• Remembering Shawn Miller and The Great Conversation

    Remembering Shawn Miller and The Great Conversation

    When i was 10 or so I and moved away from my hometown and didn't know anyone, Uncle Shawn was the one man welcoming committee. He was an adolescent adult and we were adolescent kids and it worked out alright for all of us. We’d go down to Baker Park that summer and play baseball and when I made the perfect ice cream cone catch that time he wouldn’t quit talking about it for a while after. All I ever wanted was for somebody to see me do something like that. Walking home the first day at a new school 10 paces behind and ahead of the other kids he and Dean drove past in his emerald El Camino and said “hey little boy, want some candy?” Everyone on the sidewalk stopped to look and i remember thinking I oughtta be embarrassed but I was too happy to see them, to have my people show up, that I couldn’t even begin to care. I just jumped in them car. In those days he had all of this magic gear on top of his dresser, top hats, interlocking rings, a wand and these cylinders that could hold probably 100 handkerchiefs. Magic is a way to change reality, at least the perception of reality. I’ve always wanted to believe in magic and i always wanted to find a way to alter reality's inconvenience. Like when my 6th grade girlfriend called and left a message with mom that she wanted to break up with me. Everyone quietly laughed from the next room where ice cubes were clinking in glasses and albums and voices were competing to be heard, but Uncle Shawn still came into my room and put his hand on my shoulder. I had all of these photographs of far away peoples and places that i was gonna run to one day. I stuck them on my wall up with borders of neon green string between each tack. One was a photograph of the leaves turning in Upstate New York. I sat there in Texas that day that Felicia Flowers broke up with me and stared at it while he had his hand on my shoulder. It was a perfect moment but i didn't know it at the time. A few years later I took some real good LSD and he picked up on my altered state and stood on the table and pretended to be an owl, eyes like flying saucers, hands curled in his arm pit like the beginnings of wings. David and I used to talk about that but he’s been gone at least 10 years now. Anyway, that night Shawn ended up drinking too much and threw up chicken noodle soup everywhere which looks just like you think it would. I found him laying in Dean’s bathroom the next morning, the red heat lamp perfecting the smell. This season saw our descents begin simultaneously and most of our tribe had a hard decade or two ahead.

    When I had went as far down as fate would allow me to I started climbing again and saw him across the way trying to do the same thing. It’s hard to really know other people until you’ve suffered. But we knew each other and helped each other up and along. Before I picked up the camera I would build things with my hands and he and I would build things together sometimes. We generally showed up late and left early but we did some work im real proud of, if that even matters. The jobs were just ruses set forth by the divine so we could talk on the way to and from anyway. Man we had some great conversations. That’s why I don’t care much about the things we build in this world, not unless we can talk on the way and during. Otherwise they’re just straw dogs, parade floats, decorated and glorified for a day but tomorrow discarded and forgotten. So much of this will be forgotten. And what are the things you’ll never forget? For me it’s drinking milk and smoking camel non filters in his apartment a few years ago and talking about the day he woke up in the finest rehab in McKinney after a suicide attempt. How he woke up and looked out the window and all of a sudden couldn’t believe “how nice it looked outside.” How he felt like a kid again and thought maybe he might be able to live this life a little more. It was like a wand had transformed the world or his ability to see it. Something had changed. When I left I poured the last bit of my milk in the sink and told him it didn’t even matter how much better things got for us. That if we could always have visits like these and have each other, life would remain livable. It remained so for while. And then the great sadness returned and he treated it the way he knew how, numbing it and feeding it all at once. Unless fate intervenes, this is the way these things go. This law doesn’t change and can’t be wished away. Not for guys like us.

    In the dream i had 3 weeks before he died, he and I ripped a piece of plywood off a window to his old house and crawled in under the cover of darkness. Once inside we found it lying in state just as it was 18 years ago, changed only by cobwebs and dust and cinematic lighting and a hindsighted lost sense of home, of happiness, of what he was supposed to be but could no longer be. There were a few empty bottles of gin and full ash trays and candle remnants turned on their side. There was some poster on the wall that wasn’t there before and as I stared at it i became aware that I was dreaming. I knew I was supposed to get the hit but couldn’t what it was trying to tell me. So we walked from room to room. He would disappear and I would walk alone and he would reappear and we would walk together. It was bleak and desolate and it took everything I had in the dream to keep a straight face and not just grab his hands and tell him how sorry I was for all that he had lost and suffered. I wanted to tell him that few people wake up one day and say I want to lose and suffer, we just stumble into it and the lacerations we receive in this stumbling that the dust and cobwebs of our regrets get inside and infect make it damn near impossible to stumble back out sometimes. I wanted to tell him I could see his pain and that it was okay. That it wasn’t his fault even if some of it was his fault. But I didn’t because I knew if I gave name to that hole inside of him that had been widening since he walked out of the house that his mother died in and that his hope was lost in, that it might send him over some edge that he was already half way over. So I didn’t tell him these things in the dream. And i didn’t tell him when he came over to borrow some shoes for a job interview a few days later. But I saw it all and always had. I had just hoped there would be more. And now there is more but it’s the wrong kind of more and I don’t know what to do with it. Except write my way through and keep living.

    So I do. I went and touched his tree and took him a cigarette and stood under it and looked up into those green and red curtains that hung above his final act. They’re now following his lead and giving in to the fall. And i keep going there with him in my mind. Lying in his bed that last night a few hours after we talked, at some point quietly accepting defeat. And come morning he’s walking 5 blocks to make his final stand. I keep trying to see his face on that walk. Maybe he was outwardly calm. The feeling I feel in my chest when I walk with him though, that within he must have felt 100 fold, keeps jutting out in every direction like cats tied up inside a bag and trying to escape. And im walking just behind him to the beautiful sycamore tree. He is done fucking around and he’s done waiting for a break. I can see him get a chair out of a big trash pick-up pile and I can see him tie a rope around a limb. It’s summer in Texas and there will never be another fall if he jumps. And he turns his hat around backwards and he jumps. Jumps out of loneliness and into a forever that we can’t see from here. I can see the last place he stood though. And i have to go there with him because if I don’t, he is all alone. And i can’t let him do it alone. It’s some strange way of reclaiming a power I never had and that he never had either. I can’t agree with his leaving us to feel things he wouldn’t but I think about this inability to control damn near anything in this life. On that last day he finally found a way to take control. Some part of me just can’t be angry with him for deciding how it was gonna be. I know he had no other immediate device to stop his sickness. And time and God’s grace wasn’t doing the trick.

    It would appear from outside that I am grieving someone who was difficult to know and love. And while that’s true of Shawn and of everyone, I am grieving someone who I loved more than most, who I knew more than most, and who brought his complete authentic self, struggle and being into our union. He wore no masks and had no illusions about his suffering and where it could take him. Few of us are so lucky to exist in this state. Few of us have lost enough to find out who we are when the winning subsides. I wrote most of this a while back in Tehuacana and figured id eventually find a right way to end it. This morning i got to thinking that maybe that would be like saying there is a wrong way. A wrong way to end something. I dont know if I believe that anymore. I just believe in what i've seen and i try not to have one sided arguments with fate's myriad of odysseys that all end, each telling their own story as if it were the whole truth. They get told whether we listen or not and i think none of them can be true unless they all are. So Shawn’s visible ending was true and it was real, whether I welcomed its kiss or not. And my present is true and real and there’s one less person to share it with. I mean damn man, he used to call me every day and now he doesn’t. The memory of his face, photographs aside, is already taking on a gauzy memory, as everything that’s passed eventually does for me. The words and the looks in his eyes that told me everything though, that were a constant in my life until 3 months ago, those remain crystallized. They tell me to continue the great conversation with everyone that I meet. They tell me that whoever we are given to share it with, the great conversation never dies.