You Still Can’t Hurt Them When They Do That…

Mar 14

“You still can’t hurt them when they do that.” I still remember the words twenty years after I first heard them. I was sitting at a bonfire with my friend Brent. He was reading some prose he wrote in a style heavily influenced by James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” One day, Brent was out and about, and he saw two turtles copulating underneath some powerlines. Observing the shelled creatures engaged in reptilian coitus, Brent was struck by the fact that during such an intimate, vulnerable act, the turtles were still fully armored against harm. The proem was one of his best, and always raised a lot of laughter.

Brent and I held regular drum circles in the woods behind his house. We’d light up a bonfire, imbibe heavily and beat on drums. Sometimes we’d read poetry or compose stuff spontaneously. We’d dance around the fire. There was even a sweat-lodge. People came and went, and while we banged on drums it felt like we were somehow whelming a higher order of change into our lives, like demented teen-age shamans.

Brent was a big dude, and looked like a hippied out Clark Kent/Superman: large frame, black hair, square jaw, and glasses set on a beard, tie-dye shirt, sandals and a face that looked out onto other places. Once, when we were hanging out, Brent up and decided he was going to run for a mile. I laughed at him and didn’t think he could be serious. He didn’t work out regularly and considering the lifestyle we led at the time, a full blown mile run seems a little out of the question. Good as his word, Brent went and ran the mile. Without stopping and like it was no big deal. Brent was a brilliant guy, and could rattle off long chains of esoteric information. Sometimes, it was a little elliptical, long strands of well-thought out and convoluted insights hung together for you to see, if you could follow him.

Despite Brent’s good looks, intellect and very gentle nature, he wasn’t all that good with the ladies. Often, women would approach-initially interested by his appearance, maybe by the life he led. Then, once they spoke to him for awhile, they usually left well enough alone. At the time, it mystified me. But not only was Brent untroubled by it-he just didn’t seem to care.

I dated a lot of women in my pre-monogamous days. Taking them to see Brent was a sort of litmus test, based on their reaction to him, I could tell a lot about who they were. Brent certainly never failed to impress. On one occasion, he introduced me and my then girlfriend to Joseph Campbell. It was one episode out of a series, The Power of Myth on Bill Moyer’s Enlightened America. She and I watched the whole thing, mesmerized by the wisdom dispensed so casually by Mr. Campbell. One hour can change your life as they say. That sort of thing happened a lot at Brent’s.

People go through phases. Sometimes we’d meet at the drum circle often. Sometimes, we’d go for months hardly seeing each other. Then, we’d pick up where we left off, as if no time intervened. Student life, the life of young people, is like that. Brent would have his episodes. He would get obsessive about astrology, about reincarnation. He wanted to grasp the meaning of his life, as if it could have hard, cold reasons wrung out of it, like old water from a dishrag. Brent’s mother killed herself when he was younger. Taking in the fate of the parents, the child sees themselves as destined to repeat in some fashion the actions of their forebears. The child is the parent of the man. Brent usually only mentioned it when we were drinking heavily, but the self-service death his mother gave to him set an opening, legitimized a way out that said it was okay to bail. She did.

Brent started to claim that he was the reincarnation of a man from Mars. His soul had come here from the doomed civilization of the Fourth Planet and this explained a lot about things…I tried to talk sense into him, and when it became apparent this wasn’t going to happen, just sat and listened. I watched him unravel. Brent drank more and more. He switched from beer and liquor to robotussin. I started to avoid him at the bars. Men do that, we distance ourselves, give out the space that is needed when it is, and then-if you’re a real friend-are still there when the room isn’t required anymore. My last memory of him is watching him stumble to a trashcan outside (I was in a Euro-style pub in Athens called The Globe) and puke his brains out.

Two weeks before Christmas, a mutual friend told me that Brent was dead. He killed himself-carbon monixide run by a tube from the exhaust pipe of his car. He’d been dead for awhile and I’d just found out. The sensibilities of today reel at this-but this was a time before email or cellphones. News-personal news-traveled slow. If no one told you, there was no way to know. My friend was dead. Gone on to whatever awaits us all afterwards. I never saw the bonfire again. I never drummed again either.

We all go through phases. I didn’t keep up with Brent because I was muddled in my own life. Within a few months I ended a serious relationship, dropped out of college and wandered through my life for next few years. Brent’s death was another part of it-darkness was closing in on me, at long last.

That night I held it in at the Christmas party for as long as I could. At some point, when no one was paying attention, I stumbled out. I walked home. My house on Boulevard had a large back yard, cleared of all its trees. I went out back. A cold night, shot through with a dim haze of light pollution. The sky was indigo and only a few stars were visible. There was no toast, no salute, no rationalization that this senseless act was somehow alright with me. I never discussed it with anyone. No one could possibly have anything of value to say to me about it. Brent was dead. He was dead and it was like the whole time we both knew he was destined to go out that way. Somehow, we both knew I was going to bear witness to his ending.

When someone leaves us  perhaps the hardest thing to cope with is the most obvious. They aren’t there anymore. They don’t come by to visit. They don’t call to say hello. Whatever you did together was over-it wasn’t going to be done again. Whatever you talked about together was over-there are going to be no more conversations. All that we have left are the memories. But what was left of Brent? Who is going to remember anything more than fragments of some strange, quasi-shamanic guy who tragically took his own life in the early 1990’s? The man who was into Joseph Campbell, who dug magic and mysticism, drummed all night, wrote automatic verse? That night, I looked at what the Egyptians call the Ikkhemmu Seku-The Stars That Never Fail. The stars are eternal. It’s why they’re etched all over the tombs inside of the pyramids. The only thing that can live on, here in the temporal world, are memories. Memories persist. Thus, I resolved not to forget. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t forget Brent, his life and death wouldn’t pass event less into the night of time, meaningless and forgotten. I’d find a way to eulogize him, to commemorate so other people would know at least a little about him.

A young man walks briskly up a hill on a cloudy day. The sky is coin-gray, monotone and the air is thick with an unborn rain. He crosses a break in the tree-line, a section clear-cut to make way for miles and miles of powerlines. They stretch from tower to tower as far as he can see in either direction, strange dolmens that will be wondered at in ages to come. He nearly continues his hike, when he pauses. There, in the grass only a few feet away, small against the broad expanse, two turtles perform the latest in a series of actions that hearken back for millions of years.

“You still can’t hurt them when they do that.” the young man notes, mystified. He observes for long moments. Then, satisfied with what he has seen, he continues on his way.

18 comments

  1. Brian Hager /

    Peter: I applaud you for your heartfelt thoughts about your friend. So many people today are so wrapped up in themselves that they seem unable to empathize with those who show up on their radar as disturbances. Some of Brent’s eccentricities strike a cord in me as I share some of them in common.

    Thank you for pouring out your mind and heart about this.

  2. Peter /

    Thanks Brian, I appreciate your comments. To this day, I miss Brent and think about him often. His death was such a tragedy in so many ways. Sometimes I get angry, but usually, just feel sad-it’s like looking at an empty seat, knowing that the person who used to be there will never occupy his chair again.

  3. You share your soul and it is beautiful thing to see. Thank you for being brave as well as honest in your writings. Well done.

  4. Peter /

    Thanks Gil. I think sincerity in writing is essential. When I write I try to include everything, even the difficult parts, the moments when we feel weak, foolish, lost. These moments are just as important to understanding the human condition as any other. I’m so glad you liked what you read and thank you so much for commenting here.

  5. Michael Granberry /

    That was a really touching piece, Pete. Brent is a lucky soul to have a friend who would memorialize him in writing like this. I know how tough it must have been to lose him as I’ve seen friends go down dark paths as well, some never to return. It makes me wonder about the nature of the human journey in general, and how and when it is our responsibility to step in and intervene or when to “give the space that is needed” as you so eloquently put it.

    I think Brent would be very pleased with your honoring his memory in this way.

    Best,
    mg

  6. Frank Bragan /

    Nice, dude. Obviously I can relate. Sorry if I kinda ranted on your post this early AM. Other stuff going on in life, and then a surprise trigger from, well, Hell! Smile.

    Djembe drums, by chance? And a sweat lodge…very cool. I’ve the Druid in me, and Celtic shamanism is an alluring subject. Namaste’

  7. Greetings,

    I don’t know you. I was led to this site through my friend, Amelia who posted the link on my Facebook page. I wandered here, expecting to read humorous ramblings on life and our daily struggles. But as I read your writings, I was moved, nearly moved to tears. As a man of 40, I have witnessed the premature passing of friends and acquaintances that have impacted me in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine at the time. I simply wanted to say thank you. Your thoughts, your memorial in prose, for a man who meant something to you, who impacted you, touched me. There was no moral, no glowing retrospective, just a remembrance of a person who, otherwise, might have been forgotten to history. I respect that, I appreciate that, I relate to that.

    So, thank you. Your words stirred in me the memories of those who have gone from my life and made me smile and think and shed a tear.

    Truly, thank you.

  8. Peter… awesome writing…hope to see you on the best sellers’ list soon. In Egyptian mythology, stars are conscious beings…and the goal of the pharoah’s ascent to the heavens. However, even stars burn out. Time is relative tho and compared to our physical lives, stars can be considered closer to immortal.

    Philosophers stone, immortality and blue apples…t cells and cancer…abraham lived to be over 900 why is the human life span so much less now. Seemingly this planet’s lessons are about relationships…and you and Brent seemed to have an authentic one. Namaste.

  9. Beautiful. I lost a friend right after college, to suicide. It tears at you, both emotionally and I think psychically. Hard stuff. Thanks for writing it.

  10. Peter /

    Gayle,

    Thank you so much! I am so happy you enjoyed it. I could see that about stars being conscious beings (as in, I could believe it). I’m not sure why human lifespans are so much shorter now than those reported in various mythologies throughout the world-something to think about, perhaps. I would agree about the planet’s lessons. I think the big one is mentioned by Jesus: “Behold, I give you a new commandment: love one another.” Kind of says it all…

  11. Peter /

    Julie,

    Hey! Thanks for reading! You commented here awhile ago and I tried to reply but couldn’t-I got it resolved later. Yes, loss of any kind, but especially tragic loss that seems so senseless is hard to bear-to integrate into our experiences…

  12. Peter /

    Chris, thanks so much for the kind words. It really means a lot to me that what I wrote could speak to someone, especially if it’s someone I don’t know myself. I want you to know I appreciate your readership and comments very much. This was a hard piece to write, as you can imagine and I’m never sure just how it will be received. Given the subject, I am very glad it was taken well. Thanks very much.

  13. Peter /

    Michael, thanks for the comments and for reading. It is tragic when we watch friends go down dark paths, and sometimes get lost never to return. I’m not sure what actions we can take-at least, not active ones. I think, sometimes, the best thing we can do is listen, be supportive and non-judgmental. That alone can go a long way.

  14. Peter /

    Frank, it’s cool-rant away, haha! Celtic stuff is very cool, no doubt about it. The drums were just whatever we could whack on. I want to say that for awhile we just used upturned, white plastic buckets. Namaste to you and to everyone.

  15. So touching, Peter. You are very original, but remind me just a bit of Dan Millman. (I mean that as a compliment, I was very into The Way of the Peaceful Warrior as a teen.)

    I think it’s great that you reached a point where you felt safe enough to revisit Brent and the tragedy and puzzle of him. Some people feel more than others do, and life is harder for them. These things that happen during our formative years can carve out paths our lives were never meant to take, not easily shaken unless confronted directly.

    His spirit will continue to live on in you and in the others who cared for him. It is both a burden and a blessing and it is, ultimately, yours to keep.

  16. Peter /

    Thanks Heather-I appreciate the compliment, I’ve had the comparison drawn before, believe it or not. I think about Brent often, but only now have I felt a safe enough distance from the event to write and share about it.

  17. Chad Harris /

    Well done Pete! That happened to one of my brothers…tough to wrap your head around. Hope this finds you well.

  18. Thanks chad! I’m sorry to hear that about your brother. Yes, it’s difficult to make sense of it all…perhaps the best we can do is accept what happened and allow ourselves to feel the loss whenever it comes to us.

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