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Giving Back

I wanted to share an email that Art wrote to a friend who asked him the question, “What prompted you to give back to others after the accident?”

Mornin’ Alex.   I love the passion and purpose that you are bringing to this adventure.   Kathy, Tanner and Shea are wonderful.   An entire collage of their pictures rests on the wall of my office directly in front of my desk and over the top of the screen that I’m working on.  They are always with me.  The framed collage contains a lengthy quote from the final paragraphs of Helprin’s Memoirs From Antproof Case.  I think I put most of the quote in our book.   And when I turn back to my desk there’s a picture of Kathy watching me with an outrageous smile on her face.  Allison told me that picture belonged there.  I remember that look, and it alters my perspective every time I see it.   And maybe even more often I remember the bemused look on the picture of Kathy that appears at the back of the book.   She was a professional photographer, and she had me take a series of pictures of her sitting against the living room wall, using her Nikon, less than a year before the accident.  That may be the only time I ever took a picture with that camera.  I can’t recall what the photos were supposed to be for, but I know now that she wanted to be sure that I had some pictures of the real girl Kathy.  She knew.  Somehow she knew.

So, why did I start showing up for people when they experienced loss in their lives?  I’d never done anything like that before my own experience in the canyon.  What changed?  As I looked back on it last evening with Allison, I began to see a sort of progression.   As you know, hundreds of people showed up for me – at my house, on the street, in letters and cards, at the service, and ever since.  Some were friends, some just acquaintances, and some were complete strangers.   With the first few deaths (usually children) that took place in town, a mutual friend would call and tell me what had happened in case I might want to stop by and talk with the surviving parents or other family members.   One was the mother of a skateboarder who was hit by a car.  The young man had been a friend of Tanner’s, and he had appeared at my house during the days after the accident with a poster that he’d had made by Tanner’s classmates.

Without really knowing what I was doing, I would get in my car and drive over to their house and knock on the door.  There were usually close friends around, but the grieving person or persons were somehow pleased to see me and I found that I was not uncomfortable being with them.  It really didn’t matter whether we knew one another very well.   I usually didn’t say a lot.  It seemed more important that I just be there with them.  I understood their pain, they knew that I understood it – that I was one of the few people around them that had traveled this way before – and they trusted my purpose and my presence.  Why was I there?  For many reasons, I guess.  First, to honor and repay in small part the many that had done the same for me.  They had taken a little time out of their day to say they were sorry, to let me know that I would not be alone, that I still mattered.  And that the ones that were gone would be deeply missed by all of us.  Second, because I too had experienced an awful loss like this one, and I belonged there.  We shared a common bond, and that is not an insignificant thing when there is nothing to hang onto, no point of familiar reference, and the shattered road extends ahead without purpose or end.  And above all, because it was my job as a human being.   I might make a small difference, where others might not, and for that reason alone I had to show up.   It was and continues to be what I have to do – to share my pain, my story, my understanding, my knowing.  As I have told others before – and I think a poet originally told me –I now know kindness as the deepest thing inside me, as the only thing that makes perfect sense anymore.  I have learned that I can touch others, that I can make a difference, and I have found that I am brave enough to do these things.   I spoke about this in a graduation speech that Alf and I gave to the senior class at Aspen High School last spring.  I don’t know if you’ve seen that talk, so I’ll send along a copy in a few moments.

I’ve spent time with a number of grieving folks since those first experiences, and I don’t know that the reasons for doing it have changed very much. What I’ve said above still applies.  What has evolved is the certainty, the sureness, the belief that I am making a difference, that I belong there.   I no longer simply sit with the pain.  I am part of it, and I feel as if I actually absorb a small piece of it and perhaps lighten another’s terrible load, if only for a few moments.  I know their pain, I share it with them, we go down into it together, and we completely trust each other in that.  And I’ve found that there are actually a few things that I can say, sometimes, that may make a difference.  I only hope that people will continue to call on me when I’m needed.  That I will continue to have the opportunity to help others in this way.  Because this is what I have to give.

With my fond regards,  Art