The missing years

My dad passed away peacefully on a beautiful Sunday morning 20 years ago today. These deathiversaries – as I am wont to call them – have become sacred days on my calendar and I try to celebrate my father in a special way. He loved being outdoors, so you’ll most often find me on a long walk or a stroll in some gardens. And I find myself almost always happy. That was one of my father’s most indelible traits – he was an eternal optimist. Damn him. It’s a tough act to follow for sure.

Twenty years is a big one to wrap my head around – so I did some math. That’s funny because I’m not good at math but I did figure out that I have now lived 31% of my life without my father. That’s almost a third of my life – you can check my work on that. I’m not sure why I did that because it certainly didn’t comfort me. I guess this is just my convoluted way of telling you that I have lived a long time without my father.

Same.

Lately, I’ve been imagining a conversation with him – probably over a Coors Light – his beer of choice. I would give him a recap of some of the highlights of the past two decades. (There are a lot of ways to measure 20 years.) Without a doubt, the very first thing that I would tell him is that his beloved University of Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA National Championship in basketball in 2019. Nothing on this earth would have made him happier. Nothing. My father loved sports – as a participant and a fan. More importantly – to me at least – he was a good sport, too. He was a humble winner – although his teams didn’t do a lot of that – and he was the rarest of men – a gracious loser. No one was louder than him watching a game – well, maybe me and my sister. We inherited his sonic capacity for yelling. I don’t use that voice very often anymore – it terrifies my cat and makes my dear wife question her choices in life. Dad was always in it to win it, but was amiable in defeat and would optimistically lament, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Here’s an ironic sidebar. That magical night UVA captured the national championship, I watched the game alone in my condo silently while said dear wife was sleeping. You see, she cares less about sports than anyone I’ve ever known. It is one of her few flaws and I have learned to live with it. Let me remind you that that game went into overtime. Silent overtime. Granted, I was ferociously texting with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris in Charlottesville – but I didn’t make a peep. That said, I’m fairly certain that I damaged some internal organs by keeping all of that emotion inside. When the game was over and UVA had finally won THE BIG ONE, I wept with unbridled, albeit hushed joy. And I swear I could smell my father’s cologne. He was right there beside me. He still is in so many ways.

Rarer than a Bigfoot sighting – my dear wife enthusiastically cheering at a football game. (Probably because it was over.)

I would also tell my dad about the lore of the Bubba lucky charm. He had season tickets to UVA football games – no doubt where he honed his good loser skills. After he died, I kept the tickets for a few seasons. They were great seats, and it was nice to get together with Chris in Charlottesville on sun dappled fall afternoons. I don’t recall exactly how it began, but we invented a good luck ritual to use during games – the Lucky Bubba. My niece and nephew called my father Papa Bubba, and it became an endearing nickname that we all used. Chris and I decided that during each game we would be allowed three “Bubbas” to use when we needed something good to happen for UVA. We took this lark quite seriously and used our three lucky charms strategically. Sure, more often than not, UVA would still lose the game, but the Bubbas worked enough times to keep us engaged. And when a Bubba brought us to victory – well, that was the best. We still rely on Dad’s lucky charm – mostly by text. Laugh if you will, but we’ll always have that 2019 national championship.

Me (quietly) celebrating UVA’s Natty with my dad. And yes, those are of tears of joy.

I would most certainly tell my dad that I got married – real married. A lot can happen in 20 years. He would be pleased that I married a woman who shares his very best qualities. My wife is also an optimist and like my father, wakes up cheerful every morning. And like him, she is tall. My father regarded height as a virtue. He was 6’4’’ so I guess he did have a particular perspective on the subject. My wife also shares my father’s reverence for nature – particularly flowers. He had a green thumb and grew the most beautiful roses. He loved caring for them, and I can still picture his long frame bent over pruning his beauties on a hot day.

My dad was an everything’s coming up roses kind of guy, so it makes sense he had such a way with them.

I don’t know if I would tell Dad about the pandemic, but I have often thought that he would have done well with it. My dad was a resolute handwasher. He grew up dirt poor on a farm with no indoor plumbing, but I guess my grandmother instilled the importance of proper handwashing in him. He had big hands to match that tall frame and when he would come in from working in the yard, his first stop was always the kitchen sink to wash his hands. His hands were graceful, and he was never in a hurry as he scrubbed them. He was almost prayerful about it – as if he were giving thanks for the beauty of the earth and the soil between his fingers. I can just think of him washing his hands and feel peaceful.

The lucky truth is that I have a conversation with my father almost every day. These chats can run the gamut from fuchsias to flounder to Tony Soprano. My dad is in so many of the things that I love, too, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. I don’t have to search for a connection to him – it runs deep inside me. No, I’m not the eternal optimist he was, but I am more often hopeful than not, and I think he had something to do with that. And Lord knows, I’m a good loser and I have found this to be an invaluable gift in this life.

My father had a mantra long before mantras were fashionable. He would tell us, “Only cry in victory, never in defeat.” As I kid, I thought he was talking about sports. Turns out it can be applied to all sorts of situations and his words have been a compass for me these past 20 years. And that is why should any of my tears fall today, they will gently land on the corners of a smile.

Thanks, Bubba.

I keep this photo on the bookshelf in my office. It is the essence of my father – outdoors, shirt off, cold beer in his hand and a smile on this face. Cheers, Dad! And keep those Bubbas coming – we need them in all sorts of ways.

Permanent ink

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Fractions have always frightened me a bit. They’re so cold and emotionless – I just don’t trust them.

I can probably trace this irrational fear back to my high school algebra teacher – Miss Sullivan. She must have been around 87 when I took her MANDATORY class. She was 4’ll” in sensible pumps, a wiry whirling dervish of a woman and I have no doubt that she could have easily kicked the football coach’s ass if she needed to. And she was the most intimidating person I had ever met at the fragile age of 14.

She had no patience for students who were not proficient in the way of polynomials and she could hunt us down like a shark in bloody waters. I still take considerable pride in the fact that I never cried in her class. Lord knows, I wanted to. And for the record, unlike baseball, there is crying in algebra.

This is a rambling way of saying that I’ve been thinking about fractions a lot lately. Today marks the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death – a heady milestone for sure. 15 years is a very long time and maybe it was The Ghost of Algebra Teacher Past who made me realize that I have now lived over a ¼ of my life without my mother. Damn. And I thought fractions were emotionless.

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Frances Elizabeth Garbee. My mother as a child.

These deathiversaries have always been important to me and I try to observe the big ones in meaningful ways. On the 10th anniversary of Mom’s death, I hosted a high tea at a beautiful hotel for several women who had become mother figures in my life. It was an elegant late afternoon affair – an event my mother would have loved – especially since we transitioned from tea to champagne as evening came.

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December 7, 2012. High tea at the O’Henry Hotel.

I shared remembrances of my mother and a few folks read poems as we sat on plump loveseats.  The hotel was decorated for Christmas and we were bathed in the warm holiday lights. It was the perfect celebration that I had envisioned.

A lot has happened in the five years since that evening. I married my dear wife – whose middle name just happens to be the same as my mother’s first name – Frances. A divine coincidence that has pleased me enormously. They have much in common besides a name. My mother was always a lady – graceful and gracious – as is my wife. Although, my wife is much more even-tempered which also pleases me enormously. I’m certain they would have enjoyed sipping champagne with one another.

And there have been some big transitions. I moved 30 miles down I-40 to a new city and I lost a job I dearly loved and along with it some friends that I thought were, well, friends. And I found a new spiritual home – just when I needed it most after the desolation of the 2016 election.

Oh, and I rode on a boat up the Grand Canal in Venice. It is a good thing in life to be dazzled occasionally.

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I lament the sights and sites my mother didn’t live to see.

There were highs and lows and all the everyday stuff in between that make up a life. And I missed my parents every single day but I finally learned to co-exist peacefully with grief. It wasn’t an Oprah “a-ha” moment where everything suddenly crystalized. No, it was more like blowing out a candle at the end of the evening. A gentle rush of breath and then the hushed still of the night. I finally stopped wrestling with grief and then it seemed to not be that interested in me. Grief is fickle like that.

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Both of my parents died in 2002. This is my favorite photograph of them taken in the early 1960’s.  They look like the movie stars they were to me.

But I still wanted to do something special to mark this milestone. I thought about another gathering of my “mom” figures – there are some new ones in the circle as others have drifted for reasons known and unknown. But I just wasn’t feeling it – besides, this year felt more like tequila than tea.

So the next logical way to celebrate my mother was to get a tattoo. WTF? I thought that might get your attention. When the idea came to me, I smiled my cheeks off. And then one word came to mind – disdain. That’s how my mother would have felt about a tattoo – any tattoo. But she always supported me in whatever path – misguided or not – that I took, so I think she would feign disdain but secretly like my new tattoo.

Yes, I really got a tattoo to honor my mother. And I love it. And I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. It is a glorious gift to myself.

My mother was a true daughter of the South in all the best ways – well mannered and charming. She could be yelling at me or one of my siblings like a banshee one moment and then answer the phone with a voice so warm it would melt butter. She taught me how to set a formal table, write a timely and engaging thank you note, and never to chew gum in public.

She was also a steel magnolia. A few hours before she died from cancer – a brutal one but I suppose they all are – her oncologist came to her bedside to pay his respects. He looked at her unconscious body and then turned to me and my brother and sister, shook his head reverently and said, “Your mother was tough as nails.”

That was nothing, of course, that I didn’t already know. She was grace under pressure and I can only hope I have a thimble of that fortitude.

So, I knew my tattoo had to be a magnolia blossom. That was Mom’s favorite flower and she would often decorate with them – layers and layers of magnolia leaves at Christmas. When she died, a family friend painted an exquisite watercolor for us – “In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – and we used the image on thank you cards.

I took one of the cards I had saved into Newport Tattoo when I was in California recently visiting my sister. I showed it to Kareem, a tattoo artist and the shop owner, and he gave me his thoughts on the size and positioning and I made an appointment for a few days later.

If you ever want to feel older and squarer than you are – go to a tattoo shop. It’s a little hard on your ego but everyone treated me very kindly considering I was the oldest one in the shop by at least 20 years. Okay, 25.

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Newport Tattoo, Newport Beach, CA. It’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone.

I really didn’t have any second thoughts about my plan, but I did get a little anxious as the day of inking arrived. I have three small tattoos – all black – and they didn’t take long to complete. I was nervous about my two-hour multi-colored tour with Kareem. And when you’re getting a tattoo in honor of a steel magnolia you better not be a wimp about it.

You might be wondering about now, “Why a tattoo?” I don’t know if it will make sense to you but for me a tattoo is like a short story – a visual manifestation of a personal narrative. A tattoo is an intimate expression that becomes a constant companion along the journey.

My tattoo is on my inner forearm. I almost always wear long sleeves, except for t-shirts in the summer or at the gym, so my tattoo is truly for me. Full disclosure: Dear wife wasn’t thrilled about it but she is a lot like my mom when it comes to supporting my sometimes quirky ideas.

There’s also something about the cultural aspect of tattoos that I find fascinating. There are some studies that suggest that in ancient times tattoos were used as part of a healing or strengthening ritual. I know that my tattoos feel like talismans to me – touchstones of calm and peace. I certainly don’t need permanent ink to feel close to my mother – I feel her presence daily – but my tattoo is a tangible reminder of her elegance and strength.

I suppose there’s something adventurous and bold about a tattoo that speaks to me, too. It’s like literally wearing your alter ego on your sleeve. In my real life, I am pressed to perfection – my creases have creases thanks to my dry cleaner. I have played by the rules most of my life and I think the events of the past couple of years have made me rethink the wisdom of that approach. Getting a tattoo feels liberating to me.

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My mom and me.

My mom was a rule follower, too – that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She died at 70, which has always felt like a huge rip-off to me. There were so many things she never got to do – like watch her grandchildren grow up or see Paris. “Life isn’t fair” she would often say to me when I was a sullen teenager complaining about being told no when I wanted to do something ALL my friends were doing.

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Words to live by.

Turns out, she was right. Life isn’t fair, but it does hold a lot of wonderful surprises in between some staggering disappointments and maybe my magnolia tattoo is a moderately bold reminder that one can be a lady but still break a few rules along the way. Maybe I just want my mom’s blessing to be a bit of a badass and take more chances.

I think daughters never get over wanting their mother’s approval. I recently saw a YouTube video of Anna Wintour interviewing Meryl Streep and at the end of their conversation, Wintour hands Streep the current issue of Vogue that features the most decorated actress in the history of forever on its cover. Streep gushes as she views her glamorous  photograph and then shakes her head a little wistfully, sighs, and almost whispers, “I wish my mother were alive to see it.” And in that moment, Meryl Streep looks like a little girl.

I know that girl.

The longing for my mother’s presence is a steady undertow that rarely ebbs even after 15 years, but today I’ll celebrate the beauty and richness of her life instead of dwelling on those pesky fractions. Sure, I suppose they’re useful, but I bet even Miss Sullivan knew that fractions make lousy tattoos.

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“In Memory of a Steel Magnolia” – tattoo by Kareem Masarani.

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Ink imitates art.

Last words

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Image by PorterBriggs.com.

That was grief, I say to myself. It makes us dark and a little crazy.”

Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour

I cried when I finished reading The Bright Hour. I suppose a lot of folks will, too. I mean, come on, a beautiful and vibrant mother of two dying from breast cancer at 39 is the stuff Lifetime tear-jerkers are made of. Oh, and no spoiler alert needed here – the full title of Riggs’ book is The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.

Before you even turn over the cover you know how this story ends. That’s not why I cried. I cried because there would be no more beautiful words to read.

Nina Riggs was one hell of a writer.

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Nina smiles.  Photo courtesy of John Duberstein.

I first read her words in a Modern Love column in the New York Times last September. Her piece was entitled When a Couch is More Than a Couch and she stood me still with her words – her luminescent and lyrical words – as she wrote about her obsessive search for the perfect living room couch while propped up in her bed weak from the venom of metastatic breast cancer.

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How a couch became a book. Illustration by Brian Rea.

She writes of being able to let go of a lot of things – like plans – but she cannot figure out how to let go of mothering her two young boys.

“So maybe I don’t try to figure it out. Maybe I just aim to get the couch right: strong bones, high-quality leather, something earthy and animal and real. A surface that knows something of what it was to be alive, that warms to our touch and cools in our absence.”

I read many parts of this piece and her book out loud – just to myself – so that I could hear the words – lovely and melancholy at the same time – like wind chimes in the distance on a breezy summer night. You are soothed but a little unsettled by the storm you sense is coming. You linger in the sound, savoring a moment that has already passed.

It’s funny. I genuinely loathe summer but something about Nina’s writing reminded me of the best parts of it. If you could capture her writing in a photograph – an old school photograph taken with a real camera like my father’s Argus 35 mm, I think the image revealed would be a mason jar filled with fireflies. The darkroom illuminated by her prose.

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Capturing Nina.

One of my favorite passages in The Bright Hour – and there are many – my copy is drenched in yellow highlighting – is the chapter entitled What Death Is. Nina writes about her father taking her youngest son, Benny, on a ride on his motorcycle. She has decidedly mixed emotions about allowing this saying “this is objectively not a prudent idea – or possibly even legal one. It’s something else completely: perilous and fantastic.”

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My copy glows in the dark.

Her father tells her about a time that he could tell Benny was falling asleep on the back of the bike – he could feel his grip slacken around his waist. He gently jostled his grandson and told him that he had to stay awake to hold on. Benny says, “But it sure felt good.”

“I think of this feeling sometimes – and I can imagine that sort of letting go: warm, dangerous, seductive. What if this is what death is: The engine beneath you steady; those that hold you strong; the sun warm?

I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to fall into that, to loosen the grip at the waist, let gravity and fate take over – like a thought so good you can’t stop having it.”

Wind chimes…

There’s also a brilliant tiny chapter, Say Please, that will make you never hear that word quite the same way again. She makes a list for her boys about why “please” is so important:

“Because the s in please is the sweetest sound, like steam rising after a summer shower, like a baby whispering in his bed.

Because you are human, and it is your nature to ask for more.

Because want, need – those unlit cul-de-sacs – are too perilous unadorned.”

Those sentences remind me of fresh peaches. Sweet and juicy, their stickiness hard to shake.

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I want a bushel of Nina’s writing.

Nina is never precious with her words and has a wicked good sense of humor, no doubt reflective of her New England roots and I laughed out loud in several places such as her description of a “twentysomething-year-old grief counselor with a handshake like a silk scarf.” You know this handshake. Gross.

Nina’s mother, Jan, died 18 months before her daughter after living with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, for several years. She is in the shadows of almost every page of The Bright Hour – keeping watch over her daughter’s pilgrimage. Having lost my own mother an unfathomable 15 years ago, I had to remind myself to breathe at some of the passages Nina shares about her mom – like when her mother, after a failed clinical trial, declares that she does not want to do any more treatment.

“My mom: my map, my Sistine Chapel, my Lonely Planet, my beautiful ruin, my volcano.”

It’s hard to imagine how Nina was able to complete her memoir while living and dying and all the noisy in-between. I know she was inspired by the philosopher Michel de Montaigne – she references his writing several times in the book – but maybe she also heard the muse of the Swiss philosopher, Amiel, who advised to “Work while you still have the light.”

The Bright Hour is saturated in light and a reverent clarity that perhaps only limited time can give.

I never met Nina and I’ve felt a little like a cyberstalker since I read that Modern Love piece. I Googled her to find everything she had ever written and started following her on Twitter.

That’s how I knew she had entered Hospice care in late February. Her final tweet sounds like a Patty Griffin ballad – a little sad, a little hopeful. The kind of song that makes you want to have a slow beer with a good friend.

Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.

Nina died before the sun came up on February 26th and this week, The Bright Hour reached Number 14 on the New York Time’s Best Sellers list and was selected as an Editors’ Choice.

I’m not sure even Nina would have the words for all this surreality but if she did you can bet that they would surely slay me.

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Go Nina! Photo courtesy of Marysue Rucci.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Final drafts

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Lenten Roses. Photo by Anne Cassity.

“None of this was supposed to happen.”  Nina Riggs

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Nina Riggs

Modern Love has long been my favorite weekly read in The New York Times. For the uninitiated, it is a series of essays submitted by readers that focus on all aspects of contemporary relationships. Some of them are funny but most of them crack my heart wide open and a few of them simply gut me.

Such was the case with two essays written by Nina Riggs and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Nina’s piece appeared in September of last year and Amy’s was published just a few weeks ago. I don’t know if these two writers knew each other – Nina lived in Greensboro, NC and Amy was a longtime resident of Chicago. I do know that their lives are inextricably connected by the most morbid of coincidences.

You see, Amy died on Monday from ovarian cancer – the same day as Nina’s memorial service. Nina died on February 26th, after a two-year Armageddon with breast cancer.

I never met either of these women yet I am haunted by their deaths. Amy was 51 and Nina was 39.

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“So many plans instantly went poof.” ~ Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I have reread both of their Modern Love columns several times in the last couple of days and beyond the unfathomable reality of dying at such hideously young ages, I am fixated on how much these two women would have liked each other.

They are both mothers – and I am deliberate in using that tense. My own mother has been gone for almost 15 years now but I am still aware of her mothering. I am still a daughter and I still need to be mothered. No, I can’t take her to brunch on Mother’s Day but I do strongly feel her presence in my life.

I desperately hope that the children Nina and Amy leave behind feel that, too. Nina has two boys – ages 10 and 7. Amy has three children – 20, 22 and 24 years old. I can only quote my wise friend Jennifer once again, “Cancer is an asshole.”

These children still have their fathers – who from the cheap seats appear to be kind and good men who share the blessing of marrying well. They are also well-loved by their wives.

“I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.” ~ Amy

Amy’s Modern Love essay was about, of all things, trying to find a new wife for her husband. It was, in essence, one last love letter to her husband written with humor and grace and a blindingly bright love. And it pretty much broke the internet.

Oh, and she finished the essay on Valentine’s Day. It was published 10 days before she died. I bet even Amy would think that plot was overwritten. Real life is like that I guess.

“Within 10 minutes of meeting John at a summer job at 21, I had already mentally signed on for life – although I waited at least a week to tell him that.” ~ Nina

Nina’s essay was about a couch – if a couch was a metaphor for life and family and home. She is desperately searching online for the perfect couch for her family – “An expansive bench that fits all of us. Something that will hold us through everything that lies ahead – the loving, collapsing and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.”

I don’t know if she ever found her couch but she certainly found her voice – a voice brimming with emotional clarity and lyrical humor as she lived until she died. Her memoir, The Bright Hour, will be published posthumously in June by Simon & Schuster.

I know, I know. If it were a movie you’d say it was too over the top.

I pre-ordered Nina’s book on Amazon the day I learned that she had entered Hospice care. It felt like the only hopeful thing to do.

I’m grateful that Nina and Amy’s words are just a click away for eternity for it is only through their writing that I know them.

And I want more.

This was one of Nina’s final posts on Facebook – a few days before she died:

Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.

Her post reads like a great short story to me – or better yet, a prayer for the living.

May it be so.

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Permanent ink

August 26, 2016

I am writing this somewhere over Colorado. The Flight Tracker screen shows that we will arrive at John Wayne Airport in 2 hr. 06 min. I can’t wait to see my sister who will pick me and my wife and my best friend from college up for a long weekend in Newport Beach – her home since January.

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Birthday party of four. (Photos by Addison Ore)

My calendar tells me that in 72 hours I will arrive at 60. I thought I was okay about it. Okay as in not freaked out or depressed but in the days leading up to the Big Six-Oh, I have found myself tearing up easily. Not necessarily sad, just emotionally tender.

I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot, so maybe that has something do with it. My father died at 79 and my mother died at 70. I’m really not being morbid, but I’ve always had it in my head that I, too, would die at 70. It’s probably the writer in me – what a gut wrenching story that would make, right? I think 70 used to seem so very far away but now that it’s on my radar, I am thinking that I really don’t want to write that story.

The absence of my parents has been a strong presence in my life for the past 14 years. It’s a bit like the undertow of the ocean. Sometimes I’m barely aware of it, other times I’m almost pulled under by it.

I suppose it’s rather cliché to ponder one’s own mortality at 60, but that is where I find myself in Seat 12E today. Lately, I’ve been looking at my life like one of those stupid slideshows that Facebook creates (why?) from time to time. I see quick images from my past – my high school graduation, a family vacation in Sandbridge, my first (really dumpy) apartment in Annandale, VA. I see joyous things – the births of my niece and nephew – and hard things – the breakup of my longtime relationship. And I see my failures much more clearly than my triumphs.

I also hear random memories – the sound of people playing touch football outside my apartment window on a brilliant fall Sunday afternoon while I float in and out of a nap resting by my partner. I can hear the distant humming of a small plane in flight. I am probably 23 or so. I can smell that day – burning leaves in the distance. I can taste that day – a honey crisp apple.

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Memories of my moment.

I thought about that day the first time I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. There is a passage in that brilliant novel that always stands me still. Clarissa, one of the central characters, is preparing for a dinner party in honor of her dearest friend and former lover Richard, who is dying from AIDS. She recalls a day almost 30 year ago when she and Richard were together.

I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know that feeling. And I…I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more… never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.” the-hours-book

That afternoon was my moment.

I’ve been blessed with an abundance of moments since then but that was the crystalline pure singular moment before I knew of death and grief and my own failings.

I just finished watching Everything is Copy in flight, a documentary about the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, written and directed by her son, Jacob Bernstein. It reveals a total woman – good, bad and wickedly funny. The title comes from something Ephron’s mother, a Hollywood screenwriter, always said to her kids growing up – “Everything is copy,” – meaning that everything that happens to you is fair game to write about.

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The late great Nora Ephron.

Ironically, the one thing that Ephron, who died in 2012, never wrote about was her illness – a serious blood disease that was diagnosed in 2006 and later developed into leukemia. Many of her closest friends were shocked to learn that she had been sick for so long. Ephron had spent her career writing about her life – her parents, her divorces and even her breasts.

In the documentary, her son reflects on why his mother didn’t share something so essential.

I think at the end of my mom’s life, she believed that not everything is copy – that the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away – the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything as copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the way to control the story was to make it not exist. 

I am fascinated that one of the most prolific and successful memoirists of our time was able to conceal such an intimate part of her life until her death. Ephron was oh so very clever, though, and in some ways wrote her own eulogy at the end of her final novel I Remember Nothing, published two years before her death, which included a list of What I Won’t Miss and What I Will Miss.

You can read both lists here but it is the list of things she will miss that made me tear up on my flight. It’s just a short inventory but it is so lyrically beautiful in its simplicity. It includes, of course, her husband and her sons but also butter and Paris. It includes taking a bath and one for the table. And pie.

Her list made me think of my own list. I’m not copying but I’m down with Paris and pie, too. And scrawling my list on my ever handy writing pad was a timely exercise in gratitude.

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Musings from 40,000 feet.

What I Will Miss

Joy

My sister

Rain

Thunderstorms

Kittens

The gloaming

Wine

Looking at the wine list

Pouring my wife another glass of wine

Dolphins

Lightning bugs

Frank Sinatra

Newsprint on my fingers from the Sunday NY Times

Independent films in tiny theaters

Communion

Pens

Pencils

Paper

Postcards

The sound of a foghorn

The sound of good friends laughing at the dinner table

The sound of crunching leaves on a fall walk

College football

Holy Week

Palm trees

Watching my wife cut up vegetables

Pizza

Sushi

Kathy Ausen’s chocolate chip cookies

Speaking bad Italian in Italy

joy

Postscript: I made it to Newport Beach and I made it to 60. So far, so good. I’ve blown out a lot of candles on a lot of birthday desserts lately and my wish has been consistent. In fact, my wish has become my mantra for this next chapter of my life. It’s short and it’s sweet and I want to keep it in front of me every day along the way. So I gave myself a little birthday present – a tattoo – as a reminder.

Nora Ephron’s mother was right – everything is copy. And I don’t want to miss a moment.

joy-tattoo

 

getting-my-tattoo

What could go wrong?

 

birthday-cake

Sparkly wishes, sparkly days.