Valar morghulis

Translated: “All men must die,” in High Valyrian from the fantastic book and HBO series, Game of Thrones. The customary response to this greeting is “Valar dohaeris (all men must serve.)” They are two sides of the same coin.

I only think of this because I received my amazon pre-order I placed yonks ago of Game of Thrones Season 5 recently. I’m watching the season that portrays the book I was reading exactly 2 years ago while I was on holiday in Singapore and the Philippines. I still remember not being able to leave my hotel room in Quezon City in Manila because I was trying to finish A Dance with Dragons, despite being in a new city with so much to explore.

On March 13, my cousin Larry was admitted to the hospital for symtpoms that eventually led to a diabetes diagnosis. Just to be safe, as any doctor would have done, they ordered cat scans to rule out what they could. Those brain scans showed multiple tumors on my cousin’s brain, growing at an aggressive rate. On March 22, he had surgery to remove the two largest tumors on his brain forming one large one, basically.

Today, as he has the past couple days, he’s sleeping most of the time. There is a large amount of water in his brain. He’s supposed to be healing and rehabbing to get strong for a course of chemotherapy and radiation 4 weeks after his surgery. We wanted him to be strong to continue the fight, so he could have begun treatment as early as 2 weeks, but the doctors recommended 4 weeks.

Tonight, the outlook that he’ll make it another 2 weeks is bleak. I’ve been prepared by two separate family members that he’s on his way out. My cousin is dying.

Since I came back from Australia, I’ve flown back to Rome, NY, where most of my mom’s side of the family lives twice: once in June of 2014, when I first came back, and again in December 2015, for the holidays. Both times, I hung out with my cousin Larry the most out of anyone, besides my mother with whom I was staying. He made an effort to spend quality time with me, after all, he told me I’m the only cousin he really hung out with. My generation in my mom’s family has 6 kids, so I have 5 cousins. To some that’s a lot; to others, that is so very few. I was only close to Larry and his younger brother in that group of us. They were older than me, but I always hung out with them when I’d go back to New York for family trips. I went back once at 8, and again at 16, then perhaps not again til I was 32. Exponential family time, here…

I remember being 8, in a shed in back of the house where my cousins lived. They were probably 13 and 17. They were playing Dungeons and Dragons with other teenage boys, and my mom had sent me out to go hang out with them in the un-air-conditioned hothouse that was that shed. They were smoking cigarettes, but I didn’t tell. I channel that moment in Donnie Darko where Donnie asks his sister what’ll happen if she tells mom he’s smoking. “You’ll put Ariel in the garbage disposal,” she replies. “Goddamn right, I will…”

Both times I was back in Rome recently, I shared laughs and memories with my cousin. This was one of the best photos I showed him while we were shooting the shit at the dining room table, and he laughed so hard, and still said it nearly everytime I talked to him.

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Here he is, clowning around at the dining room table in a wig I found lying around the house he lived in with his mom and dad, my aunt and uncle.

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The last two times I’ve been back to visit family in 2014 and 2015, we’ve gone to the Outback Steakhouse. Everyone orders prime rib but his daughter (2nd row from the front, to the right of him) and me. He ordered prime rib and crab or lobster. Surf and turf.

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And this is a great photo of my cousin probably making a crass comment, his younger brother Steven laughing, and his father and namesake (my uncle Larry) folding his arms in pretend discontent but real happiness being surrounded by his sons sharing a moment.

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This has all progressed so quickly. The cancer is aggressive, and he may not make it to the 4-week mark for the all-clear post surgery to begin chemo and radiation treatment. He’s fighting for his life right now. I don’t know if he stands a chance or not.

My heart is heavy with the weight of many more memories I haven’t shared here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my family is small, but it is mine. It’s not perfect. And when something happens to someone I’m related to and with whom I’m also close, it penetrates all walls and invades, no matter the armor I wear.

I sit here, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. I feel like so many others, he too will become lost in the chasm of all the other statistics, with words like “Fuck cancer,” and “It’s not fair,” swirling in my head.

I don’t know that he ever boarded a plane and left his hometown. He had a day job, and it was hard work. The pay was crap, but he found meaningful ways to contribute. He lived with his mom and dad, and contributed to this world via a daughter he loved with all his heart. He never asked for much, and he was someone content to be part of the garden, but never the star.

A friend of mine unexpectedly lost her mother on March 25. She’d had some seizures, then the doctors told her it was an infection and it’d gotten too far, and the next thing she knew, her mother was gone. True, that moved a lot quicker than my cousin’s demise, but it still seems so fast. My family is made of people built like brick shithouses. They rarely get sick. Nothing ever happens. We’re as boring and normal as can be. This has thrown everyone for a loop, and we’re all coping the best we can. For some, that’s not very well. Up until today, for me, I was utilizing the pure art of distraction. There is no distracting myself anymore.

Valar morghulis. Valar dohaeris.


Memories of dad

My dad passed away on June 13, 2013. It’s been 2 years, 3 months, and 6 days. Time has proven an ally in reducing the pain, but there is still a dad-sized hole in my life nothing fills. And dad was a wide, short man. It’s not a small hole.

I went home for the funeral, and while I was there, my mother gave me some of his old shirts that I still have with me today. They hang in my closet, amongst my clothes, but they don’t get worn often, if at all. They’re not on display. They still smell like his closet. They’re just there.

Last night, I wore an old flannel of his to a professional mixer. It was big on me, but comfortable. It would suffice as a “Friday shirt” in a swanky environment. I swear, when I put it on, any social anxiety and awkwardness disappeared. I started conversations and navigated LGBT professionals who got too drunk too fast with ease. I made people laugh. I laughed, too – despite the inner turmoil I’ve been struggling through on a daily basis, especially of late.

I have a memory of him, in that particular flannel, one year when we went to chop down a Christmas tree. We drove along in his truck in silence, listening to a Pink Floyd cassette tape, watching the scenery go by.

I’ve missed him lately. In Sydney, I used to go up on our roof deck, play a Pink Floyd album on my iPhone, and have some champagne or a glass of red. There were 4 chairs in our outdoor furniture set, so I could easily imagine him with me on any one of those chairs. We’d listen to Pink Floyd together and enjoy the silence and the view.

My version of that back in my tiny apartment with no roof access in San Francisco is putting documentaries on Netflix, ones he’d like, being the big National Geographic and public television buff he was. America’s Secrets, Wildest Africa, Antarctica, whatever is available. There’s room on my couch next to me. So when I miss him, he comes here to visit.

I don’t have much to say, I guess it’s just the presence he had in my life. I always knew he was there. He never elbowed for room in my life. He was content to be in the shadows, much like the wind beneath my wings.

He and my mom would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow, September 20. They married in upstate New York in 1975, and I came along almost 6 years later.

It’s something you don’t notice til it’s gone – the invisible love and trust your parents have in you (or in the case of my mother, the much too visible love evidenced by shrines to you all over her home.) When one of those foundational legs is kicked out from underneath you, when there is no more wind beneath your wings, your flight is cancelled. You cannot stand for long on one leg. You try to fill the parent-sized hole in your life, but nothing fits.

If you’re lucky, you have a new family of your own. The pain subsides, knowing you’ve carried on the family name or bloodline with a new generation of which your parent would have been proud.

I am not lucky enough to have that. That hole can make you feel so empty that sometimes you think nothing can ever fill you up again.

No one loves you like your parents. And no one ever will.

I know this much is true

I’ve just come back from a lovely 4-day weekend in Southern California, visiting with college roommates from back in the day. It’s been 10 years since we graduated, and it was like connecting with extended family. We stayed in a nice housing community in Dana Point, California. The community had a clubhouse with a hot tub, which we put to good use, as well as a private beach only for members. We went tide pooling, looking for ocean life in the tidal zone when it was low tide. We saw lobsters, crabs, starfish, kelp, and baby seagulls.

We played games, like FastTrack (like Sorry), Cards Against Humanity, and reminisced about our days playing euchre for hours on end.

We made wonderful healthy meals together, with lots of fruit, and went out to a beachfront restaurant as well. There were beautiful sunsets with views of Catalina Island, laughing so hard our bellies hurt the next day, wine, and genuine reconnection. My friend’s mom hosted us and had a beautiful outdoor space with a fireplace, tiki torches, comfy seating, outdoor space heaters, greenery, and ambiance. We didn’t need to go out looking for trouble because we made plenty there.

I’ve written before about bringing old parts of you that may have been hidden, whether intentionally or not, out to the light after having been tucked away for a long time. It makes me feel like me again. On one hand, I killed so many brain cells in college that I can’t remember a lot of the details from that time in my life. But it’s funny how 4 days with these wonderful people brought a good amount flooding back.

I’d love to say I walked away with some profound epiphany, or something deeply meaningful. Reconnecting with old friends simply left me recharged. I slept a lot. Being with old friends simply reinforced all the things I already knew. That was my takeaway.

I know this much is true:

Nobody really ever has it all together.

We are all on our own personal quest for happiness, and laughing with friends contributes to this search for happiness a great deal. Try to do it as often as you can.

We all suffer pain at the loss of a loved one in very different ways.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So a big heartfelt thank you to my friends, new and old. Starting the new year right!

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