This morning I walked our family dog, Sukie, to my neighbor’s house – the frontman David Lee Roth of the legendary rock band Van Halen. Sukie felt the urge to poop on his lawn, so I put my iPhone on speaker. She did her business to Eddie Van Halen’s iconic guitar solo “Eruption.”
Eddie’s hard rock band defied punk and disco during the 1970s – it took six years to breakthrough. Record executives finally signed Van Halen to a major label after they filled the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with thousands of screaming fans. The rest is music history: Van Halen ascended from the ashes of rock and roll, and single-handedly spawned a new wave of energetic hard rock bands featuring heavy metal live shows and long hair. The Pasadena band sold over 56 million records in the States (over 80 million worldwide), and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Eddie left us last week. No doubt, he’s at the Gate of Rock Heaven playing “Eruption” to gain entry.
During times like these, I hear my grandmother’s voice. She was always quick with a quip (short and sweet, sometimes bordering on profound). She spoke with an economy of words that began and ended with a spat of exclamation points. If she were alive today, she’d probably say: “Imagine the sound! A lead guitar trio of Jimmie, Prince, and Eddie playing in Rock and Roll Heaven. The Rock Gods are howling with joy tonight!” She had a knack for putting things into a proper perspective – even unthinkable tragedy.
It’s been a year for the ages: tragedy mixed with tumult and change.
The year 2020, for many, has a surreal vibe feel that is couched in hard reality. I suffered a major stroke back in June and fully recovered to continue my weekly series, A Word Less Certain.
What a year.
My dear friend, Amanda, died from an undetected brain aneurism only six months after retiring at age 56. Last month, I received a portion of her estate as an inheritance.
How many people fantasize about retiring early, but won’t? How many people talk about giving the man the finger, and don’t?
Amanda and I left our corporate jobs after 30-year careers in the auto industry. We took our pensions without the typical annual cost of living adjustment provided with most government and public service retirement plans.
Her death came as a shock. There was no hand-holding or warm embrace before making her transition. She didn’t leave a note behind, or a letter, or poetry in longhand, or a journal. No words escaped her last breath—nothing to ease the pain of those who knew her best and loved her most.
Dropping Out Before Dropping Dead
Amanda and I had a lot in common – more than most casual lunch dates. Retiring a decade early to pursue our separate “dreams denied” became our obsession.
After dropping out of the corporate world, Amanda moved to her mountain cabin. Instead of getting up early every morning to deal with the onslaught of L.A. traffic and office politics, she breathed in pine-scented fresh air and took short hikes from her doorstep with a rescue dog she named Griffin.
I decided to pick up where I left off 30 years ago: pen and paper with dreams of writing a best-selling novel and receiving the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Early retirement for me meant believing in my talent and eating a steady diet of beans for lunch, then farting up a storm to make room for my favorite evening meal – a can of spinach with SpaghettiOs. Sometimes I added a fistful of Cheez-Its and some canned tuna. But I digress. Amanda never minded, though. She got a kick out of my random thinking patterns and shameless lack of normal.
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The longer one waits to pull the plug on their career, the more money they have with fewer days to enjoy it. For Amanda and me, the decision to retire early at 56 was a no-brainer. We already had one foot out the door.
So, today I am writing about what my friend will never experience. Loss.
I guess that’s where my selfishness lies. When I last saw Amanda connected to life support, she was already gone. Holding her hand and demanding that she fight death would not bring her back. I did anyway and stayed until the decision was made to remove her from life support.
I sat down to write her a letter from our pale-blue bench in the park. The crows in the pines were sneaking down to the lower branches for our leftovers. I was their favorite target.
What shall I write? Did it matter? I realized later that my letter began as it ended with “hello.”
I feel your presence here in the park. You’re sitting next to me on our bench. Thanks for coming.
We escaped our cubicles six months ago. Together, we kissed our waffle iron work-life goodbye. And with our arms stretched high, we waved our middle fingers, saying buh-bye.
There is comfort in forever. I only wish our forever friendship could have lasted another decade or two. You know me so well. Few friends ever get that close.
Maybe, I’ve got this all wrong. Because I feel like you’re here with me now. And you’ll never leave as long as I hold you close in my heart.
It’s time for me to go, but only for today. When tomorrow comes, we’ll meet again somehow someplace somewhere – and I’ll say, Amanda, so glad you could join me here today.
Goodbye, my sweet friend.
I never knew the word forever meant “always” until that day in the park. Amanda’s new life at her cabin in Idlewild lasted for six months and three days. If she knew she had less than a year to live, she would have changed nothing. A lesson for us all.
For Amanda: I vow to honor your memory by living my life to the fullest as you would have. I’ll never forget our lunches in the park and the days we spent plotting our escape from corporate America. We gave each other permission and the courage to drop out before dropping dead. And yes, I occasionally return to our bench in the park to feed the ants some bread crumbs and for the crows a pulled-off piece of sandwich, especially the fat one with a broken ankle we named Footloose.