Following the Dead
On April 30th, 1995 my fiancée died after a 9-month war with cancer. Angiosarcoma. Cancer of the blood vessels. Pretty rare stuff. We had the best care in the country, but in the end the doctors were no better than witch doctors rattling bones and shaking feathers. Four days after her death, I turned 30. For some time, I was a marionette moved by unseen hands on unseen strings. Crying when alone in a car, facing a radically different world then the one I had known. After a few months, I packed up my bass and flew to California to visit college friends in San Diego and my late fiancée Michele’s little sister of sorts, Sierra, in Santa Barbara. Michele had worked in a sunglass store in our east coast beach town, and Sierra’s mom owned a little French café nearby. Sierra would be at the café while her mother worked, bored, she would go in and out of the nearby shops. Even with a twelve-year age difference, Sierra and Michele hit it off immediately. They started spending hours together in the sunglass shop, and Michele started babysitting Sierra as well. Over several summers that bond turned into something more, the two only-children became the sisters they had both always wanted. Eventually Michele and I would own surf shop and name it Sierra Moon. It still operates to this day.
I was off. Two and a half weeks to get a change of scenery, see friends, share grief, be a comfort, and get my head on straight. My first stop was San Diego where I would stay for eight days, then drive up to Santa Barbara and spend three days with Sierra, then back to San Diego for a few more days before heading home. It was a good plan. Bill and Sid were friends that I could disappear with. From a different time and place, yet still current enough to be in touch. I left the east coast ocean winter and arrived in weather perfection. The fog made the mornings chilly but also made the air smell like home, and as it burned away each day to reveal another sunny day in the high 70’s with no humidity it was hard not to be in a good mood. Something that had been a real rarity for me. We smoked pot, drank beer, played cards. We took one day and drove to a park designed specifically for Frisbee golf. In college we had played after classes almost every afternoon the weather allowed. We made our own 18 hole course using buildings, sculptures, and landmarks around campus. It was something we all enjoyed immensely. This day in San Diego like every day I was there was glorious. It was the first time I had ever played a real Frisbee golf course. I can still see part of the course in my mind, grass a soft green brown, a light breeze, the tee box at the top of a rise in the land, flowing down and away to the small metal basket made of chains and mounted on a post. The trees in the background danced with the wind. A side road, lined with trees, running on our right that accessed the course but was lightly traveled. It is eighteen years later and I’m 3000 miles away and I can literally stand there in my mind today on command. I never really thought of it as a formative trip, but perhaps, perhaps it was the real beginning of my recovery, of my re-entry into the land of the living. Perhaps the fact that I had been in the darkest days of my life for the fifteen months prior, since Michele had first been diagnosed, had made this trip, something ingrained forever.
The day of Frisbee golf we left on a drive for Mexico. Sid and Bill wanted to take me to a town called Rosarito that they liked to escape to on occasion. In Rosarito it seemed there were as many stray dogs as people. It had three or four hotels right on the beach and dirt-cheap beer and food. My memoires are odd and choppy. I remember a young boy on the street that we seemed to see every day trying to sell us something, jewelry maybe, he was a good looking kid, maybe 11, but something in the way he held himself, something in the way he spoke, it reeked of sadness, And while I have a few good memories of Rosarito, having chorizo with eggs for breakfast for the first time, smoking my first Cuban cigar. We were rained out one afternoon and wanted to play hearts in the hotel room but had no pencil to keep score. I wandered out trying to find someone on the staff who might be able to get us one. The building was a box, all of the rooms were connected by exterior walkways with metal railings. We were on the sixth floor facing the main street of the town, and the street in my mind is sand or dirt but that can’t possibly be right, we drove there. I went searching and found someone from the staff as I turned my first corner. He spoke no English. I made the universal air sign for writing, pretending to hold a pen and a notebook, and you know, writing. I received a blank stare and a shake of the head for my troubles, Me, wracking my brain to remember three years of Spanish in high school a million years ago and just as he is turning to go I burst out with “Lapis, lapis.” Four tries later he handed me a pen. Connection.
Mostly, Rosarito was a shocking revelation of what living in poverty could be like. Rosarito was right on the ocean, I love the ocean, I can’t ever imagine myself not living near it, but Rosarito had a pervasive feeling of dustiness, old dirt, poverty. A town bullied and browbeaten by a couple of large hotels, and painted with two-dollar lipstick. Even the smell and the light seemed stale and dim.
The event that affected me most happened on our last day there. Sid and Bill had a lobster place they insisted we had to go to. The restaurant was ten minutes from town, set on a hill about half mile from the ocean. The hill terraced lazily down to the ocean covered in warm climate greenery. Rosarito being on the Pacific afforded glorious views of the sunset over the ocean and the outside deck seating at the restaurant should have been the perfect viewing place. The problem was that people lived on this hillside. What they lived in was completely foreign to my spoiled American eyes. It wasn’t even what most Americans would call a decent shed. These homes were like the little school bus shelters you see in rural areas but smaller and not as nice. Tarpaper was tacked over the front to act as a door of these huts for families, some with little babies. It was like being kicked in the balls. I couldn’t shake the weight of what I was seeing. I can still see the shacks in my mind, small, run-down, hideously out of place in this scenery. I can see the tar paper door being pulled to the side and the little toddler in a cloth diaper and nothing else running out in bare feet. All while I sat on a deck, warmed by the sun settling into the glorious Pacific Ocean, me drinking beer and eating lobster. That juxtaposition of myself against the poverty still makes me feel like a horrible person.
The next day we headed back to San Diego, and I packed for my trip to see Sierra in Santa Barbara. When I planned the trip, the car rental place had a jeep listed among their vehicles, so I said what the hell, I had always wanted to ride in a jeep with the top down. The weather was custom ordered for top down all the way north. As I got north of San Diego near the military base on the coast I saw a sign with what looked like a family running across a road. I later learned that it was exactly that, a sign warning highway drivers to be careful of immigrant families trying to cross I-5. God, I really did live in a bubble. The ride was beautiful Southern California coast all the way to LA, where of course I got stuck in traffic in the middle of the day. LA is not my favorite, but as I got to the north of LA and switched to 101 the feel of the scenery changed. Riding through Thousand Oaks and Ventura, I just couldn’t stop trying to soak it all in. One of the things that had helped me grind through the darkest days was meditation, that meditation made me open to things, more sensitive to external input, and as corny as it sounds trees in the breeze were something with which I felt almost a living connection, I could smell the life and it made me happy.
That ride was glorious. I arrived in Santa Barbara in the late afternoon. The six hour ride in the top-down jeep left me half deaf from the wind, my hands numb and buzzing, and seriously disoriented. When I finally stopped and got out. I still felt like I was moving.
Sierra was attending UCSB and lived in a townhouse in the off campus housing area. This town even on a cursory pass had the feel of a place I could love. Much like Rosarito parts of this trip are patchy. I remember Sierra in a hair towel and robe after a shower on my first day and how much it seemed to me Michele’s death had changed her. In retrospect it might just have been time, but I think it was much more than that. She had aged both physically and in who she was. She went from a gangly teenager to a beautiful young woman. It was sad and wonderful. She was beautiful, but at what cost? I was 30 and had no idea how to manage, or deal with Michele’s death, what had it been like for Sierra? She took me to downtown Santa Barbara a beautiful, walkable town with local shops and restaurants. My favorite kind of place. This particular town was little out of my price range, which made the homeless teenagers camped in doorways and on corners all the more shocking. I finally asked Sierra about it and she explained that most of these kids had been following the Grateful Dead; they sold shirts or drugs and made enough money to eat and follow the tour. When Jerry Garcia died they had no back-up plan and for reasons unknown an inordinate amount of them ended up here. Seriously at 30 years old this was another mind boggling concept that I couldn’t wrap my head around. I had heard of people following the Dead, it just never dawned on me that they didn’t do anything else.
We spent another day going to the beach, riding bikes from Sierra’s place. This beach was alien to me; it was all cliffs and cold water, seaweed and boulders. It smelled different from my ocean. It looked so much more primitive, intimidating, a much fiercer ocean than the one I lived and breathed every day. It was awesome, I could have disappeared there, checked out, went off grid and done my own version of following the Dead. We rode from the beach onto a trail in the woods and as we got about 100 yards in we entered a land of fairy tales and fantasy. Tall, straight trees, lined the path. Sunlight beamed in random shafts through places in the forest. Sounds of the outside world disappeared. It was a hushed place. We had entered the kingdom of the monarch butterflies. There was no one else on the forest trail except Sierra and me, and not just hundreds of butterflies, but thousands, maybe tens of thousands. We were in a 100 yard stretch of the trail that was the bottom of a U if you were looking at it from above. Everywhere you looked, up, down, sideways, there were Monarch butterflies. Orange and black peppered the forest greenery in every direction. They landed on me, on the bike, on Sierra, then moved on to destinations know only to them. They floated in and out of the sunlight and the quiet was strangely enhanced by the sheer mass of motion created by the butterfly wings. My mind felt like there should be sound, but the light and the air was heavy and soft, beautiful, comfortable, fantastic. And it all stood still, a lost land, no skyscrapers, no cars. A past time of Camelot and simple lives, a future we got right, better and true. I have no idea how long we stayed, it could have been an hour or ten minutes, it didn’t matter. My views on a higher power are complicated, but in simplistic terms if there was ever a sign of God and beauty I had just had the opportunity to feel it in every fiber of my being. It was an unbelievable moment in time. The butterfly forest left an imprinted connection in me of butterflies and Michele. Crazy as it sounds, for many years after I would see a lone butterfly in unexpected places and think of her, visiting, saying hello. The experience changed me; it made me pause, and it made me grateful to be alive.
A time with friends to be someone you were before the tragedy. The shocking social inequity of Rosarito. The jeep ride north. The image of Sierra out of the shower. The butterfly forest. On that plane ride home I believe I decided to live again for real. Those images and memories were the first steps. The memories deserve to be remembered, without questioning if they really happened. They made me feel again and in a quiet voice told me it was OK to live.
I have a long ingrained habit of self-deprecation; a way that I hope makes people think that I don’t take myself too seriously. It is standard for me to say something like, “I’m having a problem with ‘x’, and my little pea brain can’t seem to figure it out.” The first time I said something like that to my co-workers they sort of laughed it off. The second time a month later when I did it again, they said in a nice way I shouldn’t sell myself short. The third time a woman I work with actually seemed slightly angry with me for it.
I was lucky that it caught me in a moment when I really heard her, not the surface listening that all too often goes on in my life because I have a million things I’m trying to do and in a rush to get to all of them. So I actually thought about what she said, looked at it from her perspective. Why would I do something so annoying as to pretend to be less intelligent than I am? Why, indeed….
After some deliberation, I realized that this behavior started when I was 13 years old. Our middle school had one of the first pilot programs in the country for gifted and talented students. I was one of a dozen kids picked, even now I find myself trying to physically make myself smaller just typing the words, because it always sounds somehow pretentious in my head, which is a backward reaction. The program pulled us out of regular classes for three periods a day, and those three periods were wonderful, totally different from regular classes, it was fantastic to think and wrestle with new ideas, new ways of doing things, and new challenges. But the remaining regular classes were times to be called names, made fun of, and made to feel apart. It wasn’t a horribly painful thing, nothing to compare with the bullying many kids face, and I certainly didn’t feel it scarred me for life. But I built a defense system up around it because like everyone, I like to avoid pain. That defense system was to make fun of myself, sell myself short so I could more easily fit in. It was easy, I’m a good salesperson. What I had no way of knowing is that my brain, created the equivalent of a computer virus, as a self-defense system. This defense mechanism was inserted into my operating system, always running in the background. What’s worse is that this programming came with a snazzy little user interface, The Lie. It tells me how it is a good trait to be humble and self-deprecating; it hides the dirty truth under a pretty picture of complimentary behaviors. 35 years later the program is still running though it’s long past it’s usefulness.
While the fact that you can program yourself in such a deft manner without actually realizing you did it, is in its own way rather terrifying. Thinking of your brain and personality as a program that can be hacked not only by external forces, but also much more insidiously by internal forces, could take you down a rather bizarre and frightening rabbit hole full of fun house mirrors. Yet that’s not even what scares me. What scares me is the dirty truth under the pretty picture. That the 13 year old me, did think I was smarter than those other kids, the acting job while primarily being used as a way to help me avoid pain, was in retrospect just pretty wrapping paper on a box of insulting elitism. The scary part, what horrifies me, and makes me ashamed to even think on, is that maybe the “if then go to” portion of this routine is triggered by those same thoughts today. I don’t want to believe that is the case, but I find it extremely difficult to trust my belief that it isn’t. I hope that my brain is not only self-programming but that its anti-virus software is also self-learning. That having been made aware of what was a previously unknown problem, the operating system will continue to highlight and reject any new occurrences of the previously unknown lie.
Dion Lamb is a dad, husband, writer and Crossfit Coach living in Delaware. He is a contributor to the Crossfit blog After the WOD, under the name Uncle D. His past lives include stints as a bartender, surf shop owner, bass player for The Finders, and spacesuit engineer. These are his first published works.
–Art by Mario Mencacci