There are many responses to a death, all of which are understandable attempts to understand and “handle” something alien and painful. We resort to cliches and saccharine, and people who were completely objectionable in life are lionized and worshiped. He or she was “the best,” best friend, best father, best partner imaginable regardless of actual, historical fact. What else would you say – “he was a son of a bitch and he talked on his cell phone in restaurants?” We also tend to make each death part of our own story, to draw into the fold of our personal mythology a person who, in life, might have been peripheral. High school friends unseen for thirty years, grocery store clerks with whom we exchanged a total of thirty words…they seem larger and more important merely by virtue of being dead. In our shock, we magnify every exchange, allowing ourselves to expand the relationship until we were closer people, better people, perhaps people who meant something to one another. It may be regret, projection, or merely some vestigial hard wiring that makes folks more popular in death than they were in life.
Sometimes, though, we lose a genuinely amazing person. I’ve lost one, and I’ve struggled for days with how to write about her without sounding like the stickiest, and ickiest of the post hoc fans. Bear with me.
I’ll start with the ending, so you won’t feel manipulated into some artificial kind of shock. It’s too cheap for my purposes, that reflexive indrawn breath that comes from falling in love with a character who is killed off too early. Carrie Joy Hurst died last Friday afternoon when she lost control of the motorcycle she was riding, and collided with a stationary object. She left her husband Brent, and three children. She was thirty-five. So now you know that part.
I met Carrie a few years ago because she played in a local band called The Fruitflies. We knew the keyboard player from one place, and the lead guitarist from someplace else, and it seemed inevitable that we would go to check them out at some point. It was a huge adventure for me; my husband has conversations with people about the rock concerts of days gone by, but I have no such history. When he asks someone which time they saw Jethro Tull at Cobo Hall, I have nothing to offer. I saw Peter, Paul and Mary once, without Mary (she was sick) and Don Mclean in the 70s. Other than that, it was all classical, all the time. I was nervous about going to some biker bar called Double Deuce, uncertain about appropriate biker bar attire, worried that my inexperience and complete lack of cool would make our friends embarrassed to have me in the audience. I was also thrilled at the fact that when it was over, no matter what horrible things I said or did, I would be able to say that I had been in a biker bar.
The bar was dark, the tables were vaguely sticky, and there were lots of long-haired guys in bandanas, with and without leather chaps, and the women who drank, rode and lived with them. I needn’t have worried about my clothes. There were lots of tattoos, serious shooters of pool, and waitresses who seemed to know every guy in the place. At the front, under a wall-mounted shrine to mixed cycle parts, was the band. Michael was at the keyboard with his long, auburn ponytail and trademark Australian rancher hat. There were “groupies” in Fruitflies t-shirts who seemed to be helping, not helping, milling around and/or drinking. It all seemed to be fine.
There was a “girl” in the band, and I could see her, tall and blonde, wearing overalls over a striped jersey and looking like she was possibly 19 or 20. I remembered Michael rhapsodizing about this person. He’d been skeptical about a woman singing some of the songs, but “Carrie was amazing.” He had also told me that she was surpassingly warm, and kind, and had been a great help to him during a painful divorce. From my vantage point near the pool tables, nursing some magical kind of beer that came in a self-cooling can, it was hard to believe that the girl I saw across the room was the Joni Mitchell/Oprah combination we’d been promised. Her hair was in braids, for God’s sake; she resembled nothing so much as L’il Abner’s backwards cousin Ida Mae.
They started playing, and it was good – I watched the girl, Carrie, who wasn’t featured in the first few numbers. She played some kind of finger cymbals and sang harmony, and I was just watching her move. She had no self-consciousness, as if she entered the stream of the song and bade farewell to the bricks and mortar around her. She was graceful, and sexy, and completely uncontrived. When she sang, Dido’s “White Flag,” The Cranberries’ “Linger,” a scorching version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” I developed a full-blown girl crush. Ida Mae could sing, man.
On a break, Michael came to out table to drink with us, and Carrie stopped by to meet us. Her braids were falling apart from sweat and motion, and she had a tiny diamond in one of her nostrils. She put a gentle hand on Michael’s shoulder as she talked, and she smiled constantly. There was nothing phony about it; she was a really, genuinely, happy woman. I knew from Michael that she didn’t love her job, that she really loved her kids, that she’d been a stay-at-home mom for several years, and what I saw was that this ordinary woman with an ordinary life was giving off sparks of joy that were nearly palpable. She was damned happy to be there, with us, singing for twenty-five bucks and free drinks. It would have been wrong not to be happy with her, so I relaxed, had another beer, and felt the warm glow of alcohol and admiration soothe my soul.
Over the years, we saw Carrie often. She and Brent-the-lead-singer fell in love, divorced their respective spouses and married each other. It should have been a scandal and an occasion for gossip and disapproval, but mostly it wasn’t. They loved each other’s children, they respected their exes and treated them fairly, and when they were together, it was like having an audience with a four-handed, two-hearted deity of love. Every time I saw Carrie, I wanted to be her, to crawl out my own, uptight skin and spend a day relaxed, happy, and able to surf life’s killer waves without crashing. She was so easy, so beautiful in her imperfections, that I found myself wondering how to get like that – it wasn’t the superficial things like the tats or the piercings, she had what us high-falutin types call “joie de vivre.” She was at home in her body. She was a friend of the universe. One serndipitous evening we walked to our neighborhood park to hear another friend’s band, only to find Brent, Carrie and their assorted children. We joined them, and I watched their children throw a Frisbee together, the bigger kids careful to aim low enough to give the little ones a fair chance. I watched Carrie draw a quilt around her shoulders, lean back into Brent, and sink into the cool evening, the music and the grace of being right with the world.
We were friends, and we were groupies, following them from the biker dive, to an outdoor Fourth of July concert, to the bowels of a college basement bar with beer in plastic cups. We were always just a little puffed up to be with the band; a seismic shift for my controlled, sardonic self. Then, of course, Carrie rode into that stationary object and that part of our life was over. At the funeral, Brent sang John Lennon’s “Real Love,” accompanying himself on the guitar. Carrie’s son and Brent’s daughter spoke, and if you didn’t know that one of them was a stepchild, you would never have guessed. A photo montage showed Carrie smiling, holding her children, marrying Brent in waders and a white veil, and singing. After the service I found Michael and hugged his bony frame, the brim of his hat bumping my hair. “She was the best of us,” he said. Ordinarily, nine times out of ten, I would have chalked that up to Post Hoc Deification Syndrome. As it happens, though, he was right.