Bad Math

10257863_10205087245313522_8928703632963846795_oDavid would have been 56 today. A photo of us, my head resting on his right shoulder and our brother Tommy sitting at his left, pops up in my Facebook feed as a “memory”—as if I would forget this birthday without this visual reminder. The photo is from a restaurant in Houston called Julia’s where we had a fantastic dinner years ago, a restaurant that, like my brother, is now gone.

In my inbox, a daily email from the Writer’s Almanac says today, March 13, is the birthday of Percival Lowell, Janet Flanner, Pope Innocent XII, even Uncle Sam—at least the day he was “born” in the form of a cartoon character in 1852 in a publication called the New York Lantern. It seems David’s name, far more important to me than any of these, should also appear here in the list of VIP birthdays as I scroll.

Wikipedia says, “March 13 is the 72nd day of the year (73rd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 293 days remaining until the end of the year.” There are 365 days—or 364 if next year is a leap year—before I feel quite this feeling again.

I saw Tommy last week when he turned 53. I know the proximity in their birthdays brought both celebration and competition growing up. Now it causes only sadness. Already, Tommy has surpassed David’s life by six years, which seems like bad math; David was born three years before Tommy. But this is what death does; it changes math. It made Tommy my oldest brother.

Forty-seven years isn’t so bad, and anyone who knew David knew he lived more than most people do in a lifetime in that span. Still, it’s hard not to feel cheated each and every year, as I am greedy. Wanting more, so much more. And unable to add much.

Though I had a rare dream about David a couple of weeks ago, so rare in fact that it might have been only the third time that he has appeared in my unconsciousness this way, unsummoned by me, a welcome visitor. In the scene, David was driving a speedboat—too fast, no surprise—while I sat in the seat behind him, being splashed with spray and laughing raucously. It felt dangerous and safe at the same time, a sense my brother provoked easily. Upon waking, I cried as I cried when I lost him the first time, in real life, the way waking up reminded me of the reality each and every day for years, and not just on his birthday.

It was strange last week, as always, to be back “home” in Houston, surrounded in our mother’s house by her photos and mementos of David—her own shrine, different from mine, from Tommy’s—reminding me of our deeply varied relationships, the relationships that still go on for each of us, even now, as a wise writer recently wrote me.

I have not yet lived as long as David did, but I hope to, and I hope to surpass him too. As the baby of the family, I wonder if I will outlive everyone eventually, if not also go beyond their years, their numbers, their experiences. I wonder, as we all must do, whether we will meet again, somewhere where numbers don’t exist.

I love Tommy, and I know he loves me too, but we are unlikely to put our heads on each other the way I did that night after dinner, warm with red wine, with good food, and with the comfort, the security, the assuredness of my siblings, with our brother David between us.

We are minus one and counting.



Hollywood Distraction

31791461090_6945f0e77c_o.pngMy mom and I both love going to the movies. Ever since I was a little kid, we’ve enjoyed sitting in the dark together — next to each other, but among strangers, watching someone else’s story unfold onscreen in front of us, popcorn in hand. The ritual has always provided a mutual enjoyable distraction from our lives, from reality, from each other.

We can’t always be close about each other’s lives or about family stuff. But we can still always agree on a film we both want to see and have a lively conversation about it afterward. Talking about characters, plot lines, soundtracks, costumes, and celebrities interests both of us and provides a safe and reliable place for discussion.

On the years when I have been with her on Christmas, we have always gone to the movies that day. Many of those choices have stuck with me better than other pictures I’ve seen because we spent a major holiday with them — in lieu of being with family members in a jammed living room, we decided to spend our time with particular actors in an exotic locale living different lives than us.

We rarely get to the movies together these days since we live 1,500 miles apart, so we see them separately and then debrief about them at length on the phone and via email. But another ritual that has spun out from our shared love of movies is our mutual interest in movie award shows, and most entertaining to me, our pre-event anticipation and post-event critique of the Red Carpet fashion.

So this time of year is as special to Mom and me as any holiday — perhaps more so. Even (or especially?) this year, when the world feels in peril and the ongoing political chaos threatens to overtake every moment of every day — I am excited about what the celebrities are wearing. It feels a little naughty and perhaps in some way irresponsible. Like burying my head in the sand, except I’m burying my head in glitter.

Mom and I have joked that we are like some unglamorous version of Melissa and Joan Rivers during award season. We generally disagree with all of the fashionistas, yet we take our jobs seriously. On Sunday, when we talked on the phone in preparation for the Oscars, my 80-year-old mother said, “I may have to text you during the ceremony.” She didn’t, but I thought about her the whole time, wishing I could talk to her about everyone I was seeing. If my husband hadn’t been on the other end of the couch, I might have hurt my neck cradling the phone talking to her the entire time.

Instead, I wrote her an email the next day, per our usual debrief:

I thought things looked awfully familiar from the Globes: a major concentration of neutral, white and/or black with metallic: combos of beads, sequins, mirrors, rhinestones. It really mostly looked like variations on a theme that was color-subdued and sparkle-forward. Even the few colored pieces had additions of shiny bling: Denzel’s wife Paulette’s nice red, Meryl’s pretty navy. 

Most women looked lovely, I thought, but unmemorable, with a few significant exceptions: Leslie Mann’s enormous yellow dress worked only on her because her personality is reflected in it (sunny, hilarious and larger than life). And can we talk about the Marie Antoinette-like crazy hip pieces and massive beaded choke-collar on Janelle Monae’s over-the-top black and gold spangled number?? Because I am still shuddering from it. 
The cattiness went on, in a way neither of us general talk about anything. Easy for us to feel superior at home in our yoga pants. I hit send and waited for Mom’s reply. She started, hours later, by putting me to shame:
I have just returned from another energizing meeting at Planned Parenthood — so I’m a little distracted!
But she allowed herself a few gluttonous moments after that:
Regarding dresses, I was keeping notes — with the emphasis on “too many pales” and Janelle Monae’s worst-of-the-night dress. She is so pretty but that dress looked really terrible… [let it be known  that everyone in the fashion world disagreed with us] Kirsten Dunst at the very beginning of the Red Carpet had a very nice, simple black dress, and there were a few other nice simple blacks.
I do crave color, though. Viola Davis’s red was nice, but I couldn’t quite figure out that neck/shoulder business…. I was also bothered by a few women with long hair that looked unclean and uncombed. I didn’t know who Leslie Mann was, but it looked OK on her — except for the overly huge skirt.

And then more shame and more reality for me:

Enough. Back to critical political issues. Love, Mom

You’d think I’d been rooting for La La Land, the way I got swept up in the shimmering Hollywood glamour, yet I was all for Moonlight all the time. Still, I’m looking forward to next year already, hoping I’m not signing online petitions in the middle of the ceremony, and instead just looking at beautiful people dressed in colors, to make Mom happy.


Coincidences, Connections, the Cosmos

A week ago, I returned from my first AWP Conference, a massive writing and publishing event, which took place this year in Washington, DC. While there, I found out that a triple celestial confluence had occurred: a simultaneous full moon, lunar eclipse and comet appeared in the sky that Friday night, which, despite my reticence to accept such woo-woo reasoning, may help explain why so many poignant connections occurred.

img_7456I knew that my former-MFA professor/now-friend Suzanne would be attending, but I had no idea she would be on the same plane until we ran into each other while boarding. We gaped at each other happily upon the discovery. Southwest Airline’s sometimes-annoying lack of seat reservations paid off this time, as we were able to sit together and go through all the panels and readings and author-signings that we wanted to attend, surely annoying the guy in the aisle seat who had hoped for a quiet nap. Like two kids salivating over 101 delightful Baskin Robbins flavors of ice cream and able to choose just a few, we talked through the many sessions and presenters, while she gave me tips and insights and encouragement.

Because we had run into each other this way, it also meant we were able to find our way by bus, train and Metro together, check in at registration with each other and even share an Uber. In between these stops, like teenagers, we took numerous selfies, giggled and posted them. An excited, yet nervous, first-time AWPer, flyer and navigator, I was deeply reassured by the surprise gift of my lovely silver-haired mentor to keep me company the entire way. Though we joked we should never travel without each other again, we knew our return plans differed.

At the three-day conference, I met for the first time in person the guy I’ve interned with for over a year, reconnected with professors from grad school, ran into a friend’s daughter I hadn’t seen in years, caught up with her mom and another local friend I didn’t know would be there. I sat through many sessions presented by writers I admired whom I had only imagined living on pages, not in real life. I said “thank you!” to an editor from the first journal to publish my work and “hello!” many others who swore they needed more nonfiction submissions (even though I’m sure they were just being nice to me).

img_7504I had the great fortune of meeting (nervously and sweatily, after pumping myself up like a boxer entering a ring) Jill Bialosky and Roger Rosenblatt, two of my literary heroes who had penned memoirs about loss that meant a great deal to me as I worked on my manuscript about losing my brother. I look up to both like they are rock stars, and both were so kind to me that I was in tears after our brief encounters.

A third writer in the same camp was brought to my attention by my roommate for the weekend, who had attended a panel I missed. “You HAVE to have his book,” Heidi said, “I’m going to buy it for you.” She practically dragged me to the Trinity University Press table to pick up a copy of Kim Stafford’s book about his brother’s death.

img_7505In the middle of the enormous book fair, I glanced down at one exhibitor’s table (one of 800) and my eyes landed on a book by a woman I used to be in a writing group with, aptly titled, What is Amazing. Exhausted, I slumped in a chair at a table covered with dozens of bookmarks, brochures, and postcards from journals, schools and publishers. Out popped one with a quote about Barton Springs at the very same moment my friend in Austin texted me out of the blue. Wow!! What a coincidence! We’ll be plunging in next month! She wrote when I told her.

Then I received an email from a former boss about some freelance work she had thrown my way because she is currently going through chemo. I ended my note back to her: are you doing OK, considering? I’m thinking about you… And she responded: Yes! I’ve been reading Suzanne Strempek Shea’s book about her breast cancer journey. I looked up from my iPhone, wide-eyed. You just gave me chills. She is sitting across from me right now. She calmly typed back: The universe connects us in common and meaningful ways…

Late Saturday, I dragged my suitcase, laptop and conference bag — weighed down with purchased books — to the Metro stop at the convention center, heading home tired and a little sad, but chock full of inspiration. Alone, I reflected on the many amazing moments, the happenstances, the things that occurred seemingly for no reason, or because, you know, The Universe.

When I presented my ID at Union Station, the clerk selling me a ticket paused. “Pinkerton?” She said. “I’ve never heard that name before, but that’s a character on my daughter’s reading app.” For the next ten minutes, she searched for it while we chatted, the wifi connection sluggish on her iPhone underground. I was glad for the connection, and for the new app “Endless Reader,” to recommend to my friends with kids.

I trudged down the platform of the train station, past car after car of the seemingly endless train, finally settling into a seat and getting out my own phone, looking for the app, then checking email. There was one from Suzanne from the other day, I’ll never forget our adventure of arriving… I began to type back, Traveling with you was the BEST! It’s not that thrilling finding my way back alone… And moments later I heard a voice from behind me, “Anne? Is that you?”

Due to an impending snowstorm, Suzanne had changed her plane reservation to the one I just happened to be taking. She had also taken the same train. And walked into the same car. And sat right behind me.

Four days later – trying to keep my AWP glow on – I had dinner with Melanie Brooks before she did a reading in town for her new book called Writing Hard Stories, a collection she penned while working on her own memoir. Between bites of salad, she said, “You absolutely HAVE to read Kim Stafford’s book.”

No Ordinary Princess

For fucks sake 2016, Princess Leia??? You have got to be kidding me.

carrie_fisher_2013It took me weeks to work through my upset over losing David Bowie early this year, then I nearly, literally, fell down when my coworker announced to me that Prince —PRINCE! — had died. Leonard Cohen’s exit right after the election was an especially poetic touch from this gruesome year. I really thought the sucker punch of the death of George Michael ON CHRISTMAS DAY might be the end of a year full of tremendous, unfair, cruel losses. So many insanely talented people who made such a difference to my growing up. But no.

Today, it’s Carrie Fisher. Despite knowing about her recent heart attack, I am gob smacked. She was supposed to have The Force, after all! She was a PRINCESS, for crying out loud, a kick ass, tough-as-nails princess, the profound female role model of my tender formative years years, one that blew all of our young minds. In elementary school, she was the one all of us girls wanted to dress up as on Halloween (my friend Khajha was the only one who actually had the right hair – the hair we all coveted) — and the kids still dress up as her. That’s what a legend she was as Leia.

Fisher had another role that was really important to me: a writer. But as much as I appreciated her acting chops, her on-screen dynamism, her storytelling gifts, her directing and screenwriting, what I loved about her most about Carrie Fisher was that she was open about her tremendous personal struggles, especially in acknowledging she had bipolar disorder.

Fisher was one of the first famous people who lived it out loud, unapologetically, along with all the baggage she and everyone who suffers with this disease has to drag along: the self-medication with alcohol and (many, many) drugs, the antisocial behavior, the terrible messes it all makes. It wasn’t pretty princessy stuff, but then, she was never an ordinary princess. She persevered. And in doing so, she allowed others with mental illnesses to see that they could make amazing contributions, let their creativity shine, and be super successful while letting that all hang out.

I’ve been thinking about heroes a lot lately. All of these famous people who inspired and moved me were also really interesting, complex, generous human beings. They were all heroes of mine.

It’s funny that the last thing Fisher finally unveiled — through her newest memoir — was the juicy truth about her affair with Harrison Ford, the thing we all suspected and waited decades to know for sure. I’m glad she left us with so many truths. The others left us with some serious mysteries, and that’s always hard to sort. I will really miss her.

Dammit, 2016. There are four days left of this year and that makes me nervous about what else might happen. Where is Obi One Kenobi? He’s our only hope.

Photo: Wiki Creative Common, by Riccardo Ghilardi

No Simple Gifts

640px-juletraeslysAh, holidays. They are thorny for most people over the age of five on some level, I imagine. Between family and travel and scheduling, there are many pitfalls. Today, despite the fact that my husband and I made a deliberate decision to avoid all of these potential stressors and decided to stay home and relax, I am feeling a trifle taxed, and also a little sad — perhaps precisely because we avoided them.

We have a new puppy, we said. We’ll enjoy being at home, we said. We’ll see you in the new year, we said.

His family has issues; so does mine. He has issues; so do I. Traveling is taxing. The puppy is real — and while adorable, genuinely high-maintenance. And we are really homebodies. We like visiting family more at off-times, when there isn’t so much pressure. Still, I miss them all an awful lot right now. A lot more than I thought I would. I can’t deny it.

Despite the booking of plane tickets way in advance or driving through bad weather, the financial pressure of buying presents, the great food that makes you eat far too much, the not-so-great food that challenges your politeness, the tiredness that comes from running around seeing people, the topics that must be avoided, the awkwardness of opening certain presents from that one relative whose intentions are so good, the forced smiling, and the small talk, there’s a reason so many people do it.

It’s been a very long time since Christmas Eve was so thrilling that I lay in bed, wide-eyed with excitement, unable to sleep, thinking about what Santa would bring or not bring, sneaking trips out of my bedroom to tiptoe past my parents’ bedroom and peek down the carpeted stairs all the way into the living room where the tree, alight and magical, waited like a beacon of all things good to be surrounded by shiny presents. Today, at age 43, I understand why having a kid around would help my spirits.

It’s not like we’ve been totally un-festive. White lights are strung around the porch outside and the wreath my dad and stepmother send each year is hung on the front door. We’re doing what we planned: last night we ate pasta on the couch while watching Elf, tonight it’s take-out pizza with It’s a Wonderful Life, and fish chowder tomorrow likely accompanied by A Christmas Story. I may watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas a third time. We’ll open a few presents and take the dogs for a walk.

It will be like a special weekend. Which it is.

But had to give my dad a call this afternoon, just to hear his kind, baritone voice, to ask about the carols he and my stepmother will sing tonight at midnight mass, to find out what presents he got her, to tell him I miss him. Mom’s next. Then I’ll be texting my brother.

Next year, I think I may need to sign back on for complicated — since keeping it simple seems like it may be an impossibility.

Photo from Wiki Commons/ author: Malene

The Good Fight

suffragette_procession_1911I work at a women’s college — the oldest in the country, in fact. I didn’t attend one myself, but being there feels good — as a woman, as a feminist, as a person, as an American.

For my job, I spend a lot of time promoting the achievements of our alumnae and students, as well as other women around the globe. I celebrate women’s education and women’s successes. I try to instill hope and courage. I attempt to inspire. In doing so, I am often inspired, hopeful, even occasionally courageous.

When a few months ago Hillary Clinton wore all white to accept the Democratic nomination as the first women presidential candidate in history, those in my office quickly recognized the significance of her outfit when I did not. Mount Holyoke, like other women’s colleges, has an annual parade where everyone dresses in white, the uniform of the suffragettes who, less than 100 years ago, fought mightily for women’s right to vote and for us to be equal participants in our democracy. Hillary attended a women’s college too, Wellesley. Her outfit was clearly carefully chosen in honor of our foremothers, and it struck me as quite poetic.

Since the nomination, and ramping up as the election neared, our social media channels were abuzz with articles and photos and Tweets proudly sharing the bonded feeling of sisterhood, the excitement of this women’s “first” accomplishment, of the potential for equal representation so many of us have wished for. I always wished for a woman as president. I couldn’t imagine any little girl or any woman who didn’t. Despite my desire for a different choice as first woman candidate (full disclosure: I backed Bernie Sanders), even I was getting swept up in anticipation.

Yesterday, faculty, staff and students alike — along with women around the country — wore white, and the hashtag #WearWhiteToVote became a thing online. Yesterday, alumnae posted articles about making history. Yesterday, nearly every girlfriend I have proudly posted selfies with “I voted” stickers affixed to their chests. I was  moved. Yesterday, I, too, cast my ballot for Hillary, with the genuine hope that she would be our president elect today.

This morning, I heard about all of the students at the college who stayed up all night crying. This morning, I cancelled all of the social media posts I had carefully put together at work to publish today. This morning, I blacked out my profile photo on my personal Facebook page and then promptly closed it. This morning, I attended a meeting where, with most of our faces downcast, we discussed the need for more security on campus, just in case.

Still, by the end of the day, my officemates and I were talking about the editorial content for our quarterly magazine next year and what kind of impact we could make using that tool. We discussed the strategy for the campaign we are launching in January that focuses on applauding women’s education and empowerment, figuring the timing was still great — and the activity more important than ever. We five women sat around our circular meeting table and figured out ways to move forward — together — and to keep up the good fight.

Photo: Postcard of a Suffragette procession of 1911. Printed by H. Searjent of Ladbroke Grove, London. Public domain.

Ashes, Ashes

spodomancy_on_white_paper_-_thin_ashes_01A couple of days ago, I clicked the small ornate letter T on my iPhone, as I do most mornings, and ran my finger down the appealingly slick surface, scanning the headlines in my New York Times app. Sick of the elections, racial tensions and ongoing police dramas, I kept scrolling, taking note of items but not engaging enough to actually click on anything until I saw an article titled, “Powder Tossed at Metropolitan Opera May Have Been Human Ashes.” Yep, that’s the kind of story that always gets my attention.

I won’t suggest I don’t have a certain kind of curiosity many would call morbid, though I just consider it an interest, not unlike any kind of interest anyone might have — say, in horses or sports or knitting — except in my case, it’s all things death, dying and grieving. Sometimes, it isn’t the same kind of conversation starter as other topics. Yet, sometimes it is.

I read with great interest about how a man in the audience had waited until the intermission of a Rossini performance and then apparently sprinkled something white into the orchestra pit. He was “witnessed” doing it, he was caught on video reaching into a black bag, and then — after the rest of the show was cancelled and the audience members evacuated — the powder was examined by experts. The orchestra pit was declared a crime scene! The entire debacle was called a “terrorism scare.” That’s the kind of world we live in.

As it happened, the guy was simply trying to fulfill the dying wish of a dear friend, a guy who had originally introduced him to opera. Terry, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, had agreed to the romantic idea that his cremains be scattered among famous concert halls. When “The Sprinkler” later wrote the director of the Met an apology letter for the enormous disturbance explaining the scheme, he said, so beautifully, “I jokingly told Terry they would never be able to vacuum all of him up. He would be there forever enjoying all the beautiful music.”

I am, I know, more than likely inordinately drawn to subjects like this. I read follow-up articles in the Times and the Washington Post, the latter of which recalled that the only times the Met had ever cancelled performances partway through was for death: once for an artist who died onstage after singing an aria about death, once for an elderly man who jumped from the balcony during “Macbeth,” and once for a tenor who literally sang the phrase, “You can only live so long” (though probably in Italian) before he succumbed to a heart attack.

If this is not all some crazy kind of poetry, what is?

It all took me back to my own situation, poetic too in its way, I suppose, especially in retrospect. Eight years ago, I sat in the library of a church parish in Houston with my mother, my brother’s stepmother and a pastor I had just met. An odd grouping, to be sure, borne of a terrible situation. Together, we opened a black plastic box, about the size of a shoebox, and a plastic bag that was tucked inside that contained my brother’s ashes, the dusty stuff he had been reduced to after his — I’m tempted to say “untimely death,” but what death is exactly timely? — and proceeded to divvy up the sandy stuff into small parcels.

The plan was to distribute little dime bags of my dear brother to his friends and relatives so that pieces of him would be sprinkled throughout the world. Because he died after hiking a bunch of peaks, because all he ever really wanted was to be outdoors, because globetrotting was one of his most intense joys, we all hoped that he, like Terry, would end up in glorious and amazing places that meant something to him for all eternity.

I wonder now where the grey-white powder from my brother, the shockingly small residue of a big life, has been sprinkled. I hadn’t thought much about it after the memorial service where we discreetly tucked the parcels into people’s hands like drugs. A unique parting gift for sure.

As Terry hoped to have tiny fragments caught in the fibers of lush red carpeting above which voices would soar, I hope that David ended up mixed into the scree on enormous mountains, in the sand of expansive beaches, in the soil of a field somewhere ablaze with wildflowers.


New England really knows how to die.

img_6432New England really knows how to die.

I grew up in Texas where the leaves on the trees slowly, slowly, slowly change from green to boring brown, maybe with a tinge of yellow if you’re lucky. Summer sort of oozes into fall. There’s no big physical transition from one time of year to another;  just a subtle dulling of the landscape as the season wanes.

Seeing autumn foliage explode in Massachusetts was initially like witnessing an event on another planet. Even after 25 years living here, every fall stuns and delights me. Just when I think I can’t be amazed by another transition from warm to cool, I find myself, mouth agape, wandering my neighborhood as if I’m viewing it for the first time. And it’s being shown in Technicolor.

Maples and elms and crap apple trees nearly burst from green into into ochres and burgundies as if set alight. Overnight the yard is swirling with fiery red and yellow leaves, piled by the wind into drifts against the house. They huddle against the street curbs, cover the flowerbeds like rich tapestries.

Every time a fresh gust of air blows across the sky, it is made visible by a rain of delicate orange leaves and heard by the whoosh through leafy branches. Let go, let go, the wind seems to say, and the trees abide. Dry leaves, oval and round and palm-shaped and spiky, skitter across the road, as if in a rush to get somewhere.

I wonder if ticker tape parades were inspired by this natural celebration. As if the heavens let go an enormous fistful of confetti, the whole word is smattered with colorful leaves. It’s a big lovely mess.

img_6427I know this display is a warning of what’s to come — New England winter, neither colorful nor gentle, will soon enough strip the landscape bare, leaving the trees shiveringly naked and the view will be monochrome. But for now, like a kid, I kick the crimson leaves as I walk the dogs, and look up to the bright blue sky full of incredible eye candy, rejoicing in the gorgeous way of dying that only this region seems to know.

It’s so punk rock, New England, with its attitude: burn out, don’t fade away.

Grief in the Digital Age

1924318_57463667749_6077_nThey say things come in threes. This time, three talented, funny, sweet guys I cared about—all in their early 40s, all musicians—are gone within three months.

I manage a number of social media accounts for my job, so when I check Facebook, I’m genuinely not wasting time at work, usually. But as many know, company pages are often connected to personal ones, so when I logged in at my desk first thing this morning, it was my news feed I saw first.

I picked up my phone to text my husband Peyton about what I had just seen, and it simultaneously rang. He was calling me. We are often synergistic this way. And we both knew and loved these three guys.

Today, we jointly reeled over the news that a mutual college chum—one of my first band mates and a guy who lived with and shared a wall with Peyton during our time at school (through which he often heard Helmet cranked at full volume as late at 3 a.m.)—had succumbed to a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer.

Peyton and I had been shocked when we saw the first Facebook post that Max had been diagnosed, back in June. In between, we had sent him brief notes of encouragement and laughed when he posted the cover of the record Dopesmoker by the band Sleep with the caption, “Chemo music” while receiving treatment, and changed his profile picture to an illustration of an angry-eyed kid with a cigarette dangling from its lips. “Did Max never quit smoking?” we asked the air. “Regardless, shit shit shit.” While it felt like a punch to the gut each time we thought about it, there was so much else to think about.

We weren’t in close contact with Max, and hadn’t physically seen him in probably twenty years. We had that kind of semi-faux connection that Facebook breeds, comforting and easy, real in some ways, but not so real in others, better than nothing, for sure. I had seen photos of his sons, cute twin boys, and clicked “thumbs up” on his occasional posts with real affection, but we hadn’t exchanged more than one line of text in a couple of decades. It was 1992, maybe, when we first held band practice in the basement of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus with two other classmates, and probably 1993 when we played our last show, calling ourselves Backwash. Classy. In 1994, he and Peyton graduated and went their separate ways.

But when I saw his wife’s post announcing his death on his Facebook page for his friends, and then talked about him with Peyton while crouching uncomfortably on a step outside my shared office space for a modicum of privacy, I fell apart—sobbing in a way that was far from acceptable for a professional setting. I spent more than half an hour in a stall in the women’s room, grabbing fistfuls of the single-ply toilet paper over and over, trying to get my act together, but couldn’t.

I felt especially lucky I work with a bunch of sensitive women when I told them had to go home.

I spent the day crying about Max, and also about Kevin, who died last month, and Jim, who died the month before. I also cried because, Why them and not us? and We’re not old enough for this yet! and What the fuck.

When they each left this life, I hadn’t felt like I could give myself the space. Or maybe I didn’t quite have the energy. Though I’m not usually one to shy away from looking at the dark matter of this life, I had far too many feelings and far too much else logistically to juggle. It was inconvenient. It felt almost wrong feeling so terrible too. Others were so much closer to Max and Kevin and Jim. I went through the familiar feeling of not deserving sadness. But when you ignore these things, they come back and bite. The pile-up was simply too much.

I allowed myself a whiskey at 10 a.m. And another at 10:30. I wanted to be toasting these guys, but instead I was just trying to calm down a little.

Each of their Facebook pages is still up, turned into little digital memorials for our 2016 social media way of life. They contain lots of notes and micro-memories and photographs. When we’re all so spread apart geographically, these virtual spots give us a sort of grave-like place to visit.

It does help a bit, even though it’s weird. To be able to find that old picture of Max and me, back when I had a nose ring and was just learning how to properly sing into a mic, back when he was showing me power chords and we were covering Black Sabbath songs badly and writing some originals badly and having a great time doing it. He’s looking over at me as if I don’t suck, I think. It’s nice. It reminds me who we were.

I go over and “visit” good ol’ Jim and Kevin while I’m online too. I hadn’t seen Jim in quite a while either—though only a couple of years, not 20—and I saw Kevin two days before he died. Still, it feels surreal that they are gone and also not gone due to this channel where fragments of their lives continue on in the Cloud like some kind of Star Trek thing we would never have imagined back in college.

These tiny souvenirs feel quite precious at the moment. The two pictures Max’s wife posted last night, the ones she took before his hair fell out from the chemo—one serious, one smiling—as she said, are a gift.

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