He was my favorite middle school teacher. The best kind of one. Funny, charming, etc. Never raised his voice, never had anyone get into trouble. The day of his death was September 27th, a matter of days after my birthday. His deranged roommate shot him in his own apartment building, but nobody saved him. He was long dead before help arrived.
The school loved him, we missed him. The day before he died, I created a board game with chalk in my driveway. Since then, the sensory walk in my school hallway haunts me. Never once did I purposely try it, in spite of how much his death hurt my heart.
I was young when he died. I’ve grown since then, but I certainly haven’t gotten over him. Tears almost always come to my eyes when I hear sad music, reminding me of him. He will forever be in the hearts of my entire school, all the teachers, all his friends, his family, and me.
My deceased father walks the halls of my mind from time to time. Not invasively.
He had said in our early teenage years, jarring my only sister as if intentionally, that if any of us three were to make it as artists it would be me. I thought I would be haunted, having mostly failed, but it is a presence most respectful. A translucent figure withholding judgement, hands clasped behind the back, waiting, remaining mute though watchful.
I drink black coffee with him once a day, because that, he said, was his lifeblood.
He only allowed himself one cup.
Two days before his death we had a long conversation. We always had deep talks, but this one had singular momentousness. We sat in army ration surplus wool blankets on the back porch watching the June sunset filtering through the tree line. He said he had understood that it had to be this way. Our time had to end.
Like an incomprehensible love affair.
He said he had to make way so that I could live out the rest of my life, come what may.
It was stabbing to us both--this Truth.
He had always held himself as independent. Never concerning himself with what others thought or the consequences of insisting on his own way. The act of spoiling a trip or a gathering by refusing to attend, left him unfazed, while family near or far huffed and balked with indignation at the audacity and outrage. He would stick to his principles.
Yet he over the years he had wrapped himself, willfully and yet unwittingly, around my presence. We were tied in a knot.
He had tested my integrity, and something had to give. He would not tolerate any other person in my life. Except maybe a child, preferably bastarded.
I never wonder if he would be proud of me now. He would have scoffed at such a notion as cheap, infantile, and unintelligent. He would only want to know whether I kept my head above the pressures of social expectations and kept independence of thought?
In truth it isn't the dead that haunt me. It's the living who have isolated themselves. It is their absence that weighs over my consciousness. My father remains in my eyes an honorable man.
around the corners
of the grin that would adorn
your kind face.
to tell a story
of worlds far away
time long past
and creatures yet unseen.
how selfless you were!
anything that was yours
was also that of anyone in need of it
and yet anything that wasn't,
you never coveted.
even against those who wronged you
you harbored no grudge
the most kindhearted,
you never judged
and yet life has no patience
time no empathy at all
in the end
death comes for us all,
but it came for you first.
and for the rest of my days spent without you,
i will lament.
Dissolved in mist and absence
in my chest
i don't know
on the phone
shows the date
in an album
in a frame
on the shelf
of a hug
ever more dim
Dissolved in mist and absence
an absence, light as the skin of a child
There, far away,
Where oblivion dwells.
My Entire World
I was 13 when I met David. He was the choir director at the high school I would eventually attend. He was at the junior high school facilitating auditions for the 8th graders, determining which choir(s) all of us would land in come the fall. He was an intimidating presence: he was a genius, and he was a legend throughout the state due to the renowned success of his choirs and individual students. He had these crystal blue eyes that made you feel that no one in the world mattered but you when he was looking at and talking with you. He fiercely cared about his students, and some of us were luckier than others to be in his “inner circle”.
Throughout our time together as his student, I became his shadow. I dressed like him, emulated his conducting, and was constantly in his office trying to soak up as much of him as I could. There came a point in my junior and senior years that it was just understood that I was his right hand; if he was late for school (he always was) or rehearsals, I would get everyone warmed up, get into the music, and then he’d take over when he got there. No one ever thought it was weird or ever questioned it. I was his stand-in and I fucking loved it.
When I left for college, leaving him was harder than leaving my family or any of my friends. The long summers during the school years were hard enough to not see or talk to him, and now I was moving 3 hours away? I couldn’t fathom my life without him; I really only ever felt normal when I was around him. He gave me his phone number and told me that I could always call him for any reason. He told me that he knew that I was going to need someone since I was moving away and that he would always be there. It was a very intense sentence, and I was puzzled by his comment… little did I know that he already figured out that I was gay. I left for college in August 1994.
October 1, 1994: the first time I kissed a woman. The reason I remember that date is because- not only was that a magical experience and cleared up a lot for me- it was also the day my paternal grandmother died. I went back to my hometown overwhelmed with my feelings for that woman and what to do with the state of overwhelm I found myself in. I had no one to talk to… but wait! OMG, is this what David meant? Surely not. I can’t tell him this! I knew he was gay, but could I really talk to him? The more I thought about it the more his comment really started to become clear to me. A few weeks passed and I finally got up the nerve to call him. We were on the phone for 3 hours that night. He laughed and told me when he met me when I was 13, he knew I was gay (what?!). He knew that he was going to get this phone call, but he didn’t think he was going to get it so soon after I moved away.
From that moment on, he became my rock; I sort of became his kid. Quite frankly, it is because of him that I am still alive. Not that coming out and coming to terms with queerness is any easier in one place over another, but I was in the south. I had no one to talk to (mid-90s… no one is really open and out). I don’t know what I would have done without him. We talked all the time; he kept me up to date about what was going on with the choirs and such, we talked about music and conventions, I confided in him about anything and everything.
After a few years and despite our 19 year age difference, we just became odd best friends. When I moved back to my hometown, he would bring me to parties and introduce me to all of his friends (they all knew who I was because I was his “kid”), we would go out to dinner & bars & clubs & shows & concerts together. He hired me to teach voice lessons, choreography, and the like at the high school with him. The David-and-Val-Show was back together again and I was over the moon.
Prior to me moving back to my hometown, I found out that he was HIV+. I was living with a university professor for a short while in between moves and he told me, accidentally; since everyone knew how close David and I were, he thought I already knew. A few weeks after that, David was at the university for the annual choral summer camp and he took me out to talk about it. He was so upset that I heard about his status from someone other than him. He had been positive for a few years, but he was relatively healthy, had good doctors, took care of himself, etc. He let me cry and tried to convince me that he was fine.
I was absolutely destroyed; I knew our time was limited now.
Years came and went. In and out of hospitals. Medicine changes. Doctor changes. He’d be healthy for a while and then would just drop like a ton of bricks. Rinse, repeat. I’d go to his house and keep him company; I’d spend time at the hospital with him. I met his whole family and grew close to them. I had a whole other family and they were just wonderful and so appreciative of my presence with him; I was grateful to be included in his family.
He ended up in the hospital for a little over a week, and he asked me not to come; he said he just needed to rest. I didn’t buy it. He finally reached out to me to tell me he was going to a home to recuperate and that he wanted me to come by. When I got to the home, he looked great; he was sitting in the chair next to the bed and greeted me with his usual smile and giant hug. He had me sit down with him. He looked at me and said “my doctor fired me yesterday. There’s nothing else he can do for me. This is a hospice home. This is it.” While I had figured this out (he had never not wanted me to come around) and knew it was coming, I felt like my world ended in that moment sitting on the bed with him. I held it together while I was with him, but as soon as I left the room- and for the rest of the night- I cried a fucking ocean of tears. The next several days were torturous. I stayed at the home to help his family with whatever they needed and just to remain in his presence as long as I was going to be physically allowed at this point.
I stayed at the home as long as I was allowed to on June 14. He was barely breathing and had stopped talking two days earlier. I can still see him in that room and the details of every inch of that room that night. I went to bed knowing he was gone. Around 1:45am on June 15, I shot up in bed, gasping for air like someone had knocked the wind out of me. It was obviously a kind of violent movement as I woke my partner (at the time) up with my actions. She asked “omg, are you okay- what the hell happened?” and I told her just didn’t know. I settled down and went back to sleep.
David’s dad called me at 7:45am to tell me that David had died at 1:45am.
His parents asked me to speak at his funeral: a day in the life of being a student of his. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to do, but I somehow made it through it. There were so many former students, choir directors, etc there and it was such a celebration of a remarkable human. I went by the funeral home the day of the funeral and when I said I was there to see him and check in with his family, I was asked “are you family?” I heard his mom say from another room “Yes, she’s family- let her in here.” I’ve not heard from or spoken to any of his family since. I reached out to them shortly after a move to the same state they lived in, and the letter I sent them- addressed correctly- was returned for some reason. I kind of felt that was a good thing; I don’t know that I could have handled getting closer to them and then losing them- it would have felt like reliving David’s loss. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s my mistake, but at the time I felt like I had to protect my heart.
When my wife and I met in 2005, I was still pretty raw from losing him. I remember her telling me that she wasn’t at all nervous about meeting my parents, but OMG if she had to meet David she would have been terrified; he was obviously my world, so how in the world was she going to impress my “world”? She finally said “I hope he would like me.” I remember telling her he sent her to me. There is no question in my mind that he orchestrated getting me the fuck away from my abusive partner and into my wife’s life so that I would finally realize happiness and that I was worth more than the life that I had resigned myself to living. Trust me, babe- I know he adores you.
In my mind and in my heart, being in love with someone isn’t just defined by a romantic relationship. I can't think of a time in my life where I wasn't completely, ridiculously in love with David. I blame him for my obsession with perfection, despite knowing that it is just inherently part of who I am- but he really always pushed me to be the best Me and I'm grateful for that (albeit exhausting at times). I achingly miss him, but he is very much alive in me. I hope I honor him in my life somehow. The people we fall in love with never leave us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our wedding anniversary was three days ago, and your birthday is in just a few weeks...time really does move fast. It is really hard to believe that you have been gone just over three years.
I often think of how hard you fought and the tremendous will within you. All the while never complaining about what you called, "the hand that was dealt". Memories of you are shared among family and friends at gatherings. You are in thoughts and hearts....There is grace and peace in knowing that one day we will see those that we love once again.
Sometimes it seems like everywhere I turn there is a Cardinal....the sightings always makes me smile.
Now and Then
The wind rocked my car as I prepared to brace myself against the cold and the mentally taxing task before me. I pried open the door and began to warily trek towards the entrance of Crest. The cold makes my eyes sting and water--momentarily wavering the store into Food 4 Less.
"Why don't you grab us a cart?"
"Looks good to me. Hold tight to the list and coupons."
"Got them Dad!"
I pushed the cart up and down each aisle, because I didn't make a list to cheerfully forget and then feel self-righteous at having made one in the first place. This time I simply couldn't be bothered.
"Be sure and grab two 2%s. Joel drinks enough milk for an army."
I noted that the cost of milk was rivaling a month's rent. When did milk get so expensive? Is it laced with gold? Do the dairy cows have a serious coke habit to maintain? I pass down the baking goods aisle and pause at the muffin mix.
"Ooh! Ooh! Blueberry muffins! Let me tell you it doesn't get much better than a hot blueberry muffin with butter on it. Go ahead and get the box. The packet only makes six, but if you spend a little more, you get twice as many muffins."
I put the box muffin mix into my cart--maybe I can tempt him to nibble on a little bit of muffin when he's lucid. I weave up and down aisles--seeing but not seeing. The end of aisle LED lights hurt my eyes as I turn onto the cereal aisle.
"I love my Blueberry Morning and Banana Nut Crunch. I like to add a few slices of fresh banana on top."
"Banana cereal? No thanks, Dad."
"I'll take your word for it."
What can I make? He doesn't seem to be able to eat anything, but he needs something! Mom needs to eat as well, even though she doesn't feel like it. My chest constricts. I start grabbing random things and put them in the cart.
"Be sure and get Sargento's--we have a coupon."
Sorry Daddy, I don't have a coupon, I whisper to myself as I put the cheese slices in the cart.
"We need the cheese because I feel like grilling tonight. How about a nice cheeseburger? Maybe you and Becky can go pick up a movie at Randy's."
"Yeah! Maybe The Thin Man?"
"Thin Man sounds good, Sugar Bear."
I put on hand sanitizer at the check-out. It must be the cheapest brand on the market, because it's watery texture can only be rivaled by its foul stench. A teenage boy slowly sacks my items.
"You start sacking while I pay--remember, try and group the cold things together and heaviest stuff goes on the bottom. Eggs and bread go on top or get their own sacks."
"Good job! You're really good at this!"
I thank the sacker anyway. He seems like a nice kid and I knew he'd get a lot better as time went on, as I did. I put the groceries in the trunk in record time and sat breathing heavily in the car. Cranking the defrost, I close my eyes and slowly lean against the headrest.
"Thank you for helping me--let's get these refridgeratables home. I'll turn up the A/C, but let's roll down the windows to let some of this heat out. Then when the air starts blowing cool, we'll roll them back up."
My eyes feel as grainy at the ice on the windshield. I slowly make my way home--dodging what remained of a car as the police lights swam into my vision.
"What would you like for dinner? How's he doing?"
Mom sighed and I could feel her fatigue over the line.
"About the same. He has pretty much slept all day. So, we really don't need anything."
"Are you sure? I have Orange Chicken, I know he likes that."
"He hasn't really eaten anything and he really hasn't asked for food. Why don't you make what you like and stay home. I'd feel better if you were off the road."
"Okay. If Dad wakes up, tell him I love him."
"Rachel really helped me at the store, Momma. She figured out a good deal on flour and handled the list and coupons."
My tears feel hot, scorching my face. I wish I could help you now, Daddy.
Cod fish and Bocce Ball.
I never felt anguish when my grandpa died.
I had been buying outfits for my Club Penguin avatar as I had just typed in the code for my monthly membership using my mothers credit card. There were so many rare, seasonal options! I had never had to make such a difficult decision.
"Taryn?" I hear from the doorway. My mother had the door hooked behind her hip, leaning heavily against the door frame which struck me as odd since she knew this was my designated Club Penguin time. She never bothered me during this.
However, I feel something in my stomach coiling tighter with every crick of my neck to face her. When I see the devastation on her face, I swallow against a dry mouth.
"What?" I force out between anxious chitters.
She doesnt posture. Offers me a slight tilt of her head in apology, or honour maybe even. "Grandpa died."
I think whatever coils around my ribs must squeeze and burst. Because the heat of heartbreak flushes through my veins like a saline bag. She means my fathers' father. She hadn't been close to him, though I know she loved him.
I nod, turning back to my penguin with its pair of sneakers adorned that don't seem as valuable as they might have. "Okay." I respond quietly.
She leaves the room after a few minutes, knowing I need to just be alone.
I don't cry. I never have for him, in the decade since. Not out of a lack of love-- but I was too young, only 11. I couldnt comprehend death, or losing a grandparent. Instead, I sat there and paused my game, thinking about the last time I had seen him the year prior.
He ordered fish and chips for his wife and my dad and I-- we each got a fish so insanely sized it still shocks me 10 years later. The fish was double the size of the dinner platter, absolutely revolting in its oil and grease. But I ate it anyway along with the fries more deep-fried batter then potato, and grinned at my grandpa with teeth full of white fish shrapnel as he suggested we play a game of bocce ball.
So, no, I never felt anguish for my grandpa. His memory was far too happy, jovial and kind for that sort of pain to mar his memory.
My Forever Guardian Angels
The earliest memories I can remember are around age three. My parents would leave me at either of their parents house every other day while they went off to work. My dad's parents, whom I call Gramma and Grampa, would have me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I enjoyed my time there as I was able to do anything I wanted. They had everything I loved at their house which made going there ten times more fun.
My favorite show was Blue's Clues so they got a small table with Blue's face on it. They would take it out from the porch every time they watched me and I would play with play-doh or my Pretty Pretty Princess game on it constantly. They had an entire cabinet full of all of the cousins' favorite Disney and DreamWorks movies that we played every visit.
Gramma could sew and had a sewing room. She once sewed two dresses with the exact same pattern, one for me and one for my favorite baby doll. That was my favorite dress for the longest time. She also sewed two giant pillows for me and my brother, which we still have to this day. Gramma could also bake like no other. Her chocolate chip cookies were to absolutely die for. There wasn't a time that Gramma wouldn't let us lick the spoon. She would host baking parties with the cousins and we would all go up and sew with her too. Gramma retired from being the president of the city's local crisis center for domestic abuse. She helped various women and children in toxic situations get to safety and live happy healthy lives. She also worked with Child Protective Services and kicked some serious ass there. Gramma passed away on December 29, 2016 at the age of 78. She suffered from Parkinson's Disease the last few years of her life and ended up having two strokes that sent her into hospice care. She died with the love of her life next to her, my Grampa, and while on the phone with my dad. She was loved and blessed with a fulfilling life.
Her partner of over 50 years was my best friend, Grampa. Growing up, Grampa was an inspiring and kind soul. He would take me to local minor league baseball games, he even got me a chance to be an honorary bat girl at one of the games. He was the biggest Chicago Cubs fan in the entire world and would watch their old games every week after the new ones. My favorite thing about Grampa was his knowledge. His body started going bad in 2018, he became small and withered and there were days where he could barely walk, but his mind held up with the changing of the world. He had very liberal views and saw people for who they were not the color of their skin or for who they loved or identified as. I had the absolute honor of living with him for three years. He quickly became my best friend and partner in crime. We would sit and smoke in his man cave and talk shit about people. He would tell me all about his childhood and my dad's childhood. His stories would just leave me wanting more. He was a funny and smart-assy kind of guy. He had quick one liners and would always make sure to put a smile on everyone's face.
Before Grampa passed, he got to meet my current girlfriend which made my heart whole. One of the last things he said to her was, "thank you". For being my person, I bet. But the way he kissed her cheek and hugged her and said, "thank you" made my whole year. Grampa passed December 6, 2022, taking a huge piece of my heart with him but at least he's reunited with his person. My gramparents meant a lot to me and I'm super lucky I had the time I did with them. They are precious gems that deserve the world.