Okay kids, I'm back after almost two weeks away from blogging. I'll explain.
This all started with a bad marital spat nearly two weeks ago. As usual, it started over something minor and rapidly escalated until everything that she and I are pissed about otherwise got dragged into it. Isn't that the way it usually happens? In any event, things aren't all hunky dory, but at least our big gripes are out in the open. With me in school and she trying to recover from being unemployed a lot of the last year, and both of us having kids, there was no question of a separation or anything that drastic. But the fact of the matter is that I've been pretty unhappy about some things, and at least those came out in the open.
That aside, some other serious shit came up. My wife has a young cousin (four years old) who has been fighting cancer since she was less than a year old. She had a bone marrow transplant a couple of years ago, and things looked better, but have taken a bad turn for the worse lately. She is suffering from "graft versus host disease," and her skin and organs are hardening. This weekend, she lost her eyesight. It's looking like we need to prepare for the worst.
On Thursday, my old friend Julie came into the restaurant and explained why I hadn't seen she and her husband in there since the spring. He's suffering from cancer of the adrenal glands, tongue and thyroid (he was a heavy smoker until about 23 years ago). The cancer is inoperable, and though he is being treated with radiation and chemo, I could tell from talking to her that the prognosis is not good. The fact that he has diabetes is undoubtedly making things worse. I'm particularly fond of Julie as a friend-- she was the one who got me my interview for my teaching job in Cicero. This is going to be rough. I let her know to call me if she needs help with anything.
It was not just rough stuff. A couple of Saturdays ago, I took my nephew to a Cubs game-- which they of course lost. Still, he and I had a great time; I could tell he appreciated me taking him to the game, and appreciated that I'm as big a baseball fan as he was. His only disappointment was that he could not go with my son, who he has become good friends with; my ex- wouldn't change the schedule to accomodate this.
The biggest event-- and perhaps most bittersweet thing-- was last Tuesday, when my old friend Jamie and I took a day and went to visit our friend Mark's grave in central Illinois. I've mentioned Jamie before-- we were friends and roommates in college, and lost touch with one another for nearly ten years. I finally found him last year, and was able to tell him the terrible news that Mark, who we'd gone to school with, and both roomed with at different times, had been murdered four years ago.
I had no way of knowing, but just days before I finally tracked Jamie down and let him know about our beloved friend, his mother had died. He was already reeling from her death, and then found out about Mark.
I posted about Jamie coming with me to the annual celebration we have of Mark's life. That weekend, we hatched the plan to visit Mark's grave; since he is off work recuperating from a knee replacement and I have a little spare time since I didn't have to go to summer school, we thought it was an ideal time.
The night before the trip, I put together a playlist on my Ipod. It was heavy on our old favorites, including the Replacements and REM, which were also favorites of Mark's.
In a post I wrote in my other blog I described the day we buried Mark's cremated remains; how a picture-perfect blue sky day suddenly erupted into a violent thunderstorm as we approached the cemetery, and lightning struck near his grave. It was if, his mother said, he was telling us, that he wasn't ready to go.
On Tuesday, Jamie and I drove south and thought we were driving into a storm. As we approached the cemetery, we were stunned; the heavy overcast of clouds that we'd had over us since Chicago started clearing up, and we were met at the cemetery, for the first time in the day, with blue sky and sunshine.
It was downright uncanny.
A lot of things were uncanny. As I mentioned, I'd made an Ipod mix for the trip, but I played satellite radio at first, so he could see how awesome it was. Minutes into the trip, a Frank Sinatra song came up on Little Steven's Underground Garage." He mentioned that he liked Sid Vicious' (of the Sex Pistols) version of "My Way" better than Sinatra's. I had to stop him and tell him.
I had put that song on the road trip mix.
Jamie had asked me, from the beginning, if I was all right with him having a moment alone with Mark when we first got to the cemetery. Of course I was.
There were a couple of strange things. First, I was completely mistaken about where Mark's grave was. I had the right side of the cemetery, but was certain that he was in the back of the cemetery. I'd been there when we buried him-- highly emotional and a rainstorm going on, so that could be explained. But I'd come by there with Tim a year and a half ago. Emotional again, I guess. In any event, as I walked around looking for the grave, I embarrasedly told Jamie "Christ, I know it's a black stone on this side of the cemetery."
Jamie spotted it seconds after I said that. Later, he told me that it was all exactly like he'd pictured in his head earlier.
He walked up to it, and I hung back, moving the car closer so that he wouldn't have to walk as far in the "Mad Max" leg brace he was wearing as a result of his knee replacement surgery. As I marvelled at how sunny, warm and beautiful the day had turned out to be, he walked over to my car, indicating he'd had the time he needed.
I grabbed my Ipod and a little battery-powered speaker I'd bought a while back-- and something else-- and we went over to his grave. He showed me what he'd left at the grave-- a cross that had been his mother's. This trip had been, for him, I realized, to grieve both Mark and his mother.
I set up the Ipod and the speaker and put on a song I knew Mark loved-- "Gardening At Night," by REM. I set down something I'd wanted to leave at his grave: a set of keys from his house. His house had always been open to me when I was in trouble, and to any of his friends. He'd opened the door the night he was murdered by a pack of stupid young would-be robbers because he thought it was one of us, in a jam. His largesse cost him his life. It kills us that this was the case.
Later, Jamie told me that besides the clouds clearing and the sun coming out just as we were approaching, one other thing floored him. "Gardening At Night" was exactly the song he would have picked for that moment.
I'd brought along one other thing. I'd taken a break on drinking for a while before this trip after discovering that my kids thought I was drinking a little too much recently. I opened up the sole beer I'd brought along on the trip, a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, my favorite beer, and a beer I knew Jamie liked, and we shared it.
As we were getting ready to leave, we looked at the graves around Mark's. We're terrible, but we couldn't resist chuckling at the fact that a gravestone near his had the name "Lust" on it. Then we looked at the other side and realized something that made us laugh even harder...
...it was a mother and son.
We were laughing so hard we were both crying. "That is SO WRONG!" one of us said.
We wondered about a grave that was way off from the other graves and understood why.
As we saw the name "DICK" on the gravestone, we were laughing our asses off and saying "No wonder they put him off here." And it only got worse when we saw that the nearest gravestone was more LUST.
As we got ready to leave, we talked for a moment deciding whether to turn around and go right back to Chicago or go to the town that he, Mark and I had gone to school at, had met at, had started our adulthoods at. It was a half hour drive away. And if we turned back now, we'd hit Chicago right at rush hour.
It was an easy decision. We headed off to Charleston.
Jamie reminded me of the last time he and I had gone to Charleston-- in 1990. I had a 1972 Cutlass Supreme convertible that was beat to shit but had a great stereo. Back then, neither of us had kids. He was married-- more on that later-- and I had never been married, but was living with Marva, my first live-in girlfriend.
On the way there, we talked about our pasts. I mentioned a line from an old Band song, "The Shape I'm In."
Out of nine lives, I've used seven; now how in the world do you get to heaven?/Oh, you don't know the shape I'm in"
We were in a little disbelief that the two badass boys of the group were here and alive on this beautiful day to pay homage to our much more careful friend and visit our old stomping grounds, to enjoy being parents, to enjoy the music we love. And our friendship.
On the way there, I explained why I'd put the Grateful Dead's "Box of Rain" in the Ipod mix. Years ago, I was watching a documentary about the Grateful Dead. I love a lot of their music, but am not so much into the "Deadhead" thing. In the documentary, they explained how "Box of Rain" had come about. They'd suddenly had success in the late sixties, and suddenly a bunch of the band members had lost their parents. The song is a rumination on how just as we accept the joys and successes in our lives, we also have to accept the losses that time also brings us.
What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through/
This is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon, long ago"
I realized, as we drove and talked, that it was almost exactly 25 years, to the day, that this picture was taken:
It's Jamie, with Mark, putting on a record at the beginning of a party that Jamie and my other roommates threw when I got my Master's degree in July of 1985 (the record they put on was the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?").
I had been friends with Mark a couple of years at that point, and knew we'd stay friends (he was, in fact, one of the few people to actually write to me after graduation). I'd just met Jamie a couple of months before. But both guys were to remain two of my closest friends-- "a dream we dreamed one afternoon, long ago."
As I drove, I reflected on the last lines of the song:
And its just a box of rain, or a ribbon for your hair;
Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.
As I approach 50, I find I'm less able tolerate bullshit, and find myself losing patience with people who sweat the small stuff. Jamie is in a similar boat (including the marital difficulties). I think that he and I both realize that we have more days behind us than ahead of us, and have certainly realized the importance of spending time with the people who are important to you. It was unspoken-- we will never let anything allow us to go years without seeing one another ever again. Because besides the people you love, all the other stuff is small stuff.
What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through.