Tag Archives: death

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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Filed under Essays

My Father’s Flag

I wrote this essay about a month after 9/11, a couple weeks after my dad died.  I’m sharing it today in honor of Monty Earl Essex, Marine private born 11/21/46 and died 11/12/12. He was the recipient of the Purple Heart. His daughter Melissa is a friend of mine. 

My father died six days after September 11th, and he was well enough for many of those days to glimpse the television, which for some reason they encouraged him to watch. He couldn’t speak–first, they thought, because of a breathing tube, but once it was removed, they realized he couldn’t talk anyway, because he’d had a stroke. He was unable to write. So he lay there in his bed, mute, watching the crisis unfold. No wonder his blood pressure went from dangerously low to normal.

My father was an Air Force Colonel. Briefly, in World War II, he was the youngest officer in the European Theater. He spent over twenty years on active duty. His medals are on display at the Pima Space and Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He was a Republican his whole life. My father also never stopped learning, never closed his mind. In 1972 he voted for McGovern because he had a bad feeling about Nixon. A few days before he got sick, he was at my house telling me about the book he was reading: Lies My Teacher Told Me. He had a list of three more books like that he wanted to read; he left it with me so I’d know what to buy him on whatever the next occasion. My father respected Jerry Mander and hated the BIA. And the only thing that disgusted him more than George W. Bush was the Supreme Court and his fellow citizens for allowing a political coup without so much as a skirmish.

My father loved the American flag. He’d retired by the time I came along, and when I was a child he flew the flag on special days in front of our house. At the end of the day, he folded it carefully and put it away. I wish I could have driven around with him after 9/11, those final days, and gotten his take on the reactionary epidemic of Old Glory on every antenna and bumper. If the past is any indication, my dad’s reaction would have been thoughtful and hard to put in a box.

That late September day I sat under the awning at his funeral, staring at the six foot cotton flag the Honor Guard had unfolded in front of the four of us–his immediate family. Staring at it, I saw again what I saw as a child: the rich hue in the fabric, the complexity of the weave, the dense energy an icon brings. I saw my father’s flag. The breeze blew faintly and the bugle played “Taps”. The air echoed from the rifles’ three volleys.

When the spokesman for the Honor Guard knelt on one knee and delivered the flag to my mother, he thanked her on behalf of our nation for my father’s devotion to his country. The flag was perfectly folded, a tight, star-studded triangle, when he placed it in my mother’s hands. She nodded, tears of dignity gracing her cheeks. My arm was around her.

As we headed out of the cemetery I was grateful that my father’s care for his country stayed with him until his last breath. I grieved with him and for him about the way things were. I wanted badly to ask my mother for something, felt that child-fear of asking too much. In my little girl voice I ventured, “Mama, could I hold Daddy’s flag?” She turned and smiled. “I’d like nothing more,” she said, handing it to me.  I cradled it tightly all the way home.

2001

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Filed under Essays, politics