Goodbye 2016

Approximately 55.3 million people die each year. This natural and necessary part of the life cycle frees up room and resources on the planet for the 131.4 million new arrivals over that same period.

Ironically, one personal loss weighs on us much more heavily than does this enormous number. Naturally, we feel the passing of someone who has touched us in some way more acutely than the loss in toto.

The media do not alert us each time one of the millions pass, except in the case of the famous. When a celebrity or historical figure dies, the news reports that we’ve lost the individual, as if we just had coffee with them. And sometimes it feels that way. Why, then, do we lament so deeply the death of someone we’ve never even met?

The large number of such passings this year got me thinking about this phenomenon. For me, there are two reasons that the loss of the well known affects me more than that of the anonymous:

  1. The threads of these figures’ accomplishments are interwoven with our own lives. Their unraveling creates a little snag in our fabric.
  2. That pull reminds us of our own individual mortality and the ephemeral nature of each generation.

Some of the fallen icons were imposing: Muhammed Ali, John Glenn, Arnold Palmer, and Prince, for instance. Known worldwide, their achievements in the ring, in space, on the golf course, and in recordings shaped history. Some, perhaps not quite global figures, still spent a lot of time in our homes: Florence Henderson, Patty Duke, and Garry Shandling, for example.

I listened to Emerson Lake & Palmer, know to us as ELP, at high school parties and through my clunky headphones while studying: “Ooooh, what a lucky man he was.” Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, and Brain Salad Surgery played in heavy rotation while my friends and I drank snuck-in, watery beer in dark basements below black-lit neon posters. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake both died this year, leaving only drummer Carl Palmer as the surviving member of that trio.

I grew up with Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and all of David Bowie’s other alter egos as he went through his ch-ch-ch-changes, spinning his songs on a turntable during my radio show at WRMC-FM as a Middlebury College DJ. I watched him as The Man Who Fell to Earth. His voice haunted me in the soundtracks of Cat People and Moulin Rouge. As unassuming as he was, Bowie heavily influenced the evolution of modern music right up to his death.

MTV debuted the year I graduated from college, and I watched it avidly until it morphed from music television to ridiculous reality television. Wham woke me up before I went-went. I danced along in big shoulder pads as George Michael made tight jeans, white T, and black leather jacket and boots an 80s uniform. And watched that same iconic jacket go up in flames as Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford lip-synced on the sultry Freedom video. He rocked the five o’clock shadow long before it became hipster-popular. I’d heard that he was working on new material and a Wham documentary recently. I hope we get to hear and see some of it.

I’ve had a crush on Alan Rickman since he played the soft-spoken scary villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. The classically trained Royal Shakespeare Company actor portrayed my favorite Harry Potter character, Severus Snape, where that same soft/stern voice struck terror in the hearts of Hogwarts students. And I even adored him as the cheating Harry in Love Actually. I doubt anyone will have his power to charm and chill us simultaneously as he did.

The cliché statement that they’re “gone too soon” applies to them and many others who died this year. I’m not certain what “not too soon” would mean exactly, and who is the arbiter of appropriately timed death, but when the artists feel like peers, it seems too soon to me. More and more of those who pass are from my generation than from my parents’ or grandparents’ – eras that already seemed bygone to me. This is my era, and I’m not ready for it to be bygone yet.



I am a creature of habit. Each day of the week has its own set of activities, its own rhythm. On most Saturdays, after a workout, I head to the Barnes & Noble café to read the New York Times advance Sunday sections, maybe start the puzzle, and write.

Last week I had to run the gauntlet of festive downtown holiday traffic, which turns happy shoppers into grumpy Grinches. I am not immune. We crawled east on the Post Road past King’s Highway School, waiting patiently to cross Wilton Road, except for those entitled drivers who clearly had a “feel free to cut the line” pass, and nosed their way in, nearly scraping the left front bumpers of law-abiding drivers who they expected to yield to their urgency and privilege.

I finally made it across the bridge, thinking it’d be smooth sailing from there when a living-room sized SUV with New York plates stopped abruptly, blinker-less, in front of me to make a left turn on to Main St. Trying hard to retain my own holiday cheer and eschew xenophobia against the out-of-stater, I pulled around to what room I had left on the right. I must have miscalculated the width of the doublewide, because I bumped the curb with a dull thud.

“Drat!” I said (in more colorful language), and “I hope the car is ok,” just as the amber tire pressure warning light flashed and burst that thought bubble.

Automobile mechanics savvy ranks high on the list of skills that I lack, right up there with doing math in my head. Uncertain if I could even safely drive, I pulled into the Bank of America parking lot and maneuvered so that the injured tire faced out, accessible for AAA.

I sat for a minute breathing before I emerged into the frigid but clear air to examine the damage. It was dead flat. And not just punctured, but slit rim to tread as if by an angry ex in a country western song. Shoot shoot shoot (also in more colorful language).

I dialed AAA from the warmed car seat as I continued to consciously breathe. “Due to an unusually high call volume…” Shoot. I texted my brother in law. I texted my ex. Not that I expected that they’d run over to change the flat, but for masculine moral support and advice. Could I just replace one tire? The best tire store in the area?

But AAA picked up before they could respond, and an extremely kind, empathetic woman asked first if I was ok, and then assured me that they’d dispatch someone “within 45 minutes.” And that they’d send text updates on the technician’s progress, complete with a tracking map to show his whereabouts. Boy, this is not your father’s AAA.

I waited in the bank’s cozy cabernet-upholstered conversation nook with the paper, and not 15 minutes later, I got a call and a text with my technician’s name, location, birthdate, and favorite ice cream flavor. Ok, not those last two, but Antonio was en route.

This surprisingly early arrival amazed me almost as much as the fact that I had neither hyperventilated nor cried yet. Often, glitches like this agitate my anxiety, but for some reason my yoga and mindfulness training magically manifested, and I just breathed in breathed out and reminded myself that this occurrence was not even a mote of cosmic dust in the universal drama playing out anywhere in the galaxy at that moment.

And at that moment, savior Antonio rode up in his white steel steed of a flatbed truck. Young, tall, and brown khaki-clad, he shook my hand and said, “Don’t worry about this. This is nothing. We will take care of it. Pop the trunk and go back inside and keep warm.” Thank you, oh sage mechanic, I thought as I followed his directions.

But no sooner had the warm vestibule air enveloped me than he crossed the parking lot to retrieve me. “Ma’am,” he said, “do you have a spare? Do you know where it is?”

We tore the trunk apart to find only a small repair kit with a patch and a pump. He checked his phone while I checked the manual, and sure enough, 2015 Ford Fusions have “run flats” and no spares.

But there was no running on this flat. The first aid kit could band aid amateur tire punctures. This needed major surgery. “You can’t go anywhere on that tire,” he confirmed, adding, “hop up in the cab. It’s warm. I’ll put the car on the truck, and we’ll head to the tire shop.”

This would have been another good moment for swearing or a panic attack, but again, I chose breathe in breathe out, while I watched him maneuver the car onto the truck bed.

“All set,” he said as he climbed into his seat. “Ready? Don’t worry about this,” he said again, reading my mind. “You have no idea how often this happens with the new curbs the town put in.” I nodded and wondered why, then, the town installed sharp curbs to begin with.

We talked about the holidays and some of the things he’d seen on the road while we wended our way toward Town Faire.

I actually hugged him after he deposited the car back by the garage bays. And tipped him, too.

A small crowd thronged a waiting area that resembled a half-finished fort that children could have constructed out of stacked radials. The aroma of rubber reminded me that I was allergic to latex. I wondered if I’d react. I made a note not to touch the “walls.” I squeezed through to the desk, discouraged by the number of “waiters.”

“Let’s have a look at it, and we’ll see what we can do,” said one of several Town Faire Tire-fleece-vest-clad men behind the counter. “We’ll get you out today, but,” as he nodded over at the fort-dwellers, “it may be a while.”

Breathe in breathe out.

Two hours, $200, and two eggs Florentine later, I was back on the road. The world didn’t end. There was no apocalypse. I got my work done, albeit with a change of venue and a higher price tag, but done, nonetheless.

My relative calm amazed me. Although I can dish out enlightened advice to anyone willing to listen, I often don’t follow it myself. Something as insignificant as a flat tire would have flustered me not long ago. Wow, I thought, maybe I’m finally getting it. Just a little. As my long-time yoga teacher would tell me the next day when I related the story, “Congratulations. One small step on the path!” One foot in front of the other. Breathe in breathe out…

Jingle Shells

“They’re called jingle shells.” My mother held her palm open to show me the iridescent yellow coin-sized round ridged shells. “I’ve been collecting them—they’re all over the beach down here. I’m filling jars and making paperweights with them.” So like my mother, known by her preschool “kids” as Miss Barbara.

After she died, the glass jarful gave me and my sister pause as we cleaned out her Florida apartment. Another exclamation point in our long sentence of grief.

“Leave them,” I said. “We sold the place furnished. They are part of the décor.”

I wanted to add, “this sucks,” but that would have been stating the obvious.

I don’t pick the jingle shells up on my own beach walks in Connecticut, although I see them everywhere, like she’s traveled up the east coast to say hello. I collect beach glass. But one day recently I was at the beach with my former husband, his wife Samira, and their son. Samira’s cousin and his family were in visiting from Santa Barbara. I asked their 7-year old daughter Sierra if she’d like to take a shore walk with me. She was smart and witty, and, although I have two sons, they rarely take this stroll with me anymore. I was overjoyed that she wanted to join me.

I was scavenging for sea glass, trying to explain it to her, when she picked up something.

“What’s this?” she asked. “We don’t have these in California.”

“Ah, those,” I said. “Those are very special. They’re called jingle shells. You know, like jingle bells, but shells.”

She turned it over in her little hand, while the waves tickled our feet and the breeze tousled our hair. She ran her fingers over the ridges, looked up at me, and smiled. “They’re special?”

“Yes. My mother used to collect them and make special art projects with them. Pink, yellow, peach, white…Maybe you’d like to do that with them?”

She mulled this quietly for a moment, still looking at the shell, before she decided decisively and smiles at me. “Yes. That’s a good idea.”

“Good. Then let’s find some more.  Do you know the word for the way they shine?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Iridescent,” I say.

She brought a baggieful back to the blanket.

“Wow! We walked a long way,” she said to her mother as she revealed her treasure. “Mom, these are ear-ri-deh-sent jingle shells.”

Her mother smiled.

The next day I walked the beach again, alone this time, and collected jingle shells along with the beach glass. I dropped another bagful off for her before she headed back home.

Samira recently sent me a text “from Sierra,” with a photograph of a fist-sized stone covered with jingle shells. I could not help tearing up, thinking how pleased Miss Barbara would be to see the tradition continue.

Star Struck

I saw a movie with Christopher Walken last Sunday. He many not have realized it, but we saw Arrival together. I walked over from my apartment and settled into a single seat in the very last row (see my post on movie rules) with popcorn and diet coke for lunch.

With the trailers nearly finished, I assumed the stragglers had all stumbled in, and I relished the open space around me. No one to block my view or crackle candy wrappers at emotional moments.

So I felt frustrated when an older couple came in and ambled toward me just as the feature film began. They swayed a bit, disoriented by the dark, and the gentleman nearly walked into my seat. He paused in the vacant floor space next to me, meant to accommodate a wheelchair, and steadied himself on my seat. My irritation rose as my eyes did to take in the late-arriving interloper. And I found myself staring right into Christopher Walken’s face, topped with his signature shock of greying hair.

I silently forgave him immediately and only lamented the absence of a seat for him to take next to me. I have admired him since The Deer Hunter, and his comic SNL skits like Cowbell and The Continental have only further endeared him to me.

As their eyes adjusted to the dark, his wife (I assume) headed determinedly forward. “Over here,” she whispered. He redirected his unmistakable gait around me, and unwilling or uninterested in venturing as far as his companion, he plopped down directly in front of me. All six feet of him, plus the spiky hair. I was delighted. I wanted to lean forward and muss it like Jimmy Fallon did Trump’s. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and idiotically point out, “You’re Christopher Walken!!!” I did neither. I texted my boys.

I, of course, felt we already knew each other because I’d encountered him several years ago in the Radio Shack near Sherwood Diner. The adolescent clerk didn’t recognize him, nor did he have what CW had asked for in his trademark halting delivery. “Check Staples maybe,” the clerk told him, not even looking up at the popular personality, who looked around, seemingly at a loss.

“But where…” he started.

I saw my opening and jumped headlong in, shaking his hand, gushing admiration and directions not only to Staples but also to several other places that might stock what he was looking for. The cashier had checked out.

“That’s great,” said CW. To me. “Thank you,” he added. To me. He talked to me. OMG he talked to me! I texted my boys.

I’m not sure what it is about celebrity that makes us – or me at least – feel differently about someone. I really do admire his quirky work. But I know for sure that if it had been someone else who rocked my seat and alit right in front of me, I’d have changed seats immediately in a huff of indignation over his rudeness. His stardom gave him a star pass.

Toward the end of the movie I fantasized about shaking his hand again and reminding him of our riveting encounter in Radio Shack, but before the credits rolled, he did too. He probably wanted to avoid avid adoring fans who would want to tell him how much they admire his work and remind him of the last time they met, you remember, in Radio Shack.

Mind the Gap

As I write this, there are “20 Days Left Until Christmas!!!” Advertisers remind us of the ticking time bomb so often that it feels we should take shelter rather than go shopping. Parking lots become angry obstacle courses. Even the relative comfort of our couches, where we can shop at 11 p.m in our pajamas, is no longer safe. Cyber Monday has become Cyber Week. Cyber Month. Cyborgs in my living room.

Autos sprout antlers and don wreaths (see my previous post on the practice of car decoration), and Christmas Carols blare from everywhere. I went to a local tween/teen shop to buy a gift certificate for my niece. Since it was a certificate and not a plastic card, the cashier had to write and log it by hand. I thought it would be Christmas by the time she finished. Jose Feliciano sang Feliz Navidad so loudly over the store speakers that I expected the woofers would blow. I could not hear a single thing she asked me. I developed a migraine.

As soon as Thanksgiving ends and we store the gourds and Indian corn while wistfully watching the last of the brilliant foliage fade and fall, it feels as if we’re shot out of a cannon, sent hurtling toward “the holidays.”

We make lists and reservations, plan menus, RSVP to parties (I, happily, got invited to a few this year!), and pore through the paraphernalia that has stocked store shelves since before Halloween.

I look forward with delighted anticipation to having both boys back from their far-flung homes so soon after stuffing ourselves silly with turkey and trimmings. Such closely timed visits are rare and cherished.

And I necessarily turn my attention to gifts. Ours is a multicultural, blended, extended family. So we celebrate, well, everything. I start shopping early. Really early. Like in the summer. So for me, the first challenge is to remember what I bought and where I hid it. Then I covertly take polls about what everyone wants, fooling no one with my obvious questions’ intent. I’ve relied largely on gift cards of late. I once thought them impersonal, but now I like the idea of allowing those I love to pick out something they love, instead of hoping they love what I picked out for them.

As the holidays rush headlong toward me I inevitably start to pressure myself. Have I done enough for everyone? Have I forgotten anyone? I live in an apartment complex with a dedicated cleaning and maintenance crew and a helpful office staff. Our mailman knows me by name. Friendly baristas feed my green tea habit. My hairstylist helps to tame my mane. How much to give? Cash, check, or card?

And then there’s year-end charity. So many worthy causes. So many in need. I wrack my brain over how to best allocate my giving budget.

It’s easy to get caught up in the sirocco that sweeps in and carries us away on the last Thursday in November, often tumbling and tossing us, clouding our vision like that desert wind. But when I step out of the turbulent torrent of tinsel into the quiet of my breath, I realize that Thanksgiving never really ended. It is only because so many caring, compassionate, and considerate people populate my life that I have to “worry” about how to express my gratitude to them during this season. With this family, these friends, and my community at large, every day is Thanksgiving. Corny as it sounds, they give me shelter from this yuletide tsunami.

Photo courtesy of the author

Second Anniversary

We lost our mother just over two years ago. The visceral feel of her hand in mine as my sister and I sat at her bedside in Norwalk Hospital belies the passage of so much time.

I went to the cemetery a few days before the anniversary. I never go on prescribed dates but more when the – or her – spirit moves me. She lies next to my father who is now gone almost 14 years. He picked the spot on the farthest side of the space, in the shade. But that shade had of late become a tangle of vine-laden dead trees that threatened to swallow up the landscape below. As I drove up I could see that someone had finally decided to trim the impending collapse of the haunted forest it had become, but rather than remove the considerable pile of debris, they left it to rest with my parents. Or more precisely, on my parents. And all their eternally resting neighbors. I was horrified. I could not approach their headstone for the thorny gauntlet of mangled branches. The chainsaw cuts told me that the mess was not fresh.

I took in the disrespectfully dumped detritus and picked my way around to the back of the headstone to leave the customary stone calling cards for both of them, imagining my father’s horror at the spectacle. But my mother would say, “It’s ok, honey, someone will take care of it soon. It’s not really bothering us, is it?” I finally had to smile, thinking about her loving and forgiving perspective.

When I got back in the car, though, I felt the inability to reach them acutely. I usually take comfort from my visits, but this one unsettled me and left me feeling more separate than ever. I called my sister in tears.

On the second anniversary of her death, Suzanne and I set out to celebrate with chocolate in her honor. But we stood dumbstruck at the door of Chocopologie. The dark storefront showed no signs of life beyond the panes. A quick Google check showed “permanently closed.” Gone forever. Another obstacle in our efforts to cling to some thread of connection. We rallied, though, and set out to Sono Bakery in search of cocoa. We talked about and toasted mom as we made our way through a mountain of confections. Her sweetness infused us.

Later that afternoon a friend and I went to see A Man Called Ove at the Garden Cinema. We are usually the youngest audience members at these late matinees, as we were that day when we sat down in front of two older women. “That’s Barbara’s daughter,” I could have sworn I heard one of them say, but I just thought I must have had my mother’s name on my mind. But my friend Stacey nudged me. “Those women are pointing at you. They said you were Barbara’s daughter!”

I turned to see Carol and Ellie, two of my mother’s close friends from Oronoke Village in Stratford, where she lived before moving to Florida full time several years before she died.

“It’s you, Diane!” Carol said. “I can’t believe it!”

“Oh, my God,” I said. “What are the chances of meeting you here today of all days. She died two years ago. Today.” I told them.

“I can’t believe that,” said Carol. “I think about her every day. She gave me a woolen shawl of hers that I loved. I wear it at home all the time.”

“I think about her every day, too. That doesn’t surprise me. She sat in that hospital bed and asked that we give something of hers to each of her friends. She was making lists until she couldn’t write any more…”

I thought about her sitting up in the hospital bed with a small notepad they’d given her, assigning cat mugs to one person, nesting dolls to another, making us acknowledge and promise to carry out each bequest.

“She was really special,” said Ellie.

We all nodded, a bit lost in our own memories.

“I am so glad to have seen you today,” I said as we turned to sit. “What were the chances?”

Stacey echoed my sentiment, amazed, “Really, what were the chances? That’s your mom!” I texted Suzanne before the movie started. She texted back, “that’s crazy!”

But maybe not so much, I thought. I’d approached the anniversary lamenting the loss and lengthening distance from her that it marked. Somehow the coincidence of her friends coming to that theater, having driven for 40 minutes to see that showing of that movie on that day, reminded me that time and distance can nurture as easily as destroy a strong connection. A little chocolate doesn’t hurt either.

Photo courtesy of the author