Father Jim Sullivan my cousin, Paula
Dear Friends and Family,
Okay, no. This is NOT the How-I-am-Doing-in-Brentwood e-mail. Nor is it the How-I-Spent-My-Summer-Vacation-(In-Medjugorje-and-Olympic-London) e-mail. They are coming. But this one trumps both.
Those of you who have heard me preach at funerals know I often assure the family and friends that their loved one will find ways to let them know that he or she is all right. You will hear a song, recognize a fragrance, have a vivid dream, suddenly have a sense of the departed loved one’s presence that is so strong you could swear he or she was with you. At funeral Masses I urge the mourners to trust these special moments, these moments when everything comes rushing back, when suddenly the lost loved one is not lost at all, but is so real to you that you could reach out and…And then it is gone.
Trust, I say, at funeral Masses. Believe. They ARE with us. We call it the communion of saints and we profess our belief in it every Sunday in the Nicene Creed.
Well. I must have been preaching to myself all these years, because this past Friday, on the Santa Monica Pier, of all places, I had just such an experience. It was not of Mom. It was not of Mateo. It was of my brother John. John was the second of the three boys in our family, and the fifth (of eight children) overall. He was, while he was still here on earth, my best friend. He was funny, creative, intelligent, questioning, passionate, and hugely talented, musically. His favorite band, when he was a teen, in the seventies, was Pink Floyd. I have to tell you the truth: I thought at the time that Pink Floyd was as weird as its name. Could not understand John’s fascination with that group. Later, I came to a real appreciation of the band’s intelligence and artistry, but when I myself was in my teens, No Way. Give me the Rolling Stones, thank you very much.
Early on John decided to follow his passion for music where ever it led. It led to Los Angeles. He moved there in the autumn of 1982, at the age of 23. For the next dozen years, LA was my get-away destination of choice; I went down six, seven, times a year, sometimes for as little as a weekend, other times for several days, usually timing my visits to be in attendance when John had a gig, that is, when his band was performing at some LA club.
One of the places John and I would go when I was in LA was the Palisades in Santa Monica, that spectacular park on the bluffs above the beach. We’d spend lazy afternoons, bright with sunlight any time of year, walking under the palms and eucalyptus trees, talking about his plans and dreams, as a young musician, and mine, as a young writer. We’d trade stories and laughs about agents and managers. We’d talk about girlfriends and also, maybe more importantly, about friends who happened to be girls: his high school debate partner Cat had become one of my best friends up in the Bay Area; my great galpal from Cal Ruthanne had become one of his best friends, now that they were both in LA. We’d talk about our day jobs, the work we did to support our artistic ambitions: I worked at Cal and he worked at UCLA. We’d talk about the family — the NorCal contingent and the LA contingent. We’d talk politics and world affairs. We’d talk religion and philosophy. We laughed a lot.
On several such afternoons, John and I went to the Santa Monica Pier, enjoying the sea breezes, the free music and the bright crowds. I remember standing at the wood railing of the pier, one bright October afternoon, looking back at the beach and the palms, and listening to John while he pontificated (as he was often wont to do) on the merits (lack thereof, actually) of the latest Talking Heads release. No fan of the Talking Heads, I took his opinions (his condemnations) in stride. I reminded him that the Police and the Pretenders were still doing very good work, and recommended that he maintain an attitude of hope for his own band’s prospects. I remember what he said to me that afternoon: “Jim, you have this amazing ability to renew hope.” This was WAAAAY before I was even thinking about seminary!
My brother died in 1996, an emotional earthquake which continues to resonate in “aftershocks” for me, sixteen years later. I still occasionally dream about him. And I still, sixteen years after the fact, sometimes wake up from the dream having to ask myself, “My God, is he really gone?”
Well, late last week, I was in LA, visiting family there. I happened to find myself free, Friday afternoon. I thought about driving down the coast to Mission San Juan Capistrano. I thought about driving inland (I was at my aunt’s in Westwood) to see the LA cathedral or maybe Mission San Gabriel. I thought about just hanging loose in Westwood, which has attractions enough of its own. I wound up driving to Santa Monica, and walking along the Palisades above the beach.
It was one gorgeous LA summer afternoon. The palms rustled and sparkled in the sun and the bougainvillea was a riot of red. I realized that I had not been on the bluffs since, very likely, sometime before John died. The memories began to roll over me like gentle waves off the Pacific; memories of my brother, memories of our mutual dreams, memories of friends and family we hung out with in the eighties and nineties, memories of youth. I realized (and okay, okay, NOT for the first time!!!) “Dude, you are NOT young anymore.”
The realization was satisfactory. Youth? Who needs it? Poverty. Intense focus and passionate commitment for…no return. A life, for the artistically-inclined young, at any rate, of constantly raised hopes and oh-so-frequently dashed expectations. Above all, a certain self-centeredness that is really best gently but steadily moved away from. Youth? Believe me, I was NOT missing my youth, Friday afternoon above the wide wide beach at Santa Monica.
But I was missing my brother. I was missing him so intensely that I could have cried.
I walked out to the pier. Its wooden planks echoed beneath my boots. There were musicians on the pier. There were political orators. There were loonies. Just like in the eighties. There were also families, there were young couples, there were older couples, and tourists from the Midwest and there were places to stop, and get a spectacular photo, looking back over the dark water toward the beach. I stopped at several points and took pictures. There was a young guitarist across the pier; he had a nice voice and he was singing…Pink Floyd. I smiled. “Pink Floyd,” I thought. “In 2012! What a retro trip!” I took some pictures of the water and the beach, and then crossed the pier to the side where the young musician was playing. I took some more shots, because they were very good from that angle.
Then it hit me: Pink Floyd. John’s favorite band. Pink Floyd.
I turned and looked at the young musician, standing there in the afternoon sun, strumming his guitar and flooding my heart with sudden and deep memories. Pink Floyd. John the teen in Marysville; John the student at Cal; John the young musician himself, in LA.
Then I noticed which Pink Floyd hit the young guitarist was playing: “Wish You Were Here.”
Do I need to say more?
Well yes, actually. I need to say this. Had I crossed onto the pier three or four minutes later, I’d have missed the moment. To quote another late seventies rock anthem (this one from Blondie) “Accidents Never Happen.”
John and I were always in favor of sitting down, after a long walk along the Palisades, and having a beer. There was a restaurant there at the end of the pier, where the young musician was singing “Wish You Were Here,” a place called MariaSol. I thought at once of the Blessed Mother, the sun, and my Goddaughter niece, Marisol. I found an outdoor table, sat down and ordered a Heineken. I looked back across the water toward the Santa Monica shore. I smiled. I thanked John for meeting me there, on the pier, after so many years.
They have not forgotten us.
That’s it for this one. Take cover, because “incoming” lies directly ahead. I will shortly regale you with tales from Medjugorje and London, and a report on how I am settling in at Brentwood, whether you like it or not.
Here’s to the Santa Monica Pier!