matter of minutes they were gone. This past year has been one long slog through a strange world where we learn to live with an inconceivable reality we want to reject but cannot. Among Nick’s circle of loved family and friends, many of the younger generation now live each day with a fierceness born of bewilderment, completely unmoored from all they knew in the world. Many of us struggle to seek answers where there are none; all of us looking for ways to carry on without really losing our boy, ways to keep him with us.
I have found comfort in sensing Nicky’s continued ethereal presence in our lives, believing we are more than just our bodies. Even if those beliefs are not true, my memories of him alone bring him back to life, with his remarkable ability to be completely present in conversation, his body calm and listening. His silly laugh, his quiet voice. His intense competitiveness as a small child that turned into passion, introspection and thoughtfulness as a young adult. His fragility. His magnetic draw, bringing endless friends and love into his orbit. His music. Yes, his music.
Nicky knew a thing or two about music. He didn’t just play it, he embodied it, from the violin as a small child, to his computerized sounds to his ever present guitar. He was never completely at ease without a guitar in his arms, as if the fingers touching the strings completed his circuit, allowing the electricity to flow. When he came to visit he always sought out our guitar first thing and then would make quiet music while we talked. His mouth barely moved when he spoke but his fingers were never still on the strings.
In the first moments of the concert, China Forbes belted out the opening notes of Amado Mio, and I felt the plastic straps around my heart snap. The music flowed right into me, into the bound up, swollen hurting parts. Like a river released from its dam, emotions flooded through me, joy, sadness, pain, elation. I couldn’t keep up. Yet even in tears, I was soaring. I couldn’t stay in my seat, my spirit just lifted my body up. My tired overburdened heart cracked wide open to welcome the sounds. I kept thinking of Nicky, how music must have felt for him, and how much I miss him and how I felt close to him with every song and how the emotions kept changing from happy to sad as if they were all the same.
Ever since he was born I had felt connected to him in some way, unspoken, precious. I loved him of course, but it was the way he loved me that made me feel special. It turns out everyone he loved felt that way. What a gift: he valued each of us so much. You could feel it in his hugs, as if his soul had arms that could hold us close.
I guess both the pain of losing him and the joy of loving him will never go away. And I guess that is something we will each have to accept over and over as more people we love leave us, since, I’ve been told, everyone dies eventually. But we must keep living while we are here and I believe Pablo Neruda’s words would be what Nick would say to us:
If I die, survive me with such sheer force
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I don’t want your laughter or your steps to waver,
I don’t want my heritage of joy to die.
Don’t call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house.
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.
— Sonnet XCIV by Pablo Neruda
Sometimes I think Nick was in this world to show all of us what really matters in life: love, friendship, natural beauty and music. It was as if he came from a different time with his old pick up truck, Goodwill clothes and LP records. Like he just came back to enjoy it all again and share it with us.
I promise you, Nicky, I will do my best to live with force in your absence. I will not let your heritage of joy die, and when I miss you, I will remember your hugs.