Many loved ones who know me well, and some who know me just by social media, have inquired as to my well-being. Thank you, I am fine. September is a rough month for me. And my health challenges are exhausting me right now, but I will be fine. I am fine. Just tired. I am always fine. But if I am quiet right now, it is because: reasons. And me, being me, being prone to sharing TMI and with so few walls and so little fear of revealing anything anymore, felt that an explanation would help me cope, and let those of you who wanted to know, know. So, here it is . . .
September 1962: The Beginning Ending
It is fifty years later, after my mother and I have worked through so many losses and back to one another, finding our way first as mother and son, then, to the surprise of both of us, becoming friends, and finally, when I who she carried and for whom she sacrificed became the one doing the carrying and caring, she offered me the warmest embrace: her unguarded truths. I asked her about what had happened when she’d answered the door that night.
As she told me her story, I saw it in black and white until she started to describe the officer who’d been sent to change her life. He was, she told me, very young, boyish, and fifty years later she did that deflection thing she does where she makes what everyone else is going through more important than whatever is happening to her; “I feel so sorry for that policeman, there I was, answering the door, seven months pregnant out to here, and I knew what he had to tell me and he just didn’t want to say it. But I knew. As soon as I saw that boy in that uniform; I knew.”
Her husband, my father, was dead.
And in my head, as she told me about that young officer, that boyish looking man, in all the past and black and white of her sorrow, I saw A., in color.
Stephen was recovering from a routine hernia operation when I went to his apartment to drop off the script for Batboy: The Musical, for which I’d gotten the rights for the premiere Maryland production. Stephen and I had worked through so many losses and back to one another, finding our way again as dear, hysterical friends who shared a predilection for horrible men, bad choices, and financial ineptitude. After years of dueling theatre companies and classes, he was going to be in my Batboy, and I was going to be in his Dracula, and we had been discussing our plans to rid ourselves of the dross and offal in our lives, excited to re-bond and support one another in this purging of people who didn’t deserve all we’d done and did for them and who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) appreciate the joy we got from waving at strangers and taking chances. We laughed like loons that Saturday morning at all the stupid we had been, the silly we had done, and love, until he stopped, stopped breathing it seemed and said:
“I hate to be the one who has to tell you this, but A. died last night.”
A’s presence in and absence from my life is all the buttons, all the if onlys, all the should have and wish I’d and what if and sorrow and regret and confusion and fury at a world and people who cannot let people be who they are, who brainwash and terrorize and bully and hate so that love that ought to be, can’t be.
A’s presence in and absence from my life is all my fear about how I have failed and compromised and lost and lost and lost and lost.
In the months preceding his death, my only interactions with A had been an argument in a parking deck where I’d screamed and accused and berated because he pretended not to know me, and seeing him in his officer’s uniform, driving the police car at the head of funeral processions.
Now, he was dead.
And then, two days later a call came in the middle of the night — not a knock on the door by an officer, but a call from a friend — complications from the surgery, intestine nicked, septic poisoning, something ridiculous, just fucking September I guess: Stephen was dead.
Today I got up at 5:45 a.m., the sun didn’t rise until 6:44. I much prefer an earlier sunrise. When September comes and the mornings are darker, the nights so much longer, the leaves not yet turning but changing, invisibly, preparing to fall, I can never quite catch my breath. Like a child who has taken a hard fall, hit the ground with such force the breath is lost, and the body shocked out of its AIR IN/AIR OUT rhythm, that moment of paralyzing nothingness, the upending of the system, the horrible panic of recognizing the body can betray, can just STOP, the inability in that frozen second to be alive; it is the moments after that, the involuntary gasping, the waves of pain in which it feels one might drown, that is the way I feel, that is the way I am terrified in September.
It comes at me no matter how I prepare. There is this weeping at everything. At anything. Or, and, also, a hysterical laughing at something not at all funny. And manic-babbling-monologues. All the Charlies in my head come out, talking out loud at and arguing with each other.
Things had been hard for a few years. I gave up much of the life I had, many of its people, most of its activities, to try to save my life. But, I wondered, what good was the life I had saved? I had waited too long to change what needed to be changed, there was so little of me left, I’d given the best away in service of other people’s dreams; and while I didn’t (and don’t) believe I deserve love or happiness any more than anyone else, I have never been able to figure out the despair visited on some.
There is no way to make sense of my mother having lost both parents by the time she was sixteen, then to have three miscarriages, bury two husbands, outlive all of her brothers and sisters, and then, it wasn’t a policeman at her door, or a friend calling in the middle of the night, it was me. I found her in the laundry room of the assisted living complex where she had an apartment and asked her to come with me (and my sister) back to her rooms. She knew. She kept asking who was sick, what had happened. I kept saying just come on back to your rooms first.
I would be the one to say out loud that her daughter, my sister, had died. And though she’d told me she had been quiet and calm when the officer told her my father had driven, drunk, into his final telephone pole, when I said, “Peggy is dead,” my mother exploded into a keening wail, a painful cursing at god in whom she still somehow believed, asking how he could take her parents, her husbands, her brothers and sister, and now, her child. She railed in such agony at the unfairness of it.
I moved in with her for a week. Through the funeral — during which I was assigned to hold her up — and a few days after, until she said, “I’m okay Charlie, you can go home. And you can cry if you want to.”
I didn’t cry then. Legend has it I stopped crying when my father died, that I, at seventeen months, somehow intuited I needed to be strong, out-of-the-way. I never knew him. I know he liked Mahalia Jackson. He drank too much. So, I am careful about my drinking. I go months at a time without any alcohol. I saw Jennifer Holliday play Mahalia Jackson in a horrible musical.
I went to the gym this morning. September 7. Which was the day, you know, I told you, Stephen told me that A. had died. I should forget these dates. I cannot breathe. My chest hurts.
Dear friends wrote to me today to say, each in their own way, “I know this is a tough time. I love you.”
I meant in these paragraphs to tell you why September is hard. I made a cake today. Beautiful. And dinner for my sister and dear, dear great niece and great nephew. I never cooked for A. We only really ate as an excuse to drink.
Tomorrow I will be with my Mom. And sister. I will go to the gym. I will maybe fill eight test tubes with samples of myself to take to a lab. Again. We’ll see.
It will be dark when I wake up. Again. And still September.
I was supposed to go to coffee with Peggy the morning after she died. I am disjointed here, I know. Sorry. We hadn’t — Peggy and I — spent time together for a long time. But she was on her goodbye tour. How is this fair to my Mom? Peggy was moving from Connecticut to a house she’d designed and built in California. To retire near her grandkids and children. Stopped in Maryland to say goodbye to everyone. We were going to fix things. Broken things.
I am a broken thing. Always a broken thing. Broken people. All of us. I know. Everyone, I mean. The world. I can’t watch the news now. All the broken people choosing hate instead of love. What is this about?
Is everyone stuck in September?
I love some of you. I wish I had said that instead of screaming at — never mind. It wouldn’t have saved him. And laughing hysterically with Stephen that morning, surely that didn’t tear an intestinal wall and cause the infection. And having so many children to support, when he felt so unable to care for himself that he had to drink who he was away, that couldn’t have killed my father. Right? It wasn’t my fault. None of them were my fault. It is never your fault. We love the best way we can. Listen. I’m fine.
I went to the gym today. This morning. In the dark, this dark, by which I will not be defeated.
There is a man there who saunas in a red towel. He is beautiful in the way A. was beautiful. I have long enjoyed watching him. This morning, he made clear he wanted to be watched. It felt, to me, like a message from A., because it is September, it was September 7th this morning and so dark and dammit I would like to think that somehow it could be possible that he and I — had he lived — could have worked through our many losses and back to one another, finding our way free of fear and the past, to carry one another, to at last revel in that warmest embrace: our unguarded truth.