Tomorrow, March 19th, marks what would have been the 41st birthday of my dear friend Woody. We were both born in 1964---he in March, me in August---and we shared so much in the years we were friends. His death in 2001 (see posts in January 2005 archive or http://justiceforwoody.org for the story of his death) is still affecting us all in so many deep ways. His presence lingers in our minds and hearts so strongly....
Woody was like my soul brother. Although we differed on many subjects, we shared a love of music, of art, of technology, of nature, of dogs, of Mary and Rene, of friends, of games, of children, of laughter. We shared a dream of opening a new style of nursing home for aging hippies and baby-boomers: picture a Jimmy Hendrix lounge with lava lamps and black-light posters; patchouli and cannabis aromatherapy; tie-dye activity day. As funny as it seems, that dream is not far off, and Mary and I may very well create a similar haven, but most likely in Central America for expats. Woody's an expat now, himself, but he doesn't need frequent-flyer miles to visit us....
Woody's birthday----last year we had a 40th birthday party for him at Touchstone Farm in Easthampton, MA. Circle dancing, potluck supper, carrot cake from Whole Foods decorated with peace signs and smiley faces, then dancing, with me as DJ, playing songs that we always loved to dance to.
Just the other day, I had a very clear memory of dancing to The Cure with Woody in our old house in Gloucester. The song was "Hot! Hot! Hot!" from the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me album (boy, Robert Smith loved repetitive words in those days). We were all three dancing in the upstairs hallway, the music seeming so out of place in that old house which was so clearly haunted, although Woody would never believe that it was.....
Another dancing memory---Mary and I took Woody and Rene to see King Crimson in 1999 at an old theatre on Main Street in Springfield, MA. We were up in the empty balcony, slam dancing and rolling around on the floor, bouncing off walls as the sound waves careened around the cavernous hall. Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp looked like little raisins on a marshmallow from up there.
Other music we shared:
+Both of us having seen Yes perform on a revolving stage in Madison Square Garden as teenagers, years before we met--we figured out that we'd been at some of the same concerts;
+Air, a quirky French electronic band that Woody turned us on to;
+Brian Eno, whose music and aesthetic we both loved enormously;
+Us3: "Cantaloop". Memories of dancing to that one;
+Radiohead, who I grew to like much more after Woody's death, listening to songs and trying to hear them through Woody' ears. Some of the songs seem almost like warnings to me now---"My Iron Lung", "(Wish I Was) Bulletproof", "The Bends";
and so much more.
What I learned from Woody was practicing the art of listening during conversation, really taking in the words of others without thinking about what I wanted to say next. Also, being willing to make a fool of one's self---especially with children---as a way to increase others' comfort and engagement in an activity or gathering. I appreciated his keen and odd sense of humor, his love of art and drawing, his way of looking at the world in a critical and interesting way, his ability to engage anyone in conversation. He was like no one I've known, and his absence still pains me at a level I am often unwilling to address.
Just this evening, as Mary insisted that I take a nap after an exhausting week, I fell asleep thinking about my soul brother Woody and how, during that last year of life, he asked us for advice on how to make soup from scratch. That question came from Woody who we knew to be capable of eating raw spaghetti and munching on dry blue green algae powder, his entire mouth stained that almost psychedelic blue color.
No matter where we were living or what we were doing, we knew where Woody was and he would keep in touch with us: Europe; teaching English in Taiwan; buying up loads of cheap jewelry in Bali; studying Spanish in Central America without ever improving; hiking in the mountains and wilds of the United States. Speaking of Central America, I remember Woody writing that he had his first email account: pulpoloco@hotmail. Pulpo Loco. Crazy Octopus. I think he studied Spanish just as a way of meeting people and having fun---learning the language was secondary. That said, he always enjoyed practicing his Mandarin when we were at Asian restaurants. He loved the challenge of a completely different alphabet, the Chinese characters, the imagination it took to remember how to speak. The tall pale man that can rattle off some decent Chinese. Always a crowd-pleaser.
We have a tape of Woody talking while driving in his car---"Solo Safari Through Pennsylvania". It's hard to hear what he's saying over the road noise, but it's refreshing to hear his voice. We also have a tape of him playing with six-year-old Rene. The pain I feel for Rene's loss of his best adult friend and mentor is impossible to verbalize.
The worst tape we have is the answering machine message that was left as Woody called us from the cellphone of someone in the church where he was killed. They had dialed our number, and while our out-going message was playing, he was shot seven times. Our answering machine recorded his cries for help as he lay bleeding. Despite that, he was able to yell "I love you!".
That he was able to yell "I love you" while in the moment of his greatest pain and fear is a testament to him and what he stood for. He stood for love, for connection, for fun and laughter. He had his dark side, as we all do, but he more than made up for it with his infectious ability to bring out the best in everyone. He still encourages me to exercise, to get my endorphins going, to connect with someone who seems so different from me, to listen with greater intention when in conversation, to look into a dog's eyes, to understand children. I miss him so much right now.
Writing that last paragraph, I had to burst into tears--it was inevitable. Crying is rare for me, and when I do cry, the floodgates can really open. Mary held me, I regained my composure, and here I am again, ready to send this missive off into the ethers. I know Woody has already read it. In fact, he knew what I would write before I touched fingers to keyboard.
Recently, Mary and I were taking about Woody as I walked up the stairs. Just then, a rubber children's ball that I had found on a street in Amsterdam came bouncing down the stairs from the bathroom. No doors slamming, no gusts of wind, no shaking of the house from trucks on a distant street. Believe what you may---I know who threw that ball. That wasn't the first parlour trick, and I pray it isn't the last.
Tomorrow we go to see Woody's parents in Connecticut. We'll bring lunch, a birthday cake (carrot, of course, with peace signs and smiley faces), and we'll talk about Woody and visit his grave, which is in a beautiful spot on a river, far from the road.
At Woody's funeral, Rene dropped one of his baby teeth, one of Sparkey's puppy teeth, and a piece of bone from Woody's ashes into the small hole dug for the urn. Woody's wisdom, love, and grace now reside in Rene, and he carries that grace forward into the world now. For me, Woody's death is a sacred wound which can cover with scar tissue, but will forever be a tender place I can go---a painful place, yes, but also a place of solace. It is a friendship that never dies.