This one is for Sam’s friends.
(For those who don’t know, Sam J. Lea, a most dear, wonderful and tender friend, was found murdered in his apartment on Halloween in 2005. His killer was found and has since pled guilty. As far as I know, Kyle Nathan Johnson is still in jail.)
Sam had the most wonderful ability to weave himself into people’s lives -- to ruin our bad moods and force us to laugh hysterically, to kick our asses when we felt sorry for ourselves, to challenge our self-imposed limitations and to help us dream impossible dreams. He loved his friends deeply. It is impossible to forget his goofy laugh, his pirate shirts, and his intensity. Even now, he’s still bringing people together, still touching lives, still making us wonder.
Octobers have been hard for all of us. It took a long time for me to make peace with his tragic exit. It took even longer to forgive Kyle. But for me, the anger is gone at last. I’ve got a most wonderful story to tell you about Sam. What happened is bizarre and open to spiritual interpretation. I believe that it only could have happened now because I’m no longer paralyzed by grief and can smile when he pops up in my thoughts.
It doesn’t matter what flavor of spirituality you favor. I think you’ll appreciate the wonderful strangeness of this story. Bear with me as I give some necessary background. The surprise at the end is worth the wait.
A few weeks ago, I went to Ye Old Bull and Bush (an Irish pub in Fort Worth). I’d skipped an evening class to write a letter to my friend, Mark. He’d asked in a previous letter how I was handling this October. I began to answer that letter, when a stranger waltzed over to my table -- with incredible sincerity (and glass of red wine in hand ) -- and told me that my energy was “calling out” to her and she wasn’t sure why she had to come talk to me but she needed to. It was strange and intriguing enough that I invited Trudy to sit at my table.
It was a fascinating conversation that bounced from topic to topic for over an hour. Buddhism. Pagan beliefs. Interconnectedness. Art. She kept coming back to the topic of her two artist friends, of whom she was so proud for their achievements -- a man who’d finally come into his own as a painter, a woman who produced brilliant work at Renaissance festivals. It was interesting, yes, but I couldn’t figure out why on earth she was talking to me, however intriguing her thoughts were. She wrote her e-mail down on a scrap of paper and handed me a business card for the woman painter. I couldn’t help but think that maybe she’d had a bit too much wine or was a touch strange. But I don’t turn away interesting characters, no matter what they might be interrupting. You never know what you’ll learn.
For weeks, the card and scrap of paper have been stuffed in my wallet and I don’t know why I kept them.
Now, many of you probably know that Sam was in love with the Renaissance fairs. It played to his love of fantasy -- dressing up and role playing. We had our routine down when we visited Scarborough Faire every year: mead, tarot card readings, more mead, visiting all the costume booths, a palm reading, some good food, and not leaving the fair without some extravagant purchase.
I now visit the Texas Renaissance Festival in Plantersville on Halloweens. It’s my tribute to him. We camp for two days so we don’t miss the evening bonfire, drumming, and dancing. I toast him with mead and say a prayer. That place is simply where I feel closest to him. Sarah came up with this fitting tradition. We’ve also visited Scarborough Faire several times.
This year was different. I wasn’t teary-eyed and sad. We were having a good time when we passed a booth that featured fairy art. It reminded me of a story I’d forgotten about Sam. I told Sarah about it, how Sam had strayed from our routine during that last Scarborough Fair visit in 2005 to stop in a booth that featured a female artist with an interesting talent. She was a wonderful photographer and oil painter, who took portraits, painted over them, and transformed people into mystical creatures -- girls as fairy princesses, boys as forest dwellers, couples as kings and queens. Sam was enthralled. He was obsessed with the idea of himself as Pan, a Greek god. He’d really gotten into it, and I told Sarah about how he’d stripped down for his portrait session, so serious and yet whimsical in his poses.
We were chuckling about it, that happy memory.
Half an hour later, we walked past another booth and I stopped abruptly. “This is that woman’s art,” I told Sarah. “This is what I was just telling you about.” Sarah smiled and asked if Sam’s portrait would be here, turning to look at the portraits on display. “I doubt it,” I replied, ready to move on. “He wanted to be Pan, right?” I nodded, definitely not intending to find the artist and ask her about it.
But the artist overheard us. “I’ve only ever had one Pan. I still have all his pictures. Where is he? He seemed so serious about this project but I never heard back from him.”
We both froze.
“You have his pictures?” She nodded. “All of them?” She nodded again.
“He was such a beautiful man. They were too pretty to throw away.”
We told her why Sam never contacted her. The look on her face is hard to describe -- a mixture of shock and sadness. Tears welled up in her eyes. And mine. And Sarah’s. I still can’t quite believe that she kept his pictures for four and a half years, that Sam was the only “Pan” she’d ever had, that she remembered him after all this time when she sees hundreds of people every year.
She spluttered for a few moments. “He had such a beautiful face. I have so many pictures…”
I was too stunned to speak, but Sarah was quick to recover and asked if we could have them. She said we could. Christine Angele is a wonderful woman.
She started telling Sarah about the session and my memory sharpened, playing out like a film in my head. I remembered how he’d tried to climb her fake tree in the courtyard where she took pictures, how it had nearly come crashing down, how we’d all giggled about it, how he’d described exactly what he wanted to the point of sketching it on a piece of paper for her, how wonderful he’d been as a subject when he so often hated being photographed. I remembered rolling my eyes when he began talking to her about the project, that I couldn’t understand why he’d want this thing done and was baffled by how he thought he could afford her work, and how annoyed I’d been when he mentioned it the next ten times I saw him after the fair. You’d think I wouldn’t have forgotten that story, especially since he was naked during the session to “make it more real.” But I did.
How could I think that anyone would forget Sam? Even a stranger at a period festival.
I suddenly interrupted her. “I met a woman in Fort Worth three weeks ago. She talked about you a lot. Her name is Trudy.”
Christine smiled broadly. “She’s in the booth next door, selling jewelry.”
I could have said something cheesy, like “Wow, it’s a small world,” but I said instead, “That explains it. That’s why she came to talk to me.” I don’t even know where those words came from.
Later, Sarah and I found Trudy and told her why she’d found me in that bar. We didn’t speak long, but she was happy we told her.
Many Pagans believe that the veil between life and death is thinnest at the end of October, during the holiday of Samhain (which later became All Hallow’s Eve and then Halloween). Tradition essentially states that it’s the time when one might be contacted by those dearly departed, or when one should honor them. I don’t know all the details, but Trudy said that the events of that day had Sam written all over them, that he’s obviously in a good place “if he can pull this off.” She also said she believes that people subconsciously know when their time is nearly up, and that they appear to do strange things that will later have meaning for those they leave behind. Like having all those pictures taken.
The timing is important, too. Christine is always at Scarborough Faire and the Texas Renaissance Festival. I could have seen her on any number of occasions over the last four years. But it would have upset me too much, I think, and that’s why this didn’t happen until I was in a better place emotionally. Somehow, it’s all perfect.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in that sort of stuff -- contact after death, spiritual connections, etc. I think this whole thing does have Sam written all over it. And how wonderful that there are so many beautiful pictures of him that we’ve never seen! I’ll have them soon. And you bet I’ll share them with you if you like.
After much discussion, Sarah and I went back to visit Christine. We’ve commissioned her to complete the work that Sam had so dearly wanted. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- to have a beautiful portrait of him in exactly the way that he hoped for. She immediately offered the pictures freely, but I insisted to compensate her for her art. She’s still giving us an exceptional deal. She deserves to be rewarded for her instinct to keep those pictures.
I just thought I’d share this story. You miss him as much as I do.
When you think of Sam, don’t be sad anymore. Remember how happy he made us, and how dedicated he was. He’d probably kick our asses if he knew we were having a poor time on Halloween! Somewhere, he’s giggling and smirking about this whole thing and is extremely pleased with himself for finally getting to be Pan.
Thank you Trudy. And thank you Christine. You’re absolutely wonderful women and have made my year. Honestly.
And Sam, I love you so much, even if you are still costing my ass money in the afterlife! ;) I can’t wait to see your pictures. You’re going to be a beautiful Pan.
(By the way, I’m writing this from Ye Old Bull and Bush. It’s only fitting. I half expected Trudy to walk through the door. But she’s probably out helping someone else right now.)