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Wendell’s Obituary

Thirty two years ago today, I lost someone special to me. Here is the story of his burial, just six years ago this month.

RIP Rodney Wendell Emerson Roberts. I no longer dwell on you, but you cross my mind most days. You probably always will.

On Saturday, August 19, 2006, I traveled back into my past. The time machine was a small sailboat that left Santa Cruz harbor at 11 a.m. The cargo: six passengers, a guitar, a few pieces of paper, and the ashes of my first love. He was raised in Nevada County and died there, too, just after his 18th birthday. His name was Wendell Roberts. He was a brilliant, hippy teenager who washed dishes at Friar Tuck’s when it was a tiny place. Thanks to an early beard, he snuck into Duffy’s Success for an occasional draft beer. He scored 1460 on his SAT and turned down a full ride to MIT to go to UC Riverside, major in English, and stay closer to me. He was editor of the high school paper and on the wrestling team.

Wendell died on Dog Bar Road at 1:35 a.m. on August 26, 1980. He was returning home from the state fair. That wasn’t the way to his house, though, it was the way to mine, although I’d already left for college in the Bay Area. (I have always wondered why he was a passenger in a truck driving down that road. Officials named no cause for the accident, but family legend has it that his best friend, Danny, fell asleep at the wheel.)

He was supposed to leave Nevada County a few weeks later, also bound for the Bay Area to begin his second year of college. Wendell and I were experiencing great turbulence in our relationship at that time. His family elected not to have a funeral for him. Through the years, I’ve kept in touch with them.

In early August of 2006, I received a call from Langdon, one of his two younger brothers. He and his brother Mallory had realized they regretted their family’s decision not to hold a ceremony, and while their father (who lives in England) was in the states, they wanted to bury Wendell’s ashes at sea. “We need you there,” Langdon said. “You knew a side of him we didn’t.”

Wendell and his brothers had not been close, to put it mildly. Recently, when I reviewed old letters I’d written him, I noticed occasional pleas I made asking him to be sweeter to his brothers. Despite the emotional distance that marked their childhood, it was important, nearly three decades later, for Langdon and Mallory to give their brother a proper and soulful burial. More than once, I tried to talk myself out of joining them at the harbor. Why bring up so much old stuff? But in the end, I was there.

I got to the harbor about 11 a.m., the last to arrive in our group. I had not seen Wendell’s father in over 20 years, although I had spent some time with him after Wendell’s death. He greeted me with a warm bear hug. Langdon I see fairly often, since he lives in the Bay Area, but I had not seen Mallory since he was a young teen, since before Wendell died. His deep brown eyes were haunting–exactly like his brother’s. He held my hands in his and looked deeply into me.

We grabbed our sweaters, the guitar, assorted papers, and Wendell’s ashes and headed for the sailboat. Moments later we were out at sea.

For an hour, we shared our memories of Wendell. His father told of their formative father-and-son cross-country trip when Wendell was just four years old. I read “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, a poem by John Donne that Wendell had once demanded we read after we had a fight. Mallory played Led Zeppelin on his guitar and read aloud the vows Wendell had written for our wedding, a less than legal, very private affair some 30+ years ago in Pioneer Park. And one by one, we went to the bow with the urn of ashes and said our private good-byes.

As I sat there, six inches above the Pacific with his ashes in my hand, I thought mostly of our broken dreams. They were broken finally by death, but time and time before by youth and immaturity and all we were up against. I let some of the ashes fall back in the box, holding on to just a bit. I already knew what I needed to do, but I hesitated, because it seemed sketchy, even obscene. Even so, just for one moment–I had to experience some form of his DNA again. I rubbed his ashes deep into my cheeks. I ground them in, hard, absorbing their coarseness and their familiarity. I took another small handful and watched them sift down toward the ocean floor. I felt something leave me, then, jump out of a dormant part of me and join him in the water. Shaking, I took my seat and handed the urn with the last of his ashes to his father.

On our way back to the harbor, we blasted Bruce Springsteen (Wendell’s favorite) and huddled together. Our hands, intertwined, gathered a puddle of our tears. Our shoulders shook. Just then, twenty-six years might felt just like one minute.

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