I started this post awhile ago. When things were fresh and painful and raw. My mind was a jumble of thoughts and questions; contemplating mortality while trying to figure out the most graceful way to be present for my husband and his family while keeping my own emotions in check. I furiously typed out some of my thoughts, then took a breath and realized I needed to wait for a little bit of space and time before I could revisit those thoughts and put them together in a coherent story. A story for Alex, for his family and for the hundreds of people who have been a part of his life and his legacy of action and kindness.
When I started this post last May I was sitting at my sister in law's table, looking out at Lake Erie, trying to do a little bit of work but feeling jittery and distracted. A few days prior, my husband and I had packed up a week's worth of necessities and taken off to Ohio. We had received a piece of news that was abrupt, upsetting and jarring. Mike's 30 year old cousin had passed away.
I met Alex somewhere around ten years ago. I was at a family Thanksgiving in Ohio, meeting most of my (now) husband's family for the first time. I was nervous and a little anxious. Thanksgiving was a big deal. Things came out of storage, multiple tables were set, food was prepped, bar was stocked and by evening time the house was entirely full of people I didn't know. Mike's family is enormous by my standards.
I grew up with a handful of cousins who I saw once or twice a year at family holidays. We lived far enough apart that we didn't see each other much more often and our age differences meant that we didn't have much in common other than the fact that our parents were siblings.
Mike grew up with a gaggle of boy cousins (and one brilliant girl cousin who probably wanted nothing to do with their shenanigans). I can picture them as a roving pack of mischief, with stinky shoes and that gangly, awkward lope that adolescent boys always seem to have. They are spread out around the country now but they are all still close, still call, still say "love you cuz" before they hang up. It makes me smile every time I hear it.
Five years ago Mike and I had a week long wedding celebration at our favorite spot in Baja, Mexico. Up until a few years ago when we landed in VT, we led a fairly transient lifestyle, moving every few years to a different place and a new adventure. It had been our dream to unite the amazing friends we had made in each of those places so that they could hang out and get to know one another. Our wedding was the perfect venue for that situation and for an entire week 50 of our friends and family members got to swim, snorkel, kayak, dive and drink tequila together. It was the best week ever. When we sent out our wedding invites I'm pretty sure (Aunt) Abby, (Uncle) Ray, Adam and Alex had tickets to Mexico the very next day. That's just how they roll. They are sweet, fun, supportive and are always there for family no matter what.
I will forever picture >6 foot + tall Adam and Alex flanking Mike's <5 foot tall, 80 year old Aunt Phyllis, acting as her personal safety officers, escorting her from event to event, helping her up and down stairs and generally keeping an eye on her. I will also never forget the dancing. We wanted to make sure there was no shortage of good music at the wedding so we hired a band for the welcome party, a band for the wedding day and then a late night DJ. Our wedding day band was a local reggae band and it makes me smile when I think of Alex dancing like a maniac to the band while everyone else chatted and drank margaritas on the sidelines. When I shared the news of Alex's passing with my friends and family every single one of them brought up the memory of him dancing at our wedding. That guy loved music.
Aside from being my husband's cousin, the one thing Alex and I found to bond over was photography. He was starting his program just as I was finishing up mine and having something like that in common to chat about was a comfort and a joy.
Alex lived the way every photographer wishes they could live. He took leaps, he explored, he got off the beaten path and he immersed himself in every aspect of local lifestyle and culture. He took the the back alley off of the road less traveled. He was always looking for a better, more interesting angle. He was rarely content with the obvious shot; the easy shot; the one most photographers would have taken. Instead he would seek out the most "Alex shot", usually striking up a conversation with someone in the process. Alex was extremely talented but his genuine interest in people and ability to draw someone out gave him access to a higher echelon of photographic opportunity. He stood out like a sore thumb but at the same time was able to fit in just about anywhere. He was special and truly gifted.
The news was shocking and devastating. Alex was outgoing and mellowly gregarious. He was easy to talk to and could carry on a conversation in a way that made his conversational partner feel interesting, validated and seen; which might be why it was so hard to accept the fact that there was a part of him hiding below the smiles and laughter. A part of him that was lost and hurting in a way most of us will hopefully never experience. Depression is real, devastating and insidious. It isn't the equivalent of someone having a really bad day or being moody or selfish. It is biological, physiological and emotional. It's hard for most of us to understand because we haven't experienced it and it seems easy to assign blame to the affected party, tell them they aren't trying hard enough or berate them for hurting the people they love. You wouldn't tell someone with cancer to stop complaining and suck it up and when someone says they are "gluten intolerant" we rush to accommodate them. We need to get involved in a bigger conversation about depression so that we can make those affected feel loved and supported instead of guilty or at fault. The harder it is for depression to hide, the better.
A few days after we arrived in Ohio and I started writing this post we headed to Alex's memorial service at the music hall at Lake Erie College. This is the best I can do to describe it: it was like walking in from the cold and being unexpectedly wrapped up in a warm, cozy blanket. Anyone who was feeling hurt and sad and lost in their pain was instantly enveloped in a loving community of people who were feeling the same way. The family gathered first and then I watched the hall fill with people until there was no room left and people continued to gather on the steps and the lawn outside. When I looked around the room my heart felt like it was going to explode. I saw so many tears but heard laughter, stories, and saw handshakes and hugs as people said hello to old friends or introduced themselves for the first time. Alex was an incredible human in life and he continues to be an incredible presence even now. It quickly became clear that Alex wasn't a brick in the wall. He was the mortar holding it all together.
Now, just shy of a year later, the time seemed right to finish this post. It began mostly as a therapeutic writing exercise; a way to consolidate my thoughts and clear my head. A way to deal with something terrible without stepping on the grief of those suffering on the front lines.
The healing process has begun, however slow and infinite it may be. A scholarship was set up in Alex's name at Lake Erie College and family and friends have been sinking their hearts and time and energy into fundraising for the cause. Alex's parents and brothers are some of the strongest, most determined people I have ever met. They are surrounded by partners, friends and community who are wildly supportive, caring and invested in each others' lives. Alex's logo for "Stayin Hungry Productions" has been absorbed by his community and seeded out into the world on hats, shirts, bracelets and stickers. It has become a walking advertisement for love and camaraderie, a nod to art and music and a way of keeping the vibe alive. If you see a Stayin Hungry hat or t-shirt walking down the street don't hesitate to smile, wave or even say hi. I have no doubt Alex would be thrilled to have facilitated a conversation or maybe even a new friendship.
A few months after the memorial Mike and I returned to Ohio for a scholarship fundraiser at the Driftwood Point Beach Bar on Lake Erie. It was a warm summer day with a perfect breeze sweeping over the water. A fabulous line up of local bands drew people in, some coming in specifically for the fundraiser and others pleasantly surprised when they wandered in for a lake-side cocktail. People were dancing, drinking beer and laughing in the sunshine. The mood was lighter and there were more smiles than tears. It was a day of celebration, gratitude, reconnection and fond remembrance in a way I think Alex would have wholeheartedly approved of. It was a perfect day to sit in the grass and picture Alex, camera in hand, dancing to the music.
To donate to the Alex Delamotte Scholarship Fund go to: https://www.lec.edu/giving
At the "designation" tab pull the dropdown to "OTHER" and enter Alex Delamotte's name.
To donate your time or $$ to those in need check out #RAKE at http://www.rakenow.org/