Saturday, January 16, 2016

What It's Like

I go through my friend Richard's phonebook to call his other friends and announce his death. Hard news, of course but I notice that the older contacts, while shocked and sorrowed, accept his death with more equanimity. The hardest is my kids. They've lost four out of four grandparents but none of these deaths was a surprise and both, since birth, have spent far more time with Richard than all four grandparents combined. Losing Uncle Richard, particularly suddenly, is the biggest loss they've ever experienced. And when I chew it around, I realize that it is also the biggest loss I've had myself.

The morning I tell them is fraught with tears and emotion. That evening we sit on the couch watching tv. An episode of Nathan For You induces us all to hysterical laughter, perhaps amped up a bit from our rawness. After our gales subside, Number One Son takes a breath. “Oh, this is what it's like.” Unbearable loss and brilliant comedy happen on the same day. There are waves of deep sorrow, and still for me, four weeks from his death, I have teary moments each day. Oscar season is particularly poignant. Richard referred to the period between the nominations and the ceremony as the High Holy Days. As I clean his cottage I find enormous reams of carefully handwritten notes documenting each year of the awards with meticulous cross referencing. Himself has retrieved Richard's ashes from the mortuary, noting the atypical extravagance of a copper urn. Richard's cousin will be returning him to Minnesota to be interred next to his mom but for now, I've placed in a shopping bag what's left of my dear friend. As the sun rises, he is close, as this year's nominations are announced. I wonder if I will ever get used to not gabbing with him about happy surprises and shocking omissions. I think Brie Larson would have made him happy and he would have rolled his eyes about Jennifer Lawrence's fourth nomination.

Between the death of Richard, who's done my office filing for decades, and my bookkeeper's seriously ill son, I am to the wire on filing business taxes. Number One's son's car is totaled while I am on my way to take Ana, our former nanny, to the hospital. Two days later, while I accompany her son to a court hearing I get the call that Ana's to undergo emergency surgery. I doubt that I'll ever again get to be at the Criminal Courts and County General Hospital on the same day. One thing I notice is that almost everyone I encounter at the court and hospital is warm and nice. And while the uniformed hospital staffers are easy to distinguish from patients, some of the defendants at the court could easily be mistaken for attorneys and vice versa. The public defender we meet with is caring and attentive and he insures that the outcome is satisfactory.

Ana ends up at a tiny Chinatown hospital and the doctor is patient and sympathetic and the nurses are sweet. In addition to dealing with Ana and her family, insurance adjusters, and CPAs I've been applying for a bunch of teaching jobs. My age and lack of recent experience make this a long shot but after encountering the folks at the hospital and courts, who truly try to make navigating a world of complications a bit easier, I remember how satisfying teaching is. One bright spot in a difficult week is that I am actually called for an interview.

Writing here is to make sense for myself but also to remember. With death and taxes and all of the other obstacles I am a bit overwhelmed. I hope I hold onto this extended period with both of the kids at home. And I have kittens. They are growing too fast and have a skin condition. We give them pills and baths and they wail and bite and my arms are junkie-like from their razor sharp little claws. The moment I settle in to a warm bath they dive into their adjacent litter box and poop. But they cuddle and chase the birdie on the stick and rassle and defy me to be sad or anxious.

I write this from San Francisco where I've slipped off for a few days with Spuds. He has been home, marooned and carless. He will be off to visit his girlfriend and then they are returning together so it will likely be summer until I have him to myself again. We try to piece together a blur of other trips we've made here. The big but messy house near the park. The tiny squalid apartment with the impossibly narrow garage. The Metreon. The Exploratorium. The Aquarium. The Children's Museum.

Now we look at art. I drag him to the Beach Chalet to take in one of my favorite WPA murals, a vivid, if idealized, panorama of 1930s San Francisco. At Spud's request we attend a big contemporary show at Fort Mason. I separate from him and take in the many different booths briskly. Nothing speaks to me and most pieces are ugly and/or stupid. There is weird furniture that I don't know if you're supposed to buy or just sit in, although neither option interests me. I make another round, this time only looking at people. This is more satisfying. Sullen gallery girls in impossible shoes glowering at their phones. Dealers clad in bespoke suits with pricy haircuts and artsy eye glass frames. Spuds catches up with me. “You hate everything, don't you?” He is an Art History major and when I think about the amount of debt we're incurring for him to enter this world I get a bit woozy. When I sheepishly admit that I find everything and everyone farcically pretentious, he takes me around a bit and cogently explains the merits of a couple of pieces by artists that he's studied in school. He makes a good case. Still, I prefer my vivid representational murals, created under the aegis of a progressive government and intended to bring art to public places.

As we roam around bits and snippets of other trips to the Bay area come back to us. I probably won't remember car accidents or court dates. I will however never hear the news of a celebrity death (Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zsigmond, David Bowie and Alan Rickman since he's been gone) without wanting to call Richard. I hope too that I will recall the serendipitous comfort that all four of us were together to mourn and remember him. I know that as the kids pair off and move on there will be fewer occasions of just us four, but our places at the table are indelible. The kittens will grow into languid big cats but I will remember them leaping miraculously high to catch the birdie or the vibrations of the tiny things purring, near my heart, as they cuddle close.

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