Whenever we experience the loss of a loved one, we’re confronted with the pain of grief and those pesky existential questions that bubble to the surface of our busy lives. Often, we’re asked to participate in a memorial gathering where we recognize the special qualities of the person who has left us and the impact they had on our lives. It’s also the place where we’re allowed to share our sorrow.
Recently, a very dear friend of ours died rather unexpectedly. Despite his struggle with serious illness, we were stunned by his death and the empty place inside us left by Ron’s passing. Friends and family gathered for the memorial service in his honor where stories were shared that were especially focused on his commitment to serving his country and his community. It was in that shared space at the local VFW that the meaning of his life became very clear, as did the realization of what our lives would now be like without him. He was respected and loved by many. As we gathered our belongings to leave the hall, we were approached by a close mutual friend of Ron and my husband, John. Skip, a fellow veteran, needed to share his desire to organize a “memorial ride for Ron”.
For anyone who is a motorcycle enthusiast, you know well the joy and camaraderie shared by “riders”. There is a special sense of freedom that one experiences as you cruise along on two wheels, out in the open air absorbing the varied sensations that come with viewing the land and sky. Everything from the scent of sweet clover on a warm summer breeze, the cool thermal drafts rising from a river valley or the scorching heat from sunbaked pavement, the fleeting sight of an animal crossing a lonesome road, or the sting of raindrops from an unexpected cloudburst.
Ron had purchased a new Harley-Davidson and had begun riding again with his “band of brothers” a few years earlier — before his life was interrupted and then cut short by his unexpected illness. Skip wanted this memorial ride to bring some of Ron’s closest buddies together again for no other reason than to remember the passing of an extraordinary man and a dear friend. He suggested they invite Ron’s son, Michael, to ride along with them on his father’s Harley Street Bob. John thought it was a great idea!
It mustn’t be overlooked that Ron could sing well and played a good rhythm guitar. He loved to entertain with his outrageous humor and his rich storytelling. He was a driving force for the local ad hoc band popularly known as the “Juke Savages”. Three of the would-be riders played music with Ron every Saturday night for close to forty years. Folks would show up, often impromptu, to make music together that ran the gamut of rock, blues, folk and traditional jug band tunes. With his passing, Ron was now the fourth band member who’d left their circle, and the “missing” was intense.
A date was picked and a 10 a.m. gathering time at the VFW was set. A group of eight would travel north on Hwy. 53 to Orr and from there on to Voyageur’s Lodge at Crane Lake for lunch, stories, laughter and a toast in Ron’s honor.
Ron had joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 and continued to serve throughout most of his life in both the Reserves and the National Guard. It seemed only right that the ride would be conducted in military fashion with everyone riding in formation. By all reports it was a “perfect day” — good weather, good times, no issues. Just pure and simple, important and definitely meaningful. A special way to remember a friend and help cope with the loss.
I understand this. Like most of us traveling through these later stages of life, death is no stranger. Many of our encounters with loss began in our youth with grandparents, parents, siblings or friends, each time presenting painful opportunities to deepen our understanding of life and death. Those experiences often thrust us into a world of painful and complicated emotions, faced with “the void” created by death and discovering how to “cope”, a short way of saying, the ways which help us accept its irreversibility and integrate death into the fullness of our lives. We do this in our own unique and personal ways. No one hands us a map through grief, nor are there any short cuts. Growing our understanding of life is just plain hard work. But there are some seemingly universal strategies that human beings employ that can help.
For these eight men who rode together on that beautiful day in July, they discovered one of those strategies on their own. This ride served as their way of honoring a good friend. My hunch is that they will recall that trip to Crane Lake every now and then long into the future. Out of those memories will arise some unforgettable stories of good times with Ron that will most certainly trigger laughter, and even a little longing for those days spent hanging out together.
My thought? This “ride for Ron” will become one of those events that will keep us talking about our friend who died too soon. To these eight men, I say, “Mission accomplished!” The recounting of your ride will add meaning to the words,“eternal life”.
May you rest in peace, Ron. Thanks for the incredible ride! We miss you, man.
Thanks to John Hess for his help in writing this piece.