Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Happy Birthday, Fern.
Dear Fern(or Phil if we’re using inside jokes,)
May 14th. Another birthday. I start thinking about it in April, girding myself for the slog through all the events that are packed into May and early June. Now I have to contend with Michael’s absence too. I’m glad I didn’t have the vision to see the future, to know in advance that my biggest loves would be gone, leaving me here with memories so vivid and palpable, that processing your absence is still a challenge. Today I realized this 68th birthday of yours, and the anniversary of your death in October, will officially mark the sum total of the entire length of our relationship. We knew each other for 30 years and now it’s 31 years since you’ve been gone. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around that fact. I’ve already spent more than half my life without you. The truth is, I still remember so much about what we meant to each other, what we shared, the good times and the awful times.
I can look straight into your eyes and see your expressions which I knew so well. I can feel you. I still mourn you and am angry that you were victimized to the point that death became a relief for you. I remember those harsh realities. But I also remember laughing.
I remember when we saw the Beatles at the Chicago Amphitheater.
I remember sitting in the Woods Theater all day watching “Help” when they just re-spooled it for hours. By the time we left we’d memorized most of the lines.
I remember our three sarcastic little novels which I still have in my nightstand drawer. I remember reading our diaries to each other every night.
I remember March 20th, the day we anointed to mark how we felt about our crushes. I remember when at 15, we were smart enough to realize that we’d need a special perfect childhood day to conjure when things got too hard as adults. The details of that day have always stayed with me. That day is still my retreat. I feel it, smell it and hear it, with you by my side.
I remember photo day at Comiskey Park, and ball games in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. I remember eating at the Shoreland Deli, Rib Hill and Seaway’s on 87th Street. I remember countless Black Hawks games, standing room only and all the songs we wrote to Beatles tunes, memorializing your passion for Bobby Hull. I liked Doug Mohns.
We were both lefties which seemed to mean something. I don’t know why we thought that made us special and inevitable. I remember our disastrous attempt at being roommates as freshmen in college and how we fixed everything later, after I moved out.
I remember when you pledged a sorority as I stood watching, understanding your need to do that, while never wanting to join you. I remember you coming to be with me as I tried acid for the first time. You didn’t need any drugs – you were already naturally impaired. I remember so many of your emotional crises.
I’d get phone calls from strange people saying you needed me to come and get you, and I always came. I talked you down from your latest ceiling and tried hard to be the mom you never had.
I remember how we loved bowling. I remember your flying fingers at the typewriter, on the piano and eventually on your court-reporting machine. I remember how you came to rest your overworked brain when you hid out in the many houses I shared with Michael. I remember my visit with you in California, the year before I got married.
We hiked in Muir Woods and bolstered ourselves as we set off to live like grownups. I remember your life as an au pair in Europe and your marrying Omar and your not having babies. I remember taking a break from you after I felt you’d sucked all the life out of me.
And then I remember forgiving it all and finding you to be connected the night John Lennon died. I remember the first time you met my daughter. I have every letter you ever wrote me.
I have our class photos from elementary school and our high school yearbooks. I remember your life getting more challenging as mine was getting more solid. I wanted to make you better, to make you survive, and more than that. I remember our last conversation, when it felt like you might get back here from Utah, to come and stay with us so we could hold you up while you climbed the hardest internal mountains. I remember you saying that the worst part about contemplating suicide was realizing how hard it would be for the ones you left behind. I thought we were speaking rhetorically. I didn’t understand that as you told me you loved me that Sunday night that you were saying goodbye. On Monday night, you were efficiently taking your life. As I slept. I woke that night from a terrible dream, a dream in which I was dying. I sobbed inconsolably in Michael’s arms as he tried to reassure me that I was alive and well. I know that was the moment you faded into the oblivion which had become your inviting sanctuary. It took two days for me to learn that. I learned everything I could from your Utah cohort. I couldn’t work or do anything for days. Eventually I rebounded from that torture. One night I dreamed of you, dressed in a red turtleneck sweater that made you look beautiful and exotic with your dark hair.
We went toward each other and when I put my arms out to embrace you, you went right through me and I knew that was a message. A message that you were where you needed to be and that was ok. I accepted whatever that dream was but I still miss you, always. I still think of what it would have been like to be old together. You were my family. I still can’t hear Beatles tunes on certain days when my wiring is in high gear and I dissolve into the familiar companionship of grief. And I go on. Who knows why? I’ve never been religious and I’m not the world’s most fanciful person. Still, I find myself wondering if somehow, you’ve bumped into Michael out there in the universe, who’s taking care of you like he used to help me do it when we were young. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe one day I can find you and we’ll be together for so much more time than we lost. Happy birthday, my precious, oldest friend. I hope I’m long gone before I ever forget you.