Funerals and Winter
Winters in Ohio are made of the emotional dregs of depression, the ashen polluted air of decrepit steel mills and coal mines and a landscape populated with battered hopes and forlorn thoughts. These somehow congeal together to make a gray morass of dingy desperate grey that rises with the fallen hopes of fall football fans stretching from Cincinnati (the Bungles), through Columbus (the Luckeyes) and settling into Cleveland (the Mistake on the Lake. This gray wraps around the skyline from November, just in time for most of the football Gods to have squelched any hope for a January championship, into the late blasting winds of March. It is unrelenting and oppressive, with an ability to cause statewide cursing on a daily basis by almost broken saddened masses who wrap themselves as snuggly as they can in winter coats, multi-colored scarves and wet boots that get their monies worth in the ever ending slush of winter.
There is a certain physical hardness that comes from living in Ohio, where brutal winter after brutal winter can shape a face into a soft enamel of skin. This is more from the neurotic impact of the never-ending gray than the wind and snow. Ohio lacks any semblance of a mountains and the haphazardness of the weather disallows such outdoor winter fare as pond skating, skiing or hockey so we naturally hold things in, wearing brave faces, drink beer and hone a cynicism that only a veteran bar-fly would appreciate. For many Ohioans, they go underground, hibernating in basement dens with large televisions, pizza and sports television thus resulting in bodies transfigured by lack of exercise and shitty food, bloated and immense as the depression that festers inside the girth. For others of us, we pined for escape through art, music, treadmills and alcohol we found our relief in stumbling through the slop of icy mud while we looked for our cars that we only parked a few hours earlier. I am not certain if there are any studies on the rise of alcohol sales and the use of anti-depressants in the winter months but I am quite certain that in Ohio these tend to skyrocket.
Jerry passed away in January, it was fitting that his death arrived amid snow drifts and the general crappiness of Ohio weather. Where the general mood is “what the fuck else can go wrong”, where many people tend to take the weather personally as another gray filled day is an act from God, exacting one more piece of a bruised soul. Anyway, this was how I felt when Jerry died, I had suffered from depression for many years and the old ways of dealing with it were drying up as much as I was trying to keep them wet. The music scene was changing for me, and much of my hopes in bands and artists were being vanquished by the personal choices the musicians were making. Jenny was living in Florida, having given up her music career as she stood on the brink of minor-celebrity in the indie-rock world, Moviola had shrunk from the favors of major-label overtures in favor of children and home buying, Appalachian Death Ride had basically ceased to exist as members battled their own demons, only the New Bomb Turks were still making music. Jerry was dead and I felt my life was now being defined by lose.
The world was getting suffocating, the choices fewer and while not yet thirty-three I couldn’t see myself at forty yet alone at thirty-five. Instead of being an active participant, as I once was I struggled to find a place within my shifting existence. I was certainly becoming someone whom I swore I would never become, a cynical bitter shadow who ducked from participation to search for meager pockets of laughter and sex brought by the ingestion of alcohol. Even these once fantastical pursuits were shriveling up and unsatisfying. Jim Shepard had hung himself, his life defined by his rejected death, swinging by a belt fastened to a doorway whose sole purpose was to hold the weight of the walls above the passerby’s was now betrayed by the ultimate act of sadness. For myself, the suicide of Jim was an event that reached deep with my own psyche bringing a long thought act into fruition, it was as destabilizing an event as any as I had ever encountered. Until the death of Jerry.
Jerry’s funeral was planned by his family, who were sweeter than I would have thought, as for many years Jerry shied away from his upbringing as so many of us were prone to do. Our insular world was filled with familial outcasts who not only scattered far from our physical upbringing but tended to push the memories of broken childhoods away to be replaced by the swagger and commotion of searing guitars, cigarettes and laughter. These latter three ingredients were the saviors we always searched for, and for me they were being replaced by urns and pine boxes. Jerry was buried in Parma, Ohio and large working class suburb of Cleveland, filled with tiny shoe-box houses constructed after the Second World War to house the returning G.I.’s and their lustful spouses. I met his father, mother and younger brother, trying in vain to let them know the joy their son had brought to our confined world. How Jerry’s music had touched people overseas and most importantly been able to grant those who knew and love him a starting point for merriment and copious amounts of late night cackling. I don’t know if I ever came close to succeeding. Jerry, flinched with the sound of religion especially fundamentalist Christianity, he would badger me for my weekly attendance to mass and try in vain to poke holes in my belief in Catholicism. His funeral was rigid, with a large gathering of his friends from Columbus, Cleveland and Chicago crowded into the hard wooden pews that were symbiotic of the service. The pastor didn’t try to capture Jerry’s audacious sense of humor and was much more focused on the afterlife, with little semblance of hope for those gathered around his coffin that we could emerge from foolish lifestyles.
I had driven up with Brett Lewis and our friend Jim, my girlfriend was going to meet us up there for the funeral. They picked me up at my house, I brought along a bottle of vodka I had started to become friendly with and a twelve pack of beer. We landed in at the motel and caught up with Bettina Richards and Elliot Dix, a Columbus native who had become a fixture in the Chicago music scene. We went out to the small neighbor dive bars that Jerry no doubt would have inhabited if he chose to stay in Parma and laughed as we told ridiculous Jerry story after ridiculous story. When I walked into the funeral home the next day and saw Jerry laying in the casket I quickly turned heel and found a dive-bar just a muddle away from the funeral home. I had two doubles of Maker’s Mark and returned, emboldened by the alcohol I could now face my friend. I knew at that moment I had a very serious issue with alcohol.
Cleveland was gray with a callous skyline that heaved masses of smoke into the air, as if the smoke stacks that pocketed the area were upturned water faucets, gushing grayer into an already overflowing bathtub of sky. We huddled around his grave as tears fell to the ground and the shattered expressions blossomed around the cemetery, I felt guilty as I did not answer his father’s call for pall bearers. I wanted to hide somewhere but stood there with my back against a tree, muttering to our friends about the Jerry’s foolishness. Jerry’s parents made a beautiful gravestone for him, complete with a guitar carved into the granite surface. For them, the loss must have been greater as they never had the opportunity to know the sheer pleasure of their adult boy, only unanswered questions. I was too chickenshit to help them clean his house out, I begged off every opportunity I could as they made the trip from Cleveland; they were left alone to piece together his life over the past twelve years. Later, his father contacted me, asking for video of his son. I still haven’t gathered these together.
I quit drinking roughly over a year later; I had a very difficult year after Jerry died. A year filled with trepidation, loss, and eventually new awakenings. As, I traversed early sobriety, Jerry would flash across my mind and leave tiny bits of encouragement as I fought feelings of escape and angst. I was one of the only persons I had known to give up the drink at that time, a singular figure in my life held up by the unsettling events of my near past and the promise of strangers I had no idea existed. When my daughter was born nearly four years later, I would cradle her in my arms and think of Jerry. How much he loved kids, he loved to be silly and how much he would have loved my darling little daughter. For once, I think Jerry would have been brave enough to tell me he was proud of me. For a moment even the gray of an Ohio winter, cast rays of light throughout my life.