In the days between soccer games, we decide to do some sight-seeing in the Old City of Jerusalem. RHJ has done this many times before – most recently, just before I arrived in town – but he arranges a tour without complaint.

We visit the City’s different quarters; we make our way towards the Western Wall; I am there to place prayers in the cracks for the friends who have sent them on to me but I am hesitant in offering up my own written prayer. This feels too familiar; too much like the Tibetan Bells at that Monastery in China nine years ago. There, you could tell your prayer to the monk and he’d write it on the clapper of a clay bell, then the freshly made ornament would be hung in the temple’s gazebo until it disintegrated or was smashed. That was how your wish was supposed to come true – in the breaking down part.

Back then, I had gone to the Far East to rid myself of my longing for Frederic and I prayed on the bells that he and I would be happy together, ever after. Not since my high school sweetheart had I wanted anyone as much as I wanted Freddy; never had I loved any complicated, complete man the way I adored him. But we were both flawed people in the middle of messy divorces and I’m not sure we could help ourselves, even if we could have seen what we were doing to each other. So now I make it a point not to wish or pray with that kind of specificity.

As I am lost in thought about wishes and prayers, our tour guide takes us around the Old City’s sights, and eventually we reach the plaza where the Western Wall is located. By this point in our trip, I have come from the camino in Spain; through the portal of the Cathedral of Santiago; by way of a late night argument at the Old Train Station in Jerusalem; up, down, over, around, and through the football fields at Bayit Vegan. I am an exhausted and unlikely pilgrim who is Just Hanging On; trying to rid herself of longing for certainty and stability and embrace the mess of the moment. I am trying to Become Whole; I am trying not to lose my head, and yet, at the same time, do exactly that.

Men’s and women’s prayers are separate at the Wall, and our tour guide waits with me as I approach on the women’s side – first, to write out the few words I want to say; and then to place them inside the cracks. After I am done, we retreat back into the plaza where men and women can mingle.

We leave the square, and we finish walking around the Old City. We start to head out towards the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. It is then that I realise where we are; where I am. We had entered the City just down the hill a bit, in the Armenian quarter. And now, we are walking past the Cathedral of Saint James – the site of the Martyrdom of James the Greater – where inside the Sanctuary, Saint James’s head is buried under the altar beneath a red marble slab.

In a flash, I see that I have traced the steps of the body in reverse – I have come from the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain where the body is entombed, to the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem, where everything happened. I found the heart before the head; I found Santiago before Saint James – the vulgar before the Greater; the remote mission before the home base.

I am so obsessed with doing things perfectly; in order – in things making sense. But here I am, having completed this voyage so messily; so haphazardly. I have begun at the end and ended at the scene of the crime. How did I get here?

We do not enter the Cathedral; I do not even make mention of the thing I have just discovered. We part ways with our tour guide just outside Jaffa Gate, where a group of young soldiers are unstrapping their guns, which they cannot bring inside the City on their cultural day off. And we walk away from the Old City; away from the walls, to our lunch in Mamilla in a modern shopping plaza, where I eat salmon and soba noodles for the third time that week

The thing I do not realise at the time is the utility of brokenness. I am too arrogant; too dense to understand that we pray at the Wall because of the cracks in it; that we wish on the bells because they break down. I cannot fully fathom that I have just traced the broken pieces of a saint – finding his body in the land of my family and his head in the homeland of the man I love. I have perhaps been on the wrong pilgrimage all this time – I have travelled these different paths to try to make myself whole again, and I do not understand that first, I need to find the beauty in being broken.

It is the Sabbath in Jerusalem, which is a religious city, and because we are not religious, for us it means that absolutely nothing is open.

We decide to go to the Israel Museum, which is a mixed bag of ancient and contemporary; religious and non-religious art. There is also a giant model of the Second Temple there, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. I do not admit that I know very little about religious history except for what I had to learn to be confirmed as a Catholic in order to marry my first husband, and what I have picked up from the ad hoc Hebrew School lessons my first husband’s second wife – a professor of Jewish Studies – has given me during the downtime at funerals.

After our tour of the model, we fight several Birthright trips in order to descend into the cavern that contains the Scrolls, then we make our way into the Museum’s main building. We are hungry; we are tired, but there is an element of Just Needing Things to Do on a Saturday, so we stay and wander.

Almost by accident, we make our way into an exhibition called No Place Like Home, where the signage promises it will restore a transformed object to its natural place within the…home. This is right up my alley. We pass Duchamps; Warhols; etc. – the masters of pop and contemporary art – giant, absurd spoons; the Brillo boxes; exactly everything you’d expect.

And then, in the Utility Room, I see Yayoi Kusama’s (Untitled) Ironing Board under a spotlight, and instantly, am the one transformed.

In that moment, the gallery becomes twenty years ago at Christmastime in my Hometown. My high school sweetheart has come home from college. We have arrived at a party together, and everyone assumes I am there as his date, but instead, he takes the opportunity of the gathering to tell all our friends he is gay. In one horrible instant, it is the first time in my life I understand what it means to be a woman; what it means to be sexless; what it means to feel the light and air be sucked out of the room. It is the moment I learn to be hard to read.

We have come in one car. I find another ride home.

I am still obligated, after this, to go to a Hanukkah party at a mutual family friend’s house and my high school sweetheart will be there. Mums and Daddy send me with wine for the hosts and for the rabbi and his wife. I arrive at the party, and in a final fit of pique over my circumstances before I enter, I smash one of the bottles of wine on the front walk. I walk into the party with my head held high – no longer the beloved girlfriend of the favourite son. Now, I am a woman scorned.

My recollection of the scene is a little hazy from this point, but what ensues is me running through the house, yelling at my high school sweetheart, and his mother not far behind. I am so helpless; so angry. But I do know that memory is fallible – my recall is probably incorrect. It may have never happened this way at all. But everything from that night feels fraught; chaotic; tense; horrible – like a running, screaming match that definitely happened in real time.

But mostly, I remember that it is the last time I ever really lose my head.

I retreat, defeated, into the rainy El Nino night, and a few weeks later, start making out with the rabbi’s son as if to send a threat to these nice people to refrain from inviting red-haired shiksas to any more of their holidays. But behind my back, the rabbi’s son makes out with one of my friends. With the last of my sexual power, I scream and shout about it, but it does not matter anymore.

A few months pass, and the furore from Christmastime dies down. Eventually, no one remembers anything ever happened, except for me and the teachers at my conservative school who keep reminding me to hate the sin and love the sinner. The rabbi’s son, too, forgets about our angst, and and gets a new girlfriend, and the three of us go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see the opening of Yayoi Kusama’s Love Forever, because they are artists, and I am not, but I am always game for a museum.

The Love Forever exhibit is a series of white rooms full of stitched and painted protrusions; objects covered in canvas phalluses, representing Kusama’s fear of male domination. I am floored. It is the first time I have felt anything in months; the first time I have felt swept away by art. My heart aches all day.

And then in another flash, I am back here in Jerusalem, with that Christmas twenty years ago feeling very present tense as I stare at the Kusama Ironing Board under the spotlight. How did this get here? I want to rip the protrusions from their roots; I want to smash the board like I did that bottle of wine; I want to crush the steam iron and scream: Why are you doing this to me?

You okay? RHJ asks.

Yes, yes, I say, moving on to look at a shower enclosed in a plexiglass case, dripping honey into a waiting drain.

The drip is soothing; it calms me. I am trying not to lose my head. But the fear is so present, still – of loving, of following, of being humiliated, abandoned. I am trying so hard not to lose my head.

At the end of June, I fly to Madrid to be with JRA and Lady H; Grandma and Papa. We are celebrating and mourning; vacationing and working. Both Grandma and Papa have worked in and across Spain for many years; JRA is fluent in the language; only Lady H and I have some catching up to do. We eat late-night dinners and drink late-night wine, and generally, things are Okay, even as we approach the Anniversary of the Last Day of the World.

The Last Day of the World happened last July. Pete had messaged me that June, asking if Paul and I wanted to go out to dinner for JRA’s birthday – the date was set for an early-July Saturday night between his birthday and hers. We had met – two couples – at a wheelchair-friendly restaurant, and had taken a long, leisurely summer dinner. Paul and I had gone on holiday for the two weeks after – first to California; then to Newport. It was nice – it was the last, pleasant dinner out I could remember having with Paul – no fighting; no drama. But within two weeks, Pete’s younger brother Tommy had died suddenly. Within six months, Paul and I were separated, and Pete himself died shortly thereafter.

Nothing was ever the same again after that one, specific night.

We spend our time in Madrid visiting friends; wandering the city; exploring the Prado. We stand in front of the Bosch paintings; Velasquez’s works and JRA leans over and begins to say something about the little people in one of the Velasquezs but thinks better of it. It was a joke for many years – how much I hated all those exploitative little people shows on TV; how angry I’d get about them – until I found out that I had a bad, probably Spanish, gene. Then all bets were off; then, maybe my revulsion was just some kind of genetic fear.

Later that day, we are changing clothes before dinner, and Lady H asks me about RHJ. How IS RHJ? she asks, like a chatty girlfriend.

(She is six years old.)

He’s fine, I deadpan.

You know what I think? she says, I think “third time’s the charm.”

She says the words thoughtfully, like she is considering this as a viable possibility as the words tumble from her adorable mouth. Two nights before, the second of her two front teeth had come out over dinner. She had spent the day wiggling the hell out of it, and I, in my role as Tia Fearless, I had gripped it a few times and twisted; yanked; done the dirty-work of a much older sister or maiden aunt. I’d rubbed my icy fingers on her gums and passed the precious few ice cubes from my drink across the table to her – over Grandma’s furrowed brow, and JRA’s disgust at the whole affair. It was then that Papa had told us, as I sipped my umpteenth Abarino of the night, that there was no Spanish tooth fairy. Instead Ratoncito Perez visited you in the night and swapped a gift for your tooth.

Forgetting my Spanish, and my manners, I immediately exclaimed, We’re letting a rat come into the house in the night? What does he bring you – jamon iberico?!

Papa, in his calm, pedantic manner, replied, Technically it’s a mouse.

Lady H said, I think he brings manchego.

Grandma, for her part, quickly realising that obtaining a hunk of manchego at that hour would be nearly impossible, chimed in, I think he brings you an IOU for whatever you want. JRA began laughing so hard she was unable to contribute to the conversation.

Moments later, Lady H spat the tooth into her hand and then handed it to me.

So I listen to Lady H tell me Third Time’s The Charm through her adorable gap, like she is both a woman and a child, and it makes me laugh, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces; into dust – because she is older than she should be but she is exactly who she needs to be; because I may never stare into the face of my own gap-toothed elf, mise-en-abyme, because of genes or circumstance; because this is exactly how things happened and it wasn’t what I expected when I married Andrew, or I married Paul, or when we all went out to dinner for JRA’s birthday on that fateful double date.

If you had asked me a year ago, on the last night everything was normal, if I thought we would be sitting in Madrid, taking stock of the damage one year later, I would have thought you were nuts. But looking back now, through gapped teeth, and the streaky rearview of grief, it is actually that last, perfect night in Hell’s Kitchen that seems much more far-fetched.

I do not like birds, but they have become a part of my consciousness lately.

I do not care for birds because when I was growing up, my mother one day brought home a pet cockatiel. My mother, like her father before her, was once famous for randomly acquiring pets; is still the kind of woman who takes photographs of herself holding exotic animals all over the world. The pictures in question used to be displayed in my parents’ den, all in a row, on top of the big oak desk: My mother posing with koalas; Boa Constrictors; ridiculous Macaws or Cockatoos, one on each arm. I think there was even one of her holding a monkey.

I am not sure why my mother got the cockatiel, other than it being a natural outcropping of her Exotic Animal Thing. For her part, this fetish was less toxic than her father’s, because as the story goes, Bop once brought home a baby alligator, which he raised in their basement until he (the alligator) met his untimely end at on the broadside of a neighbour’s shovel. For the cockatiel’s part, though, the bird survived for a few years to holler his name (Murphy!!!!!!) into the high-ceiling’d abyss of parents’ family room, until he one day just dropped dead, either from the futility of it all, or the intemperateness of the room.

Secretly, I was glad, because, see above.

So over the last six months, I have noticed birds more; I am living out some winged metaphor, but I do not like them any better. I have become convinced they are a sign of something, but I cannot make sense of exactly what.

Perhaps this is grief. Perhaps I am just going insane.

With this background in mind, as I walked to the office the other day, I observed a bright red bird flit about from around the street trees, and then suddenly alight on my shoulder. I felt ridiculous. I kept walking, in hopes that the damn thing would startle off. But it did not. I felt like a Disney princess, except weirder.

When I arrived at the office, I quickly googled what is a cardinal a symbol of? But I didn’t know the bird was a cardinal at the time, so I was googling “robin,” until I realised what had landed on me was actually a cardinal.

…What is a cardinal a symbol of?

Would it not perhaps have been better to google, Why am I looking for symbolism in Disney Princess moments and in all of these chance encounters with birds?

The first hit was a page from California Psychics and it was then that I realised I was losing it. I had had a bird land on me and I was searching the internet for wisdom from California Psychics. Worse, this was on my work computer, so these searches were being saved to our back-end compliance system. The second hit was what looked like an early 00’s Geocities page featuring a woman in a Blossom hat, with extensive content about What Cardinal Sightings Mean In The Afterlife.

What am I searching for?

It seems like we are coping well in this era of second divorces, and widowhood, and beginning again, until these crystal clear moments of frantically searching the internet happen and I realise we are Obviously Not. I realise this is normal. I type it into that empty google search box until my browser is filled with pictures of birds.

I keep the bird stuff to myself, mostly. Because it’s weird. But it’s happening to all of us.

The week before Father’s Day, Dorota and Michael and Lady H and JRA and I decide to ride bikes along the Bronx River Parkway, which we do for hours, until I need to get back to the city for late drinks with RHJ.

As we begin our ride, there is a bird standing at the mouth of the bike trail, staring at me like the blue heron was back in January, and I want to scream What do you birds want from me? What are you trying to say?! But I don’t because that’s also weird and I have already spent an hour this week on the California Psychics webpage trying to decipher one close encounter.

But we get back to JRA’s house, and she mentions the bird, quietly at first, then she says she saw a dog she liked at a North Shore Animal League travelling event. I laugh, because she is So Not a Dog Person, then it dawns on me that when Bop died, we found piles of North Shore Animal League freebies in his things – he must have donated money – and that these animals and things have all had a message that maybe are connected and have nothing to do with some Geocities site and suddenly I say, Okay, so let’s go to the shelter event they’re hosting today!

We arrive at the parking lot event moments before it closes down for the day. JRA does not get a dog that day, but the next day she drives out to the north shore of Long Island, where the Animal League is headquartered, and comes home with the dog.

Am I a Disney Princess, I wonder? The evidence is clear: My long, blonde braid. Talking to the two dead guys I love through animals. No. It’s not that. I was convinced I was this logical lawyer, but what I realise now is that despite our best efforts, sooner or later we all turn into our mothers.

It is the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter, and my dog, Roo, has gotten into a playful scrap with another dog. The damage at first seems minor (a bloodied ear, maybe) but by Tuesday morning, the dog is incapacitated and screaming, so I rush him to the vet.

Roo has never been seriously ill or hurt in all his seven years of life – an occasional gross stomach bug, but otherwise, nothing – and watching him in pain is excruciating. Once we arrive at the vet’s office, the doctor takes him out of the exam room, still screaming, to take a closer look at his injuries, and I fall backward into the chair, rubbing my temples, furious and terrified at my Inability To Do Anything Useful.

The depth of my Aloneness in this moment is nearly unbearable to me. Since my divorce from Andrew was final seven years ago, Roo has been my one constant companion. He has survived every crisis with me; celebrated every triumph. He has faithfully given me purpose when I felt I Could Not Go On. He sat beside me through all my surgeries; my injuries; my heartaches. He is a dog, and in his dogness has always known exactly what to do to help me when the going gets tough.

I, however, am human, and I rarely know what to do.

A prime example of my Chronic Inability To Know What To Do came early in my marriage to Andrew, when we had had to put my beloved terrier Lilly to sleep. When the critical moment came and the vet prepared to administer the permanent drugs, instead of holding on to my dog, or taking my husband’s hand, I ran from the room like a crazy person. I dashed out on to Lispenard Street; paced the block until it was all over, leaving Andrew alone with Lilly as she died.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of her dying – Lilly had been in kidney failure for months so I knew it was coming. At the Animal Medical Center, where they’d cared for her throughout the last days of her kidney failure, they had taught me to give her fluids under the skin so we’d have just a few more precious days together. In a spectacular display of desperation or denial, I had even gotten her groomed before we put her to sleep so she’d look pretty as she went to meet her maker. I think it was that I was afraid of something bigger; something emptier. I think I was afraid of grief itself.

And now here I am, with my dog who is screaming in pain, and I want to run away but I can’t because it is only me – he has only me – and I have never felt so alone in my entire life. The vet comes back and she gives me drugs for the dog, and tells me his neck is badly injured but he will recover. But it will be hard. It will take time. Everything will take time.

Later, RHJ says to me, It’s ok, I know that going through something like this with a beloved dog is hard…

And I try to explain, It’s not about the dog…but the words don’t come.

It is not about the dog at all. It is about remembering running from the vet’s office and into the street, terrified. It is about how, a week after Lilly died, the hospice called from Florida to say my grandmother was dying and my mother and I left a wedding in California; packing up and flying out the next morning to be by her bed to do the work that women do – bringing lives into the world, and shepherding them out of it.

It is about the fact that on the last night of my grandmother’s life, that Nat King Cole song, Unforgettable, was playing in the background, and I hadn’t been able to listen to it since, but inexplicably, as Paul was being fitted for his wedding suit, the Muzak screeched to a halt, and Unforgettable began to play. I took it as a sign that despite my doubts, Paul was the Right One, because I am always desperate for signs. But maybe that was the wrong sign.

I realise, as Roo recovers, that I have been waiting for signs to tell me how to be Helpful, or Right, or How to Do Things Correctly, like I am Steve Martin in L.A. Story. Symbols that indicate: How to Be Married to One Person for a Long Period of Time. How to Put the Dog Down and Not Run From the Room. How Not to Destroy Your Own Life in 200 Easy Steps.

After three weeks, Roo is walking again; acting like himself again. As I watch him lounge comfortably as I write, I am suddenly confident that there is no playbook for this. We are all just fumbling around, all of the time, blind like newborn kittens, mewling and suckling, with no earthly clue what we are doing. This revelation doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving my ex-husband alone with our dead dog in Tribeca Animal Hospital in 2006, but it at least gives me the sense that I am not nearly as alone as it sometimes feels. That everyone else is just as clueless and afraid as I am; just as prone to running screaming from the risk of loss.

We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination 
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

It is Holy Week, and we are changing form.

The daffodils and other flowers have begun peeking through, which eee documents obsessively. We have all suffered precious, maddening losses this Winter, and are coping in different ways as we charge into Spring. For me, it has meant a kind of forward motion at all cost; for JRA it has meant one step forward, two steps back; for eee, it has meant an effort to preserve the fleeting beauty as it emerges.

Just let me know when it gets to be a bit too…Georgia O’Keefe, she chuckles.

I had not contemplated the Enormity of Grief before this year. As a postmodern intellectual Christian, I had read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed as a guide to the journey each time I’d encountered it, but I did not know – really know – that “grief felt so like fear” until now.

On Palm Sunday, I ask eee and Dorota to come with me to Trinity Downtown to the music service. We meet in a bar beforehand, which seems appropriate, because our group of friends was originally called “Winesday.” Conceived of in the end of 2009 as a way to decompress as we trained to volunteer as overnight social workers in the NY Presbyterian Hospital Emergency Department, we would meet every Wednesday and drink wine. The group grew and changed over the years, but the spirit remained the same.

We are different people now, but we still like to drink, I guess.

The music at Trinity is beautiful and the service is almost Humanist in form, and I feel at home again. In the years I was with Paul, he was deeply anti-religious, but culturally Catholic. I had converted to Catholicism to be with Andrew, but as a divorcee, went back to my non-Papist native form.

However, I hadn’t contemplated the complexities of being an Anglican married to an Irishman. In my American ignorance, I didn’t realise That Was a Thing, until it Was. We would find ourselves in baffling knock-down, drag-outs about Jesus, the Pope, and Santa Claus, and somehow I became a proxy for hundreds of years of Irish oppressors. It was…exhausting. I wasn’t even English.

I wouldn’t say it was our undoing, but it certainly didn’t help.

Later that week, we celebrate Passover at JRA’s house, which is different than last year.  The prior year’s Seder had been a cacophony of children and families, and this year our gathering is late and just grown-ups. We sit and we eat and we talk and we pray, and it is different and it is good, and I pop a bottle of expensive wedding-gift champagne and say drily, After all, you only get divorced for the second time once.

We finish our dinner and we search for the afikoman, which is typically an activity for the children, but which the group does with enthusiasm. I stand back and watch, marvelling at how different my life has become over the course of a year. At what we have gained; what we have lost; who we have become.

Then we sit and talk about Other Things – at which point someone suggests we should have a Group Costume for Halloween, because it is April, and there is no better time to discuss October. We bat around Group Costume Ideas. Disney Princes and Princesses? Maybe. Famous Couples? Nah. Nothing seems cohesive enough. The only way forward is as the von Trapp family, I finally declare.

Then we clean the kitchen and drive back to the city and are home before ten o’clock, and again, I marvel at the difference.

Days later, it is Easter, which I am hosting, and for which I cannot rally. Ordinarily, I love to host. But for this Easter, I cannot seem to plan the menu or cook the foods. Instead, I buy everything pre-prepared. It does not occur to me in these barren moments that this is what grief feels like – that grief is not a missing or a loss, but sometimes it is fear.

It is not that I miss Paul, but as I set out the Easter Things, I think about the table that I prepared a few years back, before we were married, when we gathered with my parents and our friends to celebrate in this same house. I think about the things we had together and the things we will never have.

It all feels…Enormous, and I am afraid. I am afraid I will never have a family; I am afraid it will always just be me and the dog; I am afraid I will continue the family tradition of being The One Old Maid in every generation which is a perfectly fine thing but it’s not the thing I want; I am afraid I will be stuck and I don’t want to be stuck.

After a celebration that takes us through the afternoon and evening, night falls, and guests begin to leave. As Dorota and Michael stand to head out, Michael recalls our discussion at the Seder and reminds us that we have promised to go as the von Trapp family for Halloween. They approach the door, and he bursts into So Long, Farewell. Soon after, Zac joins. Then, the whole room erupts into song, singing them out the door.

And I laugh, almost until I cry, because that painful, fearful place in my heart has opened up again, like a window. And every time I think I have mastered the form of this season, it changes again; grows wings; bursts out like a demented cuckoo clock; singing; rejoicing; fearless; and still, somehow, terrifying.

In my grief, I have gotten nothing I hadn’t bargained for, and also, everything, it seems.

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

Long hair
is for Young women
And short hair
is for Mommies
And grey hair
is for Matrons,
silver with
age and confidence

But my hair,
Flaxen
Grab-worthy
For cinematic streetcorner kisses
Lexington, Park
Uptown, downtown
My hair,
Gentleman-preferred
Is for you.

(August, 2008)