The Epiphany

Last night right after we’d eaten, our Russian orthodox neighbor stopped by to spontaneously invite us to a feast dinner. At the bus stop just now I asked her husband, Peter, which feast were they celebrating?

“Epiphany,” he said.

“Oh, I thought it was a week after ours? Except that we don’t celebrate the Epiphany anyway,” I looked up, trying to calculate. Everything I know about the Orthodox religion I learned from David Sedaris. His mother always complained that her in-laws’ faith celebrated late just so they could buy Easter candy for half-price. But a blogging friend, Alicia, is enthusiastic about the religion, so I’m curious to know more. Any religion that much into gold leaf has virtues greater than half-price Russell Stovers.

“No, it’s the same date, but Julian calendar is 13 days later.”

Multicultural me said, as we walked back towards our split-levels, “Maybe not later, just different.” I’m not sure he noticed.

A flock of robins was peeping wildly outside my house. What the hell do they know? Can spring really be on its way?

What would I give for midwinter depression to roll into some sort of epiphany, an exalted realization of the oneness of everything? A flash of understanding, deep in my soul, of what’s wrong with me?

I’ve had enough of them, lucky me, to know what it’s like to have the bleak grey cloud fall away. It’s not divine, it’s got to be neurological, and I’m sure I always suffer in all the Freudian ways before I get there. But dammit, I want someone to hand me the frickin’ key.

I should be bright, but I'm dull.

Tell me why I’m always behind. Tell me why I frustrate those I love. Why I pick fights and miss deadlines. Why I don’t take care of myself. What did they do to crush me? How I adjusted and survived, why I’m afraid to thrive. These situations I’ve worked out from hardened muscles over the years. But why am I still falling for it? "Tell me?" Do I really want to know?

A few days ago I read Jen Lemen’s Mondo Beyondo ‘zine to my daughter. The new agey language didn’t faze her a bit (Jen, you’re brilliant, it’s just an old thing of mine. Resistance.). Shortie’s wide eyes made my voice earnest. I followed Jen’s process a bit, thinking, maybe this year will be all about forgiveness. Maybe that’s the one thing I’m ready for, that I need, that I can actually pull off.

It’s a big idea. Maybe today it’s manifest in my urgent desire for oranges. "Late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair," it ain't. I’d rather be back in bed right now.

It’s never easy, but it never gets done any other way than One. Step. At a time.

One goddamn step at a time.

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After Life: Ashes to Ashes

I really didn’t know what to do with Gavin’s ashes, or “cremains” as they are economically, usefully, strangely called. It sounds like something you put on a salad in hell, or a teen pewtersmith in the Revolutionary War, or something French.

But poking around his studio musing on it for just a little while I knew what would work, at least for temporary. Until some redwood tree would show up requiring fertilizer. It was around the first anniversary of his death, almost exactly one month before his second birthday dead.

(Our Francophile foodie friend Shale has always joked that he wants his ashes sent to some special cremerie in France where it can be incorporated into a cheese, then sent back here to be eaten by his friends at a special event. Accompanied by some perfect wine. I’m sure he hasn’t given thought to the playlist, but I bet 3 courses are planned out.)

Gavin had lived, with his mother and grandmother, in Albuquerque for a few years as a baby and toddler. His mother taught at the Indian school there and purchased a few souvenirs on her trips to see the reservations.

There was a special Acoma pot. Gavin used to point it out to me saying that it was the one valuable Indian piece his family had, but it had probably been ruined because of Nana. His grandmother used to burn palm leaves in it during thunderstorms and it was lined with soot.

I took the heavy plastic bag with its twist tie from the solemn cheap plastic box the crematory sent. The whole bag went into the pot and I placed this reliquary next to the Buddha's head in his studio, which had barely been touched.

Six months later I’d hold my Day of the Dead event in his honor and the ashes would quietly preside as we took the hi fi and speakers out onto the lawn for the show.

But it rests there now, nearly four years in total, two and a half years since its filling, looking over the drawing table where he spent most of his energy.

I can’t help but think he’d be pleased with this solution, at least for now.

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After Life: An Aberration

A day or so after the conversation described in my previous post, Gavin had transitioned to a state of moving in and out of sleep. Our friends were coming and going as surreal “guests” and the hospice staff was giving him a fair amount of whatever opiate was permitted. There were no IVs.

It would be another day before he was mostly asleep. Before I gave him a few sips of lychee ice cream from the special tropical place as I left for the night. One more day would be the last.

There weren’t that many days in the hospice, so these events must all have happened the same day, on Wednesday, May 31, 2006.

We had the conversation I recounted above, about burial plans.

He awoke when I was in the room, clutched his abdomen, and said, “Why does it have to hurt so damn much?” I ran for the nurse to up the drugs. He was asleep again before we got back.

He awoke abruptly when I was in the room and said accusingly, “So what’s it going to be. Are you going to burn me or bury me?” I’m not sure he could tell I was in the room.
“Honey, we just talked about this…” but he wasn’t all there. A moment later he was asleep.

I asked the social worker (the same one who would later commit offense #4) if I listen to what he said and respond, or whether it was delirium. She looked at his chart and said it was the drugs and I should be at ease.

Do you get to finish every conversation? No. Did we get pretty far? I counted myself lucky and moved on. At least from this one little bit.

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After Life: His Decision and Mine

Not only did I betray my husband’s beliefs by telling my daughter his soul had done what I wanted it to do – but I also couldn’t obey his last wishes. To my credit, I asked his permission two days before he died.

Gavin was in a Hospice facility. We were just beginning to open conversations about his final wishes, although we’d had similar talks ten years before, when he’d had another health scare. It made sense to firm things up. We talked about it in “someday” terms, though the staff felt he couldn’t hold out more than a few weeks.

Honey, you’ve always said you didn’t want to be cremated, that you liked the idea of being buried in a simple pine box. You said it sounded restful.
It doesn’t really matter to me.
What about the plot in Pittsburgh… where your grandmother is. With a spot for your Mom.
I don’t have that much connection there anymore. It’s not important to me. It would be inconvenient for you.
But what do you really want?
When I die, I’m not going to be there to know about it anyway. None of this stuff matters.
Well, I remember you didn’t like the idea of being cremated…
What I would like doesn’t matter. I’m not going to be there anymore.
So how strongly do you feel about not being cremated?
Do whatever you want. It’s not important to me. (He turned away).

I know. A harpie. A nag. I couldn’t even let him alone when he was getting close to the place where everyone goes, at last, completely alone.

I didn’t want him to leave, even then.

But also. We’d checked his meager life insurance right after diagnosis. Although it was purchased when he went off to college, doubtless as a bad deal, surely from a door-to-door salesman, it was his only coverage because sometime in the next few years he was diagnosed with a heart valve defect. Small as the policy was, it was a lot for us. $16,000. The amount stuck in my mind, it was the only thing static during the two years he was ill. Enough to live half a year, maybe more without extraordinary medical bills.

I knew any funeral with a body would run $15 - $30K minimum. I hate open caskets anyway, tradition be damned. I detest paying funeral homes their professional fees and markup. Viewings with disgusting gladiola and cousins pretending to care. And none of those places or events is the right place for a 2.5 year old child. *

(Do funeral homes even offer babysitting?)

I know, I’m a wicked heartless bitch. I wanted to cremate him, and I probably would have, anyway. I cared enough to ask, even if not enough to listen.

Would he have minded that I cared more about our life after than his wishes about something he didn’t care much about? After he left, wasn’t it my primary job to be sure his child and I (and his mother – story TK) were taken care of? He’d made it clear that dead people don’t matter, but living people do.

It was a pretty minimal existence we were armoring up for, anyway. A successful regional artist does about as well, most years, as a barista. I hadn’t been working to my full potential, or even half, for a long time. When he started this hospitalization, a week earlier, I’d taken indefinite leave from work. I held the equity in our home, and a good brain.

Gavin never really took money seriously. He felt rich with me, because my job paid the same amount every year, more than he’d ever made selling paintings. When he was ill, he got angry because I found a way to get more life insurance coverage. (We never followed through). He’d refused to apply for SSDI, which we were told he’d quality for automatically, based on having a diagnosis that generally means “one year or less.” He felt his signature on the form would be admitting it.

So I thought I’d definitely cremate. Much more economical and environmental. We’d have a big service, a joyful party, a bunch of art. He wanted that and we did it. To appease him, I’d bury some of the ashes. To fulfill my vision of what’s right, I’d scatter some, somewhere important to us but not necessarily his hometown of Pittsburgh, where I’d never even been.

Marriage is all about compromise. Even when one partner is on the way out. Maybe even when one partner is gone.

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No Man Knows the Hour or the Day

Wouldn't you like to know when you'll die? When Gavin was ill, we talked to a multitude of experts about other things, trying to remain in control, without ever directly asking "how long does he have left." There's a certain vogue among "survivors" that says "knowing" tilts your mind toward conforming, toward proving the doctor right (or wrong) rather than just living as long as possible. We were committed that Gavin would "end up" in the upper tail of the survival curve.

A few people told us anyway, and you know, in this world, when you're smart, it's just not that easy to keep your eyes shut tight.

While we didn't take any of the estimates very seriously, we adjusted our minds and lives a dozen times during the 22 month ordeal. Looking back I compared what we expected, roughly, at each of many junction points, with what happened:

When my husband was first diagnosed with a terminal illness, we thought it would shave a few years off his life. (He had less than two years at that point).

Whenever we got into a car, I’d remind him he was statistically more likely to die today in a car accident than from the cancer. (Especially if I was driving.)

When we quit the first doctor, who told us he had a year or two without treatment, Gavin promised me he’d live to see our infant daughter graduate from college. I knew he was wrong. (That doctor’s estimate was right, even with treatments).

When the first treatment failed, we thought he might have another ten years (he had a little more than one year).

Gavin swore he’d be around to see our daughter kick a soccer ball around a big field.
I hoped he'd be right but also figured kids start playing soccer pretty young these days. A month or two later, like Sleeping Beauty’s wishful parents, I banned all balls from the house.

When the third treatment failed, we thought he had another few months (he had about one month left).

When he entered hospice, the experts told us he had a few weeks left (he had just four days).

Two days later, they thought he had a week or so left (he had just two days).

The next morning at 9:00 they thought he had a few hours (he lasted till 7:00 pm).

Is the lesson that the least sensitive doctor of them all -- the one we quit in rage and frustration -- was the best? I don't think so. I just think it's a fool's game to time the market or the reaper.

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From the Bible to Tila Tequila

Bereaved women have never been pretty. (Hot, maybe, but not easy to look at).

I’ve been hearing these outrageous stories about the public trainwreck that Tila Tequila, the reality TV player (it’s not fair to say “star,” is it?), has become after the death of her fiancĂ©e, storied lost heiress Casey Johnson. (Johnson mixed diabetes with drugs and alcohol, a detail that is shamefully being left out of much coverage. Furthering the idea that something is "wrong" when someone young dies. ~buzzer~ FALSE!)

And Tequila (nee Nguyen)'s behavior has been pretty wild. Sixty tweets. Whoo hoo.

She’s showing off her grief so vividly. And I thought: she’s not that different from others I’ve known. Sorta, actually, like me.

It goes back to ancient days: the Hebrew traditions ask you to rend your garments, beat your breast, and tear at your skin. It’s supposed to hurt. And the skin is nothing when your soul has broken so wide open.

In the Bible, Tamar dresses like a whore after her loss and deceives Judah into fathering her child. Stealing sperm is turning some kind of trick! (What was she wearing?) Who would break all these rules? And why? Only a woman whose pain can’t be spoken loudly enough. And by this strange, horrific act of sluttiness Tamar mothers the race of David and Solomon. (Has anyone in a reality show done anything that freaky?)

In grief, I, too, wanted to look the way I felt. BAD. I wanted the world to see how I felt inside. I could never say it well enough, and no one seemed to hear.

Mourners seek to demonstrate, represent, and manifest these intense feelings. And grief is not just sorrow: we’re plagued by emotions without reason or apparent connection. Laughing hysterically one moment, smashing a favorite vase the next. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to disappear and break along with my world, a few hours later I’d be sure I’d never seen a more beautiful raindrop on a blade of grass.

Widowhood escalates our lives, and widows use their standing to make public statements. As others mourn the one who’s left, we often want to assert our own place in the world, whatever that place is. In grief, we sometimes becomes exhibitionist and often feel extremely sexual.

Tila Tequila is a widowed woman. If she’s different from how many of us would behave (and have!) in the same circumstances, it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.

Attention whore? Trainwreck? Loudmouth? Obsessed with fashion and Twitter? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

But isn’t that who she was before? She’s just more so in grief.

Widowhood is a journey, and she may come out stronger. I have, and so have countless others. Tila Tequila wouldn’t be the first to effect a radical change in her life.

In fact, her story sounds like one of the lives of the early Saints. Many of them were outcasts, pains in the ass, shallow and materialistic. I’m sure there was at least one, er, provocative dresser aside from Mary Magdalene.

So keep your eyes on this girl, she may yet have greatness in her. Try to keep your judgment to yourself if you haven’t been there. Mourners feel so alone, but maybe there's a Heisenberg Principle of Grief: letting Tila Tequila know she is heard, you might change what she does.

If you have lost a partner or a child, what do you think? Do you see any echo of your experiences in Tila Tequila’s behavior?

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The Diary of Anne Frank Killed Me

I was a depressed child, easy to discourage.

In the 7th grade I had a wonderful bond with my English teacher. Students were required to turn in a "journal" (kind of like a blog?) of one page or more. In my journal folder I expressed my wishes and creativity to florid feedback (kind of like blog comments?) every week. For a brief spell I had a mentor, a rare source of encouragement outside my confusing, hopeless, fighting household.

We were assigned an oral report book review, and I was excited to choose the grand, important, real Diary of Anne Frank.

It was bad enough to be in front of the blackboard, the only one standing, lips trembling. Acne. The cool kids.

Within my first sentence the whole thing went horribly wrong: "Anne Frank's diary was discovered in a garret after the Nazis captured ..." The teacher's face must have indicated it was okay for the class to get disorderly because the "ooooooo"'s rose like a mess of pigeons from the desks. Someone was in trouble. 

Would you believe that my introduction to a book report of Anne Frank counted as a spoiler? I was dinged for "giving away the ending." I tried to argue: Frank's death was not the point of the book, wasn't included IN the book, and everyone knew she was dead by the time they picked up the book. In fact, her death was alluded to on the back cover. Can you even imagine a meaningful way to tell her story without disclosing her capture?

This, my only bad grade until that point, marked the moment I gave up on writing. My own refuge had been violated, my psyche smashed in that way I would have expected from my classmates but didn't think was even possible of this particular teacher. Years of observations were confirmed: you can't trust grown ups.

(I wonder, if I'd known that I was Jewish then [whole nother post] would this story have a different ending?)

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Musical Monday: When I Was Drinking

This is one of the saddest songs I know, one of loss and yearning. The original is by Hem, but I could not find a video, so I’m including this live performance by We Are Golden. The studio original (you can stream  it from the Hem website) is a bit cleaner and sparer, but this is lovely, too.

The bit that catches me is how, drunk, the couple had “nothing and no one to live up to.” How many of us were saved by parenting, by responsibility? I never drifted too low before my loss, never relied on substances, but my life was transformed by being a mother and knowing this two-way tug of love that you get from caring for a child.

And then, at the end, the pull back is so like grief, that we wish away and grow out of and still, always, save so we can relish another kiss. In her voice, you hear how durable this is, how loss leaves a stain and you can still be grateful and alive when it’s far away in the past.

When I was drinking
when I was with you
living it up when the rent was due
with nothing and no one to live up to

you and me dying on the vine
holding hands and drinking wine
now I’m not the same girl I left
behind with you.

Twelve bars behind us
and twelve bars to go
bottles of beer lined up in a row
one for each hour you didn’t show

you and me dying everyday
getting high just to pass away but
that's not the reason I couldn't stay with you

Now I am sober
now I’m alone
three years have gone by since you have gone
letting you go
letting me go on

But I’ll raise a glass now to you and me
to lift me high so I can see
which of these blessings are killing me.

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Plastic is Fantastic

If you're going to have a fake tree, you should have a REALLY fake tree.

And if you're going to have a really fake tree, you shouldn't try to color-coordinate or decorate with a "theme." In fact, if your kid decides knotted jute makes a perfect garland on one side, let her go with it. (Sorry, this happened after we took the picture).

And if your tree looks full of frenzied joy already, use a hot-pink scratchy poncho for a tree skirt. The reindeers and bells one would look totally out of place and cotton snow would just disappear against the white needles.

And if you're going to have a really fake tree with wacky tacky ornaments all over it, no symmetry, and a poncho underneath, why bother taking it down on Three Kings' Day?

Gavin and I never got our Christmas cards out in time and usually couldn't even pretend they were meant for the New Year. One year we stamped a heart on them and send them out as Valentines.

Let's see how long Mr. Fresh can stand it. (It's not like he wants the poncho back or anything). :-)

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One Christmas with Cancer

When I was a child, our family had one close friend with cancer. In and out of the hospital, chemos, surgeries consumed her over the course of twenty years. No one knew much in the 70s, but for sure little information would make it down to the kid’s level. We wouldn’t see her for months, half a year at a time, though she had once been my mother’s roommate and was a prominent personality.

I remember seeing her once at a museum event, after a long time away, looking much better, more full. With uncharacteristic honesty, my father later said her abdomen was filling up with tumors.

I could barely picture all the cutting, it was too horrible to imagine, a doll being sewed back together. Charlene was glamorous, a high school beauty queen with regal bearing and somewhere, I’m sure, the sash. As a concert cellist she was at her best in evening gowns. Drunkie, abuser of painkillers, never a dull moment, this adult woman held a surprise around every curvy corner for us kids.

The year I was 15 I was horribly depressed. I hated my face scabbed over by acne, dyed my hair into a vacuum of coal, bursting out from my past (and future) Modigliani outlines. My best friends had all left for the alternative high school. My remaining friendship was a manic Polish dominatrix wanting to milk me and ruin our sole escape, a music fanzine. Nothing was right. I wanted to disappear, find a cave and rest.

But on the fourth of July, my parents insisted I come out with them to Charlene’s because she and her husband had a roof with a perfect view of the river. I wouldn’t have to be with the crowds, and I could lose myself in the sights and sounds and smells of a glorious fire. Heck, I could even bring my own music and ignore the John Williams. No commitment – just a way to kill a few hours before my evening’s destination, the punk rock roller rink, opened.

We got over to their warehouse loft to find a 10-foot plastic Christmas tree.

“Charlene was in the hospital most of the winter, and we never got around to trimming the tree. Why not tonight?” It was hot and dusty in the loft. George got out a ladder and started to pull boxes of ornaments, packed carelessly, from their enormous catwalk. Everyone had a role, and conversation was optional.

I don’t remember what the ornaments looked like, or whether there were lights. I’m sure there was the old, deadly lead tinsel (we had some in our house when I was a kid). There were stories, I don’t remember a one, and probably drinks for the adults. A young German scholar was visiting and I think he listened to my philosophy of life or something. Around 10 he and I absconded for the club where we might have seen one of the members of Run-DMC (somewhere I have a picture of him). There was nothing sexual. I was too depressed, I think, to even imagine that. I’m sure I only moped, hair in my eyes, maybe danced to “Dancing with Myself,” possibly hid from the cool girls in the VIP room.

But around that fake tree, in the shadow of Charlene’s death, with my PARENTS, this depressed teenager had the best time. It was a real party, spontaneous, surprising, extreme.

We heard the fireworks start but no one wanted to stop digging out ornaments and taking turns on the ladder. We missed every last spark, laughing all the way.

I’ve forgotten the details but I will always remember that Christmas in July and the surprises it revealed, from me, from my family, from a dying woman, from boxes of junk, and from the world. How sometimes the wrong place at the wrong time is perfect. How you can create your own world in a few hours and lose yourself in something that’s almost nothing.

When Gavin was dying I shut out the memories of Charlene’s cancer. We always thought she was going to die every minute, every few months brought serious news to not talk about. We could smell it. It seemed worse than it was, it seemed better than it was, cancer lied and cheated. “In the end,” as we say, Charlene did die, but she exceeded everyone’s expectations by far. Knowing her, she’d have given Jesus credit between bong hits.

Gavin and I had many magical times, too, in that shadow. Experiences to cherish, where we lived beyond what was possible and solely in the moment at the same time. Times that were like lucid dreams, 100% in both of two worlds. 200%.

Cancer gives you a story, a struggle, a fight: but those wackos who say it’s a gift have a point.

I wish I spent more time remembering that angle on my last two years with my husband and our daughter. But it’s never too late.

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Musical Monday: Show Some Emotion by Joan Armatrading

One of the Moms from church taught me this exercise to shake things up a bit when your kid is so angry neither of you can find a way out. “Okay, everybody, make an angry face, make a sad face, make a surprised face, make a happy face…” It nearly always works. The song, "Show Some Emotion" by Joan Armatrading, is sort of like that for me. When you’re really upset, there’s nothing like being reminded of the many emotional states that are available.

Aren’t grief and hysterical laughter so often side-by-side, each on the other’s heels? Both on the edge. Remembering the wheel of feelings can bring you back to center.

“Show Some Emotion” is really valuable for reminding us all our feelings are valid and real, which is a big emphasis in kids’ culture stuff these days. (When I was a kid, I was usually told to “stop being angry.” Absurd!) Somewhere I have started a playlist of alternative songs for little kids. The Cure’s “Friday I’m in love” introduces the days of the week, this song runs through the emotions, Mack the Knife is in for its condescending tone and what toddler doesn’t love sharks? There’s others, but who knows if I’ll ever uncover the list. It’s not a priority now, Shortie’s past suggestion, confidently making her own taste and scene.

I have always loved this song. Joan Armatrading was timeless, a hero to hippie and punk alike at my college. My friends and I sung her songs, melancholy when biking home at night, or rejoicing while we did dishes together. In this serious, joyful, generous song, which emotional expression is me?

“Some people hurting
Someone choking up inside
Some poor souls dying
Too proud to say
They got no place to lie
And there’s people
If they hear a joke
Can’t keep the laugh
Out of their eye…”

When I hear her sing that last line, I know Joan Armatrading has met me somewhere, that she’s teasing me to get back to it in just a little bit. And I start to breathe again in the corner of that smile.

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