Delivered by Brendan Dyson
Cavallo Point - Sausalito, California
August 3, 2008
There is a church in New York City, a few blocks south of my hotel. On the north facing exterior wall is a notice board where they often post an interesting quote. Posted there, during my recent trip in July, was one that particularly struck me. At the time I didn’t know why, although each time I walked south from my hotel I would read it. And each time I walked north I made a point to turn my head so I could see to read it again.
It was by Flannery O’Conner, a southern author, who said: “Grace changes us, and the change is painful”. I didn’t know, then, what it meant. It just stuck in my mind and would not leave me.
On the evening of Saturday July 26th I received a call that Keith was in a coma and would not likely survive. The days since have been anguished, confusing and painful. Our world was turned upside down, a friend lost, a family left without a loving husband and devoted father.
I have nightly rushes of memories of Keith, going back over 2 decades, vivid memories that have deepened my understanding of just how tightly his life was woven into the fabric of my own. Some of the ways were too subtle for me to have noticed before his death, though they are now becoming so clearly illuminated as to blind me in my own tears.
I met Keith in New York City in the late 1980’s. I no longer remember the year and the place, though I do remember our first conversation almost word for word, together. Keith was a research analyst covering music entertainment and CD companies. Keith, being Keith, had been obsessively faxing lists of “must own” CDs to his friends. The friend who introduced us, Martin Chanzit, was telling Keith that his artists were so obscure that no one had ever heard of them.
For proof, Martin turned to me and asked if I had ever heard of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airman. I recited the closing line from one of my favorite Commander Cody songs, Hot Rod Lincoln. Martin taken aback said, “Well, what about Ry Cooder?”. I recited a Ry Cooder lyric, from his song “The Tattler“. Martin said “Well, how about John Hiatt”? John Hiatt had just released his first CD. Without a word, I reached into my jacket, opened my pocket calendar which contained a single tiny rectangular piece of newsprint, which said only the words: “John Hiatt”. I had cut it out of the Times to remind me to purchase it. Keith and I became friends.
In 1993 Keith joined Robertson Stephens and moved to San Francisco. Many of the friends he made there are here today. On Labor Day of that year I had a personal relationship end, and with it, my housing. Keith heard the next day while we were both in New York. He immediately handed me the keys to his apartment on Vallejo Street. I slept in his walk-in closet off the hallway.
On our first night there he served takeout Mexican burritos for dinner – and then poured me a large glass of Armagnac, vintage 1914. Who pours 1914 Armagnac to drown sorrows? With Mexican takeout burritos? Keith Benjamin.
I learned a lot about Keith as we ate more burritos, and Chinese, pizza and burgers, over the following months as I regained my footing. I learned to sip lightly on the first wine or port he served as he would most certainly bring out an older, more interesting bottle for the second round. I learned that he insisted on the “real” in everything, regardless of its practicality. He bought a grill that burned real charcoal briquettes for his outdoor deck despite daily 20 knot winds that blew the ash everywhere. He bought a BMW convertible with a real manual shift transmission, despite growing up in Manhattan and never actually learning to drive properly. I also learned that Keith knew when to make amends – the charcoal grill was replaced with a gas grill – the BMW manual shift with an automatic.
The most wonderful one was with Nancy. They had dated in New York before he moved to San Francisco. I met her for the first time in a restaurant in Soho. The name of the restaurant was Lucky Strike. I remember still, watching her easy laugh and warm smile as she and Keith sat together that night. I remember thinking Lucky Keith.
Sometime later Keith moved to San Francisco and they stopped seeing each other. One early Monday morning, many months later, we were carpooling to work. Keith got in my car, and announced, out of the blue, that he had determined that he was going to marry Nancy. He called her - of course she had started seeing someone new - and was rebuffed. He told me that he was going to enlist Nancy’s sister Suzanne to write a letter of recommendation for him to send to Nancy.
He bought a diamond ring, flew to New York, took Nancy to Central Park, to the Alice in Wonderland statues. He got onto his knee and proposed. Nancy arrived at work the next day wearing her new engagement ring. She had to explain to all her coworkers that her ring was not from the man she had just been dating, but the prior one – Keith Benjamin.
Nancy asked me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, an honor Keith returned 10 years later when he married me to Katelyn. In their wedding ceremony, I spoke to Nancy and Keith about life’s challenges and the future events that they might have to bleed and sweat and cry over. I warned, that anything, and everything, that was important to us, that we truly valued in our hearts and in our souls, would require us to bleed and sweat and cry. I could not imagine, standing then, on that sunny Seacliff lawn, standing here, on this sad day, just 12 years later.
We are here to express just how important Keith Benjamin was, to each of us, how deeply loved and valued he is, in our hearts and in our souls, and will always be. Valued as a friend, as a husband; and father; and partner. Now, we are all bleeding and sweating and crying, over his loss. The pain is overwhelming.
Henry James once wrote to a friend, who had suffered a loss as terrible as ours:
“Sorrow comes in great waves – but it rolls over us, but though it may almost smother us, it leaves us, and we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes, and we remain.
It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind whereas we, after a manner, see. We are passing through a darkness, but it is only a darkness, it is not an end or the end.
Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help; don’t conclude or decide. Don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, will remain. The only thing is not to melt in the meantime.”
On Sunday last I stood by Keith’s bedside. I saw his body and I held his hand. I felt God’s grace. I felt the grace that Flannery O’Conner spoke of, in that hospital room full of useless machines and pointless wires and tubes.
And ever since that long day I see Nancy and Bruce and Peri through softer eyes. I see, only now, how Bruce looks so very much like Keith. I see judgments, and the demons that drove me, for almost fifty years, fade from the sharp black and white of my youth to paler, easier shades of grey. I see my own family, my wife and my baby, more clearly, more urgently. To be held closer to me as each moment might be our last, and someday, will be.
Can a man change like that? Flannery O’Conner knew so. And so now, today, I finally understand what she meant, when she said: “Grace changes us, and the change is painful.”