Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
I feel like I have an infinite amount of things to write about, so I’ll start with my right shoe. It feels a little loose. Marcella gave me a pair of shoes for Christmas and I have finally destroyed them. I wore them for about the same length of time as her illness. When I realized that the ripped sole was getting stuck in my brake pedal, I realized the time for change had come. It was the first Marcella-related thing I had to do without Marcella, so I just went out and got it over with. They are shoes that a guy would buy - ugly and utilitarian. I texted a photo to my sister, half-joking “well, back to $8 shoes!” They fit, but not like the ones Marcella bought. There is a big void now and I have to do my best to fill it, one shoe at a time.
I am on the steps in front of the Philadelphia Academy Of Music. The train station was a mile from my house, the train ride was about forty-five minutes, and the walk from the station was only about half a mile. The weather is perfect, my camera is charged, I have money for food and drinks, and two tickets for Neil Young.
The grandness of 30th Street Station. The clickety-clack of the Amtrak arrival board. The moment of emerging into the big, bright city. Walking down Locust Street and knowing Neil Young’s bus might be parked on the side of the venue. The moment when I saw that it was - his big silver bus with the Florida “Zuma” license plate and a doormat with his Broken Arrow logo laying on the sidewalk next to the bus door. I had bursts of joy in these moments and others. A feeling of “YEAH! I am ALIVE!!!”
It is not lost on me that I am only half a mile from the hospice facility at which I played my last song for Marcella. I try to imagine how much pain and joy has occurred in any square foot of any major city like this one.
I wondered what now would be like. Here I am - I’m in one of the moments from “six to twelve months” later. I remember looking at her in a hospital bed - with the same voice, hair, curves, mannerisms to which I’d grown accustomed - and trying to process the news. I’m not sure I understand how I did it. I guess I just reaffirmed my commitment to remain both living and alive. In doing so, I had to avoid the trap of self-identifying as a victim. I wanted to maintain my natural inclination towards seeking joy, finding ways to make life better for me and my loves. Perhaps the guy I was the week of the diagnosis truly DIDN’T have the tools to make it through this passing and, during the successive months, I grew until a guy who did. I must have. Which means I must have excellent friends.
I wanted to be an optimist, but not blind. I’d keep it together for a few days and then I’d hear the perfect song during a long drive and it would all come pouring out of me. That happened during the entirety of those seven months and has kept happening at, I think, a pretty similar pace. Some of the storms that have come through have been much heavier than the ones that passed through when she was alive, but I’ve found that I’ve still been able to enjoy the sunshine when it appears.
I’m feeling the rays today. I wasn’t planning to put out the money to see Neil Young, but my sweet friend Christine found herself with extra tickets and thought of me. There have been a lot of people making kind, loving gestures in the time since Marcella’s passing. They have all made an impact. Things expected and things unexpected. Words. Beers. A back massage in a pumpkin patch. Beautiful wind chimes. A doodle and an autograph from Robyn Hitchcock in London. Jam sessions. Bacon. The return of a very important friendship I’d accidentally severed in the emotionally messy time around Marcella’s brain surgery. A book of photos assembled by a friend who’d never even met Marcella (or hung out with me, for that matter). I’m feeling the rays.
The tears are bigger and the joy is bigger. Maybe she is sharing them with me? I haven’t felt alone for even a moment. The long goodbye helped me get ready in some ways. I’m sleeping alone this week, yes, but I’ve slept alone for seven months. I’m used to it.
My head is spinning from excitement and caffeine. I will meet my friend Chris for dinner in a few minutes. I’d hoped to write the story of the past two weeks, but I keep finding myself drawn to the present moment. Led Zeppelin album tracks on the radio, a cell phone overloading with people trying to make plans with me, a well-lit city that I could never finish photographing even if it froze in time riiiiiiiight nowwww. I’m gonna go rejoin life and catch up with you tomorrow.
It’s not tomorrow. It’s after midnight, technically two days later. I feel out-of-sorts in a blissful way. It was through a music-based friendship that I found myself watching a Neil Young show, through a different friendship that I found myself in a hotel restaurant jam session way past Last Train Home O’Clock, through the same friend that I found myself waking up in a cool Airbnb apartment several blocks from the venue, and through yet another friend that I found myself seeing the following night’s show from the eight row.
I skipped the post-show jam session in order to catch my train and because I feel disconnected from “real life,” as if I’ve been on vacation. I kind of was. Musical and verbal conversations with like-minded people, food and drinks from a variety of places I’ve never been to, a play date with antique Gibson and Martin guitars, a tour of Independence Hall with Marilyn from Hudson just ‘cause we could, long walks to wherever we wanted - all these moments bookended by intimate performances by my favorite musician. I felt like I was flying. Now I want to spend some moments on the ground before I take flight again.
It is two days later and I am on the ground again, wearing the aforementioned brown shoes. As I made my way home from Philadelphia, I saw that someone spraypainted the Tullytown train station’s underground tunnel with the words “NEVER STOP LOVING.” It made me smile. I took a photo just in time to evade the gigantic urine puddle that always waits at the bottom of the steps.
Speaking of that - love, not urine - I should rewind and tell you more about Marcella. I think I most recently wrote about the day she died. Let’s see where I left off.
I photographed pregnant Pam pretending to swing the rope swing on one of the property’s old, sturdy trees. She took a picture of me sitting on top of it and smiling like a goober, still wearing my suit jacket and tie. We wandered around her Dad’s garden and soaked in the beauty.
I went into her bedroom, probably for the last time in my life, and tried to breathe it all in. What was once her bedroom now felt like a museum, each corner full of icons of her love of art, fashion, travel, friends, family, me. I didn’t know what I’d feel when I walked into the room, but I felt I had to - I’d seen her lifeless body at the hospice facility, but it just made me kind of uncomfortable. My moment in her bedroom elicited a big response, especially as I looked upon the quote she placed on her wall by hand in a ransom note font. I’d seen it a hundred times, but it was a fresh idea in the context of that day, six words that said more about the beauty of the way she lived than anyone else could say in 50,000 words:
“EveryBodY DIes BUt Not eveRybOdy LivEs”
It had moved me every time I saw it, but this time, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The same sentence had morphed from her life’s thesis statement into her life’s final statement. A summary. An unusually cool-looking epitaph, right there on her wall next to a funky tapestry. Everybody dies, yes, and she died at a time that her Earthly loves all consider the wrong time. But she lived up to the second part of that, too: she LIVED! She didn’t cower in fear of illness and death. It seemed like she operated with MORE passion and energy because she suspected her time might be short. The longer she’s gone, the more I can see that she knew what was coming and lived life bigger and bolder as a result.
I posted a picture of me and her frolicking in the ocean as a reminder of her strength. It was only three months earlier! Three months earlier, she got into a car with me and went to North Carolina for two-week trip. This was already months after they’d begun chemo. She didn’t become housebound until she absolutely needed to. That says so much about her.
Aunt Laura and I took a walk around the property. We walked to Marcella’s favorite tree and had a great conversation there.
Over the next few days, her family started to assemble photo boards for the upcoming viewing. I sent a batch of about 120 photos ranging from the month we met - February 2012 - to the month we said goodbye - September 2014. The last photo I took of her was from one of our wheelchair walks. She stopped to pick me a flower from a large bush in front of her property. The photo reminds me of how flat her demeanor was, how limited our conversations had become, the absence of the piles of thick, dark hair that she’d had for most of her life, but it mostly reminds me that she never got so sick that she wasn’t “there”; not until the very end. The rest of the time, she could still trade “I love you”s, have a chat, play with her dog, pick me a flower. The flower is still on my dashboard and is one of several gateways from this new chapter of my life to the previous one. My friend Melissa thinks it might be a hibiscus, a flower that symbolizes delicate beauty.
I also gathered together about an hour of videos and shared them online. I had forgotten about some of them, most notably one called “horrible” in which she strummed a guitar while I fretted it. It, indeed, sounded a little bit horrible, but was super-sweet because I got to see her smile a big beaming smile again. Those were in short supply in the last weeks. I treasure these little artifacts.
I’m happy that Marcella had a chance to make decisions about her outfit - even her jewelry - and, I’m told, to ask that they didn’t overdo the makeup and “make me look like a clown.” Personally, I found myself drawn to the photo boards in the back of the room more than her body. I loved her all I could when she was in a body; now she’s somewhere else. There must have been over a thousand pictures spread out over the boards. I was happy to see my time with her represented in images, and also happy to see so many shots I’d never seen before from other eras of her life. I was absolutely taken aback by the amount of people who came to pay their respects. It was stunning.
She was wearing the earrings I’d bought her for Christmas and her fingernails still had the little specks of paint that they’d had in her last weeks. An artist ‘til the end! Some of the visitors thought she’d requested to have them done that way on purpose.
I took a picture of the funeral home’s lamps reflected in a picture of Marcella’s smiling face. I showed her mom and said, “I’m STILL making art out of her!” The picture gives me a sense of warmth and comfort.
I remember listening to the song “The Three Bells” while driving through Trenton late at night and breaking down at the thought of going to my own girlfriend’s funeral. Ultimately, no part of the day was anything like I imagined.
I had to pee.
I spent the funeral alternately wishing I had stopped in the bathroom first and feeling nervous about the performance I was scheduled to do near the end. Also, “OH, SHIT, I LEFT MY LYRIC BOOK IN THE LIMO!” Lucky for me, the lyrics to the song I chose were also in the funeral program.
Marcella’s sister Daniela gave an absolutely perfect eulogy, equally funny and moving. She got me choked up when she said that Marcella would’ve been content to wander the Earth with me for the rest of her life. When she was finished, she nodded at me and I began to sing and play The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” with the Japanese, Sigma-brand acoustic guitar my dad gave me about twenty years earlier.
I wasn’t sure if the Monsignor would sign off on a song with the line “Jai guru deva om,” but he did. My instincts told me it was the right song and the responses I got from various people later on confirmed it.
The performance felt supernatural. The nervousness vanished instantly and I just listened to the song as if someone else was performing it. I remember beaming with joy as I sang the line “limitless undying love that shines around me like a million suns.” Thanks, John.
Later on, I found myself with a recording of the song as performed at Marcella’s bedside on Monday the 22nd and a recording of the song performed at the funeral Monday the 29th.
I was honored to be asked to be a pallbearer and was surprised to find it somewhat healing. To do something that required even a tiny bit of physical exertion was somehow comforting, a feeling of maintaining the commitment I made to support her.
I rode in the family limo that day. Her brother Leonardo said to me, “dude, I didn’t know you had a VOICE!”
“Hey, how do you think I got that pretty girl’s attention in the first place?”
It was moving to see the huge gathering of people at the burial. It was a bit loud and busy. Lots of cars. It was hard to hear the Monsignor speak. I had been asked to perform music at the burial too, but I was worried I’d be in the way. I stepped back toward a big tree and sang Neil Young’s song “Distant Camera.” I pledged to myself that I’d periodically return to the site and play songs for her on calmer days. I improvised an instrumental at one point.
Aunt Donna had promised she’d share the day with me and she followed through on that. Pam and Dad were there, too, and it felt good to have the support of my blood. Righteous was there with a fantastic beard. I could see that he was very moved by the scene. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I know it will inform his artistic or personal output in some way at some point.
The limo took us to her family’s restaurant which had been closed to the public to accommodate the mourners. I had drinks with Righteous and Maria, a former co-worker of Marcella’s, and we were eventually joined by our friends Joe, Jayna, Aunt Donna, and my sister Pam (carrying Nolan). It was a heavy day, but nevertheless a joy to see so many loved ones gathered together to share food and drinks. I got drunk for the first time in weeks and enjoyed every second of it.
A glance at the calendar tells me it was only two weeks between the game-changing, near-deadly night of six seizures and the funeral. Emotionally, it felt a year had passed. During that “year,” I’d gotten so much closer to her circle of friends and family that, as I said goodbye to everyone at the restaurant, I didn’t have even a trace of doubt when I said that I’d keep in touch. That was important to Marcella, but it was also important to me.
Just hours after Marcella - “The Planner,” as she was known in our Earthly relationship - was buried, I found myself on the curb in front of the restaurant, having mismanaged my plans to get a ride back to my sister’s house. I imagined her reaction to the scene - shaking her head in faux disgust. I waited around for someone to offer a ride back to my car at her family’s house, which happened in about ninety seconds.
I got back to my car, parked at her family’s quiet, dark property. It was the first time I’d ever been there alone. I walked around the yard, walked past her tree and toward the edge of the forest, and finally made my way back to the back patio on which she’d spent many moments in her last months. She’d been keeping busy painting, playing the occasional board game, eating candy, being cared for by her visiting nurses, sister, and aunties, sometimes having a conversation if she was up to it. There were lots of visitors and she gave them as much energy as she wanted, never straining too much. Living at her own pace. I’d put on a brave face and take her as she was, always looking for the next thing I could do to potentially make her smile. And sometimes just playing guitar and eating her candy.
I’d race her around her driveway in her wheelchair anytime she asked me to, which ended up being almost every time I visited. I’m not sure, but I think the last time I visited was directly after an afternoon show I’d played in her town. I walked onto the back patio unannounced and I remember her lighting up like a Christmas tree. I recall her aunt being taken aback by the swift mood shift. It made me feel like a million bucks.
It all looked the same but she was gone. Lots of the pieces she painted were still there. I was feeling my defenses drop, the numbness that I’d developed in order to deal with the sadness of seeing her slowly lose so much of her mobility, her spark. It had become “the new normal.” But it wasn’t normal; she was twenty-eight. I reflected on those later phases of her life - all those moments I tried to pretend were OK - and cried very, very hard. I knew I needed it and I welcomed the pain. As always, I felt a little lighter and freer by releasing the tears.
She told me of her diagnosis last winter, around the same time that my sister announced her pregnancy. It was not lost on me at the time that she announced she had six-to-twelve months left at the same time that my sister announced she would present new life in nine months. I often wondered how closely these events would coincide.
We had taken a trip with Auntie Donna to look at an RV park in Delaware. The idea of taking a long drive that day seemed exhausting and I’d initially said no. My family had strongly encouraged that I get out and have an adventure. When it was time to decide, I probably committed to it largely because I knew I’d have a chance to get good coffee and take photos. I also knew I’d get to see my cousin Nick, a hilarious guy and one of my life’s older brother figures.
We were underwhelmed by the RV park and decided to drive further south to get dinner in Ocean City, Maryland. We had a great time wandering around the beach with Donna’s new dog, Ida. I’d never been there before and I captured little bits of the day in photos and videos. As we drove back north, Pam realized the discomfort she was feeling was contractions. Our driver, Nick, is an EMT who has delivered several babies and his mom, in the passenger seat, is also a medical professional. After spending a little bit of time trying to reach the doctors back home and trying to gauge the nature of and frequency of the contractions, they decided to simply go to the nearest hospital.
We were in Dover, Delaware. That wasn’t in the plan. You know what John Lennon says about making plans. Once she had been situated for a few hours, I went home. I felt conflicted about the possibility of missing the birth, but they reminded me that she wasn’t actually in active labor. By the time I woke up the next morning, she was. I drove her car - already equipped with a baby seat and some luggage packed with travel items - from her house in Pennsylvania to the hospital. I was happy to help in the small way that I could.
I waited in a lobby with both of the to-be Grandma Eileens. We all shared some small talk, I took a quick walk around the hospital, drank a little coffee. I suddenly get a text. I’d gotten a lot of texts that week. This one, however, was a picture that was sent from down the hall - mommy Pam holding her son Nolan.
I hugged both Grandma Eileens as I showed them the picture. We all cried. It wasn’t long after that that we were invited to join the new parents and their baby. I made sure that Marcella’s family members saw the photo and shared in our joy.
Being ten days early meant that he arrived two days after the funeral, the perfect moment for some good news and an infusion of raw, healing joy. Marcella’s mom echoed what so many others had said: “Yes, I think Marcella has something to do with this.”
I was in a hospital room with Nolan, his mommy, and daddy, and they were all sleeping. I was the only one awake in the silent, sixth floor hospital room. I think seeing an IV pole set something off in me. It had only been a few days since the end of Marcella’s tour of hospitals, doctors offices (I’d first accompanied her to one seventeen months earlier), and hospice rooms. I looked around the room and reflected on the fact that that everything had gone perfectly, so perfectly that everybody was free to take a nap in the middle of the day. I let out a big cry and felt grateful that everyone stayed asleep until I was finished. There was a lot of pent-up stuff in my newly reopened heart and it needed to cleanse itself.
I’d say I was crying like a baby, but the actual baby in the room was lookin’ pretty damn cool.
I was in a hospital and going through the familiar process of learning how to navigate it, figuring out where the food is, remembering a room number, and I was doing all of it because of something that went beautifully, beautifully right. I was at some sort of Finish Line. I’d made it. I helped to send one love on her way and I helped to welcome a new love into the world. I’d survived.
I walked down the hallway with Scott and tried to convey something about the happiness that his new little boy has given me. I reminded myself “most of the time, things are basically OK.” He agreed. I briefly wondered if I believed what I’d just said, but quickly realized I did. I also knew that, although the changes were too recent to fully process, something about all that time spent in the deep end of life probably changed many things about my vantage point. I look forward to figuring out what. My Deep Thoughts moment was interrupted by some lovely black women trying to flirt with Scott. After they passed us, I said “I think you still have it, dude!”
I’ve received dozens of letters and texts since the death. They are all equally important and I treasure them all. The longest one came from one of the people who occupied Marcella’s heart years before I did - Whitney. She was grateful that she got to be there on what ended up being Marcella’s last full day.
“I told her she would find you some day. She told me she would be a burden and she wouldn’t want to be that to anyone. I reminded her that we love who we love and that she deserves to experience love. I watched as she let herself fall in love with you. She let herself be taken care of by you.”
Pam once told me “she is your biggest fan” and I broke down and cried over my shrimp and broccoli. I didn’t understand why it affected me so much. I think it’s just because it was true.
Today, I’m wearing the big brown coat I got at Surplus Sid’s military surplus store while shopping with Marcella in Chapel Hill last year. It reminds me of how much fun we had exploring together.
I connected with the guy at Zebra Striped Whale. (His name is Tom. I’m not sure why I just called him “the guy.”) We’d had many chats about Marcella’s illness and about his father’s recent illness. In a way, I was dreading telling him the news. Back in the summertime, he’d - understandably - become very upset when I told him what we’d been asked to expect.
In trying to come up with a Cliff Notes version of my life in the month since I last saw him, I led with the story of my nephew’s birth and then explained why the timing was so important. I told him about the bedside concerts and said that, along with the pain of the loss, there is an inexplicable joy - as if her spirit has joined mine and those of the other people who she loves. Without skipping a beat, he said “I’m learning that we’re really just spirits existing in a human body for a little while and just how AMAZING that is.” We agreed that our time is short and precious and that we must use it wisely. And that the more we can spread love and share our respective gifts, the better.
Neither of us got upset. We were misty-eyed, in awe of the wild journey of being alive and loving people. Wise enough to know there are more tears coming another day and wise enough to know that it all ends up being worth it.
I thought I might end there (especially after 4,300 words), but maybe it’s fitting to throw this next story in here when it’s least expected. After all, that’s how the moment itself felt. The other day, I got a letter from Aunt Laura in Chapel Hill. It was a sweet letter with yet another letter folded inside - a letter from Marcella. She wrote it to me around the springtime and asked that I receive it later on. It is now later on. It is a private letter, of course, but I can tell you that she asked me to love myself as much as she loved me and to expect the same from the people I become close to throughout my life.
I happened to read it in little Nolan’s bedroom, rocking in a chair and facing his crib and the beautiful Alice In Wonderland Caterpillar mural that our friend Tim Barger painted for him. It didn’t feel like the tragic words of a dead person; it felt like a dispatch from a spirit who loved me when she was in a body and now loves me without one. A TRULY free spirit.
no matter where our trails will finally wind
our paths will just keep crossing, yours and mine
until then, in my pocket you must go
I’ll take you with me everywhere I go
- Willie Nelson
Saturday, October 4, 2014
Saturday, September 27, 2014
I’m out in the world now. It feels slightly scary. These people don’t know what happened yesterday. They don’t know that I need them to be nice to me. Most of the people are good. Some are bad. I’ll regain my defenses soon.
Marcella’s dad, Mike, is one of the good ones. I dated his daughter for two-and-a-half years, but I think that, in a way, we were never properly introduced until he heard me sing for her Monday night.
I was dressed in some of my autumn clothes - red corduroys, green socks, my “aerial view of autumn leaves” dress shirt, the brown “Sad Professor” jacket that Marcella bought me. But emotionally, I was naked. I had trouble making it through R.E.M.’s “You Are The Everything.” And for some reason, when I got to their song “Find The River,” I had trouble singing the line, “there is nothing left to throw but ginger, lemon, indigo, coriander stem, and rose of hay.” I don’t even know what that MEANS! There’s just something about Michael’s voice.
I think that, along with my friend Nick, I was able to transform the room a little bit with my voice. I saw a lot of tears in the eyes of the gathered family members, but it felt OK. It was a good time to cry.
It was a two-part concert. Let’s retroactively call it an “early show” and a “late show.” My good friend Righteous Jolly drove me to the hospice facility in the morning. We shared some ideas about love, life, creativity, and success on the way there. He entered the room, perhaps not knowing what to expect, and immediately rose to the occasion, charming the faces off of everyone present.
He told an Italian-themed joke that he’d texted to Marcella The Great (as she appears in his address book) about two weeks earlier, as well as her response: “you’re a funny character, my friend.” He delighted everyone just by being himself.
We proceeded to perform three Irish folk songs - “Easy And Slow,” “Black Velvet Band,” and “The Leaving Of Liverpool” (which we perform as “The Leaving Of Tullytown”). The room was full of people, luggage, snacks, and medical equipment, but was somehow very acoustically resonant. My guitar was tuned a little lower than usual and we took the opportunity to focus more on creating beautiful harmonies than on projecting our voices. I felt that we connected - to the music, to the family, to the beautiful girl silently resting in the middle of the room.
Righteous had to meet Joe Trainor in Delaware, so he gave us one last gift; an a capella performance. I knelt to the ground, closed my eyes, and put my hands on Marcella.
Ya know, one of the first times I connected with Marcella was at a St. Patrick’s Day show I was performing with Righteous and other pals. She would’ve heard this song that night. I remember an emotionally raw moment in which I looked into her eyes from up on the stage and thought, “who are you and what do you want from me?”
Here are the words to “The Parting Glass”:
“of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
and all the harm that ever I did
alas it was to none but me
and all I’ve done for want of wit
to memory now I can’t recall
so fill to me the parting glass
good night and joy be with you all
oh, all the comrades that e’er I had
they’re sorry for my going away
and all the sweethearts that e’er I had
they’d wish me one more day to stay
but since it falls unto my lot
that I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
good night and joy be with you all”
I found myself in adulthood with a pretty hard outer shell. A free spirit from a working-class town. A child from a single-parent household in the judgmental environment of Catholic school. Owner and operator of a body with a variety of kinks, some painful. I was different in a lot of places where sameness was celebrated. I’m proud of growing into a complex guy who accepts the good with the bad and has a special place in his heart for underdogs. For anyone suffering. I’m not necessarily proud of the rough outer shell, though.
It is not impenetrable, though. Marcella got through. You can bet your ass that Righteous’s performance did. It brought out tears from my deepest reserves. Top-shelf, $9,000-a-bottle tears.
Righteous said goodbye to the grieving, grateful family and made his way into the hallway. Another resident’s “special transport” was about to take place, so he quickly made his way to an elevator after I hugged him and told him I loved him.
It might read more like a movie than the events of an otherwise typical Monday in Center City Philadelphia. It was real life, but certainly felt cinematic. Who better to co-star in one of my life’s most dramatic moments than one of my most talented actor friends?
I texted him some thoughts - told him the family spent a good hour talking about how transformative his energy was, I told him how meaningful his performance was to me. But, most importantly, I told him that he made Cleo, Marcella’s mom, happy.
Not long after Righteous left, I got a text from another singing partner - Nick Crocker. I’d had in mind to invite him to come sing with me, but before I had a chance to ask him, he asked me. He didn’t have a particular reason to think today would be the perfect day; his instincts just led him to it.
While I waited, I jotted down some song ideas on my hand, loaded up the lyrics to some songs I’d never sung before, and warmed up by singing her Neil Young’s song “Feel Your Love.” I took a photo of my hand in a makeup mirror to remind myself that I can still do some work that could have an impact.
Nick walked into the room as bright and bald as the afternoon sun. He charmed everyone with stories of his Italian relatives, the derivation of his family name, and marveled at the resemblance of Marcella’s older relatives to his own. He smiled his infectious smile.
We played them “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream” in our best two-part harmony. Then I loaded up some lyrics and sang “Across The Universe” for the first time in my life. I was next to Aunt Laura and could see that she was instantly moved by the selection. It reminded me of a time when Marcella sat at her family’s piano with me while I played my song “Imagination 2001.” She was moved to tears just from hearing the piano intro. Sometimes, the melodies alone can grab you by the heart.
While I tried to think of some more tunes, Crocker took the reins and sang a few - “And I Love Her,” “Oh, My Love,” “Give Me A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” “You’re Just Too Good To Be True.” He suggested I sing Neil Young’s “Sail Away.” While I sang, I thought of the impressive amount of time Marcella and I spent traveling. I sang “I Am A Child” and thought of her kind, strong dad. “I gave to you/now you give to me.”
Someone suggested “Harvest Moon.” I didn’t realize at the time that September 22 was the night of the harvest moon. Marcella came from the summer but was an autumn girl at heart. I remember whispering to her, “you made it to fall. Welcome.”
I played some lead guitar while Nick sang “Into The Mystic,” then I borrowed songs from The Big O and The Byrds - “Blue Bayou” and “Goin’ Back.” I’d never played them before, but I gave ‘em my all. Aunt Laura reminded me how much Marcella liked my songs, so I played “Unseasonable Sunrays” and “Do You Think She’d Mind?”
Every time I’d glance around the room, I saw an attentive, teary-eyed audience. Marcella’s parents and siblings were there, aunts, cousins, friends. Other guests filtered in, including a priest who blessed Marcella while I played.
After “You Are The Everything” and “Find The River,” I knew I’d given all I could give. Like true entertainers, we left on a high note. The family gave thanks to Nick and I. I left my guitar, thinking I’d return later that night.
Nick and I made our way to Ralph’s Italian Restaurant with his daughter. I was happy to have a night out on the town with great food and great conversation, but also carried with me a heaviness, a darkness. The music pried open my heart and left it open wide. I could feel all of the love of family and friends, but also all of the horrific sadness of seeing my girl in some strange netherworld between life and death. The presence of these positive, spiritually-attuned friends helped me stay in a progressive - if heavy - state of mind.
Nick offered me a ride home. I accepted his kind offer and texted the family to say I’d see them tomorrow. I knew that I gave Marcella all of my spirit as I sang to her, so I was comfortable going home for a night of sleep.
Over these seven months, I’d occasionally catch myself falling into dread. Dreading different moments of her health struggle. Trying to plan my navigation through days that were still months away. Throughout the course of her illness, I learned to silence that part of myself. To spend more time in the moment. To not overthink the future so much that I miss the present. Besides, my pal Jenni reasoned, the big moments will NEVER be exactly how you think they’ll be.
“Stella started pulling me in a different direction in the backyard than she had before. She was taking me around that cherry tree. It was like she was running with someone.”
“My body felt so warm and I instantly smiled. Thank you for letting me know you were okay. I needed that.”
I got the phone call at 9:19 AM. I was in shock and I understood that. I pushed my body through the motions of getting dressed, eating food, drinking water, and finding someone to accompany me. I put on a nice outfit - elements of which had been added to my wardrobe by Marcella - and headed to Philadelphia with my sister Pam. I am lucky to have a good selection of people I would’ve felt comfortable spending the day with. Pam represents my past, my present, and also - waiting in her big belly - the future.
The most difficult steps were the ones immediately after the elevator door opened. I imagine I’d been operating at half-speed up to that point. As we entered the sixth floor, I probably walked the way I do in a swimming pool. I had faith that spending time with her family would make the day bearable, though, so I just kept pushing myself.
Cleo and I both look good in black. We were dressed for mourning, but not wearing anything we wouldn’t wear on a regular day. We hugged for a long time. All of us, actually. They’re Italian, remember?
I got the sense that everyone was more connected than ever before; Marcella had given us that extra week of herself and that was a lot of time for people to share meals, anecdotes, jokes. Who knew that Marcella’s dad had traveled to Woodstock in a VW bus? Not me. Some of the quiet ones have the best stories.
Her dad and I had a nice rapport with each other, but had essentially been two quiet men being quiet near one another. This morning, however, he opened up to me, thanking me for giving Marcella the gift of music, advising me to keep being me and to not let any of the bad people affect me as I pursue my fortunes. I have to imagine that Marcella observed the moment when her dad and her guy had a soul connection and shared a big hug.
Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was when I learned that I’d unknowingly had a presence at the moment of Marcella’s ascent. Unbeknownst to me, her sister Daniela recorded the bedside concert we performed Monday night on her phone. The next morning, she was playing back the recordings for Marcella. My guitar was still in the corner of the room and my voice was still in the air. I was the soundtrack as she made her way out of her body. I can barely comprehend how great an honor that is. Thanks, Daniela.
When Auntie Donna got the news, she was looking at the awe-inspiring view from Indian Rocks at Delaware Water Gap. She was at peace.
“I was asking her to let me know if she was okay. The picture of the kids came flying off and fell on the dresser. See how it is tucked behind the other one in the picture? I definitely felt her. She can hear us!”
I have a lot more to tell you.
Monday, September 22, 2014
There’s a little black boy going room-to-room, peeking in and saying “hi!” to anyone who makes eye contact. We love him. I’m back in Quiet Room and I can hear him in the next room playing games on a computer and talking on a cell phone. “WHO DIS?!?” I have to imagine that he lingered outside Marcella’s door for a moment or two while I played her a 45-minute bedside concert.
I played my songs “Knit Hat Girl” and “lets make folk babies,” Neil Young’s “Silver And Gold” and “Razor Love,” The Everly Brothers’ “Crying In The Rain,” “Long Time Gone,” and “When Snowflakes Fall In The Summer,” and R.E.M.’s “Suspicion,” “Sad Professor,” “Electrolite,” “The Lifting,” and “I’ve Been High.”
I played part of my concert in the bathroom that connects to the room. It sounds huge in there. I figured her eyes were closed anyway so I’d go where the good sound is. I wasn’t sure if she was listening, but I just kept going. It had been a while since I put everything else down and just played a bunch of songs off-the-cuff.
The first moments always feel like the first time. Like stepping into a pool and not being sure if the water will be warm, or if I can even swim. Before long, I’m swimming and I can barely remember life on the ground. Phil Everly said he thought of music like a river. Nobody owns it, but we can all flow down it.
Grieving seems cyclical for me. Today, I’m tired of heartache. Tears depleted. The pendulum has swung. Now, I’m reading a lot. Making plans for recording music. I’m in Me Mode.
I missed my train so I have a bit of time to observe Suburban Station. I think the man sitting across from me with a similarly well-dressed woman is an MSNBC anchor.
During the train ride here, a man named Fran sat down next to my guitar and I and decided to strike up a conversation. He got on the train in Bristol. I’d gotten on in Tullytown, just one stop earlier, but my appearance had him convinced I was from New York City. Fran is a recovering alcoholic with twenty-two years of sobriety. He has the exuberance and lust for life that I’m drawn to in Craig Ferguson. I was craving the silent meditation of a train ride, but I remembered “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be” and entered the moment.
I’m beginning to feel like a guy with a story. To quote my ex-girlfriend Megan, “I’ve LIVED.” I told Fran some of my story and he told me some of his. He told me he is a Buddhist. He told me he believes our life in the waking state is almost as much of a dream as our life in the dreaming state. He believes Marcella’s energy will be with me even after she’s not in a body.
Aunt Laura and I ate lunch together. We reflected on the difficult week we’d had. She shared an anecdote about Marcella taking her to her favorite tree. I told her I thought Marcella might have photographed me laying under it once. We both shared super-dark, morbid jokes that Marcella told us post-diagnosis. We agreed that we didn’t know if they were tragic or hilarious. Then we laughed. I guess that’s what survivors do.
I walked past some beautiful stained-glass windows glowing into the evening air on Lombard Street and I reflected on death and people’s attitudes about it. Humor seems to be one way to tell death you’re not afraid of it. I titled my recent self-portrait “first let me take a hospice selfie.”
Fran and I talked about the way that you have to open yourself up enough to feel true pain if you want to feel real joy. Not bad for a conversation with a stranger on a train, right? Plus, they somehow forgot to ask me to buy a train ticket.
The next morning, I emerged from the underground under grey skies in a sketchy part of town and had no idea how to find the subway. I had an urge to tell the world how angry I was that the conductor made me get off the train four miles from my destination because I was $2 short, but I remembered that I hadn’t told the world how HAPPY I’d been about the previous day’s POSITIVE transit experience. Immediately after having that realization - as in, during the precise moment when I could’ve been whining on social media to the benefit of no one - I noticed a beautiful scene I wanted to photograph. The exercise in positive thinking continued as I entered the appealingly decrepit subway station and found something to photograph in practically every corner. Twentieth century mass transit artifacts withering away in 2014. My camera ate it up.
I hadn’t planned to be here today, but I got the word that there are signs it could be the last day. I can report to you that the mood is as heavy as you’d think it would be, but that there is also much more laughter than you might expect. Whitney is telling stories of her college days with Marcella. One of the family members is fighting off accusations of being a loud snorer. We’re taking turns telling stories of Marcella’s stubbornness.
She had a post-diagnosis birthday party. The house was FULL of people. There were mountains of food everywhere, including an entire room of dessert. She asked if there was any french onion dip. She was astonished that there wasn’t and DEMANDED it be purchased immediately! It was perhaps the only food available in North America - or Italy - that was not already at the party.
Whitney said Marcella wouldn’t let anyone sing along to Andrew McMahon songs on her car radio because she didn’t want anyone to ruin them. It was her time alone with Andrew. We played her some of his songs on her iPad today.
Her mom, Cleo, spoke of the endless reserves of energy Marcella would tap into when she wanted to get her way. Absolutely NO backing down, EVER. Her other kids would eventually acquiesce. She wouldn’t. I told her I saw that side of her when I spent three months being wishy-washy about getting into a formal relationship. She decided she was gonna have me and she got me. I imagine my stubbornness drove her out of her mind at times. I suppose she met her match.
The unexpected hug from out-of-the-blue on Tuesday night could prove to be our last interaction. I told her I was about to leave to catch a train and she reached out as if to say “no, no, no!” It was followed by our last reciprocated kiss. So far. I will go into the future and see what happens there.
I’ve been fortunate to have made it here five of the past six days. I am finally cancelling rehearsals, gigs, nights out with friends. I maintained a balance for the first seven months. Things are different now.
It’s a long goodbye. More than half a year so far. What kind of goodbye is best? A lot of people got to tell her how they felt about her and that she heard them loud and clear. That’s huge. New memories were made. She’s probably already inspired thousands of people with her braveness. She’s raised about $35,000 to research the rare disease that disrupted her life so many times.
Cleo told a story of Marcella as a six-year-old. They have a gorgeous, acoustically vibrant foyer. Marcella’s bedroom was to the left on the second floor, her parents’ bedroom was directly across. Both had Juliet windows facing the foyer. One night, she finally had enough of her dad’s snoring so she marched into the bedroom and screamed at her mom, “TELL YOUR HUSBAND TO SHUT… UP!!!” She always got what she wanted.
One day, while giving her a wheelchair ride around her family’s long, winding driveway, I wrote my most terrible song ever. I sang this into her ear today. It’s so terrible that I was hoping it would cause her to regain full consciousness and slap me. Didn’t work. But I tried. It’s meant to be sung by Ini Kamoze.
CHELLA CHELLA CHELLA/CHELLA CHELLA CHELLA/CHELLA CHELLA CHELLA’S/GOT A DOGGY NAMED STELLA/STELLA STELLA STELLA/STELLA STELLA STELLA/CHELLA CHELLA CHELLA/GOT A SISTER NAMED DANIELA/‘IELA ‘IELA ‘IELA/‘IELA ‘IELA ‘IELA/GO TELL ALL THE FELLAS/IT’S CHELLA CHELLA CHELLA/I’M JUST TRYIN’A TELL YA/IT’S CHELLA CHELLA CHELLA
She didn’t respond. I don’t just mean tonight; I mean last month when she WAS speaking. It’s that bad. Maybe her lack of speech is a protest against that song?
I could have stayed at the facility, but I opted to come home so I could take a shower, floss, say hello to my cats, put some money in the bank. I’ve had one Dogfish Head Namaste beer in my fridge for about two weeks. I think this is a time for sobriety. The mind has a way of slowing itself down during times of grief, anyway. I’m giving myself the full experience. It’s a sad situation but it’s also a opportunity to get a crash course in parts of the human experience that I don’t really know about. I want to learn more about life by learning more about death; the only thing, I remind myself, that EVERYONE will do.
My friend Righteous Jolly reminds me, “it will be past tense, but what you express won’t.” I am writing a lot lately for my own well-being. Other people have been responding positively and it’s a great thrill. To my amazement, through my writing, I’ve impacted other people going through crises and helped them with their own grieving process. I don’t know what to make of that yet. Maybe I have been writing a book this whole time?
I’ve gotten into the habit of talking to Marcella as if she’s listening. It’s conceivable that she is. I tell her about the walks I take around the city. The photos I take. I told her I treated myself to some medicine of my own - gummy bears.
I felt a little sick to my stomach as I thought about leaving for the night, so I tried to think of something to say, in addition to “I love you” that would be an acceptable final message to her, just in case.
I told her, “you made me a better person” and kissed her on the head.
Friday, September 19, 2014
I just took a walk around the emergency floor. I don’t understand how someone can have the constitution to be an ER nurse. I don’t get it. But I’m glad they’re here.
I got some texts that scared the hell out of me so I raced here to St. Mary’s. Her immediate family and some friends were surrounding her bedside. I had just been watching The Roosevelts with Jamal and Tater Tot. I’d even dozed off a few times. But when I saw the number six, I knew the evening had changed. During my hurried drive to the hospital, I recalled that I’d recently taken a picture of a set of die displaying the number six on Marcella’s patio table. As I took the picture, I thought, “I bet six will mean something to me soon.”
Her aunt told me “this could be it.” I walked out of the house into a beautiful, late summer evening. Everything looked the same but somehow fake.
A priest came in to do last rites. I didn’t know who called him and I didn’t know if he knew anything I didn’t about her chances of making it through the night. I hugged her mom very tight while he prayed.
I started to wonder whether or not I could take the stress of the evening. My thoughts began to race. I tapped the brakes by telling myself, “just breathe.” I looked at the ground and focused on the rhythm of my breath.
Once I knew I was stable, I focused on trying to connect with her. I tried everything I could think of. Squeezing her hand, singing into her ear, looking into her eyes and smiling.
Suddenly, hours had passed. She was stable but not speaking. I looked into her eyes again and said, with blind optimism, “remember to wave at that priest on your way out of the hospital.”
Her Aunt Laura shared a story with me. That afternoon, she asked her where she would be if she could be anywhere in the world. She said she wanted to be in Chapel Hill with Laura and me. She said we’d probably “have to” go to a coffee shop first, as I’d demand it. She laughed, apparently for the first time in a while. “Then he would drag us to a vinyl store.” She smiled, apparently for the first time in a while.
I am loved. A lot.
It is the next day. I can feel that last night was full of moments that I will have with me for the rest of my life. Terror, sadness, but also another vivid reminder that the human animal is capable of so much strength. We can take on so much more than we’d think we can. Yes, a part of me started to panic. But we have the ability to pause and take control. Somehow, I experienced that evening, safely drove home (well, after getting lost in the hospital for twenty minutes), and allowed Jon Stewart’s humor to ease me to sleep.
The next day, I tried to tag along on a thrift store journey my mom and sister were undertaking, but I just couldn’t handle being out in the world. I needed to stay seated and limit my time talking to people. I was beginning to grieve and I instinctively gave myself the space to do it.
I can’t imagine what Marcella was thinking as a priest came in to pray for her soul. I probably won’t ask. It is terribly sad to contemplate, but it’s no less true that she is on better drugs than any of your college friends - 24/7 - and could conceivably be in less pain than anyone around her.
It is the next day. I am in a room labeled Quiet Room. It largely lives up to its name. I can hear Steve Harvey Steve Harveying down the hallway, but only a little bit. I’m pointing my exhausted stare at Center City Philadelphia’s big, blue skyscrapers. I can’t tell you the name of these buildings; I’m from out-of-town. I like them. They remind me of being a little kid and returning home from a trip.
I’d been staring at them for about ten minutes before I realized that the relatively small, concrete-colored high-rise in front of them has a team of two men dangling from it. I am trying to decide if they’re window washers, creeps from TMZ, or Spiderman’s understudies. I want to go to Marcella’s room and get my camera, but some part of my psyche needs me to be still and passively gaze at a huge city that needs nothing from me.
I’ve taken on a lot in the past forty-eight hours. Not nearly as much as her, though.
Every once in a while, even in the first month I knew her, she would break down and cry at the thought of her cancer returning. She feared I would leave if it did. After all, she’d met a guy who was looking to date casually, unprepared for a commitment, and not afraid to tell her so. My house had burned down the week before we met and my Dad had suffered a series of strokes just weeks before that. My goals in dating were not the most high-minded ones. I just wanted to let off some steam, not risk adding something new to my life that I might lose.
She mentioned cancer on the first date. It says a lot about her that she took the risk of immediately warning me that things could go terribly wrong. It must have been very difficult to let down her guard for me, but when she did, I think she was hooked. I didn’t fully comprehend how lucky that made me. We’d go to one of our favorite restaurants, walk around Newtown, get a cup of tea. Hand-in-hand. She made everything seem OK. I was the luckiest guy in the world.
We basically had one good year. We didn’t know it was a good year at the time. It was actually pretty damn hard. But we both had our health. Health is huge.
I emailed her on a dating website because she was creative, pretty, and she was wearing a white fedora. I think I kept it simple and said “nice hat.” Simple works. We met at the Starbucks near her house. She was curvy but concealed. Dressed exactly like herself. Enough hair to make a very comfortable pillow if you really needed to. Enough funky, layered fabrics to make some classy pillowcases and comforters if you really needed to.
Comforter. That was her. I thought I wanted fun minus love. I ended up getting both.
I said “that ‘was’ her.” That’s misleading. Over the past two days, the total amount of communication she gave me was one squeeze of the hand. That’s it. No words. I don’t even remember if she kissed me back when I was on my way out last night. But I still felt a warmth in my heart because I was with her. So, now you could say it’s love minus fun. The opposite of what I thought I wanted. No travel. No sex. No humor. Literally ONLY love. Love and only love.
She did kiss me back on Tuesday. It caught me by surprise. She seemed to become agitated when I said I was leaving. I stayed for a few more hours just in case that’s what she wanted. I drew a little post-it note doodle of us and left it at the foot of her bed. She, the little short-purple-haired lady, me the overgrown beatnik.
Prior to this week, all of the changes that occurred were gradual. One thing at a time. She CHOSE the moment to shave her hair off. She CHOSE to dye it purple. She decided she would spend her time painting. She started using a wheelchair, but SOME walking was possible. With Monday’s rapid succession of seizures, she lost her ability to communicate with ease. We’ve just gotten a few words all week. Over these seven months, I’ve cried my face off, I’ve had moments of shock, moments of grieving.
This is different. She’s in there but I can’t reach her. To imagine that she’s conscious of everyone’s presence but can’t access the ability to speak hurts me deeply. It might improve. I have to be ready for the possibility that it won’t. Either way, I imagine I will leave this chapter of my life with a radically changed appreciation for many easy-to-take-for-granted elements of the human condition. Certainly communication.
In the meantime, I decided I would sing and play for her. It is my superpower; the one thing I can do that no one else in her circle can. It’s also something I can do that doesn’t require her to be anything but a listener. I played her some of Robyn Hitchcock’s most beautiful songs - “Heliotrope,” “Full Moon In My Soul,” “Raymond Chandler Evening,” and “Alright, Yeah.” No applause but it’s OK - I already know she likes my voice.
This place is gorgeous. It’s a hospice facility and apparently the best one in the region. Two days ago, I was fascinated by the job of ER nurses, the idea that catastrophic medical events are a NORMAL part of your day. Today, I am fascinated by people who work in hospice facility, a place where death is the expected end result for every resident.
It is the next day. I keep saying that because it feels like it’s been the same day since Monday. On some level, I’m getting used to this new normal. Once I’m off Philadelphia’s horrendous highways, I enjoy being downtown on foot a lot. We are right across the street from OCF Coffee House, a café so progressive that I almost feel wrong being heterosexual. As I stopped in for a latte and a snack, I realized there were an equal amount of people and dogs there. Perfect. I try to read a little of the Leadbelly biography but I’m having trouble focusing.
I go back to the facility and see Stella The Dog, accompanied by Marcella’s sister and her friend Julia. The ever-restless Stella lets us know she wants to go outside again, so we walk back to Lombard Street. Stella moves down the sidewalk at about an inch per minute, apparently overwhelmed by the variety of piss on every tree, bush, sign post, and curb. The world is suddenly much bigger to Stella, but she’s still only seen about two roads in her life.
Stella was born in Wisconsin on Valentine’s Day 2014. Stella doesn’t know it, but she is a therapy dog. As she entered the world, Marcella and I were at Blue Sage, her favorite restaurant, and she was experiencing the beginning of the pain of her tumor. She was having trouble reading the menu. She ordered something, practically at random, and was ultimately unable to eat it. I was aggravated that we were having such a hard time connecting. I didn’t understand why I had to read the menu to her. I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt about that, but I remind myself that I had no way of knowing what was happening to her. When we were back at my home and we realized her pain wasn’t subsiding, I tried my best to massage the pain away. It didn’t work.
Now, it’s September. Seven months into “six to twelve months.” It’s an honor to be part of her life as she fights her final battle.
Aunt Laura said, “there are blessings we are given in life and this is one of them. It was shorter than we would have ever wanted, but it’s a blessing just the same.”
Sunday, August 31, 2014
I’m sitting in the part of the crowd that “Where’s” Waldo would be. Hiding in the middle of the street scene. Marcella said my name means “The Observer.” That explains the photography. But it sure doesn’t explain getting on a stage to sing for strangers. It is both terrifying and my deepest love. It’s getting easier over time, especially in groups. If I accidentally give myself too much time to think, I force myself to connect with a deeper fear - the fear of wasting my talent/life. That sobers me up. Then the music gets me drunk.
The coconut/pistachio/rum milkshake also helped.
It was the biggest crowd I’d ever played as a solo act. Except I wasn’t solo; my friend Jenny Cat (yes, check her birth certificate!) played along with me. The show, an outside show on a warm summer evening, was both our rehearsal and performance. I laughed to myself later about the way that I seem to go out of my way to be unrehearsed, changing everything show-to-show except my guitar and my hat. I didn’t even keep my name for the first few songs of this show. I played the first song as Raoul and the second song as Jeff Freud. Jenny played great and outdid every sly joke I told between songs. We pledged to perform more duo shows in the future.
I noticed some little girls were dancing, so I altered my setlist to keep them entertained - The Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone” and “The Price Of Love” kept ‘em boogying. I flashed back to seeing the Everlys as a little kid and feeling the deep craving to perform rock & roll music like they were. Smaller stage, smaller crowd, but there I was doing it rather than sitting around my hometown talking about doing it!
I was also happy to get a deluge of comments about the last song in the set, a recent composition entitled “The Mushroom Girl.” I’m behind on my songwriting, but then again I’m not. I see it as cyclical - breathe in life, breathe out art. I’ve had a lot of life to breathe in lately.
I will travel to Kitty Hawk soon. I’ve gone to the Outer Banks most summers. Grandpa Bill moved down there in the ‘80s. Sometimes we would take the train to Newport News, Virginia and have him pick us up. This was considerably more expensive than driving and it was also an inconvenient four-hour drive for Grandpa. But I can remember falling in love with the travel and enjoying the escape from the alienation of my hometown. Looking at backwood scenes in the South, knowing much of it probably looked the same a hundred years earlier. The last time we did it, I was listening to Fables Of The Reconstruction. Old, Weird America in my ears and imagination as I watched remnants of it fly by on Amtrak.
I was impressed by the thick accent of a black cab driver we met in Newport News as a kid. Looking back, there’s a chance he could’ve been born in the 1890s. My nephew might be similarly amazed by the oldness of people born in the 1950s. I’ll never forget the ease with which my mom opened up to the cab driver. She always seems to communicate with non-white people with more trust and openness. I’ve found the same thing through my life. I have a harder time relating to people who haven’t had a struggle. The people who have had a mean thing to say or a judgmental gaze were usually white people. I don’t notice that much anymore, though, either because it’s getting better or because I walk so damn fast.
I wish I could remember more about Aggie, the next-door neighbor who bought me a drum set around the age of five. People like her feel like ancient history now. Thanks, Aggie. Sorry, other neighbors.
I’m on the Delaware River in a tube. I’m low on drinking water and I haven’t used enough sunscreen. There’s basically no current so I have to paddle if I’m not floating over rapids. I’m technically with family but I haven’t seen them in a very long time. One of my family members had a nervous breakdown after about four minutes on the river, even going so far as to yell “you don’t care about me!” before slowly floating away. It was two cameras and one microphone away from being a scene in a hilariously dark comedy. I’ve been in a lot of scenes like that with family. That’s probably why I choose to hang out with kind, easy-going people. But you can bet yer ass I put the funniest quotes from such arguments on Twitter.
It’s the night before and I’m on a rickety bench with my Auntie Donna. We both have a beer and we’re sitting in front of a small lake at Camp Taylor Campground in the Delaware Water Gap area. We’re looking at the stars in an area with minimal light pollution. We’re contemplating the nature of existence. In what ways would life evolve on another planet with the same conditions as Earth? Would creatures with eyeballs develop there, too? She points to The Milky Way.
It’s fun hanging out with intelligent people. I get tired of dumbing myself down for non-reader types. The good news is that, because they’re not reading this, I haven’t offended them.
I am on the screened-in back patio at Grandpa’s house. He’s on his laptop and I am on mine. I am facing the canal that runs behind his backyard. Most of the friends I’ve made or with whom I’ve become reacquainted are non-English-speakers - a blue heron, a baby fox, a herd of deer, a cat with big balls, a cat with big thumbs. The cat with thumbs is named Hemingway.
I try to keep my expectations minimal while traveling. On this trip, I wanted good coffee, beautiful things to photograph, and some time alone with my guitar on Grandpa’s dock.
My dad’s old Sigma guitar sounded transcendent out there in the dark. The notes hung in the air as if they were being amplified by the trees, the night air, the flowing water. One of the insects along the canal sounds like a digital echo being turned up to full feedback and then down again.
I love listening to Grandpa and his longtime wife Sly tell stories about their life on the island and of their earlier years, together and apart. I recorded some of the stories for posterity.
Connection is a recurring theme for me down here. The last few times I’ve visited, I’ve recently gotten into a new relationship and I’m missing the young lady. This time, I’m in a new and complicated phase of an existing relationship. This is one of those places where you trade digital connection for natural connection. I like that. But there is a loneliness, too. Everyone’s gone to sleep - early - and not only are you alone, but there is a chance that your love sent a message that got lost in the clouds.
Time stands still. It’s as if it’s been the same year every time I’ve ever visited. We squeezed a lot into our brief stay and drove back up the coast with good vibes and a lot of nice photos.
It hurt to read of Neil and Pegi Young’s split. I loved their love. My family has been fragmented since I was a toddler, so I find inspiration in couples that made it last a long time. Most don’t. I try to live both optimistically and realistically. Optimism tells me I am loved today and will be loved tomorrow. Realism tells me that I need to be a good caretaker of the parts of life I can nurture without anyone’s help.
Now it’s another day and I am on my porch in Historic Tullytown. Within the gorgeous smell of this summer morning is the faint smell of a landfill. I am drinking coffee and my cell phone is playing Marc Maron’s Bob Newhart interview. Wanda, the black-coated, white-socked cat is facing me from the other side of the window. Tater Tot, the orange tabby cat we adopted during the Clinton administration, is at my feet. Jamal and Nashaa are nearby, as well. Tater Tot, the elder feline, weighs a few less pounds every time I pick him up, so I’m spending extra time with him. He used to greet me at my car every time I came home. He still does, but it’s becoming more sporadic. He’s had a good, long run and I’ll miss him. Even those unprovoked scratches. A little.
He watched Breaking Bad with me last night. I think he was less interested in the plot twists than in the moments when a sound effect quickly moved from one speaker to the other.
There’s a guy a few houses down playing polka music from a cheap-but-loud radio. He’s a nice guy who does lots of yard work for the old ladies in the neighborhood. I enjoy the quiet of this place in the early morning, but it gets noisy and claustrophobic once everyone and their dog wakes up. It’s where my things are and it’s where I park my car, but it’s not home. It’s helping me catch up on my bills, though, and I enjoy being in a new house with a spacious bedroom/studio.
The towns I’ve visited that feel like home are Chapel Hill and Lambertville. I love Newtown, too, the town with my go-to coffee shops and record store, but the yuppie/arty ratio is off. Lambertville is a beautiful riverside town with a thriving nightlife scene, my favorite music shop, access to the 66-mile Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath, multiple top-notch coffee shops, more art galleries than gun stores, and gay people and antique stores as far as the you can see! It’s right across the bridge from New Hope, after all, a town featured in Andy Warhol’s diary. My friend Jenni has recently floated the idea of moving to Lambertville with me next year. To wake up near those big, old trees and the beautiful canal would be a dream come true.
There’s a wing dam that goes about halfway into the river, ending right at the theoretical NJ/PA border. Last summer, Marcella and I saw two middle-aged women sitting on the edge and drinking wine as the sun set. “They have won the night.”
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Monday, July 28, 2014
I took a photo of a kid dressed up as a fireman, the thousandth-ish picture I’d semi-mindlessly taken this summer at that gig. My only thought at the time was that I could’ve done the green screen editing slightly better. While we waited for the photo to print, the child’s caretaker told us he’d recently been adopted from a physically abusive household and that this was one of the first carefree days he’d had in recent memory. We handed her the photo of the kid wearing the best tentative smile I was able to coax out of him. The sight of him having even a little fun made her break down and cry. Intense! Just when I thought I was merely going through the motions to collect some cash. A little reminder to me to be open and kind to everyone I meet since most of them have some sort of struggle. I thanked her for being so sweet.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
I have given myself a decompression day. A day in a quiet town with just me and a hat and a coffee and a cell phone and the books in my backpack. I don’t feel especially interesting or especially awake, yet I feel the urge to massage some drippy black ink into my black sketchbook/notebook with its off-white pages and dark chocolate stained cover.
I left South Jersey with about a dozen photos and one deer tick. I was taking a shower and found him directly in the center of my stomach. It was like he was trying to tell me, “look, this is just WHAT I DO - I’ll at least make it easy to find me. OK, Champ?” First of all, don’t call me “Champ,” you goddamn walking disease bag.
The way he was so perfectly centered also brought to mind the idea of a painting of my stomach without any identifying features. The freckles would be there like discolorations on some newly discovered, very pale planet, the asymmetrical patches of hair would be scattered around like little brown weeds, and the tick would be the focal point, a tiny, imported invader that matches my color scheme and might add some interesting concentric circles.
I visualized this for about four seconds and then gave him a free ride down the drain and into the sewers of Tullytown. Fuck you. And don’t call me “Champ.”
I imported a wasp from Newtown into Langhorne. It left my car at the intersection of Lincoln Highway and Woodbourne Road. It seemed to take its time looking for a nicer car in which to take its next ride. He’ll find one, but they won’t be playing better music than I was. Best wishes, wasp, and thanks for not ass-stabbing my neck with your wasp juice.
Vampires are real. I’ve been close to a few. I spent that day in the Pine Barrens with my auntie and that’s one of nine million things we discussed. We also discussed the nosedive that my diet has taken recently (hello Wawa my old friend/I’ve come to milkshake you again), the beauty of Maine, the importance of not waiting for attention from those who are not readily giving it, the romantic idea of “The One” vs. the reality of lives lived with different characters in different chapters, the way one’s circle of loved ones reacts to crises. And butts. She was kind enough to point out two flocks of bikinied girls. (Like I didn’t see them already….)
We talked about the way that crises show us that most people don’t change. The people who are there for me now are the people who were there for me before. We were talking about how people with religious childhoods might be more inclined toward dichotomous thinking but true empathy requires an understanding that everybody has good and bad traits. Still, some people are healthier for you than others, especially when the shit has hit the fan. I love my vampires and they love me. But I’ve learned to listen to that sometimes faint voice of instinct when it says, “you did your part; now go do something for you.” That’s why I took this time to write. *tips hat* Hello.
A very nice lady came up to me on the bench in front of Zebra Striped Whale and asked how Marcella’s doing and how I’m holding up. She was pleased to hear that Marcella has such a big team of loved ones helping her and keeping her entertained. I noticed that she kept looking at me like she was waiting for one of us to say something profound. All I could tell her is that we’re trying our best and that I am learning things that I’ll take with me into the future. She told me she is praying for both of us. I thanked her. She came back five minutes later with a bag of gifts from The Jesus Store (this may not be the exact name). Just as I do while listening to gospel music, I looked past the religious symbolism and into the underlying human emotion. I don’t discard good will just because it’s wrapped in somebody else’s belief system.
I was surprised that this character from Marcella’s life recognized me. The Internet’s a funny thing. You make a commitment to the same hat for two years and - BANG - recognizable. When I was twenty-one, I felt like me. At thirty-one, I feel like me AND look like me. People can tell they’re talking to either a musician or, at least, a guy who wants them to think he’s a musician. Some parts of my look have been static for a few years. I’ve heard it said that people often freeze their look in the era in which they started to have a lot of sex. A lot of people in my hometown look like they’re waiting for the call from Bon Jovi about appearing in a music video in 1989. There’s still time. There’s still time.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I’m in Marcella’s hospital room in Center City Philadelphia on Sunday and the sun is setting after a long and sometimes intense day of visiting loved ones and doctors. I want to listen to music so I grab my cell phone and see if I can load a recording I’d just uploaded. It worked! It’s 2014 and I’m listening to a recording of my grandfather and other relatives playing music in their living room in Dunellen, New Jersey in the mid-’60s. And they were good. It’s gospel songs, country songs, and between-song chatter and laughs. I never really got to know Gammy and JJ as an adult, but this document gives me a connection. My nephew will get to hear this one day and find out how much music is in his bloodline.
At one point, the tape goes further back in time to a recording of my dad tunelessly singing along to an Everly Brothers record in the ‘50s. Meanwhile in 2014, Marcella calls out from the bathroom, “what is THAT?” Things get even worse when the tape suddenly time-travels to the ‘80s and I’M singing “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream” even MORE tunelessly!
It got especially interesting and heavy when I started singing harmony with my grandfather (gone since 2007) on a song I’d just learned from him via the tapes.
Time gets us all, but we can leave some artifacts behind so later generations can get to know us if they want to. I’ve gotten into the habit of recording the stories that my relatives tell, sneakily hitting Record on my phone or camera. Once, we took our Grandma to the neighborhood in Brooklyn she grew up in during the ‘30s and ‘40s and recorded her anecdotes while walking around town and driving back to Piscataway. People take their stories with them if no one captures them.
Jenni and I were talking about meditation. She’s dedicated and does it every day. I’m not, and don’t. In fact, I have a complex about it; a sense that my brain is too loud and busy for me to ever get into that zone. She’s planting potatoes and onions and I’m playing my acoustic guitar. An hour passes. I’d spent the whole time improvising music, playing a few dozen instrumental pieces that I could’ve turned into songs if a few good rhymes had breezed past me.
She walked back from the garden and said, “you already know how to meditate.”
The guy at my favorite coffee shop cried when I gave him the latest health update. He and his wife are incredibly kind and I admire the beautiful life they appear to have built around their shop and careers as illustrators and authors. I grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes, trying to console him. Sure, I’m the boyfriend and he’s the guy with the coffee and ice cream, but I’ve known for four months and he hasn’t. He told me I’m a very brave man. I never know how to respond to that. I just follow my heart.
You can be called a lot of things in thirty-one years, all the noble things and the opposite of all those things, sometimes in the same day. This is why it’s good to check in with yourself once in a while, since you’re the only person who’s been watching your movie the whole time. And directing. I think mine is co-directed by Christopher Guest and Tommy Wiseau.
The exchange at the coffee shop reminded me that this news is like a bomb. I drive around with a peace sign on my car; bombs are not my thing. I start to feel like fucking Johnny Tragedyseed. I played a gig a few days after I found out and, before it started, my friend Gina approached me with her beautiful smile and asked how I was doing. I knew that I could cast a pall over the long night of performances if I told her about Marcella’s diagnosis. I realized in that moment that it won’t always be the right time to talk about it. So I wrote a rule: only tell those who ask. But now I’m not even sure about that. I like making people happy.
The man at the coffee shop was crying and I wasn’t. I guess people who have gone through this sort of thing can identify with that. You don’t cry all day, every day, for four months, six months, twelve months… You do that some days and, on other days, you close down a little so you can accomplish the day’s tasks. I’ve accomplished a lot. I went to work the morning after the diagnosis. Kelley Cosmosis talked to me on the Internet until I was deliriously tired, then I somehow slept and somehow went to work.
Another thing that’s happened during this period is an adjustment to my bullshit tolerance. There’s just no room for it. Maybe it’s what parents of young children go through; there’s just no energy left to respond to some guy I met at a party once who’s trying to start an argument on the Internet. Bye. I also hesitate less to sing at concert volume at red lights. But don’t expect any autotune. (Ever.)
Sometimes you’re in the shallow end and sometimes you’re in the deep end. I’m a pretty good swimmer. It’s true that most people you meet are fighting a battle or two. It’s also true that I’ve been through an unusual amount of battles recently. I wake up every day and remember that she’s dying. That’s my normal now. Still, I attended a friend’s wedding recently and didn’t feel any resentment, nothing blocking the flow of joy and love. I told myself that this is his time for a bright sunny day and I will have mine later. And more storms. He’ll have more storms. Hell, Joe and I have both filmed thunderstorms. We’re ready. But bring on that sunshine, too.
It got pretty bright on State Street when I wrote that sentence.
I pull up to their home in my oil-burning, antenna-less, cosmetically-challenged 2000 Honda Civic for the nine-thousandth time and I’m still taken aback by its beauty. The visiting nurse and social worker dropped their jaws looking at just the back patio. Words can’t describe the expansiveness and warmth of this house. They are fortunate to have the resources to make things as comfortable for Marcella as possible, but I know they would live in a van if they could live in it with their whole, healthy crew. They’ve already lost a daughter to cancer a few years ago. Nature doesn’t care about what we think is fair. It seems that life does what life’s gonna do and that we have to be strong enough to weather the storms and wise enough to enjoy the sunshine.
Michael Stipe said, “I don’t have much but what I have is gold.”
By the way, I’m very proud of that car. An ugly vehicle that takes me to beautiful things is better than the inverse.
She’s doing home hospice now. I spent the night on Thursday. She and her family really designed a gorgeous space for her to live in. It has a classy brick wall in the kitchen, lots of flowers and sunlight, a new fridge, a huge, funky tapestry that she picked out, brand new beds, upgraded bathrooms. A lot of new alongside her favorite old. She even has one of my framed photographs. She has to get really fucked-up to deal with the pain. We make plenty of drug jokes. We regularly microwave a heating pad that smells like an abandoned movie theater filled with nine feet of old, burnt popcorn. Life with her is different now, but a heartbeat is a heartbeat and she has one!
One of my older family members had suggested that I don’t put myself through this stress. After all, she reasoned, we don’t have kids and are not married. My instincts told me, “stay in the chapter you’re in.” It’s been rewarding. Not easy - rewarding. I choose not to romanticize my pain. I accept that every day is good and bad, that it always was and always will be.
Another thing the voice of instinct has told me lately about both my life and my creative life is “this is the time for the heavy lifting of growth; the rewards come later.” I am at peace with that. I now see all the tectonic shifts of my recent years as educational courses, lessons about what I want from love, music, art, and the rest of life. Where I can compromise and where I can’t. Each of the chaotic moments felt like the end of the world, but having survived them all with my body, mind, and spirit intact, I feel like I approach life with a wider canvas, using more colors than before.
Having said that, I just made a dick joke on Facebook. Maybe I’m not in the deep end after all.
I drove into the cemetery where Gammy and JJ are buried. Within about two minutes, a car pulls up behind me. It’s Aunt Gail, Cousin Patti, and my Dad. We hadn’t made plans and it wasn’t the anniversary of anything relating to our family. But there we were. Almost all of my McGarvey side. I said, “maybe there IS a spirit world! They’re STILL organizing events for us!”
We all drove to Core Creek Park and sat beside the lake, telling story after story about my grandparents and of more recent adventures. I hit Record on my iPhone, hoping no one would notice. The sun was shining.