I don’t mind writing these kinds of posts, but I’d prefer not to have to. And, sometimes the messages are just too compelling to leave unwritten, that’s kind of the purpose of this blog.
Have you ever fantasized about being there to see what people do and say after your death? It’s natural right? A big important event in your honor and you are the only one missing? It just doesn’t seem right.
My friend Wayne died of cancer, some form of throat cancer he struggled bravely and miraculously with for 18 months. The fund-raising event planned was intended as a boost and perhaps a positive turning point in his recent downward trajectory.
It was not to be. He was put into hospice before the event and it was feared he wouldn’t even make it to that day and the event would turn into a memorial instead. But with his life’s credit dwindling down to mere days, Wayne stubbornly held on and something truly marvelous happened.
Wayne Harrison Fuller attended his own wake.
He was a union sound tech by trade and a musician who toured festivals and evens with his music partner and wife, as the team called “Merry Mischief.” He ran sound for colleges and major concert tours all over the state for many years. The team played Renaissance Festivals including my own and his company ran sound for me at the site for longer than I can remember.
Wayne was a positive and tireless person. Nothing much phased him, despite the heavy work he did, there was always a lightness about him, he just kept going, inordinately motivated to get the job done. That’s what he did, he made things work; he did sound, he gave voice to things and let them be heard—that was his job, and he could always be depended upon to do it. As a musician, he gave that very special gift of song. He and Merlyn grew a very large following of “Mischief-ites.”
Wayne was a talker. He always had something to say, and it was mostly about his work. Wayne couldn’t just solve a problem for you, he had to explain everything in detail for you so that you would understand exactly what he was doing. There was a pride in his often-endless explanations too, he just loved his work. I would get frustrated with him while he was solving a sound issue for me, “Wayne… Wayne…! I don’t need to understand Ohm’s Law, I just need it to work!” But it wouldn’t slow him down, at all. By the way, Ohm’s Law states that the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the voltage across the two points. (I=V/R).
The hall was decorated and teeming with attendees. Several hundred people were gathered. There were raffles and silent auctions, food and bakery treats, and a well-attended bar. Wayne arrived by ambulance and was wheeled in by wheelchair with a trach tube in his throat and a dry erase board on his lap so he could converse. A constant line-up of musicians played on the stage at one end, all dear friends and cohorts of the music scene that he was so much a part of.
It was the kind of event that could only happen when a partner loves deeply. When friends love without condition. I felt a pang of jealously for Wayne that afternoon, to have a life that only adds, only joins, only sings. One where you were not asked to make decisions that cross the desires of others, to impose rules or a will for some subjective aim hoped at least to be a greater good.
Announcements were made, raffle prizes awarded; folks mingled, laughed, danced, and greeted Wayne as he was wheeled through the crowd or took turns sitting and talking and reading the waggish commentary on his board.
Wayne took a playful and belligerent stance toward death. It must have come as a surprise to the reaper. He had the look of death, frail and thin, and had that mask, you know, that halo of darkness around the head that people get when they are near the end. But in Wayne’s case it didn’t sit just right. Here was Wayne peeking out from beneath it with a playful, mischievous gleam in his eye, a ready smile and a thumbs up that replaced the ever-present chatter that the trach tube took away from him. Aside from it being his last, it was just Wayne at a party, his party.
And this is what was so moving about the event. It was a true celebration. It had the feel of a retirement party or a graduation celebration, not the sad mood and somber reflections of a memorial. Whatever was originally intended for the day, it was, we all knew, a wake. We would never see Wayne alive again. Yet it was profoundly joyous.
It struck me as so right. This was the way to transition a member of the tribe from life to what lies hereafter, with music, and song, and laughter. It felt as though the room itself was a place somewhere between life and the beyond, a little temporary null space where life and life after met. Then there was this stubborn, dying man up out of his wheel chair, standing on the stage playing his guitar with his friends, a ghost of himself, smiling the deep satisfied smile of a musician on stage.
He was there for hours. When he was finally tired enough, they wheeled him to the door through a cheering gauntlet, like a pharaoh, played off by his musician friends with an Indigo Girls song, “Closer to Fine.” And thus, Wayne Fuller exited the life with his tribe to the clear and audible sounds of music and celebration.
One could do worse.
A night before he passed, I had a dream. It was a vivid and powerful dream, one that made itself known as important. I was part of a gathering group of visitors, all in formal dress, in a very grand and ornate Victorian mansion. A reception of sorts was being held in the main room, but certain select people were quietly slipping through a hidden door, something special and secret was about to happen there.
I slipped through the door when no one else was watching and descended a narrow stair that led to another formal room. Rich red wallpaper, brass sconces, and dark hardwood wainscoting made it feel sacred. Along one wall was a very long dining table with a lacy table cloth and fancy chairs surrounding it. A group of a half dozen men I did not recognize, in tailored Victorian suits, were already gathering at one end of the long table. One man sat at the very end with the others all sitting around him.
As I approached, they all turned to me looking surprised in a way that made me wonder if I was welcome.
“I’m sorry, I must be early,” I said, “I’ll just sit down at this end and be quiet, I promise.”
“He is not quite prepared yet,” one man said.
The men went back to their work huddled around the gentleman at the end. There was something being manipulated in front of him, a small black box on the table in front of the man being turned in a careful sequence, something mysterious and occult. Little by little other men and women joined the table. Everyone knew that what was about to happen was that someone was going to disappear, one person was about to be missing…permanently. There was no dread, just an air of formal solemnity and anticipation.
Next, the table cloth was missing and revealed a beautiful dark walnut table with incredibly ornate extensions in the middle that lengthened it to the opposite wall. It was beautiful and old, like an artifact or an ancient alter. At that point all those gathered knew something had happened. Someone was missing.
My next recollection was sitting casually in the same room. Someone I knew but did not recognize was playing guitar. I was watching him work the strings, not really looking at his face. Chairs were pulled round in a close knot and I was leaning on the table listening. I couldn’t quite place the song. No one was singing, it was all instrumental and another player pulled up a chair and began playing, adding complexity to the expert guitar work. I was drawn deep into the music, the progression of chords was both delightful and moving…and familiar.
All at once I recognized the song. It was Wayne’s exit song. Wayne was the man playing, the man who was missing.
Though I never looked directly at him, I suddenly knew it was him. I felt him nod that ”yes” nod that musicians do when something falls in sync, yes it’s me. And now here comes the chorus… his nodding seemed to say.
No one sang it, but I knew the words.
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
Though he couldn’t speak, that’s what he wanted to say. Was it a message meant for me? Or was it a message he wanted to leave us all and knew that I would wake up and write about it? Maybe both. The child-like blitheness with which he went about dying, was also the right way to go about living. He wanted us to know.
As I began to wake, emerging from my hypnagogic state, I forced a sleepy hand into a thumbs up, and made my mouth say the words I always say…
The next time death rears its unwelcome head, which it seems to do too frequently these days, I will choose to feel, even through tears, the way I felt at Wayne’s party. I will try to remember that as the sun sets, it is rising somewhere else, and to feel gratitude, joy, and celebration, when the next one leaves the table.
For many years “Merry Mischief” has played and presided over many marriage vow renewals and weddings for the Sterling Renaissance Festival at a building we call the Chapel. It will now be named “Fuller Chapel.”