And visiting with ghosts
Last weekend my day started with a text from my sister informing me that a mutual friend of ours from high school had passed away. Her name was Pam. It made me very sad. Though I only saw her a handful of times in the decades since we all graduated, I always enjoyed her company, and we were close during our school days. Pam was a grade above me, her sister was in my grade, and her brother, who everyone called "Bubba" since he was a child, was two years behind. They had an older brother as well. They were all my friends.
Bubba passed away just a couple years ago under tragic, and all too common, circumstances. We played music together since we were kids. At the time of his passing he was arguably my best friend though he had estranged himself for a few years before we—all of us who knew him, but I refer mostly to my friend and bandmate Jimmy; Jimmy, Bubba, and I played in a band together for over a decade—learned of his death. It was crushing. Bubba had his demons, and they ultimately got the best of him. With his passing I also realized, selfishly, that he was the last connection I had, outside of family, to the person I was as a teenager. I mourned that as well. It was strange. It is strange. I miss him all the time and I swear sometimes I see him as I am driving across town, something in a pedestrian’s shape, or gait, or body language, and then I pass and it isn't him after all.
As last Saturday afternoon unfolded I found myself thinking about Pam more and more, and Bubba of course. I drove out to Frenchtown. I drove by the high school we attended, a location I pass frequently. I drove through the old trailer court where Pam and Bubba's family lived, and where Bubba himself lived for a time as an adult. This community, this little town, shimmers with ghosts that will haunt me until I join them.
I drove by the elementary school campus, such as it is, and saw the vacant spot where the old portable buildings had been where school authorities allowed our band, when we were all still in school, to rehearse. It was a fantastic hang-out spot and all of the ragtag dorks and nerds who trailed around with us would come around too. Like Steve, who once came tearing up on a little minibike and laid it down on its side in a big cloud of dust right in front of us. Steve died of a brain tumor at the age of 21.
Also in the elementary complex, the spot where the old gymnasium had been, where, when I was in 7th grade and Pam was in 8th, I came in 2nd place in the junior high spelling bee to Pam's triumphant victory. I still remember the word I spelled wrong when it was down to just the two of us: vaudeville. I left out that middle fucking "e." Pam got it right, got the next word right, and that was that.
Finally I found myself out in front of the old Catholic Church in Frenchtown, just down the street from the elementary school. It has figured in my research for my current book. I wanted to go inside and sit, because the church is an intact location where Pam and I also shared space, only this time creatively. When I was a freshman and she was a sophomore, we were part of the high school choir that performed Handel's "Messiah" from the church's balcony. I thought there might be some echo of our shared spirit there. Of course there would be. I was disappointed when the doors were locked because of COVID-19 restrictions. I wanted to sit with Pam and her memory in some kind of holy space, baggage and all. I'd like to think that wherever she is now, whatever she is, she knows that I feel her loss.
Where do you go for spiritual connection? For solace? For me it is almost always in nature. That is when I feel those transcendent moments of connection with the Great Mystery. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, yet I tell people I don't have a Christian bone in my body. But of course that isn't true. Christianity is as wrapped-up in my spirit as anything else that one absorbs from culture, unknowingly, even unwillingly. I am a mess of Christian ideas, Buddhist readings, Stoic philosophizing, and tree hugging, dirt worshiping paganism. I will likely never get it sorted out.
The Métis people at their origins are deeply Catholic. That revelation explains for me the commitment to faith my grandparents had. I didn't think my dad cared for faith at all but I have since learned otherwise, thanks to my mom. A rosary he kept as a gift from his grandmother was one of his most-prized possessions. My mom passed it along to me and it hangs on the wall in front of me here.
What I lack is ritual. Community. I envy people getting together to celebrate life; events, deep holidays, passings. One of my life's great regrets is that we, my family, have never really observed my father's passing. He didn't want a funeral so we didn't have one. There is no grave to visit. The family home belongs to someone else now, as do the bones of all the pets we buried there. The mill where my dad spent most of his life is a Superfund site in all but official designation, slowly being dismantled piece by piece. Me, my mom, and my sisters have been in the same room together only one time since, and that was two years ago when my book came out. My sister who lives out of state flew in to surprise me by her presence. I was surprised. I was less surprised when I learned later that a big fight broke out among them in the aftermath of something I'd said during my event. That's how it goes in my family, though. Families are difficult, as are any relationships, and I'm fairly convinced my sisters—for whatever reason and for all that I know, or hope, that they love me—just don't like me very much.
The other day I drove past the spot where I last saw Bubba alive. It is just off Mullan Road on the west end of Frenchtown. It is an extension now really of the yard of the house across the road, lined with trees and grass and with a couple little outbuildings, but at the time a battered single-wide occupied the space. Bubba lived there with his wife and stepchildren. We had just returned from a rock tour out to Minnesota and back. I let Bubba out of my truck, said see you next week, and that was it. I never saw him again. He didn't have a phone so we, Jimmy and I, couldn't reach him. He and his wife either abandoned or were evicted from the trailer. It all happened FAST. Bubba had just completed a long period of parole restrictions related to a DUI and I suspect he went on a bender and never really got off it. Jimmy and I tried to find him but never did. We didn't play music for some months but ultimately found another drummer and became the band we are today. A few years passed and we would get news of Bubba being in this town or that. We always assumed he would resurface at some point and we would commence to rock together again. Playing music has simply not been as fun for me without him.
And then word came he had died. I was crushed. I still am. It sucks to reach middle-age and have your friends start dying, when life and the choices we all make just wears them out. We played a tribute show in Bubba's honor, with a big photo of him and his glorious mullet and a shit-eating grin blown up at the back of the stage. Pam was there. Other local rockers we had shared the stage with over the years came out in support. A local radio station ran a little story about it. Bubba, for all his flaws, was well and loudly celebrated.
As for Pam, that was the last time I saw her.
Last year we decided to add a few of our old songs to our current band's set list just for something new to play. In relearning them, I put on my headphones, put on the music, and cranked it loud while playing along on my bass. I didn't even need to hear what I was playing, if the notes were correct; my fingers remembered what to do on their own. It was like playing with Bubba again; locked-in, tight, absolutely destroying people. Sharing grins of utter joy. I had to take a moment to set it all aside and weep. I'm weeping now, a little. But it is also wonderful, and I am lucky to have these recordings.
I resisted calls to attend Bubba's church funeral because the Bubba I knew would have wanted no part of a church. I chose to respect that. I think he would have enjoyed the sendoff we gave his spirit instead.
If you know anyone you think might like this morbid stuff, feel free to forward it along, share it, whatever. I have disabled pretty much all of my social media because it tends to bring out the worst in me. I feel myself slowly losing my grip and that's never a good thing.
Also, if you're curious, here's one of my favorite songs ever. One of the first Jimmy, Bubba, and I wrote and recorded together. This recording is seventeen years old, and the significance of it is that it was one take, live, warts and all ... and I love it.
Please be kind to one another, even, especially, the non-people people among us.