Never Stop Dancing: A Story of Grief, Friendship, and Community from UUCSS by John Robinette and Robert Jacoby

Robert Jacoby:

It started with a connection, two men in conversation. I should say: for me and John, in deep and wide-ranging conversation. A verse from Proverbs speaks to our interactions: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

And John and I really do sharpen each other in our conversations. This might be because of the great differences in our worldviews. John is a progressive Democrat, active with environmental causes; I’ve been a registered Independent all my life. John is a Unitarian Universalist (I had to look that up when he told me that); I’m a Christian. You could go down an itemized list checking off the boxes of our differences; the labels of our differences are varied and many; but I think we both realized early on in our friendship that our differences were just that: labels. And I like to think that it was these great differences that attracted us to each other, to test our worldviews, and to test ourselves and what we believed to be true. Over the years of my friendship with John, I’ve learned that nothing is off limits in our conversations. As a matter of fact, we welcome our differences.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

The inspiration for Never Stop Dancing came to me in a swimming pool. The imagery of water and rebirth is obvious, now. Then, I was floating on my back in the water, buoyed by my wife’s Gina’s hands under my shoulders, letting my mind wander. My thoughts drifted to John and his recent loss of Amy, and I wondered what his life was like now, him a widowed father with two young boys, what he was doing, how he was coping. I knew people were helping him as they could, with food and laundry and child care. These were all physical needs. And I wondered what anyone could do—if anything could be really done—to help him in his grief. What can I do about it? I thought. How could I possibly help, John? I’m a writer and editor, with experience in journalism, interviewing people, asking them questions, listening, asking more questions, capturing their stories.

Something clicked in my head.

Immediately my thought was to interview John about Amy’s death not in one interview session but over time, over many days, spanning the first full year after her death. I thought back to that terrible day when Gina and I visited John in the raw first week after Amy’s death and what he had shared in the midst of his grief. Dread mixed with excitement from the first time this idea occurred to me. My hunch was that this would be an important project. I didn’t think anyone had ever done such a thing, let alone thought of doing it. Who would? On the surface, the idea felt wrong. Intrusive and disturbing. But I wanted to hear more of his language of grief, and how he might possibly describe it. I wanted to know how someone could experience such a loss, put words to it, and come back from it. I wanted to know his experience of losing someone so close, so beloved. At the heart of it, I wanted to know the breadth and depth of love, and love lost. But I also wanted to know what it would be like for him living through it, as it seems that the older I get the more I realize that much of life is about survival. In a way, too, I thought John’s grief might inform others’ grief—how they manage it, how they talk about it, and how they process it—and, ultimately, how they move on.

As I got out of the pool I knew I had to call John right away to tell him I needed to see him as soon as possible. I wanted to make the proposal before I changed my own mind about it. I drove to his house the next day. It was Friday evening, July 30, 2010. We were in his living room, alone. Too nervous and excited and hopeful, I stood to explain; I can still see John leaning forward on his living room couch, listening intently. Listening as I laid it out. How I wanted him to sit with him for a series of interviews over the next year, to talk about what he was going through, and how he was living. When I stopped talking John sat for just a moment, and I could see him thinking, and then he looked up at me, wiped his eyes, and said, “Yes, let’s do it.”

There’s a verse from the New Testament that speaks to the time John and I spent together during that first year after Amy was killed, and during the nine years to make our book a reality. And the verse is this: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

And I put the question to you this morning: What is your life, but your time? And how do you spend it—your time, your life?

John is my friend, and I wanted to help him, to be with him, to talk, as friends do. That’s how our book came to be. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

Someone sees someone in need and steps forward, and reaches out, to meet the need, in time.

That’s the connection, from friendship to community. Spending time; spending life.

John Robinette:

Amy and I first visited this church in either August or September of 2000. I can’t remember, exactly. It’s one of an uncountable number of memories I had only partially stored and now is partially lost. I had asked Amy to marry me that spring, she said yes, and it was time to find someone to marry us. I had attended the Arlington UU church, then the Universalist National Memorial Church and for reasons that aren’t relevant for this story, we then visited here. Amy felt comfortable immediately. In short order, we met with Rev Liz Lerner, our prior Sr Minister, we became members and were married the following June.  By that September, 2001 Amy was pregnant with our first child. And before long we had a second child. We’d bring them to the daycare when we’d come to service, then eventually RE. We got to know more people, met other parents with young children, and got involved in various ways. We made friends. Close friends that we’d get together with for dinners or camping trips. I served on the board. We were part of a community.  It was important to us. We couldn’t know, of course, how profoundly important.

Jump ahead to the summer of 2010 when Robert approached me in the wake of Amy’s death and we started the project that became Never Stop Dancing we knew we wanted to record something, capture something, but what that something was exactly, we couldn’t predict. Several stories emerged. There is my story: a story of grief and what it is like to experience it. There is a story of my relationship to God, if there is a God, and how could a loving God allow this. There is a story of our modern culture and how we’ve perhaps abandoned the rituals of death and grief, once so close and present, and now removed and distant. There is also Robert’s story and what he experienced and learned through all this, and also the story of our friendship, a friendship that from the outside, perhaps, seems unusual – two men sharing emotions of grief – but to Robert and me was as natural as breathing.

Robert is also less expensive than my psychotherapist and he does house calls.

So, there are several stories running in parallel in the book. In addition to the stories I’ve just mentioned, there is a story of a community: my friends and neighbors and of course, this church, also beset with grief and confusion and I think I can say, desperate to do something to help.

I’d like to read something from the book <page 42>

In short order I had freezers full of bread and oven roast chickens and baked casseroles. I had plenty of food. Food overflowing. Then I mentioned to someone something about how Amy did all the laundry. Before I knew it five families had volunteered to take turns with our laundry. And the compulsions to help me those weeks extended beyond the obvious ways of helping, too. During one of those first days when my house was full with visitors, a friend said to me, “I know you don’t know what you need right now, but there are a lot of people who just want to help in any way they can.” I was sitting on the floor and I looked up at the windows, which were dirty with dust and pollen, water spots and cobwebs. I half-joked, “I’ve been meaning to clean the windows for months.” My friend walked away and about thirty minutes later he came back and said, “I know you were kind of joking about the windows, but next Saturday three people will be here to clean your windows.” I was dumbfounded.

Another friend and her family came over a couple weeks after Amy died and brought us dinner. I was describing how so many people had extended themselves, offered help, even the most mundane things like planting flowers in our front yard. She said, “John, you have to understand how hard this is on us. Because the one thing we want to do, we can’t do. We can’t bring back Amy.”

I can’t overstate the response. It was humbling and remarkable. And it also became clear how difficult simple things can become. Like saying “hello” at the grocery store. Because we don’t actually say hello. If you bump into a friend, someone you know, good chance they’ll say, “Hey, How’s it goin’”. And we’ll usually say, “fine, how are you?” And they’ll say “good” and on we go. Now sometimes we might mean it. We might really want to know how’s it goin’ with the other person. But mostly we are actually just saying, “hello.” So in the early days, and weeks, after Amy died, this would happen: I’d bump into a friend and they’d start with “how’s it g..” and they’d get about half way through and stop then try to start over then they’d look down and apologize and I’d have to console them. Or sometimes they’d just say, “how’s it goin’” because  that IS what we say but I couldn’t reply with “fine” because I was not fine. So I’d have to say something like, “I’m managing” or “I’m a little wobbly today” and I could see their face scrunch up and wonder what they had done wrong to make this conversation turn bad so fast.

A simple greeting suddenly laden with heaviness. We shouldn’t set ourselves up like that. Now, most of the time, I say, “good to see you.” And when I do, the response I almost always get is “good to see you too!” and that feels really nice. Good to see you. But it took a long time to get to that.

A simple greeting.

And grief requires of us far more than simple greetings. It calls us to be with each other in a way we may have little, if any experience. What to say to someone? I have to say something, right? Back to the book.

<page 51>

Some people would pat me on the back and say, “Yeah, that’s it,” or “You’re doing well,” or “You’re going to be fine.” They meant well, I know, and they were doing what they could do to help, but the things they were saying didn’t sound right to me. After all, I was not doing well, and I was not thinking at all about being fine. I wanted to grieve. I hated the pain, but I needed the pain. I wanted it to end, but I didn’t want it to end. I was aware of a direct connection between my love for Amy and my pain, and how the pain reflected the love we’d shared. If my pain were to end, would that signal the end of our love?

One particular time members of my church came over. I was kneeling on the floor, and the balls of grief were expanding in my chest. I leaned forward, put my arms forward, and rested my head on the floor. I couldn’t see what was happening around me, but I was aware of hands on me, just resting on me, holding me. No one said anything; no one needed to say anything. There were maybe ten people, all around me, laying their hands on me. That was the right thing to do for me then. I moaned and cried, and they all were on the floor with me, laying hands on me.

As sorrowful a moment as that was, there was something beautiful about it. I could feel my sorrow and my pain and my grief vibrating out of me and through them. There was a connected energy I could feel through their touch. I began crying even harder—loud wailing and moaning with my forehead down on the floor and my arms in front of me. And they just continued to hold me; their hands held my back, my arms, my legs. I could feel the bone-ache of my grief pulsate from deep inside and radiate out to their hands. And then I felt their love and compassion passing back through their hands and into my body. It lasted for a minute, maybe two. The sobbing subsided. I lifted my head slowly, and as I pushed myself back to a kneeling position those around me let go, one by one. I was exhausted. I was in pain. My diaphragm and ribs hurt. My chest and throat burned. My head throbbed. But I felt a calmness, for the first time. It was that laying on of hands. Healers, they were. We sat in silence for another minute or so. No one spoke. We just sat there. Then when it was time I thanked them. It was a very powerful experience.

I started to understand, through my grief, my suffering, the universality of it. It wasn’t just me. There was of course a community grieving Amy’s death. And also, for whatever reason, people started to share with me their own tragedies. People who I thought I knew started to share their sad stories. A brother who drowned years ago. Stillborn children. Infidelities, drug and alcohol addictions, and so on. It was at once comforting to learn of others’ suffering. And also taxing. I’d like to read something else.

This is from the Afterword which I wrote about a 9 months after we finished the interviews.

<page 231>

I had lunch recently with a colleague from work, someone I had come to know after Amy died. When we first met at work for a new project, we talked about work and what we had to do. As we came to know each other, we shared the normal office chitchat—the weather, sports, that sort of thing. There had never really been an opportunity for me to share that I was a widower, that my late wife had been run over by a truck. It just doesn’t come up in small talk. Nor was there any real opportunity for him to share that he had lost a child. That his eighteen-year-old daughter, a college student, had been run over by a car. It came to light only after a third person, a mutual work friend who knew us both, mentioned my situation to him in passing. He reached out to me, and we met for lunch. And such is the world of personal tragedy and grief. You realize that you are not alone. And try as you may not to compare, there is always someone else with a story more gut-wrenching than your own. The spectrum of human tragedy seems catastrophically unbounded, though there must be that one most pitiful, lonesome soul, the outlier at the far end of the curve, who has suffered the most.

We talked about our tragedies over lunch. The complete ripping away of a loved one, and the shredding of a life’s fabric. The ripple effects to those left to live. The depression and withdrawal and the coping mechanisms of alcohol or drugs. Other family relations pulled hard to the point where the connective fibers begin to snap. The erratic attempts to reconstruct a life. The thoughts of suicide. The “what if” scenarios. I shared with him my own personal “thank-God-for-my-two-boys” feeling. I told him that I like to think I would have chosen life and chosen some path to honor Amy after her death, had we not had children, but that I can also imagine in that case the complete sense of loss and the lack of any substantial motive to go on. I shared my fantasy of joining her in whatever other place she was in, if any. And I told him that now I could see with a new clarity one reason why suicide is prevalent among the elderly. You grow old with someone, your love, and they die. The kids are all grown by then. Were it me I can see asking myself, “Well, why go on?” I’ve lived my life, my children are on their own, and my life partner is gone.

We’ve experienced a lot as a community. This congregation. Births and deaths, marriages and divorces, budget woes, disagreements over policy and direction, the palace intrigue and departure of two beloved ministers. And I mark time in this community only since 2000. There was plenty of that and more that proceeded me, Amy and me. And surely it will continue.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is that which comes attached to our mortality and our unfortunate awareness of it. Philosophies and Religions from the beginning of philosophies and religions answer this, or try to. “None of us was meant to know,” as Robert says in  the book. Behind me are these quilts, sacred relics if there is such a thing for UUs. They are sacred to me. Amy’s name is embroidered on that one, Spring. We must continue with that tradition. And also the tradition of community. I wrestled with how to close this out, find some clever or wise saying or pronouncement. Something to comfort us or perhaps an appeal to a higher calling or purpose. I wish I had that to share. Yes, believe it or not, I am at a loss for words.

Gratitude then, is where I will land. Deep gratitude for this community. Gratitude for my neighbors. Gratitude for Robert. I wish it were true that something other than death, or loss of any sort, and the process of grief, could crack us open.

I’d like to finish with one last reading. <page 141>

I was reading a “National Geographic” not too long ago that was just lying around the house; it was the May 2010 issue, which probably would have arrived the week before Amy was killed. There was an article on Mount St. Helens, and the area around it. It has been about thirty years since the eruption of the volcano there. What had been pristine streams and lakes was utterly laid to waste—acres and acres, square miles of trees destroyed, toxic metals spewed into the air. And what is it now? Now there are meadows, and the streams are running clear with trout, and new life has sprung forth.

None of this is surprising. We know this story of death and regenera­tion, especially with the fertile soils at the foot of the volcano, because all these minerals and nutrients have just been disgorged from the center of the earth. Destroying the area around it has set the preconditions for new life.

That is an image I’m holding in my mind now, at this moment, this sense that we’ve just lived through a forest fire, or complete destruction from a volcano. And so I wonder, what new life is created out of Amy’s death? It’s important for me to hold on to this, because if I don’t, it means that death wins. And death can’t win. Life has to win.

I think that is how Amy would have wanted it. Amen.