Reflections on a Celebration of Life
by Mylinda Baits
“I continue to grow despite death.
I become an image of humanity reflected.”
-Dylan Amadeus Nehrenberg
I sit here at my kitchen table two days after Dylan’s Celebration of Life service. I’m pondering the place, people and physical expressions that help to contain the complexity of a tragic loss that still brings life. On a table close to the entrance of the hall where Dylan’s family and community of friends gathered, 20 jars of soil sat in mason jars, labeled with a sticker that said, “Dylan 1994-2022 WHAT A LIFE!”A life indeed. A life now nurturing more life even in death.
I glance to my left, looking out the sliding glass door into our backyard. I see the weeping willow we planted last month. Our son Micah, one of Dylan’s closest friends, asked if he could spread some of Dylan’s composted remains at our place since he is currently living in a rented house and wanted a more permanent place to come and remember his friend. We now call the willow our Dylan tree.
As we climbed the stairs to enter the hall, we passed a pile of scattered Taco Bell tacos and burritos on the floor. They had fallen from the flimsy cardboard carrier that Dylan’s brother-in-law was juggling in his overfull hands. In both the mess on the floor and the slight embarrassment on our faces, I could sense the tension of complex emotions spilling out. We ask if we can help, he declines and says he’s okay and we move on. I’m left with the image that resonates with my own internal juggling with messy feelings, hoping that this communal space can hold whatever spills out.
On a table against the far wall of the hall, I see 30 other Taco Bell cardboard carriers. Kyle, Dylan’s college roommate, was standing next to the table. After checking in on how he was holding up, I asked if there was a special reason why the family had Taco Bell cater the event, (curious since having been to many memorial services, it was a first for me). He shared that Dylan loved Rainier Beer and Taco Bell. It was his favorite restaurant. We found out later during the sharing of memories that Dylan invented his own mini marathon route: a 17 mile course between all of the Taco Bells in town. He would run from one Taco Bell to the other, eating along the way until he reached all of them. He often invited his friends to join him, though few accepted the challenge. The food and drink table was full of the things Dylan loved, for the people Dylan loved. A quirky and poignant way to honor a quirky and unforgettable human.
On a table against the opposite wall of the hall, the memory table was full of objects reflecting the multiple and varied accomplishments that Dylan packed into his brilliant, yet brief life. There was a letter written to and from the Lego toy company when he was 8 years old with a prototype idea for a new toy. There were two 50,000 word novels written, each one in a month’s time. Along with these, there was his violin, his composed music, his favorite sports team memorabilia, his college diplomas, and his white physician’s coat. Next to the guest book, a pile of postcards with a QR scanner code provided an easy way for guests to contribute to a scholarship fund at Dylan’s college alma mater. This simple invitation to invest in the future of other pre-med scholars felt like a nudge toward hope and an expression of Dylan’s heart for healing. Leif Erickson Hall, with its Norwegian/ Scandinavian vibe, a physical space, cradled and held the hearts and memories of a diverse and eclectic community, gathered to celebrate this one life that connected us all.
On these tables, in this space, all of these tangible, thingly items held meaningful moments, memories, stories and invitations. In touching them, we were touched. By beholding them, we were held. Without a word spoken, multiple stories within, between and around, could be woven together, witnessed and shared.
Besides these tangible mementos and memorabilia, many words and stories were also shared. Tender and touching testimonies were held in and through family and friend-curated slideshows, a choir song written by Dylan’s dad and performed by friends, hilarious anecdotes of mishaps, misadventures and mind altering substances, and significant life metaphors that emerged along the way. I was moved to tears by the creativity, compassion, bravery, authenticity, accompaniment and commitment to hope that was evident among the community of care that Dylan cultivated in his short life.
I was especially proud to witness my beloved son, Micah, stand beside his friends to share with honesty, heartbreak and honor how Dylan spoke into his life, writing indelible words of affirmation on his heart. On the back of Micah’s arm he has a circle tattoo of a deconstructed river with rocks in it. The rocks represent him and his circle of friends. When they found out about the brain cancer that would eventually take Dylan’s life, Micah suggested that they each get a different circle tattoo. On Dylan’s body, he had a mirror tattoo of each of his friends’. It was a way of saying that their relationship has made a permanent mark on each of them.
Gregory Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart says,“Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, says, “How narrow is the gate that leads to life.” Mistakenly, I think, we’ve come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But really it wants us to see that narrowness is the way… It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive. There is a vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having. We see our plentitude in God’s own expansive view of us.”
Dylan’s Celebration of Life service was an entry into the expansive for me. The vastness of love, life, companionship, presence, and hope was laser focused in the last year and a half of Dylan’s life. That focus on living beyond a death sentence, growing to reflect his full humanity, and knowing his time was limited, nurtured life in the loss that continues to live on in each of us. From the choir song composed by Dylan’s dad,
“When tomorrow comes we’ll recall as one
The times we shared, our moment in the sun.
And our hearts will be filled with the memories beautiful.
And in our minds you’ll remain, the change you brought retained.
And the world is a better place, yes the world is a better place because of you. Because of you.
The shared voices singing “The World is a Better Place”, the Nehrenberg scholarship for future university students, the composted soil made from Dylan’s fleshly body, the tattooed reminders on his friend’s skin and the embracing of life in spite of a death sentence will continue to speak for generations to come.
What a life! Let’s live it now while we still can.