A memorial is a good way to inspire that thought.
Between 20 and 30 people – from family to friends both in person and online – went to an Oregon City church for the 2:00 Wednesday service. At the same time, if all went as planned, an online memorial took place (somewhere on Greedy Or Needy, a site where Erin created an account). Separate remembrances, for two different groups, both striving to process the loss. Both striving to place a stake in time: Around this, we’ll build our memory of Erin. We’ll share that memory, make it a collective memory, add to it; that’s what we can give her. It’s an imperfect substitute for life, but it’s what we do when someone leaves us: make sure the memory of that person stays.
We learned of her life. It was hard-charging: an active, perfectionist, stubborn life. After growing up in Southern California, a young Erin went to the Oregon Coast for the first time and ran into the ocean…then ran out almost as quickly, shocked by how much colder the Pacific is there than it is a thousand miles south. (I’ve swam at both coasts: I can imagine what she felt!) Parents – birth- and step- – and older relatives spoke of raising her; her fiancé Matt spoke of falling in love with her. We thought about Erin’s love of books, her expansive study of religion (encouraged in an interfaith household that each December had a Christmas tree with a Star of David on top) and her love of music and poetry. There were two readings: first, from Sanskrit poet Kalidasa:
Look to this day:The second was from Rabindranath Tagore:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
…Life as a whole never takes death seriously. It laughs, dances and plays, it builds, hoards and loves in death's face. Only when we detach one individual fact of death do we see its blankness and become dismayed. We lose sight of the wholeness of a life of which death is part. It is like looking at a piece of cloth through a microscope. It appears like a net; we gaze at the big holes and shiver in imagination. But the truth is, death is not the ultimate reality. It looks black, as the sky looks blue; but it does not blacken existence, just as the sky does not leave its stain upon the wings of the bird.Erin charged at her chronic conditions the way she charged at life, researching treatments like mad. She lived with those conditions for years, still getting outdoors for camping, swimming and hammock-sleeping when she could. It took a lot to stop her. I knew that just from my limited experience of her online, of Project Download and the attendant drama of that effort. I knew that more strongly by the end of her memorial.
After the formal service, we slowly left our pews to go to the food, coffee and tea waiting in the back of the church, and we visited. I spoke with her family and friends. Matt told of their low-key celebration of Erin’s 31st birthday a month ago. Friends talked about her competitive streak. Parents talked about her annoyance at wearing dresses. A friend named Becky who’d met Erin online spoke of their last conversation, a phone call with Erin in Portland and Becky near the coast. More laughs happened. People wrote names and messages in a small notebook. We cried a little more. We hugged, or shook hands, a little more. We connected a little more.
While there, I had unexpected moments of connection: seeing Erin’s picture and realizing she looked not unlike my friend zarhooie, or noticing that a bouquet of flowers was sent by the same OHSU clinic where I’ve gotten check-ups. These were surprising moments where different lives seemed almost to rhyme. Then I’d get over the little shivers of shock: C’mon, Chris, people have more connections and similarities than you’d think. Don’t read more into these moments than what’s already in them.
Instead, it can be put more simply: death happens after life happens. One needs the other. Neither is that easy, really, but both are necessary: they are connected, intertwined, and complicated, but they are there. Erin has experienced both. It passes our understanding, what she has experienced; but that doesn’t make it less valid an experience.
It’s life which we can have a better chance of understanding. It’s not easy, either, but Erin did it, as best she could. We celebrated her life as best we could.
The music program for Erin Bennett’s memorial:
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
“Might As Well Catch the Wind,” Donovan
“Live Like You Were Dying,” Tim McGraw
“The Difference,” Matchbox Twenty
“#9 Dream,” John Lennon
“The Circle of Life,” Elton John and the London Community Gospel Choir
“Lucky,” Colbie Cailat & Jason Mraz
“Forever Young,” Joan Baez
“Unwell,” Matchbox Twenty
“What A Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong
“The Circle of Life,” Carmen Twillie and Lebo M
“The End of the Innocence,” Bruce Hornsby and the Range
“I’m Yours,” Jason Mraz