My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
So here are the facts. Right now, that’s all I can bring myself to start with.
The picture at the top of this post shows me with two other people, Zach Orman and Becca Dennis. This was a publicity shot taken by my mom for Mother Road Brewing Company; other than this shoot, the three of us never really went out for beers. I regret that now.
The reasons for us three never going out for beers were small but made sense at the time. For one thing, even though Zach and Becca were on good terms with the whole family, I knew them primarily through my sister, Kiki, who worked with Becca on the river and lived with her and Zach for a while near the end of her college career, where she became very close to both of them, going on regular rock-climbing expeditions and camping trips. My mom knew them from the river as well, and became such fast friends with Becca that we joked about her being adopted into the family. So my ties to them frequently seemed tertiary at best, and even though they were always incredibly nice to me, even though they never seemed anything but happy to see me on the few occasions I would come to their house, I was always wary of taxing their kindness too much. When Kiki briefly left the country, she told me I should go see them: “they’d love to see you! You should stop by and say hi!” But I was busy with grad school, and I’m sure Zach was busy with med school and Becca was busy with nursing school, so even though I felt a little guilty when I thought about it (and I didn’t think about it that often), I didn’t go. I have plenty of friends I don’t see too often, and while I felt a great deal of affection for both of them, I never really knew how to talk to them. I had a half-articulated fear that if I ever did try to spend time with them without any of my family present, I would spend the whole time staring at objects in the room while I unsuccessfully searched for something to say.
So when Kiki unexpectedly showed up at my house this past Sunday to tell me that Zach had died in a paragliding accident, I immediately thought of all the time I hadn’t spent with him, and all the stupid half-excuses I made.
I knew comparatively little about Zach, but what little I did know was invariably the sort of thing you tell people with something like awe in your voice, and use as an example of how far ahead of you some people are. I could barely read my silly books and teach my silly classes and still have the time to take a walk once a week, here was a guy who was going to medical school while doing at least 3 outdoor sports and teaching himself guitar. Or maybe he already learned it- I know he was also teaching Kiki to play the ukelele, just because she’d expressed an interest. He and Becca kept a garden and were raising a dog; I considered it an incredible feat of discipline to eat a salad for a meal once a week. And every time I talked to him, I was struck by his humility and, well, decency is really the only word for it. We tend to build up the dead in our eulogies, and turn them into demi-gods that have little to do with the person they were in real life. I am almost certainly guilty of that here, if only because I didn’t know Zach that well or for that long, but I think it would be enough to be able to explain how none of the things he did seemed to be that big a deal for him, and he never really seemed to think much of his own abilities. If you were talking to him, his first question would invariably be something about your life. It’s strange to focus so much on a lack of something when discussing someone who had so much, but that was what always struck me when I finished talking to him and Becca (who, it should be said, possessed and continues to possess these qualities)- no cynicism, no insecurity, no arrogance, nothing but a man who, by virtue of his genuine decency and complete self-possession, could make you forget that you were talking to a seriously impressive human being.
“Wow,” I would think every time I said goodbye to Zach and Becca. “They’re great. I should really hang out with them more often.”
There is nothing good about this. There is nothing redeeming, and any time someone has tried to make even the vaguest gesture in that direction, it just drives home how terrible it all is. Standing in Zach and Becca’s kitchen with friends and family, I became aware of how useless I really was in this situation, how little my presence could contribute to anything in the slightest way. Everyone else seemed to know each other, seemed to be able to talk, seemed to be able to tell stories. I had no stories, I knew next to no one, and the closest I felt to helpful was whenever someone was walking through the kitchen, and I could get out of their way before they had to slow down. I talked with a fellow mourner on the way to the service, and he talked about the idea of a sympathetic presence, that simply being there was enough. I was going to tell him that I hoped that was the case, because if there was a single thing more that was necessary, then I had failed, but I had decided that a funeral service is not the best place for sarcasm.
Who knows, maybe it was enough. I just know that I felt disgusted with myself afterwards, like I was witness to a sharpness of grief that I had no right to experience, like I’d insinuated myself in a place where I didn’t belong.
Kiki was great. She gathered the family, borrowed my car, stayed there for Becca 24/7 as far as I can tell, greeted friends, and just knew what to do. I’ve never been more in awe of her. My mom was talking to people and looking at home as well, and even my sister, who knew these people less well than I did, was making the rounds and talking and generally being good company. Zach’s family and Becca’s were both living answers to the question I had held for the longest time, “how are these two people so freakin’ awesome?” Even in the midst of their grief they showed a capacity for life and love that left me humbled.
The one thing I know is that I haven’t begun to react to this yet. At the funeral service, the rabbi had the members of Zach’s family go through a cloth-tearing ceremony, a sort of modern substitution for the traditional grieving practice of rending your garments and wearing sackcloth and ashes. The symbolic significance of the ceremony, the rabbi explained, was that with death the world is torn, and is never quite put right again. This seems true. The world is different now, if only by a single life. To my mind, it does not appear to be better.
P.S. ; Technology has changed so fast that it’s rendered many of the old forms of etiquette obsolete, and created dozens of social situations that have no hard-and-fast rules. I’m writing to put my own thoughts in order, and from a strictly personal point of view, with no illusions that what I put down here could make things any better. Grief isn’t something that can be well-expressed in a Facebook post, and a blog entry is just a Facebook post without the courtesy of brevity. I certainly don’t feel the need to inflict this on people who already have to deal with their own grief, let alone mine. So if you’re reading this long after the events in question and you wonder why I never shared it, well, that’s why. I hope that neither my reasons nor my decision is selfish or inconsiderate.