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  • Writer's pictureEric Knabel

Thoughts From Six Feet Away: The Bittersweet Taste of Optimism

A thought as this new year rises:


The dishwasher was invented in 1885. It became part of the homeowner’s consciousness in 1920, and by the 1970s, it was an essential appliance in most homes. The question I have is simply this – why isn’t everything dishwasher safe by now? It’s like the Tervis company singlehandedly decided that they would keep me chained to the past. My household goes through a ridiculous amount of non-dishwasher safe drinking receptacles. We need to stop the madness!


That said, I hope everyone is enjoying 2024 while it is still fresh. A new year brings new opportunities, which some label as the well-intended, poorly executed new year’s resolution. Like most regular gym-goers, I hate the month of January. The resolution crowd is full of vim and vigor, never to be seen again by March 15th. I remember going to the local YMCA on New Year’s Day a few years ago, and the running track looked like the lower half of the video game Frogger. I say these words with a chuckle, but I get it…some of us want to forget the previous year, and the new year brings a renewed hope. Maybe things didn’t go too great last year, and this is our chance to forget about the past as we forge a brighter future. Even if we’ve had a good year, there are still new mountains to climb, new dragons to slay.


2023 was a mixed bag for me. It began with crushing heartbreak and the loss of Keith, arguably one of my two best friends in the world, and one I memorialized in this post. More than half of the days since his passing in April, I talk to him, pretending he’s in the room with me, and I swear he answers at times. The Grateful Dead, one of his favorite groups, has played in more random places than I have ever experienced, and I feel as though he’s with me in those moments. As Bret Michaels once sang, the wound heals, but the scar remains. As the year progressed, a renewed sense of optimism sprang up inside me. I began setting goals again. I grew closer to my family, both immediate and extended. I have a legion of devoted friends. My children are happy, kind people. My wife is pursuing her own dreams, and doing quite well, I might add. My finances are looking up, and I don’t remember a time in my 21-year career where I’ve been more satisfied with my work. I ended the year by spending the holidays with my sister and her family in Colorado, and there was a moment on the night we got in, where I was sitting at dinner with most of my sister’s family. My nephew had cooked the most amazing dinner, and as I scanned the table and saw the smiling faces of my family, I paused and took in the moment. My sister looked over at me and said, “Is something wrong?” And I replied that no, there wasn’t – I just knew I wanted to remember that one brief flash of time, and I took the opportunity to stop and take it all in. It has been at least a decade since I looked forward to a new year like I have for 2024.


That all changed as I was packing my clothes on January 1st. I opened my Facebook Messenger, expecting another “happy new year” message, but instead it was a message from my old friend James, stating that my friend Greg had passed away. As the initial shock wore off, I retreated to the back room and told my wife. I cursed my 2020 self, who had boldly proclaimed that I had been fortunate not to lose anyone close to me. Apparently, Death had chosen the early 2020s to make up for lost time.


Over the last seven months of 2023, Greg called me at least every two weeks, and we processed our grief about Keith’s passing together. He was never comfortable approaching topics of death, so it wasn’t a surprise when he wasn’t at the service, but he materialized next to me at the cemetery to pay his last respects. I wish I had known how little time I had left with him.


Growing up, Greg was a mainstay in my life. We were in band together. I forged an immediate bond with him because, like me, he was being raised by a single mom. We all listened to the same music, and he was part of the infamous quintet that attended the Monsters of Rock concert before my senior year in Indianapolis. We always hung out at his house, mainly because his mom worked nights. Teenage boys left alone can get into all kinds of trouble. Our particular brand of trouble was underage drinking, but we never left the trailer that he shared with his mom. There was a whole group of us who regularly attended Greg’s on the weekends. My mom was no fool, she knew what was going on over there, but because we made good decisions, she seldom had an issue with it. To illustrate, this was a typical conversation in my house:


“Mom, I’m going to Greg’s.”


“Don’t spend the night. I need the car in the morning.”


“I’m walking over there.”


“Don’t drink too much, then. And if you do, stay put.”


In talking to Greg’s mom in the past week, she chuckled when she told me that she never knew how many boys she’d have to step over when she came home in the morning, on her way to bed. She loved having us there because we were trustworthy and safe. We became extensions of her own family, and she always took care of us. Many years later, Greg bought my ’78 Corvette, and she came with him to pick it up. Every time I visited, she used to laugh about the “old days,” and she frequently referred to us as “her boys.”


When I went to college, Greg and I grew apart. But his house was always my destination when I came home. I remember one vacation where I insisted on making my new college discovery, Jell-O shots. I conveniently forgot that you don’t make it with pure vodka, though.  We drank while waiting for it to be done, but alcohol has a much lower freezing point, so it was very slow going. We drank some more, played a few games, then convinced a sober person in our party to take us swimming. (I didn't say our decisions were always good). When we got back and they still weren’t ready, we drank some more. Tired of waiting, we passed out around 4am. The next morning, we awoke to some serious hangovers. Amid the groans in the room, Greg walked to the fridge and said, “Jell-O’s ready.” We all about heaved on the spot.


There were many nights cruising around town in Greg’s old red truck. He’d borrow tapes from me, and they would always be half-melted when I got them back. We watched hours of Headbangers Ball on the weekends, and he’d play his acoustic guitar while we watched. He was Danny Zuko to my Kenickie in “Grease” my senior year. We were fairly inseparable during those high school years – no matter what I was doing, Greg was doing it too. He would intermittently pop into my life in the following years, and like all good friendships, you pick up right where you left off. Even when I didn’t plan on seeing him, he was there. I was home a few years ago to attend the funeral of a classmate, and as I walked into the convenience store to get a Dr. Pepper, Greg walked out and gave me a puzzled expression. “Thanks for letting me know you were home,” he said, half-kiddingly. Funny how grief brings to mind all the times you didn’t measure up.


The last time I came home, to celebrate Keith’s birthday at the cemetery, I tried to get together with Greg, but he told me that he had COVID and wasn’t sure he’d be up for a visit. In the past week, I’ve wondered if that was true, knowing what I know now. As outgoing as I can be, Greg was very reserved. He was private about a lot of things, and he became a master of hiding his pain. He was the kind of person that let you know he was mad through his silence. You’d practically have to drag out of him what you did wrong. That kind of internalization does bad things to people. His death came as such a shock to me because I didn’t even know anything was wrong. Apparently, I was in good company; his mom told me that she didn’t know he was sick until a few weeks before he died. Silence can sometimes feel like dishonesty, and I have tried hard to keep my emotions in check. After all, at a time like this, it’s not about me, and it never was. It's funny -- when someone dies young, there's always this quest for knowledge among the survivors, wondering "what happened." I've gotten to the point that I find the circumstances to be irrelevant, since the result is inevitably the same.


If you are tired of reading my memorial blog posts, then you’re not alone, because I sure as hell hate writing them. But this is my way of processing grief, and maybe my words will comfort someone in Greg’s life, or anyone who’s dealing with similar emotions, and they feel like they’re the only one. With that said, I am stubbornly pushing forward into 2024, and I fully intend to make it my bitch. I am removing toxic from my life and embracing all the blessings that life offers, because damn it, I deserve it. And so does anyone that reads this. Take the time to visit with friends. Hug your family. Say hello to a stranger. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Find the good in the world – the media does enough to show us the dark, we need to find the light. Be kind to others…everyone is fighting a battle that few of us know about. Live life to the fullest, because we only honor the departed by living, and living well.


Be excellent to each other, and…

 


Save me a seat, boys. No hurry -- I plan on being VERY late to our reunion.

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emmiekesler
Jan 10

My heart and thoughts go out to you my friend. Make 2024 your bitch! You are absolutely 100% correct, you deserve the best life has to offer. You are a kind and giving soul. Much love to you and your family.

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