I approach the Cathedral in the afternoon, practically delirious with thirst. I have been crying all day and I brought very little water, and for someone who is always prepared, I turned out to be Very Unprepared for something I should have seen coming for nearly two decades.

The old town at the foot of the Cathedral is charming – the streets are lined with shops and cafes. But this is Traditional Spain, so most places are still closed until after 16:00h for siesta. I trek down the cobblestoned streets like I have done in so many medieval towns through Europe and I wonder, even in my humbled state, when I became so jaded. When one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another began to blend together in my head. These are First World Problems of the First Order, I think.

As I round the final corner of the Camino and enter the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I am struck by the sound of a solo bagpipe being played. I have forgotten, somehow, that Galicia is considered a Celtic Country – it is not clear to me from my cursory research whether the Celts originated on the Continent and scattered to the Isles, or if the Vikings brought their culture to Northern Spain through trade. All I know is that my red hair hidden under the blonde that I dye it and my inability to stop chasing men from the British Isles is perhaps the best modern evidence of this secret, historic exchange.

Then, there it is: the Cathedral. Papa has promised me that the building will be a wonder of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and he is not wrong. It stands tall and imposing over the square; its stature undiminished by two of its towers covered in scaffolding and netting for repairs. Inside, in the crypt, lies the body of Saint James the Greater. Outside, stands a single piper; a dozen tourists willing to brave the heat; and me. I have no tears left, so I take it all in then I stand silent in the plaza, wondering what to do next.

It is a profoundly lovely but lonely moment – one of the loneliest I have experienced. To come to the end of a journey like this and have no one to call; no one to share it with; no one who will understand that it was only ten miles – but ten miles that took twenty years to understand – is a hard thing to swallow. So I sit off to the side in the square, and I say a prayer, and then I get up to find a café.

As the old town of Santiago is coming to life after its siesta, I find a café and I order tortilla Espanola and a beer, and it is the best tortilla and the best Estrella I have ever had. The beer goes to my head immediately.

In my compromised state, I am thinking about the head and the heart – about how, after twenty years, I should be better about connecting what I am thinking and how I am feeling; about what a martyr I can be; about the headless body in the crypt. I am thinking about Saint James; I am thinking about what it means to Follow.

If you know your New Testament, you know that Jesus calls to James and John to follow him, and they do – immediately. (Matt. 4:21-22). I am wondering what it is like to have faith that strong; to believe so ferociously in the future; to trust someone so deeply. I wonder how Saint James felt when he watched all those miracles being performed – demons cast out; people walking on water; folks raised from the dead. James gave it all up; he followed some crazy-talking dude around on the strength of a mere come-on; he blew up his own comfortable life as the first-born son of a middle-class tradesman and he just…went.

And where did it get poor James? Murdered. Martyred. Beheaded. His body brought back to the site of his Iberian mission; entombed with two others in the belly of a Gothic stone heap with a nice view. And I think he’d probably do it all again, too, just for the chance to take that first leap of faith; to follow.

I order another Estrella, and fiddle with the scallop shell on the red cord attached to my backpack, and a sinking feeling fills my stomach. I am so afraid of following; of losing control. I want the connection, but not the responsibility; I want the benefits, but I don’t want to watch the messy demons exorcised. I want to think I am the James, but actually, I’m the Thomas, or the Peter.

I want ferocious love, but I don’t want to lose my head over it.

I sip my second, ill-advised beer in contemplative silence, realising it has taken me fully twenty years to understand that I have spent all this time chasing something, trying not give up control, not knowing until now that the only way to become a Whole Person again is 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.

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.

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)

(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).