The bar is called heaven*

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Dear Tom,

At the time that I post this it will be one year since I bought a one-way ticket to Denver to say goodbye to you. It feels like yesterday. It feels like last week.

One of the greatest gifts is that I got to spend such concentrated time with you in the final eight months of your life, and to talk to you openly about mortality and the afterlife. You asked me to help you figure out how you could come back as a benevolent spirit, but I don’t think you need any help. Your energy is palpable to so many of us; you are with us constantly. So many of us have received signs from you in the past 365 days, from Buffalo nickels found on the ground to train whistles piercing our sadness at unexpected times. Songs on the radio (I’ll keep it old-school for you, you who eschewed technology and the rolling suitcase), license plates and graffiti bearing your name, and dreams, so many dreams so vivid they had to be you.

Like every single person who was packed into the Capitol Theatre for your memorial, there are things I miss about you that are specific to us, 25-year-old jokes, shared experiences, and the characters we created. We were Ringley and Laura, star-crossed family friends who wrote letters and postcards to each other as we waited out “that blasted war” in the summer of 1944. We were Smoky and Sweets, the blue-collar 1950s sitcom couple whose every episode ended with an adorable mishap. And we were us, the real us, you who saved me from a runaway horse in Half Moon Bay, who invited me right back into the fold whenever I felt I had been ousted. So many adventures, and so many meals. Dining with you was one of the great pleasures of my life.

That you gave me such a prominent seat at your table in your final months is something that will forever impact me. It was an honor and a privilege to be by your side when I could. It was a different version of our friendship, to be sure, and it wasn’t always easy, but it was always important. It was doctors’ appointments and procedures and efforts to eat more healthily and to dial it back on the evenings out. It was Laverne and Shirley marathons and meals of pierogis and kielbasa—occasionally, and always followed by those healthy shakes in the morning. It was big “family” dinners surrounded by puppies. It was a visit to Cheyenne to tour the steam shop, and a Kentucky Derby party that turned out to be a crawfish boil. It was trips to Ace Hardware—my goodness you loved that place—to make your home more beautiful. I have your phone, and I found a picture you took of me on your back porch after we hung those lights. I love this picture. 

There was so much laughter in those final months. And there were a fair amount of tears. Yet you never complained, never bemoaned your fate, you who comforted the woman on the bike next to you in physical therapy by pretending you were riding through Paris together. I know you had regrets, we talked about them, but I think that you ultimately died as you lived some of the best parts of your life, surrounded by friends and music and beauty and love—including the love of a beautiful woman to whom I will always be grateful. The sun setting on the Rockies, John playing guitar, all of us holding you and loving you as you took your final breaths. To say I am profoundly shaped by that experience would not do it justice. 

*Do you remember all of us singing this song in your hospital room? It was late Friday night. It was your last party on earth. I’m certain there are many, many more wherever it is that you are now.

A few weeks after you left us I had dinner with Erik and Gib and we talked about our TVaught-inspired goals for the next year. I said that one of mine was to finally finish my book and I said I’d aim to do so by your birthday. Gib suggested I aim instead for the anniversary, as that was likely more doable. He was right.  I’ve just sent out my first couple of queries. It is out of my hands now. I know you’d be proud of me.

In our final phone conversation, the Monday before, when you were getting ready to have surgery, we talked about how we’d visit New Orleans together once you got better and find me a little house to be my writing retreat. You named it the Jewel Box and in it you designed a sunken living room—my writing room—which you named “The Cat’s Paw” because it would be, somehow, shaped like one. When I showed up at the hospital four days later, I leaned in to say hello to you, and you opened your eyes briefly and said my name and smiled. And then you mumbled something about a cat. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized what you were probably talking about. 

If I am to believe that you are around still, and I do, then you also bore witness to the upheaval your death brought to all of us. You saw the unraveling of relationships that were held together by a bond that you created. You saw the wheels come off as we grappled with our collective identity. In your absence, some of these longstanding connections no longer made sense. And that is okay. 

But oh, that memorial. What a beautiful, perfect event that was. And on that day, none of those differences or conflicts mattered; all that mattered was you.

When you came to New York in July, over lunch we talked about your timeline. You said, “I don’t want to die around the holidays and ruin them for everyone. But then after the new year things are already kind of depressing so I don’t want to do it then.” At the time we had no reason to think things would take such a sharp turn. At the time I said, “I was at those doctor’s appointments with you—you’re not leaving us any time soon!” And I truly believed that. And now here it is, your anniversary, November 3. How fitting, somehow, days after Halloween and the Day of the Dead. It will never be “fitting” that you are gone, but within the confines of that brutal reality, the time of year you chose makes some sort of sense. 

Alas, my love, there will never be a way to end this letter that feels “enough”. And I talk to you constantly, you’re with me constantly, so ending this letter isn’t all that consequential. But I wanted to write it to mark this day. I recognize the irony in writing about you on that newfangled internet thing, but just as you are still with us on an alternate plane, perhaps these words will find their way onto parchment and into your hands.

You know that I love you, and I think you know how deeply I appreciate you. You continue to inspire and influence me in the most beautiful ways. Thank you for that.

Always,

Laura (Sweets)

 

As time goes by

It’s the first day of 2019 and I realize that I am carrying a lot over from the year that’s passed. Of course I am; two of the magnificent male presences in my life left us in 2018. I’m not comparing them; the losses are entirely different, yet there will always be a connection. The first time I visited with Tom post-diagnosis, one night I got a little teary and said, “I’m sorry—for some reason I’m really missing Lou right now,” and he said, “Of COURSE you are! How could you not be! He was a huge part of your life for 16 years.” He got it, and I didn’t need to feel self-conscious mourning my dog in front of a man whose mortality had recently become fact. Later that night, after he’d gone to bed, I sat in my room and sobbed, about Louie, about Tom, about everything and everyone I’ve lost and will lose. At this point in our lives grief is cumulative, though each and every occasion that dredges it up is entirely new.

Perhaps one of the things that helped Tom cope with the end of his days on earth is the fact that he, like me, chose to believe in an afterlife, chose to believe that this is not all there is. Chose to believe that, as he said, he could come back and “haunt” us as a benevolent spirit. And in my estimation, he’s doing a fine job of this.

It could all be coincidence. I know that.

The other night we were out to dinner and I was wearing one of Tom’s scarves around my neck. My mom  commented on it and mentioned its provenance to my dad, and we had the briefest of conversations about the sartorial splendor of Tom Vaught. I realized I was on the verge of crying and so I turned away, fooling no-one,  and in that moment, in a restaurant in Paris that had been playing jazz, a Grateful Dead song came on. Just one, and just then.

It could all be coincidence and in that case, what a joyful and comforting coincidence it was.

I am in Paris where I spent Christmas and celebrated my birthday and now the New Year. I was not meant to arrive until this past Friday, the 28, but a last-minute glitch in the plans of other family members compelled me to reroute and come straight here to spend the holiday with my folks. And I am so very, very grateful that I was able to; we had a lovely time, and most important is that we were together. I am still here for another week+ and while at first two weeks felt quite daunting, now it feels like barely enough. I’d lost sight of how much I love this beautiful city, and of how different it is once you figure out how NOT to eat every meal and drink every coffee in a restaurant, and how NOT to feel compelled to do something rich and cultural every day. Sometimes just sitting still in a place helps you to embrace it.

Someone asked me today if I make New Year’s resolutions, and my answer is that I do not. I make goals. This time of year is a conflation of events for me – my birthday is right before the new year, and the Western new year is followed by the Chinese one which, culturally, has always played a role in my life. Rather than make resolutions that I can break and restart, I set goals; that they are often the same from year to year (finish my book and exercise more) is not the point. Goals not met can be aimed for anew, while an unmet resolution challenges the veracity of one’s word. So among my goals for this year: to once again and finally finish my book, to record some songs, to spend more time writing and less time wasting it. And many, many others that you don’t need to read about.

I made some mistakes in 2018, took some enormous missteps, and so another one of my goals ties into this. It’s certainly not to learn to forgive myself—I’m very good at this—it’s to arrive at a profound understanding of how and why I’ve taken these missteps in the first place. In starting to write about Tom, I’ve inadvertently started to study this. I don’t know that my writing about Tom (beyond what I’ve posted publicly) will be seen by eyes other than mine, but it is serving many purposes.

I have two incredible muses now. Two more.

And so while I start this year with a huge hole in my heart, with an aching for one being to whom I knew I’d someday say goodbye and from whom I was not at all prepared to part, and with another who I somehow always expected would be out there somewhere, I embrace the changes that have been foisted upon me and those which I’ve set into motion.

I love you Louie. I love you Tom. I love you 2019; I will take a cue from Tom and find significance in every day.

 

When there was no dream of mine you dreamed of me

It’s been 43 days since my friend died, and the grief has ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. In the past 72 hours it has been quite pronounced, and its rawness has been intensified by other aspects of Life.

And this is to be expected; this is the process of grief. This weekend, tears that I hadn’t been able to conjure at times that it made sense to cry have been readily available, and at times it feels as though they might never stop.

But they will, and they’ll start again, and they’ll stop again. And new reasons to grieve will emerge and all the tears that I feel for all the people and situations I’ve lost will commingle. All the regrets (I try very hard not to regret but at times it is simply unavoidable) and all the lost promises and all the things I didn’t say when I had the chance to say them will flow from my eyes and swirl around my heart. And this will feel at times suffocating and at times cathartic. I’m not afraid of crying, I’m afraid of not being able to stop, and somehow, always, I manage to.

At dinner a few weeks ago my lovely Lata asked me what quality I think is the most important a person can possess. I landed on compassion, and she asked me to write a post about it. So here it is, sweet friend, wrapped up in sentences about grief and love and whatever else I wind up adding before I am through.

According to Merriam-Webster, compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

I’ve been told many times that my desire to alleviate others’ distress comes at a cost. That I sacrifice myself, or those who need me most. That I soak up too much pain and sadness. A friend told me yesterday that I put everyone else’s needs before my own. And while I understand where this “concern” comes from, I disagree. At times I can be quite selfish, but I also know that I have the bandwidth to attend to the needs of many. We all do, we don’t all have the time or energy to put in. For me, it’s survival; I do not want to go to my grave (decades and decades from now, God willing) wishing I had been more supportive and understanding toward the people I love. And I love many people. I may not have the strongest conventional work ethic, I may not always do the right thing, I may be short-tempered and make questionable personal choices at times, but my love is real.

Having the opportunity to share in the last eight months of Tom’s life was the greatest honor I’ve had in my almost-48 years. Holding his hand at the end of his life was the most profound moment I’ve yet to experience. And while I am gutted that he is gone, I am grateful that he let me in when he needed me. I’m also grateful for the decades of laughter and music and joy that preceded his diagnosis. And he was there for me when I needed him. Every time I checked in over the last eight months, via text he’d ask “And how are YOU?” and on the phone he’d want to know what was happening in my world, and he’d ask me to give his love to my family. And he meant it.

If I have missed my marks in exercising compassion toward you, any of you, I am sorry.

And to those of you who do let me in, and who do let me try my best to alleviate distress, thank you. Because doing so helps me to feel like the best version of who I can be. It feels like one of the reasons I was brought into this world.

How I miss you, my friend. So very much.

He’s told us not to blow it, ’cause he knows it’s all worthwhile

At the time that I am starting to write this it has been two weeks and about 15 hours since my friend Tom took his final breath. I’m not sure when or if I’ll finish this, because I do not know that I will find the right words.

I have known Tom for more than half of my life and the experiences that we’ve shared run the gamut from weddings to funerals, from horseback riding in Half Moon Bay to touring the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne. Music, food, New Year’s eves, New Year’s days, birthday parties,  bachelorettes—he was the masked, silent bartender at a bachelorette weekend on Fire Island in the summer of 2001. When I first moved back from San Francisco we went to brunch. Ten hours later we were watching exotic dancers, he in a fake mustache and me in cat ears. It was never boring, it was never mundane, there was an element of adventure to our every encounter. A flair for if not breaking the rules, then seeing how far we could bend them. There was laughter, so much laughter, and there were tears.

Today is Thanksgiving. I am grateful for many things, for many people. I am grateful for the fact that I can start to put into words some of the many lessons that I learned from Tom. Among them, to make every day matter. Tom had bad days, but I don’t think he ever had insignificant ones. He surrounded himself with amazing friends of all stripes and among the many beautiful things about him, he saw each and every one of us. He had a unique relationship with each and every one of us, a trove of shared memories and experiences and in-jokes. He made every one of us feel, on some level, invincible. He believed in us, sometimes more than we believe in ourselves.

He died surrounded by love and surrounding us with love, and I take comfort in that.

Grief is a strange and mercurial beast. Those stages don’t show up in the order you expect them to. I have had a ton of love and support in the past almost-three weeks as I’ve begun the daunting task of navigating my own, and of trying to be strong for the many, many people in my life who are grieving too. Tom had the ability to create memories with his friends of five decades and with people he met once. The second to last time I was visiting with him we sat down at a bar to have lunch. He got up to take a call and the bartender asked me who my friend was and whether he was an artist. I said yes—he said, “He looks like someone who creates really cool things.”

Indeed, he was.

To be continued. My love to you all.

 

As time goes by

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I uploaded several black cat photos before choosing this one. I’m not really a Cat Person (allergies and such) but I do love the look of them. This is one of the many I’ve seen in New Orleans, and (s)he seemed appropriate for today.

Today is Halloween, which means that the rest of the year is around the corner. I’m generally loathe to lament the passage of time—like the weather, it seems a futile thing to complain about—but at this point in the year it’s difficult not to notice. I thought of a metaphor this morning. I was a fairly clumsy child; it was not uncommon for me to take the first three-quarters of the staircase in my childhood home at a steady clip, and then inadvertently speed up and run/trip down the last few steps. This seems an apt comparison for the pace of the years … we move along through the first many months, summer comes and goes, we start to embrace autumn and then BAM! it’s Halloween, and immediately after we prep for Thanksgiving, and then the holiday season. And this year we have the added seasonal pressure of midterm elections, the results of which so crucially impact this country that it’s hard to breathe in anticipation. If you are reading this and are NOT planning to vote, you are a big part of the reason we got to this point in the first place. You don’t have to share my political views (though today we are far beyond politics and into the basics of humanity), but for the love of all that is sacred, please vote.

I digress.

Someone asked me what my favorite Halloween costumes were when I was a kid and I couldn’t really think of any. We have photos, of course, so I remember being a prom queen (I was about eight years old and in the photo I’m holding my middle finger to the camera. Delightful child I was.), a movie star,  Cleopatra—that was one of my favorites. But the one that’s really coming to mind is a princess, when I was three or four. Not because of what princesses represented—I don’t think I was cognizant of that, and we weren’t inundated with Belle and Jasmine and all the rest—but because the costume was pretty and shiny and I liked those things. Of course, it being the 70s in the suburbs of New York, no costume was complete without the requisite long pants and down jacket. A kindler, gentler, colder time.

I’ve been having conversations lately about how much Manhattan has changed, how much “better” it was before (speaking strictly of the logistics of living on and getting around the isle; state of the world notwithstanding, I like my life these days). This morning my Lyft driver said that people have told him the city is much more crowded than it used to be and I said that yes, it seems that way, and that I think I preferred the way things were in the past.  He said,  “Oh, like in 2013?” Thanks to good genes (and Botox and hair dye), I don’t think he realized that no, I meant more like 1993. Which lead me to the realization that my satisfaction living here is probably as much a product of my age as it is anything else. Yes, it’s more crowded, institutions are closing, rents are increasing, but that was happening back then too. Back then I was part of the crowded, and part of the new guard that had moved in. I was hanging out in packed bars in the east village and waiting on line for brunch (actually I pretty much avoided that then, too). It was easy to be 23, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

And still, I wouldn’t trade the wisdom and the experiences, good, bad, and ugly, that have led me to this point. It helps to be one of those weirdos who believes in a master plan and an afterlife.

Speaking of both, I spent last week in my beloved New Orleans on what turned into a fairly successful creative retreat. I spent my days writing and my evenings with friends and it was delightful. It was my first trip there this year and I’m glad I  made it in time to celebrate the city’s 300th birthday.

This is a photo from a year or two ago, in the séance room at Muriel’s. It is in this room that Antoine, the resident ghost, allegedly took his life after losing the building (which was his home) in a poker game.

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Happy Halloween!

VOTE.

Glad you came along

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Trigger warning: this post is about 9-11 and love and loss. 

Dear J,

Tomorrow morning it will be seventeen years since you died. How unbelievable that seems right now. I think about the events that took your life nearly every day, and yet it still surprises me every year when the emotion and sadness creep up on me.

I remember the first time I saw you and the last. Both times you were playing music, you, the self-described “mediocre bass player.” The bass remains my favorite instrument. The last time I saw you I met your wife and your little boy—I’m not sure your daughter was born yet, though of course I saw her at your memorial. They were beautiful children and from what I’ve ascertained through Facebook, they are beautiful adults.

Of course they are. You were a beautiful, kind soul. Too kind for me, which is probably why our romance was so brief; I was in my early 20s and not yet ready for someone quite as decent as you. And of course we didn’t last so that you could get together with and marry your wife and create those beautiful kids.

I remember the holiday party after you died, when the band sat and played an acoustic set and there was an empty chair for you. I remember the next morning—I’d stayed over at Sean and Ivy’s—Sean was making breakfast and singing along to the song “Santeria”, and so that song will forever remind me of you.

I hadn’t realized you’d switched jobs, and so I didn’t know where you were working until Sean called to tell me you’d not been found. I don’t know how this has never occurred to me before, but I wonder, when I was at the site giving food to the rescue workers three days later, so close that we could feel the buildings still smoldering, I wonder how far away from me you were.

I remember when you were found.

Legend has it that your last words were, “OH FUCK”.  I can still conjure your voice and hear you say that.

I didn’t visit Ground Zero again until last June, when my friend came to town from New Orleans. This is a friend who, like me, knows that there is an afterlife. As soon as we got off the subway, she became overwhelmed with emotion. We walked around for a bit and I didn’t expect I’d find your name and then there it was.

I remember the first time we met up on purpose and Laura Martin was there. I have long imagined that you and Laura Martin spend time together wherever it is that you are now, and when my Louie died in March I comforted myself by visualizing the three of you as a makeshift family.

I remember our first date.

The title of this post is from the song “Here Today,” which Paul McCartney wrote about his dear friend John Lennon.

I’m a very different person today than I was when we were friends. I’m much more sure of myself. I know who I am, though I’m still a work in progress. You and my man would get along well. I know you would.

It’s raining tonight, not like it was on your last night on earth, because that was quite a deluge. But it’s raining enough to remind me.

At the tenth anniversary your mom remarked that she fantasizes that you’ve flown to Hawaii and are living there happily. We are contemplating a trip there in January; maybe I’ll see you.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, know that you are missed and loved by many. You were a prince among men. And an excellent friend.

I leave you with this verse written by another friend whom I know you would love:

In the blinking of an eye, soon everything will change

From a clear September sky, the brimstone falls like rain.

If true love soars the heavens, pretend and we can fly.

Soon everything will change, my love, in the blinking of an eye.*

Until we meet again-

L

*Poetry by Neil Thomas

 

Sing with me

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Woke at 4AM to inebriated neighbor lamenting loudly on her rented deck that she doesn’t know “how he expects [her] to pay for it!” and kindly asked her—kindly but sharply—to keep her voice down. LB 2.0 asked much more kindly than the older model might have, and it worked, but the damage was done.

I saw a sticker the other night that said, “Make Montauk Less Great Again,” by which they mean bring us back to the days when it was a rustic, salty fishing and surfing town whose character couldn’t be compromised by the influx of people who come to admire its beauty every summer. I’ve been coming here for a couple of decades and though technically “part of the problem,” I, too, remember fondly the days before it became what it is today. I never came here for “the scene.” Then again, I’ve never really gone anywhere for “the scene” except maybe Café Tabac in the early-mid ’90s, and even then I was a spectator on the periphery. And what a periphery it was.

I digress. I huffed back into the room and declared that I’d be unable to fall back asleep to which B mumbled, “Count something.” I got to 5 and decided to switch to letters, which are much more my thing.

When I’m lying in bed in a state of insomnia and trying not to let my mind wander too far I play alphabet games, things like, “People in my life, excluding family and partner: Ana, Brian, Claudia, Delene, Erika, Francesca—does it count if I only see her once a year?—Gary, Hannah …” and so on. Or I’ll do “Things that have been part of my life in the past year: Asanas, Bottino, Cinema, Dogs, Exercise, French, Gingold Group, Hawaii (see: possible plans to visit) …” like that. Or I’ll do exercises like, “Alan Alda, Bryan Batt, Carol Channing … and then get to Don Draper/Dirk Diggler and my thoughts will become consumed with figuring out the rules of the game and I’ll have to change course.

In any event, I finally fell back asleep and in so doing got lost on my way to an Aretha Franklin tribute and wound up spending a confusing but manageable weekend at a retreat on the newly renovated grounds of the house where I grew up. Then Amy Schumer and I tried to pull a fast one on an alleged guru she’d met at my grandpa’s funeral in 1992.

Sorry, Other-Peoples’-Dreams detractors, I came in through the out door with that one.

For the first time maybe ever I find myself comparing the merits of frequent shorter posts to occasional longer ones. In all likelihood this won’t be an issue once I’m back from vacation. If you care to opine, you are welcome to.

Thank you, neighbor, for honoring my request. Thank you, coffee, for being strong.