I’m Going to Love You, Forever and Ever, Forever and Ever Amen

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“Digging up bones, I’m digging up bones, exhuming things that’s better left alone.  I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone.  Tonight I’m sitting alone digging up bones.”

The familiar and warm crooning of Randy Travis filled my ears.  My sister and I buckled into the backseat of my father’s dark blue Peugeot station wagon speeding through the streets of New York City.  My father quickly switched lanes and I slid into my sister.  Our voices young and pure, “Digging up bones,” singing the chorus in unison, songs etched in our little minds.

My father met my gaze in the back seat.  Michael had the habit of telling a story while driving, taking his eyes off the road and actually looking at you.  It was terrifying and surprising that he never got in accidents.  None of his kids dared tell him to focus on the road or remind him that he was driving and there were other cars on the road, instead we all suffered a terrified excitement as we drove with him.  “A city driver,” he always said, one aspect of his larger than life persona.

It was our Wednesday to have dinner with him.  He drove us across town, crossing from the Upper West Side to his studio bachelor pad on the Upper East Side. It had become our Wednesday ritual, Matthew would be waiting at Michael’s apartment and we would walk the two blocks to Mumbles, a restaurant with a green awning nearby.  Each Wednesday we passed the same homeless man on the corner who would ask us for change, “No Man, I don’t have anything,” my father would say, his words and vernacular shifting to a street talk I only heard him use with friends or other men on the street.  Then sometimes, to my surprise, he would drop a Five Dollar bill into the man’s hat and tell him to grab a burger.  We’d fantasize that the homeless man on the street actually had a penthouse on Park Avenue, “you never know,” my father would say.

As we’d get to the restaurant our booth would be waiting for us.  My dad’s diet coke sitting in its position, my sister’s ginger ale, my sprite, and my brother’s coke, each drink and meal laid out in its appropriate spot.  They knew where we sat and what we ate and drank each Wednesday.  This was our family’s new normal, our version of the traditional family dinner.  His best friend John would often meet us at the restaurant.  He had an expletive tattoo on the inside of his lip that my sister, brother, and I found hilarious.  He appeared normal, strikingly normal for a friend of my father’s, but when he pulled his lip down and we saw the F—- Y—, I learned that looks could be deceiving.  He would laugh and tease us, Uncle Mo, we called him.

My dad had colorful friends.  His friends didn’t look like my friends from schools parents.  Michael’s friends were people that as I got older I may have been scared of if they had approached me in a dark alley, but as a child I recognized their gentle souls and had no fear.  One had tattoos that covered every inch of his body up to his face.  My sister and I analyzed each image until we found our favorites.  We sat outside our loft on the hot and dirty pavement, trying to determine which one was the best.  He’d smile and laugh listening to our serious commentary.  These friends of my fathers had stories that memorized us.  Later I learned that these were friends found in a new found sobriety, a family of support in their recovery, vibrant lives stitched across all socio-economic and racial backgrounds.  Colorful characters with lives that were even more dramatic than I knew.

We walked back to his apartment passing the same man, begging for change, who this time wished us a goodnight.  My brother would accompany my Dad to an AA meeting, listening to men and women tell their stories of mistakes made and recoveries found in the basement of the church a couple of blocks away.  I was jealous that only he got to hear the stories.  He would then spend the night in my dad’s studio on a mattress on the floor.  He ran up the steps to Michael’s apartment to do homework as Elizabeth and I piled into the back of the dark station wagon, the old leather seats cracking and sticking to my legs.  Michael lit a cigarette and pressed play on the cassette player and Randy Travis’s voice blared from the backseat speakers.

The three of us, barreling through the city, belting out, “I’m going to love you forever and ever, forever and ever amen,” as buildings and city life sped by in a blur outside of our windows.

“Oh, I’m going to love you forever and ever, forever and ever, amen.”

*****

Excuse the lack of editing, the girls are awake.  I’m preparing for my Dad’s funeral next week and digging up the good memories.  Today I am happily putting on my rose colored glasses and remembering good times.  Thanks for reading and again please excuse the quick edit.

For the Love of Books

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Big dramatic crocodile tears slid down her round three-year-old cheeks.  I lay in her bed shoved against the wall with her small body curled into my shoulder. Every night we snuggle together and read books, all kinds of book.

That night I read her a chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as I neared the end she sobbed. I groaned, annoyed at the tears, protesting an imminent bedtime. I almost snapped at her, “You know tears won’t get you what you want!” But instead I asked, “What’s wrong honey?”

“Mommy, I’m just so sad, the book is almost done. We’re going to finish it tomorrow.” Sobs shook her body. My insides smiled, recognizing a familiar sentiment. My three-year-old daughter loved books. She loved books like I love books. She listened to chapter after chapter, magically transported to Mr. Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Narnia, or the foxhole beneath the farms of Bogis, Bunce, and Bean. In our house, the greatest punishment I can dole is “No Books Tonight!” On this night, my daughter felt the grief that comes when a beloved book ends. She cried for the loss of her book.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband felt similarly as he lay beside me, reading the fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, “Babe, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I only have twenty pages left,” he said as he devoured the final pages. A week later, he lamented, “I just can’t get myself to read anything else.”

I shared her grief, as I lay on my bed lost in The Fault in Our Stars. I loved Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. The book pummeled me. Tears and snot soaked my face. My husband unexpectedly entered the room, “It is just so good, I can’t stop crying,” I told him, slightly embarrassed. He looked at me, awed by the strength of my emotion.

 *****

A summer morning, I’m 19-years-old, eating brunch with my grandmother. “What are you studying?” She asked, attempting to glean information about my first semester in college. I told her my favorite class was English Literature.  “What was your favorite book?” she asked because she too loved books and stories.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” I responded without hesitation.

A smile spread across her face.  “You know that was one of my favorites when I was your age.”  Our bond cemented by the shared love and understanding of a book.

*****

A sad spring morning, I’m 33-years-old, standing in my Dad’s kitchen in Palm Springs, CA. My dad died two days before. In my grief I’m drawn to his books. Books, the constant bridge throughout our complex relationship, a thread of understanding when other connections failed. I thumbed through his copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s On Love and Other Difficulties, noticing the highlighted passages shared in his copy as in mine. John Irving novels spotted his shelves.

A note pad lay on the generic white counter by his telephone. My heart stopped at the sight, my latest book recommendations, written in his artful script. The titles scrawled across a notepad, evidence of our last conversation.  Book titles, jotted down, symbolized his love and respect.

*****

My daughter cried for the love of books. I get it, this love of books, I definitely get it.

Do you love books?  What are your all time favorites?  What are the best books you’ve read this year?

Grief – an Ocean

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Grief, ocean waves pummeling you against the shore, pounding you into the sand until you are spun upside down, around and around, directionless with a broken compass, and you no longer know up from down.  Salt stings your eyes, burns your throat and nose until you are choking.  Sometimes grief is like that, tumultuous, but more often it appears to be a placid deep blue ocean with a deadly undercurrent that grabs hold of your limbs and slowly pulls you further and further away from land.

The current lurks quietly and silently just below the surface. If you are pushed in its quiet strength is unrelenting.  Immediately you start to paddle with your arms, kick with your legs, try to gain control in any way possible, but you are only swept further and further away. It dawns on you that you are helpless to its hidden power.  These placid waters that over centuries have cut ledges into the earth, carved out valleys and canyons, crashed to form mountains, and hollowed out caves.  This ocean is more powerful than we are ourselves.  This ocean is not new, it is as old as the dinosaurs and at some point everyone on earth will be thrown into it.  You realize that your only hope is to relax, so you don’t lose your strength.  Maybe the tide will change, or maybe you’ll be forced to grab the life vests, arms, and bouys thrown to you.  You may need help.  Only a small few can handle the current on their own, the majority of us need to open ourselves up to grabbing hold of whatever we can and let ourselves be rescued.

*****

I am four maybe five and I’m on the beach in Cape Cod.  It is a hot day and there is a gaggle of children, playing in the sand and splashing in the shallow water.  Our parents are stretched out on towels drinking beers and sodas, their laughter and chatter carry in the breeze.

I see a rowboat and a pair of oars.  I am thrilled because I just learned to paddle at summer camp and can’t wait to show everyone my new skills.  I push the boat into the water and climb in, grabbing the oars.  I’m nervous because this goes completely against my nature, as a twin I don’t typically choose to do things on my own.  My dad calls me “fearful” but today I am brave.

I begin to paddle.  The sun is beating down on my face and I watch the oars cut the glassy surface.  I focus on their rhythm.  Suddenly I look up and my family and friends are now only spots on the shore.  I look around me and there are large boats, sailboats and motorboats, anchored to my left and right.  I am alone and no one has noticed my escape.  I try to move the oars to turn myself around, but I don’t remember how and every move I make pulls me further away.  I feel the lump rising in my throat.

My family’s voices are blown away in the wind.  The current carried me away.  Will anyone notice that I’m gone?  “Help,” I scream at the top of my lungs, over and over again.  “Help!” I wait, panic setting in, no one hears me.  My skin is roasting, salty and dry, and the glare of the sun is blinding my eyes.

Suddenly, I see my dad drop his beer.  He points out to me and I see the adults panic.  He runs and dives in the water.  His tan and sinewy body cutting through the current, the dark blue ocean.  As he gets closer, I hear him call, “Peep, paddle towards me.”

“I can’t, I don’t know how,” I cry as the tears fall from my eyes.  Is he angry?  Am I in trouble?  Eventually he makes it to my boat, he stretches his torso across the bow, catching his breath as best he can.

“What the hell were you thinking?” he yells. “You scared the shit out of me.” I see terror in his eyes.  He is scared.  He didn’t know if he would make it.  His anger is a mask for his fear.  “You’re lucky I’m a good swimmer, this current is really strong,” he barks.

“I learned to row in camp,” I whisper, “but I forgot how to turn around.”

“An important part,” he mutters, “that was so dangerous.”  He grabs hold of the raft with one arm and he sidestrokes back to the beach pulling the raft behind him.  I am safe.

*****

A story, one of our shared stories, the story of a father and daughter and a scary day on the beach – “Do you remember when I rowed into the middle of the ocean and you rescued me?” I ask as a young adult.

“Of course, I was terrified,” he answers.

A story that now has only one narrator, and one interpretation.

This is what kills me about death – the lost stories.  Defining moments, snap shots in time, which define the essence of each individual.  We each live these moments and feel them so differently.  The stories my grandparents told repeatedly through a lifetime of family dinners, which captivated me watching them relive them with tears in their eyes.  Lost moments that defined their lives that will never be listed in history books, resumes, or obituaries, these are the stories I crave and wish to relive in their minds.

The stories that were the essence of my father from childhood and beyond, some that I know and some that I will never know, this is the part of death I detest.  They are his stories that I want to dig for, his defining moments that I long for…  A quest to find more, but more will never be enough.

A Cowboy in a Pink Polo Shirt

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“What does die mean?”  My three year old asks as we sit at the table eating lunch.  I have been gone for three days and she is trying to understand the reason for my absence.

“It means that your body stops working,” I say for the hundredth time.

“Did Grandpa Michael’s body stop working?”  She asks.

“Yes, baby, Mama went to California to say goodbye.”  My eyes burn from the stark reality of the words.

“Grandpa is not on earth anymore just like the dinosaurs,” she states, her inquisitive mind making the link that death equals extinction – a definitive end.  “Mama, Grandpa Michael is not here, but his love surrounds me just like my Great Grandmother Ginny.”  She has seen pictures of herself with my grandmother and understands we can no longer see her.  “I can’t see him, but he can see me,” she states solemnly.

“You’re right baby his love is all around us.  I hope he sees us.”  I close my eyes and wish this to be true.

*****

I am walking through the airport, my boarding pass in my hand, “can you make it to the gate?”  My husband asked, or maybe he didn’t ask me this, it is just the thought that is echoing in my head. “Can I make it to the gate?”  My body is heaving violent sobs shake me every couple minutes, unexpected shocks to my system.  I feel disconnected.  I am just so sad and so alone.

Invisible in this airport, people turn their heads and avert their eyes in an attempt to ignore my pain.  In the past, I may have done the same, not wanting to embarrass the person suffering.  Amidst this horror, I make a note to never run from a stranger’s pain again.  I hope I can keep this promise.

I wait at the Gate to board my plane – a plane that I hope just takes me away.  “Do you need comfort?  Can I comfort you?”  An older woman asks and I melt into her shoulder.  Another woman hands me a Kleenex, she reaches out and I am grateful.

“Jesus feels your pain,” the old woman says.  “Do you believe in Jesus?”  I now want to escape.  Why can’t comfort come with no strings attached?

“Where is my plane? I need to get on my plane,” I panic. We board, the flight attendant’s false cheer and discomfort at the sight of my grief is palpable.  He forces a smile and turns away so as not to see my tears.  At some point my tears cease.

*****

I am a little girl.  I am five maybe younger than that and my Dad is sleeping on the couch.  I hear him snoring, I inch towards him and dare to crawl up next to him and snuggle into the nook under his shoulder.  I close my eyes and pretend to sleep. I concentrate on the rhythm of our breath. Awake, I try to make my breathing coincide with his deep breaths, in and out.

“Peep loves to take naps with me,” he says to his friend and I smile.

My family is sitting on a big gray couch.  I am sitting next to my father, holding his leathery hand that feels like sand paper.  His hands are big, the hands of a man who uses them on a daily basis, the hands of a welder, a construction worker, a contractor.  They are brown and have a metallic smoky scent.  I put my hand up to his measuring the size of our fingers.  “You have so many cuts on your hand,” I say as I count them, “one, two, three, four, five, six …”  I stare at his used hands, the epitome of strength.  “Do they hurt?”

“A couple do,” he replies.  I bury my head on his shoulder, examining every mark and scar.

We are visiting him for three weeks during the summer.  I see him at the gate as my sister, brother, and I step off the plane.  He gets up and walks towards us, wrapping his arms around us.  I can feel the strength of his arms like a vice unwilling to let go.  I look up at his tanned Marlboro man face.  His blue eyes are full of tears and one slips down his cheek.  “I’m getting old,” he says, “I’m just so happy to see you guys, I can’t control my emotions. I miss you and love you guys so much.  I can’t stop crying.” He laughs.

We laugh, teasing him, “You’re so old, pull yourself together, Old Man.”  We feel genuinely loved.

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Blacks, grays, dark blues, strokes of red, pink, oranges, and purples, paint colors mixed, separated, and dried on a very deliberate palate used to compose powerful portraits of pain.  This man of fierce contradictions; he was strong, opinionated, grouchy, gruff, feared, closed, scary, stubborn, but also vulnerable, sensitive, wounded, weak, misunderstood, loving, trusting, deep, philosophical, protective and proud.  He was there and never there, accepted but rejected, proud and shameful.  A cowboy who wore pink polo shirts.

*****

The plane taxis and I step into the hot, dry, desert air of Palm Springs.  I walk through the terminal.  My eyes are as dry as the air, a lump like a bottle stopper in my throat and behind my temple.

My brother and sisters are here.  We ban together, a force, cleaning the skeletons from his locked studio, buoying each other as we slide down a rabbit hole that we never wanted to enter.  We wrap our arms around each other, a protective force field of love, the tangible legacy of a man who left us too soon.