A week after my oncology checkup I drove through the gate into Burning Man. Feeling there was much to celebrate, most of all the onco’s casually-dropped pronouncement that I could wait six months to see him again instead of the usual three. Yet underlying the elation was somberness; of the reasons I had for being at B-Man, prominent was honoring the dead. Two especially, members of my cancer support group who didn’t make it where I in comparison pretty much waltzed through.
I resumed going to Burning Man year before last after being away over 15 years. Many times during those years I assessed I’d probably never go back, that I’d already gotten all I needed out of it in the late 90s. Then I was diagnosed with cancer, and emerged from treatment determined to live more boldly where I could afford to. Going back to the Black Rock Desert I love so much to be with some of the people who’d helped me make it through fit the bill nicely.
Yet even in that act I was there as much for the dead as for the living. Two decades ago a favorite artist sang, For the souls of the departed and the renegades of love/You and me we gotta be all we dreamed of – words that instantly struck to my core, and for years I thought I knew what they meant. But I didn’t, not until experiencing and surviving cancer myself and in the process learning that for the living celebrating is as vital as mourning even if only because we can.
This year I drove through the gate with one main task for the week ahead: visit the Temple soon as possible and hang the poster I’d made in memory of Jody and Andrea. While I didn’t expect it to be easy – their deaths each hit me hard and the hitting has not yet let up – I saw it as something very necessary. My duty, if you will, as one of the living.
The next day I was part of a cancer survivor’s walk to the Temple, an event now in its 13th year with the organizer more than once referring to those walking in years past who were now not alive. It was a largely silent group that set out, the distant Temple frequently hidden behind dust-clouds only serving to deepen the quiet. With every step the poster secured to my daypack by a cable-tie bumped against me, brought along because even though the Temple was reportedly yet to open (construction delays) hope still springs eternal.
As it happened we got there just as people were first being let in, a small crowd that our group of 60-70 almost doubled. I stayed for the picture before making my way inside the structure, exposed beams open to the sky that to me resembled nothing so much as a huge heavenward swirl. I wandered looking for a suitable spot, not sure I’d find it since I prepared my offering for a flat vertical surface rather than one of angled gaps poised against the ground at a lean. Also belatedly realizing that even if I did, I still hadn’t brought means to secure the poster against the wind, not even push-pins.
Eventually instinct revealed the right place. Only then did I look at those posting memorials to their own departed; one nearby man substantially younger than me had brought hammer and small nails while another, substantially older, held a staple gun. I enlisted their help and by turns they held the poster in place as I nailed and then stapled it to the beams. Then also by turns I embraced each for long seconds, sobbing into their shoulders as they sobbed into mine, the weight of what we were doing caught up. Complete strangers though they were, in those moments I wanted no one besides them close to me.
I walked back to camp by myself crying much of the way and cried again several times in the following days. On Sunday night I went with my good friends/campmates to watch the Temple burn, only to make my way a hundred yards down the circle before slipping into a gap between people I didn’t know. Right then what I wanted was to sob silently, unobserved by those I loved, expelling in near-privacy what I could of my grief into the flames that would soon reach toward the stars.
The grief was not just for Andrea and Jody but for Rod and Debbie, Georgia and Ari, Tony and Lucy and the others I’d met in the group no longer with us. For Anne who died of pancreatic cancer in 2014 before I got a chance to tell her how much she’d meant to me during our 22-year friendship, before I even knew it myself. For my mother gone now six years and never properly mourned by me, for my father who preceded her by 36 years, for my aunt and my cousin who’d died after my mother. For the others gone during and since that death-laden year of 2016, even David fucking Bowie whose passing touched me in a way that a public figure’s never has. Grief too for my survivor’s guilt, for my loss of innocence at finally starting to viscerally understand what a random and cruel force death usually is.
I let some of that grief out, then went to rejoin my friends. Feeling emotionally raw in a way I hadn’t prepared for – couldn’t have, I see now, just as it’s impossible to truly prepare for death itself. A week later I’m still raw and expect I’ll remain so for some time, though I hope at increasing intervals. I did what I went to Burning Man to do: celebrate as much as mourn. Because that’s what the living must do, both for ourselves and for the dead.
(Republished from my personal Facebook account.)