Can’t Sleep

I woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I got up eventually and now I’m sitting with my coffee on the couch. Ricky is nearby, sleeping in his sister Millie’s old spot. It’s Christmas Eve morning. I have to work in a few hours then I’ll be off for a few days. It will be in the 70s today in Los Angeles, but the temperatures throughout much of the country are supposed to hit record lows. I’m glad I’m here in LA. I was just in Kansas and I was glad to be there when I was there but now I’m glad to be home.

My mom and I had a busy few days while I was in Kansas. Eating at restaurants, seeing family, going for drives, visiting Ruby and the family who adopted her. One of the more meta conversations we had was when I told her that she had kind of, sort of achieved a certain TikTok notoriety. Not that she knew exactly what TikTok was. “Sort of like Facebook, but just videos. And people are meaner, ” I told her. I explained that in August I posted a video of her saying goodbye to Ruby before I took Ruby to ARF, the no kill rescue group that took her in. My heart-tugging caption said, “This is my mom’s last day in her house before moving to assisted living.” Tiktok is an odd medium. You either get a lot of people to watch your video or you’ll get 4. And most of us only get four. But this video struck a chord. And, you probably see where this is headed, it went viral (viral-adjacent, to be fair) because most people watching the video were convinced I was the worst person in the world for separating my mom and her dog and sending each to variations of jail sentences.

I told my mom that 500,000 people watched the video and 70,000 liked it. (That is a slight exaggeration. 452,000 and 68,900 are the true numbers.) She told me she wanted to see the video so I showed it to her. It plays with a sad cover of “The Winner Takes it All.” “I want to read the comments. Can you read me the comments later?” I told her that no, we do not need to sift through 2500 comments, 80% of which (NOT an exaggeration) are telling her what a horrible son she has. While many folks praised my mom, Ruby and the family who adopted her, I was the crystal clear villain. (It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.)

A few friends and even more strangers have asked why I posted the video. On some level I knew that if more than 4 people were going to watch it, a certain amount of vitriol was going to come with it. But I guess we all want that taste of notoriety, some of us more than others. When the views and hate comments started escalating, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was being told repeatedly and colorfully, I was a “piece of shit” (a quote and also the recurring theme), but on the other hand, I was getting views. Like, lots of them.

Few of my real life friends are on Tiktok. And as the hate piled, my friend Linda, aka @lindaistoooldfortiktok was the first to wade into the mire to defend my sterling reputation. I appreciated her efforts, but as those early days wore on, she saw how it affected me. “Maybe it would be best for you to delete the video.” At that point, I had 28,000 views. More views than I’d ever had on anything. “Maybe I will,” I told her. But I didn’t. Instead, I did what Jennifer Lawrence and Adam Sandler do, I stopped reading the reviews.

Instead of reading the comments, I posted a few more videos, giving more of the story. I talked about Ruby’s new home, I shared that my mom has adjusted well in her assisted living, that she had already known people there because she had worked there years ago. I praised senior caregivers and healthcare workers. I advised people on how to find no kill rescues and shelters in their area.

Eventually, I did revisit the comments and tried to respond to folks who said they were negotiating similar situations. I thanked the commenters who said they work in assisted livings and take pride and care in their work. Did this stop the judgment? A little, maybe. For a few weeks there, people were pretty invested, and then the views dwindled, then eventually, it stopped. Frozen at 452,000, destined to never hit 453,000.

Desperate to reinvent myself like Meghan Trainor and JoJo Siwa before me, I posted a couple videos about winning on a game show. Those two received 10 views, collectively. Even my most recent video, my mom being reunited with Ruby, only garnered 300 views and a smattering of likes. (Zero hate comments to date.)

“What makes a Tiktok go viral?” my mom asked sadly after I told her the reunited video wasn’t hitting great numbers. “Ahhh, that is the eternal question,” I sagely told her. If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn’t be waiting tables on Christmas Eve. I’d be posting a holiday dance collab with @chris.

I will say this about that video. I posted it roughly a year after the day it was recorded. August 2021 was a very rough month for my mom and me. She hit a point where she could not live alone. Though we considered me moving home, we knew that Ruby and my dogs would never safely coexist in the same house. No one we knew wanted to adopt Ruby. It was heartbreaking and bleak and I did not have a playbook for how to proceed. My mom and I did the best we could with what we had. And then in August 2022, I stumbled upon the video and it was an assurance that it ended much better than I feared it would.

I don’t know what you’re going through today. Holidays can be overwhelming and depressing. On these days, we tend to take the magnifying glass out and scrutinize what we’ve done wrong or who we’ve failed or why we aren’t any number of things we were sure we’d be by the age we are. If you’re feeling that, you’re not alone. In fact, if you’re too damn happy right this moment, you might be the only one.

I’m glad I didn’t take my video down. I can only say that because of the time that has passed because truthfully, the comments did hurt me. But I didn’t delete the hate. Even in the videos where I defended myself, I tried to say, it doesn’t matter if you hate me, but please, offer grace to the people who are truly in your life and not on some dumb app.

If you’re reading this, you are the ones in my life. You know my story. You know my many flaws. Y’all know way more of my failings than Tiktok does! To you, I send wishes of joy and grace in this holiday season. I have to go now, Ricky and Veronica are both pawing and moaning to take them outside for their morning walks in the California sunshine. Merry Christmas, I love you all!

All Too Well

Next weekend, for the first time in my entire life, I will go home to see my mom and stay in a motel. My parents’ house sold in May. The last time I was in Independence, in December, I spent three weeks going through closets and drawers and boxes, deciding the fate of the contents from a lifetime of memories. My mom lives just down the street at an assisted living facility where she once worked. Her space there is enlivened (but hopefully not cluttered) by her favorite objects from our old house on Russell Road. We put some stuff in storage, gave items to friends and family. I brought tchotchkes and photographs and some of my grandmother’s artwork back to LA. Everything else was left to be sold in an estate sale.

In the last few years, I’ve spent extended periods in my hometown. First with my dad’s illness and death, and then to help with some of my mom’s health challenges. I can’t lie, these chapters were a gift. I was the boy who ran as far and as fast away from Kansas as he could, but in my adulthood, I learned there was a peace I needed (and wanted) to make with my imperfect Independence.

In December, it was just me and the dogs staying in a quiet house without even a television. Fourteen year old me could not have fathomed three weeks without a television, but we are not always aware of our strength until it’s called of us. I’d visit my mom at her new place and drive around town and through the park, getting food from my favorite places. I’d attack each room, each closet, each drawer, putting a piece of tape on whatever was “estate sale” ready.

It was all so nostalgic, spending weeks scouring the archives of our family’s museum. Christmas and birthday cards from long dead relatives. Pictures of my dad and mom, young and beautiful and innocent. Aged newspaper articles about family reunions in my mom’s hometown of La Junta, Colorado. My baby clothes, my baby books, my favorite stuffed animals. I was buried in memories, overwhelmed by personal objects with loaded significance.

When I drove into town, I’d drive the same loop I used to “cruise” when I was in high school. Penn to Main, then left, left at 6th, then left onto Myrtle and right on Penn. Then I’d drive to the park, maybe on Penn but maybe take Park. It’s such a time warp, breaking down a childhood home and part of you being sure it was only about 15 minutes ago you were 16. This time, just like 35 years earlier, I had that one song that I played on repeat. Over and over. Loudly. Windows down. Singing far louder than a person of my age/talent would be advised to do.

This time, it wasn’t Amy Grant. Or Chicago. Or Pat Benatar. To be honest, it was cringily age inappropriate but, hey, #jesuisarresteddevelopment. This time, my song was All Too Well by Taylor Swift. (Taylor’s Version, of course.) Just like we did it high school, it was the only song I wanted to hear, the only song that made me FEEL the feelings I wanted to feel.

For those who don’t know, All Too Well is a memory song. It’s about a young woman looking back on a former relationship where, how do I say this? She was more innocent at the beginning of the relationship than she was at the end. Taylor Swift originally recorded it in 2012 not too long after the written about relationship ended. When she re-recorded and rereleased it in 2021, there was added gravity and beauty. (IMHO.) When Taylor sang about the little town street, I was on MY little town street. It wasn’t just JAKE who was a little kid with glasses in a twin sized bed, I had been a little kid with glasses in a twin size bed. My mom tells stories about when I was on the tee ball team. As the days wore on, I understood that if I wanted to dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light, the time was nigh. Soon, there would be no kitchen, no refrigerator, certainly no refrigerator light.

A few times, I brought my mom to the house and she would go through pictures or her jewelry. She’d tell a story and somehow get necklaces tangled up with each other. It’s easy to do. They are like memories in that regard. Part of the story of our house, or the house that was our house, is that my mom bought the house while my dad was out of town. The people who built it were transferred less than a year after it’s completion. She loved it and knew someone else would buy it before my dad returned so she made the down payment. It worked out. He loved the house. We all did. But no one loved the house more than my mom. In sentimental moments, I think of that house like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, a generous protector who in turn, loved my mother most of all too.

I took pictures of every room before I left the house on that last morning on my way out of town. A friend who had gone through the same thing advised it and I am glad to have the photographic evidence. A family lived here. They weren’t perfect, they weren’t rich, they weren’t happy every moment. There was pain, there was death. Loss. Tears. But there was good. There were laughs. Hugs. Joy. And of course, love.

Are all stories love stories? Most are. From my house, our house, I drove to say goodbye to my mom. She sat on a bench outside so she could tell her grand pups how much she loved them. She and I hugged goodbye. “Don’t cry,” I said. Foolish, because certainly, everyone knows we feel better after we cry a little. “I love you,” we told each other.

And then I drove out of town. It felt necessary to play my anthem one last time as I pulled onto Highway 75. Not unlike young me, I couldn’t wait to leave. Again.

And maybe we got lost in translation
Maybe I asked for too much
But maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up
Running scared, I was there
I remember it all too well.

Wind in my hair, you were there, you remember it all
Down the stairs, you were there, you remember it all
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.

Guest Blogger, Michael Gaffney: Return to Grover’s Corners

My longtime friend Michael has been a frequent contributor to Easily Crestfallen over the years. Recently, he wrote this piece about his mom. The events he has written about are a timeline that many of us can relate to. When you read this, you will think not only about Michael and his family, but also you will envisage your own mother, your own father, your own family. One of Thornton Wilder’s great lessons is the significance of life’s quietest moments. And here, Michael has lovingly quilted together sweet, sad and even funny remembrances of a time that will be a part of his story until it’s his own turn to join the others up on that hill.

Last Friday, April 15th, 2022, was my first time back on stage, in front of a live audience in over two-in-a-half years, due to Covid-19. It was our first preview of a beautiful production of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, which happens to be my favorite play of all time! Saturday morning my husband woke me up with the news that he had just tested positive for Covid-19. I tested immediately and of course I was positive as well. I knew this meant I may have exposed my fellow cast members and that I would have to leave the show for at least a week, if not the entire run. I was devastated. I wanted to call my mom as she is the only person who could tell me how silly I was being, and that it would all work out just fine. I just needed to hear her say to me, “Chin up, Michael!” But my mother passed away on Monday, February 21st 2022, at 10:40pm Central Standard time. She had been in failing health for quite a while and during the pandemic shut down, she had gone from a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair, to being bedridden the last month of her life. I had gone home to Oklahoma this past Christmas, and she was in good spirts, laughing and joking and bossing us all around as was her nature.

On Friday, February 19th my brother, Tim Facetimed me from my mother’s bedside and I could tell by the tears in his eyes that she didn’t have long.  He said, “Maybe you just want to remember the great Christmas you had with her? Not be here for the messy end and just come for the funeral?”  For a few minutes I thought about it…maybe he had a good point, but I had to see her and touch her one last time, so I booked a flight and was there the next afternoon.

My sister Julie is a hospice nurse and made it possible for my mom and dad to stay in the house and not go into assisted living as my brother and I had suggested. When I arrived at the house, they were all in the bedroom with my mother. She was very weak but responsive and said, “Hello Michael, my son. They all think I’m dying. I’m not dying!” I put a big smile on my face and gave her a kiss on the cheek. We stayed with her and talked,and held her hand the rest of that day. The next morning, Sunday February 20th, she was singing and so full of energy! My sister said that she was rallying as a lot of people do before the end. One last surge of life. Funny as hell and busting my chops one last time…

Mom – ”Oh, Michael you’re so, so…What’s the word?”  “

Me – Passive-aggressive?”  

Mom – “YES, passive aggressive!  That’s it!” 

Me – “Well where do you think I got it from, Ma?”

Mom – “Well that’s true.”

She was asking for Coca-Cola, and I fed her four small spoonfuls of Cherry Garcia ice cream, which was her favorite. Early that evening we were all in the bedroom with her and my father came in to join us and when he went to sit in the chair next to the bed, he fell and hit his head on the wall, so we called 911. When the paramedics arrived, my mother asked them if they were there to take her to the morgue and we all laughed and laughed. Dad was fine but when the paramedics left mom said, “Nothing ever goes right in the family.” I barked back, “What are you talking about?! He’s fine, he didn’t have to go to the E.R., and we all had a good laugh!”

Monday morning was very different.  The hospice nurse arrived around 11am and was so gentle and kind with my mom.  Toward the end of her visit my mom whispered to the nurse, “Am I Done?”  I didn’t hear the nurse’s answer as I was still processing my mother’s question to her.  Those were the last words I heard my mother utter.  

The rest of that day she was non-responsive and very still. At 10:30pm my sister said it would be soon, so I opened the window because I was told that, that’s what you do to allow the souls of family members who had already died come retrieve the soul of the person who is dying.

With my dad sleeping in the next bed, my sister, my cousin Laurie and I gathered around my mother’s hospital bed, my sister and cousin on either side and me kneeling at the foot, we watched her take her last breath. It was like watching a clock stop. It was so gentle. We said the Hail Mary prayer together because we thought my mother would have liked that, and we wept. After a few minutes I went over to my dad to wake him and tell him that mom was gone. He was quite groggy from the sleeping pill he had taken earlier, so he just looked over at her and said, “oh” and went back to sleep. We woke him up again a few minutes later and walked him over to give her a kiss good-bye and then we walked him back to his bed. He laid his head down on the pillow and went back to sleep. My sister called the hospice nurse on duty, who had to come and fill out the paperwork and prepare mom’s body for the funeral home to take her away. Once the nurse arrived my sister and my cousin didn’t want to be in the room any longer and went to bed. I felt like staying since my dad was still there and I wasn’t ready to leave my mom. I placed a red rose on her chest and sprayed some Giorgio perfume on her since it was her favorite. I chatted with Zeta, the hospice nurse while we waited for the funeral home to arrive. I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of my mom and dad on their wedding day so she could see how beautiful she was when she was young. About 30 minutes later two men from the funeral home arrived. Zeta, dad, and I watched them very gently wrap mom in a white sheet with her face still showing and carefully place her on the gurney. Zeta and I walked with them down the hall and out the garage door and down the driveway to their unmarked, white cargo van. They loaded her body through the back and shut the doors and drove away. I waved good-bye to my mom and told her I loved her.

One of my favorites moments in Our Town is the top of the 3rd Act. Emily has died giving birth to her second son and her family is just about to arrive at the graveside. The Stage Manager, who is the narrator, for anyone not familiar with the play, gives his iconic monologue about death:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” These words by, Thornton Wilder give me great comfort as they have for so many others over the past 84 years.

Today is April 18th and I sit waiting in my house, hoping and praying that I get a negative antigen test in the next few days so I can return to the show and not let my castmates down and do what I love most in the world. I want to stand in the wings during the 3rd Act and hear those words spoken and think of my mom.

A Little Luck

Last night, I was working at my restaurant. A young guy came in and indicated to the host that he wanted a table. The host asked for a vaccine card or proof of covid-negative status which is what is currently mandated for indoor dining in Los Angeles. There was a breakdown in communication between the host and the guest. Not only did he apparently not have a proof of vaccine, he wasn’t able to talk. “I think he can hear though,” the host told me. A few minutes later, the manager sat the guy. He thought the guy was indicating he was vaccinated, I guess. Of course, he was in my section. He pointed to items on the menu. A Pepsi, orange chicken, beef and broccoli. Initially I believed he could hear me, he nodded when I repeated his order. He was thin and wiry, with big brown eyes watching my every move. His metallic grey fingernails were dingy and partially grown out. He wore his mask, I wore mine. So angry, I thought. He guzzled his Pepsi and when I replaced it with a new one, his disposition seemed to shift a little. More scared than angry. I brought him his two entrees and asked him if he wanted soy sauce or chili paste. He nodded no. As I walked away, it occurred to me that probably he wasn’t able to hear me at all. He couldn’t read any of our lips because in restaurants right now, all workers are masked. On a hunch, I decided to type on my phone and ask him if he wanted soy sauce or chili paste. Yes, he nodded and pointed at the screen. And when I came back to the table, another shift occurred. He smiled at me. Still scared but also, I think, pleased I was trying my best to communicate with him. I kept his Pepsi refilled, he ate all of both of his entrees. He was really hungry, this skinny guy. On my screen, I typed, “Dessert?” He nodded as if to ask, what do you have? “Churros, cheesecake and chocolate cake,” I typed. He pointed to a lone uneaten mushroom on his plate. “Mushroom?“ I typed, confused. He nodded yes. The new mode of communication I was congratulating myself on turned out to be flawed. What did he want? But then he pointed to chocolate cake on my screen. I thumbs upped him and he nodded. I brought him the dessert and he wolfed that down too. I brought him two fortune cookies. He seemed happy but also, still anxious. I dropped the check and he sat quietly for another ten minutes. At some point, I noticed he was no longer at the table but the check was still there. I opened the book, no cash. We are not strangers to dine and dashers in the restaurant industry. So I ran outside to look for him. No sign. Soon, the host told me he thought the guy went to the bathroom. Sure enough, the door said occupied. Five or ten minutes elapsed, no one emerged.

A bit more about his appearance. I am not saying he looked like a meth addict but I can assure you, were he an actor and he showed up to audition for a skinhead, a meth head or a skinhead methhead, he certainly would not have been turned away for not understanding the brief.

I have worked in restaurants on and off for 30 years, I’ve seen it all. (Including watching a young woman poop little turds as she walked to the bathroom. Graphic, but not an exaggeration.) But while my friend lingered in the bathroom, I tried to imagine every possible scenario. Overdose, strapping a suicide bomb to his chest, digging a hole through the ceiling, digging a hole through the floor, dynamiting a wall, doing coke, doing meth, smoking a joint, smoking a crack pipe. After a stealth 27 minutes, he did come out of the bathroom. I showed him the check presenter. He looked at me sheepishly. He stood at the takeout counter, rifling through his pockets. I watched him. He watched me. He seemed scared. I felt scared. Was he going to pull out a gun or a knife? Was he isolating in the bathroom to whittle his chopstick into a lethal weapon? Was he going to make a run for it, sprinting then leaping off our second story balcony to flee down Ventura Boulevard on his way to pull the same stunt for margaritas and nachos at Casa Vega? Finally, he signaled for a piece of paper. I gave him paper and a pen. He wrote, “I am so sorry to inconvenience you. I have had a bit of trouble lately. My credit card is in my sweater. Would it be okay if I went to get my credit card and come back? It won’t take longer than 30 minutes.” I showed my manager.

“You know he’s not coming back, don’t you?” he said.

“You’re probably right, but what do you want me to say to him?“

“Ask for his phone or ID.” So I wrote down for the guy, “Do you have a phone or an ID?”

“My phone is out of service. Do you want my name?” My boss intervened, he told him to go home and get his credit card, he’d leave the check open until he came back. My friend nodded a thank you and left. “He’s not coming back, you know,” my boss repeated.

And as far as I know, he didn’t come back. I was done for the night so, you know, maybe he did return. Obviously, I didn’t get a tip from the guy, and technically, he proved to be more trouble than he was worth. But even today, I couldn’t stop thinking, wondering about him. He ate two entrees AND dessert. He was definitely hungry. When was his last meal? How many times has he done this before? Does he have friends? Does he have anyone to help him negotiate life? Is he really deaf? Does he even have a home? I don’t know. His actions seemed more motivated by fear than calculation. But I’ll probably never know. Still, I’ll continue to think about him, continue to wonder. And, root for him too. He made the night interesting. I don’t know the day to day trials he experiences. His life is likely harder than I will ever know. But for one evening, someone kept his Pepsi glass filled and even gave him extra fortune cookies. I hope they bring him luck.

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.