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