I’ve been thinking about family lately. My friend D is in New York visiting his mom, who’s been in the hospital for a week or so. Over the past several years, D, and more recently his fiancée, R, have become the closest thing I have to family. I long ago lost faith that unconditional love actually exists. Certainly I’ve been so fucked up for so long that I stopped believing I deserved it. Tirelessly, they have been peeling back the layers of my defenses and forcing me to see my own humanity once again. They have been loving me, and though I’ve struggled with it at times, I’m desperate to embrace it. They’re not afraid to know me at my core, the damaged me, the vulnerable me, the me that I don’t show anyone, ever, because the pain of rejection, of betrayal, long ago became too much to bear.
One hundred and eleven days ago I was pretty strung out on dope. I’d been living in a closet in some shithole in Boston, terrified that the cops, or worse yet the dealer I owed money to, would be coming through the door any day. I was sick and freezing and didn’t want to live to see another sunrise. One hundred and ten days ago, D and R opened their lives wide open to me. They took me into their home, they cleaned me up, they cared for me, they brought me back from the hell that I’d been in for so long. They’ve become my family in every way that matters. Far more so than those with whom I share DNA.
Anyway. That’s a story for another post to be sure. For now, suffice to say that D’s visit with his mom has tapped a deep well of emotion in me as I think of him at his mom’s bedside, visiting with her, caring for her, loving her.
I’m tired tonight. I haven’t been sleeping. The vague punchiness I experience with fatigue began as I closed my eyes and recalled one of the last conversations I had with my cousin several years ago. I held the phone listening to my cousin talk. I was happy she had called. After 45 minutes of animated chat, she said she had to get going, and promised we’d talk again soon. I was a little sad when we hung up. That wasn’t unusual. There was always a lot of noise when we were on the phone together. A lot of laughing and sharing of stories. When we hung up, the silence was deafening.
That memory hit me hard tonight. Alone in this hotel, curled up on the chair with only my computer screen illuminating the room, I suddenly had the feeling of being in a Stanley Kubrick movie.
How to put this. In his movies, I think there’s a kind of vast silence underneath everything. It’s an expression of detachment and alienation. So I guess now’s as good a time as any to write about family.
For the first 8 years of my life, I was raised primarily by my grandmother and grandfather. I cherish the memories I have of that time with my grandparents. Their house was always warm and safe and full of love. I remember sitting quietly with my grandmother on the sofa, snuggled under her arm for hours as she sewed. And I remember the wondrous aromas that came from her tiny kitchen on a daily basis. At night she would read to me and kiss me on the forehead as she tucked me in under a quilt that she had made herself.
Besides my grandparents, the one thing I could always count on when I was growing up was my relationship with my cousins. Until I was 10 I was the only child in the family living in Boston. I had cousins—on my father’s side—in Ireland, and I had cousins in Maine, but I was it in Boston. I had three cousins in Maine. I was close with all of them, but the oldest and I shared a special bond. From the beginning she was more like a sister to me than anything. Though we lived in different states, we saw each other fairly frequently and often talked on the phone and wrote each other letters (this was long before email…when we actually used pen and paper). When I knew she was coming to visit I would talk about it for days before she arrived. I could hardly sleep the day before she came, and I was a complete nut case on the expected day of arrival. My aunt was always running late and I would sit and stare out the window watching for their car to drive up the street.
I saw them mostly on holidays and school vacations. Those were undoubtedly the best days of my childhood. The four of us spent hours together playing and talking. We took long walks around the neighborhood and my oldest cousin would lead us on countless adventures. She could talk us into anything, and we usually ended up in trouble, but I for one would never have questioned her. We walked through the field in the back of our grandparent’s house and sat on the hammock, swinging back and forth lazily as she held our attention with countless stories. We climbed on the roof and hid out from the rest of the world, basking in the late-summer sun. Nothing else existed. I was happy.
Holidays with the family were always interesting. The only time my whole family got together was Thanksgiving. We would gather at my grandmother’s house and hold our breath hoping this year would be different. My family never could gather in one place without a war breaking out. To escape the insanity, my oldest cousin would lead her sisters and me down to the basement. We ruled our own little world down there and it served as our refuge from the madness of the adults. It was in that basement at the tender age of 11 that I shared my first bottle of rum with my cousin. Stumbling upstairs a few hours later, I was sure we were doomed. But the family seemed to think it was amusing.
The last great childhood adventure I had with my cousin was when I was 12 and she was 13. My grandparents took us on a 3-week road trip to meet our relatives down south. We rode in the back of my grandfather’s Buick and amused ourselves during the long hours of driving between stops. The trip was a coming-of-age for us both, and it was the last time we shared in such an adventure. I was Sal Paradise to her Dean Moriarty and we were “On the Road.” I had a sister for those 3 weeks, and all was right with the world.
My cousin is dead now. My family has been decimated by addiction and she too fell victim to it at an early age. One night several years ago during one of my short-lived attempts at sobriety I was asked by her sister to look for her and bring her in for help. Her sister knew I’d be able to find her, and I did. But instead of bringing her in, instead of keeping a level head when I saw how much trouble she was in, I succumbed to her pleas and my own demons. We both ended up using that night. I woke up from the nod. She did not.
More memories tonight. This time of one of the last times I saw my grandfather. I had left Boston around 2 and took the train into the town in which he lived. It just sort of happened. That’s not close to where I lived. But it’s where my grandfather lived and I needed to go there first. I took a cab from the train to his house and felt only a bit of hesitation as I ascended the steps. I was praying my uncle wouldn’t be there, and he wasn’t. My grandfather shuffled over to the door, carrying the tank of oxygen that had become a permanent fixture for him and greeted me with a warm smile. I spent the next hour or so catching up with him. I told him about my garden. He was proud. I knew he would be. He told me he was looking forward to bowling and poker starting up again in the fall. I kind of sat there unblinking, saddened by the thought that he was clearly fooling himself if he ever thought he’d be well enough to leave the house to play poker…forget bowl. He’d been an avid bowler for as long as I could remember. Poker player, too. I inherited neither of those proclivities. Addiction though, that one I got.
He looked old, my grandfather. Older than I remembered him. He was gaunt, his face drawn tightly and sunken around his skull. He was pale and worked hard for each breath he took. It broke my heart. Still, the first thing he did when I sat was ask me to have a cold one with him as he cracked open a Miller High Life. I’m good, I assured him, and poured myself a glass of lemonade. We talked for a few minutes about the Red Sox and the weather. Inevitably he brought up my grandmother. My heart sank as my eyes filled. I looked around the house that was for so long my home. It was still warm, but different, less familiar.
When he excused himself to use the restroom – an activity I was confident would take a while – I took the opportunity to roam around the house a bit, taking in the memories, and letting them wash over me. I started in the kitchen and was transported back instantly to the Thanksgivings and Easters past when my grandmother would be slaving away in this room, cooking and baking, filling the small house with the most amazing, mouth-watering aromas. Suddenly she was standing at the stove, stirring something on the range, asking me to turn up the radio, which was playing some Glenn Miller song or other. I turned it up and we danced – as much as one can dance to Glenn Miller – as she stirred and I taste-tested her latest concoction. Her hearty laugh filled the kitchen, bouncing off the faux-brick walls, filling me with joy and comfort. She pulled me close as the last notes played and I got a nose full of the scent that defined her: Estee Lauder dusting powder. God, how I loved that smell. She held tight for a moment, then kissed the top of my head and told me that she loved me more than the stars in the sky. “I love you infinity,” I replied.
I was thrust back to reality when I stole a glance around the room and noticed the two items that reminded me roughly that this was a scene that would never again play out. On the baker’s rack next to the refrigerator lay the folder that held the paperwork from Hospice, the folks that had been entrusted with her care in the final days. It was a blue folder and it contained everything from a list of her medications to notes on how she was feeling on a given day. The folder was thin because my grandmother died mere days after hospice was called in. The last nurse to see her left the folder there and it had never been moved. I wondered quietly to myself what the hell my family was thinking by leaving it there. The second item was just as devastating. My grandmother had this old block calendar hanging on the wall behind the back door in the kitchen. You’d have to move and turn the blocks to the appropriate number each day. It was tedious, but she loved it. I looked at the calendar and sure enough the date it reflected was thus: Wednesday, April 12, 2006. The day she died. Are you fucking kidding me? They erased her voice from the answering machine, but this they kept? It brought me back immediately to that horrible day.
I left the kitchen and made my way to her bedroom. Her pillow was still in its rightful place on the bed, covered in her pink silk pillow slip, her favorite. I lifted it and inhaled deeply. Then I lay down for just a minute and imagined her arms around me, singing me to sleep, protecting me from anything and everything that could hurt me. I started to cry just as I heard my grandfather emerge from the bathroom.
We sat for a while longer. I made him a sandwich: ham and cheese on wheat smothered with mayo, with a single leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato. He ate heartily, which I was pleased to see. At least he still enjoyed something. We made our way to the family room. He took his seat and I sank deeply into my grandmother’s recliner. How I wish she was there. I folded my legs up under me and rocked, imagining our last days together when she was in this chair and I was next to her, holding her hand, comforting her as she had so often done for me. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander as my grandfather provided commentary on each news story that came across CNN’s screen.
I spent the better part of the afternoon with my grandfather. Neither of us mentioned the cancer that was ravaging his body. He didn’t comment on how shitty I looked either, which was a relief. I left around 6, hugging him longer than I normally would before I walked back down the stairs to the waiting cab.
It’s amazing how memories like that can steal the breath from your lungs without warning. The memories have settled in around me tonight. As I type this I’m sitting on the little balcony of the hotel that has served as my home since shortly after I returned from California nearly 2 months ago. The oppressive warmth of this day has been replaced tonight by a crisp breeze that makes me shiver each time it blows. A few minutes ago I went inside to retrieve a sweater to wrap around my shoulders. I picked up my grandfather’s cardigan from the dresser and pulled it tightly around me. I keep my grandfather’s sweater and my grandmother’s apron with me because they are physical connections I have to people I loved so deeply that their absence made me less than whole.
As I enveloped myself in my grandfather’s sweater, I bent my head down to see if I could still detect his scent on it. I couldn’t, of course; it’s been 3 years since he passed. Still, I inhaled deeply as an image flashed in my mind’s eye of him wearing this sweater and his tweed fedora, whistling a Sinatra song as he walked out the front door to go play poker with his buddies, winking and smiling at me on the way out.
I wonder why when someone dear to us dies do we smell their clothing. I suppose anything that stimulates a visceral memory for us provides some desperately sought-after comfort. I wonder what, if anything, someone will keep to remember me by. Is there anyone in this vast and cold world that will sit as I am now shrouded in a piece of my clothing and smile at the memory of the person I had such possibility of being?
I’m ready now to close my eyes against these past few days and try to figure out what comes next. That was a fun trip down memory lane. And to think that it all started with some exploration of the Kubrickian sense of isolation that resulted from the memory of a conversation with my cousin, leaving my anxieties to grow large via the magnifying effects of solitude.