Kenny’s Crossing

“Have you spoken to Kenny lately?”

The message came through to my phone just as I was about to get onto the freeway to drive a load of possessions up to the new house. Something about it’s arrival pricked my intuition. Something about it said “DON’T IGNORE ME.”

“I haven’t, but I’ve been meaning to get back in touch now that the semester is starting up again” I replied. 

Kenny was a professor at USC to whom I had been paired up with as a student assistant for the last three semesters of my graduate school career. I’d last seen him at graduation and he’d been looking forward to a trip to Arizona in which golf might be involved. 

“He’s in the hospital.  It’s not good.”

I didn’t know the details. I decided that I didn’t need them. I asked if I could visit and received a link to the hospital where he could be found with the gentle warning that “He’s not very conscious.”

I was in the middle of moving house. I wouldn’t have time for a visit on the weekend. It would have to be today or tomorrow. Something told me not to wait. As much as I was ready to drop everything then and there, there were errands that I needed to take care of first. I was wearing day old clothes drenched in sweat and sunscreen and covered in dust. My fingernails and feet were black with the impossible grime of Los Angeles. I was in no shape to go to a hospital bedside. I forced myself to be calm. I would complete my tasks and then I would go to the hospital. I would empty the van and I would change and then I would go to the hospital. Today. My only plan for the day had been to go for one last run in the old neighborhood before the big move, but this was more important. 

Kenny taught sound as part of an intermediate level course referred to by students only by it’s course number 508– a number always spoken with a certain emphatic gravity by the initiated and an  uncertain trepidation by  students preparing to enter the crucible. It is a class with five professors and four student assistants. To say that Kenny was *just* a sound teacher would be the equivalent of saying that Beethoven was pretty good on the piano. He was a music editor by trade who had worked with the likes of Stephen, John, George, and Jerry (Spielberg, Lucas, Williams, and Goldsmith) on films such as E.T., Poltergeist, Star Trek, Gremlins, and so on. Everybody knew Kenny and everybody liked him. He was cheerful and kind. Everybody was “his”. “His” Gwydhar. “His” Buddy. His special friend. He joked about it, but he meant it too. 

I passed a single crow sitting on a stop sign. 

“One for sorrow.” I thought. 

I told myself not to be superstitious. He was sick, no need to jump to dark conclusions. But I did anyway. What if he was dying? I remembered the urgency I’d felt upon learning that an uncle was approaching his end. I didn’t feel that urgency now, but then again I didn’t know anything more than that he was in the hospital. I told myself to be calm and took mental inventory: the last we had spoken was graduation. I tried to think if there was anything unsaid between us that needed to be said. I decided that there wasn’t: I just wanted to be there for him and I was sorry that I hadn’t gotten in touch sooner. It hadn’t been that long, had it? Why had I let it go so long?

At the house I unloaded the van. I found a fresh shirt from the dry cleaners- the only clothes that I’d already brought across town, and washed my face and hands. The voice told me not to arrive empty handed. Flowers seemed like they would just wilt and balloons seemed too festive. Would Kenny even see them? Was this a Get Well occasion or a Feel Better occasion? I didn’t have a card for either that wasn’t boxed up in the workshop. I settled for a bridal shower card that I could repurpose with an “under the weather” line. I packed a bag of snacks, remembering how we had waited in my uncle’s hospital room eating Fiddle Faddle because we didn’t want to leave for a meal. The card would be for Kenny, the snacks could be for anyone. 

Was I doing this for Kenny? I asked myself, or was I doing this for myself? It was a question that I turned over in my head many times. I still don’t have an answer. I told myself not to make it about me. 

The hospital was only fifteen minutes from the new house- convenient. I drove up to it and parked and found myself suddenly afraid: I knew nothing about what I was going to walk into, only that I had to do it. At the main desk I told the security guard who I was there to see. He wrote out a temporary badge and handed it to me. 

“You might need to take a number when you get up there.” He said. He was only partly joking. I wasn’t surprised. Everybody liked Kenny. 

“Popular guy.” I said. 

The rooms were arranged in a circle around a nurses station. It was easy to tell where Kenny was: the room was full of people. I stepped in, cautious not to intrude on their grief, but was welcomed right away. I proffered my care package. It was quickly traded for a miniature box of tiny tissues. 

“I’m Gwydhar,” I introduced myself. “I was his student assistant.” 

“Kenny- Gwydhar’s here.” 

Kenny lay on the hospital bed, so impossibly different from the smiling, joking, professor I’d worked with. His eyes were closed, his breathing slow and heavy. 

“We’re all talking to him- telling stories. He can hear us. You can talk to him.” 

 I recognized this: I’ve come to think of it as a Sending Off, A gathering to await a departure. I was ushered to the side of the bed and I took his hand. 

“Hi Kenny.” I said. “I’m here.”

I didn’t have anything else to say. It was Kenny who always did the talking- when he felt self conscious about dominating the conversation I told him I was a “motivational listener”. I didn’t know how to carry on the one sided conversation of a hospital room, I just wanted to be there. I figured that would be enough. 

“He’s not in any pain.”

The white board at the foot of the bed listed the day’s goals as Safety and Comfort. The hospital room smelled of pastries- someone had brought Porto’s. Someone else had brought See’s Candies- apparently a favorite of Kenny’s. The impulse to feed grief is as universal as the struggle for the grieving to eat. Tears and tissues went around the room in waves as people came and went, as stories flowed, as music played. This was clean grief: tears that needed to be shed, not comforted away- that couldn’t be comforted away- the painful and difficult act of letting go. In the face of death we are all equals- not only in our own deaths, but in our losses. In our grief we are united. 

Kenny began to go deeper, or perhaps farther. The time for his Sending Off was close and everybody knew it. Everybody gathered close, pouring out unbelievable love from near and far, willing him to know how much he was loved, how he was cherished, how we would be alright, how we were prepared to protect his legacy. He seemed reluctant to go, waiting until, in the depths of our sadness we found ourselves laughing at a funny memory and then he was gone on the echoes of the laughter. It seemed fitting. 

We grieve for ourselves- for our lives that feel darker knowing that a light has gone away. Everybody’s grief takes a different shape- for some it is sharp and cutting, for others it is heavy and crushing. For me it is long and threadlike and I will find filaments of it for months to come. I imagine him on a journey up a highway, headed west into the setting sun that will take him over the horizon. I like to think that there will be some sign when he makes it to the other side- it hasn’t happened yet, but then again he has a lot of people to check on on his way. 

It was only the day before that I read a translation of a Marcus Aurelius quote that could not have been more appropriate: “Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.” I have to think that wherever he is he is smiling, and that is how we will remember him forever. 

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on August 27, 2016.

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