“You know, I just never really got into Bob Dylan.” Those were some of the first words I ever remember you speaking to me. It was late at night, pushing morning, and Prairie was driving. I was on the phone with you, getting directions to your apartment. I was sixteen that summer. You must have been close to your forty-third birthday.
Prairie and I had driven out to see Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson play in Kansas City. The result of a pact made while sitting on the floor of a Patti Smith concert. I said I’d love to see Dylan someday. She said, “Find a show and we’ll go.”
I’m sure we must have met before, but I definitely don’t remember. You were an enigma in my family. The uncle that stayed in the midwest that no one heard much from. But when my folks called to let you know your nieces would be in town, you were quick to open your home.
We slept on your apartment floor. You served us tomato juice in the morning. Showed us your pencil drawings. Told us about what it is you do out there in Kansas. Asked about our lives.
Scouring the apartment for some sort of parting gift you gave me a metal chain that I fastened around my wrist. I wore that chain for years. The years that we managed to grow a friendship. You started coming out to visit.
When I graduated from high school my parents had you out as a surprise. I got home from school and was walking up our back steps when you came to the door. I dropped my books and threw my arms around you. Always such a pleasure.
It wasn’t long after that you moved to Washington. Started coming out for Christmas. We’d sit around the campfire and share stories over whiskey. I catch myself wondering how things might have been different if we’d gotten sober together. You never did. I haven’t had a drink in 261 days. I think that’s a better birthday present than the Jim Beam I usually toast you with.
We were standing on our porch one night, smoking cigarettes. Talking about how glad we were to have reconnected. You said, “I don’t know if you’ll ever get married. I don’t think much of it myself. But if you do, I sure would like to be there.”
I said, “Of course you’ll be there. I can’t imagine doing something that important without you.” But you’d be in the ground less than a year after that conversation. Maybe that’s why our wedding ceremony didn’t have an invite list.
It’s hard to think about your life without thinking about your death. Without thinking about how I had the biggest mental breakdown of my life a month after you went missing. About the torturous two years of not knowing what happened to you. The way the discovery of your body hit me like a sledgehammer to the gut. I had to face the fact that I was right when I first heard you’d disappeared and knew you’d found a nice quiet place to end your life. It’s hard to separate out all those things. To remember how lucky we all were.
Lucky to have driven out to Kansas that year and forced you back into our lives. To have coaxed you out of the midwest and planted you on the west coast. I have those vivid memories of what a phenomenal and precious human you were. Those four years of Rodney. I will be forever grateful for that.
And as for the rest of it? You said, “You know, I just never really got into Bob Dylan.”
I said, “I won’t hold it against you.” And I didn’t. None of it.
Happy fifty-third birthday, Rodney. I love you. Always.