Cooper’s Legacy: The Art of Circle Gaming Among Childhood Friends

“We’re captive on the carousel of time … We can’t return. We can only look behind from where we came and go round and round and round in the circle game …” ~ Joni Mitchell

The news hit his nimble-footed, intricately painted-and-penned world like a sledge hammer. Thirty-year-old Thomas “Cooper” Ley had died. He was my best friend’s beautiful boy.

The wound left by the merciless hammer’s mark was a deep one. Somehow it didn’t break the circle, though. It wouldn’t. Never could. That was the consolation, so I was posthumously reminded by his mother, if there was to be any at all in something that seemed so senseless and unfair.

Circle. It was stuck in my head. Once that hammer hit, she started whispering to me as I grappled with how to remember him best for her, for his family, for his friends, with my words.

“Circle, my friend. Circle,” she said in her soft voice. The cackling kidder was reserved for other occasions — like when I needed a good laugh, cry or “kick in the duffer,” as she’d say. Oh, I frequently heard her — my bud Daryl Cooper Ley — one of our mighty Fair Haven bestie kid trio, the second of the three of us, who had passed nearly five years ago. The other, Steph, died suddenly, eight years before her, in 2011.

I was the last one of the trio left. So, yeah, I listened when they sent messages. How could I not? I felt like those two leaving me behind meant that I was destined to be their earthly carrier pigeon. So, I always listened. And I talked back, too.

“Circle? Why? What are you trying to tell me?” I asked. There had been many messages from Daryl before this one that month. I was a bit bombarded, you could say, kinda like that psychic in Ghost. She just wouldn’t shut up. And she was usually the quieter of the two gone — on earth and in the vast universe, too.

“Tell me,” I said to her. “I am always listening to you.” Circle. Circle. Circle. That was the singular word of that ear worm she gently wedged into my hard head. Then she nudged me in one fell swoop that left me gape-mouthed — getting it. As I binge watched a show to try to forget the pain remembrance brought, she knew I wouldn’t forget. In fact, she relentlessly teased me about my crazy good memory. This time, though, she took no chances on any grief respite lapses. Sign after sign from her popped up in an ever so passive, sharp stereo needling.

Needle. One episode opened with her usual song to me. It played and over again … “Say a Little Prayer … for youuuu.” The song didn’t even seem to fully belong in the episode. Needle. In another, a subway made only two stops in vast NYC — the first at where Steph had lived and the second, Daryl’s stop. Needle. In yet another, a medical researcher came close to a cure for pancreatic cancer, the cancer that took her. “I surrender! I know you’re talking to me. I know you’re here,” I said through tears. “What is it?”

Neeeeeedle — hitting the vintage vinyl! Finally, she answered with a song in yet another episode. A new one for us. We always sang songs together, laughed, and finished when we forgot the words with “ladeedoodaaadayyy.” And then it came through. One we’d never sung together or texted to one another. It was that message she really wanted me to hear. There it was. That circle ear worm.

Crackly vinyl spun on an old record player in the episode. It played Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game. Circle. There I had it. “Thanks, Dar,” I said. I didn’t know all the words to this one, though, and our “ladeedoodaaadayyyy” wouldn’t cut it this time.

The melody wouldn’t quit, like her messages. I was transported, captive on that carousel of time and melody alone. The words would come. The moments we’d carefully collected together, colliding small worlds, started spinning all the more. They were captured in our circular world that time had whirled too fast, yet never broke.

In that circle game, she was still there. She had never left. Now her boy was there, spinning in reverse. His round, angelic baby face kept peering at me as I looked back over my shoulder in the dizzying circle. He was giggling, as if to say, “It was all good. Take Mom and me round and round with all of you … forever. We see you. All of you. We always did.” Then came the song’s uncanny lyrics.

That Circle Game song she brought to me, while figurative in meaning, more literally centered on a child, a boy, who sounded just like Coop. A boy who “came out to wonder. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar.” He was fearful of the thunder and “tearful at the falling of a star.”

He was the star that had fallen this time, the beaming light that was him never fizzling out. Even in the darkness, there was light from this star. His mom knew it. She had to. She’s the one who had fed him all that light from the womb — that first insular circle. All the loud noise outside of the circle was booming like that thunder to him — the dragonfly in the jar.

Most outside ignored the loud claps. What Coop heard, though, his artist’s mind saw. He drew it, painted it, and sometimes played it on the piano, because he saw the noise. His vision was linear with movement, like an errant star careening gracefully in its fall. But those out-of-the-box lines of his, they all squiggled back into the circle somehow. The lines twisted and turned, never following a path they didn’t want to take. They just found their way into the circle, where they were meant to be.

And they, with all the moments collected in our connected lives through generations, became the simple beauty of a kid’s spin art — a collision like the star that fell, its light and color bursting but contained to the circle on the square cardboard canvas.

Like his death, it was unpredictable — never what was supposed to be. He never wanted to follow a clear, linear path without diversion, forced into a groove. He left the vision up to the viewer.

He had said it himself …

“I tend to draw lines a lot; more specifically lines that go awry and are alive with some kind of manic energy. I guess this obsession with lines has something to do with an attempt at minimalism, avoiding subjects from reality to represent the
inner workings of the mind.
Now one could say it seems as if this is symbolic of something — it would be of a ‘troubled mind’ or the ‘chaos that lives inside’ or something predictable or obvious of that sort, but why can’t it just be interweaving lines and nothing more? Just ink on paper applied in a certain manner?
I feel like every twist and turn is responsible for provoking a certain emotion or reaction. I enjoy looking at art in this way rather than always trying to figure out what it’s ‘supposed to be,’ but that decision is up to the viewer! Which is fine with me.”

Why, indeed? Why can’t it just be simple, like it was when we were young — at the start of our unbeknownst special circle game?

Because the circle whirls round and round and round like a dervish: Bike rides to lunchtime (a cello and celery stick hors d’oeuvres tossed and in tow), pranks, the shot glass and wreath heist, crushes, the mouse in the bed (don’t ask), celebrations, holidays, subs on the beach, cruising, vetting boyfriends, giving them hell for any hurt, a failed engagement, a reunion and wedding, the stalker car-in-the-ditch incident, break-ups, births, trips to the city with kids and without, our graduations, kids’ graduations, embarrassing our kids, a hand-me-down bearded dragon (Thanks a lot!), dogs and kids on skateboards, our kids in clown wigs selling lemonade, telling on each other, guilt gifts, a Yodel dinner, cruising and singing and mischief making in that Mustang convertible, and dancing from Driftwood to the car to the living room, even the streets, so many firsts, middles and lasts … so many paths. We climbed, fell, slid, danced and crashed so quickly. Traveling up and down those lines.

The life lines had always wildly weaved, converging, trying to squirm into that circle. Each twist and turn in this circle game we skated down so fast, with as much ease as Coop on his board, never flinching.

Provoked by the emotion in each line’s twist and turn, Coop looked very hard — harder than we ever had — at the lines that contorted ever so beautifully. He saw. He shared until he could no longer see, but left behind every vision he had. We all looked so hard into the “not supposed to be” of his tragic passing that we couldn’t see, either.

It was only a blink we took when we were his age. It seemed like he had just arrived for this new life chapter, his mom pregnant with him when she was just a little older than he was when he died. Back then, we were skating those life lines with his ease on the pavement. We never even thought to look very hard. We blinked. That was all it took. Then the book was slammed shut. The end for her? For him? How could it be? That little baby boy in our circle game was gone.

After 30 years, there was nothing left of him but the circle-of-life moments, the doodles carefully scribbled, the penned thoughts, the perfected and imperfect pieces of artwork, the worn, adorned skateboards. It was an awful lot, really. Swirling thoughts, energy that would not leave that continuous path — round and round and round it goes.

The circle, though, he knew would never crack open. It would continue to spin, capturing each crooked line he drew and skated, tumbling all the eternal microcosmic moments in which his short life had touched someone, handing them down to the next who’d run round and round with them.

The time had come to say a ceremonious goodbye. But is it ever really goodbye? In an endless rolling funeral tide, tossing in that circle were pictures, art, grief, even smiles from so many for having been touched, even just once, by this brilliant, talented young man.

Young man. Yet, I, looking so hard, could still only see that one little face. The one with the searing, happy blue eyes, precious Jack-o-Lantern smile topped with tussled blonde locks. The toddler who eagerly listened to “words like ‘when you’re older” and those “promises of someday (that) make his dreams.” There was that eternal little boy.

The one I had so carefully, unknowingly tucked away, swaddled, in my much younger mind — just like his mother had ever so lovingly wrapped him in her arms, blanketed him with love and tucked her second born in for a cozy, ever so safe sleep every day. She had always had her arms extended to him, wrapped around him. Until she didn’t. She couldn’t. She was gone. The reach, the embrace stayed, though. I felt her reaching for him and holding him tighter than ever this time.

Since I heard that the boy I knew as Cooper Ley was tucked safely in for the last time on Jan. 11, my mind, that picture in its forefront, wandered, collecting moments like big hugs from more than 50 years of those circle snippets, starting with his mom, the little girl I first met at 12. Pigtails, bandaged knees and a culprit moped all wrapped up in a feisty kid — meandering along those squiggly paths wherever life took her, kid angst and comedy, adult tears, laughter and mayhem laced with a lot of love at every turn. Walking those rigid lines? Na. “Circle, my friend. Circle.” They don’t fit into the circle.

Yes, Cooper knew the circle game better than most. He said it himself. And we should listen for the circle game’s sake. It’s “up to the viewer!” not what it’s “supposed to be.”

That’s just it. We don’t have to figure out what’s supposed to be when it comes to the circle game, Coop. It’s the one thing that, as you liked to think, needn’t be forced into what was supposed to be. It just was. Worked out that way. Beautifully. The circle was no coincidence. It was fate. It was connection. It was carrying on … and on.

The circle. It’s never broken. Leonard Cohen’s quote in Anthem talks about the light seeping through the cracks of the broken. The natural state of broken beauty. Hope in the light, despite flaws.

What if the light stayed eternally wrapped in a warm, glowing circle of sunshine? The imperfect perfect connections, fractured and whole, swirling clockwise and counter clockwise to pick up some pieces of the past to carry them with us to the next rotation — slipping back a little, then rocking and spinning forward, sometimes terrifyingly so. Never broken. Only whole. The circle, it keeps twirling in the universe, knowing we’ve been together before and we’ll be together again. It can’t be helped.

That sledge hammer keeps walloping us with the pain it inflicts each time we remember that we can never again see them in person again, hug them, walk with them hand-in-hand, trip and fall with them, hoot and holler with them, make a little mischief with them, laugh and cry the hardest we’ve ever laughed or cried with them, sing that “ladeedoodadayyy” with them … and dance … round and round and round.

But we can. Every time we take a spin in that circle we can — whiplashed looking back.

“And they tell him take your time. It won’t be long now ’til you drag your feet to slow the circles down” until “it’s over,” like the Boz Scaggs song we sang together as teens. Or is it? And the old, worn record starts spinning in its own circle game, skipping over those deep scratches in the ’70s vinyl grooves, yet always making it round and round and round. “Best of friends never part … part … part …”

And somewhere a mom lets go of a tiny hand. A baby named Cooper stands for the first time and dances in a dizzying, giggly, cackling twirl — round and round and round.

Tom, Ads, Ben and Becca and all the Coopers and Leys with whom we’ve circle gamed: We hope you’ll keep dancing, twirling and careening down those crooked lines with us in the circle game we’ve been so lucky to be in together for so many years. We love you … more.

Now, play that record … (Click on either image below).