Thursday, October 11, 2007

A pause, not an end

Ack. I can't believe it's been since July that I last posted. And a dramatic post at that. Friends, those two of you still reading this, I have to take - continue? - a hiatus to earn some of the greenback stuff. Pay the bills. Satisfy da man. I will continue this blog at a future date (as opposed to a past date).

I leave you with this: Mario and I continue to thrive as a couple although he tells me he goes numb in the ears when I talk about yoga or my cats. Yoga is my solace; he says, "Tried it, don't like it." As for my cats, I feed ferals one night a week at a local university, and on one of those nights had to rescue a kitten, who somehow has grown to six months old and wormed his way into my household. (He's soooo cute.) Mario, he wants to be catless for a while, although he's all too happy to sit with the grand-cat that is his son's. Actually, Mario loves cats. He just hates to admit it.

So I am officially going to sign off for a while. There is still much to tell, about Gregory's amazing hidden compartments, the little girl he loved and lost (which broke my heart all over again when I learned about it). But also of Gregory's redemption. He was a troubled, perhaps even tortured, soul. I like to think I helped him find his way, just as his love opened me. May he rest in a vigorous spirit world.

Love - being in love - is such an important, potent bond. I still struggle with whether it, whether we, transcend death. I honestly do not know. I do know that I still want to share this story. And that the story isn't finished.

Au revoir, mes amies.

Friday, July 20, 2007

31. One Angel in Another's Hell

I remember with a kind of illness the day I uncovered among Gregory’s few effects the remnants of a relationship with a girl who had been slightly older than Helena. Gregory’s genuine caring for Helena, his patience with her and the way he sought out a relationship with her touched me: Here was a man for whom children did not appear to be baggage.

Strictly speaking, the other little girl was not Gregory’s daughter, although you could say he loved Gretel like his own flesh and blood. He had moved in with her mother before the two were married. How strange that he never uttered a word about his stepdaughter during our six years together. Not a word? Not a hint of a word.

This was all the more perplexing as I pored over the childish drawings, the “I love yous,” the poems. Gregory kept few mementos of his past. He gave all the pictures from his marriage to his second wife. He held onto only about a few photos of himself and his dad. None of his mother. None of his brother. None of Gretel.

But these drawings he kept, along with a few of Helena’s. Here I was, peering into one of Gregory’s compartments after his death.

I would learn about Gretel from her mother, a woman whom Gregory disparaged but who still loved him after all the time they’d been divorced, loved him after incidents that would have driven other women to hate, loved him as much as I did.

Her daughter had been a brilliant child with a bright future, good at science and skilled with math, which gave her and Gregory a natural affinity. She attended a program for gifted students, first at a middle school and later at an arts magnet high school. Gretel, whose flowing brown hair and wide, winning smile reminded me of Helena’s, also played the flute.

She was 14 when Gregory moved in, and she was dying. Doctors suggested that she had inhaled asbestos while playing the instrument, which had contributed to an adrenal carcinoma. Afflicted with this rarest of cancers, Gretel would develop a tumor the size of a baseball on her adrenal glands.

Gregory loved Gretel, and Gretel loved Gregory. She called him “my angel” and wrote him little notes and poems. When she was feeling good, he took her anyplace she wanted to go. She would lie in the sun with him, chaise beside chaise, when the weather was warm. He helped her with her studies. And when her disease progressed to the point that she no longer felt well enough go out, he brought things to her in her room.

He would buy her dresses at Neiman’s, knowing she would never be well enough to wear them. He would bring them home and put them on her bed. He bought her jewelry and trinkets.

In the final months of her life, he rigged up a speaker system not unlike later baby-crib monitors so that he and her mother could hear her breathe from their bedroom. And when Gretel would awaken in the night crying in pain, Gregory would go to her. He learned how to give shots so that he could gently inject the pain medicine that eased her discomfort. Then he would lie beside her and hold her in his arms until she fell back asleep.

As happened with increasing frequency toward the end of her life, Gretel was in the hospital on the hot July day when her mother got the news that Gregory had been shot at the liquor store. One of them was would never leave the hospital.

Image by Vladimir Kush

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

30. Anger: Tempest or a time bomb?

Mario had quite an outburst on Father’s Day. Not at me or his son, who’d come over for dinner. But at an inanimate object: his air conditioner. Or was it the hardware stores that weren’t open for the part he needed? Or himself, for not being able to fix the thing as heat shimmied outside into the 80s? Or the expectation – evaporated – that Father’s Day would be a kinder, gentler day.

Mario and I have now been together longer than Gregory and I were. It hardly seems possible. But I guess that’s the consequence of time flying as you get older, whether you’re having fun or not. We do have a lot of fun, but so also are we revealing more of our true selves.

Mario’s outbursts don’t have the sting of Gregory’s, although they do annihilate any sense of order the evening might have had. Dinner goes to hell. The evening goes to hell. Mario must scurry to fix, curse the screwdriver, yell for others to make calls to find parts. Locating the right part brings some relief, but then frustration wells up again as he still can’t get the thing working. At length, he reaches a sort of exhaustion before he surrenders and gives up, leaving those around him likewise spent.

But I wonder which is worse: the outburst you see or the outburst you don’t? Gregory’s outbursts in the beginning of our relationship would include scathing attacks on something or somebody – a white-hot tirade, a poison rant.

He learned quickly not to turn these on me. It was simple: I told him I could not keep my heart open if it were the object of senseless marauding. But did I achieve some improvement in his character? Or did I just reinforce the message that it’s better to hold certain feelings inside, where, like IEDs, they explode and do irreparable damage?

I’ve never had the sense that Mario and I would wake up some morning and he would reveal some startling, hidden aspect of his life: He had a love child in Sicily. He was really a spy. Someone had shot him during a robbery.

The latter actually happened to Gregory. He told me about it when I noticed his scar. Did I say noticed? You could not miss the jagged line that wound around his ribcage on the left side from the front to the back. He had been shot at near-point-blank range. He was standing behind the counter of the liquor store he and his mother owned. Gregory slid down the wall, coming to a stop on his bottom and sort of hunching over. That probably helped staunch the bleeding. The bullet had pierced his liver.

Now you would think that when someone shares a traumatic episode, they would share everything that happened. But this was not the case. Gregory omitted crucial details. Details! It’s as if he told me only half the story. When, I wondered after he died, was he intending to tell me the rest? When was he going to open that compartment all the way for me to see?

As it turned out, the answer was never. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was ashamed he could not have done more. Maybe it was his way of armoring the bottom of the vehicle. I would find out the rest of the story from his second wife after he died.

Image by Vladimir Kush

Thursday, May 17, 2007

29. 'I am so sorry for your loss'

People who have never suffered the loss of a loved one are often at a loss in the face of those who have. What do you say? What do you do? You don’t want to say the wrong thing. You don’t want to make them cry.

But if you have never suffered a loss, you don’t understand. Sometimes crying is healing. And "making someone cry"” shouldn’t be something you fear. The reality is that you can’t "make someone cry." You can only touch them in a way that tears and sadness are evoked. This is not a bad thing.

But if you have never suffered a loss, you don’t know this.

Years ago, I worked with a woman – knew her professionally, nothing more – who had lost her only daughter in a heinous crime. Murdered.

I had never experienced loss beyond a beloved pet. My reaction to her loss? I avoided her if I saw her coming my way. Avoided looking at her. Avoided being where she was. Avoided contact. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.

But after I lost Gregory, everything changed. I sought her out. Sat down and had a conversation with her. Suddenly, I knew what to say. And the first thing I said was, “I am so sorry for your loss.” I apologized for my lack of contact. God bless her, she understood and accepted my apology so gracefully. We talked our about mutual losses, and the air was clean between us.

So let’s say you are that person who has never experienced a loss and doesn’t know what to say.

Here is "What to Say 101."

Whether you know a person well or are just an acquaintance, I am here to tell you that the seven most powerful words in the English language are these: “I am so sorry for your loss.” Period.

When a person has suffered the loss of a loved one – a truly loved one, a child, a close parent, a spouse, a life partner, even, yes, a beloved pet – those are the most powerful words you can speak.

Did I say speak? You must do more than speak them. You must mean them. From the bottom of your heart.

It becomes easier with time.

Not long ago, my car inspection was due. I pulled into a service station where I’d had a good experience with a flat tire back when Gregory was alive. The owner and I got to talking. He was a gentleman about my age. He explained that he had been an executive in a restaurant chain California, but that a divorce had wiped him out. He came to Dallas to start a new life. Oh, and he had lost his only son in Iraq the summer before.

He wasn’t mope-y or maudlin. He was just sharing the circumstances of his life. I looked at him and said, “I am so sorry for your loss.” And I was. How terrible to lose your only son. He looked at me, and he said, “Thank you.”

And that was it. Just like the Christmas dinner, where we “widows” dipped into our mutual grief, this man and I shared a moment. Connected for a moment. This is grief as its most powerful and basic: connecting with another human, understanding a loss.

Then, my inspection was done. And I was on my way.

Image by Vladimir Kush

Monday, April 23, 2007

28. Life After Life?

Let me take this question of life after life vs. road kill back to about a month after Gregory died for yet another conundrum.

Through a person I trusted deeply, I contacted a medium. Arlene (the medium) lived in another part of the country, was in fact traveling in an RV, and the person I had contacted had to call one person, then the person that person told her to call, then another, through about five layers of connections. This person I trusted did not know a lot about Gregory, and Arlene could not possibly link me to him or him to me, not with the best search engine on the planet.

The “meeting” was set: I would call Arlene at a specific time on a specific day. I had it in my mind that I would be super sharp, super skeptical and give this person no feedback whatsoever about what she was saying. My plan was to listen, listen, listen and see whether anything came through or not. She would get no verbal prompts from me.

At this same time, I worked for a publication, and as you probably know, they are bombarded with samples and review copies of everything. Our department pooled these odd bits together in early December and held a sale with bargain pricing. It’s not like you’re going to pick up a Danielle Steel novel or Bruce Springsteen CDs. Most of it is offbeat stuff. All the proceeds go to a local charity.

As it happened, this sale took place the Friday before my Sunday call with Arlene. I was back at work, barely. The sale was a nice diversion, and it was fun to get caught up as we flooded in from the hall and began swarming the tables. After 45 minutes, my booty consisted of a handful of Celtic CDs, a Dixie Chicks video and an obscure animated short.

Sometime later that day, my boss said, “Let’s go see what’s left,” and so we did. The room had really been worked over. I decided to concentrate on the stacks of books that still lined the walls, maybe to find a horse book for Helena.

I made it only a little way around the perimeter when I came upon a small paperback about communication with dead. Hmmm. I put it in my bag. A little farther along, there was a copy of John Edward’s first book, One Last Time. This was before he was famous. I had no idea who he was or precisely what he did, but at the top of the book was a quote from Raymond Moody that said, “Astonishing.” Having followed Dr. Moody since his Life After Life days, that made an impression. The tagline on the book said, “A psychic medium speaks to those we have loved and lost.”

I thought that rather peculiar; it made it sound like a book about relationships. Except, this Edward guy was a psychic medium. I started to put the book in my bag, then thought better of it. I didn’t want the people in my office who were tallying and taking our money to think I was obsessed with the topic of communicating with the dead. I put the book back. Halfway around the room, there was another copy. This time, I put it in my bag for keeps. To hell with what people would think.

When I got home, I put the two books side by side, wondering which to read first. Love Beyond Life by Joel Martin and Patricia Romanowski was “inspiring and thought-provoking,” according to a quote by pediatrician Melvin Morse, author of Closer to the Light, a book about near-death experiences in children.

Ultimately, I picked Edward’s book, and could scarcely put it down long enough to sleep. It told of his own dubiousness at his “skill” and how he put aside a career in public health to work full-time as a medium. The remainder of the book talked about what he does and how he does it, as well as how to spot fake mediums. He mentioned two other books he felt were reputable, and one was the Martin-Romanowski book.

First off, for these two books of all the books at the sale to somehow be overlooked was remarkable. Not only that, the Edward book was like a primer of what happens in a reading of the type I was about to have. My position of not giving any feedback would have ruined the session.

Indeed, Edward explained that he instructs people NOT to lead him with information, but simply to tell him whether or not a name or bit of information has meaning. It allows him to “feel” from the other side whether it’s right. A person might say, “Oh yes, I have a cousin named Harold,” and Edward will say, “That’s not who this is referring to.” (This, as opposed to a fake, who will then try to draw out more information about “cousin Harold.”)

In a personal appearance I later attended, again before he was a psychic superstar, Edward told about the name Orlando coming through for a specific woman. He and she went through every possible permutation of meaning, and both became extremely frustrated when nothing “fit” for the insistent entity coming through. Finally, one of them said, “Disney World?” Jackpot.

So – from the chance second visit to the sale, the chance sighting of two of the best of three books on the subject of this kind of mediumship, the chance of reading the one that would best prepare me for my own reading – what are the odds?

And what a difference it made in the reading.

This is the stuff that makes my brain ache, and sends me running back to the Robert Monroe books.

Image by Vladimir Kush

Saturday, April 07, 2007

27. The Yin and Yang of Life After Death

Only days after posting that dark blog, I went to dinner with Dee. It was as if the universe, in its infinite wisdom and glee, licked its lips, rubbed its palms together and said, “Now, let’s hit her with the yang to her yin. Let’s see how she feels about that.”

How to explain Dee. I’m not sure why I was drawn to her (or her to me). At the time, we worked together, and I could sense tremendous untapped power in her. Not the sort of egotistical gluttony that drives the worst of politicians. Nor the self-absorbed power of a femme fatale. I’m talking about a presence and substance. Something not physical.

Blonde, Nordic, solidly built, Great Plains-born and bred, she was button-down bright. Yet she trembled with fear that she might do something to endanger her salvation. (Some part of me was certain this would not be the case.) She was – and is – a committed student of the Bible.

Over the years, as we spent time together, the strangest thing would happen. Our conversations would invariably turn to spiritual topics, and we would dialogue in such a way that each provided the other with spiritual balm. I can hardly even characterize these conversations. For me, words would just spill out of my mouth, without thinking, from places I couldn't readily source. And from her, I sensed this uplifting radiance, this unfolding expansiveness. It was comforting to be a moth drawn to her flame.

So days after posting that dark blog, Dee and I got together.

We each, as it turned out, had something special to share. She wanted to tell me about something that had recently happened to her, and I wanted to broach the topic of winking on before winking out. I was a little afraid that she might begin to proselytize. Try as I might, I have never been able to embrace the born-again concept. As I told her, I was “born again” at 10 or 12, walked to the front of the church, dropped to my knees and accepted communion. Nothing happened. I’ve spent a lifetime since, seeking the truth about human existence, corporeal and spiritual.

Dee shared first. She began to tell me about her experiences with Margaret, someone she had never spoken of before. I don’t want to trivialize what came next. Dee explained to me how Margaret was her spirit guide, a presence she had experienced since childhood, who manifest as Western Indian in appearance. In her most recent encounter, Dee explained, Margaret had taken her through a spiritual initiation ceremony. I was quite familiar with this in the context of more alternative approaches to spirituality. I never, ever expected to hear of such a thing from my dear friend.

To listen to Dee, who had initially been fearful for her salvation, speak of an experience that can only be described as transcendent, was remarkable. I said to her, “You cannot imagine the appropriateness of your telling me this just now.”

Then I shared with her much of what I wrote in the previous post. She offered no fear, no recrimination, no push to make me be like her. Just openness, acceptance and love.

This is the sort of thing that holds me ‘twixt and ‘tween. Can this have been a coincidence? I did not have a clue Dee had ever had any such experiences. I had no clue that she had a spirit guide. I would never have even raised the topics of spirit guides or initiations with her because they fly so far afield from traditional Christianity. So it’s not like I elicited this, or planted some suggestion, or provoked it. And, she doesn't read the blog.

Yet, it's the sort of maddening thing that happened often immediately after Gregory’s death. Tantalizing, maybe-spiritual messages. Coincidence upon coincidence. Are they just the magical thinking/interpretation of finite creatures?

Dee would say now that she and I entered into a contract before birth to do something specifically together – learn a lesson, perform a service – in this lifetime.

I cannot say this is wrong. Or correct. The stone-cold, sober truth is that we shall only know the truth of all of this upon the event of our own death. Or, perhaps we shall enter eternal slumber and not know at all.

Images by Vladimir Kush

Sunday, March 18, 2007

26. The Dark Side of Death and Grief

It has been a while since I have posted, I know. Life has been getting in the way. There have been the comings and goings of family, the sorrow of break-up and divorce, the joy of discovery with a loved one, the impending death of a mentor. And all the while, menopause courses through my body and rattles my mood.

I don’t mind the hot flashes. Really. I liken them to a wasabi rush: You eat too much, and it storms up your nose toward an explosion you know is coming. You also know you can’t stop it, are powerless to resist and, in an instant, it blows right through. Same with hot flashes. I can deal with that. Keep the covers loose. And absolutely, positively do not wear turtlenecks.

But it’s also allowed the bottom to drop out of my mood from time to time. And when this happens, I step gingerly closer to what I call the dark side. Of late, it’s meant embracing, if just for the moment, the existential concept that this is all there is. No afterlife. No beforelife. No spirit. No continuity beyond the biological rhythms and grit of life as we know them.

I have never allowed myself to entertain this possibility before. It is too dark. Too depressing. Too scary. Too hurtful when I think of Gregory and Izzy, our beloveds. Or of us.

And yet.

What does it mean to touch the concept with mental flickers, the way you touch salt with your tongue and fell a shiver of excitement?

Is it because I’m menopausal? Is it because the end of my life is undeniably closer than its beginning? Does being in this place in time allow me to dip into the possibility that we are but lights that blink on, then blink off, for all eternity?

I find myself rolling this concept around, like caramel. Or a mouthful of voluptuous wine.

That makes it sound pleasant, but the comparisons are more about nuance. I do not wish this to be the case. But I can seize it, touch it, feel it just now without screaming.

And the great conundrum is all this evidence that points flirtingly toward there being more, no matter what the hard scientists say. I am speaking beyond the religious and spiritual texts, beyond the mantras and Hail Marys, to an isness that transcends faith.

But if you entertain the thought for even a fleeting moment that this is all there is, that we are creatures biologique, it opens up a different appreciation for life. By some fluke of chance, we become the candle. We become the flame. We wink on. And before we wink off, what do we do with our tiny window of light?

We can be gangstas and bling-queens. We can surf the drug culture till we are senseless. We can steal and cheat and lie and grab for ourselves and our tribe. We can kill and die for Allah and God. Or, we can sort of hold our lives in our hands and say, “What do we do here? The clock is ticking. What can we do in our brief time that pays something forward to unborn generations who may never know we existed?”

I don’t have the answer. I’m not even sure I understand the question. But these are matters we all must contemplate, whether they are truth or not. For in the end, none of us gets out of this alive. And in the end, none of us knows the answer to the question – whether there will be 72 virgins waiting for our sacrifice, or deep, soundless, timeless repose – until we die. Oh, to retreat into the familiar feminine flow once again.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

25. Of Things Unseen

Once again I drove to the car wash today. Once more to have the mud and grime cleansed from the surface of this car, which was Gregory’s car before it was my car. I’m sure people look at me sideways as I pull in; the little Celica surely looks battered for its 13 years, like a car most people wouldn’t bother to clean.

It has what I euphemistically call “skin cancer.” That is, the clear-coat is peeling off the driver’s side of the trunk and roof, and now is beginning to work its way down the driver’s side.

This is not something that should have happened to Gregory’s car, which he bought new in 1993. For the first five years of its life, the Celica was washed twice a week by hand. If you sat down in the passenger’s seat and perchance a leaf had attached itself to your shoe, Gregory would lean over and pull the detritus off the spotless mats. The Celica was garaged at home as well as at work, contributing further to the riddle of the cancer.

Gregory took the car for service the second he was supposed to. Oil changes on the dot. Tires rotated right on schedule. The car was his pride and joy, and I loved sitting next to him, watching him in profile, feeling him glide smoothly through the gears, the little engine humming through its rpms.

Gregory took the car for service, but he refused to get a physical. Never had an EKG. Never had a blood work-up. He felt he was in control of his body. He ran or walked every morning. He ate the right stuff. He was trim. He looked younger than his 50 years. Who could argue with him?
When we met, Gregory was years past his last encounter with a doctor. He’d had some dental work that had become infected, which he was careful to have treated. And much earlier, he had been shot and nearly died. That’s another story, but it was shocking the first time we made love to see a rough scar running from front to back around the bottom of his left rib-cage. He’d been shot during a robbery and had bled, and when the docs cut into him, niceties like appearance were not on their minds. They were more concerned with saving his life. Which they did.

Also some time earlier, during Gregory’s second marriage, when he was running the liquor store that his dad had left to him and his mom, he had dabbled in cocaine. I would not find this out till after he died and I began peering into some of those compartments he kept discreetly separated from one another.
During one episode, his wife told me later, he had been standing next to the hood of their car and grabbed his chest and crumpled to his knees. He told her that for a moment he thought he was going to die.

So despite Gregory’s intensity about caring for his body and running and eating the right things and having it all under control, there were processes unseen taking place in his body just as there were processes unseen below the surface of his beloved Celica. Who knows what careless hand in the paint booth shortchanged the clear-coat on his/my car? Who knows what was really going on in Gregory’s heart?

Sometimes, it’s just the way the dice tumble.
In the ensuing years since Gregory’s death, I have loved the Celica. Loved the feel. Loved the design. Loved its looks. Loved the fit. Even loved its cranky, unforgiving clutch. But out of nowhere, despite babying, despite keeping it out of the sun far more than letting it sit in the sun, despite coddling it like the creampuff it’s been, the cancer came creeping. The flaw began to show itself.

I suppose the true corollary to a heart attack would be for the engine to blow. But either way, a flaw unseen led to a ruinous outcome. I can’t go back and make Gregory go to the doctor. But now you can see why I push Mario on the point. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much pushing. I still worry.

Monday, January 22, 2007

24. Angelo’s Ashes

{ Mario writes this time }

I had been out of town when Violet had the memorial for Angelo. Traveling for business and the holiday season had kept me from being there. When I settled back in, I called Violet up and asked her out to lunch.

She had recently returned from China, a trip she had planned some time before Angelo’s death. Violet decided it would be a good thing to go on a journey.

After Isabel had passed away, I took a trip to Italy. It was our last trip together. I had obtained a heart- shaped urn made from a biodegradable paper, so that when we finally parted and she remained in the earth, her ashes to go back into the ground after a short time.

I chose Assisi. We had been there and loved it together. Years before with my baby son, I had spent many weeks there. He had taken his first steps in Assisi. It was a place I would return to over the years.

With the help of a friend, we obtained the consent to have Isabel’s ashes buried in a holy spot, a place where Francis of Assisi had gone to meditate and pray, the Eremo delle Carceri. Near his cave, there was a tree up on the hillside.

Some time before, I had struggled with the reality of her ashes. I couldn’t bear to take them out of the plastic container and put them into the cotton sack and then into the urn. I had to ask my son to help me with it.

So when Violet asked me at lunch to help her divide Angelo’s ashes in two, I had to take a step into an unknown room that I had avoided. I still have my cat’s ashes in the closet and cannot bear to deal with even those.

But I could understand Violet’s grief and told her not to worry. She wanted to divide them, one part for his golfing buddies to take to the golf course, and the other to their old neighborhood in the Hudson Valley in New York.

I know the spirit is gone and the flesh and bones have been made as safe and as neutral as can be. And as I opened the box to split Angelo’s ashes, it couldn’t have been easier. It was as if something that I had dreaded for all these years was suddenly rendered without the charge I had assigned to it. I felt freed, and it was soothing to be able to help a friend who was still in the darkness of the tunnel of grief. Even if I dropped a little of the dust around the kitchen, accidentally, it didn't seem to upset the cosmic order of things.

I’m not going anywhere else with this; Ann has been asking me to write something about the experience.

I don’t have a lot of feeling for the body after life has left it. I don’t need to wash it or caress it or kiss it. What I am connected to isn’t the flesh as much as the spirit that embodies the flesh. And once it has passed over, to continue to try and connect with a lifeless corporeal object is, to me, a disregard for the person and their energy. I am fine with talking to them inside my mind and dreaming about them and being reached out to by them for our future communications. That’s just the way it has to be.

Now I just have to decide which kind of urn they’ll maybe put my ashes in someday. Right now I have my eyes on a biodegradable one that you can throw into the ocean like a Frisbee.

Or maybe just a simple recycled bag, from say, In-N-Out?

Ann adds: See why I love this guy so much?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

23. The Ghosts of Christmas Past

For Mario and I, Christmas sort of died along with our great loves.

Gregory and I used to take Helena out to a Christmas tree farm to pick out a tree.

Gregory didn’t participate in the decorating, but Helena and I would hang upon the boughs first lights, then the ornaments and all the memories locked inside them: A wooden lighthouse from a New England friend. A tiny Noah’s ark leftover from my marriage to Helena’s dad. A miniature sleigh full of miniature foodstuffs from a foodie at work. A pine cone that Helena had decorated with ribbons and spangles.

For the most part, these have sat, undisturbed, in a box year after year since Gregory died. It wasn’t that Helena and I made less out of Christmas. It’s just that it didn’t feel the same. We didn’t want to go Christmas tree hunting by ourselves, and it wasn’t as much fun to hang the stockings with everyone’s names, including the cats, down the banister. And, anyway, when Helena entered her militant environmental stage, live trees were out of the question.

It was only a couple of years ago that some of the decorations came out of their tissue cocoons. The occasion was the first time Mario and I hosted a Christmas Eve get-together with blended family and friends. We couldn’t have them over without a Christmas tree, could we?

So, for the first time since Izzy died, Mario rooted around in the attic for their sturdy artificial tree. We combined our ornaments, and the tree came to life, complete with an angel. I can’t say we did this with a lot of joy. But it has gotten easier, as we have gently coaxed the ritual from the shadows of loss.

Christmas Eve 2006, we again created a feast: Mario’s exquisite Calabrian eggplant parmesan, which starts with slicing and grilling eight eggplant. A “happy” pastured turkey cooked according to Martha Stewart’s cheesecloth-draped method. Rich, brown gravy made from drippings (an art I have finally mastered). Yukon Gold potatoes not mashed, but riced to ethereal lightness, with melted butter and milk gently folded in. Izzy’s sister brought broccoli salad with almonds, grapes and bacon, as well as a modern squash casserole. And a new friend, who’s in her second holiday season in the “tunnel,” brought chocolate-chip-laced brandy balls for dessert. Her soulmate, like Gregory and Izzy, was far too young when he died just over a year ago.

Whether by design or accident at this year’s dinner – Mario made the place cards – Violet, who lost her husband of 53 years to Alzheimer’s earlier this year, sat directly across from the new friend, next to another new friend, and with Izzy’s sister and Mario’s 90-plus aunt. I, too, was at this table.

A lively conversation covered a landscape of topics: from missing New York City, to whiches and thats (‘happens when writers and editors talk), to expectations of an art museum, to the lamentable dearth of walking in our city and the urine-tainted cars of our mass public transit. And then, the conversation turned to loss.

Perhaps it was the wine. Or the Christmas tree angel, perched above our heads. Perhaps it was the comfort of connections discovered and discourse made easy. Whatever the reason, we dipped collectively into the intimacy of shared loss, if only for a moment, as we exchanged parts of our stories.

Honestly, I think this is how we’re supposed to grieve. To share a moment, or a reflection, and just be heard and understood. It’s not as if you have to dissect the whole process. It’s just making connections. But in our culture, if you haven’t experienced loss, you don’t know how to react. And so what could become an opportunity for healing instead becomes just awkward. So we who have been through it have learned not to bring loss up, or to apologize when we do.

For this group, that wasn’t the case. We raised our glasses filled with wine from the common decanter of grief, sisters in the communion of love found and forever lost.

And then, with kaleidoscopic perfection, the conversation morphed again, swirling naturally away from the topic, our hearts warmed and faces aglow.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

22. Glimpsing the Love - and Secret Compartments

Mario keeps prodding me to talk more about our respective mates and food. After all, the title of this blog is, “Table for Four, Dinner for Two.” And there are many food moments still to share. For, indeed, while eating and dining and gathering 'round a table are central to everyone’s lives, they are the heart and soul of existence for foodies like us.

I, on the other hand, am pulled toward telling you more of the back story, of who Gregory was and the twist and turns of his life and death. So the food will have to simmer for the moment on the back burner (but of course, not too long).

Let’s go back to the memorial service. Here we were in this stark, funeral-home chapel as the pews filled with Gregory’s friends and family, mine, and his business associates. It was a service that almost didn’t happen. At one point, Gregory’s cousin and his wife (who had taken over the “arrangements”), the funeral-director chick, and I had gathered around Aurora’s bed in the hospital, where she was recovering from hip surgery.

When I mentioned doing a memorial service, the cousin and his wife seemed surprised. “Who would come?” they asked. I told them a lot of his friends were asking about one. Skeptical, they allowed me to put the service together.

So there we were in the chapel. I sat between my psychic friend, who whispered to me that Gregory was there, and Gregory’s best friend, DeWayne, who had collected tributes. Aurora insisted that her priest, Father Franks, preside. DeWayne and I just wanted to make sure the tributes got read.

At length, it was my turn, and while many of the other remembrances had made me cry, I also felt shimmering inside at the outpouring of love.

I slid down the pew toward the center aisle and climbed up to the pulpit, there to see for the first time how full the chapel was, how many people were there for him and me. I took a deep breath and began: “More than anything, I am thankful that Gregory and I had five wonderful years together, years made sweet with simple pleasures – doing laundry before a morning walk, cooking together, sitting on the couch and reading the paper....” I told about our first date and Gregory wiggling his toes in the grass (at the restaurant, no less). I told about a playful incident at the drugstore scarcely a week before with Helena and a hand cart. I told how Gregory had held me the day of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, and of looking up to see tears in his eyes, too. I closed with a colleague’s line about Gregory’s purpose in my life being to make me “be a good dresser!”

I returned to my seat, and Father Franks reclaimed the pulpit, commending Gregory’s soul to God. But before the postlude could begin, a handsomely dressed, young African-American man bounded up to the pulpit and said into the microphone, “Wait. Please, wait. I wasn’t able to get my tribute to Gregory in on time, and I’d like to offer it now.”

There was a pause. I thought he was going to take a piece of paper from his breast pocket and read. Instead, a sonorous baritone rose up out of that slender body, expanding to fill the entire chapel with “Amazing Grace.”

One by one, the members of the congregation joined in, following the lead of this huge voice and heart. When he had finished, the room felt so light. We even managed to smile though our tears as the organist played a tortured postlude of “Forever Young” and “Against the Wind,” Gregory’s anthems.

The swell of emotion did not escape Gregory’s cousin and his wife, the ones who had wondered who might attend such a service. They had glimpsed a side of Gregory they’d never known, that he had never shown them.

But then, Gregory was skilled at sealing off different compartments of his life from one another. After he died, the compartments started falling open to reveal the startling contents inside.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

21. Tending the Garden

I was working in the office the other day when a coworker/friend popped his head over my cubicle wall and said, “Do you have a minute?” His eyes were twinkly as he swung around the corner and knelt next to my chair.

“Do you remember what you told me that night we went to dinner after John died? How your heart is like a garden? How new love can grow next to the love for the one who’s gone? Well, you were right.”

Tom was describing an analogy I use when talking about grief and recovery and, yes, new love after you’ve lost the most precious love of your life. In Tom’s case, he and John had been partners for something like 20 years. In fact, when John, whom I met first, initially described Tom, it was so long ago that he referred to Tom as “my girlfriend.” We were co-workers, and he was leery of exposing his homosexuality.

It was something that always gave me a chuckle after John finally introduced Tom. No matter how you feel about it, I can tell you that this was a long-term, committed relationship built upon mutual love and respect. Two people could not have cared more for each other.

So it was a shock when John went into the hospital for exploratory surgery for some unexplained symptoms and the stunning outcome was to learn that his body was riddled with cancer. The lymphoma was so severe and widespread that he would not leave the hospital, not even for hospice care.

John was 50. There began in those final days a parade of family members and coworkers to keep vigil and to share their feelings and support with Tom and one another. Even as John lay dying, he mustered the strength to spend a few final moments with each of us. Even people like me, who were not part of his inner circle of friends, but who cared deeply for him as a coworker. John was this great, big, sunny Italian guy, and it was so shocking to think that we were losing him like this.

In contrast, Tom was more the quiet type, at least when I was around. He seemed the button-down counterweight to John’s exuberance. I was frankly concerned about him. I wasn’t sure he’d find the wherewithal to recover, to work through his grief, much less to love again.

But here he was, kneeling next to me and talking about the new man in his life. Or more precisely, how the new man was sympathetic and understanding of Tom’s need to talk about John and to celebrate certain occasions. Tom held out his hand to show me a ring that had been John’s.

“Can you believe it’s been three years?” he said, looking vibrant and healthy. I was surprised. It hadn’t seemed that long. “For the three-year anniversary, my friend and I are going out to dinner, and I decided to wear John’s ring today in remembrance.” Not only that, he told me, he was taking the new friend to his and Tom’s favorite vacation spot in Hawaii. In fact, Tom had spread John’s ashes there in accordance with his final wishes.

On that occasion, one of those “is it mystical, or is it a coincidence?” moments occurred. You can drive yourself crazy trying to discover whether the consciousness of those have passed lives on, whether they can influence the material world. I’ve certainly had my moments with Gregory, and Mario has had his with Izzy. But when you try to scrutinize them with a cold, scientific eye, they become ephemeral and like a riddle in a riddle in a riddle.

John had requested that his ashes be released into the ocean. As Tom stood at the water’s edge and let them fly, he looked out on the horizon to see three whales jumping up out of the waves in unison. It gave him chills. He’s never seen anything like it before or since.

Mario was able to take Izzy’s ashes to Assisi in Italy. I had wanted, along with Gregory’s cousins, to spread Gregory’s ashes at places that were important to him. In my case, it was an accomplishment just to get Gregory cremated. Aurora was Catholic. She had a family plot in a prestigious cemetery. (Yes, status can extend beyond the grave.) Although the thought of that beautiful body consumed in flames was not a pleasant one, I knew it was what Gregory would have wanted. “I don’t want to be buried,” he said, “all dressed up with no place to go.”

Having succeeded with the cremation (my daughter would say that Gregory went to the “creamery”), Gregory’s ashes had come to rest on Aurora’s fireplace mantle. Finally, her neighbor pulled me aside and begged me to let Aurora “bury” Gregory in the family plot. It was killing her to stare at the box and contemplate Gregory’s remains inside.

I agreed. For that matter, I could not have stopped her. One of the lessons of death is that much of what we do in its wake is for the living. If Aurora could rest better with the box of ashes in the ground, well, so be it.

All of this came stirring up as Tom talked effusively of his new relationship and his ability to hold his new love side-by-side in his heart with the old. Love doesn’t die. And love need never be crowded out to make room for another.

Tulips and Forget-Me-Nots

Thursday, November 16, 2006

20. They call the wind Aurora

There was another woman in Gregory’s life. But you would never know this from Aurora’s obituary. She died eight years after Gregory, but her obit ran without reference to either her husband or her two sons, one of whom was Gregory.

No mention! Despite the fact that Gregory came back home to help her after his dad died. Despite the fact that Gregory’s brother committed suicide. What was this young man’s sin against her?

While Gregory was growing up, Aurora was alternately his savior and tormentor. Mother and son were locked in a dance that began when he was a small child. By the time Gregory was born, Aurora understood that her husband’s anger could translate into slaps or degrading diatribes instantly, especially if his gambling weren’t going well. And Gregory was such bright, intense boy.

“I used to tell him that he was my eyes when we drove down to South Texas,” Aurora told me dreamily one time. And I can see the boy-child, alert and watching out the windshield with meerkat vigilance. Taking full responsibility.

And the incident that I wrote about earlier where Gregory intervened between his mother and father at the age of 7? That was emblematic of the relationships churning in that household.

When Gregory’s father courted her, Aurora could not have guessed that such a vile temper lie beneath his charming exterior. She could not have guessed that she was marrying not just into a family, but into a tribe. And she certainly could not have guessed that the tribe treated women little better than furniture.

These dark women were not quick to embrace Aurora, who was seen as an outsider. And although Gregory’s young cousins adored her, she was never fully accepted by the rest of the family. Her husband even forbade her to raise their boys as Catholics, according to her faith. “Take ‘em to the Baptist church,” he declared.

Yet Aurora was expected to learn to prepare his favorite Lebanese dishes. Since there were no cookbooks to reference then, she would stand patiently in the kitchen as the other women cooked, watching, listening, learning. By the time I came into Gregory’s life, she made possibly the best dolmas I’ve ever tasted, rich and juicy, and a tabbouleh so good it was adapted for a cookbook.

When Gregory and I first ate at a tiny Middle Eastern café not far from where we lived, he remarked that the food was just like his mother made at home: the tabbouleh, kibbe, hummus, baba ghanouj…. This was another one of those places Mario and Izzy frequented. But it would have been just two tables for two, with no connection, except a future one.

Gregory and I even took Aurora there once, but she embarrassed him by asking for – no, demanding – a recipe. Instead of saying something about it to her, Gregory just smoldered, his face, eyes and body betraying no clue to how he felt. Yet every Mother’s Day, every Christmas, every Easter and Thanksgiving, he took Aurora out.

Wrapped into the father’s tribal culture was an attitude about mothers and sons that was different from what we know in the West. No matter how much Gregory disliked the way she was, he felt duty-bound (and gagged) to care for her. Paradoxically, wives were second-class citizens, but mothers were revered.

When Gregory had come back after his father’s death, just as he was beginning a career as a USDA economist, his father’s business and finances were in disarray.

Not only had his father left no will, he had left no money. By law in the state of their residence, mother and son shared equally in the father’s estate. Gregory immediately signed his portion of the house over to his mother. "It will be mine someday," he said. Nearly as quickly, he plunged into reviving the retail liquor store that had been his dad’s retirement hobby.

His goal was to create a sustainable income for Aurora as she entered old age. Gregory was, after all, the only family she had left. So they owned the liquor store together. Gregory knew something about business, how to make a business work, and how to skim, but he would be doing it hands-on for the first time.

Aurora had worked before she was married. She had been a World War II defense worker and a hat model, among other things.

But there is a reason why co-ownership of a business by two people – or any even number, really – is a bad idea. Gregory would learn this hands-on, too. But not for a while. Despite circumstances completely thwarting his life and career plans, he was determined to make the best of it. If he was going to run a liquor store, then he was going to run the best, most successful liquor store on the block.

Friday, October 27, 2006

19. The Intuitive Nature of Grief

Mario has just returned from a two-week trip to Italy – business, but hey, how bad can ANY business trip to Italy be? – and something has shifted. Instead of flooding into his space with my needs, I have felt compelled to just enjoy his company and do whatever I can to make his landing in the home time-zone soft and comfortable.

Mario dislikes those posts on touching Gregory’s body. Creeps him out, he says. It's too personal to share, he says.

I can see how it would be inappropriate for him. Although outgoing, Mario’s also a very private person and even now shares only glimpses of the day-to-day challenges of dealing with Isabel’s illness.

Grieving isn’t and shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross gives insight into this in her final book, On Grief and Grieving, co-written with David Kessler. She talks about the need to share grief, the sometimes surprising ways it manifests – a man who lost his son wanted to immediately make love to his wife, not out of carnal escape but to reaffirm life – and the necessity of surrendering to it.

Not long before Mario left for Italy, a dear friend of his, now a friend of mine, lost her husband of 53 years to Alzheimer’s. Violet worked with Isabel, and when Isabel was ill, Violet was there to help, most memorably, I’m told, by reading to Isabel when she could no longer read for herself.

Violet’s husband Angelo had been a graphic designer in New York City during the 1950s and ‘60s, a golden age of creativity in that field. New York was the nerve center. By the time Angelo died earlier this year, the memory of his heyday, his later work with shadow boxes, his love of Mexican art, indeed of Violet and all they had lived through together, had been scrubbed from his mind.

During the later throes of the disease, when he and Violet were at home, he once looked at her said, “Do you work here?” Violet answered, “Yes, I do.” He thought about this for a moment, then said, “Do you think you could get me a job here, too?” Funny, yes. But funny-sad.

While Mario was in Italy, Violet insisted on hosting a remembrance gathering of friends and family. She both looked forward to the day and dreaded it. She suspected that it would be emotionally exhausting. Yet intuitively, she knew it was a necessary element of her grieving.
Each of their children spoke movingly of their father and mother. Violet read a piece that she had written about him, her voice faltering toward the end.

There was Violet’s sister, who recalled when Violet and Angelo had their first date in 1952. And Angelo’s teary-eyed golf buddies. One said, “We still haven’t replaced him in our foursome.”

And his caregiver for what turned out to be the final year. The young woman marveled at Violet and Angelo’s relationship, at Violet’s caring and insistence that Angelo be washed, groomed and dressed every day and treated with the dignity befitting the man he had been, even when he did not know who he was, where he was or how to dress himself. It was, the young woman said, an inspiration.

There were toasts. And tears. Stories and laughter. And when it was all done, Violet felt complete with another step in her passage.

Grief is like entering into a long, dark tunnel. Dark because it is unspeakably painful. Dark because you don’t know what’s ahead. Dark because it fits your mood. When I first met Mario, I told him that he was in the tunnel. I think he also told Violet this. Grief does feel like a long, black tunnel. And part of the value of sharing with others who have experienced it is their assurance of light up ahead, even if the person who is grieving cannot yet see it.

But like a tunnel, there are no shortcuts. You may spend time groping along the edges for another, shorter way out. But in the end, the quickest way out is still through.

Friday, October 13, 2006

18. The Face of Death: Part II

Note: This entry contains strong imagery that may make some readers uncomfortable.

This is a continuation of the previous post in which I was talking about spending time with Gregory’s body. This was at the behest of a friend who was a grief counselor. Although I resisted the idea at first, I finally relented, on the strength of my trust in her.

I brought Gregory’s favorite massage oil with me. His body was strapped to a gurney, and he was wrapped tightly in a sheet from the chest down. I had wanted his whole body so that I could anoint it slowly and methodically as I prayed, meditated and said goodbye. In so many traditions – Jewish, Hindu, early Christian – the body is ceremonially cleansed and dressed, often by those closest to the deceased.

I poured a little of the aromatic oil into my cupped hand. The scent of lavender, cypress and patchouli softened Gregory’s plastic odor. I rubbed the cupped hand with my other hand to spread a fine film of oil over my fingers and palms, just as I had done when I had massaged Gregory in life.

At those times, he would lie below me as I balanced lightly on his buttocks and worked the muscles of his back, shoulders and neck. I marveled at how supple his muscles were, even those where most of us hold tension in our backs and shoulders. It was like rubbing a cat, and I surmised then that either he really did easily throw off the stresses that got to the rest of us, or he buried them so deeply within his body that I could not reach them.

Poised again at the top of his head, I started with my thumbs on his forehead and used my thumbs and fingers to trace the outline of his face down to his chin. I caressed the planes of his cheeks, the bones around his eyes, the bridge of his nose, all the time talking softly to him and reciting a prayer we used to say in the church where I had first seen him.

Oh wonderful, beautiful kingdom of light, shed down upon these humble souls thy beam of cosmic consciousness.… I stroked his fine smooth neck, carefully avoiding the autopsy stitches at the back…. Reach down and touch the souls that wait, and stir our minds with thoughts divine…. I smoothed the oil along and under his strong shoulders, the shoulders that had borne so much…. Cast out all evil and all sin, and take unto the world of love our hearts and psychic selves, that thus merged, our selves shall be but self of God….

Gregory had been plunged into the frigid vault so quickly after death that his arms and fingers remained pliable. I drank in those sun-browned arms, the slack muscles, the wrists barely larger than my own…. Oh God, creator of the universe, from Whom all things proceed and to Whom all things return….

Using my thumbs, I first stroked the top, then the palm, of each hand, those gentle, sweet hands whose touch had thrilled, protected and comforted me. I slid my fingers down to the end of his fingertips…. Reveal to us now the face of the true spiritual sun, hid by the disk of golden light….

I lingered over each line, each delicate and hard-earned wrinkle. Then I moved my hands over the sheets, as if I were caressing the rest of his body…. That we may know the Truth and do our whole duty in the One work as we journey to Thy sacred feet….

Because Gregory was tightly covered, I would miss being able to touch his feet and his long, slender toes with their long, slender nails. One time we had gone to an Assyrian art exhibit and peered up at a massive wall relief of soldiers frozen in some forgotten battle thousands of years ago. There were dozens of toes just like Gregory’s.

The truth is, when you love someone, you do love their body. The body is the expression of the inner being, whether it’s the pillowlike comfort of a mother’s breasts or the sun-leathered creases of an old man’s smile. In my private farewell, I realized just how deeply I loved this body – its shape, its smell, the form of it – and how difficult it was to separate the body from what had once been the spirit within. I loved the way the man moved and animated this body. The two, body and spirit, blurred as one.

As I snapped the lid shut on the oil, lingering at Gregory’s side one last time, I was struck by the thought: The man I love is gone. Joy was right. Without his essence inside, the body is truly a shell. And strangely, this comforted me.

17. The Face of Death: Part I

Note: This entry contains strong imagery that may make some readers uncomfortable.

When a counselor friend suggested, in the week following Gregory’s death, that I might want to spend some time alone with his body, my first reaction was one of revulsion and fear. Like most people, my initial thought was to remember Gregory as I had known him in life, as the vital man I had loved.

Joy gently persisted. She suggested that spending time with his body might allow me to find some closure and understand that the man I loved was no longer in the body.

Joy was a wise counselor, whom I respected. Her suggestion reminded me of the time as child when my favorite cat was killed. Though Tiger bore no outward signs of trauma, my overprotective mother refused to let me see him. In retrospect, I always wished I had been able to look at him one more time. Perhaps I knew something intuitively then about what Joy was suggesting now.

Going mostly on faith and not much else, I arranged with the funeral director to spend some time with the body. And once more, I found myself being ushered to a viewing room by the young woman. Closing the door behind me, I asked that I not be disturbed.

Death is not pretty. Whether a person is pumped full of embalming fluid or dolled up with makeup, neither can hide the absence of animation and the flat, lifeless translucence of a corpse. Gregory was neither embalmed nor made up. He was wrapped tightly in sheets and again strapped to a gurney, this time draped with a quilt. His hair was clumsily combed back so as to emphasize his receding hairline. He would not have liked that.

Left alone with the body, I gingerly began to touch the face, Gregory’s face. It was cold, like the inside of the refrigerated facility where he had lain for nearly a week. An opaque waxiness replaced his true coloring. His eyes appeared to be glued shut. There were bits of sticky stuff caught in his eyelashes. With no circulation to support the tissue, his features were slightly flattened and the crook of his nose, sharpened.

Standing at his head, I leaned down so that I might smell his forehead and remember his scent. But I was disappointed: There was only an unfamiliar plastic odor. His scent had vanished in the icy vault. Tentatively I traced the outline of his ear with my finger and followed the crest of his brow and the line of his chin. I was not repulsed.

I tried to push his hair into place. I was struck by the weight of Gregory’s head as I rolled it gently between my hands; it had never seemed so heavy when the life of muscles had supported it. I ran my hand down his neck, his shoulder, his arms to his hands.

I had requested that his whole body be accessible. But instead he was tightly bound from the chest down. I had only his arms and hands and the top of his chest, where little tufts of black hair curled. I drank him in with my hands as well as my eyes.

You can love someone for years and be hazy on the fine details of their features. Now I was intent on incising the memory of every line, every crevasse, the faint mole on his upper lip, the shape of his fingers. I noticed a bruise on the top of his right hand. Is this where he tried to catch himself as he fell? Otherwise he was unscathed, perfect and unscathed, save for the thick black thread where the autopsy incisions were sewn closed. And of course his heart. His heart was broken.

To be continued…

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sat Oct 7, 2006

Blog Of The Day Awards Winner
"They like it, they really like it!"

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

16. The Language of the Sandbox

Mario and I were getting on a plane the other day, in our typical Italian-Teutonic fashion. He ambled up into line before our group was called. I waited farther back. He motioned me to come forward. I didn’t want to “cut” in front of the people I was behind.

Mario strode down the walkway ahead of me, while I, somewhat disheveled, juggled a cellphone I’d just hung up, my purse and a bag. A man nearby, having observed our interaction, said to me, “You guys look like you’ve been together a long time.”

The comment made me smile. In a way, it was true. I’ve been in relationship with Mario longer now than I was with Phillip, long enough for us to develop a couple culture, which is a kind of shorthand that develops over time between two people.

I think, without stating it in so many words, the loss of couple culture is one of the things we mourn deeply when we lose a love, whether by death, divorce, or some other separation. And no wonder we mourn losing it. That person, with whom we feel seen and acknowledged and connected, suddenly is not there.

Couple culture is a state of understanding and being understood; you don’t have to explain everything in every conversation from scratch. A lot of times, it’s a basis for play and how you relate to each other in your own private sandbox.

It’s also probably fair to say that “bad” couple cultures are at the root of a lot of divorces. (“He always does THIS.” “She always does THAT.”) But “good” couple cultures help solidify relationships. You create a common language of mind, body and spirit with all the complexity and nuance that implies.

So this gig I’ve been doing lately that had Mario and I boarding a plane together (sort of) requires me to record sound snapshots of things like restaurant service. When Mario and I aren’t interacting with staff, the recorder continues, and our personal conversations invariably wind up on the tape, too. Couple culture. In your face.

I am what Mario (and a lot of other people) call bossy. I come from a family of bossy women. I’m a know-it-all, whether I really “know” something or not. Mario, on the other hand, is a force of nature. I like to call him a big tree because his is a formidable presence. Safe to say, whatever I dish out, he can take. Or put up with. There are no withering violets in this match-up.

This exchange occurred after a server brought us some cracked, fresh coconut. Imagine comedian Dane Cook doing this dialogue. That’s what it sounded like.

I should also point out that Mario runs circles around me intellectually. He is a renaissance man, educated by Jesuits, who has poked his nose into more books on more subjects than I will ever hope to. It’s just that, I’ve read more books on nutrition.

The other thing is: We’re not angry in this exchange. We’re having fun, playing a little relationship ping-pong.

Anyway, here goes:

Mario: Coconut is good for you!
Ann: No, it’s not.
M: Wuh?
A: It’s got saturated fat in it.
M: It’s water soluble.
A: No, it’s not.
M: How can something that grows on a tree be bad for you?
A: Well…. Is there fat in avocado?
M: Um-hum.
A: There’s fat in coconut.
M: It’s water soluble.
A: Fat is not water soluble.
M: Yes, it is. The fat in avocado is water soluble.
A: It’s completely impossible.
M: Are you sure?
A: Yeah. Fats are fat-soluble. Water-soluble things are water-soluble. Fat can’t be water-soluble.
M: Well, why do “they” always say that the fat in avocado is water-soluble?
A: “They” never say that.
M: I’ve heard it said a million times.
A: You have not.
M: Yes, I have.
A: Avocado is not water-soluble.
M: The fat in avocado is water-soluble.
A: No, it’s not.
M: That’s what I’ve been told.
A: I don’t know where you heard that.
M: You better check it out.
A: It’s wrong.
M: You may think it’s wrong. But you may not be right.
A: On this one, I am right.
M: You may think on this one, you’re right. But you may not be. You may not be right.
A: But I am right.
M: You don’t know that.
A: But I do, without a doubt. Without a question of a doubt. If you don’t think so, make a wager.
M: Are you ready to go?

Talk about savoring every morsel. Later that night at an Italian dinner, Mario baits me with the statement that the fat in olive oil is water soluble. He's got a twinkle in his eye. I snap at the bait, we laugh, and our journey of parallel souls continues.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

15. Confirming the Departure

I’ll tell you right up front: Mario has counseled against writing what I am about to write.

“Too raw,” he says.

It is a delicate topic. And like so many of the things I had to do and he had to do in connection with death and illness, I wish the experience on no one.

Gregory’s mother, you see, his next of kin, was still in the hospital, recovering from hip surgery when Gregory died. The hospital chaplain had told her about the death of her only son, who was the only remaining member of her immediate family. Gregory’s father had died years earlier, which had prompted Gregory to come home to sort out his affairs. And Gregory’s brother had committed suicide in the garage of the family home when the young man was 21.

The uncles and aunts on both sides had all passed. There simply was no other close family till you got to the cousins. So I had gone to the funeral home to start making “the arrangements.” But as awful as this was – making funeral arrangements for the man I loved not a week after last seeing him alive – this isn’t the thing Mario suggested I not write.

Making the arrangements was traumatic enough. But while I was at the funeral home the first time, I was asked to identify Gregory’s body.

You’ve seen this dramatic moment enacted on any number of TV shows. The parent asked to identify the child. The friend of the family asked to identify someone’s wife. The medical examiner or an assistant pulling back the sheet from his or her face, and the one making the identification either grimacing – yes, this is the person – or exhibiting this mosaic of positive and negative facial gestures – no! It’s not the person!

That’s not how it happened for me. For one thing, Gregory was already at the funeral home, so I wasn’t in the stainless-steel-and-tile environs of the morgue. I tried to prepare myself emotionally for what was about to happen. But nothing prepares you. Just as nothing prepares you to hear the stunning news that someone you love has died. Nothing prepares you to look upon the body the first time.

I was escorted to a private viewing room by a funeral director dressed in a tailored suit and “sensible” shoes – quite incongruous, given her youth and demeanor. She looked like she’d be more at home in a bar with friends, sipping margaritas. This was a uniform, as surely as a waitress’ outfit at Denny’s.

As we crossed the large, common anteroom, she showed me the death certificate. I was shocked to see the cause of death in black and white for the first time: cardioatherosclerotic disease. The poster child for health and fitness had died of a massive heart attack. Then I pointed out to the funeral director that Gregory was not “Pakistani” as the medical examiner had written.

She pushed open the door to the viewing room, and I got my first glimpse of the body, swathed in sheets and strapped to a gurney, like a newborn. For just a flash, I had the wild thought that maybe it wouldn’t be him. Maybe it was a real Pakistani, and this would have all been a terrible misunderstanding.

My heart sank as the familiar profile came into view. I stood looking at him – eyes closed, face unshaven, skin flat and waxy – digesting the moment.

Without a doubt, it was one of the most wrenching experiences of my life. Here was visual confirmation of what I had already been told. But the mind is a cunning protector. If you haven’t actually seen the person who has died, some part of you, even if it’s just one teensy corner that you didn’t even know existed, holds out hope that the news will be wrong.

For me, it turned on the word, “Pakistani.” This was a far-fetched and ignorant description of Gregory’s ethnicity. And so there was that brief moment of hope leaping like a solar flare.
But it was true. This indeed was Gregory. And I could feel sweet, protective shock again licking at the edges of my mind.

As for Mario’s admonition not to relay this experience, I wonder. Is he right? Or does this serve to bring the truth of death a little closer to reality in a society that keeps it locked up tight behind the doors of denial?

In every relationship, one of you will leave, or be left – unless it’s like The Unbeaerable Lightness of Being or Thelma and Louise – because none of us gets out of this alive.