Monday, December 21, 2015

Grieving, Deferred

We gathered in the small hall of a church in Harlem, a room almost stark in its simplicity yet emanating a warmth that eludes the ostentatious bellies of Catholic churches, arcane and baroque. Inexperienced in these affairs, my friends and peers early on our crawl towards inevitable mortality, I wore all black. Glancing about the room, old friends and neighbors of his croaking introductions, shouting to acquaintances, I feel nervously conspicuous: my youth, my black jumpsuit. The room is full of aging hippies, musicians, and artists, gray hairs donning muted autumn tones, also stark and simple, that complement their sallow hair and skin, drained of color. Sweaters likely woven of alpaca. Soft brown clogs. Orthopedic shoes. His peers. Selfishly, I wonder if they, upon seeing me, wrack their brains to establish the potential connection between this man, now dead at sixty-six, and a woman in her late twenties. Illicit affair pounded at my brain, despite my grave attempts to banish such foolish thoughts, tainted by a culture that is quick to make that assumption when confronted with an older man and a younger woman.

This social anxiety is an unfounded one. His friends and family take no overt notice, or are kind, gentle, meet my gaze and give me a knowing and sad smile. He was beloved, by near strangers who spent a mere few hours with him and by close intimates who knew him for decades. He did not allow age or life experience or social convention bias his relationships. It was a quality that I admire deeply, and now seek to emulate: refusing to assess an individual by prescribed societal standards, instead seeing each new person as an opportunity to learn, grow, share. Every and all who wished to honor his memory were welcome to flood this simple room, to share their stories, to say good-bye, the young and old, friends, family, and lovers

This was the second time I was, ritualistically and communally, processing the sudden death of a friend this year. The first a tragic car crash, now a tragic brain aneurysm. Seeming nonchalance hung about the church room, and I felt the power of an additional four decades of life on shock and on mourning. Perhaps this assessment is rash, is unfair. After all, this Harlem memorial for Harry comes three months after his unsudden death, giving this group three months for tears and for anger and for bitterness and for happy laughter remembering a beautiful life fully lived. For my friend Phil, twenty-eight, crushed by a car, the memorial followed mere days after the devastation. Wounds were raw, the despair in the church heavy and palpable.

In both instances, time, its acuteness in relation to the death and its potential to buffer and attenuate feelings and memories in longer increments, was unable to assuage potent feelings of regret. Regret. One of the most miserable and desperate of feelings, which tears away violently at your innards, gnashes on one's heart with teeth dull and terrible. I regret not making that phone call to Phil, one that as months and years pass still looms and seems like something so easy to accomplish, is something so easy to accomplish, but remains an activity deferred. I regret relying so heavily on superficial and prosthetic modes of social engagement via digital media, not actively maintaining our friendship because of a false sense of being connected and caught up and present in someone's life. I regret missing what, at the time, I would have no way of knowing would be Harry's last show with his band, regret not squeezing one last time into the intimate space of that warm cafe, dancing and shaking as Harry wails on his guitar. I regret not learning until his memorial that Harry and I share a history of disappointing childhoods, regret not intuiting that he was someone I could share my fears and my sadness. I regret not being more effusive about how important each of these men were to me, are to me, and telling them how grateful I am for how our friendships shaped me.

(image taken from Huffington Post)    

Friday, December 4, 2015


I brush aside a cascade of soft fabrics from the door, long silk dresses and kimonos of chiffon hung clumsily, and I find a small piece of him. This piece of him is a thin film of plastic, a work in progress forgotten, painted with ink, adhered to the wooden door of the bedroom and abandoned. I brush aside the fabrics, see his strong fingers wrapped around the cylinder body of the marker, eyes and lips silent in concentration. Rarely did I take the time to watch him work, admire his meticulous manner. At one point, the door was a mosaic of these creations, scraps of plastic with an alchemy of bizarre images printed: Michael Jordan and his infamous dunk, Oprah Winfrey laughing with a cavernous mouth, Kim Kardashian sobbing and eroding her mascara, an unnamed girl with a man in her mouth and a man in her behind like some roasting pig. These were ripped hurriedly, taken. This one piece remains, hidden now by the fabric flood, and I brush aside and see his hands.

Between the pages of an old notebook filled with scribbled poems, I find a small piece of him. This piece of him is a blind contour portrait, deep blue lines on a scrap of cream paper, drawn slowly and surely, without peeking, sitting on the floor of a friend's cramped apartment. I stare at this portrait, see the curve of his jaw, a sloping of shoulders, see how happy we were that evening, bemusedly buzzed with weed, passing a joint and taking turns, taking turns with deep drags and posing for portraits. The apartment, this living room, cluttered with books and voracious plants, cluttered with our bodies strewn on the sofa and floor. First, we clutter the air with stories and jokes, with deep gut laughter, then the words become sparse, as we sit and draw our faces.

Digging through a plastic storage bin, a coffin of wool and cashmere, rushing, late for some menial obligation, I find a small piece of him. This piece of him is a soft sweater of royal blue and navy. I fondle the soft weave, see his chest, his arms swathed in the striped pattern, driving us through winding roads, windows down, wind whipping our hair. We drove and drove, westward, did not stop until we reached another state, another town, clutched hands as we strolled into the unfamiliar.

(image taken from Huffington Post) 

Friday, February 27, 2015

I Wish You Were Here

It is almost impossible for me to write about this right now. It may never be possible for me to write about this, to write something coherent and cogent and meaningful. I have always been compelled to process my emotions on paper, with a pen, though sometimes they remain eternally a maelstrom of words, desperate or vengeful or livid or desolate or delirious. 

Phil is my first friend to die. He was my age, give or take a few months, working hard, dreaming strong. He was killed. Saying the words, typing the words, is a surreal act, one that even with repetition has not made these past few days soak in yet. I have been to other funerals, though, the ones of vivid memory can be counted on a single hand. My first at the small age of three years old, accompanied by my favorite stuffed animals: my Polish great-grandmother. I remember the taste of homemade fried chicken, to this day, of simple white meat to sweet, coating so crisp, prepared with love from memory, hands automatically performing the actions, prepared by an army of old-guard Polish women from that corner of Baltimore. My paternal grandparents, in middle school. An acquaintance's mother, destroyed by breast cancer, whose service caused me to wail, thinking of my own mother's inevitable death.

He was a beautiful, beautiful person, and was a dear, loving friend to me during those most emotionally-fraught years, when all is raw and seemingly so unfettered, so impossible to control and to reign and to understand. I know I will never forget that type of warmth, that lust for love and life and true, deep friendships, that lust for mischievous fun, but I now, naturally, find myself struggling to grasp at memories, at snippets of conversations, of moments alone, together, wondering, joking, laughing. Our friendship was one built from the seeming mundane things of growing up: exasperation at strict teachers, worry over grades, worry over social acceptance, obsession with fledgling romantic entanglements and woesWe were together in happiness, and sometimes, in fear. I have never fully resolved those fears, not yet, but they were diminished in his presence. This effect he had, a certain self-assurance, a warm comfort, is unique, and he generously shared this gift with all his many friends. 

It is impossible for me to write about this now, to give this tragedy some meaning. Trying to speak with our mutual friends, friends who also grew up with us, I have only superficial words. I can only let myself feel the full brunt of the pain, feel its force, and try to take comfort in the memories, in the beauty and good that came from his too short life.

We get into the car and we begin to drive, aimless, anxious. Tall, tall cups of black espresso, made palatable with thick foam milk and too much sugar, warm our hands and as we sip, warm our blood, hasten that thump-thump of the heart. Eventually, we begin to head north, north, and just keep going. Laughing, we decide to drive to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with no sense of motive or purpose other than the beauty of that open highway, freckled with potholes, black gravel crumbling. A frivolous adventure. We crack the windows of the car and take long, shallow drags of cigarettes, nicotine consummating with caffeine to make us even more giddy.

Our parents call and we lie to them, pretend to be driving home from the mall near home. We keep driving north, unconcerned that as soon as we reach the small town, we will have to head back.

Every ten minutes or so, the same song blares from the speakers, the latest hit by Destiny's Child and we shout-sing along each time. As the song closes, we each take a long drag, exhale and listen, exhale and listen.

In the summers, my mother bakes peach pies, the fruit fresh and almost too-sweet from the spring months of hot sun. We come to my house and a newly-baked pie sits quiet on the counter, still warm, potent peach perfume permeating the kitchen. We begin to gingerly slice into the golden crust and my mother shrugs, hands us forks, and instead we get to work on the entire pie, devouring the sticky goodness, perfect chemistry of sugar, butter, cinnamon, fruit meat. In a matter of moments, quick maneuvers of the forks, the pie is gone. We have eaten it all. Just some crust crumbs and streaks of filling scatter the glass bottom of the dish.

The sky is near dark. We hide in a black night, the moon low and demure, waning, sit in a circle in a decrepit tennis court beside her house, green surface sadly sagging. Sipping from plastic cups of cheap alcohol, pale beer or maybe some concoction of blood red juice and astringent vodka, we swap jokes and stories. It is summer and the Future looms, a brilliant expanse of unknown potential, as distant and intangible to us as the specks of stars scattered in the black. In a few months, we, our bodies, here, concrete, able to touch and be touched, would scatter, to new towns and new states, unsure but excited. We sip and talk, divulge our secrets, sitting so close we are almost touching.

(image taken from A Well-Traveled Woman)