Like most children of the 80s, I grew up on John Hughes' movies. The Breakfast Club is my favorite. The movie is about a group of teens who are stuck at school on a Saturday serving detention. There is a jock, an outcast, a rebel, a nerd and a good girl. They start out disliking each other. They have so many differences and run in different cliques. But there is nothing like a common enemy to make fast friends and they unite against the domineering principal under whose watchful eye they are told to do nothing but sit. They do everything but sit and by the end have become best buds and then some. The squeaky clean jock pairs up with the disheveled basket case, and the rough hewn rebel makes sweet love to the little miss prom queen. Sweet love in the non-coital sense. Thinking of all the teen angst and turmoil that filled the film, I never imagined I'd be living these same emotions ever, much less when I am over twice their age! But when a loved one dies, a vacuum is created, and nature abhors a vacuum. And so I vacuumed my mother's carpet, because I enjoy it, and irony.
I also cleaned. I got a cold call from ABC, the association of blind citizens, asking me if I had any stuff to donate. Each week since my mother's passing last month I have taken it upon myself to fill three garbage bins full of junk. She lived in this house for nearly 40 years, raised 3 boys, 2 step kids, and lots of friends, and hardly ever gave much away. Besides mom was a bit of a pack rat. When it was time to update her dish set, rather than give the old one away or discard it, she'd store it in some closet, cupboard or garage shelf. As her kids moved out and moved on more closets were freed up, until at her death she had taken over the house. Even the room I use as an office was filled with her old clothes. Was, because I've given the stuff away. ABC represented a good opportunity to unite my love of clutterlessness with charity (and charity was my mother's pet) and so I took up the ABC and agreed to set out as many books, clothing and dishware as I could fill into the few boxes I have. And I felt like my mother was blessing me from above. A week before she died she asked me to clean out the shed behind her room. Just throw the stuff away, she said. It has waited this long, it can wait until after (you're dead), I said. And cleaning is cathartic. As I sift through the riff raff, I am having a relationship with my mom, even if is by fingering the soft fabric of those ridiculously colored padded blazers from the late 80s, and she had tons of them. And my stuff isn't immune. I have also cleaned out my bedroom and office closet. Spring cleaning in summer.
In the shed I found boxes of old books my mom had insisted I give away, tomes purchased before my birth, and so I carried them to the door, going through the titles as I went. Some of the books were mine. A collection of ETA Hoffman tales caught my eye. I purchased it in 2003 after I had fallen in love with the author's mix of fancy and profundity in The Tomcat Murr (wherein the memoirs of a well-fed dandy of a house cat are mingled with those of a classic composer), but I never did read it all. The prose is very labyrinthine and ornate. Not unlike these words I write. Certainly not the type of book you'd read on the treadmill, as I tried to do when I had that Bally's membership. I decided to keep the book and opened it up in bed. Twelve years later I found the going just as slow. My mind would wander as I reread passages several times. But one passage caught my eye, because it captured the teenage angst so reminiscent of Hughes' films, which is also what I've been feeling, not to mention an all-too common phenomenon.
"Have you ever had hours," Hoffman in a characteristic parenthesis asks his reader - "perhaps even days or weeks, in which all your customary activities did nothing but cause you vexation and dissatisfaction; when everything that you usually consider worthy and important seemed trivial and worthless? At such a time you did not know what to do or where to turn. A dim feeling pervaded your breast that you had higher desires that must be fulfilled, desires that transcended the pleasures of this world, yet desires which your spirit, like a cowed child, did not even dare to utter. In this longing for an unknown Something, which longing hovered above you no matter where you were, like an airy dream with thin transparent forms that melted away each time you tried to examine them, you had no voice for the world about you. You passed to and fro with troubled look, like a hopeless lover, and no matter what you saw being attempted or attained in the bustle of varied existence, it awakened no sorrow or joy in you. It was as if you had no share in this sublunary world."
We come to find that the story's protagonist, the Student Anselmus, had been feeling this same way, like the characters of a John Hughes film stuck in detention. And like me. In a phrase, like a hopeless lover.
Bereavement is a strange thing. It is different for each person. How long should it take to "get over" the passing of someone so near and dear? I've heard 3 months, 1 year. Some say you never get over it, though some days are not as bad as others. I wish it were more definite. I've broken bones and had the doctor tell me after surgery, "You cannot bear weight on that leg for 8 weeks. We will then take an X-ray and if the bone has healed you may resume walking again, but you won't feel yourself for another 10 months at least." Okay, I can live with that, because I know! Really it took me a year and a half to feel fully myself again, but true to the doctor's prognosis I was running shortly after he said I could. But this bereavement thing is a whole different beast. Because the pain is emotional, one might even say spiritual, in nature. And you find yourself off balance, acting strangely, doing things a kid may not even do. Like the hopeless lover, I have often wondered since my mother's demise, "What am I living for?" About a week after she left her body I luckily threw out the liquid morphine and Xanax hospice had given her (and which she never needed). I say luckily because there have been some nights, and the small hours between 1 and 5 are the hardest, when if I had a vial of strong stuff by my bed I may have bolted it in one swig. There is a time for being and a time for doing, and I needed to act.
Permit me this digression, but Buddha left his wife and young son on a quest for enlightenment. When he attained nirvana, he never returned to his home. Instead he went on pilgrimages to instruct strangers on seeing the light and ending their suffering. Years ago I vowed to be like Buddha, only in reverse, if this is possible. To attain enlightenment and then to have a wife and kids. I know holy personages are notoriously unaffiliated, childless and often unmarried. But it doesn't have to be this way, or I didn't think so when I recently poured out my feelings, put myself on the line, and became fully vulnerable to someone I care a lot about. The thinking went like this: I am now at the top of my game, in better physical shape than I have ever been, with advanced degrees and a prodigious literary output and standing on my own two feet perhaps for the first time in my life. (Although these are feet my mother bequeathed to me.) Maybe the time to share who I am with another, to become perfect and complete with somebody else, has arrived. I felt this on Monday morning when I awoke with a curious desire to read Shakespeare's sonnets, the first 10 of which urged me to marry and have children. Shakespeare was born the day after my mother (obviously not the same year). Was my mom speaking through the great writer?
So I asked a girl I had been seeing to marry me. Not in so many words, mind you. But to spend forever together and share our sorrows and joys and have the kids and all else that comes when you think of marriage. She told me to get lost. In large part because we hadn't spoken in the intervening 10 days, largely due to the (rather insignificant, or so it seemed at the time to me) fact of my disappearing. I stopped calling because I needed to be alone, and after doing an inventory of reasons for and against being with this cutie, and seeing the cons outweigh the pros by a ratio of 4 to 1, my head said pull back. Despite the fact that one of the pros had been good sex. But absence can make the heart grow fonder and in those 10 days my heart said full steam ahead. She wasn't having it. I have moved on, she said. But we can be friends. And maybe work together. I don't know if I can trust a work partner whose opinion of what constitutes good sex so differs from my own.
But the other day when we had that coffee conversation so stormy it well could have been our last, I decided to love her the way my mother loved me, to shower her with affection (I almost wrote kill her with kindness), and to offer to make her wishes come true, even if they didn't involve me. This would include buying her macaroons from her favorite store, which is set to open soon, whenever I see her, if ever. Doing things like kayaking and horseback riding and bike riding. And never asking for even one kiss. I probably make a better friend than boyfriend, even I know that. Ask 10 people who have been in love whether they are still with their beloved and over half will say no. Ask 10 people about their best friends and almost all will still be hanging out. Friendship doesn't fade.
I told her she is my favorite person in the whole world, that I want to love her like a father, brother and friend. "I ask only one thing," says I. "That you let me love you." I felt like I had attained the world when her face lit up in the smile I had been missing. And, something that was new for me, I accompanied her back to her apartment and sat on her bed as she got dressed and applied her makeup for a big night out at a fancy magazine premier. I gave her my undivided attention, and my feedback, and she actually took it! I had never done that before, not even with a girlfriend. And you know what? It was better than sex!
Maybe I'm not the romantic type. In a relationship I am often too busy doing my own thing to be fully concerned with another. No longer. I had instantly become a better man. And when I dropped her off at her engagement with a compliment and a kiss I felt I'd learned a valuable lesson: how to love unconditionally. She hadn't been easy to love in the heat of our recent argument. In truth I felt like storming out of the coffee shop, something I have done before. But rather than react, I responded to her cutting remarks with compliments and soothing words. And in the end she thanked me for our time together and called me dreamy. My mother would be proud.
And this is how I made a friend of my former flame. I didn't expect her to take me back, which may have made it easier for me to profess my love for her. Often the best way to part ways with someone is to give them what they want, but not necessarily when they want it. The keepers forgive imperfect timing. The keepers are game. It seems my erstwhile squeeze turned partner and friend is not my keeper. And even if I hadn't disappointed her by not calling - and what relationship is immune to disappointment, and don't we learn about another during crisis, not when we give them what they want but when we fail to perfectly please? - even if I hadn't disappointed her, maybe she never even saw me as a keeper or wished for us to be together long term. Maybe I was just a fling. And with odds of 4 to 1 against, perhaps it ended for the best. Damn that word perhaps! It's so gray!
Nevertheless during blacker moods I found myself complaining to myself that "my mom would never have abandoned me like this girl has." But not everyone can love me with a mother's love. Can anyone? Jury is still out. But in the meantime, I can love others the way I want to be loved, doting on them like a parent, showering them with attention and affection. And isn't the biggest boon you can give another simply your undivided attention? In this restless age especially. They say it's better to love than be loved, and really, a slice of humble pie isn't all that bad. It doesn't make you fat, and it builds character.
At the end of my favorite Hughes film, the brain, played by Anthony Michael Hall, is tasked with writing an essay about all that the group of misfits turned mates have learned on their day in detention. As we see the other two couples stroll into the sunset hand in hand, Hall is busy at the desk scribbling the final phrases (which he reads to the audience in voice over). Then he kisses the printed page, content with having written what he sees as a masterpiece. "See, even the nerd didn't wind up alone," my mother said thirty years ago when we watched the movie together. "Because he has his story." And I was happy for our writer, because writers need love too, and it's tough to be lonely. But I'm not lonely even without a sweetheart. Because this story is pretty sweet, and I offer it to you.