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

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Until we meet again

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I write this post with a heavy heart. My aunt Debby died on Thursday, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.

I’ve known Debby—I called her Tanta—for about twenty years. She and my uncle Charles married in their 60s. We grew close and used to have lunch together on a somewhat regular basis. Gramercy Tavern, the Yale Club, and Sushi Yasuda were our mainstays.

Debby brought to our world a profound sense of the importance of family. Family came first for her in a way that, devoted as I am to my own, I hadn’t really experienced before. She broadened our definition of the word. To Debby, family included everyone in her close circle, blood relative or not, regardless of whether one’s official title had “step-” or “half,” “in-law” or “twice removed” in it.

When you’d talk to her she’d go through the list—asking how you were, and how your partner was, then your dog, and our mutual friends. Anyone you introduced to Debby became a mutual friend. That’s how she operated.

She asked about everyone not to make small talk, but because she genuinely cared.

She was warm and thoughtful, funny and kind, and one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. So devoted was she to my uncle Charles that she, a lifelong Yankees fan, switched to the Mets; in earlier days they’d go to Port Saint Lucie to watch spring training. She was an interior decorator for many years, worked on some of the high-end lounges that were part of NYC nightlife in the ’80s. She loved good food and nice things, her manicure was flawless until the end. She loved lions. She loved having people to her house for the Jewish holidays. And most of all, she loved the people in her life and always had the capacity to welcome more.

As you may know, I believe in some form of an after life. I understand how one might not, but I’ve had experiences too otherwise inexplicable for me not to believe. And that brings me comfort. That helps me through times like these, and I’ve had a fair amount of them.

I will miss you, Tanta. Until we meet again.

All the things that matter most

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We buried my Uncle Charles today, and while one is never prepared for these things, his passing was truly unexpected. I have known Charles, obviously, for my entire life and have spent a tremendous amount of time with him. He lived in the city, he worked with my dad (and thus me, a couple days a week), and he was a fixture at family events and holidays and many of the significant times in my life.

The services today were a testament to the man he was—standing room only, an age spectrum between one and 91, people from every borough and at least eight states that I can think of. Charles was a brilliant man, a PhD, a staunch and active Democrat, and I have a hard time believing there will ever be a bigger Mets fan, by way of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In addition to yarmulkes, guests could choose from his vast collection of Mets caps to wear during the ceremony.

Charles knew a lot about a lot of things and was a proud sharer of his knowledge—sometimes to the point of stubbornness. He used Google less to gather information than to verify what he already knew—and, in fact, he did know. He cared deeply about the things he cared about—the Mets, politics, his family, Volvos, dogs. He was a weeper (a gene that I’ve inherited); one of the people who spoke today said that he’d cry at the opening of a shopping center. Not in a maudlin or sappy way, in a feels-things-to-the-core way. This is not always an easy trait to carry, but for those of us who do, it’s an integral component to our selves.

His son, my cousin, spoke beautifully (as did my parents and several other people) and talked about the fact that Charles continually reinvented himself—continued to grow and learn and be active and involved and committed.

Today reminded me of the things that matter most, things like family, evolution, sincerity, passion, the Mets, and love.

In addition to my grief, what I am feeling most right now is unmoored. I may not have spent a lot of one-on-one time with my uncle in recent years, but he was a steady presence in my life. And he was someone I loved very much.

I will miss you, mon oncle.

Let’s go Mets!