Bittersweet Grief

Copyright Laura Riggs, 2000

“There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.”
–Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic

I received news recently that a childhood friend had passed away.  We often told people that we’d been friends since the 2nd grade, although neither of us really remember how we met exactly, and most of my memories of him aren’t really clear until middle school.  Apart, we were fairly well behaved, but we were troublemakers together.  We loved to play pranks, mostly on each other, and we thought we were hilarious – although most of our teachers didn’t really find them so amusing.

In 7th Grade, we were part of a glee club of sorts and had a weekend group trip scheduled in Vail, so we were supposed to remain on our best behavior leading up to the trip.  That Thursday prior, we had Biology Class together and I think he had put a grasshopper in my hair.  I chased him around the room until the teacher came back into the classroom.  We were both sent to detention after school and the club leader told us that we would think it over, and decide by Saturday morning if we would be allowed to join the trip.  Afraid that the teacher would call our parents, we sat on the phone together most of the day, tying up the line – since that was before cell phones.  The next day, we checked in for the trip, and were amazingly allowed onto the bus.

By high school, our friendship changed when he was bullied when others perceived him as “different”.  I became his protector, his advocate, and his date to family functions and he was there when I got my first tattoo.  Although he hadn’t admitted it to himself yet, I knew he was gay, and it wasn’t until after we left high school that he finally came out to me.  All I said was, “I know, honey.”  “You did?” he asked.  “Oh, how could you not?” I replied, as I hugged him and whispered, “I love you.”  He squeezed me back and said, “I love you, too.”

Neither of us really knew what we wanted to do with our lives, after high school, but we both knew we didn’t want to go to college (yet, or maybe never), so we found odds and ends jobs, things to keep us busy, but mostly out of trouble.  I ended up going to Cosmetology School first, although he was the one who had a gift for doing hair and making people feel good about themselves.  It became his passion, and his career, for nearly two decades.  Making people feel good about themselves was also his way of hiding his own suffering from the rest of the world.

We went to so many parties together, including the night that I met my (now ex-) husband.  He did my hair for years, including the day of my wedding, but that was only a small facet of how he impacted my life.  We held the reception in my grandfather’s backyard, on a particularly warm September afternoon, and I remember ripping the petticoats off from underneath my wedding dress.  He immediately snatched them up, put them on, and drug me out to dance with him on the makeshift dance floor.  He loved to dance.

After my divorce, we did a lot of dancing and drinking and had more late nights out than I can remember (seriously, there is so much I don’t remember and I’m grateful it was long before the days of social media).  He rode life as hard as he could, and ended up in some legal trouble because of it.  It was sort of a wake up call for me.  I knew being the “life of the party” wasn’t a path that I could walk with him.  At the time, he reminded me that he wasn’t going to live past 40 (it something he said all through high school, too) so whatever he did he wanted to enjoy the hell out of it and consequences didn’t really matter for him.  I was at a point where I didn’t want to beat my body up anymore – I was into life for the long haul, so we started to drift apart.

Then, he had his first heart attack, around the time he was 31 or 32, I think.  I went to visit him in the hospital and asked him to slow it down a bit, to take care of his heart a little more.  He showed no sign of letting things slow him down, or prompt him to get sober, and I couldn’t watch him destroy himself, that and I had my own disaster of a relationship I was dealing with at the time, so I couldn’t focus on anything else.  By his mid-30s, he’d had a stroke, and we no longer kept in contact.  He was one of those people who was going to burn as brightly as he could, for the short time he was here.  It’s bitter sweet to know those kinds of people.  On one hand, you stand in awe of their zeal for life, and on the other it’s painful to watch their self-destruction.

Through the years, he would periodically send a short text, or a note to say “hi”.  It would take me some time to figure out how to reply, because I didn’t want to get sucked back into his sphere.  He had such a warm, loving personality that made it difficult to keep my distance.  There were so many times that I desperately wanted to talk to him, but I knew that he didn’t want to make changes, yet watching him harm  himself would only break my heart.  I had immense pride for the generous human being he was, but I made the choice to love him from afar.

On Saturday morning, a mutual friend of ours called to tell me our brilliant firecracker had fizzled out. He had undergone several heart surgeries recently, and was scheduled for another the following weekend. At 4pm on Friday afternoon, he laid down to take a nap, and passed peacefully in his sleep – his heart finally gave out.  He was 41.  I know this, not because it will be on his obituary, but because our birthdays are 5-days apart and because he had been a part of my life for nearly 30-years.

After I learned of his passing, the first memory that came to mind was the time when he tried to get Bun to smoke a joint.  I laughed aloud because that was quintessentially “him”.  She turned her tail up at him and walked away – smart girl.  He knew Bun, and Missy, and Ginnie…and he knew my family and my friends and my co-workers.  He knew how much anxiety I had when my mom was sick, and I was there when his beloved Grandmother passed away.  It’s a strange thing to go from sharing so much life between us, to hardly thinking of him in the past year, but now that he’s passed away, I am flooded with memories.

No matter how much I wished things could be different, or feel guilty that we hadn’t talked more in the last few years, none of it changes the fact that he’s gone.  The grief of his loss is still felt, and regardless of being at peace with my decision, the guilt of it still lurks at the bottom of my heart.  Until now, I hadn’t lost a friend in my age group and it’s unsettling to realize my own mortality through the grieving process as well.

Although I have made peace with my decision…it’s more that I am just sad….obviously that he is gone, but sad that his relationship with his family wasn’t better, sad that I didn’t really know him in the end, sad that we have been estranged, sad that he knew every facet of my life, yet we hadn’t spoke for years before he passed, sad that he didn’t feel he could reach out, sad…

In the end, though, I hope that he had been happy.  I hope that his partner was good to him.  I hope that he had made some peace with his demons.  And I hope that he was free from suffering.  I know that even if any of these weren’t true before his passing, they are true now.  For now, he is free from harm, free of pain, free from suffering and I bid his soul peaceful rest.

So, goodnight, sweet Jim, and thank you for 30-years of a beautiful, joy-filled friendship.


Portland Pride

I took this photo in June 2015, while attending our first Portland Pride event.  This is an iPhone photo, with no filter.  My company had a float in the parade, so I went to meet some of my co-workers while everyone was getting set up.  This beauty was stretched out in front of the old US Customs House on Park Avenue in Old Chinatown, waiting to lead the procession through the neighborhood, along Burnside Avenue to the riverfront where we would all join the festival, culminating a weekend of celebrations.  Without such a large LGBTQ community, Portland has little diversity to speak of.  It is literally the “whitest” city in the US.

We had moved to the city a few months earlier, for a new opportunity which also afforded us the chance to escape the steaming injustice of the South, where I had also spent the 3-years prior advocating for the expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville (it finally passed in 2017, without the mayor’s signature…ain’t that some shit?!).  Although no LGBTQ person is truly ever safe in America, it was refreshing to see friends, families, companies and churches come together to revel in the distinctiveness of each of us, after bearing witness to the painful, bitter battle to get Jacksonville’s HRO through City Council.

For all its rainbow flags, however, Portland lacks a rainbow of skin color.  As the city tries to overcome a history tainted with racism, the current wave of gentrification has pushed black and brown people even farther out of a city that claims to be open and welcome to all.  Welcome as long as you have enough money to pay the escalating rents and mortgages in a booming real estate market.  While the city has written provisions for income controlled housing into law, those units can’t be built fast enough.

For as much as we loved Portland, it became unaffordable for us as well.  With a bitter taste in our mouth, we moved back to Jacksonville.  It is nice to be in a city that is truly diverse in color and orientation, but the bigotry here is so much more pronounced, and the challenges to create equity living in a red state are harder to overcome.

Is there anywhere we can meet in the middle?


Kicked into Mindfulness

Most of the long-term homeless struggle to maintain sanity, while some of them never really had it to begin with, and many of them fall somewhere in the spectrum of genius. My ex-husband’s father was homeless. I met him once in the desert, just outside of Las Vegas. It had been 15 years since anyone had heard from him, and most of his family had all but given up hope that he may still be alive. He was bi-polar and schizophrenic, so he often traveled between worlds of consciousness. In one of his more lucid moments, he reached out to his son to congratulate him on his upcoming marriage.  We were engage at the time, how he knew this without having spoken to any of his children in over a decade, still amazes me.  Nervous and eager to reconnect with his father, we made the trip out to the middle of the desert, to visit him in his shanty.

It was full of wonderful, crude inventions that he had fashioned out of garbage, or leftover parts, in order to survive the brutal summers, and frigid winter nights.  We saw him several more times over the next few days, to feed him, buy him clothes and supplies.  We mostly just wanted to spend time with him, since we didn’t know when he would slip back into a different reality, then my ex would lose his father all over again.  As we were getting ready to head back to Denver, he hugged us both, as though we were his only anchor into this world, then looked at me intensely and said,  “You’re either crazy because you’re homeless, or you’re homeless because you’re crazy.”  I thanked him for sharing his time with us, for reaching out, and for letting me be a part of his experience.  I assume he has since passed away, and we are long since divorced, but I still think of him often.

Fast forward nearly twenty years to last Sunday.  I was heading out to a meeting and, as usual, I was running late. S was downstairs, cleaning my car (because he’s awesome, what can I say?) and was talking to a man holding onto the handlebars of his bike. I was irked because I knew that I was going to get pulled into a conversation, which would make me later than I already was. This man was asking for some sort of favor and I didn’t have time to get pulled into the issue, but he turned to me and smiled so wide, the corners of his eyes turned up.  He stuck his hand out and said, “My is name is Kaleem. How are you?”  I shook his hand and smiled, still anxious that I was late for my meeting.

BKS Iyengar believed, “the body needs tough love to be kicked into mindfulness.” Although, I think that everyday life will usually do it for us. Living downtown, we meet a lot of homeless people. We know their daily migration habits, which bus bench they will be sleeping on in the morning, and where they like to spend their afternoons.  We know which ones need new shoes and who just acquired a new rain coat. Occasionally, they ask for money, to which I always reply no, but I am happy to buy them lunch, their bus fare, water, etc. I will not, however, enable them to use money to buy drugs or alcohol to further aid in any more suffering they may want to inflict on themselves, but I am happy to help them with a hand up. Most of the time, they are not an annoyance, unless they are threatening me with harm. They are human beings who are a part of our community.

After shaking hands, S said, “he’s got a hell of a story.  Kaleem, will you share what you told me?”  He was proud to say that he had just started a new job a couple of days ago, hence why he was wearing his uniform.  He had gone to college after high school, but there were no jobs in his field, so he’d been living on the street.  Today, he needed $12, so that he could stay at the hostel, wash his uniform and take a shower.  It’d been a few days, and he was afraid that he was starting to smell so bad that they might fire him, but he wouldn’t get his first paycheck until the end of the week and couldn’t afford to lose the first job he’d had in nearly two years.  His eyes gazed down, ashamed that he couldn’t make ends meet, ashamed that I may be offended by his smell.

In my hurry of misappropriated priorities, Kaleem reminded me that being present for those who are suffering is one of the most sacred responsibilities we have as one another’s keepers.  I remembered that same look when I said goodbye to my father-in-law, so I broke my own stupid rule, reached into my wallet and handed him a $20 bill.  I probably would have given him more, but it was the only cash I had on me at the time.  So what if the story was true, or it wasn’t true, it was his truth and that was all that really mattered.  I hope the $20 gets him through to payday.  More than anything, I hope that he felt better knowing that someone listened, saw him as a fellow human being, and treated him with compassion.

Thank you, Kaleem.  I needed that kick back into mindfulness.

PDX Transit

Recent text thread between S and me – he was supposed to take me to a doctor appointment, but Agreement #3 says “Don’t Make Assumptions”.  Well….I assumed he was taking me, once I got home and he assumed he was picking me up from work and taking me to the doctor.

S: I’m on my way

S: Traffic is backed up.  Be 5 min late.

S: Here.

S: Here.

S: Here.

15 minutes later….

Me: I’m home.  Where are you?

S: Picking you up at work.

Me: I thought you were taking me to the dr.

S: I am. Why didn’t you answer your texts?

Me: I met a drag queen on the bus.


Yin and Yang

Last weekend I woke up groggy from two days straight of all grey clouds with no rain to speak of. What the hell is the point of clouds without rain anyway, I ask?!  Who knows, but it left me dragging ass all damn day. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we had to go to the grocery store. Once again, I was forced to put on pants and comb my hair. (If I could stay in my jammies with my hair flying wild all day, I’d be so much nicer…also possibly slightly crazier, but that remains to be seen) S reminded me that I was focusing on the negative and he was trying to see the positive in our mundane weekly task of grocery shopping.

As we were walking into the store, another couple was walking out. I did not take note of them, however, as I was too busy brooding over having to wear pants.  S noticed them and turned to me to ask, “were they speaking French?”  Now, there are several likely answers to this question, all of which you might be able to guess. Considering that there is a large French-speaking population here in Portland, the most obvious answer would, “Yes!”

Other likely answers you may have come up with are:

“Who knows?!”
“They were speaking Spanish”
“Je ne parle pas Anglais”

Yet, none of those are the answer I replied with. No! How did I reply, you wonder? “We need to get toilet paper.”  Of course, you say, why didn’t I think of that?! (Because you don’t live inside my head, that’s why…pffffttttt)

And there you have it, people – S making a positive observation, while I only cared about shit. Some days you’re the Yin, some days you’re the Yang, I’m just glad that our balance brings a good amount of humor along with it!