Sometimes, the process and the pain and the intense emotions involved with grieving can take years – with no end in sight even – to merely get through. And sometimes, you are placed in multiple situations over the course of a beautiful, meaningful, complex weekend that force you to face your grief head on, whether you are ready or not. That is what happened to me this past weekend.Parallels. Memories. Flashbacks. Signs. Big huge signs wrapped up in an airport, a lake, a park, an incredible gay wedding, a sudden rainstorm, and much, much more. These are the things that my late husband Don sent to me – and sent to his nephew, Mark. At least, that is what I believe. No. That is what I felt.
It all started with Facebook. I’m going to blame Facebook, because my husband hated Facebook, so he would have been the first one to blame the site for causing this rollercoaster ride of emotions that has been jumbled inside my screwed-up head for the past 3 days. A few years ago, at my continued request and because he wanted to reconnect with an old high-school buddy from California, Don joined Facebook. He hated it. He rarely posted anything, and whenever he did, it was something sarcastic like: “Well here is my once a month status update. Can I go now?” He never did find his friend from high-school, but he did re-connect with his nephew Mark, who he had lost touch with over the years that they both became adults. Mark was now in his 30’s and living in Ohio. Connecting with Mark was sort of a big deal, because Don’s family was and is very strange. It’s a weird dynamic. They aren’t particularly close, hardly anyone keeps in touch or communicates, and there is a lifetime of severe dysfunction that nobody seems to want to cut through or acknowledge, ever. Don was really happy to find Mark on Facebook. I remember him telling me: “He’s just a great guy. Always liked him so much. You would love him, Boo. You two should meet, you would love each other.” The three of us stayed connected via Facebook, talking and laughing and sharing pictures and comments and exchanges.
And then, one day, out of nowhere, my husband was gone. Dead. Just like that. When I posted the news on Facebook shortly after I found out myself, Mark was the first person from Don’s family to contact me. I dont recall what he said on the phone that day, because it’s all a blur and always will be. But I do remember that I was instantly comforted by his voice, his presence, his being. The same way I always felt with Don. Safe. Loved.
Over the next few months and as time passed, Mark continued to reach out to me. Beyond the funeral and the first week or so, nobody else in Don’s family kept in touch with me or stayed in contact. But Mark did, and it meant everything. I desperately needed something to hold onto – a branch to grab. Something or someone that was somehow connected to Don by blood, because we never got to have kids together, so I didnt have that person to look to and say: “He is sooo much like my husband”, or “he really has his eyes”. And when you lose your spouse in a split second, you need to have that connection. An extension of the one you love – breathing and alive. And there it was, in this incredibly sweet man named Mark Exlos. Don’s nephew. My nephew. As time went on, I started to feel strongly that Don really wanted me and Mark to connect, and that we were forming a bond by phone and emails, having never met in person, because he planned it somehow, and he wished it. He told me so that day he signed onto Facebook. He told me that I would love his nephew. He was right.
But what my husband couldn’t have known is how much knowing Mark would help me. How much Mark would not only be a link to Don for me, but also someone who could truly understand what Im going through. Ironically enough, Mark himself, years earlier, had also lost his love. The same way. He had a sudden heart-attack while they were pumping gas at a Gas Station. So when we would talk on the phone and he would tell me: “Sweetie, I know that right now it feels like you will never be able to breathe again … I know …” , he really did know. And he was one of the very lucky ones, because he found that love again with another amazing man, and on Valentines Day 2012, he became engaged to his new fiance Russ.
Parallels. Memories. Flashbacks. Signs. They are everywhere.
One night a couple months ago, Mark and I were talking on the phone, and he said that “we are family, and Russ and I would love it if you would come to our wedding. I would love to meet you finally.” Wedding? But wouldnt that be in Ohio, where you live, I asked? “No honey. Gay marriage isn’t legal there. We are coming to New York City. Central Park.”
My heart skipped, or stopped. Or something. Of all the places where they could be getting married, it would be in NYC. Where I am. And of all the places in NYC they could have chosen, they chose Central Park, which was my husband’s absolute favorite place in all of New York. As a couple, we absolutely loved going there together. We would hang out at the tennis courts and watch people play. We would sit in the bleachers and watch random softball or baseball games. We went to Strawberry Fields. Sat on The Great Lawn and watched a free summer Jazz concert. Ate ice-cream and drank lemonade from the vendors. But our very favorite thing to do in the park was to rent out one of the rowboats on the Great Lake, and paddle all around for an hour or two. Don would row me around, and I would sit. It was romantic and sweet and offered the most gorgeous view of the city high-rises from the center of the water. One of my plans, inside my head, has been to row a boat out there soon and scatter some of his ashes in the lake. Except I havent been able to make myself go back to Central Park at all since he died last year. Until this past weekend. There was a very important wedding I needed to be at, and nothing was going to stop me from meeting this sweet, wonderful man. “Yes!” I told him. “I would love to come to your wedding. There is nowhere I would rather be.”
So this weekend, I went to my very first ever gay wedding. I also met my nephew for the first time. And as it turned out, there were many more unexpected “firsts”, parallels, memories, flashbacks, and signs along the way. Mark and Russ flew into JFK airport, which is in Queens, NY. Two weeks ago, I lived in NJ. Now, I live in Queens, a mere 10 minute drive from the airport, meaning I could pick them up. The airport happens to be the exact same airport where I met my husband for the first time ever – just a few short months after 9/11. Until then, we were having an undefined, 3-year, long-distance “something.” After he couldn’t reach me on the phone on that horrible day trying to call from Florida over and over, he said defiantly: “That’s it. I’m coming out there to meet you. We have to take this to the next level so I can move out there and actually BE with you. I can’t be worrying about you like this. It’s making me nuts.”
Have you ever had a moment in life that seems almost identical to another previous moment you’ve had? There was a whole lot of that going on over the past 2 days. I drove to JFK and waited in the downstairs designated area. Baggage Claim. Before 9/11, you used to be able to go all the way up to the Gate, and wait just outside the doors there. After 9/11, they changed all the airport security in NY, and you could no longer do that. You now had to wait in Baggage Claim. Don wasnt familiar with this rule when he flew here, and he had never been to NY before. So that day when he flew out to me, I was waiting in Baggage Claim, and he was waiting just outside his Gate. We couldnt reach each other because our cell phones had no reception, and we were both panicked, thinking that the other one had blown them off or not shown up. Finally – I stopped a passenger that was going into the gate for a flight, and I begged them to please pass on the message to a very tall man they might see there, that he needed to come down to Baggage Claim, because they wouldnt let me up. A short while later, I saw my future husband walking toward me, through the double doors and onto the other side. Into my arms. We both cried from the sheer relief of finally meeting one another, and out of sheer frustration in thinking we had just been stood up. Don was wearing a dark blue t-shirt, and he was so tall and huggable. I wanted to hug him forever. “Hi Sweetie”, he said. “It’s so great to finally meet you.”
I stood there at JFK Friday morning, waiting for my nephew to come through those exact same doors that Don came through all those years ago. And again, there was a long delay. I felt the same kind of nervousness that I had felt meeting Don that day. I waited. I paced. And then – suddenly walking toward me, was a very tall, huggable, sweet man. A man in a blue t-shirt. A man that resembled Don. He has some of his eyes, a lot of his body frame, and similar features. As he got closer, my heart flashed back to hugging Don and never wanting to let go. As Mark gave me a huge, neverending hug, he said: “Hi Sweetie. It’s so great to finally meet you.” But this time, I was the only one crying. I couldnt stop. There I was. Hugging Mark. Hugging Don.
Saturday. Wedding Day. The air felt different. Lighter. From the second I woke up, I felt like something was on my side that day. People were being extra nice to me. Saying hello. Holding doors. Going the extra mile. It was as if my husband knew how hard and emotional this wedding was going to be for me, and he was doing everything in his power to show me he is here, and he is making things a tiny bit easier. I got dressed up and got on the subway to go into the city. About 4 stops in, a tall man in a blue EMT uniform gets on. He is with a woman who is also an EMT. They work for a NYC hospital, and their uniforms are strikingly similar to the one my husband wore. They sit down across from me. The woman puts on her iPod and listens to music, ignoring the man. The man looks at me gently, as if he somehow understands. I try to look away, but I cannot. I keep running my fingers over the green heart necklace my husband bought me. I feel safe. A few stops later, they get up to exit the subway. As he is leaving, he looks into my face and nobody else’s and says simply: “It will be a good day.” He winks at me and at nobody else, smiles, and leaves the subway car.
I meet Mark, Russ, Mark’s very sweet sister Cathy, and about 7 other incredibly warm and friendly friends and family members of the groom and groom at their hotel, and we all walk over to the park to catch up with the officiant who will perform the wedding ceremony. It is gorgeous outside. A bit warm. Near 80 degrees, which is warm for the first day of fall. There were warnings on the news of afternoon showers, but the skies were sunny and nice. As the officiant walks us all over to the area outside where the ceremony will be, I notice we are getting closer and closer to the Great Lake. I start to see all the happy couples in love, rowing their boats in the lake where Don and I rowed every single fall for years. We literally stop at the exact spot where we used to rent out the boats, and there is a pavillion there, where the intimate and beautiful ceremony is being held. Of all the many, many places inside of this ginormous park, the ceremony will be held right at this lake. Our spot. Our favorite spot. Don is here.
My heart is beating outside my chest. As the officiant begins speaking his words to start the ceremony, I listen intently. Then I don’t. It’s too much. At one point he says something about how life’s moments are so much more meaningful when you can share them with the one you love. I feel myself shaking. It takes everything inside me not to cry right there. I try to breathe through it, and I hear Don’s voice in my head. He says: “Look at the lake, Boo. Think about us rowing around in the lake and laughing. I love you.” I watch Mark’s face, and the smile in his eyes is the same as Don’s was on our wedding day. The love in the air and inside everyone witnessing this union is so big. It is so big I feel as if my heart will explode. I focus on Don’s voice. “I’m right here”, he says. “Look at our lake. You can do this.”
After the ceremony and pictures and things, I am very close to breaking down. The emotions are just too much, but Im trying to hold it together. Mark notices this and comes up to me, asking if Im okay. I say yes, but I mean no. He gives me a long hug and says in the most calming voice as I cry into his shoulder: “He is with us. He is here right now and he is with you always. Always. Don’t you ever forget that.” So many people have said things like that to me that were very similar – but in that moment, from that person, on that day – it was comforting and I needed to hear it.
The rest of the day was spent walking up 5th Avenue and seeing the popular sites of the city – Trump Towers, St. Patricks Cathedral, Radio City. Since I live here, it just sort of naturally happened that I was kind of “leading” everyone around as we walked. They followed me, so I led. And as I walked up 5th Avenue, pointing out all the different stores and places of interest, I suddenly recalled holding hands with Don and walking up 5th Avenue that first day that we met and I picked him up at the airport. After making him lunch at my apartment, we went into the city all day long and did the same touristy walk I was now doing with his family. There is no weirder feeling in the world than being with your husband’s family members, in the absence of your dead husband. It is bizarre and heartbreaking on so many levels, and sometimes, while being with them this weekend, it would hit me over the head without warning. The unfairness of it all. Why couldnt we make time to get to know these people when he was still alive? Why does he have to be dead in order for this to occur?
We walk by Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. It is warm outside and there is no Christmas Tree up just yet, but it doesnt matter. It still brings me right back as if it was just a second ago. Don’s marriage proposal. It was right there, at the base of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. It was 25 degrees outside. December 18, 2005. He was acting so weird and his hands were all shaky. It was freezing. He had earmuffs on, and I had on a scarf and mittens. He got down on the concrete in the freezing cold and asked me to be his wife. Hundreds of tourists and people surrounded us and started clapping. My fingers were frozen and I couldnt put the ring on. We kept laughing and crying simultaneously. It was so cold, my tears were stuck to my face. We passed our phones back and forth calling our friends and family with the amazing news. I remember we kept kissing each other. Quick, little kisses. Over and over. And in that moment, that incredibly thrilling moment – maybe there was someone there who was like I am now. Widowed. Lonely. Pissed off. Hurt. Maybe she hated us for our happiness, in the same way I often hate perfectly innocent people, simply because they get to have more time together with the one they love. Pain sucks, and its hard sometimes to be logical.
I did not go anywhere near that damn Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree last year. My first Christmas without him. I did everything in my power to ignore the whole damn city last Christmas. Holidays were my enemy. Still are. So, Mark’s wedding put me on the path back to the place where our tree is. Where it will be again in a few short months. Where other joyous couples will become newly engaged. There is nothing quite like that feeling of becoming engaged. You feel invincible, like your love can conquer all. Never in a million years do you think about death, or the possibility of it. Now? Everything I see has death attached to it. Once you have seen death, you can no longer ignore it. It’s there, and it’s coming. It’s just a matter of when. But nobody wants to think about those things when standing in front of a giant Christmas Tree in NYC.
Later that evening, we had dinner at The Russian Tea Room. It was there that Don decided to say hello again and sort of remind me that he is still “around.” As we walked into the restaurant and were being seated, one of the servers recognized me and called out my name. Her name was Janine, and we were both Theatre Majors together in college, but she left after the first year. We got to talking, and she asked me, out of nowhere, if I am a paramedic. “No, but my husband was.” “Oh, well I saw you and your husband a couple years ago walking in West New York. He was in his uniform and you were holding hands.” Turns out she lives in West New York, the very small town in NJ that I just left two weeks ago, after living there for 7 years with Don, and 12 years total. The fact that I ran into this girl in the first place , that she lives where we lived for years, and that she SAW us two years ago walking together, was all a bit too much for coincidence. I thought about the EMT on the subway, and how he winked at me and smiled with zero creepyness. I dont know what was going on here, but it felt like one overlapping hug from the universe.
The gang from Ohio wanted to see Times Square all lit up at night. So we walked towards it, and then through it. It was a beautiful day that had turned into a beautiful night. Slight breeze. Clear sky. As I walked along with Mark, he said suddenly: “Oh, I just felt a raindrop.” I replied that I had been getting signs from Don all day, but if it started pouring on us right now in the middle of Times Square, that would be a downright guarantee that he is right here with us. Why? Because on October 27, 2006, our wedding day, the weather was beautiful and clear. No rain. Gorgeous. Our reception ended around 11pm at night. I will never forget leaving The San Souci in Sea Cliff – and walking to our own car to drive ourselves to the hotel. We thought a limousine was a dumb thing to waste money on, so we drove our own damn selves to our hotel, him still in his tux and me in my wedding gown. As we were walking out to the car, suddenly there was a roar of thunder. Loud. Seconds later – lightning. And then, the sky opened up in a fierce way, and the biggest torrential downpour you could imagine came out of nowhere. Fast. Don and I laughed hard as we got completely soaked, and it continued raining and storming like that overnight and into the next morning. Our wedding day was beautiful. Our wedding night was a monsoon.
Walking through Times Square, Mark and I looked at each other knowingly as a loud rumble of thunder came from the sky’s voice. Then, the most amazing and wonderful pouring, driving rain fell from above. We all huddled and stood underneath one of the many marquees in the city. “I can’t believe this”, I said to Mark, laughing. “It’s JUST like our wedding night. And now he’s sending you one on your wedding night too. We are all together. This is amazing. He sent us a monster rainstorm.” “He sure did”, said Mark as we both looked up into the night sky.
As I said my goodbye’s to everyone, I felt the rush of tears coming. I wouldnt be able to hold back much longer. Yes, I had cried and broken down a couple times during the day of emotional events for me, but I was always keeping it at bay. Crying was one thing, but the last thing I wanted to do was ruin Mark’s wedding day by turning it into a sob-fest funeral. So I tried like hell to control myself, keep it together. But now was my time. I saved my last big hug for Mark, because I knew it would start the emotional wave for me. And as I walked away from the group, letting the rain fall onto my clothes and skin and face and not caring one single bit, I heard Mark call out from a block or two away, really loudly and sweetly: “I love you!”
I love you. He said “I love you.” I stopped in my tracks in the middle of Times Square. In the middle of NYC. In the middle of the pouring down rain. My heart was instantly transported back to the end of that first week I had finally met Don in person. We were back at the airport, and it was time for him to go back to Florida. At that point in our relationship, our long-distance “something” was strong enough for me, but Don had not yet quite figured out his feelings for me, because we hadn’t met yet. I knew I was in love with him before meeting him, but it was never said out loud. Not yet. But on that day, at the end of our amazing week together in NYC, we held each other and cried. I will never forget letting him go and letting him get on that plane, and how I wanted to stay like that, holding him, forever. And as he started to walk away from me, and I was just out of reach, he said those three powerful, incredible words. For the first time. “I love you.”
And for the first time all weekend – I walked in that pouring rain, and I let each drop of water mix in with my tears. The rain and I cried together. We laughed and we cried. We cried hard, and we didnt stop. Walking and crying. It just kept coming. Endless buckets. From the sky, from my eyes, from the deepest part of inside my heart.
Cried my soul out in the middle of Times Square. It was NYC. Nobody cared.
It was absolutely wonderful.