In the late 90s, when I first moved to Asheville, NC, from Los Angeles, I regularly attended a friend's Friday night old-time jam. He held the jam in his studio, which was a man cave of built in his garage. It was the highlight of my week in those days.
One Friday, a group of younger guys barged in. They were all exuberant young men, who mostly played bluegrass, and they had heard about our jam and wanted to meet us. They were engaging, full of life, funny as all get out. The were generous and spent time hanging out with me, playing music and teaching me about Southern Culture, often in the form of tall tales which I had to sort out from the truer stories.
One of them was Gawain Mainwaring (pronounced G'wain Mannering). Gawain was my neighbor when I lived for a time in a sweet little neighborhood in West Asheville.
I was drawn to Gawain's love for life. I have to admit that at the time, I was on the downslope of a challenging marriage, so I was a little envious of his family life. He had a kind, beautiful wife and 3 equally beautiful young girls. I didn't know them well, but I was glad they were my neighbors, and enjoyed chatting with them when I'd swing past their home with my dogs.
In later years, I ran into Gawain occasionally since his daughters and my stepdaughter attended the same school. I had heard he had gotten cancer, but had beaten it initially. He was such a strong, strapping guy that I thought to myself, "Of course he beat it!". But then it came back with a vengeance.
I saw him at the school one day, visibly weaker, but I still made the assumption that he was stronger than cancer, and was going to kick its ass. I was stunned a few months later when I heard the news he had passed away. As I said, I didn't know him that well, but I cried all evening as the Billy Joel song "Only the Good Die Young" was an ear worm rattling in my head.
I was in the huge crowd at Gawain's memorial service last Saturday. Asheville's former mayor Leni Sitnik read Gawain's Legacy Letter, which he had written the previous Summer. In it, spoke of love and connection. Then he made the quizzical statement that he had beaten cancer. It didn't make sense until Leni read on.
Gawain wrote, "I won the battle and war with cancer and secretly know that I used cancer to get closer to love. I could have gone my whole life avoiding the inevitable end, but knowing you will die sooner than later is a gift that gives you a chance to choose the love sooner, knowing this love now has brought me the peace that I want and need to share with all of you."
I can't tell you how much Gawain's embrace of love and connection - especially during his time of adversity - has impacted me.
I have been separated from my wife for 5 months. I moved to a cabin outside Asheville, where I have been reclusive, drinking a few more beers than usual and not eating my vegetables. I embraced distraction. I've been dealing with my recent loss in dribs and drabs, but haven't fully plunged in.
But something has shifted. Though I accept my need for the time I have taken grieve and drown my sorrows a bit, I hear Gawain's words like a clarion call. It is time for me to make a shift.
There's no beer in the house right now. I woke up this morning clear-headed and ate a healthy breakfast. I feel energy and optimism for the next steps I want to take.
Once in awhile, I've been given the gift of an acquaintance later telling me how profoundly something I had said or done had impacted their life. I wish Gawain was still here so I could tell him that he has done the same for me.
If I can live the rest of my life with half the passion and love that Gawain expressed, I will know that I am doing better than fine.
Here is Gawain Mainwaring's complete Life Legacy Letter. I wish you could have known him, too:
July 6, 2015
Dearest Friends and Family,
I am sorry I couldn’t be with you all today. I had a prior engagement I just couldn’t seem to break away from.
It’s hard to know just what the best words are to share with you all. I pray you will know that I am at peace with what has come to pass. I am at peace this very moment though part of me remains here with all of you in the memories and times we have shared. When I strip everything away, I believe all I can really leave behind is captured in the word love. L-O-V-E - those simple four letters capture all of me that I want to remain, all that can remain.
We throw the word love around with great abandon, using it to describe an individual preference for things we feel set us apart or distinguish us from others, but the love I speak of here is one older than the universe. It was present when all the stars were nothing more than a creative urge, waiting to be called forth into time and space. This love connects us all and I can only hope that today you will remember me as someone who loves you deeply from this place of love. My love for you all will remain as long as the stars in the sky shine. Love has drawn me to it, like a magnetic tractor beam, un-ending, absolute in its purpose. It is from this place of love that I seek to be with you now.
In every breath, there is the potential to be with love, completely surrounded and enveloped with a joy that transcends even death. In every moment, we can choose to have love rule our lives. It’s just below the surface, just below the waves and ripples we allow to blow across the mind’s eye. Two deep breaths in stillness and you are there with me, soaking in the stillness and power that surrounds everything and binds everything.
I believe we run away from move for much of our lives. We are masters of distraction, inventing endless ways to create new imaginative ripples that interfere with that love connection. Love is always there and avoiding being one with it is an impossibility. Love will have you in the end, but it is human nature to ignore what we have in favor of what we believe we want or need. We think it’s up to us to create something better than love so we strive to leave things behind to be remembered by. It is because love is so powerful that we fight against its pull.
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” rings as true today as when the Beatles wrote it many years ago. So please remember me as a person who was blessed in love. Just look around you - all of you loved me in some way, in your own way, and that love is my legacy. You can’t see it, or hold it, but you can feel it always, just below the surface, holding everything together, holding all of us in its flow.
During this journey towards my final resting place, I have often wished I could stop because I know my passing has hurt those I love deeply, but this pain you feel from my passing will fall away eventually. I won the battle and war with cancer and secretly know that I used cancer to get closer to love. I could have gone my whole life avoiding the inevitable end, but knowing you will die sooner than later is a gift that gives you a chance to choose the love sooner, knowing this love now has brought me the peace that I want and need to share with all of you.
So for today, raise a glass to me, and bid me farewell, friend, as you see me float by on the smooth water that carries us all. Raise a glass knowing that we are all together on this great journey. We are all going to the same river, absolute in its path, clear in its purpose, and steady in its oneness. I will be there waiting for you always, and if you sit still enough beside the calm waters, you can find me no, at Peace, complete, and in-Love with you always.