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)

 

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

 

In the secret space of dreams

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Yesterday’s beach plans were thwarted as we neglected to check the horsefly index. They had commandeered our stretch of sand and were relentless, so we spent the day inside and reemerged before sundown to hear live music and watch the changing view above.

Went to bed early and woke in the inky darkness. It was windy and the doors were creaking (it’s just the house settling, Jan) and the place felt heavy with spirit. I lay awake for hours in my fear-of-darkness.

Just as I wrote those words, “The Sound of Silence” came on:

 

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping.

 

Exactly, fellas.

I fell back asleep as it started to get light again, and then the birds outside our windows began cawing.

This all seemed a great big, universal reminder that we are the new kids on this planet. The horseflies, the birds, the sharks, they were all here first. And we’ve come along and, in a very short time—because we are, by and large, quite intelligent—invented things that make our lives easier and theirs more confusing.

I’ve seen one firefly this summer.

All creatures great and small. Remember that series? I read a bunch of those books when I was young.

I lost the thread of what I was going to write about. There was one.

I’ve been keeping morning pages again, since August 12, and I’m reminded of what a valuable exercise this is. I highly recommend it—it’s a great way to clear the night and kick off the day. You do not have to be an experienced writer to benefit; you just have to have pen, paper and a mind.

One thing they’ve helped me do this time around is remember my dreams. If you’re one of the myriad people who find other peoples’ dreams boring, skip to the last paragraph.

I go through phases with dreams, thematically. For many years I had the recurring one where I’m giving someone a tour of my house and at the last moment discover, or remember, a hidden room that is much larger and more opulent then the rest. A room that is under-utilized.

There was a dream bar I frequented, located in an amalgam of the East Village, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Paris. It had two rooms and live music.

For a fairly long stretch my dreams involved global travel, the kind where I could walk from London to Indonesia to Cameroon and back.

And lately they’ve involved time travel. Never future, always past, and often I am self-conscious about the access I have to technology. Last night I followed a friend into a nightclub in 1978, and it was large and dimly lit and I lost track of her. I realized I had no way to get in touch with her because cell phones wouldn’t work in that space or year.

I think I just found the thread—the technology conundrum. The fact that the animals were here first (most of them). The experience, last night, of being in this beautiful outdoor space with beautiful live music, surrounded by people texting and Instagram-ing and Checking In.

Yes, yes, I recognize that I am pointing these things out via WordPress and The Facebook and on my laptop computer. I’m not judging; technology is important. I’m just advocating for a little more analog in this digital world we’ve so deftly created.

Write something by hand. Watch the band with your eyes and ears. Have three-dimensional relationships and experiences. These, my friends, are the most important things.

 

Miss you madly

14242298_10154583411129903_3896810798605348294_oIt’s been a long time without you my friend … this is a kind of grief with which I am unfamiliar, familiar as I may be with grief itself. This one keeps sneaking up on me. As I write this I am sitting with Louie’s (c)remains, which were given to me in a vessel that looks like a cross between a humidor and a mahogany butter dish.

I miss the weight of him, the velvet ears, the love of coffee (I never gave him his own cup, but he often pursued mine), the dream noises and snorting noises and sighing and everything else. I miss this guy.

As with so many things, I spent the first part of my post-Louie time making sure those around me who loved him – and there are many – were okay. It hit me hugely when I was in Colorado visiting this guy. I sat in my bedroom there and wept – actually wept – for the first time since Louie died, and it was cathartic and necessary and I’m not done.

My friend in Colorado is facing mortality and knows that I’m a believer in the afterlife. He’s asked me to help him gather info and so I am talking to mediums I know and reading books. Very early this morning when I couldn’t sleep I read a chapter about communicating with our departed loved ones and lovingly asking them to send us signs and I kid you not, my door opened a bit, as though Louie were nudging it open with his legendary snout.

Or maybe, Marcia, it was the house settling.

 

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez

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I was thinking about travel songs because I’ve been thinking about travel and that one popped into my head—though if I understand it correctly it’s about an extremely ill-fated trip. It’s a great song, and I went through a phase somewhere around 2003 of listening to Bob Dylan’s and Nina Simone’s versions back to back, along with a somewhat random assortment of other songs that were part of my greatest hits collection during that stretch. Nick Cave’s “He Wants You”, Marlene Dietrich’s “I May Never Go Home Anymore”, Tom Waits’ “Old Shoes and Picture Postcards” were all on that soundtrack. Along with many others that will come to mind as soon as I hit “Publish.”

I got to travel a bit last weekend, a long weekend in Florida where we lay on the beach and floated in the gulf and it had been a while since I’d done either, particularly the latter. Sometimes, often, you don’t realize how much you need to get out of New York until you get out of New York. On the one hand, stepping outside of your life can help you to appreciate it; on the other hand, New York is a really effing hard place to be. It is also a really exciting and interesting place where the vast majority of my friends and family live. Now that dog care is no longer an issue—and you know I would trade the freedom for more time with Louie in a heartbeat—but given the confines of my reality, I am realistically fantasizing about leaving town for an extended period of time. Not six months—but a couple of weeks feels like just what the doctors have ordered.

I feel like New York has a way of deciding who you are and what your life will be like without your having as much say in the matter as you might elsewhere.

We sat in the exit row on the way down to Florida, and it occurred to me that I should be more vigilant about knowing who is in the exit row on future flights, for they have the power to hinder or expedite my slide to safety.

I’ll be traveling again the week after next, to Colorado, to see Tom. I don’t have any idea what this trip will be like but I am grateful that it will be, period. There was a time quite recently when early-May seemed an impossibly long way off.

At the office today, three people asked me how Louie was doing. I’d kind of assumed everybody there, and in my building, knew—but this was not the case. B and I have fantasies that Louie is hanging out with the Roosevelts; not sure where this came from, but it fits.

The photo above is from last summer, Louie’s last trip to Montauk with us. I don’t think his death had really hit me for the first couple of weeks—something about being present for it, maybe. Or about the enormity of his spirit. I’ve hung out with him many times in my dreams since he died. “He died” sounds so very strange, and was made much clearer a few hours after I landed in Florida, when I got a message from his vet’s office—his vet is wonderful and most of the people who work there are too, but this message came from one of the front desk people who is not the most delicate or empathic.

Picture (aurally) this in a New York accent:

Hi Laura, it’s xxxx calling from West Chelsea Veterinary Hospital. Just letting you know that Louie’s cremains are in, so if you want to pick them up we’re open from 8AM to 7PM. 

I guess this means he’s never really coming back except in “cremain” form. Cremain, criminy, craisin, Crimea … I miss that boy.

Much more to say, must go to sleep. If you knew Lou, look for him in your dreams. He’s around.