I stared at my closet and wondered. What do you wear to the funeral of your favorite cousin, more like a brother, really, but you hadn’t seen him in nearly 20 years? On top of it, what does a person pack to go home to a hometown about which you’ve penned a book yet had not been there to visit in almost as long?
This is where I found myself on April 30th, 2014, one year ago today.
Richard “Richey” Fridline was one of those people everyone wanted to be around. Even as a kid, he possessed a sharp intellect and natural humor.
We were close, so close that one of chapters of my last book were devoted to this set of cousins, the offspring of my mother’s only sister, the Fridlines.
When I was eleven, we moved from Michigan to Florida. I saw everyone less. In the 1990s, Richey and his wife, Debbie, moved too, within an hour drive of my mother’s house. We had poker nights, we went to the beach. We stayed up all night talking about everything, as we had done as kids. One of the saddest days of my life was when they packed their JC Penney furniture into a U-Haul and moved back to Davison a year later.
After that, they had kids. Life got busy. Richey went to work for GM as an engineer. I ended up at Microsoft, and ultimately moved abroad for seven years. In that span, we chatted perhaps once or twice. We lost contact the way you do, without meaning to.
Last spring, we talked on the phone for the first time in ages. I was planning my book tour for Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, set largely in our hometown. We agreed we’d truly catch up when I was back in town.
On April 25th, I was at my mother’s when the phone rang.
Richey had worked on his car and came in complaining of a headache. Within an hour, this robust, handsome 48-year-old had a stroke. It made no sense. Surely, he’d be fine. A stroke, at 48? Really? The following Wednesday, the phone rang again. Richey had died.
For the video, I scanned more than 300 photos. For three nights in our room at the Comfort Inn, I reviewed the life of this cousin I loved, but whose adult life I had mostly missed. It offered me a glimpse of the life that I would have had if we stayed in Michigan. Photos of friends aging together, getting married, having children and like us, their children becoming friends. Deer hunting, poker nights, ice fishing, taking kids trick or treating, camping, softball practice, games at his beloved alma mater, the University of Michigan.
It was a good life, and mirrored my father’s life. Like Richey, he had died inexplicably young of cancer at age 50. I was 13 when he died, the same age as Richey’s daughter. I knew what she didn’t, that losing a parent at that age changes you forever. It added to the crushing weight of grief that I felt was for both Richey and my dad. Why them? Why so young? I wondered as I listened to the song “I Want You to Live Forever (Underneath a Sky So Blue)” over and over again, adding photos into a video editing program until the early morning hours, crying, grieving and drinking cheap wine from the nearby Walgreen’s.
I struggled with what to say at the memorial service. So I googled “How to do a eulogy.” Introduce yourself, most people don’t know you. Tell a funny story about the deceased. Offer some thoughtful insights on the individual. Be brief. People want pie and coffee.
But Richey was more than that, and so was my Dad. Then I came across this quote by the poet Thorton Wilder. “The greatest gift you can give to someone you lost isn’t grief, but gratitude.” I stayed up all night, and this is what I wrote, and ultimately said in front of the 300 people who came to his service:
“For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Kathleen Flinn, Richey’s mom is my mother’s sister. When we were kids we lived on a farm on Coldwater Road, right around the corner from their house on North Gale Road. Uncle Rich and Aunt Mel had four kids in five years. I was born in their “gap” year. So Richey and Gregg were older than me, and Julie and Pam were younger. They were my closest friends and constant playmates.
Richey was funny from the womb. My mom tells this story. When he was just four years old, he was at our farm making all the adults laugh and laugh. This super smart hyper-literate little kid telling jokes and dancing. As he left, he told my mom, “I’m really fun at your house!” He always loved an audience.
From the time I can remember, Rich and I were convinced that we were the smartest things around. We could solve all the world’s problems together. We dubbed ourselves, “Sly Dogs.” We were always plotting something. We would figure out how to get out of the house and meet up at 2 a.m. And then not actually do anything. We’d just get up, sneak out and then congratulate ourselves – and then go back to bed. Once, though, we silently emptied out all of my Grandma Inez’s cabinets in the middle of the night and then put all of it away in the wrong place. We thought it would be hilarious. We forgot that Grandma had a short fuse and a terrible temper. She was so angry that we never told anyone that we did it.
Mostly, we came up with all kinds of tricks to play on Gregg and the girls. Another time at our Grandma’s house, we devised a fantastic scheme. We’d tell Gregg and the girls that we were going to play Hide and Seek. Richey was going to be “it.” We’d tell them to hide – and then the two of us would bolt. No one would look for them. It would be hysterical.
So we did just that. Gregg, Julie and Pam scattered around the house while Richey counted down. Once we saw them leave, we silently left through the screen door in the kitchen and took off running. We ran past the garden and past the half-built fort we’d all started that morning to a small berm and laid flat on our backs, panting. We waited for someone to yell, to scream… but nothing.
It was a lovely June day, around his birthday, the 16th. The sky was blue and there were all these beautiful fluffy clouds in the sky. A week earlier, I’d been looking at the sky with my friends, the Stevenson girls, who lived across the street. One of the girls asked, “What cloud do you think God lives on?” Everyone had an answer. One pointed to a large cloud, another to a small perfect cloud and another to one that looked like a lumpy angel.
He thought for a moment. I was seven, he was about to turn nine. He responded, “Well, clouds are made of vapor. Where would God put his stuff?”
It was so… Richey, so logical. The answer of someone who grew up to be an engineer.
“It also gets so cold when you go up higher into the atmosphere. And wet. You couldn’t have a TV there,” he added. This was important stuff.
Then he said something you would never expect to hear a kid his age say.
“I don’t think that God lives in the clouds. I think he lives nowhere and everywhere and in Sunday School, they told us that he lives in our hearts.” I contemplated such a deep statement. Then he broke the silence.
“I wonder how long they’ll wait there until they realize that we’re not looking for them?”
We both sat up and snuck a peek toward the house. I’m going to be honest. It took a lot longer than we thought. It was a small house. Eventually, our grandma came out cursing and looking for us. Gregg was irritated. The girls were just confused.
I have thought about that afternoon probably a thousand times. When I’ve looked up at the sky and the clouds and thought, my nine-year-old cousin may have been right. God was everywhere and nowhere and inside all of us. So simple, and yet such a big thing. It’s as close to a personal religion as I’ve ever come.
I can make no sense of what happened to Richey. How can anyone? My own father, his Uncle Milt, died at age 50. I was 13, just like Baylee, Richey’s daughter. At the time, I thought that 50 sounded so old. Only now do I realize that it’s tragically young.
In my 20s, I spent two years writing obituaries at a newspaper in Sarasota, Florida. I ended up taking classes in grief counseling because I spent so much time talking to friends and relatives of people who had lost someone. One thing I learned was that when someone dies young, people have more than grief, they have guilt or anger or frustration. They can’t make sense of it. Sometimes, death just leaves you with questions that you’ll never get answers to, not in this life, anyway.
If I learned anything from losing my father so young – someone by the way Richey loved so much – it’s this one thing. Once you stop crying and hurting, you have to find a place within you to realize just how lucky you were to know them at all. Richey was a lot like my Dad. He loved life, he was funny, crazy smart and generous to a fault. And brave.
Neither of them would want anyone to focus on feeling bad. Instead, think about what did he give you? How did he make you a better person by knowing him? Think about how much fun he was at your house.
I know what Richey gave me. I grew up here in Davison but I haven’t been back for years. Richey brought me home. He’s made me stop and consider – everything, really. But mostly to remember that I have a whole world of love that I knew was here but perhaps I took for granted. Like Richey himself, I thought that it would always be here.
I believe that from the time he was born, he knew everything. That he was a very old soul. My mother has another story about him. My mother and Aunt Mel’s brother Clarence as killed and hit by a car at age 39. They were both devastated, and really grieving. At dinner one night long afterward, Richey, then age four was asked to say grace. He bowed his head and said, “Uncle Clarence is with God. God is life.”
The adults were dumbfounded. Where would a little kid get the idea to say such a thing? He wasn’t even aware that he said it. The message, they concluded, came from somewhere else and in the end, it gave them peace.
What I hope you’ll do is that on a lovely day, with blue skies and big clouds, the kind of day when you want to roll down your windows and crank some Def Leppard – or maybe some Rick Springfield – you’ll look up. Think of Richey. Think of what he gave you. I believe that like God, Richey is now everywhere and nowhere and inside all of us. In his little kid wisdom. He taught me more about faith than anyone else, and for that, I will always be grateful.”
After the service, we went to the graveyard in Davison. It had rained in the morning but by the time we were in the cemetery, it shifted to a beautiful blue day with bright white clouds. I looked up at the sky, and I swear, I saw an angel in the clouds.
Note: You can watch the final cut of the video here. In a great twist of irony, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good was named a 2015 Michigan Notable Book, and I’ll be returning for a two-week tour in June. Details here.