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I Had a Bad Year in 1997

August 9th, 2006

“Ah, not a good year for your clan, huh?” a friend of ours asked my sister and me toward the end of 1997. We ran into him at a party. It was the first social event I’d attended in ages, other than funerals.

We lost an uncle January 1st, another uncle in May. My favorite aunt died on July 3rd. Then my husband (who was my fiance at the time) and I lost our first baby a few days later. I liked to think they were taking care of the baby, my uncles and aunt, in heaven. In my mind heaven exists (but not hell. Hell is here on Earth) because I need the comfort. I need to believe that maybe someday I’ll again see the people I’ve lost, and we can talk. Bake a chocolate cake together. Have a cup of coffee.

No St. Peter at the pearly gates, no big white guy on a throne, just my family and friends. Only without the fighting. There’s a fountain, and a park, and we can all have a picnic. Then go swimming.

My cousin took his own life the end of July. His father had done the same, my father had done the same. I compared our family to the Hemingways and began to freak out. I couldn’t freak out. I was already post-partum. I had a wedding to plan. I had a good year in 1997, too. My boyfriend and I fell in love. He got down on one knee and proposed. I said yes, yes, yes, yes. He and I wanted the same things. We wanted each other, for always. We decided to make it so. We knew all of this even though we’d been dating less than two months. Sometimes you just know. We bought each other gold bands at a jeweler in his home town, Iowa City, Iowa.

But on the ugly side, I had a violent ex-boyfriend to contend with. (We owned a house together and had to go to court to settle up.) I had a career at a big fancy daily newspaper.

I immediately started pretending my cousin wasn’t dead; he’d gone into hiding. I still play that game, on bad days. I miss him terribly. He was awfully nice. He was the nicest one in my entire family, and I’m not just saying that cuz he’s bigger in death then he was in life. He was huge in life. Tall, smart, handsome, sweet. He was painfully shy and could never figure out why everyone stopped talking to stare at him when he walked into a room. He had presence. He was depressed. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.

His death threw me into a tailspin that I’m still not out of, despite therapy, despite pharmaceutical help, despite a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio and a great husband and two of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. I just will be grieving, part of me, for the rest of my life.

Somewhere during all this my sister and I stopped calling people, to tell them someone else had died. Our boyfriends and friends took over that responsibility, and I could not put it into words at the time, how much this touched me.

My grandfather was despondent — failing health, and my cousin’s death — and we lost him in November. A close family friend passed away from cancer. Then her father, despondent like my grandfather, died, too. Our families were weirded out by the similarities. We fretted over it. Who would be next? Someone called me “Black Widow Spider” and laughed. I thought, Hardly. I wasn’t married to any of them. But I did feel like the Black Angel was following us. (The first time I saw the Black Angel sculpture in Iowa City I couldn’t walk away.)

Somewhere in there a buddy of mine from college overdosed in Seattle. It took weeks before his family IDed the body — he wasn’t carrying ID. He always carried a little Pan-Am flight bag everywhere with him, with his ID and spare clothes in it.

I wondered, were there “friends” with him when he died? Did they take his bag and ID? Was he still carrying the Pan-Am bag? I became obsessed with the Pan-Am bag, and thought I saw him, and my cousin, everywhere. I started pretending they had both met really sweet girls, married, bought houses in North Portland and were in hiding. They’d given up drugs (in my friend’s case) and our stupid crazy family (in my cousin’s case) and weren’t taking calls. So I could pretend I’d called them, left messages, and they hadn’t had a chance to return the call.

That was it.

They weren’t dead. Just in hiding. When I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion I sobbed through the whole book. I know they’re really dead, please don’t worry. But sometimes I need a buffer. I can’t take it all in at once, when it hits me. Even almost a decade later.

I’ve forgotten one — mid-December, an old friend died of complications from AIDS. She was an extremely hep person. Native American (as was my friend who died in Seattle), wise woman, always supportive of me. Knowing her made me consider growing up and doing things the way adults do them. It was a new concept to me. I tried it. I liked it. So, January 1, 1997, through mid-December, 1997. May they all rest in peace.

That’s ten, in one year. That was enough for the rest of my life, or at least until I hit my 80s. My employers were less then understanding about all the time I was taking off for funerals. Their response? To put me on the crime desk. Where I heard suicide/domestic violence/suicide/domestic violence calls, all day long on the police scanner. It wasn’t what I needed to hear. Oh, yeah, and one of my editors told me, “The other editors and I have talked, and we think you need to see a therapist.”

Me: “I am seeing a brilliant therapist, not that it’s any of your fucking business. Maybe y’all ought to see therapists, to find out why you have no hearts.”

I quit my job, started writing and editing freelance, worked another job for awhile, got married, had babies, and here I am, Wacky Mommy, blogging.

Then three years later another close friend died. He was 38. He had a heart attack and died playing basketball. You know how people say, “At least he died doing something he loved,” and it’s supposed to be a comfort? It’s no comfort. He wanted to get married, have kids, lead his life. He didn’t get to do any of that and it is the hugest rip-off. My cousin didn’t get that, either. He and my friend got lumped together in my head — two nice guys who deserved to get all the best in life.

Decided that only the good die young, after all.

Decided to never be friends with assholes (who usually don’t die young, they stick around to bug the crap out of everyone, cut in front of us in line, almost T-bone us in traffic, be insulting, hurt people, hit women and children, bomb the shit out of people because, you know, they can. All that bullshit). After my cousin died, a friend told me, “I know it doesn’t make sense now, but something will make sense about it, someday. There will be something you’ve learned from it, and you’ll be grateful for that.” So I kept hanging on, hoping for that bit of sense, and I’ve found it, nine years later.

I don’t like having assholes in my life. Coupled with this: I don’t like dealing with assholes, either. Who does, eh? So this is a problem sometimes. I’m trying to be more tolerant. Suffer fools gladly and all that. HA! Yeah, I can see that happening. Really, though, I am trying to be more patient, kind, you know. I’m trying to remember everything that I loved about the people I have lost, the things they got right, and make that be my path in life.

So I’m at the pool with the kids a couple of weeks ago (we swim almost daily in the summer, it’s great) and who do I see but this woman who looks exactly like my basketball-playing friend? I think, okay she’s going to think I’m weird, but I ask her, anyway, “Did you have a brother named…?” And her whole face lights up and yes! She is his baby sister! She has four sweet kids — twins who are Wacky Boy’s age, a daughter Wacky Girl’s age, an older daughter who is just a delight. We’ve been hanging out, swapping stories, asking each other questions. She says, “It’s like I’ve known you for a really long time.” And I said I knew just what she meant.

Because sometimes life makes sense.


  1. Busy Mom says

    Wow. I am speechless. While I am glad 1997 is over for you, how great that you get to experience a part of your friend’s life!

    August 9th, 2006 | #

  2. Maxine Dangerous says

    That was amazing. Thank you for sharing that story. :)

    October 18th, 2006 | #

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