(January 29th, 2008)
I sit here on a plane thinking back over the past week and I'm struck dumb. I still can't process it all. This 2 1/2 hours have been the longest stretch of time that I have been forced to just reflect.
It started last Monday when I read that we were creating a thread on the forum for people to react to the announcement that a long-term and very dear member who, unbeknownst to the forum had been battling cancer for a few months. Over the weekend she had suffered a major setback and had been admitted to a hospice. As an admin for the forum I participate in the moderators thread where I frequently get my first notice of such things a-happening. I’ve learned that being among the first to know is not always a privilege…
Jackie had assumed the role of forum greeter for much of the two years the forum has been around, so nearly everyone had personal exchanges with her, and she had been very active at our various gatherings so many many people know her in person. I have met her twice, in Chicago and at Estes Park. The last time I saw her was standing in my barn, as the hoe-down was shutting down. I cried, knowing everyone was heading out the next day. Jackie held me and used her trademark line: "It's not goodbye, I prefer to say ‘Until Next Time.’" It helped me pull myself together. She was very good at that, hearing your pain and finding something to say to comfort, to advise, or just to let you know she understood. She was also very good with the quick wit to make you laugh.
So the vigil began. One member who was in contact with the family provided updates as they were available. She started off reporting on what the family said. Wasn't too long before the family were passing on thanks for all the well wishes and fond stories from the forum. By the end of the week a couple of her family members had joined so that they could interact with Jackie's forum family directly.
Tuesday was a somber day, me alternately keeping tabs on the vigil as people came on and discovered the news, and keeping track of work. It was tough, I'd heard she was ill weeks prior, but many hadn't so it was a total shock for them. Everyone on the forum were doing a great job of supporting each other when one would have a strong moment, and accepting support when the grief was overwhelming.
At 4:00, though, I got the news that Heath had been found dead. Suddenly a very tough day became unbearable. I went home and sent Dave out to meet up with Phyllis and Mike at the hockey game without me.
The forum, of course, went ballistic. People who hadn't logged on for months or even years returned in the wake of Heath's passing, only to be immediately faced with a second tragedy. People who had been reading the forum but never posted before came out. People who had never visited before found us through googling Heath. Members with whom the forum had parted ways were granted amnesty to return to pay their respects. Someone bitterly commented that they were trying to think of a way to get the news about Jackie out to our former members… but this wasn’t exactly what they had in mind.
We got word late morning that Jackie had passed away.
Talk about getting the feel for what it is like to run a crisis hotline. Wednesday we had more posts in any day of our history except one. The mods were on alert to watch for posts that heralded warning signs. More importantly, we were watching for those members who were conspicuous in their absence and touching base with them offline.
I didn't go to work, but spent 17 hours straight on the forum, on email, on the phone, on the internet news services. It reminded me of 911 in the way we were totally consumed.
One of the prevailing themes that people were battling of course was the feeling of helplessness. Both stories were so tragic and so sudden, yet here we were overflowing with grief and no where to channel it.
The one day that tops all others on the forum was Oscar Night 2006 when it was greatly anticipated that Brokeback Mountain would win Best Picture. When it didn't there was a similar feeling of having something stolen from us. I wasn't a member back then, we didn't even see BBM until a week later. But stories go that a decision was made to direct the outrage into something constructive, and the forum designed and purchased a full paged ad to go in the Daily Variety – the major publication for the entertainment industry. You know, just now I realized that ad ran March 10, 2006. Dave and I saw BBM the next day.
On Wednesday it was suggested the forum run another ad, a tribute to Heath. I thought that was a great idea and supported it amongst the forum leadership. Well, you know what happens when you do that – they turned around and asked me if I would lead the project. Actually, if you get technical about it, I was asked to find out the cost of ads, publication deadlines and whether we could get a realistic amount of financial support to even consider an ad. 8 hours later we decided to commit to the project. By midnight we’d announced our general plan of attack and had some very rough ideas about ad content. By 1 am I’d sent out potential ad layouts to our small design group for comment.
Thursday I got up realizing that we still didn’t have paypal set up to accept funds for the memorial project. In reading the immediate comments from our group we realized we only had about 7 people, and we had about 7 different ideas about what the ad should look like. We didn’t yet have a graphic artist lined up.
By the end of the day we had a very close final draft of the ad, had raised $4,500 via paypal – enough to upgrade to a ½ paged ad instead of the ¼ we were planning on. We had managed to sign the contract to run the ad on Tuesday and promised to provide the ad artwork by Friday at 9 am.
Friday got up early and again had several exchanges with our artist in Los Angeles before work. The final minor tweaks became exceedingly difficult due to some technical misalignments between he and I – neither of us had all the tools to do the complete job, so it was a bizarre hand-off logistical nightmare. And the ad looks so simple… But we managed to get it submitted on time.
Then over the weekend, decided to revise it. LOL In actuality the revisions made total sense – because we’d upgraded to a ½ paged ad, we realized that the font needed to be reduced. So we worked again to reformat and I resubmitted the artwork Sunday night leaving emails and voice mails with our contact to see if they please couldn’t use the new version instead. Thankfully, they did. That’s the ad, below. My post of the 29th has the final artwork for the ad. At the end of this post is a picture of how it appeared in print. We are very pleased with the results, and our contact at Variety said that many of her officemates also commented upon it.
Meanwhile grieving and activity on the forum continued full force. People continued to return to the forum to be greeted with sadness. It was utterly bittersweet to see so many old friends returning. We had and still have several other projects on going - memorials for both Jackie and Heath.
Jackie’s wishes were to be cremated and for no funeral services. But her family had the chance to see into this forum family whom Jackie had credited with bringing a great deal of happiness to her in these past few years, so they decided to host a gathering for any who could attend. About a dozen people picked up and traveled to Maryland on Saturday. It was good to see some people together in person, even though most of us couldn’t join them.
Jackie’s wishes were for her ashes to be spread upon Brokeback Mountain. There are two major gatherings planned this year, both in June. One in WY near ‘Brokenback’ Mountain (our stand-in mountain as one very like Brokeback Mountain in the story) and the other in Oxford. Jackie very much wanted to attend the Oxford event. The family has made the extraordinary decision to split her ashes to be spread in both locations.
It wasn’t until very late in the game that I realized that the day the ad would run, January 29th, which was determined solely by our ability or inability to design and produce the artwork in time – was one week after the fact. There was something very fitting in that, and many of us declared that day to be our Heath day. We wore stripes. (I had to buy stripes to be able to wear them, but buy them I did) It ends up that I had to fly to Seattle that day, so I got to spend the evening with my dear friend out there who is a major Heathen, as Heath fans call themselves. It was cathartic to be able to share our feelings with each other in person – both of us had only had remote friends to lean upon up to that point.
David and Ginger, and a few coworkers, were incredibly supportive of me through this time – but mostly in allowing me full freedom to concentrate on the forum and silently picking up the slack I left behind. For that I am very grateful.
It was on my flight out to Seattle there that I started this blog post. I didn’t get very far at the time, as I mentioned it was my first 2 hours to just sit and absorb what had been going on in the past week. That and being busy at Boeing for 2 days keeping me off the forum proved to be a much needed disconnect from the frenzy that the forum was. Still is today. I guess, seeing as how I’ve been able to return to and finish this post means that I’ve finally become removed enough to move on. Though I will be forever saddened by the loss of these two extraordinary people.
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