Category Archives: Birthdays

It’s My Birthday, So Worship Me For The Day, Part 2

donna_wes_2009_birthday

Mrs. Pogoer and me with birthday cake, around the time of the fateful dinner.

So to continue with the birthday theme from where I left off over five years ago, this tale begins a couple of years prior to that. It’s a prequel, as it were. As has been previously established, my late wife Mrs. Pogoer, a/k/a Donna, and I shared a birthdate — same day, same year, me being all of eight minutes older, yadda yadda yadda. And this year was one of those joint birthdays that ended in a zero, so I felt considerable self-administered pressure to Do It Up Right.

We — or, rather, I — decided to spend our birthday dinner at a celebrated restaurant outside of town. This eatery — let’s call it Thames on the Creek — specialized in gourmet preparations of wild game, and although this wasn’t Mrs. Pogoer’s favorite cuisine by a long shot, she very graciously decided to humor me and accompany me there for “my” portion of the birthday festivities. In my defense, it was a place I’d wanted to visit for a very long time.

Not too long before these events, I had contracted with a major travel publisher to review hotels and restaurants in Austin and environs. When we arrived at Thames on the Creek, Mrs. Pogoer mentioned to the server that I was a restaurant reviewer, perhaps hoping to score an extra complimentary dessert in addition to the double-birthday cake that most half-decent restaurants provide for the occasion (writers know how to work the angles).

While the wife ordered wine and a salad, I busily set about ordering the likes of venison tartare, salamander mousse, bison bites with Béarnaise sauce, and rattlesnake cakes with chipotle remoulade (not the exact things I actually ordered, but you get the idea). I tackled the offerings greedily. After all, hey, it’s my birthday! Our birthday! One that ends in a zero!

And so we celebrated the amazing accomplishment of not dying for 12 months. And at some point, Donna noticed that I was turning green around the gills. My gorge was rising as a result of scarfing down one or four unfamiliar foodstuffs, and I bolted towards the restroom, where I threw back a toilet stall door and vomited up assorted wild game and wine into the bowl.

Donna was sufficiently alarmed to phone 911 and call for the EMTs, and within ten minutes or so an ambulance pulled up and, once in the entranceway, I groggily submitted to various checks for life signs.

Management informed Donna that the meal was comped for both of us. I don’t know whether this was because of the upchucking or the fact that I was an off-the-clock “restaurant critic,” but I’ve never been so embarrassed to get a free meal.

And the moral of the story is…All things considered, we should’ve just gone to the Melting Pot. She always liked that place.

We didn’t stay for desserts; I’d already received mine, and it was just.

 

Punk Rock Widower, or Going On A (Metaphorical) Grief Cruise

Note: In the interest of being possibly read more widely (which remains to be seen), I’ve recently put this post available on medium.com along with some other recent writings.


In my early days as a bereaved, if I can use that word as a noun, I read a book — where I’d heard about it I don’t recall, it isn’t important — called Levels of Life, by the celebrated author Julian Barnes. Written after the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, it is a short book in three sections. In the first two sections, Barnes doesn’t discuss himself or his wife at all; he describes in minute detail the lives and accomplishments of several 18th and 19th century balloonists, including a pioneering aerial photographer known as Nadar and the romance between actress Sarah Bernhardt and the British army officer and adventurer Fred Burnaby. Only in the third section does he describe his feelings and emotions after Pat’s death. In the entire book, though, he doesn’t describe her in any way, not even mentioning her name once.

Although I think I know why Barnes did this, and his prose is careful and exacting, the book still pissed me off. I suppose he refrained from giving any specifics about his wife to make the work more universal, but I found it insulting both to his wife and to me, the reader, that he would go into such specifics about historical personages he didn’t know but didn’t so much as give us a peek behind the curtain at the person who meant more to him than anything else in the world.

And so, we come to my story. As Kirsty sang in “Soho Square,” I don’t want your pity, baby. But lend me your ear.

When your brilliant, talented, beautiful and irreplaceable wife dies on the 19th day of the year from terminal liver disease (nonalcoholic, of indeterminate cause), that pretty much puts the rest of the year directly in the toilet. And probably at least the next couple of years after that.

Although Donna had been ill for at least a year and a half, the end came suddenly and, to me, shockingly. I held out hope that she would recover until the last day of her life. I wasn’t ready for it. I still don’t really accept it today, half a year after the bitter fact.

The fourth of July marked six months since Donna left our house alive for the last time, carried out on a stretcher to a waiting EMS ambulance. The following morning she would be flown emergently to San Antonio from Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin, where I’d visited her with the boys the evening before (which, unbeknownst to anyone, would be the last time the boys would ever see her). A brusque doctor from India told me to pack a suitcase with Donna’s clothes and take it to Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio, for her return trip after a liver transplant.

A stubborn bacterial infection foreclosed any chance of her being eligible for the transplant, and after two weeks of ups and downs, driving back and forth between San Antonio and Austin, I received a call from one of her doctors, telling me that Donna’s end was near; a “cardiac event” had foreclosed the chance of any recovery. Donna’s sister and I were able to be with her, waiting for the inevitable, for nearly six hours, as she peacefully drifted away on a morphine drip. I don’t wish the experience on anyone.

On the fifteenth of June I dedicated a bench in her memory at our neighborhood park. A good crowd came, and I was satisfied with the eulogy I delivered.

On the bench is an engraved plaque:

In Loving Memory of

Donna Young Eichenwald

1959–2016

Cherished Wife, Mother, Sister, Musician and Friend

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”

The day after the ceremony I was more depressed than usual, and it occurred to me that subconsciously I might have been thinking that if I built a bench for Donna, she might come back to me. Yes, I know that’s not rational, but what about grief is rational?

The Fourth of July was one week before we would have celebrated our joint 57th birthdays.

Excuse me if I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate with fireworks or anything else.

For fifteen years we knew each other. When we became aware of each other’s existence we were living thousands of miles apart, her in New Brunswick, New Jersey, me in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

We were brought together by a combination of coincidences, the match that lit the flame being the death by speedboat of the British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl in December, 2000.

We began emailing each other the following month, hashing out our mutual grief along with our life stories and philosophies.

Both of us felt an uncanny connection to each other, as if an unseen hand was pushing us together.

Twelve and three-quarter years we were married.

Nearly thirteen years elapsed between my mother’s death (1990) and our marriage (2003).

Also, nearly thirteen years between our marriage and Donna’s death.

Donna was 56 when she died, the same age as my mom.

We were born on the same day, in the same year, about 20 miles apart; she in northern New Jersey, me in Queens.

I was eight minutes older.

This is not in itself a solid reason to get married, but we had others.

I can define myself in many ways: As a father, brother, son in general; to refine the search, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, brother of a successful entrepreneur, and father of twins, one who is nonverbal, with special needs; and most lately as a recent widower (a word I hate), struggling to make sense of life in the wreckage.

The truth is that since 2003 I had defined myself, first and foremost, as part of a couple, as half of Wes and Donna.

Many people on Twitter seem to be repeating the phrase “the remainder of 2016 is canceled,” or words to that effect. A lot of them go on to mention Bowie and Prince and so on. To which I say: Shut up. You have no fucking idea. You didn’t know them. You’re attaching yourself to mass grief to give yourself Internet cred, but it’s not your loss in the sense that they were your friends or family and you actually knew them as people.

As for me, I’m angry that the world is discussing Bowie and Prince and not Donna.

And what am I supposed to do for fun now? Go on a Grief Cruise, to “celebrate” my birthday as well as Donna’s, a joint birthday, once cause for wondrous celebration, now turned to ashes?

WELCOME TO YOUR FABULOUS GRIEF JOURNEY ABOARD THE SUICIDAL CARIBBEAN PRINCESS!

FEATURING EIGHT PORTS OF CALL, EACH MORE DEPRESSING THAN THE LAST!

ENTERTAINMENT NIGHTLY! DANCE AWAY YOUR FEELINGS OF HOPELESSNESS WITH BUDDY GRIEF AND THE SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS ORCHESTRA!

ASSUAGE THE YAWNING VOID AT THE CENTER WITH OUR AWARD-WINNING BUFFETS AND CONSTANTLY OPEN BAR!

Thinking about all the unfinished business is one of the hardest things.

As is waking up every morning and realizing: Oh.

As is coming across what would have been the perfect gift for Donna (who had idiosyncratic but exquisite tastes) and having nowhere to go with the gifting impulse but sadness and regret.

It’s inevitable, what with the DNA transfer between each other from 15 years together.

I dreaded the approach of the 57th birthday, alone again (un)naturally. In a tribute to her popularity, Donna still received birthday greetings from 41 people on her Facebook page: several greetings from people who obviously didn’t know, “happy birthday in heaven” wishes, and many gracefully expressing their loss. My own birthday greetings may have been somewhat fewer in number than last year, which is fine with me. A few of my more sensitive, tasteful friends posted, simply, “Thinking of you today,” quite appropriate and welcome.

And here we are. But where are we going?

It’s yet early. But still, still we continue in the eternal present.

A friend of mine suggested that Donna’s bench is now “an official point of contact” and that I should welcome the opportunity to come there and commune with her.

But the truth is, when I visit that bench I just feel sad, as it confirms…well, you know.

But the other truth is, she is now everywhere and always around me.

_____________________________________________________________

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It’s My Birthday, So Worship Me For The Day, Part 1

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of pretending to be excited every time it’s somebody’s birthday, you know what I mean? What is the big deal? How many times do we have to celebrate that someone was born?

Every year, over and over… All you did was not die for twelve months.

That’s all you’ve done, as far as I can tell. Now those astrology things where they tell you all the people that have the same birthday as you? It’s always an odd group of people too, isn’t it? It’s like Ed Asner, Elijah Muhammad and Secretariat.

— Jerry’s opening monologue on Seinfeld, “The Outing,” originally aired Feb. 11, 1993 (which just happened to be my sister’s birthday, but never mind)

Yes, we must obey...

Yo...bestrew THIS. Click on it, you know you want to.

Birthdays are like genitals: Everybody’s got one, but not everybody knows what to do with it, or even wants to deal with the whole business at all. Nevertheless, there inevitably  comes the day that you must deal, and guess which day that is. You, dear reader, know what that’s like, for you, too, have that one day out of the year that’s Your Special Day. Yes, it is, it’s special.

Worship me, for I am Birthday Man, deity for a day. I am expected to spend the entire 24 hours in a constant state of unnatural Happy Happiness Squared, with a frozen rictus smile on my face. I’m having a HAPPY BIRTHDAY, dammit. So leave me alone while I do that.

Yes, that’s my favorite Seinfeld routine (the one about baseball fans being loyal to laundry coming in a close second). Yes, I didn’t die for 12 months, so let’s have some cake!Ah, the tyranny of the birthday ritual. It will envelop you, whether you like it or not, and demand your fealty to the foolishness. Let’s have the courage to call birthdays what they really are: The biggest gratuitous ego trip this side of a wedding, at a tiny fraction of the cost and hassle. Plus, unlike a wedding (unless you’re a completely off-the-rails celebrity), you get to have one every year!

The American Way of Birthdays has long served me as one of the innumerable subjects I know which are deserving of crankiness. It’s not, of course, just the anniversary of your birth. It’s Acknowledge My Existence Day — for most of us, barring a time of spectacular public acclaim, the greatest burst of recognition we’ll get until the eulogy, or at least the retirement party. Great accomplishment? Sure, wink wink. Celebrating one’s birthday is, like organized religion or televised singing contests, a social convention we generally don’t question, even though it’s of very questionable validity.

For all my cynicism, mind you, I don’t want to deny little kids their birthday fun. I’ve got two six-year-olds of my own, after all, and I recognize that when you’re dealing with developing little bodies and minds birthdays are a useful marker, appropriate, and fun. But after one’s 12th birthday — or at the outside, the confirmation/bar or bat mitzvah/sweet 16/quinceañera — it becomes another story. Like continuing to hang out your stocking for Santa, or keeping up the traditions of the tooth fairy, milk and cookies, and bedwetting well into your 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, the birthday-candle, balloons, and the singing of a certain stupid, ubiquitous song  should raise some eyebrows, at the least. But somehow, that doesn’t happen, and the foolishness is given a free pass. (And don’t get me started on Halloween costumes.)

Face it: nobody really cares that it’s somebody’s birthday, we just pretend to care because we want them to pretend to care when it’s ours. It’s like Santa Claus, or your salary, or how many times a year you have sex: Once you’re over a certain age, it becomes a conspiracy of silence, about which the less said, the better.

“So you’ve been an abject failure in every area of your life? Cheer up, at least you still get to have a birthday. Have some freakin’ cake and balloons! You’re a year older!”

Acknowledge my existence, world. Please? (This also explains the existence of blogs and karaoke. We must have our say, even if we don’t know what we’re saying and nobody else wants to hear it.)

The acknowledging takes the form of…oh, you know, cards and candles and conical hats and (for those in technical adulthood) visits to a bar and multiple toasts all ’round. The corporate world, of course, takes notice of Your Day in its own bastardized, sanitized-to-the-point-of-screaming-boredom way with balloons and crepe paper ’round the cubicle and the occasional potluck to take the edge off the daily desperation and the drudgery of which no end ever comes.

Then, of course, there’s the big birthday game-changer of recent years: Facebook, which notifies you every time one of your friends has a birthday, which for some of us means two, three, or even four obligatory greetings in an average day.  Every day is somebody else’s birthday: There is no escape, and the cycle will keep repeating itself day after day, year after year, ad infinitum. Last month, David Plotz explored the phenomenon on slate.com to good effect in “My Fake Facebook Birthdays,” which explored what happened when he set his birthday to three successive dates in July: predictably, most of his friends, or “friends,” didn’t notice at all, just relieved that they didn’t have to send out an actual card, with a stamp on it and everything, and even put it in a mailbox. Hey, this is 2011!

In any case, it’s not my birthday anymore. It’s not even my birthday month. Not until next year, anyway. The balloons are deflated, the candles blown out, the cake long passed through various digestive tracts until…well, one need not go into details. Suffice it to say, the party has moved on to another table.

Not fair. Sob.

I want every day to be my birthday.

I want to be God.

Or something.

To be continued…