It's been three nearly four weeks since I've been able to update my blog, I'm back again.
Christmas at home in WI was not an easy journey this year. I was able to go home on Christmas day, leaving the DC area on a 3am flight from Reagan National and arriving in Minneapolis/St.Paul by 8am. Luckily my mother and brother drove the three hours up to pick me up and drive the three hours to get home. I counted my blessings as I slept most of the drive home. I had not slept in two days prior to going home due to show work, and other odds and ends I was taking care of in DC. I got home around 12noon and walked into my great-aunt's bedroom and said: "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas! Santa brought me all the way to you!" and her response, which will live with me forever, was: "thank God you're home, finally."
That singular phrase would not mean much to me for 48 hours. We had Christmas dinner, opened presents, celebrated with the family and friends I hold dear, and eventually I passed out on the recliner in the living room, bogged down with two Jack Russell Terriers. I woke up, tried to eat something for supper, but accepted that I wouldn't find much, and went to bed, eager to have a cards night the following day, the day after Christmas.
December the 26th
I woke up, 10am, and we as a family decided to go to out shopping to see what leftover bargains could be found, that was a wasted trip, it was an apocalyptic scene, no one was out shopping, everyone was enjoying peace at home. Finally, I thought, maybe Capitalism had finally released some of its grip on my home towns. We ate lunch at the local mall, I had a childhood favorite, Coney Island hotdogs, it's a once in a blue moon treat that I have it, because they only exist in my hometown. Everyone else ate a smattering of foods from across the food court and we had ourselves a small family feast. We got home, prepped for the card party, and people arrived promptly for a festive fun evening.
The game went until 10pm, folks were tired, I forget the Midwest rolls up its streets much earlier than the East Coast. A high school friend of mine stopped over, and encouraged me to come to her home, so I packed up the card game, we jumped in my dad's truck, and I drove us over to what I will consider one of my fondest holiday memories ever. We had Moscow Mules, played cards, and shot the shit until the wee early morning hours. As I was packing to leave, someone mentioned that we hadn't fulfilled our promise to sing together the next time we were together. I had a wicked cough, and wasn't the first to think about singing, but as soon as I had some water flowing over my vocal chords I suddenly felt like singing. It was 3:45am, and here we were, singing Adele, Christmas Favorites, and anything we could get our hands on. Enjoy the sample of 4:40am singing, an out of tune piano, and some heavy processing I did in Logic:
Suddenly I realized that it was 5am. Yes, I was on vacation, but 5am, and being an older 20's seems to have made me an old coot. I gave my love to everyone, and headed out, into the brisk Wisconsin morning to get the 5 blocks home. I snuck in the house, afraid suddenly, as if I were a 15 year old getting caught for being out all night. I showered, and fell asleep, to this day, I don't know that I had a more fulfilling rest. My mother woke me up, it was nearly noon, and asked what I had done. I filled her in on the details, and that's when she broke the news to me that my great aunt was not doing well today.
Some folks know the story of how it came to pass that my great aunt and cousin moved in with us, but for those that do not, I will share it here. My great aunt was not in good health in 2012, Having previously had both knees and hips replaced, and then a shoulder replacement, she never quite recovered the way we all thought she would. Aunt Blanche was a force to be reckoned with, a strong, independent woman, there was no one who could tell her something she didn't want to hear. She was, in my humble opinion, the best cook in the world, she didn't need a restaurant, her home kitchen served as the finest eatery I'll have ever known. I was gearing up for Grad-School, one less person in our home in WI. I knew that it was becoming incredibly taxing on my cousin to be the sole care provider for someone who could not stand to walk to a bathroom more than 10 feet away, and we had my dad at home full time as he was retired. I saw a perfect opportunity then and there that my great aunt and cousin should come to WI and live with us. After a few phone calls, and realization that living in our home was going to be a better solution than a nursing home, they moved across the country back to the home land of Wisconsin. She settled in, and asked if it was okay to stay through the end, and of course it was.
Fast forward to the 27th of December, 2015. 12:00n.
I woke up, got pressed and dressed for the day, and stuck my head in the bedroom that Aunt Blanche had built onto our pre-existing home. My cousin Debbie looked at me, and I knew in that exact instant that nothing good was coming of that day. So I went in, I pulled up the bench next to her hospital bed, and she barely tracked me coming in the room to sit with her. I held her head and her hand and just hummed to her for a bit. She was gasping for air, in pain, and there was nothing we could do. She couldn't swallow pills, couldn't drink water, and there was a strange calmness that flooded me, I knew, perhaps more than anyone else, that it wouldn't be long. I sat down and Debbie and I started chatting. That's when my ears, bless them for being so alert, noticed a rhythmic change in Aunt Blanche's breathing, it became less regular, and more desperate, it lasted but a few seconds and then it stopped. Completely. As I held her in my arms, I felt an electric pulse run right up my arms and out through the top of my head.
For those who know me well, I don't share it often, but I do consider myself in tune with the other side, I have had more experiences than I can count where I have been visited by spirit, and by family from the other side. My dearest friend Tracy Hanley from home and I have had very long chats about my gifts, and what they entail, not only am I a healer, a mothering figure, and a medium, deep down, I think one of my strongest attributes is to help other people cross over to the other side. I can't explain how it feels in words, it is truly an out of body experience, to witness a passing through my eyes and through my soul.
When I went into Aunt Blanche's room, I could tell, I knew, and I like to think that our relatives were there, in that moment, not only guiding her soul through the shadow of death, but comforting us who were left behind. They are with us, if we take a moment to accept their embrace, even through the palls of different planes of existence. A feeling of a hand on a shoulder, the remembrance of a tight hug, those aren't just memories, not in my opinion.
I looked down at Aunt Blanche, she wasn't breathing, I felt for a pulse, there wasn't anything, her color slowly drained from her face, and I knew, of course I knew what it meant. I prayed over her body, I asked our past loved ones to take her, to guide her to freedom from a body that wouldn't work anymore, and they did. I felt her guiding my body through the day, the hardest day of my life. I got my dad, he broke down, he and my cousin had been her primary care takers for years, and suddenly, it was done. There was only a funeral home to call, my mother who had gone to work, and my brother, and the rest of our family and friends. It was a blur. While my dad was on the phone with my mom, he became unconsolable, that's when I started to lose it, thanks to my mother, I am a proxy crier as an adult. She had my dad give me the phone and she asked if I thought she should come home, The only words I could think of were; "if you even remotely want a chance at goodbye to her body, it's now or never." She burst into tears, and said she'd be right home. I called my brother at work, and he went catatonic, and then suddenly he was home. I went downstairs to a private location and burst into full blown hysterics. Here was the woman I call my hero, gone, gone forever. Gone from me, gone from being a phone call away, gone from being a Skype session away on my mom's computer, gone from being able to play a concert for in the other room, gone from cooking, gone.
Suddenly, and swiftly I regained my composure, Aunt Blanche in my mind saying: "I need you to be tough right now, I need you to do everything that we talked about when this would happen. I need you to take care of everyone." It was a pact she and I had made when I was 13. In the dying days of my maternal grandma I had no idea what was going on, until an adult finally slipped just enough that my quick brain figured out exactly that there was no getting better for her. I stormed out of her house, ran the four houses to my home, slammed the door, locked myself in my bedroom, and burst into a full meltdown. Grandma was my life, she was my all... it turns out old ladies are my spirit animal and my life. Pretty soon I heard a knock on my door. "It's me, it's Aunt Blanche, can I please come in?" "No!" I screamed, why would I allow someone who hid things from me, to now torture me? I'm not kidding here folks, she, at 70 something years of age, kicked down a full wooden door, literally busted the lock and everything to get in my room. I sat there, floored that she did it, but she ran in that room, scooped me into her arms, and held me so very close, and we talked about how much she was also going to miss my grandma, her sister. We talked about how life isn't fair. How we have to die. How we had to do everything we could to make her end of life exactly what we would want, because it wasn't fair that she wouldn't get to enjoy the last few days of her existence. We cried... we cried for an hour straight, just holding onto each other, I didn't know mature love for another person until that moment, I didn't know what it meant to feel your heart thump in your feet, telling you that it wasn't important to grieve before someone was gone, but rather to put on swim trunks, and put your grandmother in a tub, and sit behind her, so she didn't fall over, or get hurt. Aunt Blanche and I bathed her one last time together, we did her breathing treatments together, we made her food together, everything. And in that week of my grandma's passing we had chat, Aunt Blanche and I, about how she would never leave me until I got to be there with her when it happened, she promised me then and there, at 13 and 70 something that she would always wait for me and I would know when it would happen.
I did know. I knew that morning, I felt it, in my gut, in my mind, in my soul. I knew. Somehow, knowing seemed to make the day, the moment, manageable. I became less and less functioning as the afternoon wained on. 12:45pm, time of death. I had just awoken, I felt well enough to talk to people as they came through our house. But by 3pm, I had all I could do to stand. Grief flooding every corner of my body. My mother, cousin and I sat in the room after they had taken her body, all three of us, left alone to look at an empty hospital bed, the scent of her Japanese Cherry Blossom lotion still lingering in the air, or the Rice and Shea soap still caressing the hairs in my nose. Smells have a funny way of reconnecting us faster than any other sense. We three looked at each other, The closest people to my great aunt other than her husband who was waiting for her to get to the other side so they could go on trips again. We sat there, stood there, and tried to say something, but nothing would come out. Nothing could come out. Nothing but tears, tears and hugs, and knowing it was all better because of it. She wasn't trapped in an arthritic body that couldn't move, she wasn't in pain, she wasn't suffering any more... but it didn't make it easier. Of course it couldn't make it easier, grief is fickle like that, it finds a place to lock on, and it does not let go.
I looked out into our living room when my brother arrived home, and I saw him, and I just grabbed him and started hysterically bawling into his shoulder, I don't know why I trust him with my emotions as strictly as I do, but I think that with everything we've gone through together, he is perhaps one of the very few people in the entire planet who knows me to my core, knows why my heart ticks, knows why I am the way I am, has been through the loss of so many friends and family members. We sat there, for probably twenty minutes, me just bawling. Him, consoling me. And we made plans then, for when the next person goes. We figured out what needed to happen, what time frames would have to exist, etc. Odd isn't it? We don't think about those things before we need it, yet, perhaps, we should think about those thing the most?
Mom headed back to work, Mitch taking her, them going together and him being her rock as she soldiered through. My cousin Jason and I looked at our house, and I was continually bothered by the Christmas decor that was up. It felt wrong. It felt abhorrently wrong that the cheer of Christmas would still be up in now the largest grief of my life. So I asked my cousin if he would help me take it all down. At first he was very skeptical, and then things clicked, he understood, the memories and the love of Christmas was mine and Aunt Blanche's, no one in my family loves Christmas more than she and I do/did. We took down ornaments, helped my cousin Debbie to take down things in Aunt Blanche's room, and we cleaned. Funny how cleaning touches the soul at its innermost core, as if to say; "the is how you feel better, you sweep, you mop, you put away happiness, and you unload grief, decorate your home in grief, decorate your daily life in it, because it will be here longer than you want."
Quickly night settled in on our house, and so did a foot and a half of snow. I just sat there, at home, all day, on Monday the 28th. I watched it snow, I watched that snow fall in waves. I took my cousin to the funeral home to settle everything, my great aunt and great uncle had previously paid for a service that took their ashes out to international waters and set them adrift, traveling at sea together, for the rest of eternity. Fitting, as they had traveled to all 7 continents, had seen I think, quite literally everything there was to see in Europe, Asia, Russia, Australia, Antarctica, The polar bears in Churchill, Canada, had cruised to so many locations I don't even know. It was so fast, so simple, so quick. The benefits of small towns, the people know each other, they respect your time, and when you work for the funeral home as one of their caterers for events, you get the staff who consoles you in the hardest times of your life. I drove us back home. Put on PJ's, and let the snow fall mesmerize me.
Tuesday, Dec 29th. The last day at home in 2015.
I didn't know what to do. Part of me felt the inherent need to stay behind, to grieve as our family grieves, but the other half of me knew that I needed to come back to DC, to put the pieces together, to get over being sick, to heal, to sleep, to just try to start again. I had the support of everyone in my shows and my apartment that they would be willing to help in any capacity. And I didn't know how to even start to thank people. I spent the day with my parents, we stayed close together. I don't think they left me alone by myself all day, and for that I am grateful. I needed to be with my core family, I needed stability as I lay there, foundering, unable to emotionally know my own life. I packed, I put away my bedroom at home once again, I tried to keep my chin up, but it only felt like it was being pulled down.
Wednesday. Dec 30th. Leaving the familiarity of home, and being guided by angels.
Travel day. I don't mind traveling, in fact, it's actually my favorite thing to do, sure planes get boring and old, but you know, first class tickets help that to not feel so awful. I got to MSP just fine from La Crosse, but as I sat there, trying to eat some ChickFilA breakfast, which is normally never an issue, I had lost the will to eat. They boarded first class cabin on my flight from MSP to DCA, and I got settled, I asked the attendant for some of Delta's biscoff cookies, and a sprite, my tummy was not having it. Aunt Blanche popped into my head, Sprite, Toast, Dramamine and something sweet, and you'll feel okay to fly. Sure enough, I settled in, and we had a closed door... when all of a sudden we heard knocking on the aircraft door... they forgot the pilots. We waited a bit, and I had a phone call come through, a UNCSA alumnus who I was working with the following day called to check on me. My network, my strength away from home, already kicking in, we chatted for a bit, and settled some speaker locations, and we got the go ahead to take off, so I quickly put away my cell, and relaxed back into my seat. I didn't just relax, I passed out. For almost an hour, I didn't wake up until I felt my whole body drift over onto the poor business guy sitting next to me. I woke up and said; "Oh my God, I am so sorry I didn't mean to fall over on you." He calmly responded: "Don't you worry about it, you look like you need to sleep, and if I can be a shoulder to help, you just fall asleep." Kindness from strangers, is severely under appreciated in this country. The flight attendant for first class noticed I was awake, and asked me if I would like my low-sodium meal, and I groggily said sure. Pretty soon, I had all of the cabin crew at my seat chatting with me about how they had all wanted to try the meal because it looked like one of the best options that they had ever seen. It was really good, a turkey ciabatta sandwich with roasted veggies, a cucumber salad, and fruit bowl, was really yummy! My attendant came over and leaned down, and said she was glad I woke up, everyone was getting hungry. I thanked her for her hospitatlity, and then I burst into tears, in the middle of my meal, in the middle of these fine elegant folks... just a full blown melt down. The attendant quickly hugged me and asked what was wrong. I told her about how all the stories that I have while traveling was the thing that connected me the most to my great aunt who had just passed away in my arms two days prior, she squeezed me so tight in a hug and told me it was okay to cry, that she knew that it couldn't be easy to have gone through that, and that she was there for me throughout the whole flight. I quickly regained my composure, but couldn't thank that woman enough if my life depended on it. The kindness of strangers, appreciated more than words exist in the dictionary.
I landed in DCA, got my black-car service home, and shoved all three huge suitcases in my bedroom, Unpacked, and fell asleep, I slept for 19 hours, straight. I woke up one time to get a drink of water. 5pm the next day, I walked out into our kitchen of the apartment, and my roommates sat there, and just waited for me to say something, and all I could do was say thank you. I had no words, I had hit rock bottom. They helped me make something to eat, I barely ate whatever it was that we made, and I went back to sleep for another 14 hours. I didn't know how much sleep I needed, but it came like a welcomed friend. New Years Eve was spent with friends in Fairfax, VA, we made dinner, counted down to midnight, I hung around for a few minutes, and then I drove myself home, to sleep again for another 12 hours. My poor body, riddled with whatever plague decided to leach my soul from, and then grief, it was an impossible combination.
I went into work the next day, to check on things, and the theatre community surrounded me in love and compassion. I came in, hoping to help in some small way to get things up, but it was nearly completed, something I "shouldn't have to worry about in my state." and "if there's anything, and we mean anything at all we can do, let us know." I tell you my friends, colleagues, and strangers I've never met before, if you ever doubt that there is a bond stronger than love and compassion, I will give you the experience I've had, and you will know its power.
I recouped, slowly, assuredly, took one day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, made design choices that seemed logical, started to get back on the saddle, and started to move forward. It wasn't easy, the slightest thing made my mind wander and I felt pulled in 1000 directions, but I focused. I put on my blinders to the rest of the world and just hunkered down in the familiarity of tech, of being with art and music.
January 7th... I got a letter from my dear Penny Nollenberger, a woman who knew Aunt Blanche as nearly and dearly as our family had. I got my first sympathy card, ever. Just to me. When we had spoken while I was at home in WI, we talked for an hour on the phone. About how much Aunt Blanche loved me, how proud of me she was, and how much I was going places, but we also shared memories, we talked about memorial trips we should do, we connected as family again. Then I opened the card... four minutes before heading out to tech. I read the card: " Justin, wishing you a blessed New Year. Please keep in touch, as we are family forever because of our precious Blanche, You are in our thoughts and prayers as you walk through the loss of Blanche. She will be forever missed. She was so proud of you and loved you a lot - she told me this many times. Sending you all of our love." and as I sat in my car, bawling my eyes out, I noticed a small, laminated green piece of paper, whose writing I will leave you all with:
Love Leaves a Memory.
Those we love don't go away.
They walk beside us every day,
unseen, unheard, but always near.
Still loved, still missed, and very dear.
For death leaves a heartache,
no one can heal,
and love leaves a memory
no one can steal!