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He Honored Life

“'He had been drinking heavily for the past few days,' his wife said yesterday morning. 'He was a very lonely man.'”

That’s from an article in the New York Times the day after Jack Kerouac’s death—October 22nd, 1969. Yesterday was the anniversary of his death, 45 years ago. I wanted to write something all day yesterday, but was busy at work, then went to yoga, then came home and did freelance work. It was long past my bedtime on a school night before I had the chance to say anything.

Even then, I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to honor him somehow, for the influence he’s had on my life. I wanted to say that he put me on my path and how remarkable that is for someone who died before I was born. I wanted to say something about how my life can be divided into the time before Jack and the time after. But all of that is too big and too deep for me to ever put into words.

He would be 92 now, the same age as my grandmother, had he ever put down that bottle. I find what his wife said so odd—that he had been drinking heavily for the past few days. He had been drinking heavily for the past few decades. Surely his wife, of all people, knew this? Maybe that's what she told herself. Maybe that's how she got through it.

I remember the first time I ever saw a video of him. It was a clip from William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” in 1968. He had put on weight and his face was puffy. He was smoking a cigar, being belligerent and was obviously drunk. He would be dead in less than a year.

It was one of those sad moments, when you realize that someone you idolize is just human like the rest of us. I remember how my heart fell just a little bit and how it let out the faintest “Oh.”

That was around the time I went to Lowell, Massachusetts to visit his grave. It was March, 2006, and an unseasonably warm day. There was no snow on the ground. The sun was out, and it warmed my face while I kneeled on the ground and carefully made a rubbing of his tombstone. There was a breeze, but I had found enough rocks to hold my paper in place. No one else came by. It was just me and Jack—a gift from him I think.

I wonder sometimes what he was fighting so hard against. Was it only the loneliness? Was it the criticism? The fame?

Maybe he was just looking for something he couldn’t find.

I’m looking for something that I can’t find too. Sometimes I think whatever it is I'm searching for isn’t even there. Or, I get the feeling that it was there at one time, but isn’t anymore.

I felt this recently when I went to Big Sur. I was looking for Kerouac's Big Sur—the quiet, the solitude, the nature. I had wanted to walk across the famed Bixby Bridge, the same one Kerouac had walked across on his way to Ferlingetti’s cabin. I had wanted to stare out at the blue of of the Pacific and then close my eyes and feel the salty air on my face. But there were people and cars everywhere.

There was a time when I turned to drinking too. When everything seemed too vast and too big to face alone.

It still does sometimes. But now I go to yoga instead. Or call a friend. Or just sit in the quiet and try to find whatever is there on the inside.

Sometimes this works.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

But no matter. I'm still searching.

I won’t try to write any grand tributes to Jack, because even words aren't good enough for some things. His critics say he wasn't the best writer. Maybe he wasn't sometimes. But his writing changed me. Forever. And for that I say thanks.

Wherever you are Jack, if anywhere you are, I hope you’ve found your peace.

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