I figured that if I lived into my 70s or 80s, I might have to watch my siblings pass away. It wasn’t likely though considering my health and that I’m the eldest. It hasn’t worked out that way, though. I lost my brother, David, when I was 46. Yesterday, I buried Miriam who is like a sister to me. Having lost a brother already, I know what it feels like to lose a sibling, so I can attest that a sister-of-the heart is akin to a brother-in-life.
I met Miriam in the student union of the college we both attended in 1977. She was studying liberal arts. I was studying theater arts and music. Although our relationship grew to be a long and joyful one, our first encounter was strained at best.
I plopped myself a couple of feet away from where she was reading her textbook, studying for her next class. Miriam was clearly deep in thought, but I needed a match to light my cigarette. I was waiting for a listening room to become available where I could listen to Janis Ian sing “At Seventeen.” Could I have been anymore of the angst-filled gay boy?
“Gotta match?” I queried, smiling like a Cheshire cat.
She threw me a Hydra-stare that would have turned me to stone had we lived in ancient Greece. I read her face to say, “I’m studying, and my education is very important to me, and your need for a stupid match doesn’t mean shit to me.” She didn’t respond.
Pretending I didn’t notice her glare, I repeated, “Gotta match?”
She closed her book, keeping her finger where she was reading so she didn’t lose her place. Looking at me square in the eyes, she methodically picked up the matchbook and tossed them in my direction onto the vinyl bench seat between us. No smile. No hint of charity for a matchless 18-year-old in dire need for a cigarette.
“Thank you.” I lit my cigarette and gingerly placed the matchbook next to her. For most people, sensitive to others’ body language, her response would have been a clear message not to tread. I was not such a person.
“How are you doing today?” I dared.
“I’m reading.” Her tone was as chilly as the North Pole in the middle of its six-month winter. Having a keen ear for these things, I identified her edgy accent as one from Brooklyn. By her beautiful black, curly hair, piercing dark brown eyes, and smooth caramel skin, I suspected she was Puerto Rican.
“Oh.” It was the only utterance I could offer in return.
There was something about this woman that was compelling. I wanted to know more about her. It wasn’t as though I was interested in her romantically or sexually. I was a gay man, after all. Yes, I was married to a woman with whom a child had arrived before our wedlock, but I was still a gay man. I sensed there was a connection there that was unexplainable.
I tried several times to incite a conversation. Each attempt was met with a silent glare or curt, one-word answer.
“Number 27.” The call for the listening room came for my daily visit. The stringy-haired receptionist didn’t ask what I wanted to hear anymore. I was a regular.
As I got up to lock myself into the tiny room for an hour, I simply said, “Thank you for the match.” Miriam deigned to offer a brief glance upward in my direction in reluctant acknowledgement for my intrusion into her life. I smiled, not so much because of her graciousness, but because I resonated with her energy so clearly; an energy I intuitively knew I would encounter again. I recognized her spirit as familiar. Perhaps it was in a previous life. I didn’t understand it all at the time, but life has a funny way of working things like this out.
Several months later, my former roommate with whom I lived before I got married, called to say he got a new apartment that he was sharing with a woman. He indicated she was a tough cookie. A Puerto Rican woman from Brooklyn named, Miriam. When she got angry at him, she would throw shoes at his head. He laughed as he told story after story about how impatient she was, and how sometimes, she would shoot him a stare that made his blood run cold. I don’t know how, but I knew who he was talking about.
From that day forward, Miriam and I grew closer. We spent time together, sharing our families with one another. We laughed, partied, and did our homework together. As time passed, we learned about our spirits together, discovering through one tradition after another who we were at our core.
Miriam and I spent 35 years in friendship, telling one another our deepest secrets and sharing our lives. I was the first man to hold her son. My children called her titi, the Puerto Rican version of tia or auntie. I stood with her on the altar with her son as she eulogized her beloved brother at his funeral. As a final confirmation of our connection, we found out through our mutual genealogical research that I am distantly related to her husband.
I visited nearly every day during her final hospital stay. Miriam died on my brother’s birthday, January 18, at the age of 61. I officiated at her graveside service yesterday. I stood with her only child, as I had 26 years before at his birth, as he eloquently shared what it meant to have his mother in his life.
I will miss my sister-friend. She has helped me grow into the man I am today. My life wouldn’t have been the same without her. I will never forget that day in the student union so many years before. I will cherish that memory for as long as I live along with all the other vivid memories of our lives together. Her artistry, kindness, veracity, and love are gifts I will be able to carry for the rest of my life. She was truly a Godsend. I know her spirit will fly free with joy and peace onto her next life.
Months and years go by when I feel strong and vital. My emotions are deeply felt, but not overwhelming. I am vibrantly passionate, but not out of control. Then a day arrives when the intimacy of a joy or sadness overtakes me, and I feel small and vulnerable. On this day, my mother-in-law, Eva’s first birthday in heaven, I find myself having one of those rare days when I feel a little crumbly. I am near tears and have been all day long. I suppose even the most durable rocks cast off dust, splinters, and shards sometimes. Today is my day.
I miss you, Mom… a lot.
Your son-in-law, James
Please consider helping fund this important, forward-thinking project by clicking here!
When my friend, Rick Gott (who would hate the title of this blog, certainly insisting, “This is all of ours”), first told me about his web-based television series, “Dark Pool,” I instinctively knew he would find success with this project. I don’t mean the contemporary view of success, fame and fortune, which also may come; no, I mean the success of his true intention. Rick intended to create a vibrant environment wherein his students, both past and present, would join with seasoned professionals to create a project that would transform how people viewed watching television.
“Dark Pool” is about a man, Jim Krall, who discovers his daughter is kidnapped at her sixth birthday party. The bizarre aspect is that no one, not even his wife, seems the least bit concerned, and for very ominous reasons. His search for his daughter leads him to DNA manipulation, string theory, and the underbelly of national finance. Not only are these topics timely, but the script and series, I’m certain, will be dynamic.
I haven’t seen any part of it, except for the brief scenes I was in as an extra on the set, but I know Rick. I’ve known Rick since the early 1990s when he was a well-respected actor in local Sacramento theater. Ten years later, we ended up teaching together for eight years at Natomas Charter School Performing and Fine Arts Academy; he in acting, and me in vocal music. We collaborated on musicals and projects together. After 20 years of knowing this man, I am certain that he has inspired everyone around him to achieve at the highest levels they’ve probably ever accomplished. That’s just the effect Rick has on people.
The inspiration for this project was the suicide of one of Rick’s beloved students, Sam. Sam was a deeply talented young man. He was gracious, thoughtful, and intelligent. At only 18, though, he must have felt very much alone and directionless, and as too often happens in our country, he took his own life.
Rick decided that talented people like Sam had to have more in their lives than time to contemplate their own deaths. They needed to be in the middle of life, so as is Rick’s way, he took the bull by the horns and created just that type of environment. He and his amazingly talented wife, and theatrical artist in her own right, Karen Pollard, along with an ever-increasing team of vitally talented professionals in the field of video and film production, came together to mentor our young local artists in this project. The feedback I’ve gotten from those with whom I stay in contact has been nothing less than radiant in praise for this project and Rick, Karen, and the team.
Today, October 13, 2011, “Dark Pool” premieres on YouTube. Mark my words, it will be a magnificent success. It necessarily has to be because Rick is driving the train, and the cargo on board is full of love, right intention, and padded with the support of the best Sacramento has to offer.
Good luck, Rick! I know you won’t need it, but Good Luck, anyway!
Author’s Note: I just watched the first two episodes. Wow!
Update: As of February 17, 2012, the Dark Pool YouTube channel has had more than 15,000 hits in just a few weeks. Viewers are discovering what quality web-based filmmaking is all about!
Whenever we see a sporting event or theatrical production, the last few minutes of the experience are so powerful. The teams are battling for supremecy, the last push is thrashed for the big win, or the 11:oo o’clock song is sung. It’s the finale, so everyone expects things to be big, dramatic, and utterly memorable.
Life is like that, too. When we are closing in on the final days or minutes of our lives, our life experiences become phenomenally intense.
In the month preceeding my father’s suicide, he began scurrying all over California, trying to find a place to call home where he felt safe. His mental illness and paranoia was taking over and we, as his family, had to make decisions that would protect him and those around him, including my mother. There were battles and accusations, pleas and vitriol spewed everywhere as we tried to resolve these issues.
Ultimately, Dad decided how things were going to go and killed himself in the back of his truck using carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipe.
When Mama was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six years later, she seemed fairly resigned to her fate. She was, after all, 83 years old and ready to be with my father.
The strange thing is that the night before she died, she grew very impatient and angry. She wasn’t able to communicate because her lungs had filled up with fluid from the cancer and she was incredibly weak because she hadn’t be able to eat for four weeks. I gave her some medication to calm her down and she went to sleep. I will never know what it was she was trying to communicate because she died during the night.
When my son and grandbaby were lost to miscarriages, the intensity was overwhelming for everyone. With my son, my then-girlfriend and I were 15 years old, far too young to be parents. With my grandchild, my daughter’s grandmother had died only days before. In both instances, the turmoil surrounding the pregnancies carried dynamics that these precious children couldn’t bear.
Even my former mother-in-law asked a fascinating question as she lie dying in her hospital bed. She and I were unusually close, considering that my ex-wife and I had been divorced for 22 years. She asked, “Jim, what do you think it’s like after we die?”
This amazingly strong woman was 71 years old and was asking me this question. It was a profoundly powerful moment of intimacy between us.
“I think that there is an afterlife and it is whatever we believe it will be. I believe it will be loving and joyful if that’s where our hearts are. It will be cold and lonely if that’s how we view our lives.”
“How do we know when we’re going to die?” she queried.
“When we are free from fear and ready.” I responded.
As she pondered what I had said, I saw her looking around her hospital room into the faces of her loving daughters and granddaughters.
“I’m ready. Let’s pray.” she said. So, we all joined hands and began praying out loud. Then, the room grew silent. After nearly ten minutes, Mother-in-law-dearest, which is what I always called her, opened her eyes.
“I’m still here?” We all broke out into ribald laughter.
The next morning, quietly and peacefully, she joined those who had gone before her.
One of my former students, who lost her life at 21 years old in an automobile accident, knew at her inner most level, if not consciously, that she was not long for this lifestream. Her poetry, music, and prayers all were clear pictures of that truth. We all missed the messages because we either weren’t ready to hear them or we weren’t supposed to hear them. The preparation experience apparently was for her alone.
There are times when we do see it coming.
When my brother, my family, and I were sitting around the table eating the day my mother died, after a discussion about his alcoholism and desire to be alone, my family and I knew that David would be gone within the year. Sadly, it only took him four months to transition into his new existence. The signs were there. His awareness was there. He was clearly ready. We were simply able to see it. Even with that clarity, there was nothing we could do to prevent him dying from his alcoholism.
Life is intense and full of meaning. Death is no different.
Our fears and our joys are amplified as we approach our final time. It’s remarkable how many times one has heard, “He said he loved me in a way that was so much more intimate the night before he died.” There had been no warning or omen. There had been no disease or chronic illness. He was just aware at his spiritual core that he had to say good-bye and mean it.
As I watched my cousin deal with his own demise this week, I realized that his battle has only begun, although it is likely to last only a few more weeks. Like my mother, his aunt, he is dying of pancreatic cancer. He is only 50 years old.
His children and girlfriend are also trying to make sense of what makes no sense at all.
I hope they all find peace in this process and can say good-bye in a loving, healthy way, as a unified family. It will make a difference to all of them, my cousin included.
I’ve experienced 46 deaths of people close to me in my lifetime. Each of their lives have changed who I am. They have made a difference. My cousin has made a difference in my life. The weight of their absence is great. The silence of their voices nearly painful. Yet, the love they’ve given and the love they’ve let me share is what I hold onto now. It’s all I have left.
Now, as your shot clock winds down, as the last few pages of your score are sung, I wish you “Good journey!” Joe. Bravo, Cousin, for a life fully lived. I love you. I will miss you. Thank you for changing my life with your love.
For great websites presented directly to you, go to: http://alphainventions.com/
My father’s favorite flowers were tulips. Every year he would dig up the three tiers of soil in our hillside front yard and plants hundreds of bulbs. His heart would never seem quite so full than when he was working toward that day when his tulip garden was resplendent in yellow and orange and red and white.
He did this into his sixties. He said he loved the colors and that each one reminded him of the warming season. I loved to see my father amonst his tulips. One of the hardest parts of his death was the untended yard the Spring after he was gone, overflowing with ivy and inattention.
I heard from a friend of my late brother’s recently. David and his friend, Zack, were really close growing up. Along with Brian and Nicky, and several others, David had a cadre of buddies with whom he hung out, got into trouble, and, I know, laughed constantly.
These young fellows would find their way around our mountain village in far-northern California on dirt bikes, skis, on foot, and by car, leaving their mark on every corner of this town of 2,400 people.
When David died in 2006, I thought these young people would be lost forever to me. I was saddened by that because it felt as though David’s memory would be diminished by the scattering to the wind of his friends.
Within the last year, I’ve heard from Brian, Nicky, and now Zack. They have sent photos and memories via electronic mail of their time together. They have each expressed a loving memory of my brother that has brought comfort and a sense of envelopment to me as the last remaining member of our four-person core family.
Today, I got a message from Zack informing me that he has a newborn baby. In the same way I felt upon the birth of my first grandchild in 1993, I felt a newness wash over me. It was intimate and poignant. With all the loss I’ve experienced in the last ten years, this moment brought me a sense of joyful future.
I sent my warmest wishes to Zack on his growing family. Part of those wishes, I think, were because he brought me some emotional tulips, like the ones my father grew. He showed me, once again, that Spring was here and new life was repeating its pattern.
It also reminded me of my recent visit to see my cousin, Joe, who was in the hospital with cancer. I had this amazing sense of healing and until today, I wasn’t sure why that was. Above his bed, on the top of his cabinet, was a vase full of white tulips… and hope.
Spring is all around me right now and I am, for the first time in many years, fully aware of its beauty and power. This has to be a good sign; a sign not unlike the first hint of excited green stalk poking through the recently cold soil over a tulip bulb.
It matters. It matters a lot. Before we know it, everything has the light of alcohol cast upon it.
It is easy for us to ignore the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug use in our families. We excuse it in a thousand different ways. We ignore the increasing impact on the lives of our loved ones and us as the consumption of these substances increases. It’s too hard for us, sometimes, to acknowledge that addiction is a snowball rolling down a hill that eventually will be so huge, there will be no stopping it until it reaches the bottom, crashes against something, and bursts apart. Often, that crash is permanent, as it was for my brother, David.
David was forty-five-years-old when he died. He was a father of two and grandfather of two beautiful little girls.
David had been drinking since his teens. The first time I ever saw him drunk was in 1974 when he was thirteen-years-old. He had stayed at a friend’s house and they had gone to a party in the forest surrounding our small, mountain hometown. There was ample alcohol there. He came home the next morning and passed out.
After he had become an adult, his drinking didn’t prevent him from going to work, graduating from trade school, and eventually achieving a great deal of success in his work as an electrician. No one spoke about his alcoholism in any significant way until his wife left him and took his children. They lost the house, his job, their boat, and everything else he had worked so hard for. He now had several DUI’s he’d collected along the way, as well. Most importantly, he lost his family.
It’s not as though he didn’t love his family. He did very much. It was that his addiction was too great.
He had come to Dunsmuir to stay at our mother’s house as she was dying from pancreatic cancer. David hadn’t been drinking to excess during that time. He was drinking enough to keep the withdrawl symptoms at bay, but the closer Mom got to her death, the more he drank.
After she died in November 2005, my daughters and I left, after having spent two months caring for Mom. David had inherited the house and chose to stay there. He didn’t pay the bills, though. He wouldn’t answer the phone, while it was on. It was winter and eventually, the house got very cold after he didn’t pay the gas bill. He developed frostbite. Between the alcohol and the freezing weather, he was growing more ill.
In the early morning of March 9, 2006, he was walking to the gas station at the corner to get some beer. He collapsed and had a seizure. After a very messy rescue, he was transported to the hospital where they were warming him up from the frostbite. He was doing very well. As his veins began expanding, however, a blood clot was released, it went into his lungs, stopped the blood flow to his heart, and he died instantly.
This deeply loved father, grandfather, brother, and friend, was gone. We had lost my mother on November 23, 2005 and David on March 9, 2006. One was unavoidable. The other was not.
There was a political battle being waged in the newspaper over my brother’s death regarding the response by the police and fire and rescue departments. His death was dragged through the newspapers for months afterward. It was very painful.
All this start with just a few beers. It was those few beers… times thousands… that killed my brother.
Contact Above the Influence for information about how to identify addiction, find treatment, and deal with the consequences of these addictions. This call won’t wait another day. This call could save you, your loved one, or someone you’ve never met.