Two weeks ago this past Monday, I lost a very dear friend…Bob Lee. He was found dead in a nearby pond by neighbors, who seeing that the door to his house was left open in the early morning and he wasn’t there, went for a search around the area they all live in, a small community of houses just down the road from me. The first news of this terrible event started trickling out late Monday evening[Aug 12], and within a few hours and into the next day it spread like a wildfire through the Island community of which he was so much a beloved and integral part. It was so shocking, sad, and very unexpected that at first people just couldn’t believe that it had happened.
The news varied by the hour as to how all this might have occurred. I don’t think it is still clear exactly how he ended up drowned in this pond. Anywhere else one might worry about foul play, but on the Island something like that is an incredibly rare happening. What is assumed at this point is that it was purely accidental. The story goes that on late Sunday night [Aug 11] into the wee hours of Monday morning [Aug 12] , Bob went out to a small field near his house to view the Perseid meteor showers, which were at their peak during that time. This is so much a thing he would have done. It is said that his cat, whom he adored and who followed him everywhere around the small cluster of houses of his neighborhood, apparently went with him. Perhaps he talked to someone before going out there and that is where that information has come from.
When the story first broke, there was a mention of a cut under his eye, or some injury to his face, and some thought that maybe he fell and hit his head, and then in trying to get back home, had become somewhat disoriented from the fall, and ended up in the pond, possibly passing out in the water and then drowning. Later though the news came in that his glasses were found neatly placed on a folded towel by the edge of the pond, which in my mind seems to indicate that he intended to go into the pond. I knew he loved swimming, and it was a beautiful early August night, and I could just imagine him thinking just how much better it might be viewing the Perseid meteor showers while floating quietly on his back on the surface of the pond. I have no idea if that is what he had in mind when he went out there that night. It is pure speculation on my part based on knowing him, and how he viewed the world around him. I would like to believe that is what he intended to do. Some feel he may have slipped on the rocks around the pond trying to enter it, which are apparently quite slick, and then possibly fell and hit his head, maybe knocking himself out, and then fell unconscious into the pond. Others have mentioned that he may have had a heart attack while in the pond, or at the edge of the pond, since one person mentioned that he had a weak heart, something I never knew. Nobody really knows what happened, but for most of us suicide is not being considered at all in his case. There was an autopsy done, but I have not heard the final results of that yet.
His death came at the very beginning of one of the busiest, and most celebratory weeks of the summer, with people getting their entries ready for the big Agricultural Fair up in West Tisbury which ran from Thursday through Sunday of that week. That Wednesday was Illumination night, a very old yearly tradition of lighting paper Chinese lanterns, some quite old, which are put out to hang from the open porches of the Victorian Campground cottages in the town of Oak Bluffs, followed on Friday of that week by the large Oak Bluffs fireworks display, a much looked forward to event by many, the last big event of the summer along with the Fair. And of course, in addition to all of that, President Obama and his family were also here on vacation that week. It is a crazy week in any normal year, but a pall fell over much of it with the news of Bob’s shocking, and very unexpected death.
I think Bob was one of the most unique people I have ever met. If ever the description “true original” applied, it applied to Bob Lee. There was no one like him. He was tall, thin and wiry with a long mane of wavy grey hair. His mode of dress was part bohemian and part…well…just Bob Lee. As one friend wrote…no one dressed like Bob Lee. Some might describe him as an aging hippy, but that doesn’t really fit either, he was so much more than that, although he was part of that era.
He was a good friend to me, although we didn’t really hang out on any regular basis, except at holidays. For quite a few years now, he has come to my house for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day dinner, and has been the much needed addition to a family gathering. He definitely made those days for me. Besides the holidays we would mostly run into each other around town or at some event, and when we did, as with anyone he ran into, we would talk, and laugh about things, for a long time. You were just always happy to see him.
Many people across wide, and divergent circles of friends, and people of all ages considered him a good friend. Unlike me who is more of a social recluse, Bob absolutely loved being in a throng of people, and socialized more than most. He loved parties, he loved interacting with people, he loved dancing, he loved the beach and swimming, he loved his cat, he loved music, all kinds, and was a musician himself. He absolutely loved women, and when you left his company, you always left feeling special. He loved holding court in a group of people where all were entertained by his great ability at story telling. There was nothing at all obnoxious in the way he did this. It was always entertaining, interesting and so full of detail, plus his wonderful dry wit often had everyone doubled over laughing.
He had this quiet, but infectious, charm about him, and such a true genuine kindness to all. He was one of the only people I know who could move easily between various, and sometimes very disparate, groups of people. He was welcomed everywhere. Years ago when I first invited him to Thanksgiving, thinking he probably had somewhere else to go already, he asked what time, and I said that it was at 2 pm, the time my grandmother always served Thanksgiving dinner. He said, well.. he did have two other Thanksgiving gatherings to go to, but the time was perfect, since the others were later, and he would love to be there. I asked him how he managed going to so many, when one Thanksgiving was almost too much for most people, and he answered with his great all embracing smile, “It’s all in the pacing, my dear”. It clearly was not so much for the food, but for the enjoyment of being around all these friends. He thrived on those connections. He loved hearing other people’s stories, and was a very good listener, as well as being a great teller of stories himself.
Bob had a sharp and intelligent mind with an extraordinary memory of the past, both of events and of people. He was known for his almost encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially of the Blues, and of the music world, and the people who inhabit that world. Because of his love for, and vast knowledge of music, he was one of the founders and was the program director of an independent, grassroots, non-profit Island radio station, WVVY, which took 9 years of a lot of hard work and dedication to get up and running. Bob said that this was authentic radio, the way it used to be 40-50 years ago. He joked that the studio was the size of a broom closet, so he was very grateful for technology since most of the programs you heard came directly from their DJ’s living rooms. I heard that a good friend of his, who was originally from North Africa, had told someone that she had actually found out more about the music of her own country through him than she had ever known before.
I often said to him I must record you telling some of these stories of the past, partly because of his unique delivery, and his wonderful attention to detail, but also because they contained so much history, and especially of the Vineyard past. I am sorry now that I never did. What a memory he had… truly amazing. It was awful when that wonderful memory started slipping a bit in the last year. He did wonderful impressions too, and his impressions of Liberace, and of an another unique Island artist and good friend, Richard Lee, who died last year suddenly and unexpectedly also, were absolutely right on.
The last time I saw Bob was at an art show, a little less than a month before his death. He was always thin, but he was looking thinner, more gaunt, and much frailer than when I last saw him at Christmas, and he suffered some memory lapses while we talked. All of that was really worrisome. I knew he had been dealing with some health issues, but he kept all of that pretty quiet. I don’t think he ever wanted to live his life defined by these things, and so I think very few people knew what was going on for him. Because he was having occasional problems with memory, I worried about the beginning of Alzheimers, which I think he might have said at one time that he had in his family, but was told by someone close to him, that wasn’t the problem. Someone else said they had heard he might have some kind of cancer that had spread, but no one had any more details. It wasn’t something he talked about.
At that art show we talked as always, and I remember him saying to me, “Maybe I will take a walk down the road to visit you one of these days.” I said that would be wonderful, and told him how much I would like him to see my gardens and ponds. I imagined that he would love the peace sitting by the pond surrounded by nature. How ironic that he would die in a pond seeking that same kind of peace and connection with nature, and the universe. He said that sounded perfect to him. Thinking to myself that he was seeming too frail to walk that far, I said that he didn’t have to walk, that I would gladly come to pick him up on whatever day he wanted to come over. And that is where we both left it, and that was the last time I saw him.
I remembered only later after his death, filled with regrets at not having stopped rushing around each day doing all the everyday things we fill our days with, that despite the fact that we lived fairly close to each other, the only time he had been to my house was in November and December at the holidays when the gardens are dormant, the trees are bare, the birds are mostly silent, and the fish are resting unseen in their semi-dormant state at the bottom of the pond. He had never seen all the gardens in full bloom or watched the fish flash their colors and break the surface of the pond, the air filled with bird and insect sound. He would have been someone who would have really seen what was there..not all do.. and would have appreciated it so much, and deeply so. I regret so much not calling him up, and asking him over and making that time. I think that might have made his sudden departure from this world a bit easier to take, being left with a good memory of him and a recent time together, sitting quietly, talking and laughing. I have heard so many others voice similar regrets.
About a week before he died, he called to ask for someone’s telephone number, something he had started to do frequently over the last year because of his intermittent memory loss. I often wasn’t in the house when he called, and he always in the end remembered the number. I was rushing out the door to an appointment when the phone rang, but heard him on the answering machine asking yet another time for the same number. The phone wasn’t nearby, and I was running very late, and knew even if the phone had been handy, it wouldn’t have been a short phone call, so didn’t answer, knowing that the number would probably come to him as soon as he got off the phone, and I also knew he did have other methods of reaching the person. I remember thinking as I drove away in the car that day, that I really needed to call him up and invite him over before the summer was over, but my thinking at that moment was that I should wait until after the Fair the following week, since I had so many things to prepare for that, and I knew we would probably see each other up there. We always think there will be more time, and sadly, sometimes it turns out that there just isn’t. He died 4 days later.
A sudden unexpected death of someone we care for often leaves these awful lingering regrets. Death is so final. There is no going back and fixing any of it. Whatever happened, whatever you did, or didn’t do, is all that is left, except for past memories. The busyness and complications in our own lives takes over, so we don’t take the time to make that call, or write that letter, or invite someone to do something with us. We put it off, thinking we will have enough time to do something later with someone, when things slow down, or when we get this last project done, or when we are feeling better, even though the present is all we may have with someone. One of the most common expressions people hear me say is that life is short, and we need to remember that, because the present is all we have, which I have painfully learned the hard way a few times now, and once again with Bob’s sudden, unexpected death.
In a couple of weeks there will be a large gathering of people for a memorial for Bob up in the large barn on the grounds where the Agricultural Fair took place the week of his death. It could not happen on the Island at any other place, because of the size of the crowd that will no doubt be attending. He touched so many lives across so many different groups here on the Island.. all ages.. all types.. that it will no doubt be a very diverse mix of people, young and old, from across many circles of friends, and also his ex-wife who had been helping him so much in the last few months, and his only child, a son Daniel, who lived off-Island and had been due to come home for a visit on the weekend of the Fair. I don’t know when the last time it was that he was here, or the last time he saw his father.
There will be tons of food brought by many of his friends, and by others who knew him and would want to be there. Someone has volunteered to put together a slide show filled with photos of him gathered from many friends. The large doors to the barn on all sides will be flung open to what will hopefully be one of those glorious Island September days. People will bring their children who will wander in and out, and play outside on the grassy areas surrounding the barn, seen and heard through the open doors. There will be lots of music, as many musicians and singers, who knew him well and played with him in the past, have said they want to perform for it. There would have to be lots of music and celebration, because Bob was so much a part of the music world, and he would most definitely want people to celebrate and dance. I know he wouldn’t have wanted a celebration of his life to be any other way. People will most likely stand up and share all the amazing stories that surround this very unique, interesting, funny, kind, and well loved man. He will not soon be forgotten. In the past, in a large crowd like this, I would have looked for him to talk to. The Island will be much diminished without his presence, and for me personally, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day will never be the same without him there. He was like that special spice you add to something that makes it all come together and work really well, and in a mix of people makes it all so much more enjoyable and interesting.
Bob, I will miss all your wonderful stories, and I will miss you, as will so many others too. You had more real friends than most of us could even imagine having, and those were real friends, not just acquaintances. It is because you genuinely cared about people. You loved their stories, their sometimes odd idiosyncrasies, and their humanness. I think you loved them all, even when some drove you crazy at times. You left an indelible mark on this Island, and on those with whom you shared your life, and friendship, and on even those who just came into contact with you briefly. I am so glad our paths crossed and we shared a friendship too. It was such a pleasure and a joy knowing you. I will never forget you.
One friend wrote how Bob had fallen down looking at the stars and now he is one with them. I wish he could see how much he meant to so many. Some people who may have a stronger faith than I do, would say he can see it all. I hope so. I hope he knows how much he was deeply loved, and admired by all his friends. I hope even more that he knew that while he was alive. He was unique, and is irreplaceable, and he will be terribly missed by us all.
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- splendiddisgrace said: Beautiful.
- my-memory-palace said: I’m so sorry for your loss. Beautiful tribute to your friend. My deepest sympathies.
- symbiotic said: My condolances and deepest sympathy. on losing such an treasured friend and part of your family. He seems like an wonderful person who added colour to all grey and bleak aspects of life. Kind regards: Shiv.
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