Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What if...?

This entry is difficult to write, but I thought about it on the ride home from San Francisco last night and decided that while I've pushed all these memories way to the back, I really want to bring them forward and examine them, and maybe someone will stumble on this some day and find a little comfort and a little hope here.

Last night was the 22nd G.R.U.B., or the Gilbert Dinner. Twenty-two years of meeting at some restaurant to raise a glass and toast our friend Gilbert Russak, who died on Bastille Day in 1986. We've had large groups and small groups at this annual dinner. This year we were 10 and when time came for the toast ("Oh--it's you") it was followed by other toasts, one for Adrian, one for Jeanne, one for Dario ... people we have lost over the past 22 years. I decided we were like a tontine without a prize at the end. We'll continue to meet, year after year. Our numbers will gradually shrink until there will be only one person left, who will probably go to the greasy spoon, The Big Heart, and collapse over one of their artery-clogging burgers. What a way to end it all.

I had to laugh about us after dinner ended and while the bill was being calculated (always a challenging task...why do we always end up $20 short?) I looked around and realized that everyone had his or her cell phone out, trying to find the calculator built into the phone.

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Not a geek in the room. There were lots of comments about "I think I have that, but I don't know how to use it..." and lessons shared by people who had figured out that particular function, but maybe not another function. Really kind of funny at the time.

During dinner, we talked about how Gilbert would have gone crazy for the Internet. He missed the Internet by a few years but he was such an information whore that had he lived to see Google and the explosion of information on the Internet, he would have been in hog heaven. Especially for someone who had as much trouble sleeping as he did, having a computer in the middle of the long night would have been a godsend. But he didn't live to see that.

And that was what started me remembering that horrible, horrible night in 1986 when I received the call saying he had died following what was supposed to have been a simple in-and-out surgery. Nobody expected him to have a heart attack in the recovery room.

Gilbert and I had a strange relationship. He was my best friend and for the period of time that we were friends, I guess I got a lot of my identity and self-esteem from being with him. He taught me so much. It was at a point where my own nest was beginning to empty and I had more time to spend in San Francisco, and Walt was more tolerant than most men would be at letting his wife spend so much time with this gay man. For some 3 years, my life was really centered around what Gilbert & I were doing, what project we were about to do, what event we were going to attend.

When he died so suddenly, I was totally lost. It was as if the bottom had dropped out of my world. Oh there was still my life here in Davis, Walt and the kids, but that exciting bubble I had been living in had burst, the person who was at the center of it was gone and, as many people in grief feel, I just didn't know how I could go on without him in my life.

My plan was simple. At some point, would just climb into his car in his garage in his empty house, turn on the engine and I wouldn't have to think about that any more. The pain would go away.

But I didn't do that, obviously. The idea seems unthinkable to me now. And it wasn't really a serious plan at the time--but I did consider it. It hurt that much. I learned, then, that there is a reason for funerals. It's a lot of busy work for the survivors. It keeps your mind occupied. I couldn't die until I'd taken care of business. I got his house ready for his relatives, who were flying in from Oklahoma. I took care of them, helped them make funeral decisions, got through the memorial service and the scattering of his ashes. I would postpone my one way ride in the car until that was all over.

But when it was all over, there was the house to take care of. I didn't want strangers pawing through his stuff. He would have hated that. So I paid the company that was going to settle his estate and bought all the contents of the house (they offered me a good deal) and I started taking care of his stuff myself, keeping too much, giving a lot away to friends, sending stuff to the dump.

By the time I had done all that work, I didn't want to kill myself any more. I was learning how to live with the pain and Gilbert had once again taught me a lesson, this time about how to start dealing with grief.

It's been a long time since that night when I thought about climbing in his car and ending the pain and as we drove home from the Gilbert dinner, I thought of all the wonderful things that have happened in the past 22 years, the things I would have missed if I had killed myself.

The internet, for one thing. He wasn't here to see it, but I was and obviously it has become an important part of my life. There is a whole community of friends who are now special parts of my life becuase of the Internet. Real friends. Face-to-face friends I never would have met without the Internet.

I wrote a book, with the help of my friend Alison Lewis. I never thought I would be able to write a book, but it was so important to me that the accomplishments Gilbert made in the last 10 years of his life be chronicled. So "The Lamplighters History, Part 2" was written and I'm so very proud of it.

I would have missed the entire history of Lawsuit, and all those concerts I loved attending.

We traveled. I never thought I would see a foreign country, but two years after Gilbert died the family traveled to England and Ireland and had the very best family vacation ever. It created a real special bond with the kids and it kicked off a love for travel that Walt and I have shared ever since. How sad if I had denied myself the opportunity to broaden my geographical horizons.

I met Steve, who for a long time was jealous that he was always being compared to Gilbert. Why? Just because he's a gay man in show business with whom I worked on musical projects? Pshaw. Steve was the door that opened after Paul died and the thing that filled the hole that Gilbert left behind. Would I rather have Gilbert and Paul back? Of course. But they were each tormented souls who, I suspect, are happier where they are, and what wonderful adventures I would have missed by not having Steve's friendship.

Peggy came into my life. This fascinating, exciting woman who also took me on adventures, who made the most mundane fun, who reactivated my love of photography, who shared my love of wild animals, who gave me the courage to travel around the world to continue the adventure. Her friendship is very special and how sad it would have been if I had not been around to meet her.

I was working at a typing company when Gilbert died. Since then I learned medical transcription, worked for most of the doctors in town, managed two medical offices and became a theatre critic. Quite a lot in 22 years. And I enjoyed most of it, making wonderful friends in the process.

Cousins Day! How sad if I had missed the opportunity to connect with my cousins and have these wonderful experiences we've been having for the past year and a half.

There were, of course, the sad things that happened over the past 22 years, including burying David and Paul, but I think the one thing that living through the grief of losing Gilbert (rather than giving in to the immediate desire of just wanting all the pain to go away) was that I learned that grief, no matter how intense -- whether it's the loss of a friend, or the loss of a child -- gets better. People say "you'll never forget him," which is somewhat silly. Of course you don't forget somebody that you loved or a child that you raised. Of course it always hurts on some level. But you learn that life can be beautiful again, maybe not today, maybe not for a long time, but there comes a day when the air around you sparkles again, when you hear the birds singing and think it sounds beautiful, when something excites you again, and when you realize that you are so glad to be alive, and how much richer your life is for the experiences that you've lived through....and survived.

I really do understand when people say that death is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I'm glad I didn't choose it. I'm glad that with the support of wonderful people -- like Walt -- I hung in there and gave my own life a chance.


Tomorrow is Cousins Day--finally. Rasptinis and "65" and catching up on the past two months. Next journal entry will be posted late.

4 comments:

Lisa said...

"what ifs" are often scary places to visit but also eye opening as you've found.
I read to the last morsel and your final thouughts on grief resonated within me as I grieve the loss of my husband who also wasn't expected to die after an operation.
I too am glad you chose not to die that night, as I never would have chewed on this wonderful piece you've written.
Have fun this Cousin's Day!

Lisa fellow blogger on 'Thats my answer"

sabauda said...

Thanks for that beautiful post. I miss Gilbert, and never stop giving thanks for his presence in my life....

love to you, Bev - from Laurie in Turin

juverna said...

This was beautiful, Bev. Thank you for sharing it.

Shannon H. said...

Hi Bev! I am just visiting from "That's My Answer".

This post is great...thank you for sharing.