Three days before he died, Doug messaged me on Facebook for my birthday:
“Burn a candle for me, old man,” he wrote.
John Douglas Wright, I’m overdue to light that flame.
Gregarious and loved by many, Doug was a light in our lives going back to junior high school, at least. A gifted athlete, he was funny, chortling, the spiritual fifth member of a cranking band in his college-to mid-20s days, an expert on plants, a nurseryman, patio builder, long the stud of our crew, youngest brother of five, a creator with his drawings and landscape design, adored by his late parents and family.
We cannot forget his infectious laugh, the smile bursting open ruddy cheeks, his solid, eclectic musical tastes, his heart—his good core.
How do we carry forward the best that was Doug?
As his friends and brothers know, there was also another side. He was deeply wounded if not saddled by survivor’s guilt following a car crash that killed his close friend when Doug was 25. The trauma of Gonzo dying in his arms, the cruel randomness of being struck by a stolen car going the wrong-way in a high-speed chase—this may have largely set the stage.
He veered down and sometimes lived in that hellhole where addicts and alcoholics go. For long stretches when I was not in his life—not knowing the depths of his descent—the disease ran him aground.
I don’t wish to linger long there, since those who love him already know.
We are left to wonder: which among Doug’s gifts can we run with? How do we do this?
Perhaps one answer is recognizing the positive things that came to light—as we take stock of his life and how others tried to help him, or came together remembering the man as they knew him best.
Despite some setbacks, he was doing better the past two years. Living with two close friends of ours, they became a family unit, often cooking meals together and making it through another week. He and Dianne competed to see who Pugs would jump up to for belly scratches on the couch. They gave him so much, a step out of the isolation that had been his life.
As friends gathered for a double-edged celebration of his life on Sunday, we basked in a momentary reunion, albeit tamped down by a chilly, grey afternoon that somehow seemed more appropriate than the previous day’s sunshine. I can only hope that this will continue as we occasionally evoke his spirit.
Taking stock of his life, how others helped him, or came together remembering the man they knew
Another of Doug’s longtime friends told me that as he discovered the extent of Doug’s troubles, early on he wished he could shake him up. Wasn’t there something he might say to help him understand that it was okay to live his life again? To give himself permission to let go?
Ultimately, this friend realized that he could not carry that weight of self-blame if Doug failed to turn it around. It would always be Doug’s choice.
Yet this friend never stopped checking in. Calling. Reaching out. Sensing when Doug was in a downward spiral, when he hadn’t heard from him, or when he knew something was off.
I think this is what strikes me the most: we don’t stop trying. We forgive. We clasp shoulders with those we grew up with who now live very different lives. We look to the sky for slants of light through clouds. We keep showing up.
And we dare not forget the best in him.
Some of us who were close to Doug have gnawing questions and laments. We may feel we did not do enough. This is unfair, especially for our friends who took him in. At times we looked the other way, or were worn out by his issues.
A bit hardened even while reconnecting with Doug three years ago, I felt that he had dodged responsibility to face his trauma and clean up. As if this was some ultimate failure. As if I sat in judgment. “How are you honoring your friend’s life?” by succumbing to this?
This is not what Gonzo would want you doing to yourself, I cried.
He may have been trying to climb out. Inching forward, even when set back again.
As spring arrived at Dianne’s house, Doug poked around outside doing what he was most passionate about. Pruning overgrown trees and edging gardens until neighbors asked him to do theirs. Spreading mulch and caring for annuals and tomato plants. Enjoying the sun on their porch and or walking Pugs.
There was more to do, but hopefully, for Doug, not so much left unsaid.
Let’s run with what we loved best in him.