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.”

An Afternoon at LACMA

 

Candy Darling by Greer Lankton

If you are one of those extremely sensitive types, like me, a visit to an art museum can be a comfort. With a little extra time, I decided to visit Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a museum I belonged to for over 15 years, It was free after 3 so I wanted to take advantage of the deal.

I think museums are supposed to inspire us to reach higher, love more compassionately, live more adventurously. Go back to the canvas or the notebook or the laptop. Be prolific like Hockney. Don’t be waylaid by depression or self-doubt.

I walk around museums trying to determine where my art or art plight lands in all of this. I know I am no painter or sculptor or visual artists, but these last few months, I have things I have wanted to say, to espouse, to pontificate, even. I tell myself that the daily pickles I find myself in, others can relate to. I tell myself that if I can share my struggle, a weight might be lifted, a corner turned, and I might begin the walk into an easier period of my life.

There is a graceful irony in that we go to museums to absorb beautiful paintings and drawings and art installations that are mostly rooted in someone’s pain. Maybe a lot of people’s pains. And artists create in hopes of lessening their own pain. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

When I walk around LACMA, I can’t help but notice the benefactors’ names on the wall and in the galleries. One woman, figured prominently at LACMA, berated me several months ago because she did not like any of the tables my then restaurant had available for her. It was either raining or unseasonably warm, I can’t remember but we had 60% of the normal real estate. He impatience was directed at me and she shamed me loudly in front of other guests. Over a table. Her pain is a pain as much as anyone else’s. She left feeling like the restaurant had not acknowledged and responded accordingly to her elevated value as a human.

I know that some people go to museums to see works that we know to be worth several dollars. We go to see famous names like Picasso and Giacometti and Rothko and Warhol.

Most, or at least some, go to the museum to see those pieces that speak to you, maybe they challenge you, or comfort you, or remind you of a time or a person that you loved and went away. Maybe you drink up everything by Mapplethorpe and Cadmus and Eakins because you want to understand more about yourself and your own attractions and point of view.

Today, at LACMA I encountered two really beautiful pieces by an artist I had never heard of, Greer Lankton.

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Jackie O by Greer Lankton

Greer Lankton was born in 1958 and died in 1996 at 38 year old, gender identity was always at the center of her work. She struggled with anorexia and drug addiction her entire prolific, yet short life.

Since I got home tonight, I couldn’t stop thinking about Greer as well as two of her muses, Candy Darling and Jackie O. Women of strength who were no strangers to tragedy and misunderstanding. All long gone now and thankfully, and yes, that word again, gracefully, they are still among us, as examples, angels, lights, cautionary tales, glamaristas. These haunting, odd, beautiful dolls keep these women alive and we absorb their pain and they absorb ours.

Paint Supplies Everywhere

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A few days ago, on a sunny yet temperate Saturday afternoon I was walking down quaint  Mission Street in idyllic San Marino. A perfect moment. And as I passed two women and a man, I caught just a sliver of their conversation. One woman, white, 30s, blond, zaftig, lamented to her friends (also white, also 30s, seemingly a couple), “…and he leaves his paint supplies everywhere!”

Now, I wish I had more for you, but that is all I heard as I passed by this woman, she and I going in separate directions. Was I tempted to follow her into the whimsical card and gift shop she entered? Of course I was, and yet, on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, I concluded I had heard all I needed to. She was talking about a boyfriend or he was roommate that she’s secretly (but not so secretly) in love with and she’s really at her limit, especially since she pays the rent so he can pursue his “art”. She only took one painting class in college but is quite sure that if she put even an ounce of effort, she could be a successful painter. Even if its only those street fairs where he goes to sell his pieces and the only people that buy anything are  women and gays in their 40s and 50s who think his scrawny body is sexy because he has a ZZ Top beard and John Denver glasses.

Sometimes my imagination runs away with itself.

Of course, I have no idea how close my imagined scenario is to this woman’s reality. Though the bored look on the friend’s husband’s face led me to think I’m at least 80% on target.

In case you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t particularly charmed by this woman. With only the smallest piece of evidence, “…and he leaves his paint supplies everywhere,” I had judged, juried and convicted her to a lifetime sentence of being a nag, a yawn, a wet blanket. In a handful of words, I was unequivocally on the other guy’s side. Poor guy, I thought.

So unfair, this guy could actually be a real asshole but I wouldn’t know because his girlfriend or whatever they call themselves annoyed me.

Life is so unfair.

And then I thought about all the times I catch bits of conflicted conversations and I always make an assessment. I almost always side with the one who whines less or the one who listens quietly. We root for the least annoying and indict the loudmouth or the emotional one. I do it all the time and I am a loudmouth and I am emotional. If I had an ounce of intelligence, I would never complain or discuss a conflict in public, ever. It’s generally not a good look.

The entire time I was writing my last blog, about my departure from Barneys New York. I had to laugh because I knew that people were going to take pieces of what I wrote and it would be enough to dismiss what I had to say. Trust me, there are people who read my blog and concluded I was shrill or petty and wrote me off. Maybe in response they bought a $5495 pair of Louboutins in solidarity to a company that values youth. And I am not upset about it, I understand. It’s like that song Doris Day sang, wait never mind, only old people know Doris Day and only old people know “Que Sera, Sera”.

I will say this though. I’ll tell you what I did not deserve. I did not deserve all the people who reached out to me and wrote me notes and encouraged my writing and reposted my blog and told me they related and they were glad to see me happy. It’s nice, really beautiful. Heartwarming, in fact. Deserved? I don’t see it. (But, hey, I’ll take it.)

So thank you to all that bolstered my bruised ego when I loudly complained about a business place equivalent to a roommate leaving their paint supplies everywhere. I am not so close to the situation anymore that I don’t see a little humor in it.

Several people commented that loyalty in the work place is seemingly a thing of the past, but maybe this encouraging element that we find on social media, that that is a replacement of sorts. Maybe its a way we protect each other when the hard times come.  I know social media can bring out the bad in us, but it also brings out and up so much good. Right?

All I know for sure is that I want to gladly, humbly thank all of you who took the time to read my last blog, also took the time to say something nice to me. Yes, there have been glum moments since this all happened, but not yesterday, not today, and I have hope that tomorrow will bring some sunshine too!

19 Years at Barneys New York

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“As an industry, we are great at supporting, cultivating and launching new and young designers. Even though we excel at mentoring young talent, we also tend to push them into doing things that may not be the right fit for them at the moment. Such as producing very expensive fashion shows or trying to show their collections around the world right at the start. We need to create a platform that is more sustainable for up-and-coming talent.” — Daniella Vitale, chief executive officer, Barneys New York

The above quote appeared in an ad that popped up in my LinkedIn feed recently. I guess the reason ads for Barneys are in my news feed is because I worked for them, on and off for nearly 20 years. In another time in the history of our country, that might have counted for something. Today, at least with the company in question, it means nothing.

In my last blog, written about a month ago, days after my last day at Barneys, I alluded to the possibility that I might write about what transpired to precipitate my exit. I am sharing it now. Sadly, I think a few people around my age have experienced similar situations and I want it to be acknowledged that I know in the eyes of some employers, especially ones that are painfully, sometimes embarrassingly chasing a youth market, I have no currency.

I want to start with the good news. I am doing fine, financially and otherwise. I have work prospects and I am enjoying my downtime. I love spending more time with my dogs and taking long walks and watching Noah Centineo movies on Netflix. I won’t lie, there is an aspect of sour grapes in me sharing the following, but that’s only part of the story. There was a time when I wished things could have been addressed in a way in which I could have stayed at Barneys, but I don’t feel that way anymore.

So, in July, I was talking with one of my fellow hosts about our job. We were both kvetching a bit about how much was asked of us in relation to our compensation. My co-worker, in her early 20s, opined, “I can’t believe we have to do all of this for $XX an hour.” “I know,” I agreed and then it hit me what she was saying, “Wait, you make $XX an hour?” “Yes,” she said.  “I don’t make that, ” I told her, in shock.  I had worked for the company since 1999 and this very capable, but very young woman was offered a higher pay rate at her date of hire. “I thought you at least made that, I’m sorry Ray.” She could hear in my voice just how leveled I was by this piece of information. She also volunteered that our other fellow hostess, another young woman in her twenties was also hired at the same pay rate, $XX an hour, despite have no restaurant experience at all. No Beverly Hills experience, no OpenTable, no restaurant.

I had been told by the general manager of the store, the head of human resources and the general manager of the restaurant at different times within the last two years that the company was trying to pay me more money but they did not have the budget for it.

They were able to find the budget to hire two attractive young women to do the same job as me and pay them more. And yes, I was also imparted with the task of training them both and no, I did not receive extra compensation for those services.

Within 30 minutes of finding out that these young women were paid more than me, I sent an email giving my two weeks notice. Neither the general manager of the restaurant or the general manager of the store made an offer to correct this wage discrimination. They vaguely thanked me for my time and wished me well.

When I spoke to human resources the next day, I asked for someone to tell me why these young women had been paid more than me. In the two weeks I still worked there, not one person gave me an answer to my fairly simple question. In that human resources meeting, I also recounted an incident that transpired in December of 2017, around the time my father was dying. I came to work on a Saturday and the restaurant manager gave me a white envelope with “Ray from WME” written in her handwriting. Enclosed was $150. William Morris Endeavor is a talent agency that is across the street that our restaurant always made it a point to take good care of. If we were booked at 1:00 and a WME assistant called at 12:45 to get their boss a great table, I always found that boss a great table. Anyway, I asked my manager where the original envelope was. She told me she OPENED THE ENVELOPE and redistributed the money because the other hosts didn’t get envelopes. I told her that what she did, opening a card that was addressed to me, was illegal. She said she was sorry if I was offended and I said it wasn’t a matter of offensiveness, she broke a law. Coldly, she told me that there had been $200 in the envelope and she would give me the other $50. I said, “Thank you.”

I went back to work and 15 minutes later, she returned to the host stand, red-faced. “After some thought, I have decided you are in the right and I was in the wrong.” (Really? You think?) She told me that the original amount was not $200 but $250 and that she would get the other $100 to me. She apologized and I accepted her apology. One week later, she still had not volunteered the rest of the money so I texted her a reminder. “Oh Thank you, I’ll have it for you tomorrow.” And she did.

I will never know how much money was in the original envelope. She changed the story, first $200, then $250 so really, it’s anyone’s guess.

As I said, I shared these events with human resources two weeks before my last day, and not one person I spoke with or emailed seemed even a bit concerned that a manager representing Barneys New York would open an employee’s private mail. Not to mention change the story about its contents.

So, that’s it. That’s my exit story. Or most of it, anyway. I thought some of you might find it interesting. I won’t lie, there has been an odd decompression and processing that has occurred in the last month. What do I value about me? What do any of us value about ourselves? We are taught that we are failures unless we have a great job that pays lots of money. Not only was I not paid a great wage, a 21-year-old was paid more than me. And the company was unwilling to match that 21 year old’s pay rate. All of my life experiences, my remembering faces and names and favorite tables, my thoughtfulness, my loyalty to the company, meant nothing at the end of the day.

Today, I caught up with an old friend who had not heard the story. “So, what happened?!?!?” she asked. We had not seen each other in months and she only knew that I had quit my job. I told the story, spent some time on the damning aspects, laughed about the lighter details, and I easily moved on to talk about other topics. More important things like family and travels and passion projects and Noah Centineo. Three weeks ago, it would have been all I could talk about. So, you know, baby steps.

Or old man steps.

The Lucky and The Strong

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I am jobless. I have been jobless for 10 days now. I can’t say, at this moment in time, anyway, that I am not enjoying it. Three weeks ago, I was told a piece of information that made it difficult for me to continue with the company that I had worked for, on and off, since 1999.

And while I am tempted to write about what happened to me, this does not feel like the right time.

I am looking for work and am open to doing something different. Working in restaurants long term is difficult. Even before the event that took place three weeks ago, I was aware of the erosion that had taken place in my soul in regard for humanity.  Unlike Anne Frank, I had chip by chip, stopped believing that in spite of everything, people are good at heart. Every day, I was asked, demanded to perform some miracle, several miracles, for people who could seldom be bothered to offer a proper thank you.

Ten years ago, my friend Fred had a heart attack at the restaurant where I worked. He happened to collapse next to a woman who complained to the manager, as paramedics tried to save my friend, that she had to be moved or she wouldn’t be able to eat her salad. Fred did not survive the heart attack.  There was a poignance that he died on the job because he loved his job, he was very good at it, and he was valued by the company, at that time, in a way, that I’ve seen less of in the last ten years.

I am currently reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger.  I guess I am a sucker for short chapters, but it’s been a while since I have zipped through a book this fast. As Gay writes about her struggles with weight and identity and the messages we receive about value, it has resonated with me in sometimes painful ways.

For some of us who struggle with weight, I believe it can be connected to not knowing our worth. In most of my 30 years in the work force, at nearly every job I’ve ever done, I have struggled to feel good enough, adept, valued. Not to give too much away, but three weeks ago, I was told information that revealed in no uncertain terms, that I indeed, have no value to the company I had surrendered 19 years of my life to.

As much as I am tuned into Ms. Gay’s words, as I read, I find myself writing while I’m reading also. If you’re a writer, you might do this, where an idea you want to explore comes to you as you’re in the middle of a book’s paragraph and suddenly you are creating your own memoir, your own narrative. And it’s thrilling as you think, yes, this is what I want to say. And maybe you are shocked because you had worried that your days of writing compelling, cohesive sentences had gone away since the Ambien addiction came on full force.

I am a 50 year old man who has made mostly poor career choices. But that does not mean that I don’t have feelings and observations and corrections and kindnesses to offer. That doesn’t even mean that I don’t have a certain sense of humor about all this mishegas.

This year, what little I have written has been about my Dad. I start to write more about him and then stop because I think people are tired about hearing about this hero, this man who it seems cannot be gone and yet sometimes feels like he’s been gone for years. No more, I imagine them thinking, but I think, and my Mom thinks and many loved ones, we think, we still have more stories we want to tell about Ray, about Dad, about Grandpa, Uncle Ray.

My Dad would have loved for me to find my way into a career that feeds my soul.  I sometimes wonder if great jobs are as elusive as love in Bette Midler’s The Rose, just for, you know, the lucky and the strong.

I will share with you one good thing about me, I like to do fun things with my free time. In the last ten days, I’ve been to art museums, the Reagan Library, Pierce Brothers Westwood Cemetery (where Marilyn and many other big stars of yesterday are buried). I went to the movies. (Crazy Rich Asians, loved it!) I’m reading my book.

Life is just a little better when you hold a book that you love in your hand.

I know I am taking a risk in writing about this slightly precarious spot I’m in right now. I do have a little cushion, our rent is low, I do have leads on a few jobs and finding free adventures in Los Angeles is one of my favorite things to do anyway. So, I’ll be okay.

With any luck, I’ll wake up tomorrow with another story to tell, about what I don’t know, and I will type it out on my keyboard until it is ready to post.  And somehow maybe I will get to the stories I always wanted to tell, the stories I was too afraid to tell and the stories, I did not think I had the skill to tell.

Hunger. Dieting. Anne Frank. The Rose. Job Interviews. Family. Telling Stories. All of it, some cases more heartbreaking than others, but all of these things are bound by their relation to hope. It’s what keeps us going, sometimes it’s blind or misguided, but still, it’s what we hold on to. We have to. Some days hope is all there is.

What I Saw From My Kitchen Window

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A man almost died outside my kitchen window this evening. I opened the blinds and looked out the second I heard the awful, familiar squeal of the tires and the thuds of vehicles hitting each other.  A motorcyclist, helmet still on, lay on the ground, his bike tipped over after he had been hit at the intersection.  It’s a dangerous corner.  There is an accident at least once a day, most minor, but I have seen people hit walking in the cross walk. I’ve seen cars take out stop signs and cars drive into the corners of buildings.  But I digress, this isn’t a story about some awful accident that happened on my street today. Well, it kind of is, I guess.

I was making dinner when the accident occurred.  Immediately I saw that the motorcyclist was up and walking, and the men in the vehicles did not appear injured at all.  Two passersby came to the motorcyclist and asked if he was okay, he appeared to be.

The next time I looked, the motorcyclist had taken off his helmet. He was standing and talking to one of the young men in the other cars.  He was older than I expected.  Midwestern, probably in his 60s, grey hair. Stealthy for his age, clearly he had injured his leg, but still he stood.  Tough guy in brown dad jeans.

He busied himself taking pictures of the accident and his leg with his phone and soon, two firetrucks, an ambulance and a police car arrived.  He was talking to someone on the phone as the firemen and paramedics walked over to him. From his body language I deduced that he was a little angry that he’d been hit and was worried about the extent of his leg’s injuries.

Suddenly, there was something in his demeanor that made me think of my Father.  From 100 feet away, he could have been mistaken for my Dad 15 years ago.  At this point, I had finished making dinner and Eric and I were eating it in the living room.  Every time I would return to the kitchen to refill my water or get more pasta Bolognese, I would look out, I would stare.

He was going to be okay, I could tell. The ambulance did not even take him to the hospital.  I hoped that someone would maybe take him to the ER to have that leg looked at. I kind of chuckled thinking about how my Dad wouldn’t have been caught dead on a motorcycle, at rush hour in Los Angeles no less.  Not at 30, and certainly not at 65.  Then again, my Dad at 30 was more of a wild one than the man who raised me, so who knows, maybe. Don’t we ride motorcycles to feel young and invincible?

After awhile, it seemed like all of the ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars had driven off to their next emergency.  He was just an old man with a beat up leg and a broken bike sitting on the curb of the sidewalk. Was anyone going to come get him? Did he have a wife that was rushing to Hollywood from Northridge or South Pasadena?

That was the moment it hit me, one of the Dad moments I have from time to time now. It wasn’t my Dad proxy’s physical pain that worried me, but I could sense, or at least I thought I could sense, his sadness over his broken bike. Also, an hour had passed since the accident and no loved one had come to rescue him. No wife, no daughter or son or nephew. Alone.

There was this part of me that wanted to run down the steps of my building and join him on the curb and ask if he was okay.  And to sit with him until help came.

If it had been my Dad I could have run down there and given him a hug and said, “I love you Dad, I’m so happy you’re alright.” I would have held him a million times longer than I ever did when he was alive.  When he was alive, maybe it was a guy thing, maybe it was a midwestern small town thing, but I always wanted to err on the side of brevity when hugging my Dad.  Hugs weren’t our favorite, probably.

And now I think things like, I will never hug my Dad again. And there is an ache that comes with that recognition.  I’m not rare.  Anyone who ever lost anyone that they loved has had the same thought.

Like the time I was driving back to LA from Kansas a few days after my Dad’s funeral.  I stopped at a convenience store in New Mexico to use the restroom and as I was leaving, a young father and mother and ten-year old son were walking out into the cold at the same time.  The boy started jumping and moaning about the temperature and the Dad teased good naturally, “See, I told you to wear your coat!” And he looked at his shivering wife and said, “Both of you. Neither one of you listen to me.” The three of them laughed and the boy, whined, “Dad!” And the young family, they made their way to their car as I followed watchful, envious.

I felt like Our Town’s Emily.  I wanted to shake the young boy and the young parents too and cry,  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” But I did not do that and really, it would have been ridiculous if I had. (Not that I oppose being ridiculous.)

But the hope for every child, for every family, for every Mom and Dad, is that there are so many simple, beautiful memories that you just can’t register all of them. That they are a blur and then something happens, you hear a song, or see a road sign, or find yourself on a street you had not been on for 40 years, or see a person that looks like your loved one from a distance and a memory arrives. A memory returns. Maybe your memory is not 100% accurate,  maybe the memory is even somewhat bittersweet.

But maybe, for just a minute, that solitary elderly man outside your building is your Father and for a blink, he is there and you are there. And he looks up and waves and mouths, “I’m okay.” And the two of us, we share a moment I  will remember for the rest of my life.

 

Knock Wood

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In March, I wrote a piece about one of my dogs, Millie.  It was in the days after our vet told us that she had cancer and he predicted she would not be long for this world.  I wrote of my sadness concerning the prospect of losing my beloved father and beloved dog in such close succession.  At the time of the writing, Millie’s stamina and spirits appeared to be on an upswing.  The piece was a prayer of sorts to and for my father and Millie and Eric and our other dog Ricky too.  I closed the blog saying that whenever her end came, we would say that we had longer together than we feared, but not as much time as we hoped.

I have hesitated writing about Millie because, I am as nervous on the page as I am in real life.  I won’t, can’t, say this without knocking on wood, but Millie is as Millie as ever.  Whatever is going on inside her body has not slowed her down much, if at all.  Her appetite is unfazed, her brother-sister wrestling matches have not waned.  There is one notable change, and I don’t hate it, I hope it goes on forever and only becomes more pronounced: she is even more spoiled than before.  There is always roast chicken in the refrigerator.  When she sits on the couch, she paws Eric or me to demand that someone pet her.  If she could have someone at home 24/7 to adhere to her petting needs, she would not say no.  And for all of this good, we acknowledge, we give thanks. But also with each other or to ourselves, Eric and I are always looking for a wood surface to tap our knuckles against and say again, “Knock wood.”

Two weeks ago, because she was doing so well, we brought her in to see the vet and to get a sense of how she was doing.  He felt the same areas of her stomach/abdomen/organs. With hope, he said, “I don’t feel the mass at all, this is great.” We weren’t shocked by the news, simply because she seems so healthy these days.  He suggested an ultrasound  to see what they might find. “Maybe Millie is a wonder dog,” he offered to us.  We scheduled it for the next day and for 24 hours, Eric and I went about our days with a cautious optimism.

A few hours after the ultrasound, the doctor told Eric that Millie was ready to be picked up and that the mass was actually still there, in fact, had grown a bit more.  Eric called to tell me and I hurried him off the phone.  I rushed to pick her up from the vet’s office and I brought her home. She was unfazed by all of it, but I was heartbroken. I went home and poured myself an early afternoon cocktail. (Mint vodka limeade, if you must know.) And I sat on the couch, my drink in my hand, the dogs flanking me and I called my Mom.  I started to tell her about Millie’s vet visit and the hope offered and then the second diagnosis, that the mass was still there.

I started to cry and then I cried harder and my Mom listened.  At one point, Millie jumped off the couch and ran into the bedroom to her secret spot under the bed. A dam had burst and my tears could not stop, in fact, they needed to flow. My Mom, listened and quietly assured me, “I know, I know.” And I wailed, not just about Millie but for my Dad too, how I felt that the last doctors Dad saw all, in their way, let him down.  They led him to believe that he was getting better while he felt worse every day.  They stopped looking him in the eye, taking him in. They did not compassionately say, “Your time is winding down, what are the things you want or need to do or say in these last weeks or months?” And my Mom and I, we cried to each other on the phone, not only that Dad was gone, but that he did not get to go in a less painful, less distressing, more life affirming way. (And let me say, I suspect that life affirming deaths might be a rarity.)

The vodka had started to act as both salve and fuel.  For 20 minutes we cried into our phones.  Not only about the sad parts of his death, but the happy parts of his life, how he beat cancer three times before. That he was truly surrounded by people who loved him at the end, and he knew, I hope, how much we loved him too.

Those last twelve hours, they stay with me. My Mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, and my Dad’s best friend, we all sat in our living room looking at each other, wondering what we could possibly do to calm his spirit and ease his pain. We begged the hospice nurses for help, but help did not come until around 10:00 am Wednesday morning. The nurse gave us new pills for him.  We crushed them and, diluted with water, poured the solutiuon into his feeding tube. By 10:20 he was gone.  Almost immediately, the pained countenance left his body, but for the rest of us, it remained, and while I expect it will ebb and flow, the memory of those hours will never completely go away.

I am ashamed to admit that among the bounty of emotions I felt on that day and in the days after, woven into the sadness and the anxiety and anger and vulnerabilty, there was also a relief.  And then a little guilt.

I might be taking a risk to share that, but I have a feeling that relief and guilt are a part of it for many of us.

But getting back to that Monday a couple of weeks ago, when I cried those mint vodka lemonade tears and my Mom soothed my broken spirit with her own grieving heart.  When it was over, I think we both felt better.  I had cried like her baby boy that I will always be.  And she was there for me, she made it better. We each needed what we gave to and took from each other that day.

So now, like so many nights before, my Millie is sleeping on our bed, buried under blankets. In the spot on my side where my feet would go.  After I finish these last couple sentences, and tumble into bed,  I will have to crawl into a fetal position. I will do it happily, one baby making a place for another baby.

Before I drift into slumber, I will pray that tomorrow will be another good day for both Millie and Ricky, full of treats and massages and walks and chicken and naps and cuddles and love. And then I’ll tap the headboard two times. Knock wood.