(This is the sixth in a short series of posts)
We bury Pete on one of the coldest days of the year, which strikes me because we had buried Tommy, his younger brother, on one of the hottest. I once read an article in the New York Times about the importance of the rituals of death as part of the grieving process, and I wonder, as I drive to Long Island on the morning of Pete’s second and final memorial, if that is why my grief over my grandparents’ deaths has been so complicated. In their case, they had died a year and a day apart – necessitating two grim trips to Orlando during which I had inquired about formalities – and my mother had looked at me askance and asked: Why?
When Tommy died, back in July, Paul and I had been in Newport, because Andrew and I had always gone to Newport in summer and I never saw a reason to stop. After I’d taken JRA’s call about her brother-in-law, I’d come back to the table and motioned for the bartender to come refill my Sauvignon blanc, which she did, to the absolute brim, until the surface tension of the wine in the glass made a dome over the rolled lip of the sturdy barware, and we didn’t discuss the matter of the phone call further. But that night, I’d come down with my third case of shingles – this time an ophthalmic emergency – and I’d had to drive back to the city one-eyed the next morning.
Likewise, the day Pete died, I took to bed for a week with the flu and a 103F fever. When my therapist asked me, Perhaps we can deal with your feelings instead of letting everything become physical? I looked at her like she was crazy and told her, I have no idea what you’re talking about.
I arrive in Glen Cove and I stand with a clutch of family at the gravesite and then head into the now-familiar church with the carved wood walls, and the raised pulpit, which I remember so clearly from Tommy’s memorial in August like it was yesterday and not six months ago. I am meant to give a eulogy today so I sit near the front of the church – Dorota and Michael sit next to me. Once the sanctuary is fully packed, the traditional Episcopal service begins, and I listen to the other remembrances.
Then it is my turn to rise shakily and talk about my friend:
I first heard about Peter when he was a senior at Brown, and Jessica was describing the love of her life. I didn’t have a chance to meet Pete in person until a few months later at Campus Dance, when he rolled out of his fraternity house, laughing, and joking, and that kicked off what was to be a long friendship. And for years, I teased that I was the friend that stood out at Brown events – not Pete – because at many of those Brown parties and reunions, there was almost always more than one guy in a wheelchair, but there was only ever one painfully WASPy, conservative blonde.
Pete had remarked, in his writing, and throughout our friendship, that visibility mattered to him. Being in a wheelchair, and eventually, having all of his equipment, he occasionally commented that people noticed the stuff long before they ever got to know him. But one of the things that made Peter a remarkable friend was the way that other people were so highly visible to him; the way he could make you feel like you were the only person in the room when he talked with you. This was clear from how he was as a friend; obvious in how he was as a dad; I’m sure Jess will debate me on whether this is true about him as a husband, but I’m not sure there’s a wife who wouldn’t engage this debate.
This quality came out in his professional life as a social worker – a profession that Pete seemed tailor-made for. Pete often ran groups – providing support for families of individuals with disabilities and for men with disabilities themselves. My favourite story of Pete’s was early in his career when he came up with the idea to run a group for men with social anxiety. He prepared the materials; set up for the group…and no one ever showed up. Being a social worker had a learning curve.
Over the years, I had the good fortune of watching Jessica & Pete’s love grow – they loved each other fearlessly. They were always present to each other; visible to each other; kind to each other. Pete was an ordinary husband, who drove Jessica nuts in 1,000 perfect, loving, wonderful ways. To be presented with such significant challenges and still have such an ordinary love is one of the things I admire so much about Jessica, and one of the things I loved so much about Pete.
I also got to watch Pete become a father. About a week before Helen was born, I had dinner with Jess & Pete in New Jersey; walking along the Hudson on the way to the restaurant. I remember watching Peter watch Jess; seeing her expectant reflection in the window of some building along the waterfront. The moment still sticks with me – Helen, Meatloaf – I know your daddy saw you before you even came along and loved you from before he even met you. There’s no swimming stroke you’re not going to be able to conquer, and there’s no bird or animal you won’t be able to identify – you got your dad’s perseverance and concentration. Seeing the way Pete SAW Helen – not just for being his daughter – but as a person herself, was something to behold.
Finally, as a friend, Pete never failed to be present. Whether it was for game night – where he was a wicked contender – or coming to the city to watch me run yet another ill-advised race, Pete was in. In November, Pete came to watch me run my last marathon – knowing the significance of the feat of running on two reconstructed hips and a new knee. It took me longer than it’s ever taken me to run before, and I was so happy to see Pete, and Jess, and Helen at the end.
I think it’s easy to forget to see people. You see them for what you want to see them as, or for the role they play in your life. You can see the contraptions they carry around with them, but you can fail to see the person sitting right there in front of you. I’m so grateful to Peter for our years of friendship, and for helping me to see not just him, but myself, too.
(These remarks have been condensed and lightly edited from the original).