I first published this post a few years ago. At the time, I was still adapting to Michael’s death, now impossibly, almost five years ago. For me, it’s not dated, though. I can never have a new experience or a new photo of either Fern or Michael. They live on in my memory, although Michael remains a mysterious daily presence in my life. When I think of unconditional love, I think of them first. Until I am no longer me or until I’m gone, I expect that I’ll be revisiting them every year. So here is my annual homage to Fern.
Dear Fern(or Phil if we’re using inside jokes)
May 14th. Another one of your birthdays. I start thinking about it in April, girding myself for the slog through all the challenging events that are emotional triggers for me from early May into early June. Now I have to contend not only with the hole where you belong, but with Michael’s absence too. I’m glad I never had the gift of 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 71st birthday of yours, and the anniversary of your death in October, will officially mark the sum total of the entire length of our relationship and a bit more. We knew each other for 30 years and now it’s 34 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 close my eyes and look straight into yours, seeing your expressions which I knew so well. Often they were highlighted with your favorite color eyeshadow, Daffodil, a ridiculous yellow color you chose to go with your brown v-necked sweater which reminded you of one of your high school crushes. And those absurd glasses you wore, one pink pair and one blue, decorated with little rhinestones in the corners. I can feel you. Your angst and pain, your frustration and anger. I still mourn you, all of 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. Lots of laughing.
I remember visiting your house at 8138 S. Jeffrey in Chicago. I lived in an apartment so being in a house was pretty impressive. You had a piano in the living room and you played Clair de Lune for me. We went into your bedroom that was all yours, unlike me who always had to share with my sisters. You had a double-sided chalkboard that flipped in circles and on it I wrote the “Personality Plus” program that I thought would help you be happy. We bowled at the Pla-Mor bowling alley and ate at Carl’s Hot Dogs which was so close to where we lived.
I remember when we saw the Beatles at the Chicago Amphitheater. The joy and madness we shared, with Bobby Hebb of “Sunny” fame, and The Cyrkle who sang “Red Rubber Ball” as we waited impatiently for our idols. My loving Paul while you loved John was so convenient. We had no friction or jealousy and were happy to sing their parts in our endless harmonizing.
I remember sitting in the Woods Theater all day watching “Help” when they just re-spooled it for hours, instead of having to pay for each viewing. By the time we left we’d memorized most of the lines.I remember sharing the great adventure of our train ride and trip to Montreal for that magic summer world’s fair, Expo ‘67.
I remember our three sarcastic little novels which I still have in my nightstand drawer in which we skewered everyone we knew and all the absurdity of high school. 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. Hot sun with friends by the lake, cinnamon rolls, shimmering pavement, burgers and fries, hearing Elinor Rigby for the first time.
I remember photo day at Comiskey Park, and Cubs’ 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 about our favorite players 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 as best friends but that’s what we thought. 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 a mom you never really had.
I remember how we loved mocking Rosamund du Jardin novels. 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 mentally 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 with you the night John Lennon died. I remember the first time you met my daughter. And the time we met after not seeing each other in a few years and your relief that I didn’t have a “mom” hairdo. We hopped into a photo booth that day, you making awful faces.
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 of your internal mountains and memories. 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.