In this month of holidays and family gatherings, many of us are grateful to be with our loved ones. And some of us are longing to be with loved ones who are gone.
In March of this year, my dear friend Terry Campbell passed away at the ripe young age of 68. A poet and an actor, Terry was as sweet and soulful as they come. He was, as his obituary so aptly stated, “a fine governor of thought and language, inspiring depth in sharing.”
“We will all lose each other,” Terry once wrote to a friend whose niece had died. “But in a sense I don’t really believe that. I feel that death is an illusion. Don’t be surprised if she visits you in a dream. Don’t be surprised if she seems radiant and beautiful and happy. And don’t believe it if others tell you it was only a dream. If you are blessed with such a dream, take it for the gift it is, and as further affirmation of love, which prevails, which always prevails.”
Terry was found in his car, which had veered from his driveway a few feet from the front door of his home. He lived near a field where llamas graze in rural Chimacum, Washington, a tiny speck on the map near Port Townsend, a couple of hours by car from Seattle. My heart was wrenched by the news.
I met Terry when we both lived in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s. It didn’t take us long to sense that we had a deep connection. His sense of humor was classic. When Terry said goodbye, it was, “Have fun storming the castle.” If someone said “I love you,” he replied, “I love you more.” He trafficked in puns, which were often punctuated with a “Ba-da-bing!” while he mimed a little drum/cymbals action.
Terry was stocky and unassuming, at times an eager chipmunk of a guy, at others, a wise philosopher. In D.C., we often met at Kramerbooks for coffee, then strolled around the chic Dupont Circle neighborhood, sometimes stopping at a city park to toss around a tennis ball and talk. We’d blather on with our expert opinions on politics, dissect our relationships, and imagine that deeper worlds existed.
Terry worked as a proofreader at U.S. News & World Report. I was a software developer at the U.S. Department of Energy. We spent three years exploring the city’s museums, restaurants, memorials, cafes, history, and international vibe—and then we moved on.
I drove west to Los Angeles and the film industry. Terry found a job as the managing editor of a libertarian magazine in Port Townsend. It promptly went out of business right after Terry arrived. He then landed on hard times, surviving on part-time jobs—apartment manager, librarian, custodian. Often, he was down on his luck.
But we always kept in touch by phone. Terry occasionally mentioned his other close friends—Greg, Elbert, Lawrie, and David—but none of us had ever connected.
That is, until Terry passed.
A few weeks after I got the sad news, an email arrived from the first of the four, David, who was Terry’s executor. He’d found our names in Terry’s address book and put us all in touch. Since then, we’ve confabbed many times, sharing stories about our friend. Four strangers, coming together like spokes connected at a hub, which was Terry.
the silence stands so close
you could call it friend
reaches so high and wide and deep
you can hear the distance to the stars
your bones hum along
One day, I received a box from David with a few of Terry’s things—poems, letters, cards, journal pages, and photos, including a 10-year-old laser-printed image of my daughter and me that now had a thumbtack hole at the top.
At the same time, Elbert, who knew Terry in his youth, was busy scanning and emailing us Terry’s creative work: hand-drawn comic books, a list of aspirations, and a neatly typed rewrite of The Lord of the Rings, featuring a Chinese hobbit named Elbo.
Greg, who knew Terry at Redondo Beach High School, sent around more of Terry’s poems. And David, who had directed Terry on stage recently, shared stories and photos of Terry’s performances.
Terry was the kind of friend to whom you could bare your soul with impunity, or at least I could mine, without feeling even a hint of judgment. Over the last year, sometimes when I needed to get out of the office, I’d drive out beyond the edge of Fairfield, the small Iowa town where I live now. I’d park near one of the cornfields and ring up Terry while gazing at the wavering stalks. Often I’d hear a whispered “Hold on” while he made his way out of the Jefferson County Library to the parking lot to talk.
Was it an example of Terry’s beloved synchronicities that I also live in a Jefferson County, some 1,953 miles away? Maybe so. Whenever I mentioned that fact, he’d laugh, though I knew it was more because he needed to laugh than because it was funny. Though he kept his feelings in, Terry suffered from chronic, debilitating depressions.
To fight the blues, he sometimes nursed beers at the bar at Fiesta Jalisco in Port Hadlock, especially when the Seahawks or Mariners were playing night games. He ate too many burgers, drank too much coffee, and, at night, while watching movies borrowed from the library on his hand-sized DVD player, enjoyed too much sherry.
We often discoursed about silly, frivolous things, like the meaning of life. There aren’t many people with whom you can do that after you reach, ahem, a certain age. We thought long and hard about what was worth doing, usually coming around to art. Once, Terry belted out, “Maybe it’s nothing at all!” followed by his booming laugh.
Due to some mysterious alchemy, the best parts of me emerged when I interacted with Terry. I offered myself up fully and vulnerably, shocked to learn that my friend still liked me. Our phone calls had the same intimate quality as our in-person talks. We always found our groove. We were members of the same karass, Kurt Vonnegut’s term to describe a soul family who connect in ways that transcend rational understanding.
This past winter, our talks had started to feel amped up. Terry was having serious health problems, including blood clots in his lungs. On my end, I was dealing with the fallout from many recent losses—my mother, sister, two friends, and three first cousins in just over two years. The ground under me no longer felt solid. If I’d been taking anything for granted, or wasting any bits of time, or avoiding new experience, I stopped. Terry did, too.
Our last few calls had an immediate, precious quality. Things felt different. Some went deep, as usual. Others were brief, efficient check-ins. “You OK?” “Yeah, you?” “What’s your status?” “Sunrise café, coffee.” “OK.”
In mid-March, all my calls started hitting Terry’s voicemail. I dreaded what I sensed was coming. He wasn’t the healthiest guy in the world. I emailed his editor at Minotaur, the poetry journal where he sometimes worked, who wrote back with the news.
We’ll never know what took Terry. David and I have theorized over many possibilities, concluding that he’d had a stroke in his car. Hopefully a brief, efficient one.
Over these past months, Terry’s friends have stepped up to try to fill the gaps left by his absence—each of us helping one another through conversation and support, though of course the gap can never be filled.
Through our emails and calls, the four of us who comprise the Terry Campbell Fan Club try to bring our friend back in small ways. It’s not and never can be the real thing, but it’s something. From each other, we’ve learned about different chapters of Terry’s life. And we’ve become friends, fused by a bittersweet glue. I’ve wondered if Terry would have liked this kind of attention. Or maybe his humility wouldn’t have allowed it.
Nah. Terry would have loved it. He would have responded with his hearty laugh, feeling the love that was coming at him.
“The fact that you feel such pain and grief is, in a sense, a blessing,” wrote Terry in that same letter quoted earlier. “It means that love is real. You have lost someone, as we will all lose each other. It’s strange, and hard to understand, but death affirms love. Stay with that love. Let it abide in your heart.”
Indeed, my friend. Indeed.
Where I Live Now
Where I live now
I can see the grace of trees,
Now leafless, unveiling the lagoon,
And hills sprouted with pines beyond.
The clouds love this place so much
We can’t get them to leave.
Or maybe the sky here loves the clouds so much
It turns gray to woo them.
At times, like now, a stillness runs so deep
You could swear the world was starting all over again.
in a small vase
at the window
early autumn light
to the end
After my mower
Thrashed you and spit you out
I saw you writhe in agony,
Little black bee.
For what had been severed from you.
What had been severed from you
Was your life.
What I had severed from you.
Your wings were slashed too,
Their furious fanning
Unable to fly you
From the thick grass
And your cramped dying.
It is no good to ask you
To forgive me,
But I must and I do.
Now you burrow into the grass.
Now you are still.
I return to the mower,
A hole in my chest
As big as a small black bee.
In my house
I have kleenex
except I don’t
live in a house
and I don’t have
I live in a trailer
and have nothing