Happy Fake Birthday, Husband. You Are Still Dead.

Something that I really do not like is that each time my dead husband’s birthday rolls around, (and yes, I will always call him my dead husband, because that is what he is. He is dead. He is not “late” for anything. He is just no longer here) people all over the atmosphere say things such as:

“Happy Birthday, Don!”, or “Happy Birthday in Heaven!”, or “I bet he is having a party in Heaven!”

Yuck. Just yuck. First of all, it’s not a “HAPPY” birthday. He isn’t here with me anymore. So it isn’t happy for him, it isn’t happy for me, it isn’t happy for anyone who loves him. There is really nothing happy, to me anyway, about having to breathe through and crawl through a birthday for a person who is not alive. A birthday – the day celebrating their very life – yet they are not here to do that. For me, it still stings each and every time it comes around. It hurts. And I have tried handling his birthday in different ways. The first one without him, someone gave me the advice of: Just do everything you would normally do together on that day, but do it yourself. If you normally go out together, take yourself out. Buy him presents, get him a cake, and talk to him. He is with you. Okay, I thought. I will give this a shot. It sounded corny as hell to me at the time, but I tried it anyway because I was so desperate to have something not feel horribly awful for 10 minutes. So I went to the store, bought the traditional 3 cards for him – one from me, and one from each of our kitties – and wrote in them and signed them. I bought all his favorite candy, and I left everything on his favorite recliner chair. Then I got in my car and drove to the nearby restaurant we would often go to on the Hudson River with the beautiful city skyline view, and I ate dinner with my husband.

Except I wasn’t with my husband. I was alone. In a public restaurant. On my husband’s birthday. Now, I am an extremely independent person. I love going places alone. But there is a huge difference between going somewhere alone because you have the choice and you feel like it, and going someplace alone because today is your husband’s birthday, and he is dead. After my depressing as hell dinner alone, I went home that night, saw the card and gifts I had left on the table sitting on his chair, and just cried. Then I cried some more, and then a lot more after that. When I was finished with the crying, I began crying, and then some more crying. It is amazing just how many times you can keep having the realization in your heart, that your husband is really, actually, truly gone.

I live in a world of extreme reality. This I know about myself. I cannot “pretend” like my husband is still here with me, and just act accordingly as if he is in the room. That may work for some people, and it may comfort them, but it sure as hell doesn’t do anything for me, except make me cry endlessly looking at the sad cards written out to nobody, and having candy that I dont even like in my fridge, because it was his favorite. (Special Dark Bars. That is what he loved. He is literally the only person ever to exist who eats the Special Dark bars FIRST, in those bags of Hershey miniatures. I would eat the Krackel and Mr. Goodbar, because everyone knows those are the best ones, and that Special Dark Bars suck and are not good on any level. But he would eat the Special Dark bar, and boy, did he love those things.)

This is also why I cringe at the “he is having a party in Heaven!” type remarks. Again, if that comforts you, great. But it does absolutely nothing for me, except make me think to myself: He isn’t on some cloud partying it up and playing his guitar and eating dark chocolate cake. He is just gone. If anything, he is energy floating around in space somewhere, but I truly don’t believe he is happily enjoying his birthday, or that he is even aware of his birthday, as a spirit or soul or energy particle. I am not religious, and so any kind of general Heaven remark never comforts me on any level. I do believe and feel and hope that when people die, their energy lives on, because energy never dies. But again, that thought does little to comfort me either, because energy can’t sit here and laugh with me and open birthday gifts with me and age and grow older with me. So, a birthday really isn’t much of a birthday when the person is dead.

Add to all of this, the fact that my husband’s birthday is extremely unique and has much history behind it. Today, February 28th, is, to most of the world who knew him, my husband’s birthday. But in the world of extreme reality that I live in, my reality, the absolute truth – today is not my husband’s birthday at all. No, today is the day Don and I used to refer to as his “fake birthday.” You see, my husband had 2 birthdays. Sort of. He was the product of an affair, and at the time, his mother did not want his father to know that he had a son, because his father had a family of his own. Also, Don’s mother was batshit crazy. She was head nurse at a hospital, and she had access to birth records and files and things. So she somehow toyed around with Don’s birth certificate, and changed the date on it so that her pregnancy and his birth would not match up with the time of the affair. So, my husband’s actual birth date is November 6, but that is not what is written on all his paperwork or birth certificate. All of that says February 28th. And no, what I just described is not this week’s latest plot on General Hospital. Like I said, I live in reality. And this story is the absolute truth, and it is my husband’s life. Don and I always joked about how, because he was so awesome, he got to have two birthdays. He would say “I want two parties! And two cakes! And two presents!” Each year, on today’s date, we would celebrate his birthday with friends and family, because most of them did not know about his real date of birth. Then, in November, we would always do the real celebration privately. Just us. That was always a really special day in our world. The world where we existed alone, just the two of us.

So now, in my world of extreme reality and truth, I get to crawl through his birthday each year, not one – but TWO times. And this year, this year I get to realize two times, that this is the year my husband would have turned 50 years old. He died at 46, and in just 4 months, he would have been 47. And if he were here, this November, I would most likely be throwing him some huge party with our family and my parents and all our friends for his 50th birthday. Instead, I am finishing and publishing my book about us, and having a huge book-release party on November 6 in NYC. I wish like hell that I had him to celebrate life with, instead of a book – but that is not my reality. So I take my reality, and do the best I can with it. But it still isn’t him, and he still isn’t here, and he he never will be again. The weird thing about death is that it’s forever. It still floors me that my husband will be dead forever. It still feels like it can’t be true. But it is true. And it always will be.

So, if it makes you feel better or comforts you somehow to wish my husband a happy birthday today, or in November, or both – then go ahead and do that. If that works for you, that is what you should do. For me, I will be quietly reflecting on the reality of what this day is, and what it isn’t. And in between my crying sessions each time I realize all over again the forever-ness of his death, I will laugh. I will laugh because I know my husband, and I know what he would say to all the people wishing him a happy birthday. He would say with a laugh: “Happy Birthday? Seriously? What’s so happy about it? I’m dead. It figures I would be dead on my own birthday. Twice. I don’t get any cake when I’m dead. I can think of a lot better ways to spend my time than being dead and not eating yummy cake. This sucks.”

Widow Guilts Strangers Into Giving Her Valentine’s Flowers

Normally, I share pieces of writing in here with my readers.
Today, I would like to share something a bit different.
A video.
A comedic, yet heartwarming video that I filmed for my YouTube channel last week, on Valentines Day.
Im a comedian, and a writer, as most of you know.
Taking what is painful and making it funny is what helps me to cope. This video was so much fun to do, and somewhat healing too. I hope you like it and that you will share it with others. I hope it makes you laugh, and then feel all warm and fuzzy too. It certainly helped me to get through Valentines Day, by doing this. Enjoy …

Dance Class

The first Valentines Day without my husband was torture. Everything that existed in the universe felt like a personal attack. The cheap-looking bears holding heart-shaped balloons on a stick at CVS, the conversation heart candies, the kissing and giggling couples around every corner. It all felt like one, giant personal attack on me and my loss.

The second Valentines Day was a little bit softer, but not much. I tried to busy myself and pretend the day wasn’t happening, but that didn’t work, because last year I had to work on that day, and I teach at a college. So it seemed as if everywhere I turned, guys were presenting their girlfriends with flowers and gifts and hugs and love; as the sad widow professor darkened the hallways with her every heavy step. I wanted to sit in my car and sob, which I did, after my last class finally ended.

This year, we are stuck in yet another major snowstorm in NY, so I didn’t have to work, and here I sit, alone in the cacoon of my apartment, safe from the world of other humans, hiding behind my keyboard. The comedian in me was planning on filming a funny Valentines Day – themed video for my You Tube channel today, in order to help combat depression with humor – but the stupid weather may stop that from happening. So here I am. Should I venture out into the land of people? I don’t know. Part of me wants to rebel against my own sadness, but the other part just doesn’t much feel like having other people’s love shoved in my face in the form of red velvet cupcakes and Whittmann’s chocolates.

Grief changes all the time. But the changes don’t always feel easier, especially when you are inside of them. Just because the pain gets different, doesn’t mean the pain gets better. It just gets different. And the longer you have been dealing with the loss of “your person”, the more familiar you become with all of the many changes. So instead of “what the hell is THIS that I’m feeling?”, it becomes “Oh, right. THIS again? I remember this. I know this. Let me sit inside of this for awhile, until it becomes something else.”

This year, Valentines Day carries a pain with it, but it’s a familiar pain. I know this dance. I’ve done these steps. My legs are tired and my feet burn from doing them, because nobody asked me if I liked this choreography or even if I wanted to dance at all. So I do the steps like a robot, phoning them in and getting them over with. I know how this one goes. I hate this song and dance, but I know it, and I know that I have no choice but to listen to it, until it stops. Is this the extended remix version? Why won’t it stop???

It won’t stop, because for us, it never stops. There is always something. Always. The emotions of grief lurk in every single corner. The extreme sadness of Valentines Day, isn’t even about Valentines Day. Not really. Not entirely. It matters not whether you celebrated the day with your person. What matters is that you had a person, and with that person, you had rhythms and music and steps. Days like Valentines Day are brutal mirrors into what is no longer there. The music has stopped, and now you hear new music. Or no music. Maybe you hear nothing at all. But none of that matters. Nobody cares what you hear or don’t hear. Nobody cares that you don’t like the steps and you hate this song and you don’t want to do this anymore. Nobody cares that you signed up for this dance class by mistake, or didn’t sign up for it at all. Nobody cares that you can’t walk and you need to sit down, as they walk on by with their love roses and candy hearts and comforting cards. They don’t care, or they don’t notice, because they are in love and therefore, in the midst of their own sweet dance.

People are dancing all around you, and love is in the air. But your person is gone, and they can no longer dance with you, yet you are forced to dance anyway, not knowing or wanting to know the steps to this horrible song. Keep dancing, they say. Let the pain in your heart and your feet and your eyelids, carry you forward into that next step – until the music finally changes, and that next step becomes something else.

Philip Seymour Hoffman – What a Waste

“How could he be so selfish? He had a wife and 3 kids. Didn’t he care at all about them? Why would he throw it all away to do drugs? Life gave him everything. He had money, opportunity, talent. He had it all, and he still chose to do heroin anyway. Why didn’t he just stop? What a waste.”

Pretty harsh, right? Yeah. Just writing it and then reading it back gave me shivers. I didn’t really feel how cold and judgmental and superior the above thoughts sounded, until I wrote them out and then sat back and read my own words. Yes. These are my words. My thoughts. Well, sort of. These are the thoughts of the “old me” – the one that existed before July 13, 2011 – the early, earth-shattering morning of my husband’s sudden death. If actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death had occurred back then instead of now, the words typed above would have been some of the very first thoughts that popped into my mind. Of course, the “old me” wouldn’t have been brave enough to share thoughts like that, so instead, I would have jumped on the much easier bandwagon of posting careless and borderline cruel jokes about the famous person’s shocking and untimely death. The comedian in me would have been pining away for that best tweet or that most shared Facebook status of the day, ending, of course, with a very sincere #RIP so-and-so. And although my joke of choice would not have been of the cruel type, (mean-spirited humor has never really been my thing) it still would have been my only immediate instinct – to post a silly pun about it, get a cheap laugh, and make it go away. After a day or two of posting my favorite clips online from some of Hoffman’s best acting roles, and saying to other friends in a concerned whisper: “Can you believe it? He was only 46 years old!”, I would have then, very quickly and without much confetti or fanfare, proceeded on with my otherwise self-involved, naive little life.

It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know anything at all about hurt or loss or death. I didn’t know that one second I could be ecstatic and in love and planning our life together, and the next second, riding in a taxi cab on my way to being told by the E.R. nurses and doctors at the hospital, that my very healthy, paramedic, 46 year old husband suffered a massive heart-attack an hour after arriving at work, and that he didn’t make it. I didn’t know that in one moment, the word future would be replaced with the phrase “What the hell just happened to my life?” I didn’t know that losing my spouse would transform every cell in my being, and that it would change every single thing, forever. I didn’t know the first thing about being a 39 year old widow. I didn’t know that there was a pain this deep, this all-consuming, this frightening. I didn’t know that my husband’s death would cause me to not want to be alive any longer, and I didn’t know that it would take so long to no longer feel that way. So please forgive me, universe, for my past behaviors. I didn’t know a damn thing.

Until, of course, I did.

The thing about knowing something that you didn’t know before, is that once you know it, you cannot unknow it. It is impossible. Instead, it sits inside of you and it alters the way that you see the world around you. For me personally, once the shock and fog of my own pain finally began to lift some, I could suddenly see and feel all of the pain that others held in their hearts. Where there used to be judgement, there is now compassion. Where there was assumption, there is now empathy. Where there was celebrity, there is now human being. In my “before” life, I saw the death of someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman as the death of a famous person. In my “after” life, he is just a person. He is a person struggling and crawling and wailing and guessing through life, like all of us. He is a person with addictions, and unless you are a person with addictions yourself, you cannot possibly comprehend the hell of that particular demon, and the control and the hold that it must have over you. This person, this extremely talented and flawed and real person- had been clean and sober from drugs for 23 years. And then, just like that – he wasn’t. I am not an expert on addicts, but to me, that says a lot about how fragile the world of an addict has to be. I would imagine it is something like living your life inside a house of cards, just always waiting for that one card to topple over and ruin all your hard work. A simple gust of wind, an unexpected emotion, or even something as ordinary as a doctor’s prescribed pain medication – could be that card that knocks your house down, and sends you once again running toward the familiar destruction that you unconsciously run toward.

In my new life as a widow, I have met many other widowed people, lots of them way too young to even be thinking about or using that awful “W” word. Many of my fellow widowed friends lost their partners to alcohol or drug addiction. Some of the deaths were suicides, some were overdoses, all were the result of someone being in a massive amount of pain. I am a 42 year old woman, and I know way too many people whose partners lives ended because of addiction. I have sat with widowed friends on the phone or in person, holding their hands and comforting them as they try and live with the torment and the guilt and the feeling of helplessness that addiction leaves in its wake. It is heartbreaking. It is terrifying. It is real. The demons are beyond powerful, and sometimes the demons win.

Every single one of us has demons. If you look inside of yourself – really look – you probably know what yours are. We all struggle with something, and some of us win that struggle. Others don’t. But the very fact that we all have a struggle makes us all the same. And in that way, you are only a few threads away from being Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s true. You are him. He is you. Or, he could be.

I am still a comedian, and so I will probably always make silly jokes when someone dies. Comedy is a huge part of how I cope with my own husband’s death. But now that I am a widow, posting a funny comment is no longer the first thing that pops into my head when a famous person dies. The first thing that came into my head when hearing about Hoffman’s sudden death was this silent conversation that I had with myself: “His wife. His poor wife. I wish there was some way I could connect with her and just tell her that I get it. I wonder where she was when she found out. Was she alone like I was? Did somebody tell her personally? Were there cameras on her and her children in that moment when they found out the absolute worst thing you could ever find out about your loved one? What will happen to them? How will they live inside of the pain?” The very next thing that came into my head was about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not the brilliant actor part of him, but the man himself. The son. The father who had two daughters and a son. The partner to long-time girlfriend and costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. I thought about the fact that this man was sober for over 20 years. And then he relapsed on prescription pain medication. And he knew. He was an addict, so he knew the slippery-slope was eminent, and he checked himself into a rehab facility in May of 2013. I didn’t know the man, but I am guessing that he loved his children and his partner very much. And I do not think that he, or any addict, chooses their particular drug or addiction over their family or their life. But sometimes the addiction is just a little bit stronger. Sometimes the demons win.

Believe me when I tell you that I wish I didn’t possess this new knowledge. I wish like hell that I could go back to the days when a celebrity death was just a blip in my radar, and when I thought it had nothing at all to do with me. I wish that I could talk to my husband about what a great actor Hoffman was, and that we could watch his favorite Hoffman movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” together, and remember him with fondness. But I can’t. That life is gone now, and so is that naive person who was too quick to judge people and make assumptions.

I am different now. I know better than all that, and I know that I cannot unknow what I now know.
And now that you’ve read this, neither can you.