Doug's Column

by Doug Ferguson
March 1996

A light rain began to fall Saturday as my ancient car rattled and wheezed across the thirty miles separating Raleigh from Chapel Hill. The radio hasn't worked since my dad first bought the old Mercedes last spring, so I traveled the short distance in a heavy silence. Voices of old friends echoed in my mind more loudly than any radio could play.

The rain didn't seem out of place to me, even though it hadn't rained in Raleigh for weeks. I was on my way to a memorial service for my friend, Mike, and the weather only seemed appropriate for the occasion.

As my car lumbered to a halt near the old house I once visited for Christmas parties and other late-night gatherings, I noticed a little girl standing on the front porch. Her tiny hand held a single red ribbon that she presented to me with a smile. Her innocent eyes revealed that she didn't really understand why so many people were gathered there on a Saturday afternoon. That, too, seemed appropriate for the occasion.

Inside, familiar faces greeted me with sad smiles. Many of us hadn't seen one another since the last memorial service (only a few months before), so we spent the time prior to the ceremony sharing news of our respective summers. As we tried not to notice the absence of friends who once gathered beneath that same roof on more cheerful occasions, friends mixed with family, old with young, straight with gay. After all, that was only appropriate for the occasion.

But as the ceremony began, and one-by-one people shared their individual memories of Mike, something occurred that might not seem so appropriate at such a gathering. People actually laughed. Just as a speaker's voice trailed away beneath mounting tears, someone in the room would crack a joke, and -- with great relief -- we all would lose ourselves in welcome recollections of happier times.

We laughed at how Mike would raise one eyebrow in the way that only he could, or speak a phrase that was so uniquely him. We laughed at our own tears and at our selfishness for wanting to have Mike with us once again. We laughed because crying hurt too much. And during those brief moments, it was if Mike was in the room with us, trying to make light of our grief. During those brief moments -- we all felt pretty damn good. Who really cares about what is "appropriate" during moments like those, anyway?

When you think about it, though, nothing about that memorial service was "appropriate," was it? What could be appropriate about a mother surviving her child? What could be appropriate about a group of young men and women losing so many friends in such a short time? What is appropriate about AIDS -- a disease that robs so many people of their most productive, and happy, years?

Of course, it's clear that grief is an appropriate -- and healthy -- emotion in response to losing a loved one. All of us have experienced such a loss before, and the tears we shed seem to carry with them some of the weight of what otherwise would be an unbearable loss. We never completely forget the pain, but grieving together helps to cleanse us of some of the emotions that we could not bear alone.

But laughter? Joy? Do such things have any place in commemorating the loss of friend? The rest of that sad -- but wonderful -- Saturday helped answer my question for me. As the afternoon and evening unfolded, punctuated by anecdotes and stories, I felt a burden being lifted from my heart, spirited away on the wings of good cheer. Sure, the laughter we shared barely masked the immense loss we all felt, but we really didn't have any choice but to laugh, did we? It was either that, or lose all hope ... and I really don't consider that an option.

After all, the people in that house were not only grieving for Mike, we were grieving for ourselves and the loss we all felt. We were grieving for the other friends who weren't there to comfort us. We were grieving because we had done this too many times before. No amount of crying could handle that much grief, and laughing was the only other thing we knew how to do.

We spent Saturday night in the house on Kerr Lake where Mike and his friends used to gather. The drive there stretched into eternity, but no one really seemed to mind. Mike made it clear before he died that we were not to grieve for him for very long, so we each set out to make the most of the night -- even if his presence was noticeably absent. For a few brief moments that night, the clouds dispersed to reveal stars overhead. Some of us gathered by the lake and talked about nothing in particular. Inside, people played drinking games and forgot -- momentarily -- why they were there.

It might not have been the most conventional way to honor the passing of a friend, but as I drove home alone on Sunday afternoon, the dull ache in my chest was a little less noticeable, and the voices in my head not so loud. Thinking back, now, I believe that our laughter was the most appropriate part of that day. And when the time comes for me to make my exit, I hope people are able to find some measure of joy in their memories of me. After all, grief is no legacy I want to leave.

Doug Ferguson is a third-year student in the School of Law at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Board of Governors. His columns initially appeared weekly in the Daily Tar Heel, and are appearing in Oasis in their original, chronological order.
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