Lessons In Losing

    I never imagined that I would be sitting in a Mormon temple, acting overly cautious about myself in front of these people.  I kept my long sleeves buttoned so that my tattoos didn’t show.  My partner, Luke, and I resisted every urge to put our arm around one another while in our seats.  But then again, I never imagined that I’d be attending this particular funeral.

    It all started on a recent Monday.  Mondays just seem universally bad for everyone and yet this one felt particularly frustrating. That morning I accidentally broke a pint glass in the sink after my breakfast smoothie.  My computer suffered an unexpected glitch - causing me to lose a good chunk of writing.  Then I dropped and shattered a mug while trying to make some tea.  That afternoon I forgot and then missed a doctor’s appointment.  Meanwhile I thought I might have caught an STD.  And after not sleeping the night before, my afternoon weight lifting set just felt like trekking through sludge.  

    When I got home, I instantly demanded that Luke give me a thirty second hug.  This is a weird thing I picked up from my parents - more specifically my mother who also deals with depression. Hugging for twenty seconds can supposedly cause some kind of oxytocin release.  Seeing as how I felt extra grumpy and ever-so-sorry for myself, I demanded an extra ten seconds.

    The hyper long hug didn’t do it’s job though.  As Luke served up the nice dinner he prepared, I continued to sulk and tell myself terrible things.  I’m never going to be a successful writer.  I’m always going to have trouble managing my own schedule.  I’ll never have time to hang out with friends.

    This is where I have to make a confession.  The optimism that I ensue does not come naturally for me.  Once upon a time, after my HIV diagnosis, it did.  But as my diseased wounds have healed over the last near decade, my positive thinking has gone back to being an active process, not a passive one. I have to make a conscious effort at it.  Otherwise my natural tendency is to go dark.  

    “Oh,” Luke interrupted my terrible self tellings as he looked at his phone.  He received a text message and, for some odd reason, decided to check it.  Typically we don’t use our phones at the dinner table.  

    “What?” I asked.

    “It’s from Johnson,” he said.  His brow furrowed. He looked confused - maybe slightly shocked.  “Nate died.  He had a heart attack.”

    Nate was more of a friend-of-a-friend who we had met through one of our favorite people, John Johnson (once a Mormon himself).  Even though we were technically not close with Nate, we felt what I could only describe as a “closeness by association.”  Our fondness of John and John’s fondness of Nate (and visa versa) led us all to just be really, really fond of each other. 

    John and Nate originally met ten years ago working at a Mormon founded wilderness program (maybe it’s the clean, white shirts or the crispy name tags, but I never thought of The Church of Later Day Saints synonymously with “roughing it”).  About three years into their friendship, John came out to Nate as gay.  According to John, he responded the way he did to everything: with an inappropriate joke.  In the end, this kind of stuff didn’t matter to him - not even when John denounced his faith entirely.     

John Johnson and Nate Aikele

John Johnson and Nate Aikele

    For Nate, positive thinking did come naturally.  While going to Med School, he got in a mountain bike accident which completely paralyzed him from the waist down.  Everyone felt devastated for him - as if it were the end of his career. But by no means did it stop him.  It hardly even slowed him down.  He did his residency right on schedule and, ironically, became a podiatrist.  

    Back at the dinner table, Nate’s passing started to hit us harder than we could've imagined.  Both Luke and I began to breathe a little heavier and clinch our eyes to hold back any tears.  Of course, clinching never works.  It only makes the tears come faster.  Nate’s death felt significant - not just out of concern for our dear friend but for us too.  We valued so much about his spirit and often talked about hanging out with him after John moved away.  But we never made the time for it and now he was gone.  

    In that moment, I decided to do something that some may consider grotesque.  I took a selfie.  One shot.  No filter.  I don’t know why I did it.  Maybe because on social media, selfies always seem so attractively happy yet so rarely authentic.  This would be the opposite - showing what I look like when I’m a complete mess but at my most real.  For someone who has little qualms when it comes to taking his clothes off, the photo made me feel entirely too naked.  

    Regardless, I didn’t do this out of any attempt to narcissistically make Nate’s death about me.  Similarly, that’s why John, Luke, and I kept ourselves under wraps when the three of us went to Nate's funeral. While none of us like pretending to be something we’re not, we didn’t want to draw attention away from honoring our friend.  Although the funeral was held in the small town of Greeley, CO (it’s as glamorous as it’s name), it was still quite the packed house.  Clearly Nate touched a lot of people’s lives.

    His younger sister gave a particularly moving speech.  One of her favorite qualities about her big brother was how he didn’t complain.  This rang true of our time with him too.  Once he had to use the restroom at our house but the bathroom door was too narrow for his wheelchair.  So instead he had to use our office in order to change out his urinary catheter bag.  We felt awful but he didn’t seem to be embarrassed or upset in the slightest.

    Another time while leaving our house, the wheel of his chair slipped off the curb on our front walkway.  Nate came tumbling onto the ground.  We all gasped and rushed forward to help.  But he merely sat up laughing, thinking it to be quite funny. 

    All of the speakers recalled stories like this, both pre and post wheelchair.  And suddenly I saw the bigger picture that I needed to realize:  I complain. A LOT. I complain about traffic being too bananas when I go to the gym or that my teeth feel too soft when I’m trying to sleep.  I complain when my scrappy fingers and autocorrect can’t get on the same page or when I spend five minutes looking for my wallet when it was in my back pocket the whole time. And what good does it all do for me?  All it seems to get me is more impatience and less gratitude.

    After Nate got into his accident, all I could think was God that’s going to be such a hard life.  Now after his death, all I can think is Wow he really lived a good life.  If I died tomorrow, I don’t know if I could say the same thing - not with who I’ve been as of lately.  When it comes down to it, living a life of negative thinking just doesn’t seem all that much like a life well lived.  The more I complain about the bad, the less I observe of the good.  Nate's death felt like a stone cold reminder of how fragile life is and how I needed to get back to my roots of appreciating it.

    It is one thing to reflect on these kinds of lessons when we lose someone.  It's a whole other thing to actually put those lessons into action.  But hardest of all is to actually hold on to them.  Once time heals our wounds, we can easily slip back into old habits.  

    Maybe that’s why I took the selfie when we found out the news.  It wasn’t one of the messiest, most real ways I could be entirely too naked on social media.  Rather it was one of the most vulnerable and raw ways I needed to be naked with myself.  Holding onto it, possibly sharing it others, would perhaps help me remember that moment more vividly.  Just like taking photos of our happier moments can help us hold on to the joy, perhaps taking photos of our sadder moments can help us hold on to the lessons. 

    I don’t expect the impact of Nate’s death to suddenly cure me of my negative thinking, but I can use it as one of my more potent tools to overcome it.  Two weeks later, I’ve still been fortunately walking in his positive foot steps… or more fittingly his wheelchair tracks.  Keeping him in my thoughts has helped me practice more patience and gratitude.  The good things in life haven't slipped by me so easily.  And now when I come home, I don’t necessarily need those hugs from Luke.  But of course I want them anyway.

    Thank you, Nate. I was lucky to know you.  I hate to see you go.  But thank you for teaching me something I needed in your absence.  I will miss you.  Sincerely, Scott.


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