One question I’ve been asked a lot recently is what will I remember most about Raybo, or what was my *favorite* memory? The quick answer to what I’ll remember most about him would be his daughters: Cricket, Amos, and Margaret (aka Madge). The obvious answer might be: his death. Yesterday I was asked what stories people were telling about Ray, what memories they were sharing. And when I thought about it I realized that most of the stories I heard were about how he died: how he went in on Tuesday for his next round of chemotherapy; how instead of receiving it he was rushed to the hospital in critical condition; how he was given between a few hours and a few days to live; how he defied everyone’s expectations and lived until Sunday; how his wife and daughters stayed by his side day after day, never leaving him alone; how he didn’t want to let go; how he seemed to be waiting for something.
For the past week I have been in Memphis to attend the funeral for the father of lifelong friends; he died from cancer a little more than a week ago. Despite always knowing his prognosis, I think hope was (always is) somehow unavoidable. What that hope was for, I cannot say for sure. For some it may have been that he go quickly and without much suffering. For others, it was probably for a miracle. In the end he didn’t get either. He died one year from diagnosis.
I met his youngest daughter when we were in second grade. Over the years she became my best friend; we even dated in high school! I spent every Christmas Eve with her family for more than ten years, until she had a child of her own and we downsized our yearly ritual and moved it to her house. I showed up at her house last week out of season, in the middle of summer. For such an unusual occasion I brought a bottle of sweet tea vodka with me, figuring it would be the perfect beverage for grieving southerners! It’s great on the rocks, with water, in iced tea or lemonade, or with a splash of Grand Marnier and a sugar rim. It’s especially good at noon, which is what time we gathered on Thursday to raise our glasses to Raybo and send him on his way. I think he would have appreciated the sentiment.
I have lots of memories of Ray: being at his house to hang out with one or more of his daughters. Hearing him laugh. He always greeted me with a giant hug. When J and I first started dating six years ago I don’t remember anyone wanting to meet him more than Raybo; unfortunately, he never did. He was inappropriate and loud and told off-colored jokes. He drank too much and cussed at the television (and on one memorable occasion I scored a summer’s worth of free beer from him because he lost a bet we had made when he screamed the F word during a football game)! If Margaret or Amos or Cricket and I ever wanted to have a private conversation, you could always bet that Raybo would show up out of nowhere to see what we were talking about! His and Miss L’s house was always full of good food, good conversation, and the best of friends. They welcomed everyone into their home. As Madge said during her eulogy: if her dad met you and he liked you, you were family. I remember always feeling like family.
What I will remember most is that the gift that Ray gave to everyone when he was alive is the same gift he gave when he died: he brought people together. Last Monday morning I hopped in the car for the fifteen hour drive to Memphis. Some people thought I was crazy for driving such a long way at the last minute, though in truth it was never a question. When her dad was diagnosed with cancer last year I told Margaret that I would come to Memphis when he died. I don’t believe in “closure,” in the sense in which that word gets thrown around when it comes to death. I had no hope that my trip would bring closure, because I was not seeking it. I just wanted to hug my friends and be close to them while they remembered their father and husband, and while we all said goodbye. Maybe it was crazy, but I never felt anything but fortunate for the opportunity to be there with them.
One of the rare gifts that Ray’s death has given me is that, simple as it seems, I got to see Margaret FIVE days in a row! We realized it had been more than a decade since we had seen that much of one another, during a trip we took together in France in the spring of 2000. And before that, it was high school. Despite the circumstances and sadness, we tallied: I got to see Madge and her family on Tuesday night at the family home. On Wednesday night at her house she practiced reading the eulogy she had written for her father and that she would give the following morning. On Thursday we remembered Raybo, then spent the afternoon and evening at Ray and Miss L’s house eating and drinking — like we had done so many times before. Friday night Madge, her husband, and I had a date at Memphis Pizza Cafe — our first kid-free night of the week; we went back to their house and sat on the porch talking until two o’clock in the morning. It felt holy. Although I had originally planned to leave on Saturday I decided to stay when I found out that the Cowboy Junkies were playing a free concert at the Levitt Shell; Madge went with me. Despite our friendship being relatively effortless over the years, there’s always a certain amount of easing back into things that friends experience after long separations. By the end of the week, I felt like Madge and I were back in sync, like things were — however briefly — like they used to be. Like time had not passed. Like nothing had changed.
For that, I will always be grateful. I will always remember Ray for that.