This week marks a truly terrible anniversary. I hate using that word - anniversary - to mark tragic things because it's a word I always associate with party hats and clever, designed invitations and passed trays of finger foods. But I looked in the thesaurus and there's really no other word for it. It's the anniversary of my great friend Jay's accidental death. I don't really know the specific date he died offhand; I only know that we all heard about it on the Monday following Father's Day. So that'll always be the day that feels the longest and the worst: the hot, stupid Monday after the second Sunday every June.
Jay and I became friends as waiters over two decades ago. We worked together for years. I was his manager for a while; later, he was mine. Then neither of us was the manager, back to being just waiters. He was a good drinking friend. Though he never drank like I eventually did, he could certainly keep up when the situation warranted back in those early days. We discovered together one evening that there is indeed a limit to how much chartreuse should be consumed by two people. We drank it from the bottle cap, one glowing green sip at a time. Until we, uh, undrank it all over our friend Marleen's picnic table as the sun rose.
Time passed and he opened a restaurant with his partner and I worked for them for a while. I worked as a host and I did it for the free wine. I'm sure I got a paycheck too, but the constant glass of wine in my hand was the real payoff. I stayed there for a couple of years, drinking more and more...and then I just sort of drifted off. It was easier to drink at home, easier to drink alone. Less risky.
And then Jay died in a freak accident. A few days later, I wore a black wool jacket on a fucking hot June afternoon and I cried a little, I hugged his sisters, I wore a little pallbearer boutonnière and helped carry the casket from the hearse to the grave site in a country meadow and watched it lower into the ground. A group of us stood there in stony silence while the gravediggers filled the hole back up. They stomped the earth perfectly flat and practically stitched the grass back together over the rectangle of soil. After just a few short minutes, there was virtually no trace of Jay left...the headstone wasn't due for some time. Part of the funeral party drove to a nearby friend's house and drank well into the evening. Some people came from hundreds of miles away, all friends and co-workers. I wish I could remember any of that part, any of those people who drove in that day, any of it at all.
I did all the things I was supposed to. All but one: I completely, even willfully, neglected to sober up long enough to grieve my friend. A year later, when the first anniversary of his death rolled around, I was still drunk, still not facing the fact that he was gone. It was just simpler not to.
In the ten months since I quit drinking, I have bumped up against this unprocessed grief more than once. At times, it feels like a trap; at others, like an excuse. I am still uncertain about why I've been so unable to move past it. A tiny part of me thinks it's about the drink, that that's the thing that keeps me tethered to him because that's the thing that connected us for so long, especially in the early years. We worked in a drinking environment, we got off work, we drank. I wonder if I am worried that the longer I stay sober, the further I move away from our shared past, the further I move away from our friendship. Grief is complicated. There's your bumper sticker for the month: grief is complicated. I'm beginning to suspect that it's never over, either.
I miss my friend.