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.

 

Here by the sea and sand, nothing ever goes as planned

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Beautiful lyrics, not entirely true. There are some things you can count on. The ocean will amaze you. The sand will be soft and cool enough that you won’t think about it beyond its inconvenience when you’re washing off. Despite your great efforts—even better than last year’s—you will inevitably miss a spot with your SPF 9000*, and that spot will worry you for several days. It’s the end of August and the seagulls will be behemoths who hover overhead in order to steal your first-born and your snacks. You will marvel at the ocean, and you’ll fear its power and its contents, and you’ll wish the latter were not true. You’ll stand in its shallow surf and see things that are not there, fins of things you don’t understand who can do to you things you don’t want to think about. You’ll watch your darling companion, your fearless prince, go out deep into the waters and you’ll tell yourself he knows what he’s doing. A wave will hit, he’ll disappear from sight, and you’ll realize that he’s gone forever. You’ll wonder how you’ll get the car home in your grief and with your fear of driving. He’ll re-emerge and you’ll pretend you’d never thought those things. You’ll look for sea glass and not find it, you’ll find sea glass when you’re not looking.

You’ll wonder why you ever spend time anywhere but here.

I am in Montauk, one of the places in my heart. Tonight we looked at the night sky, saw constellations, planets, planes, satellites—satellites move in slower, calmer, eerier trajectories than most things in the night—and in the stars I saw my Louie’s face. So clearly. And probably, it was not him. And maybe it was.

I prefer to believe in the possibility of magic. I prefer not to assume that this is all we have.

Happy end of summer, my friends. I am sentimental and optimistic and exactly where I need to be. I wish for you the same.

*PSA – wear sunscreen, and get yourself checked, every year or more, for a skin cancer screening.

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.

 

One brief shining moment

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The lyric above is from Camelot, whose second definition in Merriam-Webster is “a time, place, or atmosphere of idyllic happiness.” The photo above is from sunset at the Montauket in Montauk, NY—which is one of my Camelots. You get there before the sun has begun its descent and take a spot on the fence looking out at the water, sip your wine, ignore everyone around you except the person you’re with, and revel in the melancholy and beauty of some of life’s most perfect sunsets.

A good friend of mine—a good friend of many—thought he was going to Chicago last weekend and wound up learning that he has Stage 4 prostate cancer that has metastasized into his bones. I have experienced Camelot many times with this friend, in hot tubs in Napa Valley and cabins in Vermont, in long, leisurely lunches all over Manhattan and late nights spent telling stories and creating characters and living life. In 1998 at a restaurant in northern California three of us (this friend included) came across the words “If not now, when shall we live?”  imprinted on the menu, and this became a motto for us, one we’ve repeated many time in the decades since. One that my friend embodies, sometimes to the detriment of rest and restoration, and that has enabled him to build an incredibly large makeshift family all over the country and throughout the world. This has led, in the past seven days, to an outpouring of love and support so strong and so vast that it’s hard to keep up. And this is good. This is what he needs, this is what we, his terrified and saddened friends, need for him. This will work in his favor, as will the excellent medical care he’s receiving and the indomitable joie de vivre that is his core.

He has not had an easy life—none of us has—but that it should end this way seems impossible to me. And so I take my cues from someone who is with him right now, thousands of miles away, and who is certain that this is not the end. At all.

I’ve been asked to be part of the team who will, over the next couple of months, go out and visit in a caregiver capacity, taking him to appointments, tending to his needs, which remain to be seen, I imagine cooking and cleaning and all of the things that help life to function. And most important to me, spending time with my friend. Talking, laughing, reminiscing, and working toward conquering this thing we are determined he conquer.

There is a Go Fund Me set up to offset some of the cost of Having Cancer in America. As I cannot seem to link to it without linking to my personal profile on Go Fund Me, please let me know via message or comment or however you choose if you would like to contribute. Five dollars, five thousand dollars, every bit, as you know, counts.

As I said to a friend, one of the hardest parts of this past seven days has been that everyone found out at different times and so I had the opportunity to witness each stage of grief all day every day. For me Sunday was shock, Monday was grief, and slowly I’ve started to figure out my role here, which is strength and support and taking care of myself so that, when needed, I can help take care of others. I have my own tiny makeshift family here in Chelsea who deserve my attention right now and who have been wonderfully supportive.

The grief I speak about is grief that we must watch our friend go through this. I am choosing optimism and so I choose to believe that this is the beginning of a new version of life for my friend and, by extension, for many of us.

We’ve got this, dear one. I’ll see you in May.

 

 

In the secret space of dreams

IMG_0147.jpgThis post’s title is from “Attics of my Life” by the Grateful Dead, a song that will forever remind me of a very poignant and emotional time in my life, coming up on its 20th anniversary at the end of this month.

Next year, as has been well-publicized in the past couple of days, will mark the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, and while I needn’t point out the obvious, as this blog will live in cyberspace indefinitely, I will: this past Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, saw another massacre at a high school carried out because a young man had access to an assault rifle. This time it was in Parkland, Florida, which happens to be the home of one of my oldest, dearest childhood friends. I contacted her as soon as I heard the news, and she was on her way to the school to pick up her daughter, who survived the carnage and was barricaded in a classroom.

Conflicting reports list the number of shootings at schools since 2018 began and the number itself, in the double digits, is irrelevant; one is far too many.

Somehow I managed to inure myself to the other incidents that took place, and that is on me. It took emotional proximity—a term I learned in the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks—for me to really react.

Not something I’m proud of, but something I understand.

When will the madness end? When the NRA stops buying politicians. When gun owners and enthusiasts recognize that gun violence prevention is NOT about the abolition of the 2nd Amendment, but rather about updating it so that its intent bears some semblance of reality to what is possible and impossible in 21st Century America. When the children of Parkland and other afflicted schools turn 18 and exercise their rights to vote.

Maybe.

To the victims and survivors of this and all the other mass shootings in the past 19 years, I am sorry. I am sorry that I don’t always pay attention. I am sorry that of the devastating number of such incidents, only a handful really stand out for me: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Pulse Nightclub, Parkland. I pledge to do much more than hope and pray. I pledge to vote responsibly and to encourage others to do the same, to support affected communities if and when I can, and to not let this issue fall to the wayside. I pledge this as an activist and as a human being. This should never happen again, but it will. And to quote someone I read today, who’s escaping my mind at the moment, while I am not necessarily optimistic that this incident will be the one to turn the tides, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because of the strength and grace and determination of generations of future voters.

A friend asked me the other night why I keep this blog, what purpose it serves for me, and I really appreciate this question. I think the answer is manifold; I keep this blog because it keeps me writing, for one, and because it forces me to organize my thoughts. It forces me to try to put them into words, and in so doing, to really crystallize what I feel and think and why. When I started it, coming upon five years ago, it was a way for me to manage an intensely transitional and uncertain phase, which has always been difficult for me—for most of us—and at the time I felt as though I were writing myself out of a rut. And then, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I realized that talking about my stuff was a way to connect to others who are going through stuff, and that was richly rewarding. I am a connector—it is difficult for me to have superficial friendships because I need to talk about things. And I like to hear people’s stories and, as I said last time, to help and support if I can. So this blog feels like a tangible manifestation of the emotional connections I strive for on a regular basis. There you go, AG, that’s why I write this. Thanks for making me think about it.

Hug your loved ones if you’re a hugger, think warm thoughts about them if you’re not, never go to bed angry if you can help it, apologize for your missteps to yourself and those you hurt or inconvenience along the way—but do NOT apologize for being imperfect—be kind to strangers who don’t seem creepy, be gentle to the ones who do, and remind yourself that all that is certain, as my friend said yesterday, is this very moment. Nothing else really exists. So make this moment matter, and if you hit snooze, make the next one matter, or the one after that. We are living in a fractured world, and we are all lonely, and we are all connected. If you are reading this, I have love for you. Unless you are an NRA-funded politician or a white supremacist; if you are, I have faith that you can change. But that’s up to you.