Greyfriars Bobby

Our hounds were Patti’s babies. They traveled all over town with her, Tim riding in the baskey of her scooter, Joe on the platform by her feet. She would hug them close, dress them in raincoats and a little duck suit, bring them to bed, and spoil them with treats. They licked her, hugged her back and guarded her, barking whenever a stranger got too close.

People asked me if they noticed her absence.

I didnt know how to tell. It’s not like they were hanging around the door waiting for her to come home,  or howling with grief. They seemed more or less the same. Except for the total breakdown in housebreaking. Horrible, squirty diarrhea. Puddles of pee all over. They were eating the same food as ever, getting lots of walks, but it was a nightmare.

I spent a few hundred dollars at the vet and put them on antibiotics. It went away, sort of but not entirely.  A dog walker suggested I try organic food. At the hippy pet store, they prescribed pumpkin and squash, cans of duck and venison. I tried it all and after four weeks or so, things calmed down. When I ran out of cans of expensive handmade food, I switched them back to dry food and they have been fine ever since. Except for when we went away overnight to my mum’s house and they stayed with strangers. Again, diahrrea.

Duh, they were stressed out and this is how it manifested. No support groups or condolence cards. They just want normalcy.

Grief is a messy business. This kind can be taken care of with a mop, hot water and Mr. Clean.

Grave concerns

In the corner of my mum’s property, hidden behind the bracken, there’s a tiny pet cemetery from the 1930s. It only has two headstones, commemorating some dogs whose owners are by now in the ground as well. Patti and I discovered it soon after Mum moved into her house in the forest that surrounds it. We though it was the coolest thing ever.

We always romanticized death and its trappings; our morbid fascinations drew us together from the day we met. We delighted in the fact that Patti’s dad had driven a hearse and regularly played cards with morticians. We had Day of the Dead parties with a coffin full of corn chips  our house decorated with Mexican papier mache skeletons.

We would pull the car over at any graveyard we passed, then study the graves for funny names or tombstones carved with portraits of the deceased or symbols of their hobbies — guitars or classic cars. We loved Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum for its ghoulish exhibits and Pere LaChaise cemetery in Paris  where we paid our lack of respect to Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf.

Patti gave me a lovely watercolor of a cemetery to hang in my office. We collected books of death photos, horrendous images of bloated corpses in kitchen chairs and skeletal remains in the bathtub.

When Patti was a few months pregnant, we stumbled on a section of a graveyard in upstate New York fdedicated to still borns and infant deaths. She insisted on having her picture taken with wee Jack yet in utyero,

Disturbing, right? It all seems like foreshadowing, which of course it was. We always knew we’d die, but somehow micking and delighting in death seemd like a harmless prank. The closer one gets to death and contemplates one’s mortality, the Buddhists say, the less one will fear it.

It didn’t really work, at least not for me. I was always fairly anxious about my own death, even more so about Patti’s. When we had to put our dog Frank to sleep, we were both hit hard; we couldn’t even bring ourselves to claim his body, despite years of joking that when he’d die, we’d add him to our taxidermy collection.

When Ninny, my mother’s mother died, I took it okay initially; she’d left us long before in haze of Alzheimer’s. But I was one of her pall bearers, carrying her shrouded body on a stretcher to a hole in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, her bony foot thumping against my hand with each step. We slid her into the hole, in what I thought would be a gesture akin to planting one of her beloved rose bushes, but it was hollow and scary and reeked of eternal void.

When my sister lost her husband, after just a year of marriage, I tried to be the strong one. We sat with Brian’s body face down on the couch for much of the day, then through yet another Irish wake, then an unrecognizable funeral. It was unimaginable that he was gone, but my sister somehow persevered, and even blossomed in the years that followed.

When my beloved mother-in-law, Phyllis, died in her living room after an endless death match with lung cancer, Patti was in attendance, holding her hand through the last agonizing days. That memory scarred her, Death shoving its loathsome face in hers, and steeling her somehow for the inevitable. Patti knew she would die one day and never wanted to go through such hell, she told me, but now she wasn’t scared of anything. Anything.

We stopped mocking Death as we grew older. It was no longer a country on the other side of the world but slowly crept over the horizon. We could see it now, the new home of twenty or more of the people who’d attended our wedding, some old, some gay, some just unlucky. It was getting familiar, inevitable, and much less of a joke.

Today, at least, I don’t fear it, not nearly as I did just a season ago. I have less to lose here in the land of the living. I still love life, don’t get me wrong, but for today, it has less to offer.

Pennies from heaven

 

We had so many traditions, some stemming back to when we first met, 24 years ago, on 6.16.1986.

616 was always an important number to us. It was also the date of our wedding on 6.16.1991, in the place we’d met five years before to the day. We usually called each other every day at 6:16 PM. We marked all the times that our restaurant bill would add up to some variation of the number. It still comes up; I ordered something from Amazon last weekend. Shipping & Handling: $6.16. It was a funny thing to look for but we knew it was just a long chain of coincidences. Superstition was just a fun pattern, a way to connect, like playing I Spy.

Wednesday was 6.16 again. As I have every year, I went to 18 W. 18 Street where we met and wed. This year I went with my sister, Miranda, Patti’s maid of honor. Over the years, what was once a restaurant, then another, and another, is now a children’s books shop. Where  we stood to be joined till death did us part, there’s now a cupcake counter. The cupcakes are made by the Cupcake Café. When Patti had her subway accident, she was on her way to pick up a cake from the Cupcake Café. She never made it, ending up instead in St Vincent’s Hospital (where she was declared death 14 years later, a week before the hospital was closed down forever). Two weeks later she missed going to 18 W.18 St on 6.16 for the very first time. This year she missed it again. Coincidence upon coincidence, but sadly proof of nothing.

I am reading The Lovely Bones. It makes me sad and I don’t know why I keep turning the pages. Susie Salmon watches her family (and the man who murdered her) from the after life. She follows their actions and their thoughts, hovering over and around them. She feels their pain, wishes she could contact them, but she is just a little girl forever more, beyond their reach. She believes that she’s in Heaven but to me it often seems like Hell.

I wish I could believe in ghosts or angels or spirits. People write to me to tell me that Patti is in Heaven, or watching over us, or waiting for us, or sitting with God, or one with the Universe, or waiting to be resurrected …. It would be so nice to think that she is hanging out with her mother and my grandmother in some wonderful place, and that we will join her soon and be with her forever.

I know you may be able to believe that and, believe me, I have tried to believe it too. Tried and failed. I can’t believe it, I can’t feel it, I can’t even imagine it. There is not even a flicker of doubt in my mind that Patti is no more and exists only in our memories and thoughts and in the cookie jar in my study.

Despite that, Patti does live on.

Just like my grandmother will always exist in the way I make beds, or can’t stand seeing dirty laundry on the floor, or the way I spread cream cheese on toast, or tend my garden. So I don’t need Patti to hover around my head or wear wings and play a harp or leave me five dollar bills neatly folded in fours. I don’t need to light candles for her or say Kaddish. I just need to hold her in my mind. if not my arms, and try to enjoy each day like she did. It’s a simple goal, a little trite, but easy to believe in. Even for an old skeptic like me.

What’s past is prologue

It’s funny how decisions Patti made, sometimes long ago, impact my daily life.  Like the back-ordered blouse that was just delivered by UPS and sits on her desk unopened. Or the brand-new wheelchair she ordered to replace her 12 year-old clunker  — a beautiful titanium work of art with flowers laser-etched on the tubing. It was on the truck to be sent to her on the day she died and, amidst the funeral arrangements, I remembered it and we managed to cancel the shipment.

I like the interruption of these messages from her, her mind working in the past and appearing in the present, like the bulbs she planted last Fall that popped up in late March after she was gone, and announced the first days of Spring, her favorite season.

There remains other unfinished business to attend to. Last week, I managed to throw out ten years of old Martha Stewart magazines but I can’t yet bring myself to go through her closets and share her clothes with strangers. One day I shall, maybe soon. I know I can part with old t-shirts and stockings, tubes of moisturizer and bottles of pills, but I must hold on to the most Patti of her posessions  — I imagine giving Patti’s Chanel necklace to Jack’s wife one day or bequeathing his daughters my grandmother’s hand-painted powder box, the one that Patti kept by her sink. Things don’t really matter but the memories they contain always will.

The crying game

I made this Hokusai-influenced journal entry a couple of weeks ago, but the same sort of wave has hit me a couple of time since. Its clout is overwhelming and the emotion it dredges up is so non-specific, a crippling blow to the solar plexus, a kick to the scrotum. It’s not like the sort of grief that has a word or a thought or an image at its core; it’s just total and blanketing. It hits and suffocates, then recedes, then hits a second time, then mercifully passes all together.

 

I am so not used to crying. It’s something I was good at when I was little, like running or cartwheels or jumping off the top bunk. Now, as a grown-ass man, I am horribly out of shape as a cryer. It’s as bad as vomiting or marathon sneezing in the way it grips me and fills my head with uninvited fluids, bulging my eyes and forcing ridiculous noises out of my mouth.  What a mess.

In some ways, it’s very welcome. Because I worry about how resilient I am, how able I am to function, there is something welcoming about collapsing, knowing that I am not utterly compartmentalized and blinded by denial. These thundering paroxysms of emotion provide perspective, reminding me that I can travel forward but may have occasionally to stop and pay the piper. I can handle it.

It can be a bit scary for Jack, I think, and I try to shield it from him when I can. But he seeks me out, puts a consoling arm around my shoulder, bringes me a glass of water. Then I pull myself back together and we go out for pancakes.

Staying in touch

Sometimes when I’d wake up in the middle of the night, Patti beside me, I’d wonder if she was breathing. I’d put my ear close, hear nothing, then nudge her to see if she was still alive. She’d stir and I’d exhale. Sometimes she’d wake all the way up and we’d talk. I never felt that bad about rousing her; she had the gift of falling right back to sleep. Sometimes I’d put my arm around her, feel her by me, and wonder what it would have been like if she hadn’t stirred, if she’d gone in her sleep. I’d try on that hollow feeling. But I really had no idea.

A lot of people miss Patti. They send me emails to tell me. They send her emails too. I miss her, of course I do. But I also miss my life, the way it was, so steady — built layer upon layer like a giant oak, habit wrapped around habit, assumption encircling assumption. For nearly a quarter of a century, we built this life and, when Patti’s ended, so did mine. My life was like the second twin tower. It collapsed right after the first one fell.

Now I have a different life. It’s a pretty good one, despite what I would have thought as I lay with my arm around my sleeping love. It has moments of sadness, deep holes in the road,  but it has a lot of beauty too. I love my son, my  mum, my sister, my hounds. I have so many good friends and the generous support of people I’ve never met. To a large extent, they help me fill in those moments of darkness, help me decide what garbage bags to buy or what to have for dinner. They will talk to me on the phone for hours when I need them, will indulge my nonsense, will cook me rice and beans. But they can’t fill in all the gaps.

Jack and I are resilient. We get on with it. But no one else puts notes in our pockets or brings us ice cream or keeps our every doodle in a file like PL did.

I’d love to chat on the phone with you as I walk to work, Pat, just once. I’d like you to reach out in the dark and stroke what’s left of my hair. I’d even like you to just tell me it’s okay to cry. But failing that, I will remember as well as I can what it was like to put my arm around you, even as I walk down the road alone, and I will treasure every day I have, rather than lying worried in the night.

My new life will be bright. Because you light it.

Old spuds and new duds.

Click image to enlarge

This is really devolving. God only knows why I am being so revealing these days, airing my ill-fitting laundry to the world on this blog. I should really just tell you about my dip pens and the quality of the binding on this book. Instead I’m writing about my new fantasies of myself as suave and debonair on the one hand and hoarding old potatoes on the other. Sad, really.

Alright, I will reveal that I am inappropriately proud of those paintings of taters. And of how many shades of purple I was able to mix with just two bottles of watercolor.

Now if I can only find a sharp tuxedo. Or a leather jumpsuit. Something that won’t show ink stains…