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)

 

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.

 

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.

 

Darlin’, you’re the best

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Alas, here it is, the post I knew I’d someday write and yet never really believed I’d have to.

My little guy has gone to the great dog park in the sky, where he will find all the tennis balls, cookies, and people-who-give-him-just-enough-but-not-too-much attention his heart desires.

Louie Louie Louie … my sweet little babushka boy, the spy who loved me. That was one of the songs I used to sing to him, that and “Girls” by the Beastie Boys.

I suppose I should tell the story of Lou and me. Here’s where you learn what a horrid, unethical, fake-animal-loving person I used to be … I got him at a pet store. I know, I know, but I didn’t know then, and I was 31 and grieving and of COURSE I would do things differently now, were I to acquire another animal, but I have zero regrets about how it went down because Lou and I were meant to hang out for 16 years. One-third of my life thus far.

Here’s what happened. I have to back track a little to June of 2002, when six of my girlfriends were pregnant at the same time—’twas the season—and while I had always feared the physicality of childbirth, I’d also always kind of assumed I’d be a mom someday because that’s what women do. So I’d started to research international adoption, which freaked my mom out a bit at the time, but as I explained then, it wasn’t as though I was going to make a rash decision about adopting a kid. I was merely researching. I mean, I pretty much knew how the getting pregnant and having a kid thing worked, so I figured it made sense to learn this method of motherhood as well.

And then the unthinkable happened. What was then the unthinkable, anyway, and is now clearly possible. My friend Laura died in childbirth. And though I’d suffered losses of loved ones before, I’d never experienced anything like that, hearing the message on my answering machine to call Diane back and knowing by the tone of her voice that something wasn’t right, deciding to shower first to stave off the bad information that was trying to find me (a borrowed quote from another tragedy), then crumpling to the ground in tears and shock and disbelief and all those myriad stages of grief that whirl around you like a swarm of gnats and sneak up on you when you think you’re thinking about something else. When you think you’re going to the corner store to buy milk or cigarettes or whatever you buy at the corner store and you wind up livid and in tears. Or when you dream a beautiful dream in which all is right in the world and you’re walking off into the sunset hand in hand with your true love and then you wake to have the anvil of reality plunge to your gut.

So that went on for a couple of months and as I’ve said before, I’m pretty sure I think about Laura on some level every day.

And then one day in mid-August we went out for brunch, a couple of us. I was living on Charles Street at the time, and as we walked down Christopher to meet our friends we passed Urban Pets. It’s no longer there. I glanced in the window and there was a jumble of puppies doing puppy things, all tails and teeth and oversized paws, and there, in the very front of the window, staring out, pleading to be rescued from the mundane mayhem of so many puppies, was this little black foxy thing that reminded me of my childhood German Shepard, Lovable. We went in and inquired about him and learned that he was that newfangled Japanese breed I’d been seeing all over town—which, in fact, is one of the oldest fangled dog breeds around, dating back to many thousand years B.C. and, since 1936, a “precious natural product” of Japan. I held him, all six or seven pounds of him, and asked questions. I still had no idea I was going to be getting a dog, I just knew that I liked holding puppies. I’d been doing a fair amount of that in the aftermath of my friend’s death. It was comforting.

We went to brunch, and on the way back stopped in again for more puppy-holding. The wheels started turning and the then-partner started panicking. Over the next 48 – 72 hours I phoned everyone I knew who had ever owned, walked, or looked at a dog. I wrote lists of pros and cons and realized that not being able to jet off to Tahiti on a moment’s notice had never been an issue, and that having to leave my house every day was a pro.

I lied—I wasn’t living on Charles Street at that point, I was living on 9th.

So I went back and visited him several times and eventually took him home. Before I did they gave me his papers; his parents’ names were Foxy Lady’s Nikki One Leg (dad) and T-Dallas Rebel’s Sungirl (mom). I commented on the names and the man at the shop said, “Well, he came from Nebraska. You know how they are in the south.”

I may have altered those names slightly – I will look at the papers later and edit.

I believe we took Louie home on a Monday, and by Friday he still didn’t have a name. There were several contenders including Hiroshi, which is Japanese for generous. And then one day I realized his name was Louie.

For the first week or two Louie stayed in the bathroom; he could not be coaxed out of his hiding place. I was afraid I’d made a terrible mistake, that this little thing I just wanted to love adamantly refused to let me do so. And then one evening we were watching TV and he came out, sat in the doorway, and stared at us. If you knew Louie, or any Shiba, really, you know that that is the mark of true affection. At long last, I’d earned his trust. And his love.

Louie and I spent almost sixteen years together. He screamed the first time he saw the sunrise, and was elated on his first visit to the sea. We spent a couple of summer vacations on a lake in Maine, and several summers on the beach in Montauk. He’s been to Philadelphia and Baltimore and Sea Isle City and had the opportunity to meet and mingle with the late, great John Barlow at a party in Soho. He loved tennis balls, food, and watching rain fall.

There is so much more to say about Lou, but if I were to say it all this post would never end. I will write more about him, I’m sure of that.

For now I say this: thank you to everyone who was part of Louie’s life, and thank you, sweet Lou, for being my bearcub and lovebug and faithful companion. Keep visiting me in my dreams, dear one.