My friend Shanthi Sekaran, author of The Prayer Room, calls this piece Imperfect Eulogy. I disagree. I think it’s perfect. This piece was first published on Zyzzyva’s blog and is dedicated to Elmer Morrissey.
April 14, 2012. On the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg, the eight crew members of the Low Speed Chase set off on a day-long yacht race. When the boat took a turn near the southern edge of the Farralon Islands, erratic and powerful waves threw the crew from their vessel, into the ocean beyond the San Francisco Bay. Three sailors made it onto the island, where the small yacht crashed, and were rescued. One was found dead in the water. Four are still missing.
I’ve been waking up in the earliest hours of the morning, before sunrise. From my window I can see the distant bay and the bridges that cut across it. It’s almost too dark to see the ocean, but I know it’s out there. And I know that somewhere in it is Elmer Morrissey.
I ask myself if the sea is less beautiful for having taken away my friend. I wonder if I have the energy to be angry at the Pacific Ocean. I try to think of what Elmer might say. I decide that Elmer would see the ocean for what it is: a roiling stage of life and death, a setting, not a being. I decide that Elmer would forgive.
I was a little bit in love with him, in the way you can be with someone you’re not romantically attracted to. Is that just love? It feels more like something in between love and in-love. I might have told Elmer this when he was alive. I might have said, “I’m a little bit in love with you, Elmer, in a platonic way that straddles the boundaries of love and in-love.” A simple “I love you” would also have sufficed. But how often do we really say this to our friends? I never throw out a casual “Love you!” at the end of a phone call. I might have said it to Elmer, though, and meant it fully. But I never did, because I’m too damn awkward with that sort of thing, and so I’m left saying it to my computer in a silent and rambling essay.
We found out on Sunday morning, the day after the accident, that Elmer was missing. Our two friends stepped through our gate and stood on our porch, red-eyed and shaking, to tell us the news. At that point, the search was still on. We measured the day in phone calls and Chronicle updates. We tried to act normal for our son. That evening, we stood on our balcony to watch the sun dim and the sky blush. “Stay with me”, my husband said. The search would continue until sunset. He would keep an eye on the horizon until the light was gone. Elmer was alone out there.
A vapor trail shot up beyond the Golden Gate. It rose vertically, burning orange and aiming for the sky. “It’s a flare,” we said. “Maybe he’s sent up a flare.” We waited for a phone call. We waited for the news. We stood on the balcony and watched it, our son playing quietly indoors. Nothing happened. What we saw was no more than a fiery finger of cloud, pointing heavenward. We stayed out on the balcony until the evening grew cold and vanished into night.
Part of me, the over-thinking part, thinks that this essay may be self-indulgent, that by focusing on my own experience, I exclude the grief of others. I call this an imperfect eulogy because most eulogies are written to capture a general sense of loss, to bid to the departed an elegant and public goodbye. This is not that. This is my personal and flawed goodbye.
Each of Elmer’s friends misses him in his or her own way. We aim our anger, our confusion, our disbelief in unique directions. When Elmer was alive,the group of us ate together, drank together, worked together, ran together, climbed together; but when Elmer left, we each took on a solitary cocoon of struggle. That’s why we gather for things like memorials and barbecues. Events organized around the death of a friend have an angle of the absurd to them, but they serve a purpose. Not only do they make it more likely that we manage to eat, but they give us a way to pile our sadnesses together. We gather because we understand each other’s long silences, because no one minds when we trail off mid-sentence, or talk endlessly about football because it’s the only thing that will prevent us from thinking about what we’re really thinking.
There’s also the matter of Elmer’s physical absence. Nobody’s found him. He’s missing, and somebody–the newspapers, the rescue crews, the rest of us–have presumed his fate. There’s a minuscule possibility that he’s still alive. Until we know for sure–if we ever know for sure–I’ve considered a few alternate endings. Option A: Elmer has found a hidden cave populated by feral spear-wielding cave children. He is their leader. Option B: Elmer has discovered a sparsely populated island, and founded a city-state of the New-New World. He is learning to cultivate a delicious and highly nutritious fungus. Option C: Elmer was rescued by a Soviet submarine. He’s told its inhabitants about the fall of communism, and they are not happy. To transition them to a new capitalist reality, he’s teaching them to make and play ukuleles. Option D: Elmer is the crown-prince of an underwater kingdom. He has forged an active sex life with a mer-woman in a cockle-shell brassiere, with whom he “feels a connection.” Option E: Elmer comes walking in. He’s alive. He wants to know why everyone looks so glum. We feel foolish. How fantastic it would be to feel like a fool.
Eventually, the concept that Elmer really is gone will settle into my head and stay there. Over the past few days, the idea that he’s died has come and gone and come back again. The immediacy of it can recede for hours, and then, as I’m rummaging for my keys or putting a head of lettuce back in the fridge, it hits me. I brace myself for months of this, for the realization to come at me in sudden, unstoppable waves. I also dread the day when the reality will start to feel comfortable, when the thought of Elmer’s death will not yank my heart into my throat. Before that day comes, I’ll make a mental record of the things I must never forget about him. And because I don’t trust my mental records, I will write these things down.
Since I found out that Elmer was missing, my days have slowed down considerably. Unable to work, unable to think of much else but him, I’ve started to notice things I haven’t before. I notice people’s ages. I divide people I see on the street into those who’ve lived longer than Elmer, and those who are still catching up. In the garden, I notice a worm with a tapered head. In the kitchen, the cap on a bottle of canola oil pops right off, all by itself, and plinks onto the stovetop. In bed, my cat chews on the knuckles of my left hand–first the pinky finger, then the ring finger. He gnaws gently, like he’s trying to communicate rather than attack.
I look up a picture of the southernmost Farallon Island, the one that holds the remains of the boat that Elmer and his seven crew-mates sailed. I notice that it looks like an upside-down left hand. And I wonder if Elmer was speaking to me through my cat, telling me where to find him. I wonder if Elmer rests at the northeast corner of the southernmost island, between the pinky and ring fingers of rugged brown rock. But then I remember that Elmer was terribly allergic to cats, and I question whether he’d really choose Toady as his medium. I don’t think it’s odd that I’m searching for signals and significance wherever I can find them, to explain a reality that doesn’t make sense.
As the days pass and my sorrow becomes less urgent, I find myself trying to recapture the moment when I found out about the accident, from two friends who stood at my door. I try to feel again the transitional seconds when Elmer went from being unquestionably alive to incomprehensibly lost. This was when I felt most acutely connected to him. Now, just a week later, my memory of Elmer begins to let go, surrenders to the tides, grows smaller and quieter.
As I write this, I look up at my mug of tea. I notice, for the first time, the way the steam curls up and into the room, tending left at first, and then right, pulling itself into mushroom-shapes and jellyfish. On a normal day, a happy day, I would have swigged my tea and seen nothing but the screen before me. I would have missed watching the way steam dances. Elmer talked a lot about living in the present. The idea connected with his meditation practice, but also with his own life story. He was adopted as an infant, and growing up with this knowledge, he learned that interrogating the past can be a cruel and fruitless game, that the only way to live is to live forward.
The final time I saw him, for lunch at the Epicurious Garden, he said this: “The only thing to do is live for the moment, and make the best of it you can.” The logic of this comes back to me now, and hauls into its orbit the gut-walloping truth of Elmer’s death. I think he would like it best if I focused on life post-Elmer, on the things and people who remain. He’d prefer me to push on through the heavy sands of sadness, until pushing on becomes less of a struggle, until the day when the thought of him brings more joy than grief.
Still, when I see an email titled “In Memory of Elmer Morrissey” the words sound ludicrous. They are of another dimension, a farcical dark fantasy. But is it possible that Elmer himself has accepted his reality? What happened the other day at his memorial barbecue, when the dense evening cloud cover gave way to rays of sudden sunshine, and a spray of rain-pellets fell down upon us? This could have been Elmer’s doing. It could have been Elmer telling us that he’s made it to a good place, after all. It could have just been the weather. We take from the moment what we need, and we push on.
Elmer, I love you. Goodbye.
Shanthi Sekaran lives in Berkeley and teaches writing at California College of the Arts. She’s a member of the Portuguese Artists Colony and the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Her fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices, The Asian American Literary Review, and Canteen (forthcoming). Her novel, The Prayer Room, was released in 2009.