It’s been exactly a year since the bombing in Bali that killed my old friend Rick Gleason and 201 other people.
Is there a statute of limitations on mourning? Should there be? If we stop feeling that skip in the heartbeat and stab in the gut when we think of someone we loved who was killed, have we stopped caring? Should guilt then rush in? Should we try to leave behind our grief, and get on with it? What is left of the dead one, a year after they’ve gone, in the world? What do we learn from their lives, what can we learn? What have I learned?
A year on, I wish I could say confidently that I’ve consciously changed my life for the better after Rick’s death, taken the lessons his life and his sudden death taught me, plowed up some fertile ground. I wish that in the decisions I’ve made in the intervening twelve months, a reflection could be seen of some nebulous tribute to him, and the things we both believed about life. Maybe it’s there, and I can’t see it. When you’re too close to the mountain, you can’t see how high it really is.
I’ve lived my life with death all around me — not in the way that the billions of poor people on this planet do, perhaps, with family members dying slowly in the corner of the shack, or ripped apart under American bombs — but with frequent visits from the reaper, until he became a familiar presence in my life, neither feared nor hated. I have no fear of death, but I resent it, and the curtain it throws around our brief little lives.
My father died when I was about five years old, my younger brother, right in front of me, a few years later. Aunts and uncles, great- and otherwise, died with regularity through my teens, as did my dearly-loved maternal grandfather. The rest of my grandparents were gone by the time I was in my mid-twenties, and then my step-father, who’d married my mother not long after my father’s death 20 years before, also died. I have friends who never lost a family member or dear friend until their mid-thirties, for whom Rick’s death was a shock more singular, and I always wondered how they thought about death. Did they fear it? Do they hate it more now, or less? Do they put it from their minds, and go on with the humble daily things, keeping the stink of terror well hid?
Scars were left on me in the wake of those deaths in my young life, furrows and welts in my brain some of which are even now just working their way into the light. This is as it should be. My great and abiding love for the drink, moderated and benign as it has become in my later years, as much passed on genetically and nurtured environmentally as it may be, certainly has some roots there. My fear and loathing of the very idea of having children, absolutely. My carefully-chosen expatriate existence, yearning contrapuntally as I sometimes do for the deep, cold coniferous forests of my youth. The vigour with which I counter those who I perceive to be attacking me, yes. All of these and more. I have made my peace with the ghosts, made it many years ago, and carry my wounds with awareness and a quiet understanding that what happens is good by virtue of the sheer fact that it has happened, and that to claim otherwise and rail against our experience is to refuse life, and shrink from it. To say no, rather than yes.
But Rick’s death marked me, more than I could have expected. I still feel that weightless skip in my heartbeat, that stab in the gut, when I think of him. One year on, there are more questions than ever, about what my life is to mean to me, and what it has meant. About what is important, what is indispensable, and what is good. About how to reconcile a love for individuals with a deep, heart-squeezing loathing for humanity, and particularly for the sort of people that knocked down the World Trade Centre, that set the bomb in Bali, and that ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. About the preachers and the haters, the ideologues and the god-fearers, the killers and the martyrs, and about how deeply stupid and damaged, greedy and afraid they must be.
And in the end, of course, I’m left with more questions, and I’m left with a rising knot of choking rage and resentment that I consciously push down, squeeze back, and try to transform into something useful, into words and actions that don’t feed the killer monkeys, that keep the bloody chaos at bay, and I’m not usually very successful.
I said this, about 18 months ago, long before my friend’s death :

To regard the death of those you know and love as a natural thing, to turn the painful experience of their loss into something that enriches and strengthens your own life (because, face it, they ain’t got one anymore) – that’s the mostly truly reverant eulogy and memorial one can make. Which is trite, perhaps, but people seem to forget it, again and again.

and I suppose I still believe it to be true.
But Rick’s murder marked me, more perhaps and nearer the surface than any death I’ve lived past since I was very young. I suppose I am a better man because of that mark. I would be a happier man, and one less uncertain and questing, if it had not happened. Would that Rick were still walking around in his loose-limbed way, falling in love at the drop of a hat, laughing and drinking and seeing. Would that he could share a drink with me tonight.
But that is not the way it happened, and I’m still not sure of how to live with that.

Emergency, Me|dia, Thoughts That, If Not Deep, Are At Least Wide, Uncrappy

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. I don’t believe in anniversaries. I think if something is important enough to remember and ackowledge once a year it should be done every day. This weekend came along just like it did last year, with a much appreciated extra day off. Maybe it’s because the sun is as low in the sky and the leaves are the same colour as they were when the nightmare began last year, perhaps its the letter from Rick I found while unpacking from our recent move, but there has been a certain heaviness in my thoughts lately. I’m sure I’ll feel better sometime, but not too soon, I hope.
    It’s not that I never lost people close to me before Rick, it’s just that there was always someone closer who was affected much more than me. I would feel bad for a little while, have a beer in their honour, and go about my life, feeling guilty for the relief I felt that it didn’ touch me more. And I would avoid the subject with those who lost as best I could. In my mind I was doing them a favour, keeping their mind off or it. They don’t want to talk about this with me. We’ll keep it light.
    The thing is, Rick was all I wanted to talk about. I was amazed how folks outside the circle did their best to change the subject. I still want to talk about him. I want to remember all the moments he and I had, sharing beers and songs and stories and jokes, everything.
    I wish I could say I’ve done nothing but go after my dreams in the last year, that I’ve faced life with no fear and only love and joy inside. I can’t. I mean I’ve had my good moments, but I’ve also had too many days where I closed the door for the night much too early, hid under the covers until morning. I know I need to work on this.
    I’ve learned many things from Rick in life, probably more than even I know. I honestly have no idea what I’ve learned from his death, except that some things don’t necessarily heal with time.
    I miss him. I’m glad I miss him, but I’m also choked with rage and sadness that I miss him. I try to imagine a world where people as good as Rick live forever because, let’s face it, we need more of his kind.

  2. Hey Chris. Sorry it’s been so long. I do check out emptybottle every now and then and enjoy reading your eloquently crafted piffle. I think of Rick often and have returned many times to your archives so thanks for continuing to provide what is for a me, some kind of memorial to Rick.
    Today I do find myself reflecting with a little more focus. Rick’s death was a big event in my life. My father’s disablement and eventual death as a result of a car accident was traumatic but didn’t have the same resonance as Rick’s departure. Thinking about it, I guess Rick reminded me much more of my own mortality. Rick embraced life and lived it in a way that still inspires me.
    Going to Melbourne to see Rick was hard but I’m glad I did it because as much as anything, it reminded me that there’s also a lot of good in the world – the dedicated doctors and nurses who cared for Rick and all the cards and gifts sent in by people whose only connection with Rick was through reading about him in the newspaper.
    Traumatic as it was for us, events such as this continue to scar peoples lives on almost a daily basis. I hate America and misery it creates around the world through its dogged pursuit of self interest. I wish there weren’t the crazies that feel justified in incinerating their fellow men in the name of god knows what. But I can’t connect any of this with the death of a friend and I feel no anger towards anyone. And amidst all this shit, there is still good reason to rejoice in life.
    About a year ago, as I moped about the house feeling miserable, empty, uncharacteristically sitting on the back porch smoking cigarettes because they connect me with Rick somehow, I resolved to live life the way Rick did. I can’t say I’ve really followed through on that yet but that little candle will continue to burn.

  3. And amidst all this shit, there is still good reason to rejoice in life.
    I’m rejoicing my way through a hangover right now, but I couldn’t agree more, Skip. You’ve also said it very well indeed, amigo. Thanks.

  4. Been feeling for you today my cobber. Have a couple for me.

  5. Thought of Rick and you as soon as the BBC news came on. Bless you, Chris; we’ll have a prayer for you and Rick this morning.

  6. My Year ago today hiatus display will be talking about Rick as it happened a year ago. I’m glad, not because I want to cause you fresh hurt seeing them; but because we should never forget the human faces, and Rick’s is one I’ll never forget.
    Take care my friend.

  7. A rough weekend here in Vancouver. We remember Rick often…and always when we are happiest. We talk to him and raise a glass. I saw a joke the other day using the word “akimbo” and laughed, not at the joke, but because it was a Rick word between us, and I insisted it meant “at angles fist on the waist” and he insisted it meant “flailing”. This joke used it (incorrectly by the way) as flailing. I felt it was as if Rick had somehow whispered to me to open that page and look right there. I could almost see the joy on his face, the eyebrows lifting. Not a sad moment at all.
    But this weekend the sadness returned. We miss him. It sucks. Those words don’t begin to describe the loss.
    I’ve changed. I’ve learned. I got more spiritual (not religious). I listened to the muse and left leaving technical writing for creative. The money isn’t important. Rick knew that. But about this lesson “Don’t love things too much, or they’ll be taken away from you?” I think that should be taken off the life course requirement list, or at least restricted to having your favourite t-shirt ruined in the wash.
    A year ago, I wasn’t interested at all in the ones who’d set the bombs. I didn’t want to give them a moment of thought. Now it’s true, I’d pay good money to see them burn at the stake. Hell, I’d light the match right now. There, that’s a change too. Nothing wrong with feeling like that. Nothing wrong at all. I’m sorry, am I supposed to be above all that. To be good and merciful, forgiving and understanding? Not this weekend, brother.

  8. Like you, stavros, I have attended way too many funerals for friends and family over the years (far too many of these from sudden, shocking deaths) and they just start to blur after a while, which sounds cold and callous but really isn’t. You begin to develop the knowledge that people you know will die one day and it does not come as such a shock after a while, even though you still grieve just as much. My partner, on the other hand, has never known anyone that died and has never attended a funeral her entire life, which I find unfathomable.
    The death of your friend Rick affected me about the same as the deaths of friends that I have known for many years and I have often wondered over the past 12 months why that is, given that I had never heard of him until I saw your comment on MetaFilter. The bombing in Bali was a kind of turning point in my life and I think that Rick was a symbol of that for me – something concrete I could hang my feelings on, so to speak. While nowhere near the magnitude of the WTC attack, I felt truly and personally violated by the attack in Bali, perhaps because the Sari Club was somewhere that I had seen with my own eyes and therefore was a place with some personal connection, maybe because Bali almost seems like a little part of Australia. I really don’t know why.
    My thoughts are with you now as they were a year ago. I wish they were happy thoughts, but my heart is filled with sadness at the cruelty that we inflict on each other in the name of causes that we rarely even understand fully.

  9. Stav: You’re a better man than James Lileks. You’ve summed up grief and loss better than he could ever muster in months. Lileks didn’t lose anyone close to him. But he remains angry, unpleasant, unable to perceive any shades of grey. Your efforts to move forward, which, in a nuthsell, aren’t easy, show more maturity and human insight than that bitter libertarian in suburbia, who remains furious precisely because he remains willingly uninvolved. I tip my hat and my glass to you, good sir. While coping with this ain’t easy, while no words cannot express your inner imbroglio, your sentiments hear are a testament to the blogosphere and the human race. I salute you and wish you the best.

  10. Hi I was in the bomb and lost both my legs and got 63 % burns as a result Can anyone tell me where i can get before and after pictures and also maybe some pictures from when it happened as i am trying to gather all the information i can to help me deal with it
    Thanks for any help you can give me

  11. Jesus, Ben, I’m sorry, but I’m glad to hear that you made it through alive.
    I don’t really know of sources for things you’re looking for, Ben, but there were a lot of links and information provided here on my site by me and by Rick’s friends during the time when it happened, to regular media. That might be a good place to start.

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