Episode #1 By Jack Elliott
Insights around grief were inspired by The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Bascagla, RJ reminds us that grief has no time line.
The banker boxes tucked away in my closet intruded my space like a visiting guest who had outstayed their welcome. I cursed them every time a hanging garment didn’t hang “just right.” I kicked them frequently as I kicked off my shoes causing disarray amongst the sneakers, loafers and dress shoes. I could even smell the musky scent of drying cardboard and dust beginning to change the scent of cedar that normally greeted my senses whenever I opened the closet door to something less inviting. No more. “Today, I am handling these two boxes!” I chided myself. Why? Why had I ignored these two boxes. “Come on Jack, it’s been 4 months since Gary died.” I knew why. They were the “last” two boxes.
For the last year I had been Gary’s primary caretaker. He was my God brother, best friend, wing man, and “ride or die” buddy for over a decade. I’d handled his financial affairs, closed his apartment and produced a lovely memorial service that truly honored his forty years on this earth. My work was done, except for these two boxes. I procrastinated, pretended not to see, and even contemplated asking someone to come in and take them away when I was out of town on business. I could handle the grief of them “just being gone.” I could even fain a convincing “how dare you” to whatever friend handled this final task for me. Suddenly, with a jolt, my thoughts were rattled by the sound of thunder.
Thunder rarely happens in Northern California, but it did that day. In my mind, it was a call to action. As, the rain began to pelt against the window, I realized that today was the day. So, I pulled the two boxes out and placed them in the middle of the floor of my home office. I sat down on a oversized floor pillow, took a sip of my Peet’s coffee (A Seattle brew that Gary had introduced me to, shortly after his arrival in San Francisco from Seattle.) And lifted the top off the first box. Photos. Hundreds and hundreds of photos. No photo albums, just dozens and dozens of photo envelops seemingly fresh back from the developer. Negatives neatly tucked in the front pocket and the snapshots tucked neatly into their own pocket just behind the negatives. I quickly made a mental note that any family photos would be segregated so that I could send them to his brother. I also, decided that any photos with our friends could be passed along to whoever might be in the photo. I took a deep breath and began. I opened one envelope after the other only to realize there was no one I recognized in any photo. And only a very few actually had Gary in the photo.
Two years earlier, Gary had treated himself to a trip to Europe. Many photos were from Europe and other places he visited. There were photos of people he met along the way. However, the photos were void of any significant story. There were more photos of crowds. Crowds gathered in a farmer’s market. Crowds gathered for a sporting event. Crowds watching a parade. What parade? What city? Envelope after envelope contained photos that clearly meant something to him, but nothing to me or his family. Family? It was then I realized that of the hundreds and hundreds of photos there were no family photos what so ever. I knew there had been family photos; I had seen them when we lived together for nearly two years. Just has there had been other photos of Glenn, Jim, Sport, Lee, Rich, and Chuck. Where were they? It was then that I realized I had been holding onto Gary’s left-over memories of a life well lived. His brother and sister had already taken their family photos. Other friends had done the same. What is mine to do?
As I leaned back against my desk and took another sip of coffee, I spied my shredder. No, I couldn’t. But then, did I want to hold onto this meaningless box of photos for the rest of my life. Did I want my then survivors to have to sort through them and wonder where I had been? I contemplated tossing the entire box out into the trash but, somehow that felt really disrespectful. So, I poor myself another cup of coffee and returned to my pillow and pulled the shredder close. I would take a photo, look at it, bless it and say, “Thank you for giving my friend Gary enough joy to want to capture this moment.” Then, I’d drop the photo into the shredder. And hour or so later, I found all the photos gone and box number one, empty. Now, for box number two and the lessons it would hold for me.
The second box was heavier. Much heavier. When I pulled the lid back, I found it full of children’s books. Gary loved children’s books. Often a new children’s book was just the gift we’d receive from Gary for Christmas or a birthday. As, I took one book at a time from the box, I found that some were brand new; spines that had never been cracked. Others were books given to him by friends and loved ones. As I took one book at a time from the box, I noticed a few were books he’s dedicated to others by didn’t live long enough to bestow upon the intended recipient. I segregated the new ones to be given to the library. The books to be gifted to others in another stack. I decided to keep the rest. I had almost missed the tiny little red book in the bottom of the box. It had no dust cover, but the spin read: “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf.” Written by Leo Bu scaglia. I felt the same anticipation I felt as a child when I knew the package, I was about to unwrap was the gift I longed to receive. I heard myself say: “This is for me!”
I began to read: As I read each word aloud, it was not my voice I heard, but Gary’s voice. Gary was my “Daniel.” Was I Freddie? If Gary is Daniel; then what is Daniel, trying to teach me? I Was this Gary’s final lesson for me? For me, this was a sacred moment between two friends. As I read the final page, I began to sob. I had made it to the level of grief that many call acceptance. I got on my knees and sobbed. I let it all out.
The season of Gary and I’s life was over. Then final leaf had fallen. As, I placed the empty boxes into the recycle bin, and placed my cup into the sink, I realized that with all the care taking, all the handling of affairs, what I had not done was grieve. I had even spoken to my therapist about this, and she told me. “That will come – in time. Honor it when it does.” Today, had been that day.
Iyanla Vansant teaches that people come into our life for a reason, season or a lifetime. On that rainly Saturday, I believed that the “season” of Gary and Jack had ended with the winter’s rain. Now, thirty years later, I realize that it merely transformed. His spirit resides in my heart and soul. His energy is right there with me each and every time I take to the podium. He is with me always – for a lifetime. Thank you, Gary (Daniel), for this transformative lesson. You are loved.
Rev. Jack Elliott, December 3rd, 2022
I had even spoken to my therapist about this, and she told me. “That will come – in time. Honor it when it does.” Today, had been that day.
Iyanla Vansant teaches that people come into our life for a reason, season or a lifetime. On that rainy Saturday, I believed that the “season” of Gary and Jack had ended with the winter’s rain. Now, thirty years later, I realize that it merely transformed. His spirit resides in my heart and soul. His energy is right there with me each and every time I take to the podium. He is with me always – for a lifetime. Thank you, Gary (Daniel), for this transformative lesson. You are loved. = Rev. Jack Elliott, December 3rd, 2022
(c) 2022/2923 Rev. Jack Elliott Photo of Gary Stroeher, in from the Elliott Family and the Cover of The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, is from Amazon.com This essay correspondes with Episode #1 of the Remember When...? Podcast. Picture Credit: Jack Elliott
Coming up in Episode #2 – “181!”
RJ pays tribute to Vera Ginsburg. Co-founder of the Genard AIDS Foundation. Vera transitioned in October of 2022. RJ says the sweetest sound he ever heard was Vera’s laughter. She also taught wonderful lessons for honoring relationships.