A Lesson in Loss: On the Death of a Friend

A friend of mine died this week. The older I get, the more often I’m going to find myself saying that. It’s sad to lose someone you cared about. To realize a child will grow up without a parent. To watch a parent lose their child, a friend lose a friend. But there’s more than that, more than loss and grieving. There’s the lesson.

In everything you experience, every single thing–good, bad, or somewhere in-between (where most of life falls) is a lesson. The trick is to get the lesson the first time it comes around, to find the opportunity in the chaos. Broken hearts. Death of a friend. Lost job. Major illness. There are lessons in there, and we each have to figure it out for ourselves.

When Adam died, there was something vaguely familiar about it. Not because it was the same “rare” cancer that killed the love of my life three years ago. That just reminded me how fast it would happen, that will-to-live meant nothing to this cancer and there is no way around this one. No, it was the turn-out of support, the mass of people who contributed on the GoFundMe page to raise money for a last-ditch I’ll-try-anything-cure. Collecting almost three times what they’d asked in less than a month. The flood of posts and well-wishes that filled the Facebook feeds, the Twittersphere.

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Everyone always says “Oh, she was so special,” or “There will never be anyone like him,” but the truth is in the pudding. It’s in who shows up, who speaks up, what’s said and why.

And that was what was familiar.

A few years ago another friend died. No one saw it coming, no one was prepared. Is one easier than the other? Losing someone suddenly or having time to prepare? Can you really prepare? I think all you can really do is use that time to say a proper goodbye. Big Daddy Addy was lucky that way. His friends and family were too, even though it didn’t feel like luck at all.

Chloe Dzubilo died suddenly at 50. Violently. She died alone.
Adam Roth died slowly, peacefully, and surrounded by friends. He was 57.

10608786_10152817636030625_8912646138906773135_oThey were both performers, musicians, and stylistas. He went through dozens of hair styles, colors (oh, that frosted stage…). So did she, leaning more towards the peacock colors.  East Village icons and stalwarts. First generation Punks. He was dapper, a mod, a rocker, always dressed with intention. She, identified warmly by a friend as the “trans Courtney Love,” wore vintage lingerie and silks mixed with rock t-shirts and tight pants.  Both had struggled with addiction and gotten past it. One battled anxiety, the other, depression. And both were met with an ear-splitting roar into the abyss when they passed. A roar from the huge crowd that loved them. Huge. Crowd.

A sign-up sheet had to be created for visitors when Adam went into hospice at his parent’s home. Without it, the room was swamped, his family overwhelmed, himself, drained.

Judson Church overflowed with Chloe’s memorial and it felt like we were hundreds who marched in her honor down to the Hudson River.

Adam brought his sober-and-wicked-cool musician-funny-as-fuckness with him to work with at-risk kids via Road Recovery.
Chloe took her HIV+ transgender fierceness to help with the first HIV prevention programs for transgender sex workers.

And that’s the thing. The thing that made them each so special. That attracted crowds. The lives they lived. The love in their heart and their ability to open that heart, not just in the doing, but in their daily lives.The impact of their lives spreading like a pebble dropped in still water, they radiated outwards.

Adam was a high-energy, rapid-fire, snappy-dressing dynamo who could get a party started or be that guest you wanted there that kept it going. And he was your biggest fan.
Chloe tended more toward the soft-spoken, sometimes raunchy, often Southern-belle-ish delicate flower,  and earth mother. She was your tender and constant support.

They  made you feel seen. Heard.

She  spoke in a  Monroe-like whisper and you leaned forward to hear, and suddenly the two of you were in a silver bubble, an intimate conversation in the center of a chaotic city. And you felt beautiful, important, trusted. She shared her heart with you.
He drew you in, dragged you along wherever the party was, was sincerely happy to see you. Sincerely. He made you feel special–like you were the funniest, prettiest, smartest, somethingest. He shared his light with you.

They knew there was enough for everyone. Enough love, enough light. Like a moon reflecting the light of the stars and suns, sometimes you were the moon, sometimes you were the star.

So, the lesson? They were so loved because of who they were. Because of how they saw you, opened themselves to you, stood aside to make room for you. They were loved because in all their frenetic activity, talent, insecurities, battles, human-ness they made you feel as if you were the most important person in the room. Big open hearts. Hearts that were honest. That wanted love, wanted to love and be loved.

I was out with my “brother” (family of choice, related by hair) the other night, and we talked about how we are, he and I. How we are not that kind of people. We are the kind of people who don’t allow you to get close to us. We are afraid we will be crushed by all that love, that it will break us.

The lesson?  My lesson in the death of my friend? Love doesn’t break you. Love makes you larger than life.

Photo of Adam Roth courtesy: Jeff Smith~ReflectionsNYC

Trigger Warning

My grandmother made the best pork chops, but that recipe died with her. She also made the worst hamburgers I’ve ever tasted, and that’s a recipe I know. When I miss her, I make them. It triggers all those warm, fuzzy, grandma’s kitchen memories and feelings. But the madeleine moment of those lousy burgers are not what I’d call a trigger in a trigger warning sense. The burgers evoke, awaken, arouse.

Triggers, on the other hand, are always about the bad things, unpleasant memories, feelings you were never able to process.

More than thirty years ago I was kidnapped; both my stupidity and a pair of rust-colored corduroy jeans played a big part. I escaped and didn’t think much about it until the same man murdered two friends of mine and the police let him slide. I’m told I got out of my mind angry over that, but I don’t remember the angry. I don’t remember having any feelings about it all, other than the unfairness of the imbalance in whose lives mattered and whose didn’t back then. Not that much has changed and that continues to fuel my righteous indignation in defense and support of women in general, and sex workers in particular. Perhaps I forgot to mention that I, and my two friends, were exotic dancers / go-go girls / strippers / sex workers / women.

With the exception of when I’m writing about that time or telling the story of the kidnapping (perfect when dinner conversation gets dull), I rarely think about that man or those women. Only one friend I still know today remembers any of them.  When we talk, I’m prepared to remember any number of things that would give a normal person nightmares and it’s as if we were talking about an episode of Transparent or OITNB. Good stories, but we don’t have a lot of feelings around them.

This no feeling thing, it’s part of a thing called dissociation, and I’ve talked about that before here and here and here and even all the way back here. Apparently, I have lots of feelings about my having no feelings. What I also don’t have, is control over these feelings I don’t have. Because they’re actually there. You know that. My under-brain know that. It’s just my front brain, my awake-brain that doesn’t know it. Until something accidentally flips the switch and feelings I didn’t know I had come rushing out, wrap a plastic dry-cleaning bag around my head, and try to suffocate me.

It’s why people often put a trigger warning before an article or story they think might do that to someone else. Stories about hard things like rape, kidnapping, or suicide. But, if I know I’m reading a story about some teenager who gets raped by his kidnapper and then commits suicide, if I know that going in—and you can usually tell by the headline or pull quotes—then everything inside me is hyper-aware, fully armed and ready, and all the feelings stay on lock down.

It’s the stuff you don’t see coming.

Like when I’m with someone who knew my friend Lyle before he passed away twelve years ago, I’m ready to hear Lyle’s name and it won’t upset me. But when someone random mentions him or repeats something he used to say, it’s a punch to the gut and all the wind gets pounded out of me. My feelings barrier wasn’t up and those missing him feelings weren’t prepared to be called on. They’re like an ADHD, over-sugared, over-caffeinated kid when that happens. Sometimes I have to leave the room in a self-imposed time-out.

I have to be on the lookout for the thing that doesn’t look like an emotional shoe-bomb.

IMG_6844Such as the rust-colored corduroy jeans at Old Navy that tried to kill me today. The original pair were a gift from the man who would later that night turn out to be my kidnapper. I don’t know how much he paid for them, they were from a rack of clothes that had “fallen off the back of a truck” and they fit me like a second skin at a time in my life when that was a flattering look. The pants that stopped me dead in my tracks today, in the middle of Old Navy, some thirty years later, were $34.99. I didn’t see the price tag right away. I couldn’t see anything right away. It felt like I’d been transported back in time, and I was standing in a Times Square pimp bar called “The Pork Pie” watching younger me eyeballing the pair of jeans she’d just been gifted, but with the knowledge of what was to come and no way to warn younger me. At the same time it seemed like those jeans had been transported forward in time—meaning there was a tear in time, and anyone or anything could come through and no one was safe—fuck no one—I wasn’t safe from anything or anyone from my past. If thought I was tough enough back then and turned out to be wrong, I am in no condition now to know how to handle the people and things that could come back looking for me if that tear was real.

I walked away from the counter where the jeans were stacked, and dodged into the dressing room for safety from the ghosts, and to try on a couple of pair of regular blue denim jeans. The sales-girl in the dressing room was folding some leftover clothes. Specifically, she was folding a pair of the rust-colored corduroy jeans. I couldn’t speak. Or take my eyes off them. I couldn’t move. When I finally did, I was grateful for the lock on the door to my little dressing cubicle. I guess I did have feelings about that night. About that man. About who I was then and what happened.

I’m a big believer in don’t worry about finding your feelings, they’ll find you when you’re ready to handle them. These feelings were only there for a few minutes, maybe seven minutes all told. I’ve lived perfectly well without them for over thirty years and while I may be ready to handle them it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to or even need to.

For a moment, I considered buying the rust-colored corduroy jeans. But I wasn’t sure what else I’d come back with once I stuck my arm through the rip in time.

 

Early

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what’s the sound of two edies talking?

I got up early to call Big Edie and wake her for her hearing aid appointment. She no longer feels confident in her ability to set the alarm or remember why she set it.

I did the same thing yesterday—woke her at 6am for a 9am hearing aid appointment. She was exhausted and it took a bunch of r-r-r-rings for her to hear the phone, realize what the sound was, and answer. That exhausted. That deeply asleep. But, she made the 9am appointment in time. Early even.  Real early. Her appointment was not for that day, but for the next day.

This happens a lot. Sometimes she’s a day early, sometimes she’s a day late.

To be fair. She’s 85 and she hasn’t had a real job in twenty years. Hasn’t had to keep a schedule in two decades. As far as she’s concerned, it’s been year after year of weekends and holidays.

While my week looks a lot like this:

Businesswoman resting head on desk

Hers looks more like this:

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Ever since she’s started to forget things she’s been keeping a giant calendar with all her appointments written on it. And I remind her to tell me when she makes an appointment, and I keep an electronic calendar with all her appointments. That works, most of the time. Sometimes she forgets to look at the calendar. Not yesterday. She had the calendar, but forgot what day it was.

I set my alarm for 6am to wake her today, and before it even went off, the phone rang and it was Big Edie, calling from her cell phone. Usually a call from the cell phone means someone is in the hospital. Usually, her 93-year-old boyfriend—one of the reasons she’s so exhausted all the time, looking after him. Worrying after him. And waking up on a regular basis at 3am, not being able to go back to sleep, and playing solitaire online until the sun comes up, then dragging herself through the day because she “can’t” nap.

Instead of a nap, she regularly falls asleep sitting at the kitchen table, in the passenger seat of any car that’s moving, has been known to “close her eyes for a second” at a red light, reading a book, and watching any movie or TV show. At Broadway shows, my father fed her M&Ms one at a time to keep her from falling asleep. She never sleeps when she is eating. M&Ms. One at a time. There are mini-Milky Ways and chocolates secreted all over her house today, a leftover habit of the M&M days.

This morning she called, she’d been up since 3am. Her phone is dead. All the lights in her bedroom are down, except one. And she was afraid, really afraid, that I would call at 6am to wake her, not be able to get through, and I would worry. So she stayed awake for three hours to call me at 6am and tell me not to worry.

A blown fuse, and she’s still got it together enough to know that, but when she checked the fuse box they all looked fine. And this is the part that she never remembers, that a blown fuse, or actually a flipped breaker, doesn’t always flip all the way. Go turn them all off, then turn them all on again I tell her, and hang up the phone.

She calls back a few minutes later. Caller ID says she’s calling from the home phone now, so it worked.

“But now something is beeping. I can’t find it. I think it’s the box. You know, the box.”

I do know. I know that if something is “where you put things you eat with” it’s in the silverware drawer, and “the box” means either the fire alarm or the CO2 detector. The fire alarm is kept on a bookshelf, with no batteries. I direct her to the CO2 detector, plugged into the wall behind a bench.

“Pull it out of the wall,” I say, “just unplug it for now.” She does, but I can still hear beeping.  “What did you unplug?”

“Something. I don’t know. Something. Do you think this isn’t it?” I am thirty miles away, on the telephone, and I know she’s holding something up for me to look at, which I would certainly do if this was thirty years into the future and we all had videophones, or bat phones, or it was today and we were Skyping or Facetiming or GoogleHangouting or anything else that we’re not doing because she is 85-years-old and are you kidding me? She has unplugged something else entirely.

She finally gets the CO2 detector unplugged and all is right with the world again. Her phone works. Her lights work. Her apartment doesn’t beep. I will go out there this week and put batteries in the smoke detector, reinstall the CO2 monitor, mark which breaker corresponds to the lights in her bedroom.

It would be so much easier for her, she would feel so much safer, if I lived in her building on Long island. It has a swimming pool, she reminds me for the millionth time. It would be so much easier for me, and I would feel so much more at ease, if she lived in my building here in Jackson Heights. There is an empty apartment on my floor. Two of them. One with a balcony.

But she would be miserable here, even with a balcony, in a neighborhood she doesn’t recognize, with no familiar faces, no landmarks, no friends. And I would be miserable there, even with the swimming pool, in a neighborhood I know like the back of my hand, with landmarks of an unhappy childhood and ghosts of my own personal teenage wasteland, and no friends because we all got out of Dodge as fast as we could.

She says it’s early stage Alzheimer’s, that it’s not that early because she got a diagnosis five years ago, or eight, from some doctor I don’t know. What I know is that two years ago a doctor I do know said she was high functioning with mild cognitive impairment. But that it’s gotten worse since then. That whatever it is it’s still early stage, that things only get worse, or harder, or more confusing, or heavier, or more difficult. That this is the hardest stage for her but the easiest stage for me. That at some point she won’t realize how many things she doesn’t know or can’t do or doesn’t remember.  What I know is that it’s later than I know because she is hiding things from me and I discover them little by little. Like how she sometimes gets lost coming home from familiar places.

“What would I do without you?” she says.  I wonder that too. And I wonder what I will do without her.

Big Edie shakes her moneymaker

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what’s the sound of two edies talking?

Big Edie: I saw a great band yesterday. The library has some of the top-top people.

Me: Who?

Big Edie: I don’t remember, but you’d know if I told you. You’d know the name.

Me: He’s famous?

Big Edie: Yes. Maybe. You’d know. Who is the singer I like so much that sounds like the other ones?

Me: Bruce Springsteen?

Big Edie: Yes!

Me: You saw a Bruce Springsteen concert in the East Meadow library?

Big Edie: No. But this one was like that one. All the old ladies were up dancing.

Me: You too?

Big Edie: Me too.

Thanks goodness he didn’t remind her of Mick Jagger. Because we all know God doesn’t like ugly, and neither does Big Edie.

The band that reminds Big Edie of Bruce Springsteen, who she loves for his manliness, his love of charities and his likeness to the old folk singers–but mostly his manliness? Killer Joe & The Lido Soul Revue.

What day is it?

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what’s the sound of two edies talking?

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Me: What are you doing tonight?

Big Edie: I love Saturday nights, that program I like is on tonight.

Me: It’s Sunday, Ma.

Big Edie: Yeah, but Sundays have always been Saturdays.