Category Archives: Donna Young Eichenwald

And So, One Year On

Today marks one year since the passing of my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, about whom I’ve written a great deal since.

donna_swimsuit_june_1982_edited

Donna, June 1982

Some say that when a loved one dies it seems as if time grinds to a halt. In my experience, it’s more that time’s fabric begins to warp in all directions. Sometimes it seems like decades, sometimes hours. It makes you realize what an artificial construct is time, how inadequate the usual ways we mark its passage, how hollow the ceremonies. And it does still seem like she was here just yesterday.

 
 For several well-known reasons, the past year has been an extremely difficult one for many of us. For me it will always, and far above all, mark the first year I’ve spent without Donna around since I first encountered her via a brief email she sent me some sixteen years ago. She wasn’t just anyone, after all — she was THE Donna Young, and it’s my eternal honor to have been married to her. This photo shows her at 22 — almost 23 — long before we met.
What really strikes me is just when we most needed Donna, I and the many others who loved her were forced to do without her — her wit, warmth, insight, generosity, empathy, multiple talents, and the unique way she went through life in general.
Donna was one of the best expressions of what humanity is capable of producing. Although I know nobody can ever replace her, I continue to be inspired by her life, her example, and the light she shone forth, in which we thrived and reveled.
Donna was very human. And I know I contradict myself, but she is with us still.
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The Year of the Unthinkable: Reaping the Whirlwind and All That

Think of this as one of those Facebook posts that get out of hand and you start writing one thing after another, and your Facebook friends have to click “more” and then scroll down, and scroll some more, until turning back there is none. So indulge me.

Really, I blame the Chicago Cubs. Their World Series victory fractured the delicate equilibrium of the universe and let loose the genie from the bowinteriscomingttle, ushering in the apocalypse. Yeah, that makes as much sense to me as anything. Let’s go with that. Fuck the Cubs. This is on them.

What does 11/9 feel like (that’s the American 11/9, November 9, month first, for my European readers)? 11/9, the new 9/11 (“9/11 we’ll never forget, 11/9 we’ll always regret,” as some Twitterers have it). 1938: Kristallnacht in Germany. 1989: The Berlin Wall falls. 2016: Trump upsets Clinton. Four days of massive disruption, one of them good, three really, really bad.

What does this 11/9 feel like? The day after 9/11. Lennon’s murder. Maybe Princess Diana’s death. Or Jackie Kennedy marrying Ari Onassis. Or Kirsty MacColl killed by a millionaire’s speedboat. The dream is not only dead, it’s been stomped, shredded, and passed through the digestive system of a mule.

We have gone down the rabbit hole. There is no escape.

In the end, nothing could save us. Investigative journalism didn’t help. Sketches on SNL didn’t help. The Access Hollywood tape didn’t help. Bruce Springsteen, Gaga and Beyoncé didn’t help. Joe Biden didn’t help. Even Barack and Michelle, bless ’em and we’ll miss ’em, didn’t help.

For some of you, 2016 has been a year filled with death, loss, and major disruption, either long-distance (Bowie, Prince et al.) or too close for comfort. Some of you have spoken of waking up from a nightmare and then realizing it was real, of curling up in a fetal position, of finding solace in getting very drunk or stoned (silly me, the only remotely comforting thing I had on hand that night besides my kids was ice cream), and that last night was the worst night of your life.

Since my wife Donna died just last January, which still seems like only a few weeks ago, this isn’t even close to being the worst night, or day, of my life (or second, or third, or fourth, and way on down the line). One of the advantages of getting older is that you have reference points, things to compare bad experiences to when they happen, to be guideposts. Still, the election of 2016 is…something new. At one point late last night, I realized that about half of the country suddenly had some insight, if limited, in what it was like to be a widower. Hillary, rest in peace. Yes, she was a flawed candidate and not the most exciting politician in the world, but capable of reasonable governing and moving the country forward. First woman president dreams, rest in peace (at least for the time being). Snide memes about smashing the patriarchy, rest in peace. Lesson: Don’t count your chickens. Be humble. Lose the entitlement aura. Work for what you want. Don’t just care about yourself. Work for the common good, if such a thing still exists.

I might also add that saying you’re “in mourning” or “grieving” because your candidate lost an election is an insult to the genuinely grieving. This is something I unfortunately have firsthand knowledge of. You go into mourning when your spouse dies, or your parent or sister or best friend. Not when Hillary Clinton blows an election she should have by all rights have won (and by the way, it’s all right to be angry with her about that; I know I am. To appropriate a Massachusetts reference from a few years back, she’s become Hillary Rodham Coakley, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the best pre-2004 Red Sox fashion).

We need a new word for the feeling this election has engendered. Not mourning or grieving. Perhaps ‘electoral shrouding’ would be OK.

Donna would have been appalled at this seemingly endless election campaign, and certainly at its unbelievable actual end. She had strong opinions; she didn’t march in lockstep with anyone but was in general a progressive Democrat with a heart and an activist bent. She marched, wrote, posted online, stuck bumper stickers on her car and placards on our lawn, block-walked with local candidates and even hosted an event for one. She could argue with the best of them and hold her position against the most skilled enemy volleys. Yet she maintained friendships with women holding diametrically opposed political views and was able to separate the person from their politics, a vanishing skill. She saw commonalities, sympathized with struggles. I hope I can live up to her example.

Many of you have spent the last year warning ever more shrilly of the danger Trump poses to the republic, our shared values, or what’s left of them. Now, on November 9, we can’t just say “Forget it, it doesn’t matter.” Because it does.

Unlike some of you, I’m not looking for a silver lining or making jokes (at least not any more than I can help). I don’t see any silver lining, don’t think this is funny at all. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, even antisemitism have won the day. Don’t let fascism take over. Protest when you must, when you feel you can make a difference. Write. Sing. Paint. Code. Tend your garden. Donna wouldn’t think of expatting, if that’s even a verb.

And a special note for those friends of mine who live and die with politics and elections: I admire your fortitude, but if you tie your personal happiness to which candidate wins, which policies become law, and which pols do and don’t let you down, you will, without a doubt, condemn yourself to a life of misery which will only deepen with the years. If you don’t have one, find yourself a meaningful life outside of politics, or sports, or TV show.

Frankly, I’m way too exhausted at this point to even think of tackling a “to-do list” or “get back to work,” as some of you suggest, to further try to usher in the socialist workers’ utopia that never actually arrives. I’m getting older every day and though I’m fighting the urge to say “I’m done,” I’ll just say I’m done for now.

What did I tell my kids the next morning? I told them that I’m sorry Trump won, and that I didn’t vote for him. Then I sent them off to school.

Live from the rabbit hole, I’m T. Coraghessan Eichenwald. Back to you, Chet and Nat.

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.

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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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

The soundtrack of grief

Donna_Aug_27_2007

Donna, 2007

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new to this blog. Sadly, I’ve had other things on my mind since before the new year. If you haven’t heard, my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, a really exceptional and good person known to readers of this blog as Mrs. Pogoer, died on January 19 of complications from nonalcoholic liver disease. You can find her obituary here.

Donna was way too young to leave us, and she sure as hell didn’t want to, and hundreds of people prayed for her, but she just couldn’t beat this horrible illness. I’m working on a proper memorial site for her, but in the meanwhile, consider this blog a general vent.

What does it feel like to lose your spouse? A common reaction among friends who haven’t gone through this is “I can’t even imagine.” So let me try…it’s sort of like the world ended, only you’re somehow still standing amid the wreckage, disbelieving. So I suppose I can say I can’t even imagine, either, even though the Most Horrible Thing Just Happened.

It’s not getting better, and although nobody wants to go on what I’m hearing over and over again is a “grief journey,” I suppose that’s the forced march I’m embarked upon. I don’t know what’s at the end of this particular yellow brick road (I know it ain’t the Wizard of Oz), but since Donna and I were both focused on music and songs to an unusual degree — she was a professional musician, I’m a professional audience member — and our earliest email correspondence constantly referenced music, songs, composers and musicians, it’s not surprising that I’ve been trying to find appropriate compositions to help me through the long, silent hours without her.

Here are a few other things I know:

  1. No disrespect to them, but it’s hard to give a shit about Bowie, Prince, or that actor from that old TV show you liked when you’re grieving the death of your wife, best friend, and mother of your children. At such times it’s good to give a wide berth to Facebook and Twitter, lest your anger multiply at reading professions of “grief” from people who don’t have a fucking clue what the real thing is about. Nothing makes me feel more isolated from most of humanity than reading these faux-grief screeds from people who never met the recently departed rock star du jour while you’re processing your own, endlessly painful, personal loss. (At this point, Donna would advise me: “If you don’t want to read it, don’t bother reading it; it has nothing to do with you.” She was right, but I can’t help it sometimes.)
  2. Even if you do have a fucking clue, I don’t want to hear about how much you’re going to miss some rock musician. Get over it.
  3. I don’t wish it on anyone, but if you live long enough the real thing is guaranteed to hit you at some point, whether it’s six months from now or 50 years, and at that time you’re going to know the difference between grieving for your husband or wife and grieving for Bowie, Prince, or Lou Reed.
  4. Although I do have a special place in my heart for Kirsty MacColl, and I would be genuinely upset if Jonathan Richman, Chrissie Hynde, or Christy McWilson, to name a few, died before the age of, say, 90. Call me a hypocrite.
  5. Nobody ever said the grief process was logical.
  6. After a Death That Matters So Much, you just want to stay in bed all the time, occasionally screaming. You subconsciously (or maybe consciously) wouldn’t mind if you had a heart attack and died pretty soon. After all, what does it matter anymore? Yes, I know, there are the boys. They need a dad. Okay, okay. Don’t need a lecture from you.
  7. Spare me the schlocky sentiments about how “God must have wanted another angel” or “He only takes the best.” Or the absolute worst thing you could say, “It was God’s will.” No, actually, he takes everyone, and anyway, how do you know what God wants? And it it was God’s will, then fuck God.I much prefer “God couldn’t save him/her and is grieving along with you.” Let’s go with that. I think Donna would agree.
  8. Formerly happy (or at least harmless) occasions become toxic grief triggers. Let’s go through my personal calendar, shall we?   a) The anniversary of her death (Jan. 19); b) the twins’ birthday (Feb. 7); c) Valentine’s Day; d) our wedding anniversary (April 13); e) Mother’s Day; f) Father’s Day, ’cause why not; g) her birthday (July 11) (special added bonus, ’cause it’s my birthday too!); h) the anniversary of the day we met (Aug. 24, a minor holiday in our house); i) Thanksgiving; j) Christmas, with the tree and the presents and so many significant memories and everything, yay! Not to mention every other day of the year for one reason or another, or whenever some rock star dies and the faux grief displays take over Facebook like fireworks on the Fourth. Oh, and in case I forgot: Happy New Year!
  9. Bitter? Who’s bitter? No, let the world do without a selfless, giving, brilliant, multitalented woman who only wanted to play music, raise her kids right, and give good advice to her family and friends.
  10. I know there is a life beyond this one, and it’s probably so nice that if more facts about it were know, there would be a massive wave of suicides across the globe. But it doesn’t make getting left behind any easier. At this point I don’t know whether I should pray for Donna, or she should pray for me.
  11. Does Donna’s death make a mockery of her search for happiness, or mine, or the happy ending we both thought we’d found when we found each other in a demonstration of the sublime mysteries of the universe? No, it doesn’t. But at the moment, it’s impossible for me to find light in this darkness.
  12. Of course I know why the fuss over the dead rock stars is so irksome. To the rest of us, commenting on the dead rock star is just something to do, a way to fill the void. But to you, the very personal loss you suffered meant everything. You just want others to acknowledge it, too.
  13. Some of my friends on Facebook have never been married and are childless, and are well into their 50s. Their deepest relationship appears to be with their dog. Nothing against dogs, but at least I know what it’s like to be married and have a family, and I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs, even with all the pain that loss brings.