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.