Sunday, December 29, 2013
My Friend Lowell is Gone
We sometimes say, when someone dies, that they are finally at peace. In his brave, Zen-minded way, Lowell faced the end of his life with curiosity and patience, and was at peace before he died. He tried every medical treatment available, but when none would work, he courageously accepted his fatal condition and lived his remaining days with full consciousness. I can only hope that if my final days are spent with a terrible illness, that I can have his attitude.
I met Lowell in 2007, when he took over my bass slot in the Beatles tribute band, Fab Fever. With his high musical competence, fine ear, and ready smile, he always added so much to the music he performed. Although the iteration of Fab Fever containing Lowell didn’t last long, I got to play with him later during jam sessions, where he proved to be a capable blues lead guitar player. His Herd of Cats band showed his Jazz chops, too.
As in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you can measure the kind of life you’ve lived by the number and quality of friends you have at the end. By this calculation, Lowell was the richest man in town. As his illness progressed, many stepped forward to help him with his daily living, including meals, trips to appointments, yard clearing, and professional medical care. Using MealTrain, an online program that works like a gift registry, you could see what Lowell needed and sign up to provide it. Meal Train made sure that Lowell retained his independence at home but got adequate nutrition and could see his doctors. And, it kept the flow of visitors right for his schedule.
I had the privilege of preparing and bringing Lowell dinner one night, and we played some music together. On another occasion, I drove him to San Francisco for a medical appointment. I also was able to get in one last phone call a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know it would be the last time we spoke, but it ended with “I love you, Lowell.”
Because I have known that he was leaving us, I’ve thought about Lowell a lot, and mourned him in advance, even before his actual death yesterday. Now, I feel emptiness. When someone dies suddenly, it’s a shock, and it takes a while to absorb the news. But when your friend or family member declines, you can carry the knowledge of their imminent departure with you every day, and begin missing them before they’re gone. I feel like I will carry Lowell in my heart forever.
I have set his photo on my iPhone lock screen for the last couple of weeks. Whenever I open the phone to text or make a call, I see him standing on the stage at the Hayward Plunge, playing a blues solo in front of his friends. It was his final appearance in this summer music program. I also have a set of photos of him playing with Herd of Cats, at the Sycamore 129 Odd Fellows Lodge in Hayward. I’ll treasure them.
I’ve lost three people this year—one suddenly, but two after debilitating illnesses. The sudden loss, my cousin Tom, was a shock, out of nowhere. Because I didn’t know him well, it had little impact on my daily life. My real concern was for his parents, my aunt and uncle, who will feel this great loss for the rest of their lives.
For the two other losses, Barbara Garber in July and Lowell yesterday, I had time to say goodbye over time. Barbara, a feisty, red-headed standup comedian, was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a few years ago and, despite gradually losing her speech and mobility, she continued to post hysterically funny jokes and comments on Facebook until very shortly before she died. Barbara found humor in a fatal disease! She stared ALS in the eye and told it that it couldn’t silence her—even when she couldn’t speak.
As a memorial, several comedian friends read some of Barbara’s Facebook posts out loud to an audience at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Even without Barbara’s unique voice and laugh, the jokes still had it. At Barbara’s “Celebration of Life” in August, the church was filled with the many people whom she had touched. They stood up, one after the other, to talk about Barbara. There were plenty of tears but lots of laughs, too.
Lowell was not a comedian, but he had a great sense of humor, and also a bright, positive view of life. He and I attended a Gordon Lightfoot concert together a couple of years ago and he was fun to hang with—and we enjoyed a great health food restaurant before the show. I treasure that time now—in the days when he was strong and healthy. But Lowell was always that way, until pancreatic cancer struck him down at a youthful 64 years old.
Barbara and Lowell didn’t do anything to deserve the way they were taken from us. The great story is how they both bravely and strongly remained true to themselves until the end. If there was any anger or bitterness, they kept it private. If you have to go, you can die with dignity.
I am bereft, but also inspired by their lives and their deaths.