Calaveras

dayofthedead

This past weekend was the Day of the Dead, a lovely Mexican tradition in which people visit the graves of their loved ones and bring a picnic to share with the souls of the departed. Patti and I loved this holiday — it combined our morbid fascination with graveyards and mortuaries with a sense of humor and cartoony festivities. I wrote about this three years ago, when thoughts of death had suddenly assumed a new and less whimsical tone.

Last Saturday, Jenny and I joined thousands of other Angelinos at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to commemorate the Día de los Muertos. It’s a huge party. There’s a contest for who can build the most impressive memorial shrine and everyone has their faces painted to look like grinning skulls encrusted with jewels and flowers.

I love that this holiday turns the traditional gloominess surrounding death on its head.  Instead of an occasion for grief, it is a celebration of the lives of the deceased. The Mexicans believe that a person dies a second death when their memory is forgotten and that makes a lot of sense to me. Immortality means you had an enduring effect on the world, that the things you did for people while you were here will be carried around in their hearts. If you set an example for others to follow, you never really pass away. I see that in Patti — because people have such vivid and positive memories of her, she lives on.

These days, I live a life that is three thousand miles from many of the memories Patti and I shared.  I am not walking the streets she did, no longer live in her house or sleep in her bed or see the people who knew her so well. I worried about that when we Jenny and I first talked about coming West, that Patti’s memory would somehow fade when I was far from the physical world she lived in.

Now I know that’s not true, because I brought Patti with me.

I brought her photo in a frame that I see every day but more importantly, I brought the part of me she created over the quarter of a century we spent together. I also believe that Patti wanted me to grow and change and have adventures. She told me so a million times,  a million times I did not hear because I was encrusted in my habits and fears. Now, when I feel the pieces scrape and shift inside me, I know that she would approve. She would be so happy that I am here, with Jenny, in this mini house, painting in this garage.

Patti was the one who taught me how to love, how to go beyond my self-absorption and love another unconditionally.  If she hadn’t taught me the importance of true love, I could not truly love Jenny as I do today. But loving again does not diminish my first love. And conversely, the bottomless well of love I had to share in my past with Patti does not mean a drop less in my future with Jenny. There’s plenty to go around. The more love you give, the more love you have. And the hardest part is learning to share that endless love with yourself, to be kind and generous with who you are.

Recently, a Facebook friend who had suffered a recent loss, sent me a few questions about my experience with death. I’ve been waiting for a reason to share them with you and DIa de los Muertos seems as good a one as any.

-How did you survive your worst sort of days?

I guess I had no choice. I had a loving wife and small son and what other option was there but to persevere? I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in karma or fate. Life was shitty and I could either deal with it or check out. In retrospect, I think that my love for my wife was a key factor to my will to continue. We planned a life together and her accident was not going to stop us from being together and having a meaningful time of it.  When she died, I no longer had that to hold me together, But I had my son and my commitment to be there for him. And I had my memory of Patti and her example, the fact that she had survived a huge blow and had carried on for so long. She loved life and she loved people and I tried to absorb some of that spirit, to look on the bright side, to count my blessings, to continue to be creative. I used my art to gain perspective on the blows that were dealt me, to get them out of my head and on to the page, so I could start to put the loss behind me, and have some thing to live for. And I reached out to other people, I shared my story, I tried to make my life meaningful, and of service to others.

-Days when getting out of bed seemed impossible what motivated you?

After Patti had her accident, I got out of bed to change Jack’s diapers. He was nine months old. Life was going on. The sun was still rising and setting. There were new things to experience. I wanted each day to be better than what had preceded it and slowly but surely it did.

-What do you say to people who say things that they think are very helpful and seems to create a deeper hole in your soul?

I am glad they are trying to help and I think them for it. In each person’s story there is something useful. But I know that only I can truly understand what I have gone through.  Platitudes can be so annoying and distancing but I try to concentrate on the love that is behind them.  The fact is, people don’t really know what to say. And often it is surprising how certain people react to tragedy and change. I was amazed when people I thought had seen it all disappeared when we needed them. And I was equally amazed at people who I thought barely knew me stepped forward, rolled up their sleeves, and helped me so much.  Do not underestimate the importance of other people’s love and comfort. But don’t be disappointed if they don’t know how exactly to help.

-being blindsided… Moments or days where you almost feel normal and a smell or a texture brings you to your knees in grief. 

Yup. That’s very familiar. Grief appeared and knocked me on my ass when I thought I was long out of the woods. And it isn’t necessarily prompted by a smell or a sound, it can just pop up out of the blue.  The flip side of this is that in time those little moments turn from painful to sweet, a lovely reminder of what one has  lost, of how much it meant, of how dear it still is.  I can smell perfume, hear an Ohio accent, and be transported back into Patti’s arms.  What was once unbearable becomes cherished. Give. It. Time.

-Does it get better, Danny?

If it didn’t our species would have long vanished in a never-ending rain of pain.  Every day you make progress. Sometimes you slip, sometimes you jump forward.  It is a wound and if it doesn’t kill you, you emerge wiser and happier.  As the Buddha told us, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

- What helped and helps you the most as you continue moving forward?

In so many ways, my life today is better than ever. It is the life Patti always wanted for me. I have changed almost every aspect of my work and my home and am now on new adventures.  My life is going on. It took three and a half years to get here.  It was worth the trip. Thank you, Pat.

— Anything other words of experience you can think to offer?

I got a lot out of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by George A. Bonnano. He points out that 95% or so of people emerge from grief in a year or less.  And of course, I  got a huge amount of help and wisdom from my grief counselor and from my lovely and wise girlfriend, Jenny James.

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.

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.