My cousin Kirk. He left this world too early, at a mere thirty-seven-years-old, from cancer. And for years, I have struggled with his passing, trying to make of it when, of course, I come up empty. There is never sense to be made of it. Kirk was a father of two daughters, his youngest only a year old, and the stepfather of another daughter whom he loved like his own. He had not been married to his second wife for long, he had a very close-knit family, was well-respected in his career, and had tons of friends. Fourteen years later, Kirk is still well-remembered, well-loved, and painstakingly missed. It just doesn’t seem right to have him taken so young when he was so full of life: everyone he knew recognized his big heart, his good nature, honesty, and fun-loving nature—he was also hilarious—when he shined his fire in your direction, he would give his full attention, his full self, and so you would feel honored, heard, important.
Kirk was eleven years older than me, and we didn’t see him as often as some of my other cousins at family reunions because he was off saving the West from forest fires; he was a hero. Kirk had worked for the Forest Service for seventeen years as a hot shot crew firefighter and team leader. We missed him at these events. When he was able to get together with the family, it was always more fun. It’s weird to know that I am now older than him. I am still amazed that Kirk, a fire fighter, died exactly one year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, a day when so many of his brothers lost their lives in the line of duty. The further tragedy is that the day was also his parents’ 42nd wedding anniversary.
Because my dad’s side of the family is so large, so full of life and energy and fun, and I’m quite the opposite—introverted, self-conscious, neurotic—family reunions were always difficult for me because I felt lost in the shuffle, sometimes forgotten, always awkward. It’s not their fault: I generally feel like this anyway. It didn’t help that I am the baby of the family by quite a long shot, so all my older cousins had a special bond, they were at similar stages in their lives, and I always felt left out. I’m not blaming or making excuses, this is one of the challenges I’m supposed to work through in life. But Kirk wanted everybody to feel included; he never forgot about me. At the wedding to his first wife, I was eighteen. Even though I wasn’t a big college drinker, Kirk brought me alcohol to make sure I felt included, that I was having fun. This small gesture made me feel like I wasn’t the forgotten baby of the family—I was important, I was a grown-up.
This is the only picture that I could find of just me and Kirk. I remember sitting on the sidelines of our family reunion, feeling glum and awkward, but Kirk shined his light in my direction and cheered me up.
Kirk’s funeral was one of the amazing things I’ve ever experienced and one of the most difficult. I was going through a period of intense anxiety, plagued by panic attacks and severe depression, and the trip to Arizona to his funeral, being away from everything that was safe for me, with the added grief of losing my cousin was one of the most difficult times in my life. For the whole trip, I felt extreme pain and pressure in my chest. I wanted so much to cry and cry away the pain, and I just could not do it.
Kirk’s funeral was standing room only. Throughout the day, Dad kept saying, “This is the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.” And it was. If I weren’t in such emotional turmoil, I would have been stunned by this service. Later, it would strike me what a marvelous spectacle Kirk’s funeral was, what a testament to an amazing, well-respected person. Close to one thousand people attended this service. In addition to family and friends, firefighters, forest service workers (many of whom hadn’t even met Kirk) attended because he was part of their brotherhood, their kinship. Hot shot crews from southern Arizona and New Mexico stopped by the funeral on the way back home (quite a bit out of the way) from fighting a fire in California. I heard many firefighters saying that Kirk brought the rain, for how could the worst drought in years all of a sudden end in four to six inches of rain that very week?
I sat and listened to the service and looked out the beautiful picture window at the view of the mountains, trying to both take in and protect myself from the bounty of emotions all around me. Many friends gave rousing speeches at the funeral. Friends sang songs and read poems that they wrote for Kirk, some of them unable to get through their readings without breaking down in tears. I learned so much about my cousin at his funeral, things I should have known if I hadn’t always been such a self-involved teen and young adult.
I remember two speeches in particular: Kirk’s good friend gave a speech in which he told about the time that the woman he would later marry met Kirk and said, “He’s like an angel who came down to remind us to have fun.” This seemed like the perfect tribute to Kirk. Kirk’s brother gave the most stirring speech of all. He said in trying to come to terms with why his little brother was taken so young in life, he had the epiphany that it was in Kirk’s nature to take a bullet for other people who may not have been able to handle it as well. Kirk was a hero, a martyr, but who did he take the bullet for? “Maybe it was for me. Maybe it was for me,” he said.
The most impressive part of the funeral was the procession to the cemetery. Flagstaff policemen blocked off traffic for one hundred and twenty firetrucks and easily as many cars to follow the hearse to the cemetery. The “obstacle” took a good thirty minutes to make it the mile or two to the cemetery. As we rode with the funeral procession, we passed by firetrucks, the members standing outside and saluting the coffin with their hands over their chests. At the cemetery, Kirk’s brother made sure that he shook hands with every firefighter in attendance. It was a beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle, something that I never would have wanted to miss despite my sadness, anxiety, and needing to be alone.
I came home from Arizona a changed person and worked on myself, making changes in my life to become happier, more confident, more at ease in my surroundings. Kirk was my inspiration; he wouldn’t have wanted me to live my life in fear and depression. He would want me to live life to the fullest, and I have tried, despite my limitations.
I feel compelled to tell a story that I haven’t shared with many people. Two years ago, I was at a similar turning point in my life to where I was during Kirk’s funeral. Feeling stuck and at a dead end in my job, I was desperate for answers. I went to the Metaphysical Fair. There I decided to talk to a psychic. This psychic was quite profound and gave me answers and directions for my career that I had not considered, that made perfect sense and that I am still exploring. When I brought up the idea of moving away from my hometown, the psychic’s eyes started to roll back in his head and he asked me if there was a male family member that I had recently lost. I answered, “Not recently. My grandpa’s been gone for ten years; my cousin for twelve.” He replied, “This is your cousin.” I’ve never experienced a channeling before, and I greeted it with a lot of skepticism. I wanted to be logical and tried to remember what Kirk might say, to compare it with how the psychic looked and sounded, but of course it was the psychic’s face and voice. He said some generic things like I love you and want what’s best for you. The rest of the family will be okay without you. He said that I needed to go to New Mexico or Arizona (which I thought peculiar since the psychic didn’t know Kirk was from Arizona.) Then he said something that made me pause and wonder, “Get the hell out of Dodge.” And that did sound like something Kirk would say. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if the psychic was just a really good actor, tears came to my eyes and I felt that Kirk was with me; I felt important and heard again, the way he used to make me feel. Plus, Kirk would have totally thought it was a hoot to be the spirit speaking through a medium. I suddenly had direction again; I no longer felt like I was sitting on a bench along the path of my life. Kirk had helped give me the courage to hoist myself on the back of a horse, and I was trotting along my path again.
After my grandma’s death, I immediately felt a shift, as if she became part of me, an angel, a Bodhisattva, or just a transference of energy, whatever you call it, I felt that Grandma was watching over me. With Kirk, I didn’t kid myself. Of course he would be watching over his daughters, his parents, his brother and sister. I was a no one really, so when Kirk died, he felt lost to me. Whether or not the clairvoyant was legit, I realized that day that while Kirk would look after his immediate family first, he loved his whole family and wouldn’t forget to look in on all of us from time to time. At the Metaphysical Fair that day, I bought a bobble-head Calavera so I would never forget that I was supposed to follow my dreams to the southwest.
I had been planning a trip to the Ozarks to see the fall colors with my husband Billy, but after my experience at the Metaphysical Fair, I changed my reservations and decided that we needed to go to Arizona instead. Something was waiting for me there. It would be a short trip so I couldn’t see the rest of my family who all lived in Phoenix now. Billy and I left on Halloween and arrived the next day in Sedona to find El Dias de los Muertes celebration—I had completely forgotten that it was Day of the Dead, which put my Calavera bobble-head into perspective. We attended the second night of Dia, and it was one of the most amazing celebrations I’ve ever attended, beyond words, truly. I lit a candle there for Grandma and Grandpa Feis and for Kirk.
Beside the celebration, we hiked and visited Kirk’s grave, which I hadn’t visited since his funeral. Next to him now lies his wife Jessie. That was difficult. Our trip was nice but not like the skies opening up and giving me answers. Billy did get the flu, which made the second half of our trip not so fun. Both Billy and I decided that, for us, Arizona was a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there. I wondered at the purpose of this trip, but I did feel lighter in my heart, like it brought me some closure that I needed. Perhaps that was the whole purpose, to go to Kirk’s grave and thank him. But more was to come.
Returning to Colorado, I had forgotten about a get-together of yoga teachers that my mom and I were supposed to attend the next day. I almost didn’t go because I was tired from my trip. Mom was an active yoga teacher, and I had taken the teacher training ten years before, taught a little, and then got too busy and told myself that I wasn’t a very good teacher so I stopped. I gave in and went to the get-together and am glad that I did because it changed my life. One of the teachers announced that she was moving out of state but was nervous to leave her position as an adjunct faculty member teaching yoga at the community college. When she heard how unhappy I was with my job, she decided that she would recommend me for the position, then I could be happier teaching yoga and she wouldn’t feel so bad leaving. I had never even considered teaching yoga again, but then I realized that it was exactly what I wanted to do.
Everything fell into place there. At the mere chance that this might work out and because I felt rusty teaching yoga, I enrolled in a second yoga teacher training program. Since graduating, I’ve had classes at three studios fall into my lap (and had to turn down classes because I’m too busy, much to my disappointment)and I did get the job at the community college, without even interviewing, just based on the other teacher’s recommendation. I’m now about to start my fourth semester there. I don’t have enough classes to earn a living and am still at my unhappy job, but even miracles take time, right? I love teaching yoga now, it has given me confidence, a path, a community where I feel accepted and respected and no longer feel like an awkward outsider, and I feel more settled staying in my hometown, not searching for the opportunity to run away and move somewhere else.
So what does this long-winded, meandering story have to do with Kirk? I still don’t know what to make of it myself, but I do believe that his spirit, or perhaps just my memories to him, helped me find closure, find confidence, find my path. As I’ve said, that’s just what he did. He made you feel important and truly alive, and perhaps even from beyond the grave, that’s what he’s doing for our family, for his friends, perhaps the whole community. I think he truly is a Bodhisattva. I keep that bobble-head Calavera on my altar now to honor a man who influenced me during his life because he truly lived without fear, he loved without fear, and he was indeed like an angel that came down to remind people to have fun. Thank you, Kirk. I think having fun is what we all need right now.