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.

 

And you who had the honor of her evening …

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I’ve been thinking about this post all day and I’ve been wondering whether or not I’d write it. The title here is from Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving,” a song that, like so many others, breaks my heart in the most beautifully devastating way.

Kate Spade. I think many of the women I know who are my age-ish have at one point been familiar with her wares. I knew very little about her; I was gifted one of her handbags in the early-to-mid 90s and I wore it proudly, always aware that I was handbagging out of my league.

She killed herself this morning. And of course the social media-verse is full of “WHY?!?”s … and that is a valid question. The answer, I’m certain, is fairly complex. When we try to distill the why’s of suicide into explanation we fall short of the bigger picture which, more often than not, is my old friend and foe depression. Family things may well have been happening, business things may well have been challenging, but what drives someone to take one’s own life is rarely quite so tangible. “But she had …!” and “But she was …!” don’t apply. I am not diagnosing her, I do not know that she was clinically depressed, but I do know that some variation on depression plays into many suicides.

And I also know that depression does not care whether you are young or smart or famous or rich or beautiful or powerful or none of the above. Depression, like cancer, chooses its path quite democratically, and while there are things one can do to stave off both, there are no guarantees.

I know what it’s like to feel alone while surrounded by people, to feel stuck despite options, to feel empty when the judgmental voice inside tells you you shouldn’t. And I know the value of facing these possibly tamable demons and coming out on the other side.

If you are reading these words and you feel empty, alone, despondent, suicidal, please know that there are resources available to you. If you need to, reach out to me. Ours is a very challenging existence. As one of B’s photos from Love City says, “Don’t jump. Somebody, somewhere, is waiting to love you.”

Very few things are insurmountable. If I can help you to realize this, I will.

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.

 

Where did all the blue skies go

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I started to write a post on the 4th of July and decided not to publish it, didn’t finish it. I couldn’t find the words to express what I was feeling, couldn’t quite figure out how to acknowledge a celebration of our country’s freedom when so much of the world is not free. I don’t usually get political here and it felt inauthentic somehow, though my feelings were 100% sincere.

That was four days ago, and I think had a fair amount to do with a new friend I’ve made, through my cousin – a fellow who lives in Iraq. I reached out to him after the latest spate of suicide bombings in Baghdad and he was, of course, devastated and angry. He asked to see photos of the mountains and woods where I spent the long weekend; he wanted to see beauty and positivity and freedom. He sent me a photo collage of the victims of Sunday’s attacks, and it was a collection of beautiful, young, vibrant faces.

The next day there were attacks in Saudi Arabia. This week two young black men in the US have been killed by police for the “crimes” of selling music and driving with an allegedly busted tail light. Last night, snipers shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and wounded several others.

I do not know how to react to any of this. I am infuriated and saddened and tired of feeling helpless and I don’t know what my recourse is.

I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Donald Trump is not the answer to any of this. Hate begets hate. Intolerance begets intolerance. Ignorance is dangerous and hubris does not a successful leader make. And I do not want to speak his name more than absolutely necessary, so that’s that for now.

I am in New Orleans again, working through the final third of the book. And it is hard to concentrate on what at times seems such a trivial pursuit in light of all that is happening in the world around us. But this is my job, and so I will do it.

Since I was last here about six weeks ago, there have been terrorist attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Somalia, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan–and that’s just off the top of my not-terribly-informed head. Since I was here, a monster shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

There is so much to grieve in this world. And there is so much to love and admire, to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in places where we are allowed to love and admire who, what, and when we choose to.

I’ve been accused of having a Pollyanna-like outlook on things. I don’t. I’m more realistic than I let on. But there are many people who can speak of the world’s atrocities much more eloquently than I can, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from these people and their words.

I have long been saddled with a need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to believe that people are inherently good. I am fortunate to have many good people in my life.

But it’s a scary, uncertain world, and I am aware of this. So if I veer toward light and love in the things I write and post and choose to talk about, do not mistake it for blindness. I can’t fix all the bad, and so I choose to try my best to contribute more good.

Time for coffee and Chapter Ten.