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.

Can I tell you a story? I text RHJ. I am in a south-bound Uber, in a rainstorm, headed to meet JRA at a Richard Shindell concert.

Sure, I will read it – I am on the treadmill, RHJ replies.

I am listening to Lyle Lovett’s If I Had a Boat, which I disclose for context.

I love Lyle Lovett, I say, I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, all over the country. And I call “If I Had a Boat” the “Pony Boat Song,” and most people have no idea what I’m talking about. But there’s a verse in it about Roy Rogers. Which is what this story is about.

My dad is the kind of guy who stops at weird roadside attractions – who will even drive us out to the middle of nowhere just to see some off-beat museum. One day, he drove us to Victorville, with his parents who were visiting from Pittsburgh, to go to the Roy Rogers Museum. I have no idea why he did this, but I think he thought we’d like it; maybe we were headed somewhere else and it was on the way. But I think he thought he was capturing some America that he wanted to live in as a kid.

I am definitely my father’s daughter. For years, I pretended that I hated those side trips, but they grew on me; got into my consciousness. When Andrew and I drove across the country when we were in law school, I took him on a detour to Mt. Rushmore, which wasn’t that odd, but I made him stop everywhere along the way – from the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, SD; to Wall Drug, to Carhenge, in Alliance, NE. This was back before GPS; back before you could simply plug an address into the super computer in your pocket. We’d gone to AAA and picked up stacks of maps and guide books. The navigation was all done by hand.

Even as I got older, I continued the family tradition. On the way back from my hen weekend in Newport a few years ago, I’d stopped at the Pez Museum in Orange, CT, and dragged Jade and eee into the cavernous factory for a look at How Pez Was Made (in truth, they were happy to do it). Those sorts of things were just part and parcel of Being My Friend.

So we walk around the museum for hours – HOURS – pretending to be interested in Roy Rogers and we lose Grandpa Henry. Finally, we find him outside chain smoking beneath the larger-than-lifesize fibreglass statue of Trigger, Roy’s horse, in the parking lot. And then we get back in the car to go home, and my dad’s in a huff because the trip has been something of a failure, and then my grandfather says: “Tommy, did you see the set on him, Tommy?! Did you see the set on that horse?!”

Because the horse HAD had a set on him. The horse had been not only anatomically correct, but perhaps exaggerated to show what a MAN’S MAN Roy Rogers had been. (Trigger, for his part, had been taxidermied and was located inside the museum for anatomical comparison).

At the time, my dad must’ve laughed; he must’ve agreed with his father – my dad probably pointed out the set on the horse as well, because in the deeper end of thirtysomething years I have known my father, my dad has never been one to shy away from a dick joke.

I must have been younger than 10 when we took that trip. They closed the museum in Victorville and moved it to Branson, MO and it closed for good a few years ago. But even at like, eight years old, it dawned on me that day that families were much more complicated than I had previously understood.

Now whenever I hear the Pony Boat Song, I think about how families are not very simple.

It is funny to me, to think about the West like this, in the context of Westerns. Of growing up in the Land of Reagan, and being one of those Didion-esque girls who moved East for school and then became lodged in the New York orbit – at first uncertainly and then intractably. I think, growing up in the West, you develop a weird sense of nostalgia for things that never happened. Everything is new, even the history, so maybe you struggle to find a sense of Where You Fit In, especially if you are not a native.

But I realise, too, that maybe it’s not just Growing Up in the West. Maybe we are all Fundamentally Lonely and trying to connect with each other and with our memories of things past; things that never existed. Sometimes the adventures form new memories. Sometimes they’re abject failures.

But sometimes, they connect us in other ways. Like how the Great Roy Rogers Incident of Nineteen Eightysomething made me realise how intensely my dad loves us; how much he loves to explore; how deeply ingrained in me that Loving-by-Doing is.

I think this is a blog entry, RHJ texts back.

(This conversation actually happened, but the messages have been significantly edited & condensed for privacy and clarity)

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.

I wear the smallest invisibility cloak.
I put it on
Whenever you look at me,
And I disappear.
Like when I left
To go run a marathon
Kitted out
In full bright regalia
And those bouncy Pippi braids I so love

Waving goodbye first thing
And toting the bag
Emblazoned with the name of the race
And you,
Blithely saying goodbye
Not noticing
Where I was off to.
Never realising that I’d gone.

I get smaller, too
Microscopic
I shrunk as you cut me from the frame
In those pictures of us
Skiing in Vermont
To use in your dating profile.
Or when you
Refused to be photographed with me
In the first place
If no evidence of us ever existed
Then no harm could ever be done.

But sometimes
It is cosier.
Insidious, almost.
Like the blanket I wear on your sofa.
Snuggled beside you
Like the whole world
Rests between your head
And my heart.
Isn’t this nice, I think
I feel your breathing and mine
I feel my chest lurch under the weight of you.

Between the beats
Your son calls
His face appears on your phone
Like a ghost or an angel
And you quickly rise
Hiding me from his view,
Invisible again.

(November, 2016)

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.

Sundappled Sunday on left and right coasts,
Beautiful from
Griffith Park to
The Staten Island Ferry;
Sunset strip
To
SoHo
I rode a painted pony in the sand.

Saddle slapping tender in-thighs,
I endured your stings.
Silent father shouting
At distant mother
Loving
Present daughter;
Riding roughshod on a tender mare.

Slow stumble upon whip-worn trails,
Round and round
We go again.
Carousel horses,
Sundappled Sunday ponies,
Perfectly painted; ready to ride.

(April, 2009)

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.

Wicked tongue
You have me lashed to you now.
Your vain voice,
The gentle rolling cadence
Lilting laugh,
Falling timbre.
Darling,
It’s a vicious, thrilling ride.

(March, 2008)

(This is the seventh and final in a short series of posts)

After the service, we stand in a makeshift receiving line outside the church. JRA performs the social duties of widowhood, which seem not unlike those of being a bride, except unfathomably lonelier.

This is the way marriage is supposed to work, right? I think as I watch her, Only one of you comes out alive. But what do I know about Till Death Do Us Part – I’m the only one of us who has been divorced multiple times, which suddenly seems pretty lonely too.

In the receiving line, my first husband and his wife greet me warmly. He is wearing the cashmere scarf that I bought him for Christmas many years ago; I am wearing the necklace of rough-cut citrines he bought me in Shanghai. The trappings of our life together are still omnipresent and unavoidable. Even after all these years, I still recognise pieces of his wardrobe as things I bought him; I still know exactly who gave us what as a wedding gift. The one thing whose giver I could never identify was the sturdy mortar and pestle on my counter that I would use to grind spices and make guacamole. Then one day JRA noticed it and said I’m always so glad you always have that out, Pete and I were so worried when we gave you something that wasn’t on your registry.

I wonder, briefly, where people who haven’t had first marriages get their Stuff; and how, once divorced, they manage to cleanly untangle their necklaces and cashmere scarves, and separate their kitchen gear, and uncouple their iTunes libraries.

All the mourners are invited to Pete’s parents’ country club for a reception following the service, and we spend the better part of the afternoon reminiscing and eating miserable sandwiches. Eventually, I settle in and chat with Andrew’s wife. There is an easy intimacy between us because we are both members of the same strange sorority of being Mrs. L—.

The afternoon wears on and the club is closing, and we all head for the exits. Andrew and his wife and I are the only ones left waiting for our coats, and we leave together. I watch them get into my beloved, ageing Jaguar – the car Andrew is still driving, which is now covered in the accoutrements of family life: a badly placed ski rack; children’s car seats covered in toys.

It makes me laugh a little, and reminds me of a line from a song that had come on the radio as I was making soup the night Pete died:

And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Towards the end of his life, Pete had stopped eating solid foods. Soup was always on the menu, and at our social gatherings, there was always a thermos of it; at restaurants, we always remembered to check the menu for drinkable dinners. He’d tired of the fact that soft foods were nearly always sweet – he was desperate for savoury; threatened to make a pizza smoothie, which caused endless eye-rolling from JRA.

That night he’d died, I’d sung along to Talking Heads in my kitchen, and served up chicken soup to a friend who came over for dinner. We’d had a lovely, quiet meal, but neither one of us had known that it was a beginning and an end when JRA had called later that night and said, Pete’s not doing so well.

And now, I stand in the golden February afternoon and watch as my first husband gets into my large automobile with his beautiful wife, and for one split second, I laugh in astonishment at myself as I wonder: How did I get here?

As I pull out of my spot in the overflow parking on the golf course, a flock of Canadian geese rise towards the sky.  It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be surprised at all; I have known all along exactly how I got here, which was that fifteen years ago, Andrew introduced me to JRA, who walked down the aisle as my bridesmaid when I married him, and JRA fell in love with Pete, who together created Lady H, who walked down the aisle as my flower girl when I married Paul, and Lady H danced that night with her dad, who is the one who brought us all full circle today.

Andrew and his wife pull away, I think that maybe hope is not the thing with feathers, love is.

(This is the sixth in a short series of posts)

We bury Pete on one of the coldest days of the year, which strikes me because we had buried Tommy, his younger brother, on one of the hottest. I once read an article in the New York Times about the importance of the rituals of death as part of the grieving process, and I wonder, as I drive to Long Island on the morning of Pete’s second and final memorial, if that is why my grief over my grandparents’ deaths has been so complicated. In their case, they had died a year and a day apart – necessitating two grim trips to Orlando during which I had inquired about formalities – and my mother had looked at me askance and asked: Why?

When Tommy died, back in July, Paul and I had been in Newport, because Andrew and I had always gone to Newport in summer and I never saw a reason to stop. After I’d taken JRA’s call about her brother-in-law, I’d come back to the table and motioned for the bartender to come refill my Sauvignon blanc, which she did, to the absolute brim, until the surface tension of the wine in the glass made a dome over the rolled lip of the sturdy barware, and we didn’t discuss the matter of the phone call further. But that night, I’d come down with my third case of shingles – this time an ophthalmic emergency – and I’d had to drive back to the city one-eyed the next morning.

Likewise, the day Pete died, I took to bed for a week with the flu and a 103F fever. When my therapist asked me, Perhaps we can deal with your feelings instead of letting everything become physical? I looked at her like she was crazy and told her, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I arrive in Glen Cove and I stand with a clutch of family at the gravesite and then head into the now-familiar church with the carved wood walls, and the raised pulpit, which I remember so clearly from Tommy’s memorial in August like it was yesterday and not six months ago. I am meant to give a eulogy today so I sit near the front of the church – Dorota and Michael sit next to me. Once the sanctuary is fully packed, the traditional Episcopal service begins, and I listen to the other remembrances.

Then it is my turn to rise shakily and talk about my friend:

I first heard about Peter when he was a senior at Brown, and Jessica was describing the love of her life. I didn’t have a chance to meet Pete in person until a few months later at Campus Dance, when he rolled out of his fraternity house, laughing, and joking, and that kicked off what was to be a long friendship. And for years, I teased that I was the friend that stood out at Brown events – not Pete – because at many of those Brown parties and reunions, there was almost always more than one guy in a wheelchair, but there was only ever one painfully WASPy, conservative blonde. 

Pete had remarked, in his writing, and throughout our friendship, that visibility mattered to him. Being in a wheelchair, and eventually, having all of his equipment, he occasionally commented that people noticed the stuff long before they ever got to know him. But one of the things that made Peter a remarkable friend was the way that other people were so highly visible to him; the way he could make you feel like you were the only person in the room when he talked with you.  This was clear from how he was as a friend; obvious in how he was as a dad; I’m sure Jess will debate me on whether this is true about him as a husband, but I’m not sure there’s a wife who wouldn’t engage this debate. 

This quality came out in his professional life as a social worker – a profession that Pete seemed tailor-made for. Pete often ran groups – providing support for families of individuals with disabilities and for men with disabilities themselves. My favourite story of Pete’s was early in his career when he came up with the idea to run a group for men with social anxiety. He prepared the materials; set up for the group…and no one ever showed up. Being a social worker had a learning curve. 

Over the years, I had the good fortune of watching Jessica & Pete’s love grow – they loved each other fearlessly. They were always present to each other; visible to each other; kind to each other. Pete was an ordinary husband, who drove Jessica nuts in 1,000 perfect, loving, wonderful ways. To be presented with such significant challenges and still have such an ordinary love is one of the things I admire so much about Jessica, and one of the things I loved so much about Pete. 

I also got to watch Pete become a father. About a week before Helen was born, I had dinner with Jess & Pete in New Jersey; walking along the Hudson on the way to the restaurant. I remember watching Peter watch Jess; seeing her expectant reflection in the window of some building along the waterfront. The moment still sticks with me – Helen, Meatloaf – I know your daddy saw you before you even came along and loved you from before he even met you. There’s no swimming stroke you’re not going to be able to conquer, and there’s no bird or animal you won’t be able to identify – you got your dad’s perseverance and concentration. Seeing the way Pete SAW Helen – not just for being his daughter – but as a person herself, was something to behold.

Finally, as a friend, Pete never failed to be present. Whether it was for game night – where he was a wicked contender – or coming to the city to watch me run yet another ill-advised race, Pete was in.  In November, Pete came to watch me run my last marathon – knowing the significance of the feat of running on two reconstructed hips and a new knee. It took me longer than it’s ever taken me to run before, and I was so happy to see Pete, and Jess, and Helen at the end. 

I think it’s easy to forget to see people. You see them for what you want to see them as, or for the role they play in your life. You can see the contraptions they carry around with them, but you can fail to see the person sitting right there in front of you.  I’m so grateful to Peter for our years of friendship, and for helping me to see not just him, but myself, too. 

(These remarks have been condensed and lightly edited from the original).