Thursday, February 27, 2014

'i found myself down by the water...'

My aunt had a heart attack last weekend. She's in the hospital now, with her husband and oldest son hovering close by keeping an eye on things. From what I hear, she seems to be okay and will be going home soon.

Part of me would like to be there myself, but my aunt and uncle emigrated to New Zealand years ago and are (almost) quite literally on the other side of the world.

They were living in New Guinea twenty years ago when my father died of a heart attack, and it took them several days to make it back to New York. This didn't seem strange to me back then, this delay in their arrival. She was my father's baby sister, my wild and wonderful globetrotting Auntie, living on a sailboat and exploring beautiful and exotic places and doing the most gorgeous watercolors of her travels and sending us kids the sweetest handmade cards and fabrics and gifts from all over the world.

Last summer my aunt and uncle decided to cut back on their months of sailing every year and settle more permanently in their house in northern New Zealand. I fell in love with New Zealand during three weeks I spent there back in 2006, but it's a damned long way away and a damned expensive plane ticket to get there and back, and somehow the news of their settling there made me feel very sad.

Yesterday morning when I first read the email letting us know about her heart attack, I didn't feel anything but distance.  Later in the evening, when I was talking to my boy on the other side of the country, I mentioned it almost as an after-thought. He looked horrified, of course, because it is never good to hear about one's girlfriend's beloved Auntie being hospitalized, and I think surprised at first that I didn't seem more upset.

And strangely, the more I talked to him about it, the more I felt an almost shocking anger welling up behind my eyes. I found myself crying with rage over the distance between here and there, and over the distance between my father's death and her arrival in our house in Mohegan Lake. The choices she's made over the years -- to be so far away from family so much of the time -- seem alien to me, especially now as she and her husband are growing older and facing the inevitable decline that comes with that.

(Of course here I am in New York City, thousands of miles away from my family, from my boy, and well aware of my own hypocrisy. Yet there are degrees of distance -- at least in my head, at least during last night's bout of anger, which of course was inextricably linked to my fear of losing her, of losing another connection to my father, to my self.)

I've been thinking today about the myriad ways in which grief can surprise us, years or even decades later. Yesterday marked four years since my boyfriend's older brother killed himself -- not very long at all in the grand scheme of things, and certainly close enough to still feel unbearably raw. But instead of being filled with sorrow or rage, my boy somehow managed to find some solace -- walking out in the forest lands, down to his beloved ocean.

He wrote this last night, and I keep coming back to it today as I am trying to be more aware of my own anger, my own fear and seemingly ever-present grief:

"I found myself by the water. It hit me that all of this will forever come in waves. Like when you're sitting on the beach, and sometimes the waves come almost to your feet, but then the next wave is way out there and doesn't come close. Bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker. But always waves. There's nothing you or I can do to stop the waves. The forces behind them are bigger than us. But if we can accept them, and watch them from just far enough away, we can usually hop out of the way before we get our socks wet, or before they swallow us up."

Which, finally, brings me to where I was wanting to go with this all along. I've fallen out of the habit of meditating in the last few months, and in a weird way I can't help but think that last night's anger came, at least in part, out of that lack.

So this morning I sat. Just for ten minutes, but it was okay. Nice, even, and calming. I wrote to a dear friend last weekend, before even hearing about my aunt's heart attack, that I'd fallen off the meditation wagon recently. She wrote back, "Your morning ritual of tea and meditation sounded so lovely!  You deserve to start your days so sweetly, my dear."

Perhaps tomorrow I will sit again, or perhaps the day after that. And perhaps if I keep doing that,  some of these waves will recede a little bit, or at least stop threatening to swallow me up. And then -- then hopefully I will be able to to think of my aunt only with love, as I want to and as she deserves, and not have that love tinged with hurt.

Monday, February 24, 2014


It feels almost like spring today, though they're predicting another cold spell this week. The sun is out, the sky is crisp and clear and blue, and there's a sense -- a welcome scent -- of renewal in the late February air.

But also, there's that particular forlornness that comes with the great mounds of snow and ice slowly melting away, leaving behind what was hidden underneath. Last fall's dead leaves. Bits of candy wrappers and illegible notebook pages and little girls' brightly colored hair ties. One red sneaker. One striped mitten. Drifts of cigarette butts.  Soggy train tickets. All the detritus that we lost during these dark winter months.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

knowing jill

I've been accumulating pieces of her these last few weeks, fragments like moths startling and taking flight and eventually whispering to ground -- quiet and sure-footed in the dark.

At first she was merely a void, an empty space at the core of someone I hold dear. It's been frightening, at times, to watch the gravitational pull her death has over him. As if now she's gone, he has no other escape.

Then it was pages from her diary paraphrased over glasses of wine, written years before the cancer settled in. I wish I could remember the exact words she wrote in the days after 9/11 -- there was something so obvious there, and yet so unspoken in the public sphere that it took my breath away when Bill read it to me. She apparently didn't think of herself as all that smart, felt that people didn't take her all that seriously, but she saw straight through to the truth of things.

Last week it was one of her favorite books -- Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, if you must know. I'm about half way through it myself now, and I hadn't quite understood before how opera could be so loved, but now maybe I can.

A friend insisted I take the remnants of a pack of cigarettes home with me last week. Neither of us smoke anymore, of course, but after a few beers neither of us could resist. At the end of the evening he had a girlfriend impatient with his odorous relapses to go home to, and I did not.

Camel Lights, of course, because isn't that what pretty much everyone smokes? (Not Mick. Mick always smoked Camel unfiltereds. I never could figure out how to smoke those things, how to be cool enough to smoke them, or maybe how to be quite that self-annihilating.)

This week it was old photographs, again over glasses of wine and before bowls of soup. Pictures of her from decades ago, everywhere, Mexico, Hawaii, Greece, Morocco, young and playful and tough. A small bright painting fell out from between the back pages of the photo album. Practice, he called it, and insisted I take it home with me.  The colors -- orange and pink, white and dark charcoal gray -- clash with everything, and with nothing at all.

I'd planned on giving the cigarettes to Lauren this week, my one last regularly smoking friend. They're her brand, after all, and lord knows I owe her a pack, or two, or three, but our schedules never quite meshed up.

Her art of course will outlive her now, caught behind glass, filling up storage units, trapped between the pages of old photo albums.

I've been sneaking cigarettes out the bathroom window as if I were sixteen years old again, only this time feeling very guilty instead of adolescently defiant. Jill, I'm pretty sure, never smoked a cigarette in her life yet it was lung cancer that took her down.

It's enough to make you wonder, isn't it?

So I've been sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom, burning scented candles, watching smoke curl and swirl and drift out into the winter air. I've been watching this smoke while thoughts of smoke-free Jill, of self-annihilating Mick, come swirling and curling in.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

thank you, mister president

My boyfriend finally got around to signing up, via Obamacare and the great state of Washington, for health insurance yesterday afternoon.

He's generally remarkably healthy these days -- in the four and a half years we've been together, I've seen him get maybe two or three colds and some nasty springtime allergies and that's about it. But he's also a cancer survivor and lost a brother to suicide, and it's weighed heavy on me over the years that he hasn't had health insurance.

We joked about getting married for it because my employer-provided insurance is pretty good, as far as these things go, but it seemed a weird reason to do that whole tying the knot thing when neither of us is much interested in marriage.

Last night we were catching up on each others days, me telling him about the inherent sadness of my dinner with a grieving friend, him telling me about how relatively simple the insurance sign-up ended up being. And I can't tell you the relief that just immediately seeped through my body, both my physical and mental being, when I heard this. It felt like a previously unknown weight had been lifted, and that I maybe don't have to worry so much about him -- about whether he can afford to visit a doctor, a specialist, a shrink.

The GOP can try to paint this however it likes, but I can't help but believe that there are millions of people across the country this winter feeling this same sense of relief, this same letting go of fear, that I felt last night. And that's a wonderful, a beautiful thing no matter how you look at it.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


I walked up to the far northern tip of Manhattan this morning to meet an old and dear friend at the train station. It was cold, which came as no surprise given the winter we've been having this year. I was expecting the cold, but I wasn't expecting quite how warm and fuzzy it felt to walk back home with her in the cold winter light. It'd been a couple months since we saw each other last, and though we've emailed, there's just no replacement for getting caught up in explaining recent woes only to have someone so dear turn to you and say, "I know. I've been wondering about that..."

I forget, sometimes, the beauty in keeping our histories -- and the people who carry them, who have lived them with us -- close to our present selves. I've been reminded of this a lot in the last couple of weeks, and am very grateful for it.

Then she let me dress her up and take these pictures. Over all, it's been a pretty good day.

 tussah silk scarf cowl thing

Saturday, February 01, 2014

this is my manhattan, 2.1.14

I've been learning, this past week, about a woman I barely knew. I've been looking at pictures of her, so dynamically joyous and awkward, severe and beautiful, hearing about her loves and quirks and fears. I barely knew her, having met her only twice (first at her own wedding and then again, a year later, at my brother's), and yet this morning her face, heart breaking, woke me before dawn.

Hours later, well after full light, I headed down the hill to meet friend Freddy for our Saturday morning walk. We made it through our weekly catch-up on each other's goings-on, him filling me in on his nephew and his classes and his music, me relaying this past week with only the barest hint of tears.

We headed north, meandering up the east side of Fort Tryon Park, reveling in the surprising warmth after a month of bitter cold. We bought cookies at the farmers' market and munched contentedly as we walked up past baseball diamonds and playgrounds and fields of geese. Eventually we reached the edge of the water, frozen in great buckling slabs of ice -- but cracked and melting just the littlest bit along the shore.

I wanted to share that moment, that icy thawing moment, with the husband this woman left behind. I wanted to bring some sort of comfort to this man who's been around since I was just a tiny tow-headed girl, and who many years ago helped my family navigate through this same icy tundra of grief.