“Vaughn keeps talking about the house down the road,” Julie, his wife, told me just a few days before he died. I listened on the other end of the phone, looking out the window from my room at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow into the quickly-accumulating snow on the roof. I was hesitant to have come to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, not wanting to leave my dear friends Julie or Vaughn, but it also felt like the right thing to do although most of the regularly-scheduled things of our lives make little to no sense when death is imminent.
Vaughn I’ve known for so long I can’t remember when we met, but surely in the early 80s, and Julie became a fast beloved friend a dozen years ago when her adventure with Vaughn brought her to us. I thought I had a good sense of Vaughn, but I got to know him even better at the end of his life when he actively helped me write his obituary (you can read at this link) over hig last month in between talking through songs, poems, readings, and speakers for his Celebration of Life, which I had the honor of officiating Sat., March 26. The obituary and the service were long, winding, full of deep notes and soaring voices, wild stories and vast memories, just like Vaughn. Then again, any life, especially one lived with vibrant gusto, and admirable affection is a infinite unfolding.
Vaughn especially made big differences for many of us. Vaughn has changed my life, including in one small and one enormous way: red cowboy boots and the farm. When I was diagnosed with eye cancer, I wrote a pithy blog post about being back at the cancer rodeo, and all I needed now were a pair of red cowboy boots. “Then she shall have them,” Vaughn told Julie. Within a week, Vaughn and Julie were walking from their car to our house carrying a large box. They fit perfectly.
The farm, however, is something too big to fit anywhere although somehow it’s in our arms after being only in our hearts for years. When it became possible (although seemingly highly improbable) for us to purchase the land we’ve been trying to save for 35 years, it was Vaughn who gave us the guts and gumption to believe we could. He first brainstormed with us about building an ecological small housing development on part of the land, and when we all realized we had no idea how to actually do that, he was game to help us with financing. His willingness was a strong enough bridge that it led us to imaginative and sustainable financing beyond him. While we might have gotten there on our own, Vaughn’s passion for the people and land he loved sped us toward our destination in time for all the pieces to come together.
Vaughn’s death on March 17, shortly after I got home from Arkansas, brought relief, heartbreak, calm, beauty, and the big mystery of grief all together for many of us. He died in Julie’s arms with his his dear friend Danny and Julie’s wonderful daughter Becca around him. Shortly afterwards, Ken and I drove over as the full moon set to help prepare the body for his green burial. The room was full of calm, love, and peace, and being part of such sacred moments is surely one of the more important reasons we’re alive.
But in the time between his death and burial, I felt discombobulated and confused, uneasy and not really wherever I was supposed to be. I remembered how, when my dad died, the Colombian rabbi who got to know my dad told us that the time between death and burial was an immersion into limbo (one reason, he explained, Jews bury their dead so quickly). He added that we don’t officially become mourners until we lay the body to rest.
Saturday, when Vaughn’s friends and family lowered the biodegradable coffin into the living earth, then we did our burial ceremony, ending in filling in the grave, I realized we as well as Vaughn had made the journey to the house down the road. It’s lonely and little empty not to have him with us, but there’s so much to remember, including how I played John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” for him recently, and he said to make sure that was in the service also.
Here is the poem I wrote for him when I was at Dairy Hollow, right after speaking with Julie (and yes, the ending is a nod to the John Prine song). May we all find where we belong, and when it comes to our loved ones, carry what we remember into the house where we live now.
Walking To the House Down the Road
for Vaughn, 3/12/22
Of course it’s a house for you who loves
to build and rebuild the uninhabitable
into homes of music and good food.
Winter makes it harder, especially
when false spring turns to thunder snow
and sheet on a Sunday afternoon.
But leaving when blossoms clutch
the sky or when summer nights fill us
with lightning bugs and katydids
would be harder to leave behind
in this house of a life, each packed box
a decade overflowing of who you still are
and will always be even down the road.
A dog barks from the kitchen. The last
of the snow drops from the branches
while the steps to the last place you live
dampen in the sheen of old rain.
The birds come and go, whole flocks
of red-winged blackbirds, twisting
murmurations of starlings just
down the road from here
to where you’re going without
leaving this bed, with leaving this bed
like breath or time. But we can’t
say that, bear that now while you still
sleep or reach up to kiss again and
never enough. Love is a well
with no bottom, a weathervane
in the wind, an oak so heavy
with yesterday’s snow that it can’t,
it has to, let go, but love is also
what makes it possible to let go.
The lights in the house down the road
are already on for you, the door already
just a little ajar, the road between there
and here made of gravel, watching, weather,
one story to step into after another,
each say saying, don’t go, each
answering, I love you, it’s okay,
we remember, we will remember