Category Archives: death

Tourists in the Country of the Grieving

So this makes eighteen blog posts by which to measure my grief, since initiated on the nineteenth day of this most widely despised year in a horse’s age. Last year my tally was three, so if you insist on people having things to be thankful for this year, I can at least count not having writer’s block (as well as, OK, not having to deal with Microsoft Excel on a regular basis).

Four of the posts really had nothing to do with the grief thing, so then: Fourteen.

Four days to go, still, so count this an encore. (I don’t know if the organist at a funeral home expects an encore for his dirge, but I wouldn’t be offended.)

Is that enough?

Will anything ever be enough?

Anyway, Facebook bugs me. I should probably avoid it on the days that some beloved musician or actor dies, so I don’t become more enraged than usual at the grief tourism on display. The way things have been going of late, that would mean more time off of The Social Media than on. Probably not such a bad thing.

By grief tourism, to define the term, I mean people complaining, even affecting a guise of sackcloth and ashes (surely this should be an Instagram filter, Pseudogrief Pro II), about things that don’t affect them personally. Deaths of musicians and actors both celebrated and obscure, whether they kicked off at 27 or 97, none of whom they ever, probably, met personally, much less had any kind of relationship with; politics and elections, always tawdry at best, horrifying at worst; real issues of social justice and the environment, which do matter, but it’s hard to tell whether the concern for any of these causes go more than Twitter-deep.

I like my friends (the real ones), I do. I can’t expect all of them to understand what I’m going through, when I barely understand it myself. It’s still a new country, but it’s mine. The other inhabitants of grief land all have their own reasons for being there, their own particular horror stories, and I don’t understand all of them perfectly, just as they don’t understand me. But we’ve all been handed a similar parcel that we never wanted and been told: Deal with this.

As for social media grief tourism, it’s been going on for much longer than a year, but, with the admittedly awful election just past, everything has gotten stuck in a feedback loop. Alan Rickman dies, or Prince, or Harper Lee, or Gene Wilder, or Patty Duke or Garry Shandling or Ali or Elie Wiesel or George Michael or Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds, and the tributes pour in, and I’m sorry about all of them but, you know, I started out the year watching my wife and life partner die in a hospital room, and then was left to figure out the rest of my life, so you might excuse me that it angers me when people complain about 2016 being so awful when they themselves are, by any measure, doing great, and I have no patience for the tributes and reminiscences by those who, by any measure, didn’t know them beyond their public face. To scan a Facebook feed (mine, anyway) is to consume a constant stream of this person died, that person died, happy birthday to someone who died years ago, death, cancer, riots, misery, death, political horrors, and more death. It’s hip to be a grief tourist.

clueless_tourists

Yup. Dead, dead, dead.

But why lay claim to misery you didn’t earn?

Not like misery is such a great thing to be in. It’s miserable. But at least I came by it honestly.

To the grietouristcartoonf tourists, I say: Sorry, but you can’t spend the whole year on Facebook bragging about your family and friends and your extensive travels (Venice! Colorado! Hawaii! France! Alaska!) and how great everything is, and then throw in something about how 2016 sucked, and you can’t wait for it to be over (because obviously, come January nobody will die anymore).

You’re clueless tourists in the land of the grieving, I might say. You wear shorts and bathing suits in churches, you take photos of the bereaved relatives and post them to your page, you set out a picnic in the cathedral built of skulls.

I am open to the possibility that maybe after you die, you realize that dying was the best thing that ever happened to you. But you’re not supposed to know this yet.

We’re not supposed to know this yet.

Because it’s beyond the parameters of the game.

And so we keep playing.

Advertisements

Saying You’re Grieving Because Your Candidate Lost is Insulting to Actual Bereaved People

i-began-2016-wonka-memeLast week the inescapable Lena Dunham posted the following quote on her Instagram account, now making the rounds as a quasi-meme in certain liberal corners of Facebook. Dunham attributes the quote to Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue, a Reform Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, “incorporating the words” of the renowned early 20th century Torah scholar Rav Abraham Isaac Kook:

Today marks the seventh day of grieving and sitting Shivah for the loss of our country and the woman who inspired us, reads the post.

As Judaism teaches us, after seven days of Shivah we stand up, we emerge from the dark, we do not have to accept, we do not have to move on, but we stand up! So today we emerge from the darkness. We are taught that the righteous do not complain of the darkness but rather create light. Today we begin to create light and we do so as the resistance and we fight and fight and fight for good, for love and for justice.

I’m all for the part about resistance and fighting, which is all well and good in the standard activist tradition. This is a high-class text-only meme with a liberal arts degree, with neither an accompanying photo of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka nor any sarcasm at all, but — leaving aside the questionable assumption that Hillary Clinton is the moral equivalent of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama— I’m deeply offended by the grieving and Shivah bits.

I don’t want to make this post about me or my particular problems, but I suppose it can’t be avoided because since my wife died 10 months ago I have become an unwilling member of a special interest group: call it Widower Americans, or Recently Bereaved Americans (RBA for short; let’s define “recent” as up to two years, at which point it’s generally deemed socially acceptable for your family and friends to start telling you to suck it up and start dating again, because it’s time to move on). How can I get non-members of this group to understand how I feel when others say they’re “grieving” or “in mourning” or, gag me with a spoon, “sitting Shivah” as a result of the 2016 election (which gets double bonus points for offending me both as a bereaved person AND a Jew)?

Please, people, let’s clarify our terms: saying you’re “in mourning” because your candidate lost an election is an insult to the genuinely grieving.

Even if approximately half of the US population now knows something of what it’s like to be a widower (because Hillary’s candidacy died, along with their vicarious hopes and dreams that went with it), that still doesn’t make it OK to say you’re grieving.

You go into mourning when your spouse dies, or your parent or sister or best friend. Not when your favored candidate blows an election. Period.

I’m not denying that people are lately feeling upset, devastated, horrified. So am I. I don’t lack empathy for what they’re feeling. I don’t deny that a lot of people are in shock. When they talk of sleeping an excessive amount (guilty of same since Donna died), or gaining weight (I’ve packed on some 20 pounds this year), I can relate.

Still, when liberals say they’re “grieving” it hits me like cultural appropriation. That’s what I’d call it whether it comes across as insensitive mocking or grief tourism, hanging with the cool kids— the way I imagine Native Americans feel when they see Cleveland Indians fans donning headdresses and war paint at the ballpark — or a more complicated case of a misguided but apparently sincere desire to “pass” as an oppressed minority (see Rachel Dolezal). You want identity politics? You’ve got it. If you’re not an RBA, don’t try to come off as one.

As this Boston Globe article makes clear, grief counseling for despairing liberals is a real thing — as is the predictable response from Trump supporters in the comments section, as they crow about the need for boot camps for the “snowflakes” and “wimps” who have been cosseted their entire lives with participation medals and talk of being “special” and are totally unprepared to deal with defeat of any kind, and need to, as many Star Trek fans have been told for years, “get a life.”

Although I don’t think people who say they’re “in mourning” should be mocked in this fashion (that’s Trumpstyle bullying, plain and simple), I do see them as seriously misguided. In general, I’d say to anyone: if you haven’t lost anyone close to you, STFU. If you have, you should know better than to equate personal loss with political defeat. Death is permanent: your person is gone from the world, forever. Politics is transient and temporary; today’s victor may be defeated in a couple of years, forced to resign, even sent to prison. If your candidate lost the election, you might want to organize, recruit, and work for a better candidate next time. That’s not to say I’m not deeply depressed about this election and the coming horror show that seems as inevitable as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: at this point we can all see that the ocean has withdrawn, and we’re waiting for the deluge to flood the village. But to me, talk of “grieving” and “mourning” is still insulting.

When McCain lost in 2008 and when Romney lost in 2012, to my knowledge no Republicans went around saying they were “grieving” or “in mourning.” This is one reason why they ridicule liberals. Yes, I know: Donald Trump is different. He’s appalling, ignorant and dangerous, the people around him are appalling and dangerous in similar degree and a real threat to democracy as we’ve known it for our entire lives. I’m still offended by talk of “grief” over an election. Grief is when your spouse or parent or child dies. Politics is temporary stuff, it is. The pendulum swings back and forth.

People have picked fights with me on Facebook recently when I expressed these feelings. You’re not respecting or honoring my feelings, they say.

Since when are your feelings sacrosanct or beyond discussion, I’d reply. You seem not to respect mine at all.

As I wrote in a previous post, we need a new word or term for the feeling this election has engendered. Not mourning or grieving. Perhaps ‘electoral shrouding’ would be OK, or ‘election-loss hangover.’

And if we can all be a bit more sensitive toward each other’s perspective, that would be a good place to start to plan our next moves.

The day my wife died

I’ve been writing about a lot of different subjects for a long time, much of it for publication, plenty that nobody’s ever seen besides me.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of writing. But I’ve dreaded putting these following paragraphs on paper; it was a task that called to me to be done, but I procrastinated from one day to the next. And finally here I am sitting in Donna’s old office, at her desk, typing these words on her computer screen (get it over with; you’ll feel better).

I never intended to write confessionals, but getting personal is what I’ve been doing over the past several years, even — sort of — against my will. I’ve struggled with deciding when something gets too personal — when a writer’s instinct to lay it all out there conflicts with my own need for privacy, and for respecting the privacy of family members and friends.

I don’t know whether reading this will help anyone, whether it’s any good, whether it will even speak to anyone else’s experience. This is something no writer really knows, no matter how much success they’ve had or failed to have.

Write what you know, they say. This is a story I was intimately involved with. I was a witness to my wife’s death. This is what I experienced that day.

At the start of the day my wife Donna died, January 19, 2016, I was as hopeful as I’d been for the past two weeks she’d been in intensive care that she would live.

It started out as just another Tuesday — well, not really, because Donna had been in an ICU in a specialty hospital in San Antonio, nearly 100 miles from our home, for the past two weeks, fighting for her life.

I began the day in the most prosaic way possible, dropping off our dog at a local groomer. Right after doing this, my cell phone rang; it was one of Donna’s doctors. I don’t even remember the words he said to me, as I stood there in the parking lot outside the groomer’s, but it was something about Donna’s situation having worsened, that it was gravely serious, and that I needed to come to the hospital.

I think I must have shut off the part of my brain that was trying to tell me, “She’s dying; you have to be by her side.” I’m not even sure, but I think I went directly to the office where I was working at the time. I must have stayed there for one or two hours, my brain in turmoil; I then called Donna’s sister Kathy (not her real name), who had flown down from New Jersey and had been staying with us since shortly after Donna was admitted. We took turns driving down to San Antonio and visiting her in shifts; my 10-year-old twins had remained at home with one of us. I had last stayed with Donna for several days, through ups and downs, mostly downs. Donna had initially been intubated and unable to speak; the tube was later removed, but she had drifted in and out of consciousness, the transfusions, draining of abdominal ascites, and sedation characteristic of end-stage cirrhosis taking an awful toll on her.

I drove home and spoke to Kathy, who was standing in the living room, clearly distressed. “Donna has had a cardiac event,” she said. Those exact words. For the past two weeks Donna had struggled with a stubborn bacterial infection that made it impossible for her to be placed on the list for a liver transplant. Now, her heart had become so weakened that it put even a remote chance of a transplant out of reach.

Donna was in pain and had no chance of recovery.

We had to let her go.

“I’m so sorry,” Kathy said, and we hugged, and I said “I’m sorry, too.”

We quickly gathered our things and departed for San Antonio; the twins were in school, and Kathy had arranged for a family friend to come and care for them until we came home.

Kathy and I pulled into the hospital parking lot at around 4 p.m. and threaded our way down a series of corridors leading to the other end of the hospital, through a large set of double doors, into the room where Donna lay unconscious. We were met by a local social worker I’d been in contact with for the past two weeks, a religious Christian woman — I’ll call her Judith — who was, somewhat incongruously, working for a Jewish agency.

“This is it? There’s no hope?” I blurted out to a young female nurse, who, with a stricken face, nodded agreement.

One staffer explained that Donna would be removed from all life-support equipment and placed on a morphine drip to ease her pain.

It is an indescribably sad thing to watch someone you love get sick and die, and not be able to do anything about it. And there was nothing to do but wait, and wait.

As I sat by my wife, helpless and dying, her body exhausted and spent from an awful ordeal, I thought: How had it come to this, that a strong, vibrant woman — who had once pedaled hundreds of miles a week on a racing bicycle, who thought nothing of lifting an upright bass over her head to carry it through the audience after performing at a piano bar, who had thought nothing of staying up all night club-hopping and going down to the beach with friends after work, then going right back to work in the morning — would end up in an anonymous hospital room, eyes closed, waiting for the end?

Kathy, Judith and I kept watch over Donna for nearly six hours.

At one point I asked Kathy and Judith to leave the room for a few minutes so I could be alone with Donna; they did, and I then told Donna some things which are none of your business.

I had brought a laptop — Donna’s old laptop — and we played song after song on YouTube, a very eclectic mix of her favorites. Mel Torme, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Kirsty MacColl (the musician whose death brought us together to begin with), “They Don’t Know.” Slam Stewart and Major “Mule” Holley (Donna had known Holley in her Village days in the ’80s and credited him with teaching her a great deal, and not just about playing the upright bass). The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which I played, obsessively, over and over for several weeks after Donna’s death.

And on, and on, as the sun set. Donna was sleeping, peaceful, quiet, unconscious.

At one point I filled out a form with information that would be used on Donna’s death certificate.

After 9:30 p.m., the end drew near. The nurses gathered in the ICU, one of them, a male nurse with a stethoscope, ready to make an official pronouncement. He put the stethoscope in place and listened.

“She still has a heartbeat.”

And then, some minutes later, the stethoscope again, and in a quiet voice he said:

“She passed.”

Alive (in an earthly body)

______________________________________________________________

Dead (or “crossed over”)

Kathy, Judith, and I hugged.

I got to say goodbye.

And just felt empty inside.

I had been wearing an old flannel shirt for the purpose of tearing off the pocket at the time of Donna’s death — an old Jewish tradition — which I did, and promptly removed the shirt and tossed it in the trash.

What good did it do, to witness Donna’s death? I don’t know. I know I had to be there, that it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t be, but I found no comfort in it.

In the end, what of value was accomplished by my being there? To die inside, along with Donna?

I couldn’t and still can’t comprehend what the world had lost. What my family had lost. What I had lost.

The music. The writing. The wit and the laughter. The caring. The art of living. The way of being. The love.

The great, great knowledge of so many things. Cooking such wonderful, carefully crafted meals. Expert parenting. Rare insight into people and their problems. Taking photographs of a high professional standard. The memories. So many things, never forgotten, now impossible to retrieve outside of texts previously set down.

Donna! 

The water is wide, I can’t cross over.

At least not yet.

And now, what?

Suffering through a long illness — whether it’s cancer, AIDS, liver disease, or whatever — is inevitably referred to as “fighting a brave battle” against death. Versus what — welcoming it with open arms?  I think we aren’t really supposed to know what happens after we die. If we knew how great it was, there would be mass suicides everywhere. Perhaps.

Perhaps Donna was put on earth (among many other things) to teach my soul how to be more human — more compassionate, more loving, more fully integrated into our deeply flawed, always challenging, but also vibrant world.

But then, why did she have to die so that I could fully amalgamate this knowledge into my own soul?

In other words, she saved my life, but I couldn’t save hers.

Time is now both my worst enemy and best friend.

Because, and this I believe: time is taking me simultaneously ever farther away from Donna, and ever closer to our ultimate reunion.

I know how Donna died.

But as long as I live, I will never know why.

Alone Again (Unnaturally): On Changes and Such

OK, so, several things here.

First off: The widowed thing, once again. Really?

THAT again? Haven’t you said enough about it already? asks one of my nine faithful readers.

Sorry to be so single-minded, but…well, you know, these days it’s kind of unavoidable.

As is a mandatory thing for the recently widdered, I’ve been delving into widdablogs and grieflit hither and yon, trying to make Sense Out Of The Thing That Maketh Not Sense. As with anything, the quality varies widely; there’s a lot of schlock out there (save me from all those awful country songs), but also much beauty. Because my mind functions oddly (always has), I especially appreciate blogs that find the humor in such a manifestly unfunny situation; this award-winning British blog is a shining example (the writer’s also done a book).

To take a leaf from the great Irish writer Myles na gCopaleen’s parody of the Catechism:

Q: What does one do when one’s spouse dies?

A: One reels.

(I input “reeling from his wife’s death” into Google, and came up with some 15,200 results. “Reeling from her husband’s death” is even more popular: 17,200 results. Clearly, reeling is the thing to do; it’s what all the cool bereaved kids are doing. Reeling in the years, then, reeling and listing and rocking and rolling and suchlike uncontrolled motion.)

It’s soon drummed into all fresh widderfolk (spousal-death toddlers?) that each loss is as unique as each individual life, and that even the same person’s death is felt differently by everyone close to them. As a corollary, I might add that although losing a spouse changes you irrevocably, it doesn’t change you into a totally different person. If you were basically good, kind and compassionate before being widowed, you will continue to be so afterwards, but certain character traits may be intensified or bent in unforeseen ways. One worldly literary acquaintance of mine writes elegantly of her increased empathy for victims of diverse tragedies resulting from terrorism and geopolitical chaos. On the other hand, if you were a son of a bitch before losing your wife, you’ll probably remain one afterwards.

So I wouldn’t say I’m better or worse, just somewhat different. A more honest person: yes. Less afraid to speak my mind: check. Less afraid to offend when it’s warranted (at least in my mind): uh huh. I’ve always been resistant to follow trends and crowds, more inclined to go my own stubborn way; now, even more so. I have no patience with the tired tropes of the widowed (so many of whom I find little common cause with, except for, you know, that one thing), the assumptions of how I’m supposed to be now, how I’m supposed to behave. If that makes me a worse person in your opinion, so be it — again, I care so much less what other people think of me, am so much less afraid to be myself. If not now, when? What else can they do to me?

In the end, I figure, how I am is between me and my late wife.

In my experience, liver disease is as bad as cancer both in terms of how it affects its victims and their families, and the way it turns lives upside down (and sometimes ends them), but it doesn’t have cancer’s press agent; it’s not as much in the public space. It’s still acceptable in some quarters to make cirrhosis jokes. (No, I hasten to explain when asked how she died, Donna wasn’t an alcoholic; no, she didn’t die from excessive drinking.) Although she had been ill for well over a year, I never expected her to actually die until the actual day; perhaps naive, but also, to my mind, unthinkable, but true. And although, unlike some widowed folk, I got to say goodbye in person, it was also the worst experience I’ve ever been through, nor will I ever get over it.

I know: that’s not very funny. But it can ultimately be emboldening, in a the-hell-with-it kind of way.

Recently I commented on a post made by an old friend on Facebook, someone I’d known in Boston in the ’80s. She was a writer of some talent and a traveler in the underground zine scene, making her way post-college scribbling various screeds. In the decades since she’d combined a straight day job with various underground zine-y pursuits. After she posted something about her latest endeavor, I reacted negatively, calling it uninteresting (I don’t want to get into specifics to maintain privacy). When a friend of hers asked what I meant, I responded with an expletive. She then messaged me and called my response “out of character, rude and unwarranted.” Which was true enough, but I messaged her back thusly:

“Don’t care anymore, will call bullshit for what it is. I’m actually very disappointed with your life and career. You could have been a writer of promise but chose to throw it away on stuff very few people care about. I’ve reached a point in my life where I will say what I think and don’t care if it ruffles feathers. You should be doing significant work, not stupid zine-y crap like this. Sorry to hurt feelings but someone should be the one to tell you that as far as I can see you’re wasting your life.”

For some reason she took offense to this, and de-friended and blocked me. I wasn’t surprised, but I also don’t regret it. The truth was, it was incredibly refreshing to, at last, tell someone what I really thought of them, or more specifically, their “artistic endeavors.”

And so I’ve realized, as have so many others before me: There is a whole lot of power and satisfaction in giving zero fucks. Some good may actually come from it, certainly in terms of self-actualization. (Thank you, Untimely Death Fairy. Thank you soooooo much.)

LWD (Life Without Donna) continues, as it has a tendency to do. So does my relationship with Donna, which remains the most important one in my life. I see no need to apologize for that. There’s a lot of bitterness, but also sweetness, and if memories are all I have to hold onto right now, that’s still a whole lot better than nothing.

I think of the famous opening line of the movie (originally a play by Robert Anderson) I Never Sang For My Father: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.”

Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.

Just one quick thought

I really, really hate those news stories about a married couple, usually in their 90s, who were married for 65 years and die within hours of each other.

Okay, they probably had a pretty good marriage. But did they have a BETTER marriage than a couple who died five years apart, or 12 years, or 27 years? (That would be 99.99 percent of us.)

I don’t think you could say that.

Did Grandma and Grandpa have a more intense romance, a purer love, than couples who have the misfortune to suffer a premature death of one of them? Did they survive as long as they did because they loved each other more than couples who didn’t croak off within the same 24-hour period?

Again, I don’t think so. I think it was just the luck of the draw — that, plus that we’re also talking about two very old people who were both ready to die in any case.

I think the majority of married couples — reasonably happy ones, anyway — don’t want to contemplate being widowed, and I don’t blame them. Most of them would hope to go at the same time, although most sane ones would admit it’s statistically quite improbable.

But let’s not imply that dying at the same time is the proof of having had a better marriage than the rest of us, or that they were better people.

Because that’s just not the case.

 

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.

_____________________________________________________________

If you enjoyed this story (even if perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word), please follow and tell your friends.

Remarks on the Dedication of a Bench in a Park

This is the (slightly edited) speech I delivered at Robinson Playground Park, Austin, on the occasion of the dedication of a memorial bench in honor of my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, on June 15, 2016.

Thank you all for coming.

As I wrote to Donna early in our relationship, “Remembering someone while sitting on a park bench, with the breezes on your face and life going on around you, is just infinitely better than having to travel to a cemetery.” At the time, I didn’t have this in mind. But I think Donna would like the idea of having her memorial next to a children’s playground. She was so involved with life herself, in all its complexity and capacity for joy.

 

Although I knew Donna had at one time held the status of a minor celebrity in certain parts of Manhattan, it wasn’t until her final illness that I realized how beloved she was to so many, and indeed might have been the human equivalent of an indispensable public institution.

Even now, nearly five months later, with summer upon us, it’s still hard to believe she’s gone. And I don’t really think she is. Someone who was always such a forceful presence in the room, such a key observer, commentator, and participant in the daily comedy, drama and occasional farce that defines life on Earth, can’t just vanish without a trace. I still have the need to speak with her, to check in, to help me find my center, my core humanity and decency.

Donna will be remembered not because of this bench, and certainly not because of me, but because of all the things she did during her lifetime.

Donna Young – an extraordinary person hiding behind a common name – started life in Newark, New Jersey, taking up the double bass at the age of eight, learning recorder and clarinet and several other instruments along the way. She always said she never needed to learn how to read music; she just knew. She played for years in symphony orchestras and chamber groups. Later, when she tired of the politics of the classical world, she became the go-to bassist of choice in the smaller but very happening universe of cabaret rooms and piano bars in Manhattan, playing in shows and helping to put some of them together. She was good at what she did, and she loved the shows and the company of her friends. Even in the last year of her life, missing the camaraderie, she got together a small group of lovers of the Great American Songbook, calling it the Northwest Austin Cabaret-Piano Bar Casuals. And so we had evenings where people came and played and sang in our living room, with Donna, of course, on bass. It was fun while it lasted, if all too short-lived. I’m so glad she got to do that.

Within the context of an orchestra, the bass is aptly named, as it’s the foundation of everything. As one of Donna’s musician friends put it to me, the bassline supports every instrumental part above it. As, too, within our family Donna was our base and foundation.

Donna always liked the classics, whether it was music, literature, fashion, jewelry, architecture, even vintage cars. She was quite comfortable having so many tastes in common with her parents’ and even grandparents’ generation, from the ’30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Mel Tormé, and the composers and lyricists of the great Broadway musicals, which of course meshed so well with her partners in crime in the cabaret rooms.

Donna’s story in Austin, in the 21st century, is connected with becoming a mother relatively late in life, dealing with having a child with special needs and advocating for him and others like him, and becoming a role model and inspiration for other mothers with whom she networked locally and nationally. Alongside me, she was also the co-moderator for the Austin Freecycle Network, which I founded but couldn’t have run nearly as effectively without Donna. Together, we encouraged people to recycle thousands of items that would have otherwise been thrown out.

Donna was steadfast in her beliefs and her actions. She wouldn’t accept anything less from herself than her best, and she constantly encouraged me and our boys and gave us her love. Whatever she did, she put her heart and soul into and excelled at, whether it was music, photography, writing, cooking, or parenting. Donna was as human as anyone else, but she was always herself. She lived at the intersection of logic and compassion, of activism and empathy, with a ton of wit and fun and laughter. She did things her way. You were just happy to come along for the ride.

When I think about what it is that I owe Donna, I end up thinking that it’s pretty much everything important.

When I think of the most meaningful moments of my life, the greatest moments, the most profound moments, they are inevitably, and inextricably, connected with her. I know that she has made me a far better person.

Before I met Donna, I’d never met anyone else like her.

And I’m certain I’ll never meet anyone like her again.

I know that we are here on earth, for all too short a journey, to love each other, and care for each other, and if we’re lucky, to create something beautiful that will survive us.

And Donna did all of that.

Even though she was so sadly taken from her boys before they had even gotten to celebrate their eleventh birthdays, I know that however long they live, Luka and Leo will be forever blessed by their mother’s influence, her caring, her warrior’s spirit and her precious love, and that’s something nobody can ever take away. Nor can anyone take away the years Donna and I had together.

Thomas Wolfe was one of Donna’s favorite authors. This is her copy of his first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.” These lines from the beginning of the book were significant to her:

A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile…Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

Back in mid-August of 2001, shortly before Donna and I would have our first face-to-face meeting in New York, we were emailing each other on the subject of free will vs. predestination, because why not, and we both agreed that we hated the phrase “It was God’s will.”

Donna wrote this to me, and I’d like you to hear it in her own words:

“The whole ‘God’s will’ thing is beyond me. I understand why people say it; they’re at a loss for something comforting to say. Not to wrap this up in religion, but this is why I could never buy into any sort of concrete notion of God, because it makes no sense that someone’s just pulling our strings as though we’re helpless marionettes. I didn’t buy that as a kid, and I don’t buy it now. I’m all for free will, but I also believe there are other forces at work.

“And that brings us to coincidence — that’s a different thing. I confess to having several friends who make their living at being psychics, whatever that might mean. I mention that because they maintain that certain unique opportunities inevitably come our way, and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to cast fear and expectations aside and take advantage of them.

“For the past four or five months I’ve had quite a few people telling me that there are no coincidences, too — and given the events of this year, I’d have to agree.”

And then Donna quotes from another Wolfe novel, “Of Time and the River”:

Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth. Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.

“Again,” Donna wrote to me, “I hate to keep going back to death, but if there’s any blessing to it, it’s that it forces us to take a closer look at our lives. When I was sick, it was surprisingly easy for me to arrive at a certain peace with the prospect of death, and though I was committed to fighting it all the way, I was okay because I’d come to accept the presence of a certain energy, if you will, the wind and the rivers, something that propels us, something more than just a will to live.”

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that one day, we’ll be together again. Until then, this is true for me:

Whenever I hear my boys laughing, or any children laughing, Donna’s there; whenever I hear music that moves me, Donna’s there; whenever our family gets together to share a meal, or whenever someone decorates a Christmas tree, Donna’s there.

Whenever someone helps a friend out of a pure and unselfish desire to give of themselves, Donna’s there. And whenever two people hug and say they love each other, Donna’s there.

In the going out and in the coming in, in the rising of the wind and in the flowing of the rivers; and in all our hopes and dreams for a better world.

Thank you for everything, Donna. We love you, forever.

Donna_boat_photo_Gofundme