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  • 10 Years Later: I Miss You, Dad

    Ten years ago today, I wasn't there. I'd left Texas City the day before and returned to Virginia, hours after my father waved goodbye to us and slipped into a coma.

    Losing my dad, without question, was one of the most difficult things I've gone through in this life. I viscerally remember the multiple flights back and forth from Virginia to Houston after his final diagnosis. Falling behind at work, I remember working on a piece for a magazine while staying with him one weekend in the hospital. I remember the nights he was in such pain, as I simultaneously wished for it to end while selfishly hoping he wouldn't leave us.

    I didn't make promises to higher powers about changing my life forever if he could be spared. I walked around the hospital after that final goodbye, playing Alejandro Escovedo's "The End" on my iPod as loud as I could bear. I started working on a slideshow of dad and his grandchildren that I would show at his funeral. And I started thinking about the future, not knowing what it would hold.

    Often I've said I became a better father when my dad died, having recognized belatedly that life is finite. I started paying more attention to family instead of career, and began to chase after that elusive creative muse. What I learned most is that life is not about the things you have. It's about what you experience with those you love.

    I love you, Dad.

  • RIP David Bowie

    Last Christmas Eve, Jill and I were fortunate to see the “David Bowie is Now” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with our photography buddy and extended family member, Bernadette. The Windy City was the only U.S. venue to host the exhibit, and we were there with the kids to see Ben and the “Newsies” folks. It felt like serendipity, and proved to be a fascinating history lesson.

    Just over a year later, Bowie has died following an 18-month battle with cancer, just two days after turning 69. He released his most recent CD, “Blackstar,” on his birthday. “Lazarus,” an Off-Broadway continuation of "The Man Who Fell To Earth" featuring old and new music from Bowie, has been one of the hottest tickets in New York since it opened in December. In terms of buzz, it is almost as hot as “Hamilton,” another genre-bending musical, 

    Like him or not, you have to admire Bowie for constantly pushing the boundaries in music, theatre and film in a career that spanned more than four decades, all of which were on display in the Chicago exhibit and are found in his recent work. I saw him live in the mid 1980s in Houston, on the tour that followed “Let’s Dance,” and remember being as captivated by the visuals as the music. And much of the music was excellent in its own way.

    In showcasing his artistry and chameleon-like nature, “David Bowie is Now” provided excellent, thought-provoking insight into his career. If anyone deserved a museum exhibition devoted to his style alone, it was Bowie, but this was much more, proving to be a multimedia feast for the eyes and ears.

    I wish I could have taken pictures, but they were strictly verboten, and security was tight. I understand why, and wondered at the time if I could have done it justice, given how difficult it is at times to get good images in museums

    At the same time, I’m sure copyright and intellectual property were not the only reasons Bowie refused to allow photography. If anything, he was always the one in control of his ever-shifting image.

    Another icon gone too soon.

    Sigh… #RIPDavidBowie

    ••••••

    Note: After writing this tribute just hours after the announcement of Bowie's death, I updated it with more observations for NoDepression.com. Check out the updated version here.

  • Robin Williams: A Class Act

    Robin Williams is dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.

    A great actor and comedian with one of the most brilliant minds we've ever seen, he also was a tortured soul who was forthcoming about the demons he faced. Anyone who has ever dealt with depression or seen a family member suffer from mental illness knows how life can be a minute-by-minute battle against hopelessness.

    I'm so sorry hopelessness won.

    I remember watching him outside "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which was in the theatre next to "Billy Elliot," talking to people and signing autographs. In fact, I won tickets to the lottery on the opening night of previews, meaning I had a front row seat to his Broadway debut.

    One night during the run, Jacob Clemente and Ben went to see the show and tried to get a picture afterward. Security said no, but he yelled out, "Hey, the Billy boys!" and insisted that they come over.

    A class act. Too sad. Too soon.

  • Daily Photo: January 30, 2014

    Four Instagram images that look at aspects of my wife's childhood home on the one-year anniversary of my father-in-law's death — Boone, N.C., January 2013

  • Music and Loss

    I can’t put a finger exactly on when I became a Lou Reed admirer — fan is a word he alternately would have loathed and loved. But I'm sure he would have appreciated that I came to admire his music — or at least a great deal of it — in backward fashion.

    My appreciation started, I guess, when a neighbor passed me “New Sensations” in the mid 1980s, roughly 20 years after Reed founded the Velvet Underground and more than a decade after his only hit ("Walk on the Wild Side").

    At the time, I was living in Houston’s museum district, an area that opened my eyes in ways my parents had always feared. But in the grand scheme, it was a quiet rebellion; I sat on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle while working nights and going to school during the day, unsure of what the next chapter would bring.

    Lou Reed’s music — along with that of X, R.E.M., the Talking Heads and, somewhat belatedly, The Replacements and The Clash — pointed me in directions that clashed with the grounded emotional reality I experienced growing up. I still find those directions intriguing and exciting, especially from a distance. To this day, I can quote Reed’s 1989 album “New York” verbatim, and find myself looking for the very characters he describes when I walk the city’s streets.

    My last trip to New York was in late October, the day after Reed died of liver failure at age 71. In the brief time I was there, I made sure to find a minute to walk to the Chelsea Hotel, where a makeshift memorial with candles, flowers and notes had been placed at the entrance. Someone also put a small plastic Ziploc with a powdery substance among the memorial items.

    While I stood there, a woman bent over and moved it out of sight. Another woman said, “He wouldn’t have cared.”

    Two doors from the Chelsea, painters were finishing work on the bright orange and green sign for a new 7-11 that's opening on West 24th Street. On that note, I get the feeling Reed — always the social critic of cool — would have had something caustic to say.

    Or maybe not. I’m not sure.

    ••••••

    Moving backwards: My first exposure to Reed's music and the Velvet Underground came the summer before my freshman year in college, when I picked up and consumed Edie, the biography of socialite and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. Masterfully presented in an oral history format by Jean Stein and editor George Plimpton, Sedgwick’s story is part of the bigger tale that was New York in the mid to late 1960s, a tale that also included the Velvet Underground.

    For a brief period, Sedgwick was the brightest star of Warhol’s voyeuristic faux reality show, so captivating that she inspired Bob Dylan to write “Just Like A Woman.” But within five years, she was dead of a drug overdose at age 28.

    Edie never stood a chance, given the Warhol-level indulgences and the Sedgwick family tree — a generationally unstable lineage with a history of great wealth, mental illness, breakdowns, and suicide.

    At the time, I did not understand why someone with so much would piss everything away in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. Thirty years after reading the book, I still have trouble reconciling her path toward self-destruction, although I’m more understanding than ever of the causes and of how fragile life can prove to be.

    ••••••

    Just after finishing Edie, I met and quickly became good friends with Brian, a fellow student at the University of Houston. I didn’t have many male friends growing up — it’s always been easier for me to talk to women — but we formed a bond that lasted for more than 20 years. He was like the older brother I never had.

    When we met during my freshman year, Brian was a sportswriter at the university newspaper, an erstwhile English major on the slowest possible path to graduation. He was putting his life on the right path, he said, in the same sentence claiming he had been so stoned that he could not remember his last three years of high school. Going back to school at 23, he said, was his chance to make something of his life.

    Brian, who was five years older, and I bonded over sports, music, movies, and journalism. We talked about New York and he handed me my first copy of the Village Voice. For a naive kid from Texas, this seemed like a big deal.

    Over time, I learned of the struggles he had growing up. He was the oldest child of alcoholic parents involved in a toxic, codependent relationship. Brian had identified his parents’ issues and tried to work his way through them, but life proved to be a constant struggle to get over his self-created humps.

    For a time, our lives paralleled. We participated in each other’s weddings. He had children. I had a child. Then I moved from Texas to North Carolina, and naturally the time between our conversations lengthened, buoyed when I returned and we managed to connect in person.

    He did not understand why I left my first marriage, at least in the beginning. I did not understand why, if he was as miserable as he claimed in his relationship, he did not do the same. Brian insisted that he could not leave his children, no matter how many times he wished his parents had divorced when he was growing up.

    ••••••

    A few nights ago, I found a Fresh Air segment devoted to Lou Reed’s life and legacy. The primary interview subject was Bill Bentley, Reed’s publicist from 1988 to 2004 — no easy task given the songwriter’s notoriously prickly nature.

    The program, which featured clips of interviews with former band members and others close to Reed, was an intriguing listen. But one quote in particular stuck with me:

    "Lou's whole contribution to rock 'n' roll was — at the very start of his career he said, 'You should be able to write about anything.' Anything you could read about in a book, or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song,” Bentley said. “He set that out as his No. 1 goal: to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be.”

    And he did, writing honest pieces about life on the fringes, with New York as his backdrop and muse. To the listener with a pop ear, much of his music can be tough sledding, although he wrote some cool pop songs. (I’m not a huge fan of feedback and extended drone, and “Metal Machine Music” is almost as bad to me as “Having Fun with Elvis on Stage,” for many of the same reasons.)

    The riches for the reader, and occasionally the beauty, are found in the lyrics. The best are three- to 10-minute short stories and poems bursting with vivid characters and the spectre of tragedy lurking nearby.

    ••••••

    Like his parents, Brian had a love-hate relationship with alcohol and the blues. He fought his demons, but the demons fought back. Eventually, in 2005, he and his wife separated — apparently for good this time. He also took a leave of absence from his job.

    No matter how many times I asked him to call if he needed help, I had to initiate the conversation, and for a dozen years we spoke every four to six weeks. In 2005, however, we talked only three times — once when I went back to Texas, and at two other points on the phone.

    The last conversation, in June one weekend evening when I was working late, seemed like old times. We didn't talk much about families, but had a passionate discussion about sports and music. The Houston Astros were making a run that eventually would land them in their first World Series, and now that I lived near Washington, D.C., we trash talked about the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry. We finished the call saying we needed to have more talks like that one.

    In early September, two weeks before the Redskins/Cowboys game on Monday night football, I called his office and was told he wasn’t there. I also called his apartment, but got no answer.

    On Sept. 19, the Redskins won 14-13 on two huge plays. I thought about calling again, but was leaving for a meeting in Las Vegas that week and decided to wait. While in Vegas, I received a call from a mutual friend who told me the news.

    Brian hadn’t seen the game. In fact, when had I called his office earlier in the month, he already had been dead for two weeks. He had taken his own life, apparently so miserable, tortured, and hopeless that he decided to leave his sons behind after all. His soon-to-be-ex had buried him with no obituary notice and no calls to his friends.

    Apparently no one at his office knew what to say either.

    ••••••

    I’ve thought many times about Brian, but standing outside the Chelsea Hotel and its many ghosts last month, I felt his spirit more strongly than I have in years. Listening to the Fresh Air program, I felt it again. And I feel it every time I think of Reed's song “Perfect Day,” one thing that prompted me to write this sort-of eulogy eight years too late.

    It’s easy to be lulled into the lyrics at the start of the song, “Just a perfect day/drink Sangria in the park/And then later/when it gets dark, we go home … Oh, it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spend it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.”

    But then the song turns dark: “Just a perfect day/you made me forget myself/I thought I was/someone else, someone good.” And even darker still with the refrain at the end: “You're going to reap just what you sow/You're going to reap just what you sow.”

    I miss you, my brother. RIP, Brian.

    And the same to Lou, too.

  • Keep In Touch

    Last week, one of our neighbors died from pancreatic cancer. She was so private that only the people closest to her — her immediate family and pastor — knew she had been ill for the past seven months.

    The news came as a shock to the neighborhood, which saw its somewhat fragile and itinerant ecosystem shaken. Living close to a military base 15 miles outside Washington, D.C., we are used to seeing For Sale signs pop up every several months as neighbors move away, but no one is prepared for something like this.

    No one expects to die at age 49, leaving a teenage child without either of his biological parents. And for the core group of families that has been in the neighborhood since the beginning, losing a charter member is an even deeper cut, especially when you did not know that person had been ill.

    ••••••

    One disadvantage to living in an area that has four seasons is that you rarely see anyone outside from November to March. Smaller children, the thread that is the fabric of suburban neighborhoods, stay inside during inclement (read “cold”) weather.

    Except for the holidays, or when it snows/ices, casual neighbors see each other only long enough to wave while walking the dog or getting in or out of the car.  Then another spring rolls around and the kids emerge, taller and with new toys.

    Once your kids reach that tween/teen phase, playing outside becomes less important, falling victim to technology and peer groups. With busy lives and crazy run around schedules, you have to make a persistent effort to remain in touch.

    The person who passed away is — I can’t bring myself to use the past tense — the first person we saw in the neighborhood. And that was even before our house was completed.

    Our Virginia-based children, then 4, 3, and 3, immediately picked up on the fact that one of our neighbors had a child who was around their age. Ben, in particular, was thrilled to see that it was a boy.

    For several years, our boys played together regularly. They spoke of each other as brothers. When Ben started acting, his friend’s mom regularly brought her son to his shows. When the boy’s father became ill, he started coming over to our house more and more. On the day of his father’s funeral, he came home with us and stayed for several hours; that Halloween, he went trick or treating with us while his mom remained at home to hand out candy.

    About two years after the funeral, Ben moved to New York. By this time, his friend had a new father figure in his life. His mother was glowing and happy. During the spring and summer, they were always outside, working in the yard or playing basketball.

    Like many kids, Ben and his friend drifted apart, in part because of distance and in part because of divergent interests. His friend has shot up in height, while Ben has remained relatively small. His friend is consumed by sports — especially basketball. Ben, although he enjoys athletics, obviously is not.

    Kate and Emma would see the family down the street occasionally, and comment on how all seemed well. But over the past several months, we saw them less and less.

    Today, that 14-year-old boy is without his mother, too.

    •••••• 

    There were little signs. She looked thinner when I drove past their house. The boy and his stepfather did not play basketball outside. The impeccably groomed yard started showing signs of wear.

    But those little signs did not add up, and the family’s desire for privacy overwhelmed everything else. That’s why the news, sudden for most though months in the making, was such a shock.

    Our thoughts — everyone’s thoughts — immediately went to the boy who has lost both of his biological parents. We thought of the kind man who has taken responsibility for a son he never had, and — while grieving on his own — is faced with continuing his wife’s work alone.

    On Saturday night, in between trips that prevented us from going to the funeral 90 miles away earlier that day, I stopped by to pay my condolences. What started as a simple hello and goodbye evolved into a 90-minute conversation about faith and loss and hope.

    Leaving, I thought of the little things we can look out for and do. Will we see them playing basketball? Will the yard return to its usual impeccable shape? Will the presence of the woman with the unshakable faith always be felt? As the boy enters high school, how can Jill — thanks to her school counseling connections — help and assist with her wonderful, professional and parental touch.

    As their friend, I left with the pledge to stop by and check on them, and with the offer to help in any way we can without pressing or pushing.

    After all, isn’t that what good neighbors do?