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)

 

Years gone by

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I think about 9-11, in some capacity, every day. I still dream about it, but certainly not to the extent that I did those first several months after the fact. That day and the day my friend Laura died nine months later are the two most acutely traumatic experiences of my life. Though the pain and shock are diminished and the sadness muted, neither is ever terribly far from my thoughts.

I remember details of both days in stark relief; I could piece together the events of 9-11 very accurately, as all of my senses were on high alert then and in the weeks and months that followed. The day Laura died was different—the shock phase of that grief process cycled quickly into profound heartache, and though I recall who was around me, the details are foggy. But as to that clear September day the autumn before (technically late-summer … why must I be so damn literal that I can’t let the poetry of “the autumn before” stand without an editorial note?), I recall what I ate, who I spoke with by phone and in-person, tones of voice, snippets of conversation, and so on.

I wasn’t sure I was going to write an anniversary post this year, but it’s become one of the few rituals since I began this blog in 2013. So here we are. I wasn’t sure I was going to write because at this point I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anyone wants to hear my version of the sequence of events, or my experiences on that day, because everybody has their 9-11 story. Sure, I was here, so that puts me closer than some, but it really doesn’t matter; we were all here.

With the exception of a relatively tiny handful of people on this earth, 9-11 succeeded in bringing people together across the planet and regardless of race, religion, socio-economic factors, education levels, stations in life, and any of the myriad ways that we divide ourselves. That is the collateral beauty* of that horrible day.

*This phrase, which I recently encountered, is apparently the name of a 2016 film of dubious merit. I like it, though, and am keeping it.

On a macro- global- historical- political- level there is much to be learned from 9-11. On a micro-level, there is this: we actually really, truly only have THIS MINUTE. The old “I could get hit by a bus” maxim has been upgraded to “I could get hit by a plane,” but the point is the same … this is all we have. We can not count on “some day.” There is no “I will get it together once _____” or “I just need ____ before I ____.” That is bullshit. That is not being kind to the you who is here today. What an existential shame it would be to deny today’s you her/his full potential because you were waiting for tomorrow’s you to show up.

I could go on and on and on and on about the importance of living life now and loving yourself always and being in the moment and believing and learning and caring but I am so tired of having to convince so many of the people in my life to live their lives that I am going to give myself the rest of the night off. I’ll be back to it soon enough.

May whomever is in charge of these things bless those we lost on 9-11 and those who remain.

Love yourselves. You know you deserve it.