Friday, November 8, 2013

Your Ride's Here: Farewell, Steve Gott

It's the sort of light that breaks your heart, a painter's light. It makes the remaining leaves gold and crimson, but those words are poor substitutes for the colors I mean. You can taste the color, just like the crisp air. The light goes fast at this time of year, so it's best to savor every second.

What a time to leave our world, but my good friend Steve Gott did, tragically, in a motorcycle accident. As we all know, we have no motorist to blame, some dunce who was texting while driving. Steve simply did not respond in time to road conditions. Faced with this twist of fate, I have to say something appropriate at his memorial service. I have tried and tried, as I work out watering a little stand of trees planted in his honor at our rural home.

All I can think of is "Steve, you picked the worst time possible to leave this beautiful world."

I begin writing this at my blog, about my life learning to live in the country as I prepare my retirement as a homesteader, organic farmer, and beekeeper. It's appropriate to write this in such a public venue for two reasons. First, I want it to reach those won't be able to attend the memorial service. Facebook is no place for lengthy reflections, though it has sprouted a touching virtual shrine at Steve's profile page. Second, by drafting these remarks online, others who never met Steve will have a sense of his personality and dedication to live life as he pleased.

Steve was a talented zookeeper, a man who spent a good deal of his professional life protecting creatures that have no voice when humans hunt them or destroy their habitats. I am not as nice a person as Steve. I can think of many who should be gone, instead of Steve. All too often, while the evil, venal, and simply greedy live on, we lose our best.

We may ask “why?” again and again. I don’t think there is a why here, and there rarely is when the good and beloved among us suffer or leave us in the prime of life. I can only quote a minister I know, who spoke at the memorial service for a young man at my university, a boy who died at not even half Steve’s age. At the service, the minister reminded us that “God’s heart was the first to break.”

I know that Steve would call me superstitious if I claimed that our universe contains a creative and loving spirit that suffers when we suffer. Call that God if you wish. That’s what I call it. I think God’s heart broke when Steve left a world he loved so much that he dedicated his time and intellect to becoming a naturalist.

Steve's death leaves a huge hole in our lives and I have no idea how we’ll fill it. Steve would, however, be the first to say “move on.” As I will explain, he did during his years with us. Yet I cannot imagine the suffering of his family and Lisa. Any words I write will be poor medicine for them, but I do think I can celebrate who Steve was and how he remains in my heart.

There’s the first Warren Zevon reference of mine, an oblique one to “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While,” one of the last songs Zevon wrote as he bravely faced the last stages of cancer. Zevon was one of Steve's favorite composers, and he inspired Steve and me in many dark and many humorous moments. The singer-songwriter famously reminded his friend David Letterman to “enjoy every sandwich.” Steve often said that to me. I repeated it a lot in the last week.

But now those of us who loved Steve are, as Zevon wrote “in the house when the house burned down.”

The house burned down. And here we are. How to rebuild it?

Take a cue from how others thought about Steve. Even those who had only met him a few times when he returned to Richmond recall him well. One friend e-mailed me her vivid if brief impression of Steve as “kind, quirky, funny, and ageless.”

Ageless. That’s a hard word to use for someone with whom I wanted to share a crusty and irascible old age. Now I’ll always remember Steve as he was when I last saw him, in the parking lot of MacLean’s on Broad Street, arranging his long hair and pulling on his motorcycle helmet. Yes, just like that. A geeky kid like me who, as an adult, turned into Billy Badass. Now those are words I bet you never get to hear at memorials. Deal with it.

Here's a moment I want to share. When Steve came to campus one day, stepping off his bike in black leathers, then shaking out his long hair, I saw a bunch of co-eds about to swoon. Later, a student of mine, smitten after seeing Steve, asked who that man was who came to lunch with me. “Just my buddy Steve,” I said, basking a little in his aura. On other occasion, for a week I had to wear an eye-patch following some minor procedure. Steve said "trying to be like me, eh?"

I have to say that I am more delighted than jealous at Steve's transformation. Learning to live well was not merely for Steve the best revenge. It was simply living as he wanted to live, not as others would ordain it. My dad once said "that boy has some hair." What he meant was that Steve might not get a good job with all that long hair. Guess what, dad? He did get a great job, and his employer and co-workers will also keep him in their hearts for a long while.

Memorial-service reflections are supposed to include a lot of humor; they are for the living. Dad had a shiny head like mine. We bald dudes think about Steve’s ponytail and can only say, as Zevon once did about a Werewolf, “his hair was perfect.”

So was Steve's heart.

As I have listened to Steve's favorite music for the past week, lyrics to one song keep coming back to me. It is Zevon's "My Ride's Here" and the theme is pretty clear:

I said, "Man, I'd like to stay
But I'm bound for glory
I'm on my way
My ride's here..."

Damn it, Steve, you rode off far to soon. But somewhere down that lonesome and endless road, I’m looking forward to my next sandwich with you.


  1. Thank you for writing this, Joe. Even though I never met Steve, I've now had a few minutes to enjoy who he was. I'm so sorry for this loss - and I wish "good grieving" to you and all others who love him.

  2. this is beautiful...he is definitely missed by me too.