This is the story of the last days of Greg Harrington’s life, and the aftermath of his death. There are people who will undoubtedly dislike and disagree with my writing this. This isn’t for them, nor is it intended as a fond look back over the life of a young man. It is a sobering look at a man’s death and the echoes that follow. I knew Greg for four years, and his life and death had a profound impact on my own life.
This is the story as I remember it, though not necessarily in the order in which it happened.
I found out Greg was gone through a friend. When I went into work, I walked into my office, and he was sitting there in a chair.
I nodded, and he said, “Did you hear about Greg?”
I looked at him quizzically.
“Greg who?” I asked. I knew several Gregs.
He held a hand to his head, thumb cocked out, and index finger pointing to his temple.
“Tssssh“, he said, motioning with his thumb.
I looked down at him as he sat in his chair.
“GREG WHO?” I demanded, more sternly.
“You know, Greg, from that band you know,” he replied.
I grit my teeth and I instantly hated him.
“I have to…”
I left it hanging. I didn’t know what I had to do, but I left. To do…
The cellular phone was heavy in my hand. It was a candy bar and it didn’t weigh anything, but it may as well have been a manhole cover.
Tom, Greg’s brother, wasn’t answering. I didn’t expect him to, but I left him a message anyway. If he had answered, what would I have said? Hey Tom, this is the worst day of your life. Anything I can do?
I didnt have words for it. I’ve never been more grateful for voice mail.
”Tom, it’s Matt in Jacksonville. Call me any time. Please.”
I called Mike.
On of my closest friends, Mike, wasn’t answering, either. That was a surprise. Mike always answered my calls, at least, as long as his phone was turned on. We had been friends for over a decade. We sensed each other’s trouble. I missed this one. I don’t know how, but I did.
“Mike, it’s Matt. I heard something
really bad. Please call me. Please.”
To Facebook. The news leader.
My shoulders left my neck standing on its own like a Saharan gazelle facing down lions.
I called Mike again. No answer.
The first wake was at a Catholic Parish Hall. It was large and open with dozens of big, round tables and there was a disco ball the size of a Volkswagen hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room. It was a vile, happy intruder to a somber occasion. I wished it was a piñata we could strike dead.
Everyone was there, even me, the outsider, and my daughter, who had become, at this point, much more famous than I. The paper mache guitar that had been at Saint Helens Catholic Church had already made it there, and I had driven over fast.
These church people were efficient.
It smelled like Southern soul food and my stomach growled. I hadn’t eaten anything since the fish I had grilled at Niki’s house with Mike in their back yard that looked like a primordial forest. I loved it there. It made me want to strip down to my shorts and swing like a monkey in the trees. I found that I was clinging to anything to escape the reality that was now.
Food seemed like a lifetime ago. Not because I was that hungry, but because I was already a different person now than I was last night.
I felt like a bastard because I needed to eat.
Saint Helen’s Catholic Church in Vero Beach, Florida was huge and it was hot in the August sun. Large metal fans sprayed impotently across the gathered, seated crowd, cooling no one but making noise anyway. Thick green song books lined the back of the pews, full of songs and psalms for any occasion other than this one. There were no pencils in the pews, which wouldn’t have been a big deal to anyone other than a person with a three year old child who had nothing to draw with. That was my dilemma at the moment.
There was some music, piped in through old speakers. A semblance of a choir was there but no one seemed to notice. Everyone looked straight forward at the paper mache guitar and the altar. No one looked back. I would have noticed, because I was watching. No ones eyes broke away from the spectacle.
The priest was young and tragically inexperienced. When the eulogy was over I would later notice that he had a Band-Aid on his shorn head. The sociopath of a subconscious I have that lives in my head mused that an altar boy must have given him that wound, feigning off his attentions. It wasn’t fair of me to think that because the priest was a nice enough fellow who was just doing his best. My subconscious is an asshole, and it seemed a perfectly reasonable joke to it.
I was there in the bedroom with him. The wooden floor was cool under my feet and I didn’t move so as not to make a squeak. He was splayed out on the bed, his azure eyes looking toward the ceiling. He was waiting for a miracle, but it wouldnt come. It rarely does when you need it.
I imagined all this, but it didn’t make it less real to me. I had been in that bedroom. I had slept in that house. In my mind, I was there. I could see the white plaster.
I know gun metal is cold when you place it on your skin. It doesn’t matter how hot it is outside. It is sobering and violent, even without motion. I know this because I have done this, and I have felt the feeling in my finger. It is the feeling of being the catalyst for movement between worlds. Its an awesome, horrible feeling. It is the feeling of being on the edge of eternity. Of oblivion. A tiny movement and all is forgotten.
One half of an inch and the pain stops.
I would never do it, though I’m not alone. Many of us have been there.
There is a dive bar down the street from the Parish Hall. It rests right off of A1A Boulevard on the water and it is just exactly what one would come to expect from a south Florida bar; high, tin roof, drop ceiling fans, plastic windows and the smell of many of nights of hard drinking.
We descended on this bar like a murder of crows, dressed in black, tear streaked and thirsty.
We had all cried the night before and the morning of. We had somehow held it together during the ceremony. We were emotionally ravaged.
It was time to drink.
I’ve imagined my own wake. I hoped it would be something like this. At first, though, when I heard laughter, saw smiles, I thought, ”How dare you?” But then I was smiling. I was laughing. I was a fucking hypocrite, and it was okay. I hugged people I barely knew. I put my smiling daughter into the arms of people I had met yesterday. They needed it. I needed it. We all needed each other, and we didn’t even need to talk.
Greg was dead, but we weren’t. That was what counted, now.
I didn’t talk to Mike on the phone. We both avoided it for some reason, and it made sense to us. I left Wednesday night and made Orlando in just over two hours with my three year old daughter, Maeve, in the back seat. I didn’t tell anyone I was bringing her. I didn’t need to. They needed her to be there, even if they didn’t know it yet. More, I needed her to be there. I needed her to distract me from the task at hand. I needed to be busy with something, and she was the perfect outlet. She was new and beautiful and innocent and the world would need her today. I couldn’t be strong, but she could. She could make it all better. People would look into her eyes and forget. I knew they would, because I did.
When we arrived, Mike came outside and I didn’t say anything. I opened the passenger side door to my truck and released Maeve from her seat and set her loose on her “Uncle Mike”. His pain didn’t dissolve, but in that moment, she and he were the only people in the world. Their embrace was tender and lovely and it made me want to cry. I am callous and insensitive. I am not a comfort to anyone. But something I had helped to create could be.
I met Niki for the first time and she was just what I needed her to be; small and dark and lovely with kind eyes and arms open to a three year old who was glad to find some comfort in a woman. She and her friend Erika would become great friends and the subject of much conversation to little Maeve in the short time they were acquainted.
Mike and I embraced and I held him in my arms until it became awkward for me and I let him go.
“I love you, man.” I said.
When you’re a straight guy, you always have to append “man” to that phrase, even though it cheapens it.
Mike’s hair was a shaggy mess of blonde and brown curls. His green eyes were softer now than ever before. He was a true Bohemian and Maeve called him a ”dirty hippie”. He loved it and told everyone. When we put Maeve to bed that night I sang ”Hush Little Baby” that night while Mike played guitar. She fell asleep in minutes.
It is a two hour drive from Orlando to Vero Beach, even if you drive fast, which we did. I met John and Jessica that morning. John was tall and strong and wearing dark sunglasses while carrying a personality that made me instantly like him. Jessica was blonde and sweet-voiced and welcoming. I didn’t know her, but I felt like I did immediately.
Maeve was excited because the only John she knew was John Smith, who is in Pocahontas. According to John, he also wanted to be in Pocahontas, but, muttering under his breath, “not like that” after which we all laughed. We used anything to take our minds off the task at hand. We had a service to attend, and it was going to be hard.
My head was stuffed with cotton after a night of drinking tea-flavored vodka, Kentucky bourbon, Jagermeister and grain neutral spirits that were supposedly filtered through Swarovski crystals. Mike’s sarcastic comment the next morning of ”Well, that was a good idea”, hid the truth that yes, it actually was a good idea because we shared, cried and talked until the late hours. We both needed it. It was alcohol therapy. I scolded the orange-labeled bottle of Bullit bourbon.
“Bad”, I said. We laughed.
The sun was a fat dollop of melting butter in the sky as we drove down the 529 Beeline and onto I-95 toward Vero Beach. I called a lot of people on the phone, even though I don’t usually talk while driving. I needed company, and my daughter was still sleepy.
I picked out people I knew at the church. I sought out their faces desperately, clinging to the recognition of friends amid a sea of sorrow.
Michael. Brent. Jordan. Jennifer. Tommy. Trisha. Tomato. Lots of other people I didn’t know, too.
The young priest carried on with his choppy, rehearsed speech.
It was a sea of broken faces: women sobbing quietly with their strong boyfriends by their side, men, eyes red-ringed under dark glasses sinking low on their nose, only sniffing occasionally, holding back the tears. They
would cry later for Greg. Now was the time to show strength, even if we didn’t feel strong.
I was in the aisle and I saw him. Tommy never took off his dark glasses as he strode toward me and I thanked him for it inwardly. His eyes would have told a tale that my heart wasn’t prepared to know. I wasn’t ready to see thirty-three years of pain reflected back at me. Tommy wasn’t ready to share that burden with anyone yet. I hoped he would. Today, though, he stood, back arrow-straight, strong, confident.
He approached me in the aisle outside the pews. My daughter was in my left hand and my right was free. I was a marble statue. I loved Tommy, but I was wooden and thick. What does a person say that isn’t trite? Numbly I raised my right hand to my chest. He extended his arms and I was saved.
I picked him up like I was rescuing a victim from drowning in a pool. I actually reached under his arms, seized him fiercely, and squeezed.
“Anything, anything at all”, was all I could muster. He seemed to understand and I released him.
He crouched before my daughter, who peered at him, almost knowingly, and wrapped her little arms around his neck.
In that moment I realized how much more powerful she was than me.
“Thank you”, was all he said.
It was more than he needed to say.
We stopped at an ABC liquor store just about an hour outside of Vero Beach on our way to the church. We all knew we would need some liquid courage in the hours to come. We knew others would probably need it, too.
Maeve had asked me where we were going. I explained the situation to her as we drove.
“We are going to church. One of daddy’s friends, Greg, has died, and we are going to pay our respects to him and his family.”
She seemed to understand, and stopped asking further.
I met Caroline right outside for the first time. She was an Italian redhead with an aquiline nose and warrior blue eyes who instantly adored Maeve.
When we went inside and were standing in line, Maeve said to Caroline “We are going to church to say goodbye to the boy who died in the house.”
I flushed red. My kid was too honest. My fault.
“I’m sorry”. I said to Caroline, sheepishly, as I knelt down and told Maeve that it wasn’t polite to speak about the dead so casually.
She wasn’t bothered by it in the least, but I didn’t know who might be, so I used Skittles as a bribe to keep the little one quiet. Better safe than sorry. I’m not sure it would have bothered anyone, but it bothered me for some reason.
The .44 magnum produces too much recoil and muzzle blast to be suitable for a police weapon. It is less suitable for shooters of smaller build or with small hands. A bullet from a .44 magnum travels at 1,500 feet per second and delivers 1,200 foot pounds of force on impact. It was popularized by Clint Eastwood’s character “Dirty Harry” and by Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”.
I fed myself and my daughter with barbecue turkey, piping hot baked beans, and coleslaw that dripped with mayonnaise. The wake was well catered by Bono’s barbecue. We drank unsweetened iced tea out of Styrofoam cups. I was in the far back of the room, seated at one of twenty or so large round tables, and watching as people entered the Parish Hall. The table was strategically located in front of an electrical outlet that I required to charge my daughter’s DVD player. It also gave me a sweeping view of the room, and everyone in it.
A collage of photographs of Greg had been posted at the entrance of the Hall, and people mingled and milled about as they entered. Some hugged. Most stood woodenly with their hands at their side and looked over photographs. The paper mache guitar completed the ensemble. People filed in, sought out other people they knew, found them, and sat with them. Conversations were subdued, but I could hear them. They were about anything. Everything. Desperate conversation, forced laughs, eager waiting. Nothing mattered but to keep the words flowing. Silence was the enemy here and it must be avoided at all costs.
I met dozens of people and said words to them I don’t even remember. I saw friends and we talked about nothing. I would say something and they would answer. Then silence would follow. It continued like that until one of us found another distraction, or excuse to pull away. That was how it had to be and it was all right.
I ate slowly until Mike arrived. I saw them enter and waved them over. He was with Niki, Caroline, John, and Jessica and they found me in the back of the room, and sat. We ate quietly, not talking about the service. People came by, people I didn’t know, and hugged Mike, or John. We drank Jack Daniel’s Whiskey and Southern Comfort and mixed it with our iced tea. We didn’t care who saw us.
Sam came and sat by Maeve and me and the rest of us, all blonde with a beautiful smile. She was dressed in sorrow with lost blue eyes and I loved her for it, just for that moment. It was so real to her, and we all felt that too; it just made more sense when we could see it.
We all sat in silence at the table as Maeve played house with the tiny flowers she had picked with Niki and Sam outdoors.
All of the Harrington family except for Greg’s mother spoke at the service. I was surprised that any of them could muster the strength. They were a courageous bunch and I intensely admired them for it.
In the audience, Jennifer and Karly held each other four rows ahead of me, and cried on each others shoulders. Brent and Trisha stood stolidly by each other, cloaked in black hair with set jaws and dark glasses. They were strong for each other and I wanted to squeeze them both tightly but didn’t need to. They were already diamonds.
When Greg’s father spoke of his son I stared at the floor and bit my lip. When his voice broke so did my nerve. Involuntary tears made my vision swim and I fought them back. It was agony personified. Who can understand a father’s loss of his youngest son? I held my daughter close and kissed her cheeks. If I could have held her there forever I would have.
They played ”Far From Here” in the church that day and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
It was strange hearing rock music in a Catholic church. Somehow it seemed right, though, even as it poured out through tinny speakers across a crowd struck dumb by the loss of someone they never expected to leave them.
The mourning crowd shared drinks and conversation at the bar that day. New friends were made. Old friends were reacquainted. Laughter came uneasily, but it still came. Pictures of that day show people who love rock music dressed in black suits with ties, slacks, dresses and high heeled shoes holding each other and smiling.
We came together to see a friend, son and brother off into eternity. We held each other, cried, coped, and in the end, we celebrated.
They handed out black ribbons to a small handful of people. The ribbons had a yellow guitar pick glued to the point where the two ribbons cross. As John and Jessica left the bar, Maeve went to give John a hug. He removed the black ribbon and pinned it to her pink and black polka dot dress. She looked down at the ribbon, looked back up to John, and hugged him. I shook his hand and he walked away. Maeve turned to me with a somber expression and said “Mister John gave this to me so I will remember the boy who died. I will remember him. But it makes me sad.” She was three years old.
On a warm Orlando evening in early August, Greg Harrington laid himself down in bed, placed the muzzle of a .44 magnum revolver to his head and, in an instant, ended years of insomnia, pain and depression.
I hated him for it.
Tommy Harrington took the podium at St. Helens Catholic Church on Wednesday afternoon. He had on dark shades and a neatly pressed blue summer suit with khaki pants that looked more suitable for sailing in the Hamptons than a eulogy. His hair was neatly combed and parted, and subsequently one of the first times I’d ever seen him without a hat.
There was a hush over the audience as he took the podium. We waited. It burned like fire in my veins.
He spoke cautiously about his brother. Love laced his voice. Loss pulled at the corners of his mouth. But his voice was even and didn’t falter. I don’t remember everything he said that day because I couldn’t hear him as I grit my teeth in a feeble effort to be strong for him. But I will always remember this:
”Do something. If you want to do something in life, you know, just go and do it. Fuck it, why not?”
I loved him for it.
In memory of Greg Harrington 1976-2009