Dead Friends and Survivors Guilt

It was 10:54 AM and I was circling a block in Kaleva MI, a tiny town 10 minutes from my parents’ house that I hadn’t even driven through in 6 or 7 years. There used to be a great rope swing out there but some bureaucrats came out with a chainsaw and cut down the tree it was tied to. Now there’s just a tavern and a diner and a gas station. And a funeral home.  I was still driving because I was too scared to go in. Danny K. was in there in a casket. I hadn’t talked to him since high school, and even in high school we ran in different crowds. But in elementary school we were best friends.

Danny lived on a farm. We used to shoot things with BB guns and sling shots and sprint into electric fences and generally harm ourselves for amusement. Danny was a little crazy, in the way of a country kid with too much time on his hands. Sometimes we turned those bb guns and sling shots on each other. He pushed me to be a little more extreme than I was comfortable with and I loved it.

I parked the car and watched a stream of men walk in. Men in union jackets and jeans and sport coats that didn’t fit right. Men that, unlike me, still had calluses on their hands and functional strength. Men trying to hold it all in. I took my tie off and threw it in the back seat, sucked it up and got out of the car.

The place was full. I signed the guest book and walked back into an overflow room with a black and white feed of the service. Simon was there, the cousin of a best friend, and someone I’ve known pretty well since 8th grade. His eyes were red. There were various other old acquaintances there. One or two of them nodded at me as I walked in. Most just stared straight ahead. There were old folks too, and little kids, family and family friends. And there was a contingent from his union. Pipefitters wearing pipefitters jackets. They were taking it pretty hard.

The service was tough.  The preacher had one of those rural northern Michigan accents that sounded both southern and Canadian at the same time. He read some passages and stepped back, admitted he didn’t really know Danny, and asked others to share. People got up and struggled through a story. Some cried, some just stood silently while moments stretched on, trying to keep themselves from crying. Someone told a story about Danny coming to help them weld something at their house on his only day off from being a welder all week. People didn’t really know what to say. Hell, they probably couldn’t believe it was real.

Danny’s not the first kid from my hometown to die way too young (27), hopefully he’ll be the last, but you never know; I think there’s still one or two in Afghanistan. All across America, young men from small towns (and inner cities) are dying too young. They’re dying because of pointless wars and drug addiction and needless street violence and drunk driving and general hopelessness and no one that I’ve heard from has a good reason and no one is really even talking about it.  I had been debating whether to come to this service for a while, and I didn’t decide until the last minute. I had plenty of great reasons not to. It was on a Monday morning and I had a ton of work to do. I hadn’t spoken to Danny in years; we didn’t run in the same crowds. I didn’t know his family that well. I felt weird parachuting in from out of town and leaving right afterward.

When I told my wife about all these reasons she told me I had survivor’s guilt. It felt silly, or extreme; it’s not like Danny and I had been in a war together. But maybe she was right, at least about the guilt part. I do feel guilty. I feel guilty about leaving my small hometown to get a degree, and then take a job in a big city where I sat at a desk, talk to folks, and had health insurance for free. I even got dental. I feel guilty about the fact that my fingernails haven’t been dirty in years and the only callus I have is caused by my wedding ring and that my muscles have atrophied and I’ve added a layer of fat from sitting on my ass all day instead of actually building something or fixing something. I feel guilty about the fact that I’ve gone soft and got disconnected from my people while they are still in Bear Lake and Onekama and Kaleva and thousands of other small towns across Michigan and America struggling to make it work and hold their communities together. And mostly I feel guilty about the fact that the only thing that allowed me to move away and get a decent job and my own apartment and a wife from the suburbs was pure luck. I was lucky enough to have parents with good jobs and a little money, and I was lucky enough to be a fast runner. I don’t know if that’s survivor’s guilt, or what you call it. God knows I’m not the only one who left, most of us moved to major metro areas. But I know that’s the real reason I almost didn’t go to the funeral. I was being a coward about facing my own guilt, whatever kind of guilt it was.

I stuck around after the service to talk to Danny’s mom, and God bless her she was holding it together. She recognized me right away and was excited to see me. I told her a story about something crazy Danny and I did together as kids. She told me she knew he was someone’s angel now. I hugged her, and filed out, stopping to talk to some former teachers. There was a circle of people roughly my age standing in a circle outside smoking cigarettes. I gave Simon a hug and tried to say hi to a few guys I knew. Danny’s younger brother came up and tried to make conversation but he could barely talk. People were mostly silent and numb, so I left to go to the luncheon that followed.

Sitting in the car outside the town hall I thought about why I drove 4 hours for this funeral of someone I hadn’t seen in years. Mostly, it was because he was a very important person in my life at one time, even if that time was many years ago, and I think that it’s important to show people that you give a shit about them, whenever you can, even if it’s too late. But it was also partly because I am still grieving for the loss of my community, and I had a selfish mission to show myself that I was still connected to it. Most of all dammit, Danny was a good kid, and from what I could tell, was a good man. I was pissed he was gone.

I went in to the hall and looked around. People were trickling in and it was quiet. Some were eating, some were drinking punch. Someone tried to laugh. I stood in the corner and surveyed the scene. These were my people, or at least the people I thought of as my people. Rural, hard working, no nonsense folks that took care of each other. People with a sense of humor, impatient like they were always ready to get on with it. And they were hurting. I couldn’t take it. I pulled an Irish goodbye and ducked out without talking to anyone. I got into the car and pointed it back toward my big city, middle class, health insurance, no callus having, soft existence.

A few miles down the road, I was forced to admit to myself that, whatever selfish mission I had coming up here, whatever I had to prove to myself, I had accomplished it. I didn’t want to admit it. I was trying to think about the sub sandwich I was going to get for lunch, or the work I had to do the next day. I wasn’t trying to reconcile with my guilt. I wasn’t even trying to accomplish closure. But I was forced to. And I was forced to pull over. I was forced to by the tears beginning to spill down my face.

Goddammit Danny, 27 is way too young.

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