During our week in Seattle in 1997, John and I enjoyed some perfectly simple days. We talked and stared for hours at the view across Lake Washington out our windows at Liz's Mount Baker home. My friend Patrick hosted us for dinner on the waterfront deck at Palisade Restaurant. We rode the elevator to the observation deck of the Space Needle on a clear evening for sunset views in all directions. We stopped under the Aurora Bridge to climb on the Fremont Troll and pick his nose. We visited Gas Works Park—a public park created from land and structures of a former coal gasification plant—where John showed his usual fearlessness, climbing to heights I was then terrified of. Lizzy took us to Pike Place Market to watch the famed fish-throwers and witness some of the most creative street performers in existence. We visited Waterfront Park, Pioneer Square, Green Lake Park, Capitol Hill, and floors 23 through 26 of the US Bank Centre building downtown that are to this day Callison Architecture where I interned. In Fremont we wiled away an afternoon together, scoured funky old thrift stores, and at the Fremont Hemp Company (which no longer exists) John bought a cap made of hemp that I still have. And as I wrote in my previous journal entry, we took the ferry across Puget Sound and spent an unforgettable day on Bainbridge Island. These are just the things I remember. I know there were more.
In the course of my days in Seattle 2011, I returned to most of those places. I stopped to look around and took time recalling all I could about what it was like exploring the world with my brother John. I revisited with the same spirit as if he were there with me in person. I recreated photos we took. I do know there’s no going back—not really. There’s no way to recreate what’s done or to relive the past. And why would I want to? These places are just places. There are new experiences to be had there and everywhere, in every moment. I’m a different person visiting places that are different than when my brother and I were there, and he’s in a different form. But this “ritual of return” was important for me. As the great Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It was a way of stopping to look around at my brother’s life, at my life, and at whatever was happening wherever I was at the moment. It was a way of taking time to purposefully contemplate, honor, and integrate all the qualities of my brother; the qualities of our story together; the qualities we grew into as we explored and learned about the world together in our different ways; and the ways we sent ourselves rippling back out into the lives and the world around us.
The moment I decided I would return to Seattle for my own private ceremony with a handful of John’s ashes came on an October afternoon in a Brighton, Colorado funeral home as my family and I, grief-stricken, discussed how to handle his remains. In the midst of that horrendous experience, John whispered in my ear, “Golden Gardens Park”. It took me by surprise because we’d spent only a couple of hours of our lives there. It was so simple…and so perfect. I didn’t know when it would happen, but in that instant I knew the place where I’d honor the story that was ours and ours alone.
Golden Gardens Park is somewhat secluded, situated on Puget Sound at the north end of Seaview Avenue, on the edge of the Ballard and Crown Hill neighborhoods. It looks west and north across the Sound. It’s where, on our last night in Seattle—one of those rare and magical Pacific Northwest evenings when it’s clear and warm—John and I watched the sun set over Puget Sound, drank beer, and talked. I vividly remember lounging on the beach pondering life, what we’d seen that week, not knowing what’s next and how that’s the best part about it. I remember him saying something like, “If this one city has all these things we’ve never seen before, think how much there is in the rest of the world we may never know. But how cool is it to know that? To know that no matter where we go there’s something to discover.” We watched the sailboats glide along without a sound and talked about how awesome it would be to go sailing. I might have been the design intern that summer, but he was the one who pointed out the way iridescent light reflected off the sand as the water receded, and how the oranges and pinks showed up in the edges of the waves as they rolled back in. He tried capturing it but wasn’t successful with that cheap old film camera we had. Nevermind. The image of those dancing colored lights made of atmosphere, sun, water, sand and the observations of my brother is burned in my mind forever. It’s a memory I’ve recalled hundreds of times in the years since, and it’s a moment that represents the best parts of my personal story of John.
I didn’t have deep-rooted expectations of what I’d experience when I returned to Golden Gardens Park. I had planned a somewhat elaborate ceremony, but the closer I got the less necessary that felt. When I arrived, it was as I had remembered it…but different. We’d been there close to high tide just before the sky exploded with color. This time there would be no chance of a colorful sunset not to mention that time of evening in April would be too cold and windy. I arrived in the afternoon just after low tide. The wind died down and sun came out as I walked along the beach. I watched a sailboat glide along without a sound and thought back to how awesome it was to sail San Francisco Bay just a few weeks prior as John looked on. I searched the sand as the water receded, but there was no iridescence, and no oranges or pinks warmed the edges of the waves. I didn’t bring beer. I had John’s ashes, a handmade card, a few artifacts I’d collected, and I planted myself near where John and I had been. I created a little altar from a piece of driftwood I’d found on the beach, and with my note to John and a few of his ashes I held my ceremony. I shed tears for the closing of a long and wonderful chapter. I let fall some of the ashes from my hand into the water with a barely audible “plink-plink” sound. It was simple and quiet. What had once seemed as though it would be the momentous culmination of a long journey, proved to be perfectly, beautifully anticlimactic. A woman with her two children and a gleeful black lab played nearby. The dog ran out of the water and chose a spot next to me to shake off. Ducks bobbled atop the waves at the edge of the water searching for food just as I had searched for pink and orange. Sailboats glided. Life carried on all around me. So shall I.
About the time I felt the urge to move on, I noticed the horizon growing darker…the wind picked up…light rain began to fall. I backed slowly up the beach, absorbing that wondrous place with the altar in its midst, until finally reaching the path I turned to leave it behind. I made my way to my car…past ducks, seagulls, flowering trees, and benches with memorial plaques. And just as I was safely inside, the skies unleashed with booming thunder and torrential frozen rain, covering every surface with an inch or more of the white stuff—somewhat atypical of Seattle as I understand it. I laughed through tears as I pictured John revving his pipes on that eternal open road as if to say, “Give ‘em hell, leetle seester. No matter where we go there’s something to discover…and I’m still at it.”
Over the last couple of months I snaked along one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. I drove and hiked through redwood forests with trees older than countries and bigger than your imagination can grow. I played with gooseneck barnacles. I went sailing. I met amazing people; everyday, ordinary people, each with a unique story made up of their histories, fears, dreams, losses, successes, lessons learned and lessons taught. I came on a journey to heal and let go of my brother as I’d known him, and I began discovering life with him in his new form. John had a passion for life. He lived his personal story with more integrity and less fear than the majority of people I’ve known. He stopped to look around. He knew when I needed help even if I didn’t, and he knew how to give it. He called me out when I was floundering and he was concerned. He took care of business and had fun at the same time. These are just some of the qualities John exuded. He imparted them to each of us in different ways, and I’m not sure if all of us realized it as it was happening. We each have a different version of John, and we can each take the qualities we saw in him and send them rippling back out into the lives and the world around us.
Like ol’ Nick at the Drift Inn in Yachats, Oregon, said, “He did what he came to do, and people noticed.” Indeed.
View more photos in the Roadtrip: Return to Seattle gallery