Column: Tumbled Sea Glass, Grownup Microbrews

By Susan Parker
Tuesday January 16, 2007

I’ve gotten many kind and thoughtful letters since Ralph’s death, but none more poignant than the missive I recently received from Tim Murray, who once lived in the East Bay and was active in South Berkeley politics.  

I hadn’t heard from Tim, or his partner Tom, in a long time, and when I saw the Minneapolis address on the outside of the thick envelope, I wasn’t quite prepared for the flood of emotions the words inside would evoke. 

“Dear Suzy Parker,” Tim’s letter began. “The day I learned Ralph had died, I felt a pang of homesickness for the Bay Area that I hadn’t experienced in months. I had a momentary vision of standing in your backyard again, and how right it would feel to hug you and have a good cry.  

“Once again I’ve let the strand that connects me to you stretch as slender as a spider’s filament. I hope that I haven’t, through my carelessness, allowed it to snap. 

“I want to tell you about the little piece of Ralph I came to know. I only met him once before the accident. It was a summer evening when I walked into your house with you. Ralph was in the kitchen, leaning against the sink with his arms crossed. He’d just showered after a bike ride and he looked as if he hadn’t quite cooled down yet. His silvery hair was brushed back wet, and sweat still beaded up on his forehead. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but his long white feet were bare. In his hand was a grownup brown bottle of microbrew and he took a swig right as I came into the room. 

“His eyebrows shot up like he was studying the situation. He reached to shake my hand, and gave me a sharp blue-eyed look that said ‘If Suzy likes you then I’m curious … and if you ever touch her I’ll kill you.’ Meanwhile his mouth spoke the words, ‘Nice to meet you.’ 

“Years passed. I’d almost lost track of you, but when we finally reconnected it was time for me to meet Ralph again. I braced myself. When I walked into your living room Ralph was in his elaborate wheelchair. The same sharp intelligence fired his eyes and the fight was still there, but something else vied for attention. ‘I haven’t seen you in a long time,’ he said, as if nothing else was amiss, and his incredible sense of humor made me smile. I reached out and grabbed him on the shoulder, told him finally—years too late—how glad I was he was alive. Ralph wheeled around to show me his new setup, with the desk and computers at the front window. He was proud and welcoming, like a kid who has a friend over to his house after school for the first time. 

“This is the Ralph I will choose to remember, the sea glass Ralph, whose sharp edges and defenses had been tumbled away to form a nugget that seemed soft and vulnerable on the outside, but utterly incapable of being broken into any more pieces. Having survived not just the accident but all that came after, Ralph stood taller than anyone in the room and carried himself with guts and grace. 

“When Dave died it took me years to reach the other side of grief. There was no tap-dancing my way around it. One day, three months into it, I found myself on the Bay Bridge listening to NPR. Someone interrupted the programming to announce that Pat Nixon had died. I burst into tears and had to pull over at the first exit and sit. Pat Nixon! I didn’t even remotely like Pat Nixon, but my sorrow was so close to the surface, the barest scratch bled buckets. 

“I’m in no position to give advice, but impossible as it seems, you will someday look back from the shore that seemed beyond reach and be glad for the experience, I shit you not. Love, Tim.”