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Sam Cook: Farewell to a friend from the trail [Duluth News Tribune :: BC-OTD-COOK-COLUMN:DU]

DULUTH, Minn. - We gathered the other day in a bright and lovely sanctuary to remember Jerry. The day was cold, and a talcum-powder snow swirled outside big windows against a hillside of birches. White on white.

Jerry wasn't there, but then he was there, too. It was as if each of us was tethered to him on some long vine, our personal conduit to this multi-faceted and joyful man. Jerry the river-rafter. Jerry the school social worker. Jerry the expedition paddler. Jerry the counselor, the husband, the stepfather, the Peace Corps volunteer, the co-worker, the friend, the follower of Buddha.

Those who knew him best stood before us and told us about the Jerry they knew. They did it through tears and laughter and stories. Always, stories.

The rest of us sat and listened and watched the snow spin through the birches. We cried and laughed and nodded. Yes, that was Jerry. Oh, yeah. That was Jerry.

I used to think funerals were about the one who was no longer with us, but a long time ago I figured out it was as much about the rest of us. We need to hold each other and let the sadness flow through us and smile and hurt and hug and share food and somehow hold this soul in our hearts one more time. Together. Maybe it allows us to go on. Maybe it allows the soul of our friend to go on. We don't understand all of that perfectly.

A man who shared Buddhism with Jerry laid some potent words on us when he took his turn at the podium. The words are ascribed to Buddha, apparently, but their precise origin is hard to pin down.

"The problem is," Buddha reportedly said, "we think we have time."

I'll bet that line plucked a string in a lot of our hearts that morning. It's true, in the sense that we need to get on with whatever we deem important in life. Gathering to honor a departed friend's life certainly drives that home.

But we do have time, whatever we're allotted, and if we use ours as well as Jerry did, if we touch half the lives he did - well, then, maybe we have just enough time.

My path intersected with Jerry most deeply long ago on a month-long canoe trip down the Gods River to Hudson Bay. We hadn't known each other before, but once you make a trip that long and arduous with a group of people, the bond lasts for life.

I remember the night he and Ross made a huge pot of dinner for us after a day when we had portaged for nine hours through a bog. The meal was supposed to be macaroni and cheese. Somehow, they got the powdered cheese mixed up with the powdered eggs. We called the clumpy concoction "egg-aroni." Famished, we ate it all. But we didn't let them forget it.

In my enduring image of Jerry, he's sitting in camp in a mesh bug jacket to ward off the blackflies. One already had nailed him on the cheek, and a half-inch river of blood had oozed from the wound and dried to a crust on his face. He was rocked back, laughing about something. That man could laugh.

I looked around the sanctuary, trying to imagine the images of Jerry all the others held in their minds and hearts. I knew many in the room, but many more I had never met. And yet, here we all were, each of us connected to this man in some way.

The snow kept whipping past the windows and through the stands of birch beyond. We sat quietly inside, warmed by memories of the Jerry we knew.

What a thing a life is, this chance to touch so many along our path.


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