A Genuine Connection

Last night, I was working. It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, I should probably give a short recap. I work at a Chinese restaurant in Studio City now, waiting tables. I’ve been there awhile and I make enough (knock wood) that I only have to work a few shifts a week. My body is always tired at the end of a busy shift. I’m simultaneously thrilled and depleted by the physicality of my job.

There is a spiritual energy that is also depleted as a server. At least for a server who cares about doing the job well. When people are mean, it affects me. But on the plus side, when I have a table or several tables with whom I make what feels like a genuine connection, it bolsters me. On a good day, I can walk to my car at the end of a shift feeling seen, helpful, valuable, insightful, and connected to humanity.

As a vocation, restaurant work is often easily dismissed. I have been in a few too many social situations, even recently, where if it comes up that I work as a server, an expectation about me shifts. Their eyes wander over my shoulder for a more interesting person to talk to. There is a genial, “It was so nice to meet you,” as they slip away to better chat companions. And yes, it always hurts my feelings.

Last night, I was waiting on a couple who live in Albuquerque. They moved there after several years in LA and we bonded when I told them how much time I’d spent in Albuquerque over the years and how much I loved it. Two tables away, another couple incredulously interrupted with, “Hey, we just moved to Albuquerque from LA too!” I trailed off to deliver food and I could hear the two tables connecting over the parallels in their lives. All worked in entertainment and had moved to New Mexico in part because that industry is booming now.

Later, after the first couple left, the second couple asked why I had spent so much time in Albuquerque. I told them a bit about traveling back and forth to help my mom in Kansas and years earlier, my dad. The wife said she related, she had been traveling back and forth from Albuquerque to LA to care for her mom. And that her mom had died at the beginning of November. She shared how she’d been there in the last weeks of her mother’s life. Of course, I offered my apologies. What started as casual bonding over a city we both enjoyed, forged deeper, rapidly, with our shared experiences. Not identical, but similar. I asked if she had siblings, and she told me she was an only child. I told her that while I have two half brothers, I am my mom’s only child. So, you know, more connection.

I am affected by feelings that I let both of my parents down by living so far away. Some of my relatives give me subtle (and not so subtle) hints that I’ve failed my parents too. Probably, I have. In retrospect, we always see clearly the things we should have done better.

Last night, this woman, her grief still fresh, told me, “You are a good son.” I thanked her. Do I feel like a good son when most of my mother’s physical care falls to other people? No, I don’t. This nice lady doesn’t know me, I thought. But then maybe, hopefully, maybe she does know me. Maybe strangers who connect over life’s nuances do instinctively understand the other.

As they were leaving, I wanted to do something special for them. For her. I could have snuck them chocolate covered fortune cookies, but that felt too glib of a gesture. (Sorry your mom died, these might be your lucky numbers.) Earlier we had talked a bit about creative pursuits, their work in the arts. And I remembered I had a sketch another customer had left on the paper we cover our tables with. Another couple from another evening. Another connection. On that night, one half of the couple drew two birds as we reminisced about gay life in 1990s Los Angeles, our parallels. When they left, I kept the sketch, carried it in my check presenter. I loved it. This piece of his soul, rendered onto butcher paper with a borrowed pen, saved from the garbage while the rest of his table’s detritus now rotted in a San Fernando valley landfill. My treasure.

So, last night, I gave my new friend that sketch of the birds. I told her how when my dad died, my friend Linda gave me a photo of a red cardinal and told me bird sightings are a message from our departed loved one that they love us and are still with us. Honestly, I don’t know if I believe such stuff, but I do know it’s something I like to believe. I love the thought of her mother sending these two birds into her daughter’s unassuming dinner of peanut noodles and sweet and sour chicken to say, “I love you. You are a WONDERFUL daughter.”

She teared up. She told me she wished she could hug me. I told her the name of the artist, gave her his Instagram profile, since now the two of them were also connected. It is my sense, that my new friends felt the same shared moment I did. It is my sense, that they left the restaurant with a little less weariness. More connection. But probably I will never know.

What I do know, is where I am in my life. I am leaving next week to go home and prepare my childhood home for sale. My mother’s dream home that she bought while my dad was out of town on a business trip. (It worked out. He loved the house too.) For her, for me, it feels like such a daunting task, but it also feels like the appropriate time. Right now, all of my thoughts are on the stuff, the physical objects that have collected in a house for 45 years. Piece by piece, I will go through boxes and cupboards and drawers and rooms and decide what is kept and what is relinquished.

Though it wasn’t discussed, I know my new friend will experience something similar. And you, reading at home, maybe you’ve gone through the same or will go through the same, sooner than you wish. It’s all so much. I didn’t know how much I needed last night’s exchange to happen until it did. Two weary souls bumping into each other, needing someone to see them.

He Swims in Beauty

I began my day, as I try to do every day, with a swim. In my final laps this morning, a young man (early 20s) began swimming in the lane next to me. I’ve seen him before. He looks like Ian Thorpe, the Australian Olympic swimming champion. I always swim a little faster, a little longer, when he is there. I feel younger, slimmer, stronger when this strapping, speedo-clad 20-something is in the lane next to me. Yes, obviously, it’s kind of a crush. But it’s also something else.

Swimmers, we rotate our arms and kick our feet, lap after lap, but really what we do is think about ourselves the whole time. We think about our problems, our joys, our victories, failures. Perhaps because we swim in lanes and there are only 5 lanes, I am always aware of the speed and the age and the attractiveness of my fellow swimmers. I am always comparing. I am always either winning or losing. Don’t compare yourself to others, you tell me. I know, I know.

I just finished Joan Didion’s Blue Nights this afternoon. Because I am not working right now, I drive around Los Angeles listening to audiobooks. It’s indulgent to listen to Joan Didion’s stories about Los Angeles as I drive around Joan Didion’s Los Angeles. Blue Nights is about the death of her Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, and also about her own medical frailties. She writes about how at 75, things happen to your body that when you were young, you never could have imagined. But here I am, halfway between 25 and 75. And I imagine it ALL, what I’ve lost, what I never had, what I will lose, what I wonder if I will lose.

My friend from the pool, after his swim, he leapt across the deck to the outdoor shower. He stood under the nozzle, luxuriating in not only the warm water on a cool day, but also, the energy he no doubt absorbed from his fellow swimmers. It was not only I who was cognizant of our young Ian Thorpe. We all, male and female, gay and straight, kept tabs on him on while he sudded and rinsed. He remained in our periphery as he pulled on his green tie-dyed sweatpants and beat up Nikes. There goes youth, we thought as he lidded his long brown locks with a turned around ball cap and sauntered out of the club.

Mostly unrelated, this morning I was telling my friend Parker about a fancy Malibu cast party I had to leave full swing 25 years ago because I had been appointed to cart home a drunk, gay South African who had become so inebriated that he was sitting in the hot tub, champagne in hand, crying in his Speedo. At 27, it did not occur to me that some version of this would be my fate. But I can see now. We are not twins, but we are kin. I am always aging-gay-crying-in-a-Speedo-adjacent. (It’s not as bad as it sounds if you can make a little peace with the humor of it.)

In some ways, my self-absorption is a gift. Filling my days with leisurely swims and then drives, studying great Southern California architecture, homes where people lived dramatic lives. It’s not a life exactly but it’s close enough for me to reach a hand through my sunroof and graze the Jacaranda trees. Life-adjacent.

If young Ian Thorpe and ailing but venerated Joan Didion are the bookends of my day, what is at the center? It is this flux that we are all weighted by, day after day. We wait for symptoms to appear or disappear, we wait for news about the health and jobs and safety of people we love. We wait to go back to work. We wait for a vaccine. We tamp down jealousy of our friends who deservedly have already received the vaccine, both doses. Always comparing.

Will I be a person who enjoys being around people when I am allowed to be around people again? What happened to the flamboyant young man who loved to host parties and drink margaritas and smoke cigarettes and drink so much he always turned somewhere between a little and very nasty before the evening was over? That guy had so much fun. He had so many friends. Now my evenings end with setting the timer on my audiobook and sprawling on the couch, cuddling with Ricky, the dog who loves me the most. I hope each time that I will fall asleep before the timer ends. Later, when I wake up, I can crawl into our bed with Eric and Veronica. And I whisper to Veronica not to snarl (or snap!) at Ricky, because sometimes his proximity is triggering for her. Am I still the guy who broke into fancy West Hollywood hotels and apartment buildings to swim in my Speedo and make new friends? I mean, my guess would be no.

But, actually, he is still there, at least a bit of him. Slivers of young Ian Thorpe, slivers of Joan Didion, slivers of Quintana Roo, who died too young, slivers of the gay South African actor, slivers of my friends I haven’t seen for a year, slivers of the friends I text and FB message every day, slivers of my dad, gone 3 years on Sunday, slivers of my mom, who loves me more than anyone, even more than Ricky, the dog who loves me the most.

When I started this blog, I titled it, He Swims in Beauty. Lord Byron would surely grimace at my sophomoric allusion to his beloved poem. But as young Ian swam next to me this morning, that is was came to me. It felt a privilege to swim next to a person that beautiful. Of course, my day continued post swim, I did laundry, went for my drive, came home to two surprises from Eric: our favorite sandwiches from Larchmont Wine & Cheese and a freshly groomed Ricky, looking like a puppy again.

And then I sat down to string a few words together. Writing is another theme Joan Didion addressed in Blue Nights, how writing came easier when she was younger. We writers don’t always know what to say, but also, sometimes, don’t know HOW to say what we want to say. But today, for the most part, I have written what I wanted. I think it makes sense. I think you might relate to at least one thing I’ve shared. Maybe two things.

So really, maybe I was referring to myself, when I chose “He Swims in Beauty”. Beauty is not what I am, merely the womb that nurtures me, prepares me. In the grand as well as in the minuscule. It is present and as I swim from wall to wall, over and over, the salty water buoying, propelling, cleansing me to my completion, I soak in everything that is beauty which surrounds me.

Guest Blogger, Christine Jones: When Grief Lives Alone

Arthur and Christine grew up in my hometown. Arthur and Christine were one of those high school couples who, when they got together, everyone that I know thought, oh wow, they are perfect for each other. As she will tell you in the following paragraphs, after falling in love, they married then built a life together. Careers, children, dreams achieved. And then illness entered their lives and changed everything. Not long ago, I asked Christine if she might ever want to write something for my blog and yesterday she sent me this. It is a beautiful, affecting reflection on grief, something that touches all of us.

When Grief Lives Alone

My war with grief began with the loss of my husband, Arthur. I never imagined that the crush I developed in geometry class for the tall, skinny boy with a cockiness that made me smile would evolve into a love that defined me. We started our journey together with a first date when we were barely 16 years old. We knew, after that first evening together, that we shared a special connection. Love came to us very quickly and we formed a bond that sustained us through the challenges of high school and college and as we matured into adults. We married six and a half years after that first date, and over the subsequent 30 years we built a good life together as we advanced our professional careers and raised three beautiful baby girls into smart, talented, independent women. Arthur was my anchor, and around him I built my life, my definition of self and my hopes for the future. Our world was shattered when my strong, active, non-smoking husband was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. From that moment on, our lives were reduced to the sole purpose of keeping Arthur alive. There were endless physicians, surgeons, medical tests and surgeries, along with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy and radiation. But in the end, Arthur’s cancer was stronger than the weapons we had to fight it, and he died a short 15 months after that first diagnosis.

I have lost other loved ones to death, including my parents and beloved grandparents, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming pain of losing my Arthur. Every day became a battle with this crushing grief that caused constant tears, a closing of my throat, a pit in my stomach and a very real, physical pain in the center of my chest. I didn’t understand the term “heartbreak” until I felt that pain as I stood by Arthur’s side as he took his final breath. It has been over a year now since that night, and in all that time I haven’t been able to articulate the experience of living with and battling this grief, even to myself. But as I lay in bed this morning, letting my mind wander as one does in those first moments after waking, the following analogy formed itself in my conscious thought. I thought perhaps the documentation of these thoughts might help those who haven’t experienced a loss of this magnitude yet to understand the war others wage with grief following a profound loss. Selfishly, I hope it might also help me as my own personal war rages on.

I don’t think of grief as an emotion such as happiness or sadness or fear. To me, grief following a profound loss is more like an entity; an enemy. The loss that results in grief of this kind steals away more than a cherished loved one or a soulmate. It steals your life; it steals your identity. You eventually realize your can’t move on along life’s path. Your path no longer exists. Your life as you knew it no longer exists, and you can’t return to the person you once were. You can’t have the same goals and dreams because your life and your identity were irrevocably tied to a person who is now lost to you. There is an abundance of pain, anger, guilt and regret that constantly brings you to your knees. But eventually you must accept that to survive, you have to win the war with grief, reinvent yourself and construct a new life along the way. As is always the case, war is comprised of many battles. Some battles you will win, and some you will lose. The goal is to be standing when the war is over and the smoke clears. Even if the person standing there is someone you don’t recognize.

At the beginning of the war, after your loss, all you feel is pain. The sadness is overwhelming and it dominates every thought and every emotion. Grief surrounds you and you can’t separate yourself from it. You constantly live with the grief and it manifests itself with tears, a tightness in your throat, a sickness in your stomach and the pain in your chest that never goes away. You don’t possess the ability to control your emotions or the tears and sadness that make those around you uncomfortable. You tell yourself you won’t cry, but then the briefest thought or mention of your loved one instantly brings on a pain that smothers you and robs you of your control. You find yourself avoiding people as much as possible, and when you must be with others you try to dominate conversation with “other” topics so you won’t embarrass yourself again by crying. This is the time when you are at your weakest and grief has the upper hand. Grief is your constant companion, and it always wins the early battles.

After a time, and the amount of time differs from one person to the next, you develop the strength to separate yourself from the grief for brief periods of time. It’s like you built a room around it. You created a place for the grief to live that is adjacent to you, but it no longer constantly surrounds and smothers you. Unfortunately, the room where the grief now lives has no door. You can’t fully separate yourself from it. The grief can still move in and out of the room at will, so while you can go hours and eventually even days without the pain, thoughts of your loved one still calls the grief to you and the pain is as intense as it was in the beginning. You come to realize that the grief has control over your love and your memories. Grief lives in the room you painstakingly constructed, but it doesn’t live there alone. It lives with all of your memories as its companion. You don’t possess the ability to talk about, or even think about, your loved one without calling the pain to you as well. In this battle, grief still wins. You are stronger; you fought valiantly; you gained some ground with the construction of the room; but as long as the room has no door and as long as grief lives with your memories, grief still wins.

As the war rages on, you eventually develop the strength and strategies to build a door for the room. You can intentionally close that door, and close the grief away for longer and longer periods of time. You can go days, even weeks without experiencing that pain. You can create tasks for yourself to keep your mind and body busy and distracted. You can leave your house and have conversations with others without crying. You start to feel like a human being again, and you slowly start to construct that new life and new identity. The people around you comment that you are “better” as they witness you taking those difficult steps forward. But the grief still lives in that room, and it is still strong. The door to grief’s room tends to open more often at night when you are alone, or in the early mornings when you wake from your dreams. You still cry and feel the intense pain, but more often now when you are alone and others can’t see. Grief still holds your memories captive in that room. You ache to remember the good times; to look at old photographs and talk about your loved one and feel the love and the happiness you shared rather than the pain and anger of that inexplicable loss. But you can’t, because your memories still live in that room bound to your grief. Even though you have made substantial progress, and the people around you see you as a whole person again, you know you are still broken because you can’t separate the grief from your memories. You haven’t won the war and grief perseveres.

Unfortunately, this is where my personal experience with grief ends for now. It has been one year and 24 days since my husband died, and I continue to fight daily to keep the door to grief’s room closed, even though I long to freely remember my Arthur and the love we shared. I want to cherish those memories, and to share them with our grandchildren so they will come to know the grandfather they are too young to remember. Arthur’s biggest heartbreak was knowing that our grandchildren would not have any actual memories of him. I carry the responsibility of ensuring that those sweet babies know him as their “Poppie” and that they understand the love, hopes and dreams he had for each of them. I owe this to my Arthur, but for now my grief still holds the high ground. Through this process I have come to understand the next step, and to have hope that I will one day be able to take it. I understand that I need to fight the grief for those memories, and I need to relocate my memories to a room of their own in my mind. I also understand the grief will always live in its room, hopefully locked away and alone most of the time. When grief lives alone in its room, I will have finally won the war and will have my memories without the pain. I will be able to look at our pictures currently packed away in boxes and smile instead of cry. I will be able to talk about my Arthur with love, pride and humor rather than heartache. When grief lives alone, I will finally have my Arthur again.

Loss and Love

Yesterday morning I woke up at 6:30 to go to the bathroom. When I came back to the bedroom, I saw that Ricky had moved into my spot and was curled into a sweetly sleeping ball. Not wanting to disturb him, I crawled over him and planted myself in the middle of the bed. Ricky’s spot: where he has slept between Eric and me since we got him 9 years ago this month. In our bed, on that morning, Eric put his arms around me and I cradled Ricky and we lay together as a family.

Probably you know that our family got a little smaller last week. In fact, as I lay in bed yesterday, I thought about how Millie died at 6:30 am just last Tuesday. And here we were, the three boys left behind, missing our girl.

I did share a picture on FB and IG of our Millie. I shared that she died peacefully at home, which seems like a miracle considering her many health problems over the years. I wrote about her seizures that started ten years ago and her tumor that was diagnosed in February of 2018. Somehow she continued to bounce back from every health scare. All except for this last one.

There is a story I will share, who knows maybe I’ve already shared it. Around Christmas 2018, months after Millie’s diagnosis, we took her to a different vet because she was lethargic and not eating. He gave her an antibiotic but also told us that he was willing to try a surgery that might buy her a little more time with us. He repeated that it was very risky but he would like to try to remove the tumor. (This had never been discussed by her earlier vet team.) He said he could do it right after Christmas and that she would be in the hospital several days recuperating. He told us to think about it over Christmas and get back to him.

The prospect of a time buying surgery cast a shadow over that holiday for Eric and me. Already, it was my first Christmas without my dad, away from my mom, and the universe had given us something else to grieve.

Eric and I went to a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant on Christmas Eve. We talked about how the thought of Millie dying post surgery, in pain and alone, was worse than the thought of her not having much time left. We ruled out the surgery. Whatever happens, happens.

Millie rallied. Was it antibiotics? Was it luck? Was it love? I don’t know.

When this last Christmas rolled around, and Millie had survived another year, without surgery, Eric and I both acknowledged our gratitude. All of this time, and let me preface this with, I KNOW this sounds crazy, but I have felt that my dad was working from the other side to keep Millie afloat.

Millie first got sick while I was in Kansas taking care of my dad while he was dying. Eric took her to the vet several times and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong but knew she was failing. I remember laying on my childhood bed, 1400 miles away from Los Angeles, staring up at the ceiling. My father dying, and my little girl seemingly dying too. I told Millie that I loved her, that if she needed to go, I understood. I thanked her for being such a good girl. She didn’t hear me, of course. I knew that what I was saying was for me, to ease my pain.

But, don’t we all believe in magic? At least a little? Don’t we hope that our pleas can save those we love?

I have no answers. I only have stories. And today, my stories are Millie stories.

Recently, I received criticism that in my writing, I only write about myself. I have to say, that is a shrewd observation. I do write about myself, I am self-absorbed. But I also THINK I understand that anyone who connects with something I write does so because I am writing about things that also happen to others. I write about what I feel and hopefully others think, yes, I have felt that too.

I know that I am not the only person who has lost a pet. If you are still with me, you aren’t mourning MY Millie right now, you are mourning YOUR Millie. You are thinking about how much you loved her and how much she loved you and how there is an ache that will always be there.

So, in the spirit of loss and also in the spirit of love, I thought it might be nice for anyone so inclined to share a picture of a pet that you miss. You can post here on the blog or on the FB post. I feel like I have so many friends who had really wonderful pets they posted pictures of and then when they died, they felt like they didn’t have permission to continue posting those pictures. You DO have permission, post whatever you want. And if the thought of posting makes you too sad, don’t feel bad for not posting either. If you want to share a story about your Millie, share a story.

When you lose a pet, you join yet another death club. And you feel things that people who have never lost a pet cannot understand until it happens to them. So please, feel free to share something about your baby that you miss. It will make me feel a little less sad being reminded of how much love is out here, getting us through the rough days!

And Love, is only Heaven Away

This is my friend Shelly. She died on Monday. We grew up together. We actually dated briefly in high school and then transitioned into friendship. We remained close during our college years and while we stayed in some contact, our adult lives did not include a lot of each other.

In adulthood, Shelly became Michelle. In fact, of all the things her obituary listed: maiden name, family, where she lived, work accomplishments, there was no mention that to many she was known and loved as Shelly.

I searched my pictures hoping to find one that speaks to who she was better than this one. Yes, she was a beauty queen, and yet, to all who knew her, she was much more. She was kind, and smart, and perceptive, and a champion for the underdog. In high school, long before I came out to myself or anyone else, she talked about how much she loved gay people, how many of her mom’s best friends had been gay men. In retrospect, I think she told me things like that to let me know that regardless of what my church or our Kansas environment was telling me, she saw me for who I was and that there was nothing wrong with me.

The last time I saw Shelly was the weekend of my 20 year reunion. She was in town visiting her mom and though I can’t remember how it happened, she came with me to our reunion. She was two years younger but of course, every person in my class was so happy to see her “crashing” our reunion. Just now, I am remembering that I had asked her to come because it was my first time seeing a lot of my classmates as an out gay adult and I wanted the buffer. I was surprised and warmed by how supportive every person was to me. And of course, Shelly being Shelly was the belle of the evening. She was radiant. Every guy still flirted, every girl still wanted to be her friend.

While we messaged each other on FB from time to time, we were never in Independence again at the same time. Years passed. I had been told by a mutual friend a few months ago that Shelly had some grave health issues. I sent her a message, not mentioning the news I had been told, but hoping to reconnect in a more personal way. She never wrote me back.

These last few months, I thought often about her. I told only one of our mutual friends because I did not want people gossiping about her. Maybe being protective is the only way I can be a good friend to her right now, I thought.

Since Monday, I have, of course, been mourning Shelly’s death, but also, there has been a current that has coursed through me in kind of lovely ways. On Tuesday, I decided to drive to Santa Barbara. Being two landlocked Kansas kids, it’s not like she and I SHARED the ocean. Our only beach trips were to Big Hill Lake. (Not as accurately named as one might deduce from its appellation.) But I went to the ocean and walked along paths with salty breezes blowing in my face and tousling my hair. A visit to the beach can make a 52 year old feel like a kid (or a teenager) again. As I drove back to LA that night, the lights of the towns flanking the freeway guiding my path, I listened to “The Ghost in You” and “Can’t Fight the Feeling” and the epilogue from Les Miserables and I mourned Shelly and I mourned our lost youths and I mourned all the people I’ve loved dearly and somehow allowed to drift out of my life.

I did make a decision on that drive. I want the people who meant a great deal to me at certain chapters in my life to know the way I’ve carried them with me in my heart for the last 30 plus years. Like how rose water always makes me think of my friend Missy or crab Rangoon makes me think of my friend Ab or Yaz makes me think of Tammy or Cheers makes me think of Tracy or a really good donut makes me think of Stacey or walking around Los Feliz always makes me think of Joel and Kate. We come into this world and we connect and sometimes we float away but I’d like to think there is always something, even if it’s just memory, that tethers us to each other forever.

On Tuesday, I sat on the patio of a restaurant on State Street in Santa Barbara. I ordered a sparkling rosé and privately toasted Shelly, this beautiful soul who has left us far too soon.

If you have a Shelly, and I’m sure you do, send her a note, share a memory, do a zoom happy hour with her if you can. And also, if for some reason you aren’t able to reconnect in any sort of finite way, close your eyes and think of her. Whisper that you care and hope the universe is able to deliver the message.

Rest easy, Michelle, you are forever loved.

In That Moment

I woke up this morning at 4:30 am. Someone, no names, hopped off of our bed and could be heard wandering around the living room. Not an unusual occurrence when one lives with two senior dogs. I always wake up and her restlessness jumpstarts an alertness within me. I got up to go to the bathroom and asked M—— if she was ready to go back to bed. She let me lift her back into bed and for awhile she rolled around on her back. I lay next to her, my head at the foot of the bed, creating a guard in case, in her glee, she rolled right off the bed. (Something else that has happened before.) Eventually she tucked into a curl and rested again but I now was fully awake. I tossed and turned and petted the dogs. Eric murmured sweet nothings to them as well, in his slumber. After 20 minutes that felt like 3 hours, I got up and went into the living room and picked up a book I had been reading. First, Ricky sauntered in and snuggled next to me on the couch. A minute later, Millie— (yes, it was Millie that started this but then you already knew that. It’s Millie that starts everything in our home.) Anyway, a minute later, Millie announced herself in the living room. She jumped on the couch and ascended to the throne that is its northeast corner. I read my book and within a few minutes, Eric joined us too. He brought a blanket out for me and the dogs. I told Millie that it would be nice if she made us some coffee. That is how Eric and I ask the other to make coffee. Eric said to Millie that she can’t have coffee even though she likes it. (Twice we’ve caught her slurping out of a forgotten coffee mug.) Anyway, Eric made us coffee. We sat on the couch and drank it. I read, he Instagrammed. Ricky slept, Millie snored. As the sun was coming up, Eric said he was going to try to go back to sleep. Unlike many mornings, neither of us had to be at work particularly early today. Millie followed Eric into the bedroom. A few pages later, my book was done and Ricky and I also returned to bed. As I drifted back into sleep, I thought about what a simple luxury, all of it was. The coffee, the book, the couch, the blanket, the possibility of sleeping in, the dogs and of course, Eric. I live in Los Angeles, filled with some of the wealthiest people in the world and yet, I thought, in that moment anyway, there was no one that had it better than me.

Travelin’ Man

One thing that people say to me, fairly frequently, is that it seems like I’m always traveling somewhere. It’s an illusion, but one I enjoy. Who doesn’t like to be thought of as a person on the go if most evenings that person is at home on his or her couch watching tv with his or her dogs?

I do travel some and I always take pictures and I always post a few of those pictures, so, well, I can freely admit, my Instagram is a somewhat hungry bid to make people I know, and even those I don’t, think that I’m out there, really LIVING.

A few weeks ago, I was in San Francisco, visiting friends but also visiting the city itself, a place I once called home. On one day, my friend Kim and I walked from the Embarcadero into Russian Hill then along Polk to Market and then the Castro. If you haven’t been to San Francisco, that might seem like chatter, but if you have been there, perhaps my saying Embarcadero or Russian Hill or the Castro stirs memories of your own.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never been to San Francisco, I’m not writing about a specific destination. I don’t want to ignite anyone’s FOMO. (Although when it comes to travel, I do have plenty of my own ache for the places I’ve yet to visit: Paris, Rome, Alaska, New Zealand, to name a few.)

No, just for a moment, I’d like for you to think about a place that you travelled to that you loved. Think about who you were with, what you ate, what you saw, where you stayed. Acknowledge how many times in your memory you return to that trip.

I have an unscientific theory about what makes travel successful. I think the best trips are a fusion of the familiar and the new. I mean, it’s just something that occurred to me as I traipsed up and down the hills of San Francisco, looking for familiar, beloved landmarks and also marveling at new towers, or new restaurants. On this trip, for the first time ever, I went into City Hall and took in the majestic staircase and Baroque dome. How had I missed this in all my previous trips? I honestly don’t know, but what glee, even giddiness, I experienced on this last trip, when I discovered something old and new.

In the last few years, several times, I’ve made the journey from Los Angeles to my hometown to visit my parents. I generally take Interstate 40 which runs along Route 66. It is such a familiar drive that there are cities or restaurants or coffee houses or buildings or downtowns I make a point of visiting each time. It seems like there is always a small, dusty town with an old theatre that is in some state of repurposing. There is always the one diner that has more cars in the lot than the rest. These little towns, some of them hanging on for survival, they make me feel alive. I love these small towns, in part, because I am from one.

On these long, but peaceable drives, I listen to music and audiobooks and podcasts. I note that ultimately, all songs, all books, all podcasts are united by a common theme, someone is telling another person their story. This is my love, this is my pain, this is my hope.

There is a Hampton Inn just off the 40 in Albuquerque that I return to often. In my memory, and also in my travels. As hotels go, it’s not all that remarkable, but it’s clean and modern enough and over the years, I’ve developed a relationship with it. Time and again, I’ve driven for hours, until exhaustion, and checked into this Hampton Inn that has welcomed my weary soul. I have a ritual where I stop at the nearby Whole Foods first and get a sandwich and chips (and maybe a bottle of wine) that I bring with me to the room to enjoy like a king. I’ve stayed at the Hampton Inn when I was happy and I’ve stayed there when I was grief stricken. I first stayed there on my way to Kansas the year my dad had a surgery we did not know if he would survive. I watched Bunheads and drank Sauvignon Blanc and agonized. Three weeks later, I was headed back to Los Angeles, still unsettled, still worried. My dad’s surgery had unexpected complications and he was sent to a rehab facility. I needed to return to my job and also, I longed to be reunited with Eric and the dogs. I felt guilt for leaving my parents, still not out of these particular woods. Again, there was an episode of Bunheads, and a Whole Foods sandwich and a glass or two (or three) of Sauvignon Blanc. And this room, these familiarities they did not bring me joy, exactly, but provided a comfort.

My dad did get better and there were happy years that I stayed at my Hampton Inn and each time, I revisited the darkness of those first visits. It could have stirred up pain, I guess it did, but also, it made me feel grateful. My dad was alive, gardening, golfing, even working. My little Hampton Inn was a reminder of resilience and hope, my father’s and even my own.

Of course, you know that my dad did get sick again. I stayed there on my way to Kansas, just a few hours after my mom called to tell me that they had started him on hospice. I needed my Hampton Inn by then. My safe, familiar place.

Four weeks later, I stayed there again after my dad died, still weak from a flu that had ambushed me the day after his funeral. I took two Tylenol and an Ambien and called my mom and cried more than I’d cried on the day he died or the day we buried him added together. I sobbed like a broken child, which I was. My mom told me, over and over, “We will get through this, we will get through this.” And my room at the Hampton Inn, the one that had borne witness to so much, in its way, echoed her assurances of hope.

This familiar vs new theory that I so cavalierly introduced a few paragraphs ago, I should have also said, is a spectrum. Some of us lean more toward the new adventure while some of us need more to return to the old haunt. If you know me even a little, you know that I love revisiting the things that have meant something to me in this collection of years I’ve accrued.

I think about that Hampton Inn, my Hampton Inn at least once a week. I also return to those many drives through western states, in crippling heat or perilous snow or magnificent lighting storms. Just like the songs and books and podcasts that accompanied me, these trips, they are part of my story. I sail into the night, windows down, hair flapping, the smell of summer or winter or fall greeting me. This is life, I think. And it is.

The Little Girl Who Became My Mother

This is my second Father’s Day without a father. Actually, that’s not accurate, I still have a father, he is simply no longer living. I think of him daily. I knew him, knew that he loved me. I remember all the times I disappointed him, the times I made him angry or sad. I also remember times I made him proud, or made him laugh. I loved making my dad laugh. Who doesn’t?

My first Father’s Day without my dad, I was in Kansas with my family there. I wanted to make the day as nice as possible for my mom because, well, because my dad wasn’t there to make the day nice for her. We had a family cookout. I burned the hamburgers. An uncle had also died a few months earlier and it seemed to me, that we all made the best of a day that had its odds stacked against it.

Today I am in Los Angeles and my mom is at home in Kansas. I talked to her earlier and she sounded sad. Makes sense, of course.

For some reason, this Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about how painful this holiday must have been for my mother when she was growing up. She was a baby, just a few days old, when her father died. He was never more than a vapor in her life. She was loved, by her mother and older brothers and grandparents and aunts and uncles, but I often think about the little girl who became my mother. The little girl who wanted a daddy. What does it feel like to have that kind of permanent ache?

When my mom was maybe 8 or 9, my grandmother married again. That union was not a long one, but it did produce another child, the little sister my mom always dreamed of having. She doted on her, as one would imagine. To this day, they are close. A few years ago, my mom had had just a teeny bit of wine and she was tipsy. In our living room, filled with family, she joked to my aunt, “Momma always loved you the most.” We all laughed, and my mom laughed the most, but then she said, “It’s true.”

And there it was, this reminder that my mom did not feel as loved as she wanted, needed, in her childhood.

One good thing about the time we live in, I think, is that family can look like a million different things now. We all know that’s not how it worked in the 40s and 50s. I have no idea how my grandmother raised 5 children, 5 beautiful children who grew up to look out for each other long after she was gone.

My parents had been married over 50 years when he died. I would not begin to say that their marriage was perfect, but as they aged, their devotion to each other appeared to deepen. I remember being at a mall in the 90s with them. We separated to shop on our own and my mother did not arrive at the designated return time and location that we’d agreed upon. As the minutes passed, my father scanned the mall, looking for her. Always a calm man, his cool was slightly undone. This was before cellphones and we just stood and waited and looked up and down and all around, hoping for her to appear. “I don’t know where she is.” “This really isn’t like her.” And finally, we saw her descending the escalator. “There you are. You had us worried.” She just laughed and said she was sorry. It wasn’t like her to linger but she was trying on some shoes. She could see that he had been a little concerned and I think it quietly thrilled her.

With every passing year, more and more, they became caretakers for each other. She nursed him through several cancer battles. He nursed her through surgeries and struggles of her own. About 20 years ago, her doctors told her she should get her knees replaced. She thought about it, talked about it for years, but ultimately decided against it. She said things like, “Don’t worry about it, I have your father to take care of me.”

There was a point in 2016 when my mother’s eyesight started to fail. When she went to the doctor, she was told that she had macular degeneration, a condition that significantly compromises a person’s vision. My parents delivered this news to me at a Panera in Denver, that she was going blind. Again, my mother assured me, “Don’t worry about it, I have your father to take care of me.”

As the story goes, a few months later, my dad’s cancer returned, this time with a new vengeance. They cared for each other as best they could and then, well, you already know this, my dad died.

I know it’s a crazy thought, but I sometimes feel that my mom believed, at least on some level, that God would see how much she needed my dad and keep him here with her. That if her dependence was significant enough, he would never die.

Among the 547 items that hospice brought to our house in the days after my dad entered palliative care was a walker. My mother for years had turned up her nose at the thought. “Why would I need that? I HAVE YOUR FATHER!” But she took a liking to the walker during my dad’s final days. It’s kind of sweet really, but they shared the walker. They would take turns, using it to go to the bathroom or the kitchen or the bedroom and then return it to the living room, where it would sit until one of them needed it again. When my dad passed, and hospice came to pick up the 547 items they had brought, they had to leave the walker for a couple extra days until a new walker, a permanent one, arrived. It is bright pink, has a little storage compartment, as well as a seat. In the 16 months since my dad died, it’s been a lifesaver for her. Both literally and figuratively, that vibrant walker gives my mother the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.

I’ve done very little today. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have sat in front of of computer and sifted through memories.

I marvel at all the Father’s Days we celebrated when I was growing up, where we gathered as a family, and my dad burned the chicken on the grill, and we bought or made him silly presents and cards. Not once did I think about how it might have been a hard day for my mom, my sensitive, heart on her sleeve mom, who was once a little girl.

Today, when we think of all the fathers, I can’t help but think of my mother’s dad, who missed out on so much. Maybe like Billy Bigelow in Carousel, from a heavenly view, he was able to keep an eye on his only daughter as she grew into a woman and then a wife and mother and also, a grandmother. Maybe he was able to weep when she hurt and smile with her joys.

In a few hours, I will call my mom again and see how the rest of her day was. Probably, she will see that I’ve written a blog. She’ll see that it was about her, and my dad, and her dad and she will ask me to read it to her.

She will know that I hate reading to her the things that I’ve written but this time, I will. Probably we will cry, two sensitive souls. And then also, we will laugh. Ridiculous that two people could be so excitable, could feel so much.

And maybe, just maybe, from another universe, my father and her father are together, watching it all. Mourning her pain, but sustaining her too. Maybe her tender heart, and mine also, come from this man. And maybe, with swollen, wet eyes, he looks at my dad and says, “Thank you, Ray, for taking such good care of my little girl.”

This Too Shall Pass

Last week, a good friend who truly loves me and only wants the best for me, sent a text to see how things are in my life. I told him that I was currently in a tough spot because I had been hired by a new restaurant that was supposed to open in November and that it had been postponed several times now, every two weeks or so. I told him that the first few postponements unfazed me but this, fifth one, had left me depressed.

“This too shall pass,” he texted back. No doubt thinking of something that would make me feel better, hopeful. I started to write something, didn’t know what to say, although I was plagued by very dark thoughts like, “Oh, wow, someone should have gotten that message to Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade. Someone should put that one on a coffee mug and hand a bunch of them out to the people living in tents on skid row. You solved it, the universal dilemma, THIS TOO SHALL FUCKING PASS.”

Of course, I didn’t respond with that. I don’t have a mean bone in my body. (snicker, snicker) I did not, in fact, respond at all. I typed a few words, deleted, typed , deleted, sighed and gave up.

It has been my experience that when you feel like whatever it is you are going through will never pass, it’s really challenging to take in and absorb the hope that it can turn out just fine, or maybe even better than you expected or maybe downright fabulous.

Especially if you are in the middle of a losing streak, which I am. Restaurants not opening when they should be. Weather not complying for me on side gigs I pick up from time to time. Even this government shut down has affected me.

I don’t want to come across as a guy that uses mojo in his vernacular but, I don’t know how else to explain that I have no confidence, no swagger, no game, no MOJO.

Because I am underemployed and because I am hungrily seeking sustenance to partake of to make me feel like a human of worth again, I have been reading more and spending more time at the libraries. Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, LAPL. You already know this, but our libraries are full of complicated, sensitive over thinkers. My people really. I take in the broken spirits who sit at desks, their bodies’ scents informing the extending area. The backpacks filled and overflowing with creased, greasy, tattered, unorganized papers and books. They talk to themselves, they laugh or correct themselves. They sometimes shame themselves or others for a wrong turn. Sometimes with a learned patience but other times, with unchecked anger. We have way too much in common and it depresses me. How can I feel hope that my current burden will pass when the folks I am most connected to are Los Angeles’s unluckiest inhabitants?

I am not oblivious to the fact that pain that begets pain. That people drink or do drugs to ease the pain of a horrible childhood or a violent attack or a parental betrayal or an adult failure, like staying 20 years at a low level job and then finding out a 20 year old was doing your job and getting paid more.

I am going to divulge something that most of my best friends know. I have been taking Ambien almost every night for the last year. It was a dependency that was building before my dad died and it has only increased. I don’t take Ambien when I drink so I drink less. I drink hardly at all. Alcohol impedes my sleep but Ambien blesses it. There is nothing I want more than to have a good night’s sleep. To have sweet dreams. Dreams where my dad is still alive and taking care of my mom. Dreams where I am working and enjoying my job. Dreams were I am in New York, discovering a street I never knew was there.

My mother, up until last week, asked me every day, when this training for this new restaurant was going to start. I didn’t know what to say. I had hoped for November and then I hoped for early December and then late December and then early January and now, I don’t know what to hope for. I asked her to stop asking, that it depressed me even more. That these postponements have made me feel like even more of a failure.

Among my bright spots is Eric who constantly says, “We will make it through.” I want to snap at him, but I don’t. (Much.) But, some people, some things, just do not make it through. Something bad happens, then something worse, then something worse, maybe a moment of hope, then bad again and then it really ends bad. Granted, I know it does not always go that way, but it can. For some, it has.

My other little bright spots are my Ricky and Millie. Especially Millie who was given a terminal diagnosis nearly a year ago. And knock wood, every day since has attacked life as if she knew she was going to win. Attacked the day, convinced the universe is on her side. Maybe the universe, when Millie flairs her teeth and snarls, reacts to her the same way her brother and fathers do. With an amused respect and not a little bit of terror.

I do not talk of Millie without emphasizing that we are taking this day by day, grateful for every good moment.

Maybe I need to actually follow Millie’s example. Pee in the bed? Who cares? Has to start wearing a doggie diaper? She’s become an exotic, topless (but not bottomless) bathing beauty on the French Riviera. She is the favored focus of all three of us, Eric, Ricky and myself. She is the last we kiss at night, the first we greet in the morning. We do not talk about her diagnosis in front of her, we don’t want her to absorb our worry. But it is not unusual for us to stare sadly into her eyes. Oh, how we will miss you, we think. Sometimes Eric’s tears melt into her coat. Mine too. And she just stares back. What is she saying? I love you? Maybe. Ricky could take better photos if he just smized more? Likely. Snap out of it? Possible.

Who am I kidding, I know. With a wisdom only the most self-actualized creatures ever understand, she’s telling me, “We will make it through,” and then, “This too shall pass.”

And it’s impossible for me to look into those cunning, intuitive eyes and not say, “You’re right, Millie. Always.”