On the flip side

by Brian Clarey

One year gone and we still talk about Robert — about the years he was married to my sister in-law and he was a fixture at family events, often hiding out in the bar he built inside his garage to smoke and scowl, and about the years he wasn’t, prowling the UNCG campus while he was working and visiting his favorite bars when he was off duty. He always had time for his friends.

And Robert would have loved this, this bar crawl that his survivors have established in his name.

We start at the Westerwood, one of his favorite haunts, and set to celebrating in the manner in which he loved: Coors Lights, cigarettes, well-heeled classic rock and the kind of conversation that belied the solemnity of the occasion.

“Raise your hand if you ever bought Robert’s beers all night. Now raise them if he ever bought your beers all night.” Like that.

We marvel at both his strength and vulnerability, his way with women, the fact that if he could have chosen a way to leave this life, he would likely have chosen the one he got. And at some point the tears turn to laughter.

It’s important, I believe, to laugh in the face of mortality, not in that cavalier way of the Hollywood action heroes — “Today’s as good a day to die as any!” — but more in the manner of the absurdist who knows that this journey we are on does indeed have a finish line.

In the long run, of course, we’ll all be dead. Forgive my morbidity. I’ve been surrounded by endings this year. It never gets any easier.

The next day I head to the Guilford Friends Meeting to say goodbye to another who was taken too soon: Tim LaFollette, laid low by ALS, perhaps the most relentless killer in our pantheon of disease. This thing laid him low, fast, and though the journey to the end was excruciating and strewn with hardships, the outcome was always as sure as sunset.

I made my peace with Tim’s unfortunate lot by the time he got his trach, nourished by the existence of the Often Awesome Army and the film series of the same name created by Blake Faucette and Andy Coon.

But the music… and the video montage… and all these people who haven’t seen each other in years….

It’s okay to cry at times like this. But then come the stories — those disjointed memories that together make the tapestry of a man, reveal the patterns in his life.

Tim was funny. Tim was friendly. Tim was creative and enthusiastic. For a time, Tim wore a cow suit every weekend and kept a toaster oven — the same toaster oven — in whatever car he was driving for eight years.

And here comes that wistful smile. This is why we do these things: gather in the name of the fallen, remember their time in the light, And yes, we mourn for what might have been, but the service is designed to help us deal with the fact that those eventualities, made of smoke, will not come to pass.

In New Orleans, a proper jazz funeral runs the entire spectrum of emotion, all set to music and enacted in dance on the long walk to and from the burial grounds.

When it’s done right, a remembrance has the power of transmogrification — turning the sorrow of loss into joy for a life well lived and recalled, a part of all our shared history.

I remember something about Robert a couple days later — my wife’s birthday, when she and I planned to run a race and a babysitter fell through at the last minute. Robert made it from the Greensboro Coliseum neighborhood to Old Town in 20 minutes even though the roads had been closed for the run. I have no idea how he did it, but it was clutch.

Tim had a clutch moment of his own a few years ago, when he and I were on a 48 Hour Film Project team and things got hairy towards the end. Tim had been up for days editing footage, but as the closing bell came near he grabbed a copy of the film and jumped on his bike, pedaling to the drop point faster than any of us could have gotten there by car.

He made it in time, and though he was a major contributor to the project that eventually found its way to the Cannes, when the time came to hit the south of France he cheerfully declined to take the trip.

“I’ll go when we win it next year,” he said. But now he’s everywhere, all at once.