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.

A Quarterly Update on What I’ve Been Reading:

16. Janesville – Amy Goldstein (nonfiction; how the GM bankruptcy impacted a small Wisconsin town)

17. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar– Cheryl Strayed (nonfiction; I was a religious reader of the Dear Sugar column at The Rumpus for a long time; loved this)

18. Option B – Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant (nonfiction; I was at a lunch with Adam Grant and was given a free copy otherwise I wouldn’t have read this; glad I did)

19. Emotional Agility – Susan David (nonfiction; psychological look at getting “unstuck” – basically a longform version of a HBR article I enjoyed. Worth reading)

20. Moonglow – Michael Chabon (fiction; I loved this. Fictionalised memoir of “the author” and his Holocaust survivor grandparents – poignant, funny, and heartbreaking; this review in The Guardian sold me)

21. How to Be Here – Rob Bell (theology; Bell is an acquired taste for some Christians, and this book reads more Humanist than say, Velvet Elvis)

22. Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts – Regena Thomashauer (garbage; someone gave me this book as a gift when they heard I was getting divorced and I read it in an afternoon on a flight. It is horrifying, unless you are the type of person who refers to other women as “Sister Goddesses.”)

23. The Danish Way of Parenting – Jessica Joelle Alexander & Iben Dissing Sandahl (garbage; another gift; and honestly, I am pretty sure that the American author thinks that Americans are emotionally stunted idiots  and didn’t realise she had emotional problems of her own until she moved to Denmark and started seeing a therapist and this book resulted)

24. Nonsense – Jamie Holmes (nonfiction; a book about reducing cognitive dissonance and the ways we make sense of the world. Super interesting but not necessarily engaging)

25. Native Speaker – Chang-rae Lee (fiction; fascinating novel about hard grief, clashing cultures, and the secrets we keep. One of the best books I’ve read. If you read nothing else on this list – this is a good one)

26. Evicted  – Matthew Desmond (nonfiction; a sociological look at poverty in America through the lens of real estate. Fairly apolitical in nature. The author embeds himself in Milwaukee housing over a period of years and writes about it. I am fairly entrenched in some of my viewpoints on this, but Desmond was able to open my eyes to things I had never considered)

27. The Remains of the Day  – Kazuo Ishiguro (fiction; the story of a career in service. Brilliant rat-a-tat writing; crystal clear prose; in my view, Ishiguro’s best work)

28. My Promised Land – Ari Shavit (nonfiction; the story of the birth of the nation of Israel told through the lens of a left-leaning Haaretz journalist. Fascinating; repetitive; long. Worth reading if, say, you are going to Israel and know little about it)

29. The Heart – Maylis de Kerangal & Sam Taylor (fiction; a novel about the death of a young man and the story of the transplantation of his organs. Sounds grim, but some of the most beautiful, striking prose I have read – translated from the French by Sam Taylor)

Some more take aways: While I am still trying to read more writers of colour, I am mostly focused on challenging my own perceptions. I am reading things that come recommended by people from whom I wouldn’t necessarily take recs. I am reading things that sound terrible to me and finding I love them. I am trying things that work and don’t work (hence the reason you see stuff I label “garbage” in this list – I am willing to TRY something that I wouldn’t normally read, and I’m willing to SHARE it, even if I think it’s awful).

Also, I think it’s okay to think a book is “garbage.” You may disagree with me – and I think that is great, Sister Goddess. I think that’s just great.

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.

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.

When you are mixing
Drinks
Lives
Households
Politics
Religions
There are some days when even the most
Mundane of things
Seem Remarkable.

For instance:
He is a vodka drinker;
I am Gin.
But by some Divine Intervention
Some Holy Miracle
Our many households always seem to have both.
But then there are other days
Like today
When
By grace and willpower
I manage to speak in the strange patois
Of loving other people’s children
And everyone and thing is accounted for
And then I look down
And realise
I am wearing socks
That are not mine
That are not yours
That were probably your ex wife’s

And I think God must be laughing at us.
And all of our plans
And of this mixing
Of drinks
Of lives
Of the mundane and the divine.
(April, 2017)