Driving away from the cemetery today after improvising a few guitar pieces for Marcella on her birthday, I realized: the longer she's gone, the more I see that I've only just begun to discover what her time in my life meant.
Aunt Laura sent one of the best texts I’ve received so far in 2015. Uncle Tom asked their kids Gabbi and Tommy if my art show made them sad.
“No - the opposite, Daddy. It made us very happy.”
Something about the way that the piano in my earbuds is bouncing back and forth between the left and right channel is making me feel excited about the otherworldly majesty of music. Between the preparation of my art show and a long-lasting, nasty cold, I feel disconnected from many of my life’s loves. I miss music like some sort of long-haired, bearded sea creature stranded on the shore and reminiscing about life in the deep sea. I am ready for a swim. In the meantime, pull up a beach chair and let me tell you some stories.
Colleen showed up to the opening reception of A Few Moments With Marcella before I did. I’d gone across town to buy the sunflowers that I thought would be the perfect finishing touch. I’m glad I did, but I was nevertheless astonished by my ability to be late for my own show - a show that had been in the works for about six months. I imagined Marcella, “The Planner,” shaking her head in faux-disgust.
Half an hour after the advertised start time, we were rolling. I’d hung a new print of “Knit Hat Girl” (having spilled gold ink on the first one), laid out a few of my postcards on each table, put out some business cards, and gave the title cards to our curator Karen so she could help hang them. While my mom kindly prepared the flowers for a vase, I went into the café’s tiny bathroom and put on the red, button-down shirt and black suit jacket that I’d purchased with Marcella last year.
Doing a show in someone else’s honor really freed me up to think bigger. I also made peace with the idea that I might lose money on the show. I ordered 11x14 prints from a high-end printing company and printed 100 full-color postcards so people, particularly younger people, would have something to take home whether they bought a print or not. And I’d decided to try to get all the local papers to write about it.
I’d followed Karen’s advice and used my pastel title cards to tell the stories behind the pieces. It was not only a chance to explain the local connections that many of the photos have (i.e. a walk down the abandoned stretch of Route 61 in Centralia or a drunken stroll to the fifteenth floor of the Sheraton hotel), but also the emotional significance. From the very light moment of posing with some dried-up silly string in her tiny hand to the heavier moment of taking her first step onto the beach on Topsail Island, North Carolina after having brain surgery. Adding a pinch of my storytelling skills to the show brought it to the next level and I’m glad Karen suggested it.
After several cups of wine, I settled into the evening. While Mike & Shanna performed acoustic music, I made my way around the room connecting with family, a few strangers, and friends from various parts of my life. Some of Marcella’s closest friends and family were there and that it made it feel real.
It felt even more real the following week when I met her mom at the show. We were soon joined by two of her aunts, five of her cousins, and her sister Daniela. Me and nine Italians at a table; the type of moment I’d grown very accustomed to during my time in Marcella’s life. Although I had to rush to work in Allentown before long, I left with a feeling of satisfaction, as if the show - having opened eight days earlier - had just become official. One day, I brought the mail in and spotted Marcella’s face on the side column of Midweek Wire, a free paper that is mailed to about 60,000 Bucks County residents. Matt Schickling wrote a beautiful piece about Marcella and the show I built around her. He also very kindly mailed me several copies of the Feasterville edition of the paper.
Appropriately enough, residents of her part of the county got a version of the paper in which she was the cover story! The shot of her tossing cherry blossoms into the night air outside Newtown’s Café con Leche was front and center.
Equally exciting and cathartic was the moment when my girlfriend Nicky and I walked into a drug store in Yardley to look at the Sunday edition of Bucks County Courier Times, another paper with a circulation of about 60,000, the paper I used to deliver, and the paper I used to sell on the phone! I’d read the extensive, moving piece that Gwen Shrift posted on the online edition, but didn’t know quite what the physical version would look like.
I walked up to the newsstand and peeled back section A, overjoyed to find that the top half of section B was entirely taken over by one of the eerily beautiful shots of Marcella beside a pond on a hill in Centralia. Lots of other photos followed on the bottom half of that page and on page two, including a photo that Aunt Laura took of Marcella and I in front of a book store in Carrboro. The article was developed around interviews that Gwen conducted with both me and Daniela, and painted a vivid picture of the struggles and beauty that characterized Marcella’s life.
Putting this show together has put me back in touch with Marcella the passionate, music-loving, gift-buying, occasionally livid, funny, feisty, sensitive, well-dressed, romantic, devoted, idealistic person. She did "sick" with class and beauty, too, but the process of planning and promoting this show has brought back our nearly two years of regular life to me.
Getting to know her again has also made the grieving more intense. I face it head-on. I cry when it's time to cry. Then I feel lighter again. I suspect that I will both grieve and celebrate Marcella for the rest of my life. I want to do many more beautiful things in her name.
Our stories are rapidly sliding into the past and it’s dawning on me that I'm the only one on Earth with the capacity to tell them. I am in the coffee shop in Feasterville where we met three-and-a-half years ago. She didn’t notice me sitting in a plush chair by the front window, so after she ordered a drink, I walked up to the register and flipped through CDs until she spotted me. That week, she represented little more than some post-house-burning-down entertainment. She spent the next few months trying to get and maintain my attention.
Some of our stories have now been published in local newspapers. Imagine if every relationship required an exit interview and corresponding press articles?! Needless to say, Marcella's different - and worth it. Besides, she's not so much an “ex-girlfriend” as a spiritual experience. An ongoing one.
It was during one of these interviews that I discovered two more meaningful aspects of the show. I realized the full-circle beauty of having the show in a coffee shop - not far from the one in which we’d met. I also realized the significance of dedicating my first completely solo art show to her since, on one of our earliest dates, she helped me finish preparing the prints for my very first show, a group show in Princeton.
I’ll never forget the way she showed up to my rental house that day. Everything about the look in her eye said, “I realize you have your reasons for doing things at your own pace, but it has been decided that I am in your life from now on.”
Fourteen months later, she talked about forever again; this time, out loud. I was helping her take a very slow walk around the hospital after she’d had brain surgery. She bird’s-eye-viewed this scene and told me, “I’m gonna marry you one day.”
Medicated? Sure. Brain recently poked with surgical instruments? Sure. But she was saying we were forever. And we are. And not because I’m in her 'forever' Facebook photo, or because we've been written about in some newspapers. Not because I turned out, as she must have suspected, to be strong enough to keep loving her when things became dire. But because our bond is a deep one and it has outlasted her physical life. I know her spirit and influence will be with me forever.
I had to quietly make peace last year with the fact that life with her was day-to-day and that I would likely share my journey and my love with someone else one day.
But I am eternally grateful to have had - and to be able to share - a few moments with Marcella.
One time, I was following her home after a night of music and drinks with 'our' Aunt Donna at our New Hope hangout, the now-defunct Lola. We were driving down my favorite stretch of the road, a part where both sides are wide-open views of curvy mountains that seem endless until it gets so dark that they disappear entirely.
Suddenly, her car is at a complete stop. I slam on my brakes to avoid hitting her. I put on my hazard lights and run up to her on this shoulder-less road to see what happened. Turned out that a deer ran across the roadway and she was positive that she'd hit it. I got out a flashlight and looked all around her car and found no trace of it. “You must have just missed him!”
She was still a little shaky, so I just stood there holding her in the middle of the road under a silent, late-night sky until she felt calm again.
I think of this simple, wordless moment of love when I drive past that spot.
I'm sure a few more moments will come to me.
Happy birthday, Marcella.