Never really knew Jerry Garcia. I had a chance to go to a Grateful Dead concert, but turned down my then girlfriend because I had an English assignment to finish. That's not it, obviously. From my most recent past life insight, something which I have no tangible way of proving, I remember being at Woodstock in 1969 and dying there, but I have no clear image of watching The Grateful Dead. Best to not guess at that matter.
So I'm driving down the street on the South Side of Pittsburgh, which is a mecca of bars, drugs, and Classic Rock 'n' Roll blaring out of every window down the main street. I see a crowd of people, looking like Hippies, celebrating with a drumming circle, while police officers stand by, ready to bust that first person who lights a jay. That was enough for me, a then 19 yo college student to pull over and park around the block.
What I had no idea about was the reason why they were gathered there: August 9th, 1995. I never really knew Jerry Garcia, but he suffered a heart attack that day, and didn't pull out of it. When he had died, so did decades of the The Grateful Dead's long legacy. You just can't replace a lead singer of that caliber and play on, without being reminded of and feeling that hole where the person had been.
So, I'm at this drumming circle, and although I was drumming, I wasn't doing a very good job of it, so I politely and in a timely manner excused myself from the circle. I did, however, have my backpack of notebooks, pens, and random assorted knickknacks, and wasn't doing a very good job of contributing to the general atmosphere. So I turned to writing a summary of what was happening there. Just a little piece on everything I was thinking and feeling, and the gist that I was having of what this event meant in a greater sense. It came out of that. I wrote about the people there that night. I wrote a lot more about their kindness and unabashed outpouring of sympathy, compassion, and happiness...
It's still the happiness part that sticks with me. They called him Papa Bear, and as far as I can understand they loved him so much that happiness was the only way they expressed themselves. They were the first funeral celebration I had known. They just loved to love. That's really all that I can say of them, And that's also basically what I said in the short piece of prose that I wrote, then set on the ground, and put a candle on it so that it wouldn't blow away.
When I was done dancing and celebrating with the friends I had met that day, I started to hear talk of a letter, my letter, being phenomenal. I mean, that... I got back over there to see teardrops on the paper. There was also a pigeon feather, with wax from the candle holding it onto the paper. They had decorated it. I didn't understand fully, before that moment, just how much the words that I write can affect others. And that was the one thing. I choose them more carefully now, and do just a bit better every day, I think.
I held onto that paper letter for a number of years. Eventually it just sort of disappeared, but I hold onto the memory of the night, and every once in a while I write a bit about it, like today. It was my first funeral celebration, and the happiest one, too. I never really knew Jerry Garcia. That night though, I met his family, and they will always celebrate his love with anyone who wants to hear Uncle John's Band play on, and on, and on...