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.


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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.