It happens like this: We do not see the thing for what it is until it is no more. It can happen so quickly: News of another person’s death distills the color and lines of the small band of people who surround your life, bringing their clarity into focus. Perhaps you pull them closer to you; you frequent your distribution of I love you’s or just keep a closer eye on them. I’m not sure what it is about death that wakes us to our senses like the sharp notes of a stiff cup of coffee kicks us into awakening. Make no mistake, death is about awakening, both ours and theirs.
I have come into this realization like the rest of us, through fits and starts. And, like those who know the particular cataclysm of the unexpected death, the one that rattles your core into a submission of gelatinous proportions, you feel another person’s pain in the new grim reality as if it might be intended for you. But, it’s not. What you can do, having worked through your own valley and cavern crawl through grief, you can say a prayer for them by imagining the moments you know: the planning of the ceremony which for those most immediately involved brings its own hollowness of pomp in the face of undesired circumstance, writing the obituary even as you have to trick your brain into compliance, dressing up for an occasion that makes you want to tear your clothes.
Through coping with death, I came to understand life. Poets naturally gravitate toward death akin to the way pigeons circle scraps of food on the sidewalk. There’s nothing more poetic than writing elegies, especially knowing that often when people return to poetry, it is because of death. Yet, I find writing humor, writing about the eccentricities we share in our living is infinitely harder to pen. And the death found in paltry poems is often as false as describing the contours of the male body without ever having seen or touched it.
Forgoing a eulogy for the living, sometimes you play into the audacity of celebrating a person’s life while they are still alive. You scrimp and save for one evening they may be waited on, hand and fork by watchful servers in an intimate dining room. You watch their surprise and delight at dining on the subtle delicacy of a peekytoe crab. You try as hard as you can to remember all the highlights of the evening so that one day you can call them back with the sharpness of focus(white tablecloths, a kitchen tour that upon leaving it forces you to pass by the Chef as if a visit to his eponymous restaurant would not be complete without it). As you leave the restaurant, any stardust of being on par with your fellow wealthy diners shakes off. You board the El, heading to your Schaumburg hotel with a full belly and merry heart of memories.
Tonight, I mourn the death of Charlie Trotter, not because I knew him, but because I keenly feel for this particular loss experienced by his son and wife. I send them my prayers, knowing all too well the sleepless nights after my own similar experience. I think of his friends in shock, unable to string together the words, he’s gone and remember making phone calls to tango students several years past letting them know their teacher was gone. It’s too easy for life to speed up and press on after the initial days of calls, casseroles and visits begin to taper off.
I may not have known Chef Trotter personally, but the wake of influence he had on so many students and colleagues will continue to carry on with so much of his presence and indelible mark. I remember an evening so long ago where, for the first time, at his restaurant, I stepped into adulthood, lavishing my mother with the luxuries outside our reach. That evening, its simple opulence, his meticulous standards left their specific impression on me. When I look to a life well lived and one that calls more out of the people around it, I think of Charlie Trotter. In this way, his thread weaves throughout the tapestry of my life and I am the better for it.