Friday, September 12, 2014

Mourning Miles

“It is the worst possible news. He didn’t make it. He is dead.” With those words I learned that my grandson Miles had died on August 19 in the emergency room of the nearest hospital, and an entire community was bereaved.

His life lasted for thirty-three years, which he had lived with enthusiasm, creativity, invention, humor, and a deep concern for the planet. He left a legacy of love to his wife Polly, their daughter Ginger, his mother, father, brother, and grandmother plus a large extended family. An autopsy has confirmed that his heart stopped as a result of myocarditis. No one was to blame, and nothing could have saved him.

A week later he was buried in a simple coffin made from poplar and cherry. On the spacious grounds surrounding a small woodshop, about a hundred people gathered to watch and wait while a dozen friends of Miles measured, sawed, sanded, and then assembled the box. Meanwhile others visited and shared a potluck supper, which I am told was delicious -- a fitting tribute to Miles, who was an accomplished chef. The next day Robin took me to see their finished work and we found another craftsperson adding inlays of walnut and glass beads. Miles had a simple burial in in the wooded cemetery in the Celo Community where he lived. Other friends had cleared the site and dug the grave. After the box was lowered by a group of Miles’s closest friends, his brother Julian, and Robin, many hands helped to fill it again as we all joined in singing old familiar songs.

In the time between his death and the memorial service two weeks later, I thought often about the circles of friends who were mourning. Miles’s circles included the glass artists, the volleyball and brunch gangs, co-workers, the Celo Community, the members of the local food co-op, and the Celo kids he grew up with, just to name a few. Polly and each of the four generations of Dreyers have their own set of circles. Polly and Miles also had a circle of music friends, both from Polly's performances and the open mic nights they hosted together. Even eighteen-month old Ginger is one of a circle of Celo babies who are growing up together.

My friends began to arrive at my house ten minutes after I first heard the news, and about a dozen of Robin and Tammy’s friends gathered on my deck the first evening and told stories about Miles. We learned that people were walking together each evening from the Celo Health Center to the soccer field just to take time to absorb what had happened. One evening I asked some of my friends to join me on the walk and there were eighteen of us. A group of craftspeople spent an evening together reminiscing, and the business where Miles worked closed at noon one day so his co-workers could sit together and share their thoughts. Polly's parents and her best friend Liz arrived quickly to give much needed support. Others in her family came for the burial. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and dear friends from out-of-town who came for the memorial service were housed with Celo families and fed at a dinner and brunch with food provided by other neighbors.

At the memorial, some four hundred people sat under a tent on the soccer field or stood on the periphery as we learned more about the last fulfilling year of the life of Miles Dreyer. We joined together in a period of silence and shared observations, stories, poems, songs, and simple expressions of love or appreciation for his life.

Everyone is gone now, and here in Celo people (including me) have taken up their normal lives again. I am lonely with a loneliness that the presence of other people cannot assuage. When my husband Bill died I felt alone but not lonely. The dreams we had dreamed had all been fulfilled and the love between us had no strain or shadow. He had been ready to let go. But Miles was fully present in the now, dreaming dreams and testing them against what he was learning about climate change and the gap between political rhetoric and the daily lives of most people. He and Polly had dreams for what they would build together in this valley, how they would grow together, raise their child, and hopefully have another.

The words at the memorial reminded me of the child Miles who just wanted to be good, and the man who wanted to make things better. The adolescent Miles did not want to learn as our society teaches through classrooms and lecture halls. He wanted to touch life directly by sharing the world others inhabit through talking and listening. He wanted to see for himself what worked in different lands. From master craftspeople at Penland and other venues he learned to make beautiful, useful, and whimsical things in glass. As a young adult he crafted his own higher education and spent time visiting and working in other countries—Down Under and in Central America—to learn how others take care of the environment, and to think about governance and philosophies about sharing our resources and caring for each other. He also had a good time, saw great sights, made new friends, learned new skills, and fell in love with Polly (also a glass artist).

Miles worked as an assistant in a glass business in Hawaii for four years and Polly joined him there for the last two, hired by same studio. In 2008, as the recession deepened, Miles and Polly returned to Yancey County to make their home in Celo. They found or created various jobs, rented a house, applied for membership in Celo Community, and got married.

For some thirty years I had lived next door to my son and daughter-in-law and watched their sons grow up. Now I had the unimaginable joy of having Miles and his family close enough to drop by, celebrate holidays, and share Sunday brunches. As election politics and monetary policies dominated the airways, Miles and I often had conversations about what was inherent in our governance and banking system that had caused this recession. Miles cared deeply about the effect that the recession and our dysfunctional government was having on the lives of most Americans.

We also talked about the effects of big money interests on the environment, the use of resources, protecting wildlife -- in short, the whole gamut of political and monetary concerns. He was often skeptical and felt that public statements rarely revealed the whole truth. His constant questioning led me to read many books I might never have picked up otherwise. Of course, he wasn’t just talking to me and he wasn’t just talking politics. Miles remained aware of the goodness of people, the importance of sustaining a community, and the value of fun. He recognized what was real and important in this life and even hoped to make it better. Now I am left with a Miles-sized hole in my life.


  1. Thank you Donna Jean for sharing these beautiful stories. I continue to send love and hold you in my heart.

  2. This is Joy Boothe...I didn't mean my above comment to be anonymous.