Today is the 30th anniversary of the day I met Patti Walahan at 18 West 18th Street.
It’s the 25th anniversary of the day she became Patti Gregory at 18 West 18th Street.
We should get some champagne.
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.
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.
I was blessed with an enormous outpouring of sympathy and support in the first few weeks after Patti’s death. Equally mercifully, that tide pulled back in the ensuing months and now most people have receded from my sphere. It was all too heavy, seeing a look of deep concern on the faces of every person who I ran into on the street, and I felt like a sponge absorbing everyone’s grief over and again. That sounds sort of shitty and selfish but it’s been tough enough sorting out my own feelings.
The grieving process is a hard one to unravel or predict. Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief aren’t terribly helpful, too orderly and well-defined; there’s just no rhyme or reason to how I feel most of the time. Denial is an easy refuge, just getting on with life until the dam breaks and I am forced to deal with my emotions. I also worry at times that I am too okay, that I am too level-headed, but then my deeper feelings find a way to worm to the surface and reassert the enormity of what’s happened.Yuk.
An aside: One of Patti’s many nicknames was ‘Hoofy’ for her occasionally clumsy ways. This is a drawing of a necklace I gave her years ago, a collection of silver feet and hoofs. She loved it and wore it a lot. It makes me wonder: will I ever know anyone else whose tastes, weird and particular, are so in tune with mine? Who else could appreciate and encourage my taxidermy collecting, my medical textbooks, my love of sardines on toast? How do you replace a one-of-a-kind treasure?
One of the inevitabilities of being married and middle-aged is the gradual spread of one’s waistband. A souvenir of all those evenings when Patti would bring me a bowl of ice cream on the couch or we’d eat off each others’ plates like Jack and Mrs. Spratt.
Now our pantry is bare-ish. Jack and I shop on Sunday afternoon, buying just enough to provide cold cuts and fruit for his lunches, cereal for my breakfast, a few other meager things. I shop most days on the way home from work, buying whatever I will cook that night, always a salad, maybe a steak or chicken breast for him, some veggie or fish thing for me. My favorite word these days, Jack complains, is ‘Spartan‘.
Despite these complaints of deprivation, we are both healthy and rarely hungry. I am amazed at how much less I want to eat. It began in those first horrible weeks in late March, when I simply lost my appetite altogether. But once that passed, I found food wasn’t especially comforting, and instead I preferred the gym I had just joined. For the first time in ages, I love pedaling madly on a bike or throwing barbells around. I also find I have the time. When Patti was alive, I so often felt that time spent on myself was time taken away from her (a perspective she vigorously opposed, but to no avail). Now I have the time and control of my agenda to indulge myself in new ways. Fortunately, so far, most of them are healthy.
My newly instituted regime is also a reflection of a new assessment of my age, of how many years I have left. I’d always assumed that Patti and I would march into the grave holding hands and I had no especial interest in outliving her. Now, however, because I will continue on this march with no one to lean on, I feel I should be as vigorous as I can be. Both my parents are healthy and robust in their 70s and my grandfather just died at 98. Chances are I will be around to choose apples, tap melons, lift dumbbells and fill sketchbooks for a little bit longer.
In the meantime, I need new trousers and a shorter belt.
My relationship with my journal is like that with a family member or a friend I’ve known since childhood. Sometimes we are distant, formal, perfunctory, obliged. But when I really need my journal, it is there with open pages, ready to hold me as tightly as I hold it. These days, I need it more than ever, and I am more intense, more candid than usual, as I scrawl across its pages.
I would like to share some of these pages with you but they are heavy going and so I will doll them out a spread or two at a time over a number of days. If you like what you see, come back soon and I’ll have posted more.
Here’s where I began. By cleaning up my apartment, on my hands — dismissing the cleaning ladies who had scrubbed my toilets ever since I could afford them — reclaiming what is mine, filth and all. It is part of a process I’ve embraced, of forming a new relationship with the everyday, taking full responsibilty for every aspect of my life.
Being married means sharing the good, the bad, the important, the mundane. Patti and I leaned on each other in a thousand ways: she would shop, I would cook. I would bring home checks, she would pay bills. She kept up with our friends, I worked late. It was a deep symbiosis developed over 23 and 7/8 years — which unravelled in a heartbeat.
So now I am forced to reappraise all of the decisions we made as a team. Many of them can wait: is that the right shelf to store the wine glasses on? Do we need all of these dish towels? Should we live in New York? Others assert themselves and demand resolution. One by one, I pick them off; making lists, adding bleach, filling my weekends with chores.
Every choice is made in consultation with Patti’s ghost, with serious consideration of what she intended, what she thought I wanted, of how to stay true to her spirit, yet accomodate our changed reality. Sometimes it’s terribly sad. Often, it’s a form of companionship that keeps her in my heart, in my pantry, in my thoughts as I doze off.
It’s daunting, it’s doable, it’s underway.
Thank you all for your wonderful messages of support. You can share more on this special tribute page on Facebook.