From the Archive: My Father Keeps Dying

*This is a photo of my dad in 1963, during the bi-centennial celebration of our town, outside the store he’d purchased 8 years earlier. He won the best beard contest during the celebrations, mostly, I’ll bet, because he was just irresistibly charming…I wrote this piece in 2015. 

My father keeps dying on me, and it’s very uncomfortable, painful, too, as I thought I had recovered – as much as one can recover from so great a loss. But these new deaths shock, wrench, and twist me, and like a towel hung out to dry that, unpinning it from the line, is found to still contain watery leftover tears, these second and third deaths remind me of just how little time has actually passed, and how much longer the road of grief twists and winds through my heart, mind, and life, a never ending road that will last until memory itself is gone, I suspect.  

He died in 2010 and I miss him every day. And now, six years later, we’re selling his house but soon, in two weeks, we’re selling the pharmacy, the business he bought in 1955, before I was born or even thought of, doors shut and long-time customers thanked, ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Wham! Done. Over. My heart is breaking, my grief is immense; I have been going into that space since I was thought of, since I was a bump in my mother’s belly, since forever – the smell, the look, the shape of it all – all of these things live in me, for while changes have been made, it’s another version of home. My brother will be 59 this August, and he is tired, he wants his freedom, a chance to get relief, to unburden himself of responsibility. He’s tired of dealing with regulations, tired of dealing with addicts who threaten and cajole in equal measure to get those pills. He is tired. Thirty-four years of being on his feet and just about thirty years of being an owner, the last 10 plus without the support and comradery of my dad as his regular relief pitcher. It’s enough. And so, in consultation with his wife, his lawyer and, finally, his sister (that would be me, the local sister) he accepted an offer from a major chain (ugh), and one of the longest continually running independent pharmacies (146 years! 5 owners!) in New York State will shutter its doors. And I’ll be okay. It’s just another milestone. Right? Right.

I want – I wish – to find some way to honor my brother, and my dad as well, for their service to this community in the course of running the family business. Once I’ve recovered from the shock of this, and had some time to reflect on what it really means to me, which I don’t yet know, I’ll brainstorm a few ideas, in consultation with my sister-in-law, though she hates public anything resembling fuss, as does my brother. We’ll see. The honor was in the serving, after all. No need for fuss, for public recognition. Right? Right.

And, I am concerned for him, my sweet darling bro. He has few really close friends, has given so much of his life to the business – and while he loves to read and has two grown kids whose lives and concerns occasionally occupy him, this is a huge shift. He’ll be fine; it is too stressful, this sole proprietor thing, especially sole-prop of an indy pharmacy in the opioid age. He’s a bright guy, and good – and he has at least one sister who can get him involved in all kinds of fun shit. 

And, so, the business, and the house – sold off, all in the same time period and hey, it’s all good. It has to be. All good. My father. I loved him so much and what he sacrificed for us, his kids – time and dreams and fun and years and years of possibility. I don’t think he regretted it, but I certainly did, for him. His bucket list was very, very short, with only two items on it: visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Rocky Mountains. I made him go to both. He and I drove to the Hall of Fame the week after he shared these longings; it’s only a little over an hour away, but, he said, my mother didn’t care for baseball, had zero interest in the HoF, so he’d never made the time. He loved his trip to the Rockies, which was made by car and train. He saw bison up close, and the mountains. He spent over a week with one of his beloved grandsons as traveling companion, and they laughed, a lot. Other items that might’ve been on the list, I wasn’t given the opportunity or time to pull them out of this unassuming man I loved; we simply were not given the time and health to achieve them, whatever they were, if they were, but we did our best.

My father keeps dying on me and maybe, maybe, it’s harder the second and third time around, because I don’t even have the immediate comfort of those last days with him – his face, his hands, his laugh, his particular dad scent, his five o’clock shadow – his wisdom, telling me that this, this moment, was what is meant to be, that in a good and just world children must and shall outlive their parents, and that all lives come to a close. And then I remember how he called me to get him some porn the night before he died, which made me – and my siblings, and his grandkids – laugh so hard, in the re-telling. It makes me laugh now, even while I twist and churn, wringing out a few more tears, and still more. 

Fuck death. I hate it. I’m wrestling with change as well. The unknown.

Fuck fear. Fuck it. 

It’s all good. It has to be.    

*I turned my dad onto margaritas during the last decade of his life. Isn’t he cute? The photo below was taken about a year before he died.

From the Archive: Individual Reality Accounts

My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked, a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself. – Maya Angelou

N.B.: I started this piece in way back 2004, when I put my mother in a nursing home, working on it for the following 4 years until her death in 2007, and it’s a hot mess, but! here we are, and to quote Cheryl Strayed among others, ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. Ironically or how perfectly perfect is the fact that I do, now, have an IRA – I inherited it from my dad, my pater

Every time my brother asks me if I’ve made an annual contribution to my IRA, I choke with laughter as well as frustrated anger and incredulity. Who the hell does he think I am, anyway, does he not know me, my life circumstances, at all? Is he clueless, or just sweetly complacent in his own settled, deeply conventional, and financially comfortable life? Have I failed so completely in communicating to my brother the very real challenges, financial and otherwise, I have faced over the last twenty-plus years out in the world on my own? Or, perhaps, it’s a combination of all of the above. 

The first time I heard the term IRA I thought the speaker was talking about the Irish Republican Army and later, once I got they were actually talking banking, I figured it was a kind of savings account established to pay off the IRS or maybe a weird Irish charity, close to my original thought. Yet now when my brother asks me about “my IRA”, I merely smile tightly and say “Of course”. I mean what the what? It easier by far for me to discuss who I’m fucking, but don’t you dare ask me about money, bro. But here’s my real answer: I don’t have an IRA. Why would I have an IRA? Who do you think I am that I would be socking away money in an IRA, whatever the hell IRA really means as I refuse to look it up, or read the fliers at my bank? I don’t plan for the future; I’ve never planned for the future because until relatively recently I didn’t plan on having one. I mean, what’s the point of saving for your retirement or your eightieth birthday (that is the basic idea, right?) if you’re not going to live to have either one, you get my drift? 

So here I am, in my mid-forties, not knowing really how I managed to make it here alive (luck, endurance, humor), completely baffled by tax exemptions, tax shelters, and IRAs, not to mention health insurance, retirement planning, stocks, bonds, and social security issues, all of which I gather are real things, good things? Important, even? Oh, and let’s not forget the most baffling and complicated thing of all: the grim specter of aging itself. I didn’t think I’d have to deal with that one, ever.

I’ve been thinking about killing myself since I was fourteen or to be honest, for as long as I can remember, since early childhood, and while it’s obvious I never did it there were days I came as close to it as a fat man’s right thigh is to his left on a hot, humid day waiting for the subway after a long slow hard climb down multiple flights of steep concrete stairs to a platform that reeks of piss, sweat and rat shit. That close, that rubbed raw, that clammy, and that much in pain, that aware of the edge of the platform. Other days (happier ones?) I merely let the mantra of my childhood roar through my brain as if it were the passing train itself (I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead), and I the fat man watching it go by without leaping in front of it. Its passage, the endless, roaring train, leaves me on the platform wilted, defeated, hopeless in the airless and dripping, stinking heat, alone with my too large, stuffed with emotion, body full of pain (I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead).

And it’s odd but, that thought – like the sound of my own heartbeat it was so familiar a voice in my head, day after day, year after year – no longer even enters my brain. Okay, okay, not nearly as often, as I want us to be honest, for once, with one another, shall we? Not nearly as often. Have I been saved by love, by Jesus, by Gaia? None of the above – and not by therapy or travel or spontaneous combustion, either. Time, persistence, intelligence (keep guns out of the house, don’t go to doctors, thereby restricting access to any prescription drugs), eccentricity (ten years a macrobiotic vegetarian, walking on the shady side of every street in NYC to avoid skin cancer, among other weird-ass choices), exercising daily like a mother-fucker if and only if – it comes and goes in waves – despair hasn’t suceeded in shutting me down, sending me back to bed, and, finally, more than anything a sense of humor, admittedly a very dark sense of humor, has kept me alive. Hallelujah, amen, praise whoever! I do believe that laughter is the cure!

Once (only once? many, many times) when I was very, very deeply into a long period of suicidal ideation – ideation, ideation, what a word – I was asked, “Have you had moments of suicidal ideation?” This was long ago by one of several relatively ineffectual therapists. Suidical ideation? Suicidal ideation? Hello – are you asking me if I have thought of killing myself as well as a way to do it? When have I not is more to the point, and by the way, if that’s what you’re asking, then say so bitch. 

But, of course I didn’t say that, instead I lied through my teeth, parsing the word she used, breaking it down, always the language teacher’s daughter. Ideation, ideation – idea and creation. But the answer is no, it’s no – which lie may explain why she, and a flock of other therapists, were so ineffectual. Jesus H. Christ – do you really expect me to honestly tell you that? Admit that out loud, like a bubble of dialogue in the air we both breathe? No. Not gonna happen. Ask me about my sex life instead, okay? Another disaster but hell yeah, a lot more interesting. And I can make jokes about that. Easy peasy. Let’s keep it light. Ask me about money, and we can talk in generalities, as in I have none, which you know because I am only here by the grace of the sliding scale, and your status as a cheap-ass trainee therapist. But that’s it. Admit I am suicidal, on a daily basis? Never. That’s not how I get through. 

Humor. Humor is how I survive. And so, there I was, not for the first time by far, in a deep, deep funk, deep funk, Barry White’s basso profundo couldn’t be more funky than I was that particular day into night, alone in my apartment (when have I not been alone, hello!?). I was hitting myself (I don’t recommend this, not very fun, or particularly effective) crying, sobbing unable to stop, crying jag is the term, I believe, hitting bottom again, again, again, finding new places to dig and this hole I’d found was so deep and I was so committed to it (also not recommended, though in general I do believe commitment to one’s goals is a good thing), digging as far as the darkness inside and all around me would allow – but no drugs or alcohol in me, I swear, because in my personal very screwy belief system, suicide is a chicken shit way out, a mistake, and a bad, wrong choice if you’re high or drunk or strung out. Conversely, committing self-murder is a brave, very brave, and even noble choice if, if, you’re dry, un-high and simply, understandably, natually at your real true honest to goodness organically achieved and completely drug or substance-free end of the fucking rope. Forgetting, conveniently, that brain chemistry, emotions, and thoughts are in themselves a kind of drug. Whatever. So there I was hitting the bottom of the half-empty (always half-empty, never half full) barrel, scraping it with my fingernails while the central theme of my life yet again kept me pressed under the dirty bilge water of my own desire for self-destruction for the umpteenth time: “You are not wanted here. Nobody wants you; you are not loved. You will never be loved or experience love. You will always, always be alone. Life is pain, life has always been pain. How much longer can you do this? How much longer should you do this? Why are you doing this? Wouldn’t it be better, much better, to end this unbearable pain?” 

And in that room that night where I was hitting myself and crying and trying very hard to resist banging my head against the wall (I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors) trying to figure out how I would kill myself this time (pills, when I was a kid, my mother’s shelf full of them: Fiorinal, Demerol, Percocet, Valium, Darvon, Tylenol with codeine) and wanting very much to do it right, get it done, which meant slashing my wrists in the tub while running water helped draw the blood out and down the drain, except I couldn’t get past what a waste of water that would be, because it could be, probably is, from my childhood home in the Catskills. And I can’t wake the neighbors by shooting msyelf with a gun I don’t even own! I can’t be a bother – to EMS or EMTs, the cops, whoever might respond, because that’s thoughtless, a problem (more of one than I am already!), as well as a waste of resources not to mention of space (unloved, unlovable!). Jesus H. Christ no wonder I wanted to off myself! But then in the midst of beating myself and crying and generally wailing (quietly, quietly, remember the neighbors!) I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, with a heavy electrical cord in my hand. This, this will work! I can tie this strong cord around my neck and leverage myself into a strangulation configuration with the iron rail of my bedstead and somehow – wait – what does this cord go to anyway, this oddly heavy cord?? Is this to my lamp, because I don’t remember it being this heavy? It’s not an extension cord is it? I followed it with my eyes, and then my hands, as it was very dark, 3a.m., to its conclusion. Aha! My vibrator. My vibrator. Even I, at my very worst and lowest, couldn’t kill myself with the cord of my vibrator. My vibrator. I laughed so hard I stopped – I finally, actually stopped – crying. And so, once again, I was saved by laughter.

I got up off that floor and sat on the side of my bed, laughing so hard, laughing more and more, escaping – evicting – my despair as, for a moment, I imagined the pot-bellied cop or wasted, wired EMT picking the cord up and away from my neck, following it to the same conclusion: laughter, incredulity, sharing it with the rest of the crew to general hilarity, a lightening of whatever mood my corpse had crushed. And of course it would have come on somewhere within my death throes – slightly thrumming still, bbbzzzzzzzzzzzz, bbbzzzzzzzzz, sending my final Con Ed bill sky high – another thing for my dad to freak out over, covering his actual emotion, ‘Goddamned kid can’t even shut the appliances off; doesn’t she know this is why we’re dependent on foreign oil?!’ 

I crouch and cower, still, in the shadow of the preoccupations my parents, depression-era babies, shoved at me, preoccupations tightly wound together with the baby-boomer’s so-called sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s: don’t you forget to turn off the lights in a room when you leave it and don’t you dare screw around like those awful kids a generation older than yourself. Fuck all you baby-boomers anyway, the selfish generation, we younger tween gens follow in your entrails, we wade through the shit you leave behind, you self-absorbed, narcissistic assholes, waiting with anticipatory glee for the day when you are all incapacitated, drooling, demented, wallowing in your own excrement in a nursing home where the orderlies (social security and Medicaid were killed by the excesses of your generation, thanks!!) are paid very little and therefore do very little. Oh and by the way, you raised your kids to be selfish spoilt little shits, just like your goddamned selves; they never visit.

Why do I say such things? Why do I think such things? I am such a bad person (I once would have thought); I should kill myself (I once would have concluded). Simply debating myself over life and death, playing whack-a-mole with my mantra, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, debating every single day between good (deserves to live) and bad (evil bad sinful hell-bound no reason to live) me, was exhausting, and death was where I would find rest, blessed rest. 

In grade school I stepped on every crack, every day on the way home and yet still, there she’d be – mother – waiting to mete out tonight’s cruelties or, schizophrenic, momentary fondness, depending on her mood and in what way she imagined daddy had betrayed or ignored her and favored me that day, that week, me being the chosen extension and reflection of his wrongs, and her competition for his affection. Why did she have to pick me, why say he loves me more than you, mother, and has from the moment I was born, why make me your rival and enemy, why me? Why do you tell me I will one day sleep with my own father when I am just nine and ten and twelve years old, taking your place in the ‘marriage bed’? Why? Stupid unanswerable questions – but perhaps just as simple as the mountain being climbed: because it’s there, asshole, thus, because you were there. And although a piece of my unformed child’s brain knows it’s not me, the real me deep down inside, who she designates as her cross to bear, the ruination of her life, the mistake, the unwanted child, still, I live through it and yes, I take it personally as in I take it into my person. I take it into my person. And for this and for other reasons I begin to want to die – to make her better, to make it better. I am four, five and six years old and I fear my mother and her hatred of me. I crave her love. I crave her approval, the imprimatur of her positive attention, giving me permission to write my story in something other than my own blood, draining away. 

I fantasize winning a prize big enough to win her over, to transform her view of me to that of my older sister, golden child (married to the Doctor’s son), or older brother, the son and heir (the one with the IRAs, the stocks and bonds), or younger sister, the baby, the pet, the savior (thank you Jay-sus, no more kids after that one, just a yes, please, free me now, free at last, blessed hysterectomy). I fantasize multiple scenarios and various schemes in which magically my secret and secretly damaged self will be transformed into loveable, undamaged, pure. Loved. Wanted. 

But. In all my years of excellence in school, in sports, in band, chorus, drama club, Honor Society, Cheerleading, audio visual club – you name it – all that excellence, an excellence she found baffling, I could never do it, never win her love, her approval. And there were things that happened, to me, as a child – not your fault mother, but I feared that if I said anything, showed any vulnerability – no. I can’t. Secrets. Toxicity. More to hide, more to hate. 

Turns out she knew, at least about some of it. Sexual abuse at the hospital by person or persons unknown, when I was there alone, eighteen months old, sick with pneumonia. My mother was home recovering from her hysterectomy, with a 6 week-old baby, as well as her 4 and 5 year old children to look after. My dad was working seven days a week, but came to spend the nights in the hospital with me, but not the days, not the evenings. They had a woman, a nurse’s aide, helping at our house on Main Steet, Nancy A., who stayed with my mom overnight, and during the day, but she had a young family, too. The family doctor had always been worried about me, he said, the summer after my mother died, because even as young as I was, even though they all believed I was too young to remember the act, the acts, my mother seemed to believe it was my fault. Mom. Some random person (staff? fellow patient?) inserting self or sticking things (a constant nightmare of my childhood, reliving what was unpronouncable) into her 18-month old’s vagina. 

As a teenager I began to hate my mother as much as I hated myself, always, always, however, with my eye on her, waiting for some sign that I was really ok, that this had just been a test of my resolve, and of my character. She always said suffering was good for the soul, my tarnished Catholic soul. Maybe she was just playing with me.

Here is my IRA, brother, on this page. Here I will deposit my truths and record my losses, which are many. Here too I will record a number of gains, among them the saving of my own life. Because you told me I was worthless, mother, and a mistake, I made mistakes, accepted less than I was worth. Because you told me I would never marry, mother, I didn’t, although I could have, many times. Defiance works in weird ways, when you are as twisted as I made myself for you, as I made myself to hide myself, who I was, from you, from others, from myself. Because you told me I would never have a child, I didn’t, yet more than you saying that, I am okay with childlessness because I knew I didn’t want to do to a child what you did to me. I would not bring life forth while I was white knuckling my own. Because you told me I would never find a man who would love me, that I was wrong and bad and flawed – too strong for a man, too smart for a man, not beautiful like my sisters, too much, too much, too much, and all of it bad – I avoided intimacy and craved affirmation of all that was worthless in me, that which you called out, you, who knew me better than anyone else. Or so I used to believe. 

Mother, mater, madre, maw, momma, mammacita. And more, those things large and small that happened to me that I never shared while you were alive, afraid it would only confirm and affirm what you thought about me, said about me, dirty bad horrid unnatural girl, my father’s second wife, his future lover. 

Patrominy is what we inherit, including our names, from our fathers. Matrimony is marriage, the act of, the celebration of. How rich! I reclaim and define matrimony anew, as that which we inherit from our mothers, including the eggs all women, all girls, are born with; me a potential life as an egg inside her, and as a baby, she inside my grandmother. How crazy is that? Then my eggs, in me, when she gave me life. Her brilliance, her darkness, all mine, until I decide, I parse and choose, I let it go.

I saved and saved and saved images of my childhood and of you, mother, and of you, father, and of my siblings, and the things you said and I made myself survive on humor and the slim hope that one day it (me? life?) would get better and y’know what? It did. You slowly lost your mind, momster, and you lost your power, and I got clear, stronger, better; you lost your mind mother, and then you died, you died, and my life got a lot better. No self-death, no suicide, no train running me over – just you, made into ash, six feet under. I struggle with forgiving you every day. I struggle with forgiving myself for wasting so much of my life, and for denying myself love and the possibility of a family of my own for all these years, terrified someone would see in me what you saw, terrified I’d do to an innocent child what was done to me. Not just by you, but. By you, too, mother.

I struggle too with forgiving my brother for not having a clue about my life and me and what a world of difference there was in the way in which we were raised. He is a good man, I know this, and he won’t know what I won’t tell him. Will I tell him? All of it? Including the things, the events, the deaths in life, I haven’t even admitted to myself? How lucky he was, being born a boy. Yes, we all have our struggles, men and boys, women and girls, but some are challenged it seems merely by the choice of which well-lit, broad, and tree-lined street to walk down, while others are faced with having to walk down what turns out to be a very dark, narrow, and unsafe street, alone. No one ever said life was fair. 

Dear brother, I thought about killing myself every day from the time I was fourteen (and earlier, much earlier, truthful, now, at last – from the time I was 6 and 7 and 8) until I was almost forty, and I struggle to let it go and have faith that all will be well and all will be very well. And it is a struggle, not every day, not all days, not even most days – nowadays. But there are times I have to hide and work hard to stay in the moment, letting go of the past, being thankful right here and now, even if I’ve lost sight of what there is to be thankful for, right here and now. 

Surviving. I am grateful I survived my own idea creation, my ideation, of self-murder. I have saved myself, at least, even if I have no IRA, no savings, no 401k, no children of my own, no husband or ex-husband, no other long time up close (God no!) witness to the person that is me. I do have hope. I am being truthful, now, which means I may just finally move on, grow, surrender to curiousity and possibility. Let the past go. It’s over. Mother is dead. Anything is possible. Anything. Life itself. Love. Who knows? 

Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.”- Carl Jung 

copyright Marjorie Miller 2007

From the Archive: Forgiveness

Epictetus was a Roman teacher and philosopher, born a slave, who lived from 55 – 135 A.D. He was famous for his wit as well as for a slim manual he wrote entitled ‘The Art of Living’. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was one of his students; not bad for a former slave, eh? I found a copy of this little book of his writings in a thrift shop; it’s the kind of thing you can read in a day, less than a day. My favorite of his many maxims for how to best master the difficult task of living, the art of being a human being, is to ‘forgive yourself over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.’ Epictetus also exhorts us to forgive others, over and over, again and again. As with all maxims, I suppose, it makes so much sense, common sense, yet it is also typically much easier in the reading and agreeing with than it is in the execution. But I do, I try, to forgive and to do better next time, forgiving myself and forgiving others, over and over, again and again. And, once that’s done, and it’s never entirely done, I start again. 

We were best friends for almost twenty years, and I loved him. We’d fallen out, though, and I did not see him except in my dreams, two of which arrived hand in hand with waking tears, one right on top of the other, just before he died of AIDs in 1993. I did not know he was dying; would it have made a difference? Yes. Of course. After having the dreams, vivid, real, painful, I tried to call him, to get in touch. But he’d disappeared, all the old the lines were disconnected, and I was ashamed, and angry at him still. I was an idiot. 

In one of my dreams from that time he was there, on the front lawn of my childhood home, walking toward me across the brilliant green vastness of that so familiar space, also gone – sold off by then, all the way from the pool to the patio of the house, where we hugged as if we would never let go, and I woke sobbing. Where is my friend? I need my friend. In the other dream I was performing in a nightclub, singing, and I got stuck, unable to remember the words of a song I’d performed a hundred times or more, and there he was in the corner of the shadowed room, standing up, singing the words, helping me, moving toward me again across another familiar landscape – and abruptly the show was done, the room empty, and we were alone, best friends together once more, sharing confidences and stories as we’d so often done, laughing and whispering in a dark nighttime space that stank of perfume, poppers, booze, and cigarettes.

As for the falling out, I’d sublet an apartment from him in midtown and he’d stopped paying the rent to the landlord without telling me; six months or more went by until one day I came home to an eviction notice pasted to the door. I was dumbfounded, furious, betrayed. How could you do this to me? What have you done with the money I have been sending you every month? He was angry as well, and unrepentant. We’d been room-mates years earlier and almost lost our friendship over money then, an inconsequential amount I’d finally given in on because I loved him, and wanted to preserve the relationship, as I’d said at the time through slightly gritted teeth, and we’d – our friendship – survived the moment. But this was different. What I did not know, what he did not tell me, and I did not ask, was that his disease was advancing rapidly; he was leaving his job and his life in NYC to return to our adolescent stomping grounds in the Catskills to live out as long as he had left, which was a year – maybe two – I can’t recall. Life extending and saving drugs had yet to be invented, and he was running out of time. He was dying.

I have decided to think of our falling out as protection, as an almost good thing, because this thought gives me some comfort, which I seek in this as in many losses in my life so far. We were young and fabulous together, and now all I remember is how he was when we met and knew one another best, my forever young and handsome friend with the killer sweet smile. Neither one of us, vain silly creatures that we were (and me, still am), would have wanted to see how the story ended, how old and scruffy, saggy and sad, we’d get to be. Ear hair? Yick. Stretch marks on an 80-year-old tummy? Blech. And I comfort myself by thinking he would not have wanted me to see him at 85 pounds, which was his weight when he died, and I hope I am right, as I am, occasionally. 

His family arrived in our tiny town the summer before our Junior year. He, his mom and step-dad, a very young half-brother who was not yet in school and three full siblings, pretty much all in a row, with Mark in my class, his sister Kim in 10th grade, his brother Mike another freshman in my younger sister’s class, and his baby sister Tammy in 7th grade. In an area as rural as ours, with a school whose total population was a little more than 800 kids, K – 12, a new family was big news, and everyone wanted to know who they were, where they’d come from, and what they looked like, especially Mark as the oldest boy, for he was a junior and therefore eligible to be the boyfriend of any number of girls, older and younger. It was September of 1975, and we were all idiots.  

The usual happened: he was glommed upon right away by a few of the boys, but especially by two girls in my class. Their initial possessiveness would, I knew, fade, as his small school ‘celebrity’ and newness naturally and inevitably ebbed away. I pointedly ignored him, and kept on living my life. I’d like to claim this a was brilliant, deliberate strategy on my part but it wasn’t. I just couldn’t (still can’t) play games, create a friendship out of nowhere and nothing, and for me the fact that he was new to town didn’t make him any more or less interesting than my other classmates, most of whom I’d known since Kindergarten, if not before. And besides, who was he? Why should I make a fuss? Why would I? Why not let it happen when – and if – it happened? I refused to make a fuss over some random ‘new’ guy.   

And then one day that fall, I arrived almost late and a little out of breath in history class, which we shared. I remember that the room, facing southeast, was full of sunlight; it was also my homeroom that year. He’d ended up in a seat directly behind me for the semester, and I made eye contact briefly with him, the new kid, Mark What’s-his-name, whereupon I sat down and pretty much died. The look in his eyes was so hurt, so filled with, ‘Why?’, and I didn’t want that! I wasn’t ignoring him to make him feel like shit; I was just being my usual highhanded, stiff-arsed self, but in that instant, I saw that I was hurting him, that I had the power to hurt him, this stranger, and I felt ashamed.

I turned. – ‘So, what’s your name again?’ He was clearly stunned. – ‘Mark’. – ‘Yeah, right, okay, so you’re from Pennsylvania?’ (I heard this from our classmates, and my mom) – ‘Yeah.’ – -‘And what day were you born?’ (I was into astrology, still am) – ‘August 15th’ – ‘That’s the same day as my brother, Fred! He’s a senior. You’re a Leo!’ – ‘Yeah, I guess. Yeah.’ – ‘Good. I love Leos, love’ and I reached over the back of my chair, and put my hand on both of his, which were clasped together on his desk, – ‘We’re going to be best friends, I just know it. So, there you have it.’ Or words to that effect. And, I did know it, in that moment. And, I was right. I occasionally am. 

During our friendship, we did a lot together, but mostly we talked and laughed, we danced and listened to music, we performed in high school plays and intermittently came together or corresponded through the long years of college in cold, distant places, Syracuse (me) and Pittsburgh (him). Later we lived together on the Upper West Side in an apartment building that should have scared the shit out of both of us, the neighborhood was that bad in 1983, ‘84, and ‘85 but we were pioneers, leaving our small town and relatively cradled college experiences to forge new lives, different lives – and pioneers are never afraid. We were idiots.  

I don’t remember when he came out to me; it might have been by letter, from Pennsylvania, where he was studying graphic arts. We lost touch a little in the months after high school, in times before email, cell phones, and Facebook, but I’m pretty sure I already knew his ‘news’, in my gut and via the loose but strangling hometown grapevine. I’d gone off to study theatre and was surrounded by gay men – and women – and while I held on to my childish fiction that all people were like mom and dad, as in straight, through my first two years of theatre training, by Junior year – when one of my female teachers both fell in love with and confessed her love to me (Holy crap! Women can be gay?! I was an idiot) – I’d wisened up a tad. Yet I still waited to hear it from him, the horse’s mouth as it were. 

That he was ashamed was clear. And I don’t know that I was particularly sensitive or kind to him in that moment; he was my friend, I loved him and he was gay, whatever, no big deal. It made sense, and my acceptance was casual, because, y’know, so what? Anyway, I had always known, sort of, reminding him that when he’d dated a classmate of ours, briefly, even going so far as to take her to Junior Prom, it had baffled me to my core. Huh!? You’re dating her? This makes no sense. Something does not compute. It was inauthentic, even if I couldn’t put my finger on or articulate why. As I had done when he arrived, I chose to ignore their relationship, acting like it didn’t exist. It just felt wrong, was wrong, somehow, and although everyone thought I was jealous, it wasn’t that. And, it didn’t last. 

I did not know then that he was in therapy; I did not know then that his mother regularly beat him with a thick leather belt; I did not know then that she told him time and again that she would rather he was dead than gay. My heart breaks even just to write that, and at the end she came through for him, when I was unaware and dreaming, only, of my friend. 

I will never as long as I live forget his grandmother – his mummy’s mum – at his wake. She was in her 70s or 80s, I think, and as my pal Epictetus says – and I remind myself daily – one must not just forgive oneself but also work to forgive other people over and over again, and then begin once more to forgive, and forgive again. And yet. It can be such hard work. The wake was held in the house he shared with his partner in Ulster County, New York, on the edge of the Catskills where we’d met and I’d grown up. I was, after the formal ceremony, already on my way to being very, very drunk, despite the fact that I had to drive back to the city after the ‘party’. His grannie approached me to reminisce about our friendship, Mark’s and mine, and to tell me that they – his family – had always thought and hoped that I was ‘the one’. – No, no, not the one, not the right equipment, duckie. So that was never gonna happen, right? Okay? He was gay. Without skipping a beat, grannie said – ‘I think God will forgive him for what he did and what he was.’ – ‘What?!’ I said. ‘What?’ Mark’s mother had been watching from about five feet away, an ‘oh dear’ look on her face, and swooped in to end our conversation, perhaps seeing the look on my face, the face of someone who was drunk, grieving, and about to rip that old witch a new one. Forgive him?!! 

1993. AIDs and AIDs deaths were rampant in those days, and many people were waking up to just how many gay men they knew, and loved, forcing them to deal, and deal compassionately and realistically, with the fact of homosexuality and their feelings about the same for, perhaps, the first time. Not that all – by a long shot – dealt well, or compassionately; many, too many, turned away. Still, this awakening, this awareness, was an awakening that I believe helped spur the changes of the next few decades, was the glass half full of some kind of special poison and history altering tilt in the culture and media’s version of events. Gay-ness existed, and people, people you say you love and care about, who love you, are dying so make up your fucking minds already. Will you, will we, continue to deny or denounce the existence of our friends, brothers, uncles, cousins, sons – and our gay sisters, cousins, mothers etc., etc. – due to blind prejudice? To ignorance and fear? How much forgiveness will we require, if we fall short in this way, especially at this time, for these – our dying friends? Our dying family? 

Yet for all Mark and I shared – all the conversations and time, spooning naps and cab rides home after late nights at various clubs, 4 or 5 or 6 a.m. breakfasts – there was still so much he kept hidden from me, and, truthfully, I from him. But, but! We talked about what we were attracted to in men! We danced the night away at Limelight and 54! He took me to the Saint! Twice! We were in therapy! We analyzed our dreams! We shared a bathroom! I thought I’d seen and heard it all, but I hadn’t. How could I? Nor had I shared it all, my own story. And how much of anyone else’s pain, or joy, do we ever really know? 

On our way to our 10th high school reunion we got incredibly high, the kind of high where we laughed so hard I almost drove off the NYS Thruway. It was one of those weird-ass, film-worthy weekends, both eye opening and challenging, as several of our former classmates and peers confessed their gay fantasies or extra-marital high-jinks to us, among other uncomfortable and truly head-shaking moments. Did our tee-shirts say, ‘Hey, we live in NYC, so bring it on, people! You can tell us anything, no judgement!’, because they, our classmates, sure did. Later I took Mark to visit an old friend of my family, the doctor who’d delivered me and my siblings, and this man, then in his 70s, was very, very kind to him, when we spoke of Mark being gay. This kind and beloved healer, who’d worked for years at a college down south after leaving our small town, really had seen it all, and as far as he could tell, being gay was as normal as not being gay, just less common. It was a great moment. 1987. I was so glad I insisted Mark accompany me on this side trip, skipping another party with our ‘old buddies’. I saw how much it meant to him, acceptance and affirmation from an older man, a man closer to his grandfather’s or father’s age, his father the old school Southern Baptist preacher who’d long ago disowned his gay eldest son, and namesake. 

We were sober on the ride back in every possible way. Somewhere on the road, Mark turned to look at me, I was driving, and asked me why I thought he was gay. Now this was something I’d thought about time and again. I was an idiot. – Oh my God, ohmigawd, I’m so glad you asked! Yay! Well! Okay. Yes, well, ok, so! Y’know, you were born gay, absolutely, 100%, of course, and yes, clearly there are genetics at work here, I guess, and then, let’s be real, dude, your mother is like a hyper-sexualized version of Liz Taylor only kind of, sorry, white-trash-y, no offense, the hair alone, the booze, the caftans, the drama! And you were her oldest, her ‘little man’ after the divorce from your dad when you were only, what? 6? 5? Scary times, pal, and then there’s the whole Baptist preacher absent father thing, and who knows, really. Born. Genetics. Mom. Dad. Crazy town. Religion. Southern Baptists! These are just random thoughts 

(I finally shut up). So. Why do you think you’re gay?  

-Yes, he said, yes, all of that. Those. I mean, I knew when I was a child, that I was – different. – Of course, you did, because you schmart, Markie, you so schmart! – And. – And?  – And I knew – Yeah? You knew? – I knew I was different in a way I wasn’t supposed to be. – Oh fuck that. Just fuck that. That’s crazy. – And. – And? – Well, you know when my parents divorced we moved in with my grandparents. – Yeah, for a couple of years, and? – And my uncle – The minister? Your mother’s brother? Your grannie’s favorite? – Yes. My uncle. He lived next door. – Right. I remember you telling me that. – And when I was 7 he started having sex with me. – What?! What?! What?! – Yeah. Until I was 11 and mom married Walt. – What?! What?! – Yeah. So, I don’t know. -Oh my God, Mark, oh my God. -And my mother knew. –What?! What?! What?!! – I mean, I’m pretty sure she knew. – What?! What?! What? How?! How?! – Yeah. Calm down. – Calm down, calm down?! – She told me once, we were setting the table for dinner, that I didn’t have to do it, with my uncle, if I didn’t want to. – What?!Fuck! What the?! Fuck! Fuck, Fuck Mark! – Calm down! – Calm down, calm down! Why didn’t you ever tell me this before? Why? – Because. – Because? – Because I thought you’d hate me. – What? Oh my God Mark. Oh my God. Hate you? Hate you? You didn’t do anything wrong! Jesus F-ing Christ! It makes me love you more. It makes me love you more. 

Of course there was more to tell, that he pretended not to hear his mother, what she said about Mark, and her brother, that he didn’t have to do it, if he didn’t want to, that his younger brother and sisters had also been abused but he, Mark, was his uncle’s favorite, that his mother was only twenty-three or four at the time, with four young children to support, that she hadn’t finished high school, had no money, was working as a waitress, barely getting by even while living rent free with his grandparents, and that he’d seen his uncle rather recently, when he was visiting Pennsylvania, clearing out his grandparents’ garage after his grandfather’s death, when his uncle chose to tell my dear friend ‘I feel responsible for what you are, for what you’ve become’, and, just as with his mother’s statement over the dining table, Mark chose not to hear him, to keep on doing what he was doing, because acknowledging any of it, any of it, was simply not possible. 

He said all of this to me, while my hands gripped the steering wheel, and I stared straight ahead, because if I’d looked at him, in my rage and my sorrow, I would’ve killed us both, driving off the thruway, crashing that shitty white rental car. – So yeah, he said, I’ve wondered if, I might’ve been different, if I would’ve had, or maybe even made another choice, if that hadn’t happened. Y’know? Been straight. – Oh Mark. Oh Mark.   

And, of course, there was more. How when his mom met and married Walt they’d all gone off on a cruise together, the new happy family, sailing blissfully and safely away from the nightmare back home, on into another life – except that on the cruise a twenty-five or six-year-old steward seduced my friend. – Dammit, Mark, that’s not seduction, you were eleven, you were a child! You were a child. Jesus H. Christ! 

As I recall, we spent much of the rest of the drive back to New York in silence, Mark staring out the window, while I drove and wept. 

We do not know what goes on in other peoples’ lives and neighborhoods and homes and hearts. Yet how could I have ignored him, this sweet, gorgeous soul, even for two or three or five weeks, back in 1975? How could I have let our friendship lapse at the close, no matter how much money was involved? He was my friend and I loved him. If only he’d lived to see Will & Grace, Angels in America, marriage equality! If only he’d lived. Oh Mark. We were idiots. We were all idiots. I forgive myself and all others, again, and again, and again. And then, I begin once more.   

“The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions.” ~ Anaïs Nin

copyright Marjorie Miller 2016

From the Archive: January 2010, It Begins

*Hard to believe this journal of my father’s last months on earth was written over 10 years ago. This is the beginning. Thanks for reading, and if you want to pay tribute to a very good man, have a margarita! I turned him onto them in his last years on the brown and blue orb, and he really loved ’em.

Jan 30th 2010  

My father is sick and in the hospital with pneumonia and as a result I could not sleep last night. He will be eighty-two this July; I love him very much and last night this daddy’s girl got herself crying so hard over his eventual and natural demise I could not rest, relax and let go. Ridiculous and real, natural and foolish as I need to get my sleep so I can better support him; yet this is reality and while I feel sure we are many years from that hard and sad event, my imagination (blessing and curse) made me go there. 
We had dinner this week; he was unnaturally exhausted but the evening before was his bowling night. He said he had stayed up until 1a.m. which is five hours past his usual bedtime. After bowling he goes out to the local pub with his best male friend, the one of few remaining close friends of his who is still alive, and they have a beer or two and a cigarette or two (I know, I know, I wish he wouldn’t but he is eighty and at this stage of his life…) but although he got home at 11:30p.m., he could not get to sleep. I now wonder if it was the illness already making itself known. 
Last night he was immediately blossoming under the ministrations of several nurses who, as is right and natural, were instantly enslaved by his charm. My dad’s sense of humor is wonderful; he is also as smart as a whip. I have to get going if I want to fit in a visit with him before work and make sure his dog is okay. I hired a walker who will also be feeding my dad’s favorite female…Zelda Lou Miller, 7 years old with a delightful under bite and great gobs of long hair. Daddy, I love you. Do this for me, would you: get well soon.

February 2, 2010 Pop – Another Letter to my Dad I will NOT send. Probably. 

Dear Dad – 
You are not well but you will live, I gather, even if your life will be somewhat limited by your now 24/7 need to be hooked into an oxygen tank. This is very hard for me to see – you, less able, more infirm, unable to breathe without visible effort on your own – but I am pretty sure you will make the adjustment well (as will I, I hope) to this change. You have spoken, and spoken much too soon, about giving up bowling. I may have to drag your sorry ass there as to give up one of your great pleasures, and the social contact, the joy therein, would be a grave mistake, and it is early yet – maybe bowling will be possible and still fun for you. Wait and see; try it. I know it will not comfort you to hear that your sister-in-law, the bossy one who has lived in a retirement community since she was 49 years old, says that down there “people go everywhere and do everything with their oxygen tanks!” but I will tell you anyway. I know you don’t want people to see you with your tank, especially the women you especially like. 
Last week I asked you about your dreams, if you dreamed, and you said you had been, lately. What about, daddy dear? My father is in them. Oh? And what was my esteemed grandfather doing in these dreams? Being a father, you said. I know you loved and respected him, and that you feared him, but I was very struck by those words, deeply. I now want you to know how like a father, and a great one, you have always been in my reality, in my life as well as in the lives of your three other children and your nine grandchildren. You do have a gruff exterior, you do like to grouse, to bitch and moan, yet you are a total softie within. You are smart, funny, and you will do anything for a laugh. You worked hard, so hard, in order that we all could have whatever lives we wanted, no college debt, and access to the best life had (has) to offer. The best life had to offer us was you: rolling us up and out of a giant towel back onto our bed as kids, telling us jokes or stories about life on the farm when you were young, playing gin rummy or spoons and puffing on your (goddammit) ubiquitous pipe, all while listening to us argue or tell stories of our own, and – loving our mom. 
One of the best things you ever did for us was not take us personally. We were and are, as are your grandchildren, our own creations – not extensions of your ego. Though I have often sensed you were bemused by us (and always, always amused), I never felt our choices, our successes or failures – our lives – were taken in any way as a reflection of your accomplishments (although you could take much more credit than you do) and that has been very liberating, a real gift. You delight in our successes, you are proud of us, I know that, and you feel our failures when we fail, but you never, ever have made any of these events, circumstances, choices, good or bad, about you. 

Thank you. Except for the fact that I am so angry with you right now for smoking all these years, I need you to know how much I love you, how much I respect you and always have, and that you are an amazing man. I also want you to know that I can live with your anger because, regardless of the fact that you told me I wasn’t to do so, I am throwing out your god-damned Parliaments before you get home from the hospital!