Drawings of Patti’s urn.

An email exchange between my sister and me about my (then 3-year-old) niece Maggie soon after Patti’s death. (For those who’ve not yet read my new book, A Kiss Before You Go, we are referring to Patti’s urn, a bear-shaped cookie jar).

Miranda: Maggie says she wants to die so she can be in the cookie jar like Patti. How should I respond?

Me: It’s good.  From now on A) she’ll associate death  with sweets and B) she’ll associate sweets with death. Win-win!

My name is Danny and I’m not an alcoholic.

Here’s a note I wrote in my journal during the days I covered in my new book, A Kiss B4UGo, about wishing I could be a drunk so I could share in the kinship of  recovery. These words never made it into the book. Probably just as well as they are a bit nutty.

This page never made it into my new book.

I have become very attracted to AA recently, though I dont drink enough to qualify for membership. When I attended a meeting with T____ in LA, I discovered the power of kinship, shared suffering and resolve, of having a step-by-step guide to overcoming a lifechanging obstacle. The peace recovering alcoholics seem to find in honestly sharing their stories and admitting their shortcomings was very inspiring. They accept each other as they are, know how deeply they have failed and sharing their common experience to support each other. The daily attendance, the community of broken toys, is something I wish I had.

T_____’s meeting was just men and I realized how rare that is, for men to be together and share of themselves, not just doing (watching sports, camping, working on cars, drinking) but being open and frank. It’s so rare to get advice and example from men like that. In a business context, people must be guarded and in any other context they are just drawn together by a single common interest and are less likely to share. As I get older, I share more and more with my friends as women do but it was moving to be in a room with 200 men all just laying it out there without reserve or competition.

I have tried to get to similar meetings here but most seem closed to people who aren’t actually alcoholics. I’ll have to keep drinking alone.

Lost boys.

A story that never made it into the book.

From the first summer alone:

  Our vacation has been pleasant and relaxing — until the last 24 hours. Last night, while we were in the cinema, Jack’s headache  turned into a full-blown shaking fever. We tottered home on our bicycles through the dark streets and he went straight to bed, his whole body burning up. I slept fitfully too, waking with panicky thoughts that he could be dying a 19th century death from a mysterious fever.  I climbed the stairs with a wet cloth to mop his brow, glasses of juice, Advil, anxiety.

In the morning, he was cooler but still wrung out like that cloth. I headed out to town to buy a thermometer and some chicken soup; our dogs yapping at me as I drove away.   When I got back, the gardeners were mowing the lawn and the gate was wide open. The dogs were gone. The gardener told me he hadn’t known they were our dogs, that a lady had stopped them by busy the road, looked for their owner and driven off with them.

I rushed back and forth through the house, unsure what to do. The dogs have tags on their collars but they are inscribed with Patti’s now-cancelled cel phone number. I ripped out sheets of paper, pieces of cardboard and painted up signs to hang along the road. I kept flashing to images of my boyhood dog, Pogo, who had wandered away from our house when old and doddering and never came back.

Jack still lay twisted in his damp sheets, exhausted and pale. I squawked at him, explaining the situation, and he crawled down to help me put up the signs. Then I started calling anyone I could think off, the police, the shelters, vet after vet, until one said .,”Yes we have them.” I rushed out of the house, and drove off, was instantly lost. Found my way back, begged Jack to come with me as navigator, and we found our way to the vet and returned, all intact, little worse for wear.

I felt a new tic, a flickering twinge under my right lower lip, matching the one in my right upper eye lid. I almost lost what little I have left. My boys. I am responsible for their safety, their well-being.

I have to keep up.

How to feel.

Patti at seven.

What follows is a long ago thought from my journal — I think I tapped it into my phone one day on the way to work —  that’s still 100% true. The guilt that can accompany acceptance of loss. Is it okay to be okay?

Usually I am fine.

It’s confusing because it can seem like I am calloused or past it or forgetting. How can such big feelings go away? How can such a big thing become smaller? This used to make me feel guilty. And I would hide it even from myself. Or I would force myself to feel bad.

But now I think I understand it better. It’s not that my feelings are gone. It’s that I know how to access them or put them away. They don’t overwhelm me anymore but I can summon them up when I want to, need to. The feeling is no longer an open wound. It’s a treasure, a precious charm on a chain around my neck that I can take out and kiss when I need to feel blessed.

A text from Miranda

Many of the observations and realizations that came to me during the period covered by A Kiss Before You Go didn’t appear while I was sitting with my sketchbook open on my lap.  I had thoughts in the middle of the night, while walking to my office, while brushing my teeth, and I would jot them down on scraps of paper or tap them into my phone.  Some of these thoughts were unique and didn’t recur, some were dreams, some were conversations. Many fell into particular categories and my subconscious would polish and deepen them over time. Occasionally, I would put a thought into my sketchbook and later have a better and truer version of that same idea. In the final, published book, I sometimes replaced the first mental sketch with this more developed thought. But at least 75% of the words in the book are the ones that came to me as they are in the page.

Here’s an example, a snippet of a text message from my sister that I saved and look back at when I need it.

“Remember — there were shitty times days and moods when Pat was alive. This is just what life is now and will change again. I promise you that.” — Miranda

She should know.  In addition to Patti’s accident and death, Miranda had to deal with the sudden death of her own husband. Less than a year after they were married, Brian died in his sleep, suddenly, unexpectedly. SInce that tragedy, she has remarried and has a daughter. My sister has had an unfair share of tough times but she has come through them with resilience and refused to let them toughen her soul. She remains empathetic, loving, loyal and smart.

My sister was also Patti’s best friend. She knew her so well and she was so right to say to me in so many words, “Don’t glamorize the past. Accept the present. Don’t despair of the future.” When someone dies, it’s tempting to put them on a pedestal and to think that happiness is vanishing down the sluice hole of the past. Guilt can be overwhelming. And sadness can seem like a never-dissipating fog.

When Patti died, Miranda was the first person by my side and she has guided me through the days since. She is a wise and beautiful person. I’m lucky to have her and to be able to learn from the vast experience of my kid sister.

It’s at the crossroads of life that you learn who is truly there for you.

More apron strings.

After sharing my apron drawing recently, I came upon the journal entry I wrote when I first encountered the aprons two years ago, a pain-filled essay that never made it in to my book, A Kiss B4UGo.

I was aiming to empty out a bunch of bags of stuff that have been sitting on our window seat ever since Patti and Donna filled them during their organizational sprees in early March. One of the bags was full of aprons, the bulk of Patti’s collection.

There is something very Patti about aprons. They are girly, though I occasionally had to wear one like some comic strip husband, some Dagwood. They were nostalgic objects, found in flea markets and thrift stores, but for her they were all functional and practical; because she had to cook (and do most everything) sitting down in her wheelchair, they protected her clothes from splashes of grease and spaghetti sauce. Most of them were handmade and whimsical, sewn with novelty prints of roosters or cows and embellished with frills and appliqués.

I went through the bags, finding one of her many purses filled with breath mints and tissues and little notebooks. There was a bag full of wool and half knitted things. There were lots of gift items, things she had gleaned at sales, full of potential and reminding her of someone. But they sat with the tags still on, and I had no idea who she planned to give them to.

I had intended to be so productive, finally tackling all of the piles of stuff I had been avoiding for the last five months, and suddenly, I was broken down and sobbing. My mind was empty of words but overwhelmed with feelings. Who would ever need all these aprons? Who would ever get these presents? How could I even throw away this box of breath mints?
I recategorized the things in the bags, then put most of them back. Then, suddenly furious, I ripped down the biggest box in the pantry, the one labeled ‘wheelchair parts’. All these broken brakes and axles and inflated cushions filed with punctures, the supplies I needed to constantly jury-rig repairs on her chairs, no longer necessary and taking up space. Cursing to myself, I emptied the box into a garbage bag, then stopped.
Do these things matter too? Will I one day be filled with regret that I threw them away? Should they all go back on the shelf? No, I resolved, I need to throw them away — but I’ll keep one brake mechanism as a reminder of the rest.
I had made no real progress against the thoughts that haunt me late at night, the seemingly overwhelming task of getting on with things by getting rid of things. Instead, Jack and I stripped the slipcovers off the couch and took them to the laundromat, then emptied the fridge and scrubbed its shelves. A minor step against the incursion of chaos, a battle won, the war still to be waged.
Update:  After reading various people’s comments on the above, I realize that I wasn’t clear enough about the origin of my words.  This is a quote from my journal of almost two years ago, when Patti’s loss was still very fresh, too fresh to be doing the sort of purging I was considering then.
But it gets easier. Now, almost three years after her death, Patti’s absence has sufficiently mellowed that I can look at her things and see them more objectively, still bathed in her light but less suffused with guilt and confusion. I still have so much of her in my home, but I am now in the process of being more selective about it all, of choosing the most precious objects and appreciating their power and beauty rather than being afraid of it. I am not the sort to repurpose her possessions into quilts and the like, but I l have discovered that having fewer mementos make each one more precious, more jewel-like.
And I still have, and probably always will, every one of Patti’s aprons.

Death doesn’t take a holiday

Another page that didn’t make it into my new book, AKissB4UGo.

I live down the street from a fire station — at any time of the day or night sirens ring out and jack up my blood pressure.  This used cause me great anxiety. I would wait to see if the fire engine or ambulance was going to pull up outside of my house. If I was coming home and the sirens were wailing, I would increase my pace down the street until I came to my corner, fully expecting to see my apartment ablaze, thronged with flashing lights and unfurling hoses.

My oldest neighbors were a couple in their late 80s. She was one of Patti’s favorites and was now had advanced Alzheimer’s. I came home to find her being taken away by this ambulance while her husband stood bewildered on the sidewalk. I felt that they were mirroring my own situation. Fortunately it was a minor incident and she came home in a few days. But then, a couple of weeks later, Arthur had a stroke and died on the living room floor. Two deaths in our building in as many months.

Fortunately, my siren anxiety has faded and gone. I no longer fear the worst, having been through it.