Packing Patti

India ink, dip pen, Doc Martin's (Click to enlarge)

Patti loved clothes. She sewed dresses for herself, majored in fashion, worked as a fashion director and photo stylist, and always made a statement. Her closets bulged with beautiful things and I have long dreaded the day I would open them and have to decide what to keep and what should be shared with the world. That day came last weekend. My mum joined me and we began to sort her clothes into three piles: those that would go to her favorite charity, those that were too worn out to pass on. and those that were quintessentially Patti and need to be saved for posterity.

I learned a lot about my wife in this process, seeing everything she owned, thinking through her process of buying and wearing things, seeing all of it laid out like that. My mum was surprised by how much black she owned, for instance. One always thinks of her as a blazing pink peacock. I went through her makeup, her toiletries, every nook and cranny. And even though there was so much, it was possible to go through it all, to feel her mind at work, to sense the years passing by, to remember how she flossed her teeth and put on her stockings. I had a few tough moments, but eventually, we got through the process unscathed , then loaded Mum’s station wagon with bags and bags of stuff.

I’m glad it will be distributed on the other end of Long Island. I don’t want to run into people in the street wearing Patti’s old clothes.

As for the Isse Miyake, Oilily and Todd Oldham treasures, I left them in her closet and will next box and bag them in some archival way. I may do further editing, but for now, I feel like I have stripped her down to the essence of her memory.

I felt a load lift when we were done. Another chapter has begun — it no longer seems that Patti is just away on a trip and will come in the door at any moment. We are resolved to the fact that she is gone, but never forgotten.

Flotsam and jetsam

Clutter

It began when I pulled my sweaters out from storage and saw how much of Patti’s wardrobe was in there too. After eight months, I need to finally confront the chore I have been dreading — sifting through her stuff, giving it to friends, the Salvation Army, the recycler, and archiving the rest.   It’s not just sweaters and dresses and jewelery. It’s all the stuff she left behind — wallets, curlers, thigh-highs, pills, and lots and lots of paper.

I started going through the repositories that lurk in every corner. It’s a mammoth task because as I open every drawer and file cabinet, I find boxes, bags, envelopes, and loose piles of the detritus of life. Patti tried to organize a lot of these things but there’s so much still left. I find my willingness to edit quite viciously is much stronger than hers ever was. I’ll open a beautiful archival quality box and inside there are a few yellowing 10-year-old newspaper clippings describing an island she once thought might be a nice place for us to go on vacation. I find old receipts and pieces of mail, bank statements, recipes, printed emails, pages ripped from old mail order catalogs. All these things had some significance to her and she held onto them for years. They seem like trash to me.

But I hesitate.

Instead of throwing them in the garbage or transferring them to yet another file folder I have to parse them. Why did she want to keep this? What was the value to her? Is there something about her I can learn from them? What memories do they dredge up? So I separate the papers into categories of my own: receipts from gifts we gave each other; Jack’s school papers, stories and essays from third grade; notebooks filled with records of wheelchair repairs, insurance letters, hospital bills; letters I wrote to her from business trips; notes she left by my bedside or stuck into my suitcase; Frank’s vet bills from a decade ago; cards from friends; holiday letters and photographs; a folder full of songs that Patti was learning by heart so she could perform them at the library where she read  to children every Wednesday afternoon. And diaries, filled with Patti’s state of mind — getting mad at herself for the things that she hadn’t done, or reveling in the dreams she had, or how much she loved me, or how lucky she was.

I didn’t allow myself to feel much as I went through these stacks of papers, but just kept my head down and beavered through, sifting wheat from chaff, obsessed with getting through it.  But now on Sunday morning as I sit in bed alone and think about it, I can’t keep tears from  rolling down my face.

All of these documents were the building blocks of the life we had together. And now I have to arrange them into a monument to what we had together. As the pieces separate into  categories, they tell stories, stories that I want to keep for myself and for Jack. And for Patti, because I want so very much for her life to matter. Her last fifteen years were so much harder than they should have been, full of challenges and indignities and pain, difficulties that a sweet and kind and generous person should not have had to endure.

Now that the last chapter has been written and the book of her life is closed, some meaning has to come out of it all. I look for it in these piles of papers.Patti doesn’t have a headstone or a crypt, just a cookie jar filled with her ashes. I guess that by shaping these piles of paper into something understandable, I’ll be freezing the memories while they are still fresh. The river of time keeps flowing past and out to sea, carrying all of life with it. Sometimes we cannot see what is passing until it lies at some distance, but the current is strong and moments vanish around the bend, never to be recalled.

Hue and cry

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My sketchbooks have been becoming simpler and more austere over the years. I started just drawing in ink, then added color, then watercolors and then slowly turned back until all I have been using is a dip pen and black india ink.

Occasionally I’d get wild and add a little watered down sum-i ink. But mainly I relied on cross hatching and the varying line widths of my flexible steel nib.

Click image to enlarge

On the rarest of occasions, I would add a color,  a single solid  wash over my line, an earth tone or maybe two for the sake of variety. My work was increasingly about limitations and technique, playing with the simplest of notes and digging deep into  lots of combinations.

But in the past few months since Patti’s accident, I have gone hog-wild in an explosion of the brightest colors I could find. I cover each page with magentas and fuschias and sap green and cadmium yellow.

I even treated myself to the complete collection of Dr. PH Martin’s liquid watercolors, 56 explosive tones that even my camera cannot do justice to. These are fragile colors, they can’t be exposed to sunlight, but perfect to lurk within the pages of a sketchbook and then leap out at the reader when the page is turned.

It’s funny, this penchant I now have for the rainbow. Mourning is supposed to be conducted in shades of black and gray. But one of my love’s many nicknames was ‘Patti Pink‘ and she adored bright colors. Her memory has infected me and I want to commemorate it in the brightest colors I can find. My book is a feast of sizzling hues and she would have liked it that way.

Out of Time

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In the emergency room, after Miranda and I had looked at Patti’s body, a policeman handed me P’s watch in a Ziploc bag. Without thinking, I put it on. It fit perfectly. The next day I took off my watch and never wore it again. But Patti’s watch has stayed on my wrist ever since.

The watch stopped at the moment of her death, 11:20. But over the next week or so, it slowly crawled forward. Each day I would notice it was a minute or two ahead. Finally, it stopped completely, at 11:40.

Sometimes people who don’t really know me comment on it, sometimes snearingly, ‘Nice watch’.This delicate silver watch on my meaty, hairy wrist. I explain it’s my wife’s. I don’t say much more than that. I don’t really care what they think.

As far back as I can remember, I have always worn a watch, usually a waterproof one that I never need to take off, through showers and sleep. Now I ask people what time it is. Or I look around for a clock. Or I just shrug. I’m okay with being late, selfish as that can be.

I am still aware of the passage of time, but seem to be measuring it by a different rhythm. It’s less of a tick-tick-tick, time is passing relentless tattoo and more of an organic drift through the day. I look back each evening and think about what I”ve done, assess its value, wonder if this is really how I should spend what time I have left. I havent made any big decisions about that yet, but I do feel more that time is precious, that it must be savored, and that only I should decide how to mete it out.  Not even a wristwatch has that right.

Immortality

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It is so nice that more of my friends have discovered drawing in the past three months, many of them people I would never have imagined would have the time and interest to pick up a pen. It may be coincidental or it may be a newly discovered awareness that life is short and one ought to try all the things one dreamt of while one has the chance.

I also like to think that Patti’s example inspired my friends to explore their creativity. She was an endlessly creative person, always making something out of something else. She made creativity seem fun and a natural part of life, not scary or intimidating or prey to judgment. I think our friends are reminded of that when they think of her as intensely as we have this past season. They remembered how she was always a flurry of creative energy and were somehow moved to keep that spirit alive.

She would be happy that this is her legacy — inspiring people to come into their own creatively and to take risks in order to discover what they can do. It’s a wonderful gift to pass on and it is infectious, spreading to more and more people as they see what their friends can do.

We work hard to give our lives some meaning, to do well by others, to have values and standards that can endure. We teach our children things that can survive beyond our lifetimes, we set examples that make a mark. That’s true immortality.

I come from a fairly small family, generations with just a child or three in each family, many of them grown estranged. As we’ve lost touch, we’ve lost meaning too and the lessons and examples of our lives have dissipated in the fog. I know my great-grandmother became senile, stripped off her nightgown and danced on the dining table. I don’t know much more about her than that. But her daughter, my grandmother Ninny, inculcated my sister and me with a certain set of higher standards — that one sets the table with cloth napkins, that one makes one’s bed each morning, that one should strive to have a nice garden and to listen to Mozart and Bach. It’s funny that she lived for some eight decades and that her legacy is this small list of small things. I think that would surprise and maybe disappoint her. My grandfather taught me some things by his example but more things to avoid. He was fastidious and controlling and grew older without growing wiser. I think in the end one can learn as much from bad examples than good; the things to avoid have lots of resonance.

I have no idea what impression I shall make on the the world. Or how long it will last. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, as I’ll be dust and gone. Encouraging others to make things seems like a nice testament to one’s life and I am proud to have been married to a woman who inspired it. Her love of beauty and self-expression will continue to ring out like ripples in the ocean for quite some time. And perhaps by reading these words about her, you too will be moved to make a drawing or a cake or a dress and share it with others who will be inspired to do something nice and creative of their own. Please think of Patti when you do.

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.