Listening on the Other Side (April 2019)

APRIL

As I drove away from John Calhoun’s home that rainy winter afternoon, I was with my friend and mentor Molly Holsapple. We moved through space a while in some silent acceptance of what had been and what was and what would soon be. She’d known John most of her life and his impact on her was profound. I reached for the radio volume and soon John’s favorite performer’s voice filled the car. Cyndi Lauper singing “At Last”. I squeezed Molly’s hand. She smiled.

I’d mentioned on the way there that one of my oldest friends, Randy, who lived in Seattle, had been having serious heart problems and had been hospitalized multiple times. As I was dropping her off at her home, walking with her up the stairs to her home, she stopped, looked at me. “You need to go to him, Larry. Don’t hesitate.” Her sentiments were echoed by my husband and best friend an hour later.

By morning, I was headed north.

There is a majestic serpentine road at the end of Speedway Boulevard in Tucson, Arizona. If you head due west, you’ll wind your way up and around and down into gorgeous desert and can catch some of the most extraordinary sunsets on earth. Burning proof of life. I remember driving toward a peak incline there sometime in the mid-nineties. Someone had spray painted the words “More Pain This Way” on the road. I jotted it down in a journal then and it’s always stuck with me. That was a bit how I felt in April when Randy died.

With the exception of my husband and my mother, Randy Eyler has had the greatest impact on my life’s path.

I wrote the words below in June of 2019, a series of stories for a Celebration of Life event at the Lighthouse for the Blind in Seattle. In the linked video, I narrate the text, set to photos from our friendship. The video closes with Randy’s favorite song, Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind”

I’ve known Randy Eyler for half of my life. When I met him, I was 22. He was 44. Today he is the same age I was the night that I met him.

I interviewed with Creative Living Services in the summer of 1995 and I landed a job very quickly. I had no professional experience supporting people with disabilities, but it somehow didn’t matter. Within a few days I found myself driving to a little home off Lake City Way in Seattle. It was around 11pm on a weeknight. I had no idea what to expect.

The staff greeted me at the door and walked me through the house. Pretty soon after that, they left.

On the back porch, I met a man and all these years later, I so clearly can see the silhouette of a short, stout, balding fellow – a leash wrapped around his wrist and a medium sized blond dog pacing back and forth behind him.

“You don’t get dogs! Some kids don’t get dogs,” he said.

“Hi,” I interrupted. “I’m Larry.”

“Larry?”  He brought his hand toward me and we shook hands. “Larry has a dog?”

I laughed, said I didn’t. Asked his dog’s name.

“Nugget,” he said. “He’s a Heinz 57.”

I’d never heard a voice quite like his. It was a mix of Tom Waits and Otis Redding – somewhere between a gravelly soul singer and the sounds of a salty fisherman.

So there I was, twenty-two years old, alone in a house with three strangers who I was suddenly responsible for. Randy’s room was in the basement. He had the whole bottom floor – a big bedroom and a bathroom. I slept on a couch a flight above and through the night, he would get up multiple times. Talking, laughing, carrying on. He’d yell, sing – there was a lot of life going on down there. I didn’t sleep a wink that first night. I had no idea what the guy in the basement was capable of.

For four years, I spent Friday afternoons at that house with him and his roommates. He would come into the dining room and sit at the table and we would talk while I worked on some sort of lousy dinner option I hoped was good enough.

He used to listen to his radio a lot in his room – he had a little radio beside his bed, usually set to an AM religious station. He’d often come to the table repeating words from sermons. He surprised me once, saying, “Larry? The rhythm? It’s not gonna get ya? The rhythm’s not gonna get ya?” And I realized he was talking about a Gloria Estefan song.

I assured him that, absolutely, the rhythm was not going to get him. I still don’t know if he was serious or if he was just pulling my leg.

The first Christmas I worked at Alder Creek, I asked  Randy if he wanted to accompany me to Florida to visit my family for the holidays. My parents had four dogs, and of course he was all about it. My boss Sherry Kindel was supportive and helped make it happen.

So, here’s Randy at 44, taking his first plane ride.

The first trip started off a little bumpy. While waiting to board the plane, we took a trip to the men’s room. He opened the stall door, closing and locking it behind him. Then I heard the toilet flush and Randy let out a loud laugh. “Yeah!” he said. Then another flush. And another.

“Hey Randy, be careful not to overflow the toilet by flushing it so close together.” The laughter in the stall continued and then I realized what was happening. He’d never been in a stall with an automated flush before. He was over the moon – so many flushes of water in succession. I peeked under the stall and it was clear he was just moving back in forth in front of the sensor, having the time of his life. Boarding had begun for the plane and I realized there was only one way out of this – I got down on my knees and slid myself under the stall.

The plane itself was a whole different experience. He’d never been in such close proximity to so many other people and there was a lot of reaching around in front – some curiosity, some pure mischief.

Years later, when we were checking in for one cross-country flight – our first after September 11th – the airline personnel asked, “Are you carrying and firearms, explosives, or bombs?” Randy immediately answered: “Yeah. You got bombs?”

The person from the airline looked at me, then him. “Sir, do you have a bomb or explosives on you?”

“No, no,” I said, “he doesn’t have –“

“I can have a bomb, Larry,” he said. “I can. I can have a bomb.” I knew that tone – Randy wasn’t backing down and this was where things were headed.

I looked the airline guy in the eye – kept shaking my head no, my mind filled with every imaginable awful thing that might be about to happen to us. The guy gave me one last look, then – luckily – said, “You guys are good to go.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Randy’s relationship with my mother, Shelby Deal. She was the first person to buy him the long, skinny balloons he was so fond of. They shared a bond in a class of its own. They both enjoyed a bit of salty language and a shared sense of silliness. Mom would tuck him into bed during visits – in Florida, Washington, Oregon – and it often would last forty minutes. Lots of balloons and singing and goofiness. She was the only person he readily would say “I love you”  to – and that started from their first visit together.

When Mom died last year, I wasn’t sure how to tell him. He said he wanted to go to her celebration of life so he could “help Shelby get her living skills back”. In his last days, he asked me about her many times. He asked me if she was bored in heaven and offered to bring her mayonnaise to lift her spirits. He also asked me if all the dogs my mom had when he first met her were with her again.

When Randy Eyler died, we lost an incredible mind.

His internal life was rich. You’d often hear him whispering whole stories and interactions. Some of it, I came to know, was a way of working through traumatic events in his life. But the thing that surprised me was how Randy readily opened the door and let you into his world. You might find him talking about a person or situation from the past and if you approached him and asked a question or suggested a different action or scene, he’d go with it. The lines between memory and story and outcome soon blurred. I spent, I’m sure, hundreds of hours with him in this space.

I think it’s a space of artistry.

It’s no different than Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Glen Campbell (his favorite singer) interacting with their audiences – it starts with personal experience, it’s wrapped in some version of the truth, and it’s all about presenting emotional granularity. When I think of him this way, I realize I was – in the purest form of the word – a fan.  He brought me insights. He reflected back feelings I’d felt. He gave words to shared experience. He created connection – for himself and for those of us in his orbit.

Friends who know each other intimately have secret languages. Jokes and phrases and references that bond humans to one another. It’s here that I miss Randy most. Twenty years of spelling words, dog names, late night singing, brotherly arguments, and deep dives into nonsensical fun – our years and shared experiences, they’ve been written.

You can’t make old friends. Wish as I may. It’s a hard truth.

The pain of not having him here is still deep and still fresh. And in his absence, I have photos and videos and memories. And what I have, perhaps most importantly and lastingly, is a deep gratitude for twenty-two years of incomparable friendship with Randy Linn Eyler.

He was, without question, completely worth the price of admission.

reld

 

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