Bah! Humbug!

While far from being a Scrooge, I admit to being more circumspect during the winter holidays of light, many stemming from a Neanderthal heritage with its understandable fears of eternal winter and death from hunger and cold. Paul and I went into a bit of hibernation each winter when he was alive. We ventured out quite a bit less. He took to wearing long underwear in late September. I would drag out red plaid flannel pajamas and shirts. Seed catalogs came in winter, too. We’d pour over those and find just the spot in our imaginations where annuals would add a spot of color. We sat if front of a fire and reminisced about our recent summer and fall garden successes and failures, adding those to our annual garden journal.

After our first 10 years together, we also added the tradition of deciding on December 24 or 25 where our year-end contributions would be directed. Our tradition evolved when we admitted to ourselves and each other that we didn’t actually enjoy getting or giving gifts at Christmas or Chanukah all that much. We much more preferred thinking of people throughout the year, inviting them into our lives, being generous with our time or perspectives. This tradition of year-end donations started with a breakfast or lunch during which we’d talk about our year, what we were grateful for, about whom we were worried, and what we cared about. Then we’d identify a stretch number — an amount of money that we’d feel for a couple of months, but would not break the bank.

Finally, we would say which organizations we wanted to support. Paul and I were both big fans of Planned Parenthood, so they were always in the mix. LGBT causes were usually among the group, but so were projects of our friends and colleagues in the arts,  human rights, and social services. In the last few years of his life, Paul would sometimes get quiet during this selection process, waiting for me to make selections. Upon my prompting, he’d admit that he felt that since our resources were now coming completely from me, I should make the decision. He also felt he was less and less engaged in the world and thus had less of an informed opinion. In 2013, I recall that I told him we’d come back to the decision-making when he was ready to acknowledge our equal partnership and the importance of his perspective. That lasted about 10 minutes — he was back on track with his opinions. Ultimately, I figured out that the best way to clarify that these were all our resources was to establish a trust in both of our names, starting with his name first — alphabetical order be damned!

It was this process I was looking forward to in 2014 — our tradition of making philanthropic decisions together — when I got the call that Paul was unresponsive. I had left him alone for 45 minutes, heading off to work and to the store. I needed cilantro and peanuts as garnish for the Thai salmon over rice that he loved so well. When his home health aid arrived, Paul was on the floor. I flew through stop signs and red lights at over 50 miles an hour, but arrived to see the grief-struck, deflated EMTs leaving the house. One turned to walk me inside; he was the man who had held my hand in the ambulance when I came close to death myself in 2010.

They had cleaned up Paul’s body and covered him with blankets. He looked a bit like he was asleep, but he was very cold. It was likely his unregulated temperature from MS that killed him. He slipped into that death like a mountain climber might in an avalanche.

Michael Pink and Paul talked shop backstage before the performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ four days before Paul died.

Yesterday, with my friend Martha, I devoted a half hour to memories of our 32 years together. I laughed and cried about Paul’s funny, determined, indecisive, brilliant, and beautiful self. I said aloud what I rarely share. Paul and I had arrived at a sort of peace about 10 years before he died. He would take the side of devoting his focus and energy to doing every thing he could to get better. I would devote my energy to doing everything I could to have us enjoy some semblance of an active life together. We knew these two positions would be fraught, but we took them and supported each other the best we could in holding our positions. Paul fought hard from December 14 through 18, 2014 to be well enough to leave the hospital. I fought hard to get him to a benefit performance of The Nutcracker where he would be honored for his time with Milwaukee Ballet. We both won.

I do not look at December 24th as a day of trauma, though that day and the weeks afterwards were certainly heartbreaking. Nor have I been depressed. I am grateful that I was not treated with trauma-informed care or medicated for depression. In my years of grief, I have maintained a sense of humor, expanded on our traditions of light and year-end giving, and hold a sense of wonder at what we developed together.

While everything changed on December 24, 2014, so had everything changed in the fall of 1982 when, during our budding relationship, he challenged the belief that I held for myself until then: I was a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief. He had asked if instead I might be a man of peace awaiting love. It turns out he was right. I had not been ready for love until that time, and I was waiting for him.

It worked

Today would have been Paul Mandracchia’s 60th birthday. Had he lived, I would be planning a celebration for August 2018 when we would have marked the convergence of his being 60, my turning 70, and our 35th Anniversary.

It is very tempting to write about this loss, my loss. Our loss. His struggles. The challenges of his last years alive.

But I think instead that it is more interesting to think about his life.

         Paul was an amazing problem-solver. I still laugh about my approach to gardening which usually involved a dozen trips to the garage to get anything accomplished. Paul used to watch me bustle around the yard while he sat at a table making a list of the equipment he’d need for the project. He’d then collect it all in one trip and take it to the site on which we were working. If I commented on his failure to give me a clue to save the time running around, he’d comment that he thought I needed the exercise.

Paul had dear friends and caregivers who knew him well. Few, however, knew the amount of time he spent every day for years forgiving people for the hurts he experienced. Each morning from about 6:30 until 10:00, Paul listened to Chopin preludes or nocturnes while doing the stretches that had been so much a part of his life since he was a teen learning to dance. Sprawled on the floor, he might touch his nose to his knees or hoist his legs over his head to touch his toes to the floor behind his head. During these moves, Paul thought about any hard feelings he harbored and forgave us for contributing to them. His caregivers, friends, and family greatly benefited from the wisdom of his actions. None, however, benefited as much as Paul and I did.

The High Holidays are usually very near Paul’s birthday, so we often talked about New Year, birthday, and forgiveness at this time of year. On his last Yom Kippur, I asked Paul if he wanted to apologize for anything. This, of course, was my teasing him. But, without missing a beat, Paul said, “Yes, I apologize.” When I asked him for specifics, he added, “For everything.” We both fell over laughing.

Paul was also a very sensuous and sexy man. On our first date, he did this thing with his eyes, opening them wider whenever our gaze met. I said to him, “You know, that isn’t going to work with me.” He responded, “It already has.” He was right. One day years ago, I asked him why he was putting a folding screen in front of the sliding doors that led from our foyer to the back yard. He said he didn’t want anyone watching while we had sex on the lawn. A half an hour later, a friend knocked on the gate to the yard and barged in. While I was working to throw a blanket over us, Paul just stood and said, “Hi.” He argued that it would be reasonable to expect we’d be making love on the lawn.

Two weeks after we met, my father died. Paul came over and hung out with me through the funeral so that I would not be alone. He encouraged me to join friends of mine to play Trivial Pursuits a few days later. That’s the night I got a bigger picture of Paul’s intelligence. He wiped us up with his knowledge of history, geography, geology, astronomy, botany, and the arts. Over the decades, I witnessed many times when he would dismantle an argument with some unsuspecting person through the force of fact and logic. Sometimes during these jousting matches, Paul would slightly turn down the very tip of his nose — how DID he do that? — as a sort of punctuation to his take down.

Paul was well-read, but cared little for contemporary fiction. He preferred science, biography, memoirs, and history. He enjoyed looking at modern classics in furniture and film, but was interested, too, in understand the history of the times in which they were created. In his last year, he could not read easily. Damage to his optic nerves made this important pastime nearly impossible for him. When he was hospitalized or in short stays in rehab facilities, he would let me read to him. Our last book was a history of ballet. Every few pages we would pause to talk about what we read, how it fit into his broad understanding of the field, and what he thought I should take away from the passage.

He loved the human form, but held as suspect any notion that it could be somehow perfected. Instead his nude drawings aimed to show the human form as beautiful in stylized ways that suggested appreciation for what is. His last self-portraits expressed the anguish of his experience of MS. They are stunning in their realness and unrestrained access to his deepest self.

Yes, I miss Paul terribly. But my sense of loss is surpassed by my experience of awe and appreciation. Many have acknowledged the strength of my commitment to Paul, having increasingly taken care of him over the last 14 years of his life. Perhaps I more than anyone else can acknowledge the strength of his commitment to me and to us. Before we started to live together, he told me than when he moved in it would be for life. His pledge to me was that he would do his absolute best to figure out whatever got in the way of our union. He did not let me down.

What a wonderful life to have witnessed!

One of our days

When Paul could see much better, he would read late into the night in our bed the etiology of rose breeds, a phone book of sorts -- no pictures, but in his mind...beauty.

February 14th was one of our days – just one of many days. We celebrated some Fridays, many Saturdays, our birthdays, Thanksgiving, the first and last days of Chanukah, and the first days of spring and winter. Most of the time we nodded to Pesach and Yom Kipper, but not always. For our first ten years together Paul and I celebrated Christmas, New Years, and sometimes Easter.

But February 14th brought cards and a special dinner for two at home.

In the earliest years together, Paul would sometimes have a ballet performance. In the latter years, I fed him. From the first to the last, they were glorious years.

This cubist painting of a heart was a Valentine from Paul in the 1990's. He would say, "An artist can never really be poor. He has his art."

This cubist painting of a heart was a Valentine from Paul in the 1990’s. He would say, “An artist can never really be poor. He has his art.”

Some may not know, but others can remember, that for the last several years of his life Paul devoted three or more hours each morning to stretching and doing his version of a barre class while on the floor. He most often listened to Chopin or the very beautiful voice of Cheyne Towers. Beneath any sound in the room, however, was Paul’s daily practice of forgiving us all. For everything.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! We’re free.

What a man!

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Paul Mandracchia, Artist, September 27, 1957 – December 24, 2014

 

Relentless in his self-appraisal, Paul addressed MS in his characteristic style.

Relentless in his self-appraisal, Paul addressed MS in his characteristic style.

 

This is my favorite dance photo of Paul. In 'The River' he is not the focus of what is going on here. He was rarely the focus of what was going on, but he stood out anyway as the sweetest, smart, handsome, kind man.

This is my favorite dance photo of Paul. In ‘The River’ he is not the focus of what is going on here. He was rarely the focus of what was going on, but he stood out anyway as the sweetest, smart, handsome, kind man.

 

Always new

Arrival is the culmination of the sequence of events, the last in the list, the terminal station, the end of the line. And the idea of arrival begets questions about the journey and how long it took. Did it take the dancer two hours to dance the ballet, or two hours plus six months of rehearsals, or two hours plus six months plus a life given over to becoming the instrument that could, over and over, draw lines and circles in the air with precision and grace?
— Rebecca Solnit, Arrival Gates, from Granta

Blog 9I learned — when? in the first few weeks or months of our love? — what a core of steely discipline was at the center of the man I loved. Paul did his own form of barre nearly every day after he first began to study ballet. He likely died in the midst of one these on December 24, 2014. Today I celebrate Paul’s 59th birthday with memories of his life with me, but I know that our lives together were a culmination of everything that went before in Phoenix, Tempe, and Madrid. In some ways it started, too, in Sicily and New Rochelle.

Paul was sweet, agnostic, resolute, foul-mouthed, vulnerable, protective, spiritual, intelligent, out-spoken, passionate, studied, fretting, proud, loyal, meticulous, determined, and fierce when we met. He became more of the best of these over our three decades.

img_2071Our birthdays, these anniversaries of our arrivals, were particularly special for Paul and me. We didn’t celebrate Christmas in any recognizable way. We had quite a few different dates for the anniversary of marriage. We marked Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, and Chanukah quietly and in our own way. Easter and Thanksgiving, once a big deal for us, got smaller as multiple sclerosis got bigger.

But our birthdays, these were different. We marked the arrival of our personal new years with just the two of us. I would make him whatever he fancied, almost always Thai salmon with a cabbage slaw and peanut sauce. He always made me watermelon soup and chiles en nogada. Every year, I gave him a pumpkin, too. He loved them, but could not exactly say why. He had wondered if they represented “back East” from whence his parents had come to Phoenix. He might have tried unsuccessfully to grow them in their yard or maybe in a Styrofoam cup in kindergarten. Whatever the source of his fascination with pumpkins, they bordered on magic.

…the sense that we are arriving all the time, that the present is a house into which we always have one foot, an apple we are just biting, a face we are just glimpsing for the first time. In Zen Buddhism you talk a lot about being in the present and being present. That present is an infinitely narrow space between the past and future, the zone in which the senses experience the world, in which you act, however much your mind may be mired in the past or racing into the future.
— Rebecca Solnit, Arrival Gates, from Granta

Blog 30Multiple sclerosis had a way of keeping us current. Paul would often stray into fretting about the future, turning his nights into nightmares and his days into tournaments that would aim at getting him well someday. I would often stray into the past, recalling how my father and mother delayed so much of their enjoyment until they’d retire, my father dying so soon after my mother left her job. Time and time again, we’d sit, hold hands, and remind each other to be here now. Paul would tell me to work because it was important to me, us, and the community. I would tell Paul to draw and paint because it was important to him, us, and the world.

As much as I hated those days and weeks when Paul was most ill, hospitalized, or in nursing homes, each brought us closer and closer together. Even the hour before the ambulance would arrive, we’d sit and talk about how we would know if this chill or fever was sufficient to get more help. In the last year of his life, he’d just say, “Be my bulldog right now.”

If Paul were alive today, I’d be eagerly awaiting tomorrow morning so I could tell him it was time to plan monthly birthdays for the next year. After all, turning 60 deserved a big bash. I reason that the month after our 59th birthdays, we arrive at our 60th year and do so every month until we arrive at the 60th birthday. Then, toward the end of Paul’s 60th year, we’d have a few months when he’d be 60, I’d be 70, and we would celebrate our 35th anniversary. Arriving at that big convergence would take planning.

What does it mean to arrive? The fruits of our labor, we say, the reward. The harvest, the home, the achievement, the completion, the satisfaction, the joy, the recognition, the consummation. Arrival is the reward, it’s the time you aspire to on the journey, it’s the end, but on the mountain south of Kyoto on a day just barely spring, on long paths whose only English guidance was a few plaques about not feeding the monkeys I never saw anyway, arrival seemed to be constant. Maybe it is.
— Rebecca Solnit, Arrival Gates, from Granta

One Dream

sleepy-boy-2This morning I awoke too early, tossed around uncomfortably for a couple of minutes, and fell back to sleep. It was a deep, deep sleep that included one dream.

My dream involved my incredible frustration over having to wait for nearly two hours at the local hardware store as my favorite clerk there talked, joked, putzed around, and did nearly everything but actually mix the paint that I wanted. Even as I write this, the details of the dream are fading. I know that it was approximately 11:00 AM in the fantasy. I had arrived shortly after 9:00. The final straw in this dream was realizing that when she was finally getting down to business and actually ready to approach doing some real work, the clerk waited on someone else whose needs could be more readily addressed than my paint order.

I spun on my heel and went to look for anyone else in the store to help me. Every guy there seemed useless to me and all wore perplexed expressions that registered their surprise about my very apparent frustration. As I head back to the paint counter to stew further in my impatience, I realize that I have no idea about the name of the color I need to have mixed or the type of sheen I am to order.

I woke. There was no one there to hear my dream.

Had Paul been alive, I would tell him my dream along with the comment that I have made to him scores of times, “You know I don’t remember my dreams. In fact, it is hard to believe that I dream at all.”

Today I would have added,

You know the woman, the one with the reddish hair at the hardware on … Wait, that place doesn’t exist! She doesn’t exist. I don’t have a long-lasting relationship with her as my favorite clerk. But I know I have dreamed about her often. Really often. It is like I know her!

I actually dream a lot. I have long struggled to recall my dreams upon waking. Instead, I incorporate those dreams into what I consider reality and only rarely — like this morning — I realize that chunks of my life are filled with people, places, and incidents I do not talk about with anyone else because they are not real. They only really exist between midnight and 5:00 AM while I am asleep next to Paul — who is no more.

He cannot hear my wonder and delight to know the richness of my fantasy life of vivid, recurring dreams populated with so many familiars.

 

Anniversaries

One summer I got married at least 20 times – possibly as many as twice that number. It wasn’t that my friend Kathy always wanted to get married, she just wanted to play house. But I followed the rules (‘Don’t just start playing at being married, you gotta GET married first.” This directive to my older siblings was meaningless to me at the time, but an imperative nonetheless.) and frequently initiated the nuptials. Tina, Kathy’s dachshund, was most often the unwilling witness to our vows. We took turns being bride and groom, largely because the former got the best lines and costuming.

The porch was our playground and our church. It was also the birthplace of my lifelong desire to be married. Thirty years later, on August 21, Paul and I met on Bradford Beach and commemorated the day ever after as our anniversary. We didn’t go out that evening, start dating, or even hold hands. We met.

Many middle-aged and older same-sex couple have several anniversaries. We celebrate the day we meet, the day we cohabitate, our commitment ceremony date, and – much more recently – the dates we marry. (Note: The dates we marry. Some of us registered our domestic partnerships, married in another state, and remarried when SCOTUS affirmed our constitutional right to marry.)

Today as I listen to an audio clip of an interview Paul and I did with Will Fellows for his Shall Not Be Recognized project, I am back at Bradford Beach in the season of local peaches and Michigan blueberries, high humidity, scorching sun, and freckles. The late summer garden is mine, and a period of profound wonder is about to begin.

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