Exactly one year ago today, with the weather here in Seattle as cold and threatening as it is again now, my neighbor Joe was murdered up the street from the alley that runs behind our homes. Joe was killed by a man named Michael, a homeless schizophrenic off his medications who attacked Joe with a hatchet.
One month after that happened I wrote an essay remembering Joe. In that piece I was searching for answers, for some sort of narrative cohesion to make sense out of an action this is ultimately senseless beyond the simple sense of description: a crazy guy went crazy and did a crazy thing. In the ensuing year as the street-mourners disappeared and the sidewalk memorials fell apart under the unending rains, I’ve thought about Joe less and less, which seems to be the way we living do with the dead.
Michael’s trial has proceeded slowly. At this point the case is still mired somewhere in the bowels of King County Superior Court. The issue isn’t Did he do it?—sadly too many people witnessed the murder for such to be in question; rather, What to do with him?, or, To what degree is or can a mentally unstable person be responsible?
In that essay I also wrote about some kids I used to work with who also suffered from schizophrenia; kids who are no longer kids but who are now adults with schizophrenia, fumbling about like the rest of us only with far greater challenges than most of us will ever face. I wrote about one former client I called Chris whose life looked dismal: he was in his early 20’s and had been in and out of jail and appeared to be struggling to find any stability. In the past year I haven’t thought more than a few times about him, though when I do now I’m filled with the same impending dread for the terrible things I fear he might someday do.
I’ve struggled repeatedly to understand why I feel compelled to write this. I’ve thought about it for weeks;
written/deleted, deleted again, written more. Over and over again life furcates, and the two paths I find vee-ing off seem to be either dust and whatever you can cobble from its insubstantiality, or something more. Both require a faith, and, as in all acts of faith, it is a practice sustained largely by memory, which is an oddly forward way of understanding memory but one I think is essential to understanding both memory and faith.
I realize I’m bordering on sounding obscure, or mystical, or even worse theatrical. No one wants to read my rambling credos and I assure you I don’t want to write them, so rather than prattle on like some grad student who’s read too much Continental Philosophy instead I’ll do what writers are supposed to do and tell a story.
Six or seven years ago I was at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle on the night of All Souls Day. The Cathedral is a gigantic stone structure: literally a couple hundred feet across, wide and high, and stands on a wooded hill overlooking the city. The purpose of the All Souls service, which occurs on the day after Halloween, is to remember to God those who have died over the year.
In some ways the thought of remembering our dead to God is silly—after all, if you can posit a God certainly it’s no stretch to imagine It having a good memory. But I think that’s looking at this experience from the wrong direction, for it seems any benefits that might come from such actions must occur on the horizontal plane. By remembering we’re providing succor for ourselves as remembering people, people remembering a hope and a promise that hopes and promises more than from- and to-dust.
That evening there were maybe 100 people in attendance, a paltry number in such a massive space. It was like being one of a handful of fans remaining in a stadium in the 9th-inning of a blowout. In such spaces you can’t help but feel tiny. The church serves a large gay population, and most of those in attendance were older gay men and bedgraggled looking women: mothers, sisters, friends. Even though medical technology continues to improve, the ravages of HIV/AIDS are still far more prevalent in gay populations than the general public.
At some point during the night the rector invited us to stand and call aloud the names of those who had died over the past year. And so we stood and filled this huge space with our small voices, calling out the names of loved ones that were now both names and loved ones only in memory. Some of the voices were feeble, some angry; some were robust while others were scarcely audible. One woman read stonily from a list held trembling in her hands. I stood listening quietly, small and observant, as for one of those brief moments life seemed to happen outside of normal time.
There was no sound beyond our voices trailing off into the emptiness. There was no response. There have been few moments in my life more demonstrative of our reachings for God or Meaning or Logos or whatever you want to call It than this.
I doubt if remembering Joe or Chris or anyone else really matters in some supernatural sense: again, if there’s a God I can’t believe I’m teaching It much of anything. I know these words won’t change things for Joe and doubt they’ll impact the seemingly inexorable path of Chris’s life. But still I remember, and still I write, and somehow that seems important.
Somehow it changes me, though I can’t say why nor how. But then I’ve grown more comfortable not answering every question, and I also know that change is something I can usually only measure far after the fact.
I don’t know if you can hear this Joe, but I remember you. I’m sorry for what happened. It wasn’t right, but then things rarely are. It was crazy then and time hasn’t made it any less so. Rest easy.