The past few days have been an emotional, upside-down, tipsy-turvy rollercoaster of events; all with the strange and unexpected theme of sand. Dirt. Earth. Dust.
It all began with my Wedding Anniversary. 6 years. Well … would have been 6 years. According to the official Widow Book of Etiquette and Proper Behavior, I’m supposed to talk in past-tense now because my husband is dead, right? Well, excuse me if I forgot. Of course, I didn’t forget that he’s dead. I never forget that, not even for one second. What I do forget though, is that I am no longer married. That I’m no longer his wife. That hurts to say. Hurts to type. Breaks me in half sometimes. I’m not married. I certainly feel married. Maybe I always will. Nobody left anybody else. No divorce. No break-up. None of that. Just lots and lots of love. And then, of course, sudden death.
Strange thing about getting married – when you are making wedding plans and you choose your venue – you never really think that only 5 years later, you’ll be standing across the street from that venue by the water, holding pieces of your husband’s remains in a green tupperware cup. You never think you’ll be making plans to take turns tossing him into the sea with your friends. You never ask yourself: “Hey! I wonder if this would be a good place to scatter his ashes sometime soon!” None of those things ever really cross your mind while in the ecstatic whirlwind chaos that is blissful engagement and wedding planning.
As it turns out, Sea Cliff, New York, is the perfect place to scatter your husband’s ashes. It is beautiful, charming, subtle, and peaceful. It’s a quiet little town on Long Island, that somehow doesn’t feel like Long Island. It has character. It has love. And now, it has Don.
Last October, on my first Wedding Anniversary since his death, on October 27th, we came to Sea Cliff together, and tossed some of Don into the sea. Me, John, Jessica, and Sarah. Good friends. The best. We were all scared. Nervous. Unsure. Rookies. It was only 3 months after his death, and none of us had any sort of experience with scattering ashes. The only time I had ever even seen the topic of ashes or remains depicted, was on TV shows or in movies. Well, let me tell you something: It is NOTHING AT ALL like in the movies.
Last fall, I went with my friend Herbert to the EMS offices at Vanguard Healthcare in NJ, where my husband worked as an EMT, to pick up Don’s ashes. His EMS brothers and sisters had told me months earlier that they would be happy to hold onto them until I was “ready” to pick them up. So one day, about a week before our wedding anniversary, we drove there and got them. My friend Herb volenteered to go with me in case I had a really emotional reaction and couldnt drive home or something. I was expecting to receive this tiny lovely precious Urn with ashes inside it. Instead, Don’s manager walked out with a very large, very HEAVY cardboard box. My husband was in a cardboard box.
I picked him up, and almost fell to the floor with the sheer heaviness of him. “He was a big, tall guy!”, his boss Joe said. “There’s a lot of Don in there! Just so you know, we all said our goodbyes to him. We had fun with him. We belted him up in the passenger seat of his old ambulance and took him with us on a few last 911 calls. He didn’t say too much. He didn’t even moan when I put the country music station on.” The EMT’s all have that same sick, hilarious sense of humor. It’s wonderful. It’s how they do what they do, and see what they see. My husband had it too. He was always making jokes about death and other dark things that bordered on what some would call poor taste. I call it survival. I loved it.
One year ago, we stood at the edge of the sea, my friends and I – a bunch of confused morons trying to figure out the logistics of tossing our loved one into the water. He was in a box, and inside the box, was a container, and inside the container, was a plastic bag. And inside that bag, was the saddest and most ridiculous thing I had ever set my eyes on. My husband. This big, strong, tall, amazing man – who made me feel safe and loved and who made me laugh – was reduced to dirt. Ashes. Dust. Particles. Sand. If Im being 100% real here, he looked like Duncan Hines brownie mix. He loved brownies, so that seemed oddly appropriate.
It was the most heartbreaking, hilarious thing in the world. Devastating beyond all reason. It was so damn sad, what we were doing, and so foreign and strange to all of us, that it then became funny. That is what happens when something is so awful and so traumatic that you cannot even process it. It starts to become funny. At least in my world. So we made it funny. We started to call it “Don-tossing.” Like an Olympic event. “Okay, who wants to toss Don into the sea first?” We made a semi-circle down by the water, and tried to figure out what the hell came next. There was so much Don in that box, that we began scooping him out little by little and placing him into a green tupperware cup, and using that to toss with. (I don’t know what was more bizarre; the fact that my husband was in a green tupperware cup, or the fact that I actually brought a green tupperware cup and a big spoon with me in preparation for this weird event.)
We all laughed at our awkwardness, and we tried to imagine what Don would have said if he was here with us: “Will you idiots just toss it already? Jesus Christ! Let ME do this! Let’s get this show going already!” Finally, we uncomfortably took turns tossing my husband into the water, each person with at least half a cup of Don or more. There was a lot of Don, so we just kept tossing. Different combinations. Sarah tossed. Jessica tossed. Kelley tossed. John tossed. Jessica and Sarah duo-tossed. Triple-toss. No matter how many times we tossed, he just wouldnt go away. He wouldn’t leave! As for us on that day last year, there was a lot of crying, a lot of laughing, and a lot of love. We ended the day with a beautiful gourmet dinner at Sarah’s husband Julio’s incredible French-American restaurant, Sage Bistro. My friends held me up that day, and that is the only reason I didn’t collapse into a pile of nothing. A pile of dirt. A pile of dust, flailing around in the wind.
This weekend, we went back. Saturday, October 27th. Back to the water. Back with more ashes. Back to the sandy beach to put some dirt inside the sand. A slightly revised crew this time. John, Andrew, Vanessa, and me. Good friends. The best. This time, it was less about the scattering of ashes and more about returning to the place where Don and I spent the happiest day of our lives. Across the street from our wedding venue, in the sand, on the day we married just 6 years before, we stood. We laughed. We talked. Remembered. This time, there was no tupperware cup or spoon or group-tossing Olympic event. This time, I brought a little bit of Don with me, inside my purse, in a tiny sandwich Ziploc bag. Only the best for my husband. For some reason, I began to feel weird about emptying the ashes I brought into the sea. I don’t know why. It just felt so blah. Or maybe we were all having a nice time and I knew if I went there to that place in my heart, that I couldn’t recover and I might be sobbing the rest of the afternoon. “I don’t want to”, I hesitated. Andrew gently insisted: “You brought the ashes for a reason. You should do it. Go do it. We will wait up here for you. If you don’t do it, you’ll wish you did.” He had a point. So with that, I walked down to edge, where the sand meets the water. I opened up the baggie, and slowly let the ashes touch the sand and blow into the sea. The dust started dancing in the wind. The water from my tears merged with the sea water, the ashes from Don merged with the beach sand. It was poetic. It was lovely. It was terrible.
The tide turned, as I knew it would. My heart shifted, and suddenly I was sadder than I remember being in awhile. I walked back up to my friends. “Are you okay?”, John asked. No. He continued: “This was nice though. He would approve of this. He would like this.” I started to question everything while crying. “I don’t know what he would have liked! I woke up and he was dead. We never talked about burials or cremation or anything like that.” I started to feel dizzy. “But he chose you, and he trusted you, so whatever you decided to do was the right decision and he would love it”, Vanessa offered. We began walking back up to my car to drive over and meet the others at the restaurant for lunch. Everyone was hungry, but my mood had altered, as it often does with grief. I felt lost. Hopeless. Defeated. I wanted to go home and sleep forever.
And that is when we saw it. The sign. The evidence that he was with us, that he was trying to say “Lighten up guys!” He was trying to make me laugh, at the exact moment that I absolutely had to laugh. It was big as day. There were lots of other cars in the parking lot, but this was directly behind my car and nobody else’s. “You gotta be kidding me!”, said Andrew as he cracked up laughing. “Was that there when we got here?”, we all questioned. I don’t think it was. Either way, it was there now, and it was large and pointless and dumb. And it made us laugh like hell. Don was sending us a very important message through graffiti, and the message was simply this:
Ballz. Spelled with a “z” for extra comedy purposes. After that, the rest of the day was light and fun and wonderful. We met up with Rodney and Sheri and Sarah at the same restaurant as the year before, we ate delicious food, and we shared stories and memories about the guy we all loved. Our friend. We talked about signs and death and life, and it was just like old times. Together with my friends, keeping my husband alive.
Sunday, October 28th. I drove to the funeral services of Eva Kotovnikov, the beautiful mother of my dear friend Marina. She had suffered from the horrible disease ALS, and departed this earth much too young. The funeral was in Hartford, Connecticutt, a 2-hour drive from where I live in New York. It was the very first funeral I attended since my own husband’s. My incredible friends Marina, and Dave, her husband, had been there for me since the first hour that I lost Don. It was time to put my own pain aside and be there for them. It was not something I even decided to do. I just sort of got in my car and started driving.
Since Marina’s family is both Jewish and Russian, the services were too. When I arrived for the memorial service, the main room was already full, as if I were attending a service for Whitney Houston or some other big-time celebrity. There was a second room with a large TV-screen, where I was seated with at least 100 others. We all looked up at the big screen. Many people were crying. The Rabbi was saying words in Hebrew. Sometimes in Russian. I had no idea what was going on, what was being said, but I felt love. I felt that the Rabbi perhaps knew Eva personally and was genuine in his speech and his emotion for her. He introduced Marina by saying: “And now, I’d like to introduce Eva’s daughter Marina, who would like to say a few words.” There was a pause. Marina slowly made her way up front, took out a piece of paper, and said: “Good Morning. I would like to say a few words.” It struck me as funny, the way she echoed what he just said seconds before. Her comic timing, even at her own mother’s funeral, was perfect. In reality, it probably wasn’t all that funny. But when something is so awful and so traumatic that you can’t process it happening, it then becomes funny. So I suppresed my laughter and listened and watched my friend as she honored her mother. I thought about how many people would come up to her afterwards and tell her how brave she was for speaking at the service. That is what they all said to me after I wrote and delivered the Eulogy for my husband. And maybe she would tell them what I told them then – that it wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t a decision I made. I did it because I had to. I had to honor my husband. He deserved that, and everyone needed to know how amazing he was. Marina had to honor her mother, and she did it beautifully. And as I left there and got in my car to follow the processional to the cemetary, I began to flashback to my husband’s funeral. I told myself to breathe. It will be okay. This isn’t about you. Stop thinking about Don. Focus. Just breathe.
The burial ceremony was like nothing I had ever witnessed before in my life. Family and friends gathered around the plot where Eva would be buried. In the center, the Rabbi was there, and again he read words and verses in Hebrew and Russian, and he performed chant-like phrases in a sing-song manner, and again I didn’t understand any of it, but I felt love.
Then, the cemetary workers, right there in front of everyone, went to task lowering the casket into the ground. I stood next to my friend, trying to comfort her, feeling helpless, trying to breathe. Dave came over and put his arm around me and we stood together. As Eva started to disappear from view, I whispered to him: “How are your kids doing?” “Much better than me”, he said, with tears in his eyes. Me too, I thought to myself.
Once the casket was lowered, the Rabbi asked anyone who wanted to participate to form a line. And with that, everyone around me started to move toward the giant pile of dirt next to the hole in the ground. A huge pile of dirt was there, and shovels stuck out of it on all sides. Together, like a community, one by one, the people picked up a shovel, scooped up some dirt, and tossed it into the grave. I was mesmorized. I was terrified. I was shaking. It was beautiful. It was insane. It was horrifying. It was love. And for the third time that day, I had no idea what was going on, but I suddenly understood. I have no idea why, but it reminded me of that last scene in How The Grinch Stole Chiristmas, where all the “Who’s down in Who-Ville” hold hands, and begin to sing. Amidst the horror and sadness of their holiday being taken away from them, their response is to sing these ridiculous, beautiful words that make absolutely no sense. And that is what these people did. They took their shovels and their love and their respect and their tears and their grief – and they tossed it into the ground. So many people participated in this bizarre ritual. Almost everyone. Toward the end, when the casket was almost all the way covered, a few good men were left shoveling furiously, until the loving act of kindness was finished. Until the body met with the dust.
Body. Dirt. Dust. Soul.
I couldn’t hold back anymore. I finally lost it. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. I was crying for Marina losing her mother. For her kids losing their grandmother. For Dave losing his mother-in-law, and having to see his own wife go through this kind of pain. I cried for the little kiss that Dave gave his wife on her forehead to comfort her. Cried for Marina’s dad Felix, who just lost his wife, his soulmate, his best friend. Cried because someone as young as me shouldn’t have to know what it’s like to lose a spouse, and be having the urge to comfort someone who is older than me, but still too young to lose a spouse. Cried for myself, because one day, I will lose my mom, and nobody will be there to kiss my forehead and help me through it. Cried for the life inside that casket. For the image that sits in my heart, of my own husband lying in a similar casket. Cried for the hours and days and weeks and months of grief that my dear friend is about to endure. Cried because death is so final, and life so fragile. I left that cemetary, and I cried almost half the way home.
Monday, October 29th. Hurricane Sandy. The worst weather-related thing to happen to New York and New Jersey ever. The storm that brought frightening, hissing winds. Pounding rain. Flooding waters. Horrific surges. Land met water. Waves invaded land. Water took people, and homes, and lives. Sandy blew sand through my window sideways. Chairs flew across the street. A stop sign smashed through a car roof. Beaches disappeared. The Jersey Shore half gone. The Rockaways, Howard Beach, and Long Branch – decimated. 5 million people left without power. Or heat. In the cold. Darkness. Afraid. Clinging to rafts. Rescued by boats. Grabbing their pets and pictures. Leaving their dreams and their shops and their homes behind. Earth met water. Water destroyed. Buildings turned to dust. Sand. Dirt. Wind. Like John Travolta once said: Oh Sandy …
And somehow, in all that madness and flying debris – my little corner of the neighborhood stayed perfectly safe. My roommate, my kitties, and me – we were okay. The wind was louder than hell and made my heart skip. The crackling sounds and the popping noises of tranformers blowing up in the Manhattan sky gave me panic. Being 21 floors up and watching sand and dirt fly across my window brought me anxiety. But in the end, I was spared. I was okay. I got lucky. After speaking with some people on the other side of the Hudson River, I learned that my old neighborhood in New Jersey was flooded. Roads were down. The basement of my old building filled with water when a pipe burst inside. I could have been there. Scared and alone in that dusty old apartment. But I wasn’t. I moved out 2 months ago, because my dead husband kept insisting that I leave New Jersey and move back to New York.
It might sound silly, but I feel like he protected me from harm. I don’t pretend to know how these things work, and I certainly don’t think I’m somehow special. I don’t have a clue. I just know what I feel. I just know that while everything around me was falling apart and coming undone – I felt calm. I was safe. I felt like my husband’s arms were wrapped around me tightly, and he was saying: “Shhh! It’s okay. Don’t worry, Boo. I got your back.” I know that while towns and neighborhoods just 2 or 5 miles away from us are completely underwater, we didn’t even lose our power. I know that I got out of NJ just in time. And I know that last year, just a month after he died, I went through Hurricane Irene all alone. Frightened. Hopeless. That night, I sat in our awful, uncomfortable, old bed and sobbed loudly as a giant leak dripped into a large bucket. I heard the endless ambulance sirens going by into the night, and I was terrified. Tortured by the sounds of the trucks he worked on everyday as an EMT – the trucks that couldn’t save him. That sound gave me stomach pains and made me want to die. I thought: “How am I ever going to get out of here? I cant live like this. Please help me, Boo.”
Monday night, when Hurricane Sandy gave us her most ferocious, there were several devastating house fires just miles away from our apartment in the sky. There were also many hospital evacuations nearby, due to massive amounts of flooding. I sat in my brand new, ginormous, king-sized bed that was provided for me when I arrived here and is so comfortable and warm. I said goodnight to my roommate, who convinced me that everything would be okay. I cuddled with our kitties and told them not to be scared – that poppa is looking out for us. I heard the endless ambulances that were circling the area, nonstop, for hours. The sirens got louder and louder, as they continued to go to their destinations and save people. And for the first time in 15 months, the sirens didn’t make me feel awful. They didn’t make me nauseous. For the first time in a very long time, the ambulances didn’t sound like torture.
They sounded like a lullabye.