for Sean and for Danny, Cindy, Brian and Gwen
As I walked at the lagoons this past Thursday morning, five days after his passing, I asked Sean to show me a sign, show me some sign that he was okay. I imagined that maybe as I meandered on the path, my morning meditation, I’d see a fox in the brush, a bushy red tail wagging back at me as it scurried away; or an otter cross from one lagoon to the other and stop to smile at me; or something unusual or special, like an eagle up closer than ever who might spread its wings and take off right in front of me. Something that would let me know he was there, somewhere, and he was okay.
Sean lived with me in Flagstaff for two wonderful, long, fun summers. His wanderlust, his artist self, his seeking self had reached out to me, wanted to come west. Out to Aunt Anne in Arizona. I have been the place for several nieces and nephews to venture over the years. A growing-up inclination to go, travel, see something new, meet that crazy Aunt Anne. I am the one that got away, so they say, from the grind and grit of Detroit, the often angstful relationships of a big Irish Catholic family, fiery tempers and stern German Catholic work ethics. From my own angst, issues. From the cold. I was a free spirit, and I wasn’t the first to go out west either, each of my brothers before me made the western sojourn. As a girl, I had admired their instinct, I inherited that drive, and I too left the Motor City, but I never turned back, and a lifetime later, here I am. In the high desert. A life offering a lot of solitude. Sometimes too much quiet. Still chase the blues away.
Sean and I grew to be great friends. We had much in common, those same blues, a bit of that angst, and he found a receiving in me that he needed. A hot meal, a strong beer, a lovely home in a gorgeous mountain town, and honest, up-front conversations. I have been both revered and scorned for my tongue and my filters, or lack thereof. I can be diplomatic, compassionate, empathetic, and I can also be a jerk. But a jerk with love. That would make Sean laugh, and he would agree. We found a balance in how we could talk to each other and be heard by each other. He was a good listener as am I. We learned much and leaned into each other’s stories, lessons, dreams and certainties. He was a best buddy.
I rounded the first curve at the lagoon, the sky had not cleared up at all. An overcast early morning in the desert is a gift and a joy. We love our rain, don’t tire of it, ever. Well, I take that back. This past summer, when 16-year-old Faith Moore drove into a wash late at night in the middle of an absolute downpour, a monsoon as we call them, she did not heed or see the warnings, “Do not enter wash when flooded,” — I think we were all weary of the rain after that. That 500-year storm that had been predicted forever, the one that always seemed an impossibility, as does the death of any young person, had arrived, and it swept her away, and we were all exhausted by it, the searching and the digging and mud everywhere, and the news stories for days. And we were just the townspeople. We were the folks who witnessed her untethering from afar. I still think about her family and that loss every time I drive down that hilly road.
Around the second lagoon, and a curve, and there was a group of coots. Sean? I wondered. Granted, he was a cute dude, handsome as all get out, the girls swooned when the tall, bright-eyed boy walked by, but no, the cute coots were not the sign I was looking for. Romeo pulled over right then, wiggling his bum in the pre-pooping way that he does, looking at me with rolled eyes, like “Mom, really, do you have to watch me?” He did his business, I did my clean up, and we continued watching the gray sky reflected in the water, and I continued my mantra of the last several days since I learned of Sean’s death. No no no no no no, and no. Romeo ignored me, thinking I was just humming as I do.
Sean didn’t just come to be with me and my family for our friendship and welcome. What he offered us three gals, me and my two daughters, was gigantic. When folks refer to him as the gentle giant, and so many do, they are so right. He was a wise soul: those limbs and spine had to be big to carry his huge heart. He was so often right there for me as a friend and he offered a great ear, apt reflection, wise counsel. He was kind and so thoughtful. He wasn’t hurried, ever, which to some may have been a problem, but when it comes to soothing someone after a hurt, his slow careful response was welcome and remembered. To this day there are times when I have been hurting over one thing or another and I have wondered, what would Sean say? And I am soothed by thinking of his careful, sometimes clever, funny, or poignant response. “Aunt Anne,” he would say. “I’m so sorry. I wonder if . . . “ And he would lend ways to think about or approach my pain or failure or sadness.
The last few years of his life, from what I could tell from this distance, were difficult, to say the least. His lifelong battle with depression was not retreating, and he just couldn’t move further along in developing the skills to work through angers and frustrations instead of internalizing them and tucking them into so many nooks and crannies that long body afforded him. The head injuries further complicated his struggle with communication and certainty. What he really needed was to live a hermit’s life, a simpler life, away from it all but still somehow distinctly attached. How to get there? He sought that in his time with me, he knew his limits, and wished for ‘life lite.’ But he hated those same limits or felt shamed for them, and he wanted to do more, be more, make his life big. He was always driven back to the grind, certain he could find his way in the grind. And not get ground down.
I rounded another curve at the lagoons, a stretch where I can see far across the water and up over the mountains toward the east. The sun was rising, for sure, yet the sky remained cloudy. There was a promise of rain which in the southwest is usually an empty promise. We get teased often by the sky and the forecasters, and the sunny arid ways of the desert usually win. The clouds will dissipate, the sky will clear, and the forecast of rain is completely forgotten. Rain? What rain? Who said anything about rain? That morning it wasn’t clearing, maybe it really would rain. Something light and refreshing? Romeo pulled me over. Again? This time it was just to sniff the pee from Bailey, another dog who was walking her human up ahead. Oh, Romeo. King of dogs as Sean called him. King Romeo.
Sean knew my dog Romeo and my cat Tilly. The morning I learned that Sean had fallen to his death, those long long limbs crumbling their way to the hard ground awaiting him, I wailed. My sister Katy and I were wailing together over the miles and over our phones. What a rustle, what a noise, what did the neighbors think? At least it is winter and my windows were closed, but Romeo alerted. He came to me, whimpered and looked up at me so wanting to make things right for me. Tilly scurried away, and then as I settled down into a moaning cry, she curled up with me, not purring, but assuring. Their warmth and simple love, unassuming and reliable. Just like Sean.
Sean loved my animals, all animals, it was the gentle spirit of his that loved their simplicity, their needs so easily explained by their body language, their mews or barks. He’s probably turning into a kitten right now if you believe in that sort of thing. He struggled so with life’s complications. Didn’t have the patience or capacity for them. All that noise to absorb and react. He had an artist’s sensibility. He was an artist at heart, words and articulation were not his quickest way into a relationship with anyone or anything. His photography could tell the stories that he could not. His DJ’ing could shout in a way that he could not easily do. But where in the world did that free spirit artist soul fit into the grind? Work hard make more money. A lifelong dilemma for that boy. He needed release.
The southwest offered him mountains to climb and rivers to raft and creeks to rock hop. That boy needed to move and to stretch and to go. I didn’t know him well when he first arrived, and when he readied one morning to go up the mountain for a few days I worried around him. I talked to him about elevation as in “when you’re up high you might lose your breath,” and so on, and he laughed, and I looked way up at him, and his sarcastic smile said it all, and then I laughed. “Okay, okay, you get elevation,” I said.
But mountain lions and bears and poison ivy, I rambled, and he looked at me again. Okay, I’ll stop. He might have been a boy from Detroit, but c’mon, it’s not like he hadn’t been outdoors before, I thought. And then continued, “But it’s the mountains and and and…” Okay, I told him, I love you, have fun. Days later he returned, his first lone sojourn up Mount Elden to Schulz Pass behind him. He was euphoric and elated. He had found that place inside. Success and release and joy. He was happy.
In our last text, just a couple of weeks ago, he expressed that angst, again. That lifelong debate with trying to find balance between the man he wanted to be and the man he was. The balance he had not yet struck in the ‘free spirit artist outdoor’ dude and the ‘man in charge, work hard, make more money’ dude. His hurt was huge and it hurt is what I saw in the few words one can squeeze into a tiny phone screen. His hurt was bigger than his heart, I realized, it had grown since we last saw each other. He sent me a photo of himself at that moment. And he had said, “I don’t wanna die because of all this.”
When I saw that photo, I told him an angel had been watching over him, and I believed it. It was amazing that he had lived through that accident a month or so ago. And then, when I learned that he had died with this most recent fall, I screamed at that angel. “Where the heck were you?” I screamed. “He needed you to catch him, again. Catch him!” And you didn’t, I cried. You weren’t there for him, I said.
As Romeo and I came around the last curve of the third lagoon, the big one, he saw the car a ways up ahead and he get excited. His back knees are so bad these days, too much running all those years, he is now equally excited to get out of the car and walk as he is to get back into the car and rest. He was the king of playing fetch. When Sean and I would sit in the back yard after work, me returned from the university, him having worked at my house, we’d talk and throw the ball to Romeo. He’d tell me all the projects he had finished for me. He helped me with so much around the house. I was newly a single home owner and I just had no idea of the sweat and for me, tears, involved in keeping up the outdoors of my house. I’d always been the indoors half of of home ownership. Sean got me over the hump, many humps really, dried my frustrated homeowner tears, and my house was looking good!
I’d lose patience throwing the ball to Romeo, and I’d turn the task over to Sean. Sean and Romeo could have played fetch until the moon had risen and gone back down over the mountain. He had that much patience. But then their stomachs would call them. And boy could those dogs eat! It was a joy to have a man in the house again, and I had to relearn how to cook big! The girls and I basically ate like birds, so it was fun to have someone who wanted seconds and thirds. “Aunt Anne, is there any more of that green chile stew?” YES!
Almost to the car, I took one last look over my shoulder to the east, and lo and behold, as if that damn angel had tapped me on the shoulder, right there in all the grey of that dim morning sky, a small hole had carved itself, and from within that little bright blue spot, one long, thin stream of almost fluorescent light shone down and hit the water. My heart melted and eyes filled with tears. He was okay.
The angel had been there all along, right there when Sean died, and had tied wings to his big shoulders, lifted him up, and pulled him from his sadness and his struggles. And there he was, shining down at me, laughing still at my worries about him and elevation.
It ended up raining most of that day and all that night. Not the hard kind of rain that drudges up so much mud, and fills the washes. Not that kind, just long, steady lovely rain. Then, the next day, when the sky was washed clear and crisp, it smelled fresh and wintry finally. Temperatures had dropped, and winter had arrived.
When Romeo and I headed toward the river and lagoons for our daily walk, we could see that the mountains were covered with snow, Mingus pass was full, and the early morning light shown on them, a collage of pale pinks and oranges, blended into the shadows. It was quite beautiful, and so calm. Romeo waited impatiently in the back seat, ready for the adventure, and finally when we arrived, he jumped out, and started pulling. Not an ounce of patience that one, and I looked up, and I smiled. Today’s sky was clear, and I knew that Seany is okay. He showed me, he’s going to be okay.
*This is a really early draft, still in process, but I promised to get something to my brother Danny’s family, and as all the Macklers, Thompsons, et al are together today, I thought I’d get this out there. Stay tuned for refining and improvements. Besides Sean wouldn’t mind.
For his obituary, visit here.
You had me walking the lagoons with you, listening to the story of your relationship with your dear nephew and his untimely passing. We spend a lot of our grief looking for signs, some kind of connection to help carry loss and love. They are there, always, in the meanderings of our daily lives and our connection with the inevitable cycles of our mortal experience. Even though this is a draft, or maybe because it’s a draft, your voice is so clearly inclusive and conversational, inviting all of us in, including those who love you, to share your love for Sean, and recognize his life lived.
This is absolutely a beautiful story on life and death. I felt a deep sadness as I learned about your nephew.
Both my sons and I struggle with anxiety. I lost my oldest to depression. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s as if you could read the sorrow behind my eyes. I’m excited about our next adventure.