A year ago today, my dear friend, Patricia Coltrain AKA Trish, passed away in her sleep.
We were an unlikely duo. Trish was 66 years old when she passed; I was 36. Trish was a hippy with grey dreads down to her ankles; I was a boring-looking white guy. Trish lived in a single-wide in the middle-of-nowhere Colorado; I rented a historic foursquare in Boulder. She was retired; I was a poet.
Yet we loved each other from the jump. So much that people assumed we were family when they saw us hanging out at a brewery in town or loading grocery carts full of food we’d spend hours stuffing into her freezer. When we explained we weren’t blood but dear friends, people were truly surprised. Odd friends we certainly were.
Today marks a year since I got the phone call: “Trish is dead.”
I have written and rewritten that sentence in an attempt to make it real. I have lived with the fact Trish is gone for 365 days, and still I find myself tempted to drive out to her trailer in the middle of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado thirty miles from any county services, to find her waiting for me under the porch light, Cecelia and Marley chasing my Jetta up the driveway, the moon beaming down on us like a dream.
She must still be there, waiting for me, her friend who has come to visit. She must be. But she isn’t. Because Trish is dead.
I met Trish on the NAACP’s “America’s Journey for Justice,” a 1,008-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. in protest of police brutality and the recent weakening of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — particularly provisions that could significantly hamper voting rights for people of color, a concern we witnessed become reality in the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States.)
This was in the summer of 2015. Trish wasn’t on the march, but her husband, Middle Passage, was. Middle was a disabled veteran whose brother, a lifetime member of the NAACP, had recently passed. Middle joined the march in his honor and instantly became our leader and friend.
Middle was charismatic, kind, serious, hilarious, brave, thankful, and, perhaps above all, in love with his wife, Trisha (only he was allowed to call her that), who was too disabled to join the march with him.
Middle marched every single mile of the march until — less than ten miles from our terminus at the Lincoln Memorial — he collapsed at a stoplight, dropped the American flag he’d carried 998 miles across the heart of the South, and died.
At the time I only knew Trish through Middle and their phone calls. Each morning and night — and whenever he could between — he called Trish on his flip phone and held conversations with her on speaker, no matter how intimate or inane the conversation. We all did our best not to listen, but when two voices in love like that are sent out across time, space, and the cosmos in a cavernous church gym or on the bus after a long, hot day of marching or in a conference roomed jam-packed with sleeping bags and cots, it is impossible not to listen.
What we heard was beautiful. Uplifting. Middle was having the time of his life, and he pined for his love, Trisha, who tended the fire back home, a single-wide trailer on fifty-or-so acres with their dogs and cats and horses and livestock in the middle of nowhere Colorado.
“Paradise,” they called it. And it was.
The first time I actually spoke with Trish, Middle and I were smoking a joint in the middle of a field outside Fredericksburg, Virginia. No drugs are allowed on civil rights marches, but when a new marcher made the offer, Middle and I were too tired and happy to say no.
So there we were giggle-stoned in a field just a stone’s throw from one of the most horrifying battles in American history, talking to Trish on Middle’s flip phone.
When I let it slip (I didn’t know this was a secret) Middle had been sharing their conversations with the entire march for over a month, she laughed harder than I’d ever heard before, then scolded Middle, declared me family, and demanded I come down from Denver for a visit as soon as possible.
“Come down and let us make a fire for you and smoke together and you write us some poems.”
We made a plan and said goodnight and went to bed happy and stoned only 45 miles from D.C.
Middle died three days later.
When Middle died, Trish disappeared.
She got off Facebook. She only answered calls from a few friends, then-NAACP-President Cornell William Brooks, and a few of the marchers.
I was not one of the marchers she wanted to talk to, and I did not try to change her mind. I have lost far too many people for a man of 37. I know little of the grief that comes with the sudden death of a spouse, but I knew enough to let her be. If she wanted to invite me in some day, she would invite me in.
Several months later, the NAACP arranged a memorial service for Middle at Adams State University, a tiny institution of higher learning located in Alamosa, Colorado, about five hours from Denver, two hours from the nearest interstate, and still about thirty miles from her home.
His service was a celebration, a bereavement, and a reunion. Somewhere around thirty marchers and NAACP staff attended as well as about fifty friends and family which included, of course, Trish.
Trish laughed. Trish wept. Trish held our faces in her hands and looked into our eyes and thanked us for coming. Afterward, we had dinner at the Chili’s, Trish went back home, and me and my NAACP family stayed up all night at the Fairfield Inn & Suites missing and laughing on Middle, wishing Trish were with us.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Jonathan McKinney of the NAACP. They planned to give Middle Passage a posthumous award for his leadership and sacrifice at the NAACP National Convention to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio in July of 2016. They wanted Trish to receive the award, but she was too feeble (and heartbroken, I would soon learn) to make the trip herself. When they suggested they send someone to escort, she thought that might work.
“We think it should be you,” Jonathan told me.
I was surprised but not floored. I lived a five-hour drive from her in Denver, and everyone knew I would be more than willing to help. What did shock me was what he said next: “When she asked us who should escort her, she said, ‘I hope it’s Andrew.’”
Why would Trish want me, of all people, to be her escort? I had left my wife of ten years just weeks before and was devastated and lonely and worried for my future. Would I ever find another woman like her? Would I ever have the children I’ve dreamed of since I was a child? Why did my wife abandon me? And on and on. I couldn’t have been in much worse shape to escort a heartbroken widow across the country, not to mention I’d never done anything of that nature before and didn’t own a car.
No matter, I decided and accepted. That’s what Middle would have done.
The story of that particular journey is one for another day, but it cemented a most unexpected friendship.
Trish treated me like brother, son, and soulmate the moment I drove up in my rental car. She was recovering from a broken heart and so was I. We had both lost the loves of our lives. We were both living through terrible grief. She was traumatized by her first hard winter alone in her now lonely Paradise. I was traumatized from years and years of loveless marriage. She couldn’t sleep without sedation. I couldn’t sleep at all.
By the time we landed in Cincinnati the next day, we were both so exhausted I “borrowed” a wheelchair from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International and wheeled her all over the city as if she were my mother, my child, a best friend.
Next day, I practically had to carry her up the stairs onto the stage, and I helped her rise from her seat on the stage, and I helped hold her steady as she stood there before thousands of freedom fighters, receiving an award for the love of her life who had given his life for the movement, all while holding up a peace sign.
She didn’t shed a tear until we were back stage where she collapsed into the wheelchair and I got on my knees before her and put my head in her lap and told her, “It’s okay. You can cry now.”
That was July 18, 2016. I visited her twice before the end of the year to help prepare for another harsh winter alone, but mostly just to be friends. We talked endlessly about Middle, my divorce and heartbreaking rebound, and how to keep on living despite the pain of love.
We also had a lot of fun. Anyone who knew Trish knows that. We smoked joints and took long drives without a map into the mountains, identified birds by their calls, spent every night beneath the stars, the moon who Trish believed was Middle, smiling down at us.
When I launched the walkabout I am still on on May 6, 2017, I drove straight to Trish where I helped her spread Middle’s ashes in Lieutenant Creek of the Rio Grande national Forrest, where she and Middle often illegally camped.
There, releasing the body of Trish’s lover and my friend and leader into the wild from which life springs, there, holding Trish’s hand as she limped into the middle of the rushing waters, there, averting my eyes as she poured Middle’s ashes from a sandwich baggy into the creek that feeds Terrace Reservoir, which provides much of the region’s drinking water before it continues its endless pursuit for the sea, Middle entered my body and said in the language of what we believe to be the dead, “Thank you for taking care of Trisha. Thank you letting me out of that goddamn box. Come find me when you’re ready,” and, like lightening, he was gone, his ashes racing down-creek in a long grey ribbon on the blue water until no more ashes spilled from Trish’s hand and we could see racing down-creek no more, and Trish turned to me, and we burst into laughter.
Giant, buoyant, Middle-Passage-like laughter.
“Did he speak to you, Andrew?! Did he speak to you?!”
“He did, Trish. He did.”
Trish died thirty-seven days later.
We still do not know an official cause of death.
It happened in her sleep. Autopsies were performed. Questions were asked. Vague conclusions were formed.
I’d spoken with her three days prior. She’d sounded a bit sad and lonely, but nothing unusual. She was in the best health she’d been in since losing Middle.
I know why Trish died.
As much as I tried to care for her heart, it was broken. It could not go on.
When we spread Middle’s ashes, she’d let him go. It was time she went in search of him again.
That is what I have come to call it: whatever it is that happens after we “die.”
After death, I now know, is…more.
Maybe the Afterdeath is just a final thought, a final message of thanks or rage or grief or joy when our bodies are returned to the universe. Maybe Middle and Trish are watching me write this on Sunday June 17, the day before the first anniversary of Trish’s passing. Maybe Trish is still looking for Middle, their Afterdeath a journey back to each other. Maybe Trish is the stray grey cat who sometimes sleeps with me in the tent I live in in California. Maybe Trish is stuck in a box of ashes I haven’t yet had the chance to spread. Maybe Trish lives curled up inside me. Maybe Trish is the water.
I don’t know where she is. The only thing I know for sure is that she is still with us. When I eventually get back to their favorite secret camping site and smoke a joint by the creek and rise from my seat to release her back into the wild, I won’t expect a thing. I will not expect her to enter my body and speak. I can already hear her saying it:
“I love you, Andrew. I hope you have a wonderful day.”
-This blog post was first published on Medium, June 18, 2018, https://medium.com/@andrewmcfadyenketchum/life-after-death-with-trish-5da88c88f057