On the 18th of February, I wrote a post called Interwoven for my wonderful friend and work colleague Matt Kelley who was grieving the sudden loss of his dad. I offered up some thoughts from the eulogy I’d written for my mom thinking that they might give him a different perspective and a certain measure of comfort. I will admit to you that I poured my heart into that post. I wanted so much to be helpful, and I do think that I was, even if only in a small way. In what feels like a very cruel twist of circumstances, I learned last Friday that Matt had died in the same sudden way as his dad. The post that I’d written for him now became a post that could just as easily have been written about him, and I found myself in need of the same comfort that I tried to provide on that February morning. It seems unbelievable. It seems inexplicable. It seems wildly unfair. I use these words to describe my experience of losing him as my friend, and I know that I am echoing the sentiments of everyone who stood on either side of the bar with him at Recklesstown. What I cannot imagine are the words that describe what his wife and family are experiencing. If those words exist, I do not claim to know what they are. One of the main things that Matt and I had talked about and that I tried to capture in Interwoven, was the idea that death, in one single instant, takes all the deeply loved details of a person’s physical presence away from us. Yes, their spirit remains, but there is an undeniable hole left behind, and we struggle to find a place for all the love we still actively feel. In the case of losing a friend, this same difficulty still applies, but there are also questions for which we seek answers. Because we’re not held together by family ties, is the bond we formed broken, or does the friendship still remain? In what places do we look for it and, when we find it, how do we hold it close to us and continue to honor the memory of the friend we’ve lost?
There is very little doubt that true friendship remains one of the brightest offerings within our reach as human beings. The process of learning about a person, allowing them in turn to learn about us, and then growing to love and respect one another as a result is a wonderful journey. One of the most beautiful definitions of such friendship that I’ve ever encountered comes from the Celtic tradition and is captured by the Gaelic term anam cara [an-NUM CAH-rah], which simply means “soul friend.” The origin of the term actually comes from the early days of the Celtic church, when an anam cara was said to be a companion who was also a spiritual guide or mentor. John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher whose writing is nothing short of amazing, explains that this concept “originally referred to someone to whom we confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of our lives. With the anam cara we could share our inner-most selves, our minds and our hearts. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.” The relationship that we would expect to find with this soul friend, according to Celtic tradition, would be one that felt extremely deep and exceptionally rare. It would also transcend boundaries created by age or social conventions. It was a connection formed at the soul level, not subject to any limits, including those imposed by space or time. It was thought to be eternal. In the modern world in which we live where our communication relies a lot upon electronic devices and social media responses, the term “friend” is at risk of becoming perfunctory. When something about another person strikes a profound chord within us, we are almost surprised. When that chord expands into a full blown symphony, we feel as though we have found gold. In this friendship, we find ourselves settling into the deepest nuances of familiarity, the warmest place of comfort, and the truest sense of family. We have, with certainty, found an anam cara, with whom “we are understood as we are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, we can be as we really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where we are understood, we are at home.”
For those of you reading this post who spent any time at Recklesstown with Matt Kelley, as a co-worker or a customer, I know that he made you feel as though you were at home. For those of you who did not know Matt, I’m certain that you are thinking of the friends in your lives with whom you have this same deep soul connection, the one found in having a similar way of looking at the world, in the confidences and laughter we share, in the meaningful glances and knowing smiles, in the way we hear one another’s voices in our heads, and in the way we greet one another and say goodbye. When I arrived for my shift on the Fridays that I worked with Matt, he always noted my presence in one of two ways. “Carla’s here,” or “How’s Carla?” he would say, in a voice that I always thought of as quietly booming, like big waves hitting a beach somewhere far away. In response, I would walk over to him and pat him on the upper arm, as if I needed to reaffirm his physical presence, or I needed some sort of grounding before diving into deeper conversation or into the actual work of making drinks. These were simple moments of acknowledgement and connection, along with so many others that passed between us, and while I want to remember them forever, I have avoided thinking about them this past week because I keep dissolving into tears. What is it about the loss of a person that makes us immediately want to close off a part of our hearts? It’s as if grief becomes an overprotective tyrant, padlocking certain doors so that we remain safely numb behind them. And yet this idea of our souls being friends gives me hope. If the truly deep connections we feel are eternal, then we are right to go on hearing a person’s voice in our heads, or knowing what would make them laugh, because we carry a part of that person within us. They have changed us forever. They have held a mirror in front of us, as Aristotle believed, and the reflection we see there is so much greater because of them. Although the love we feel for these “friends of our souls” may shift its focus, it most certainly does not die. On the contrary, it remains alive and well, and our realization of this fact is what allows us to open the doors, to safely grieve, and to celebrate the friendship once again, knowing, without a doubt, that we did indeed find gold. Matt told me that every Friday morning at 6:18, he read my post. He said that it was how he started his day, and I felt so humbled and happy to know that. How I wish that I could have written these words sooner under different circumstances. I can only hope that he is in a place, unknown and only imaginable, where he is still reading. Matt Kelley, you were for me, as I know you were for so many, the truest kind of anam cara. I will hear your voice forever.
For today’s cocktail, there was only one choice. This was a man who loved Old Fashioneds, and we spent a great deal of time discussing the right and wrong ways to make them, and sharing pictures that were examples of both outcomes. The last text he sent me, in fact, was of an Old Fashioned he was having to celebrate his birthday on the afternoon before he died. Although I wanted to keep the basic structure of the drink the same, I also wanted to make a few changes. We’d talked recently about an Old Fashioned I’d had that was made with an apricot syrup. He was intrigued by the idea, but said I’d have to find a way to keep the Demerara sugar cube. I agreed and promised to make him one using Recklesstown’s new black walnut bitters that I wanted him to try. Today’s cocktail is the one I never got to make for him. I chose the setting that I did for the photo because I discovered it last Thursday at the distillery, and because it captures a sense of timelessness, depth, and strength, all qualities that he possessed in abundance. And the glass, you ask? Ah well. I chose it because I know he’d say to me, “Carla, ‘sup with this glass??” And we’d laugh. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday to you. Thank you so much for reading and allowing me to share such a personal loss with you. At some point this weekend, raise a glass to this truly rare human being, to his friends and family, and to his deeply grieving wife and children.
1 Demerara sugar cube
1 tsp best quality club soda
.25 oz apricot DEM simple
1 dash black walnut bitters
1 dash aromatic bitters
Muddle the sugar cube in your glass until fairly dissolved.
Stir with a bar spoon.
Add 2.5 oz bourbon.
Sir again for 10 seconds.
Express an orange peel over the drink.
Rub the rim of the glass.
*Simmer eight dried apricots in 16 ounces of water for 15 minutes. Strain and dissolve an equal amount of Demerara sugar into the apricot water. It will have reduced some.