" Having experienced the depths of gut-wrenching grief, I exult in the exquisiteness of joy."
- Meryl Hershey Beck
The Holidays are always the hardest after you lose a loved one, with the first one being the toughest. When I lost my first partner Ali to AIDS in 1992-ish at the ripe old age of 30- something, in “The City of Angels” where I was residing at the time, (ironic, NO?) I knew that, spread out before me like an old chenille bed cover, lay a rough road ahead. I needed a plan if I was to survive the oncoming “storm” and quick. I saw the angry clouds gathering and approaching rapidly and felt the sudden drop in temperature.” This could get ugly,” I thought out loud to myself. Planning ANYTHING was a tall order at the time, as my brain felt like it had been thrown into a Westinghouse blender and turned on to the “juicing” cycle.
I had spent some 29 years of white Christmas’, Rockefeller Center skaters, Macy’s, Bergdorf’s, Bloomies, Barney’s, Sach’s, and Bendel’s, holiday window display “wars,” sleigh bells, snow angels and chestnuts roasting on some street vendor’s steamy cart in the “Big Apple.” It was a difficult and strange transition upon my arrival into the “Hollywood Nights, Hollywood Hills” and those ole holiday blues. At least, that’s what it was for me. My first winter in Los Angeles was so surreal in comparison to my body memory’s recall of what it should be, and had been. Palm trees and blinking holiday lights seemed like oil and vinegar to me, they just didn’t seem to go together. Seventy degrees did not give me ample opportunity to sport one of my fine wool sweaters and “what’s with those corduroy shorts?” I wondered. The reality however, is that I was never fond of the Holidays as it was. I had a hard time understanding how presents under the pine tree had anything to do with this poor baby, somewhere in the middle of the desert. I must be missing something, I thought to myself.
I grew to love the California desert in winter. Ali and I had made a trek out to 29 Palms California, one of our first winters together. If you have never experienced Joshua Tree National Park in the middle of winter- add it to your bucket list. It is pure Magic. I was so much at home there, it was such a cozy, familiar feeling and yet I had never been there before, in this lifetime anyway. Make NO mistake though, I was home. My “roots” ran deep there. I was grounded, planted. There was a lite snow falling, a bitter chill in the air and the landscape of huge rocks, boulders and odd plant life, made me feel like I was on the moon or even better, mars perhaps. Ali and I released our inner boyishness, laughing and playing among the stately Joshua trees, saguaro cactus and random desert creatures. They mostly looked on, watched closely and observed our youthful behavior. There was no judgement from them though. After we had our fill of climbing rocks, sassing each other and drinking in one another’s unquenchable companionship, we returned to our cozy adobe cabin and warm fireplace, at the 29 Palms Inn, the icing on the “desert experience cake.” At night, the only light would be from the fireplace. We wrapped a soft, fluffy blanket around our naked bodies and watched the trams in Palm Springs climb the San Jacinto mountains some 50 miles away, from our modest window. They would deposit the excited tourists at the peak of the snow-covered, majestic mountain. We would be one of those tourists partaking in that ritual the very next day. We spent the rest of the night talking, sharing, dreaming, laughing and sighing to the soundtrack of a cracklin’ fire. “Perhaps THIS is that ‘bright, elusive butterfly of love’ that Bob Lind sang about in 1966?” I thought to myself.
My “mariposa” would die a few years later, on April 19th, at the hands of the “purple avenger.” I spent the next 6 months or so trying to sort out what had just happened, as it all took place rather quickly. After the allotted two weeks bereavement leave, I returned to my job at MoCa, Los Angeles to a very supportive and understanding administration and took solace in the beauty and serenity of the artwork that filled the galleries. The familiar works that I had grown up with and come to know intimately during my life, surrounded and comforted me. They assured me I would be ok. I trusted and believed them. The intelligent, sardonic, hysterical and VERY off beat cast of characters that were employed there, entertained me, befriended me and kept me very closely under their beautifully adorned wings. Laughter is SO good for the soul and the broken hearted. They made it all bearable, even though it was all UNBEARABLE. Sure, in retrospect, I guess I could’ve done things different or handled things better, but, oh well... “I am not one to cry over my beer.” That was one piece of advice from my father that I took to heart. (Shout out to pops in Heaven)
My artwork at that time became focused on the functions of the body because I had, like most gay men of my generation, became very knowledgeable about our bodies, obsessed- because we were forced to. It was literally, the meaning of life and death. We were the only ones that had each other’s backs except of course for the brave, bold army of big hearted lesbian nurses fighting on the front lines both WITH and FOR us. (Shout out of gratitude to my “Sisters.”) When the Healthcare System first turned its backs on our Community out of fear, they were no longer our allies. helping to nurse and soothe all the broken hearts and Souls of our “village people.” We had been cast out of the “kingdom” like the lepers before us.
I spent much of my free time exploring each inch of the flesh on my body, in search of any sign of the “purple avenger,” known as “Karposi Sarcoma” AKA “The GAY Cancer.” It was an unwelcome ”tattoo,” that I would become quite intimate with, and not by choice. One day I came home from work, climbed the hundreds of stone stairs that spiraled up towards the smoggy skies and delivered me to my apt on De Longpre Avenue, lovingly known as “the tree house.” It WAS after all, “A Silverlake Life.” I “gayzed” in the mirror after relieving my bloated bladder and noticed a purplish black mark on the side of my neck, which was not familiar to me. I pulled my black tee shirt violently upward over my head, stretching the cheap seams to their limits, and threw it to the cracked, linoleum floor. “OH GOD, NO ,NO, NO” I shouted angrily, hysterically. I thought that my time had arrived, at last. I grasped the skin between my thumb and fore finger pinching and scratching at it only to realize that it was the dye from my new black tee shirt that had rubbed off on a rough patch of flesh. I started laughing loudly, maniacally. I had dodged that damn bullet yet again. Soon my supersonic outburst, slowly and very, very gradually softened into a whimpering fountain of hurt, pain and that huge void known as loss. I dropped to the floor like a wet towel and stayed there until I gathered enough “starch” in my body to stand myself back up erect, like a freshly ironed collar. I was alone again, now. I leaned on to the rust stained, porcelain sink with both hands. I “gayzed”, deeply into the two stormy, blue eyes that I came to recognize as my own. I stood there for a few minutes while I visually searched the reflection of the broken Soul in the mirror staring back at me. I wiped the tears and snot from my face and asked inquisitively “Why the fuck, am I still here?”
I had decided to switch my diet to only raw vegetables and started inhaling and consuming huge amounts of health literature, in pursuit of longevity. Dick Gregory and the Braggs, became my foundation. I eased into the discipline of fasting. Water and lemon juice only. I started out doing half days, then 1 day fasts. Those were stretched into two day fasts until I was able to make it to a 3 day fast. I spent most of my day making short hikes, back and forth to the rest room, releasing all of that H2o that I had just consumed. For treats I drank dandelion and Pao d’arco tea, aloe vera and wheat grass juice. I was losing a lot of weight which is part of the process. I knew people around me were growing concerned and I noticed a few looks that I recognized as fear or terror of the oncoming arrival of “the plague.” Funny thing though was that I had never felt so good in my entire life, well physically anyway. As the Holidays grew closer, I knew that I wanted to escape and seek solitude. I decided I would return to the sacred desert not far from 29 Palms and found a wonderful retreat Center that hosted a 5 day fast over the week of Christmas, in the town of Hot Springs, California. Colonics had also became part of my regimen, to help sweep and clear out any and all hitch hiking toxins that my body had picked up along the highways of both “The Big Apple” and “The City of Angels.” Nature’s Broom. The retreat would consist of a daily colonic, massage, yoga, minerals, vegetable juices, hot tubs, solitude and inner exploration for 5 days. BINGO- NIRVANA!!
The decision to “drop out” for the Holidays that year was probably THE , best decision that I made in my entire life. Somehow, removing myself from my familiar surroundings and the holiday madness, also removed me from the tumultuous emotions that had taken up residence when grief “came o’ callin.” The accommodations at the Retreat Center, were modest. I stayed in one of several trailers on the property and while there was the possibility of a roomie, I lucked out and had the place all to myself. There were probably about 6-8 people staying there, from all different walks of life and all living in the U.S, except for one older gentleman, who drove down from British Columbia, Canada. One of the women who were staying there was going through a drama with her mother on the phone. Her mother was freaking out that she was going on a 5 day fast and was ordering her to leave immediately even though this woman was in her thirties. She wound up leaving, unfortunately for her. Her mother had convinced her to leave. I had the sense that she was there BECAUSE of her mother. Not my path or Journey. We all have to walk our own. It was a very friendly and casual atmosphere and the woman who ran it, Susanne was both delightful and knowledgeable. It was a bit of a time warp. It felt like we had all decided that we needed to be held in “sacred space”, all for different reasons. I did much sleeping as one does when detoxing and most of the time I was groggy, introspective and quiet. I did some reading listened to music and enjoyed the feeling of not having anything to do except yoga in the morning, colonic and massage in the afternoon and hot tub before bed. When Christmas day rolled around on Day 4 of the fast, I was up early and decided to go for a walk alone in the bitter, morning desert air. The frigid oxygen that I inhaled into my nasal passages and that inflated my lungs was rejuvenating. The wind was howling and blowing sand into my face incessantly as I was walking. After hiking for about twenty minutes or so, out into the wide open yonder, I thought that I had heard someone call my name. Perhaps it was one of the other guests that had seen me out wandering and came to join me. We had all grown very close, over the previous days. I turned to look, but no one was there. I surveyed the landscape in all directions and saw no one. I stood still, closed my eyes and listened as the winds howled and whistled. I was sure that I had recognized the sound of my late partner’s voice this time. “Feletti?” I asked rather humbly out loud and laughed. (His birth name was actually Alifeletti) An intuitive that I once visited described him as a “ruggedly, handsome man with a name like a song.” That sure summed him up.“Are you here coconut head?” I suddenly felt chills and shivers overtake my body as I giggled and turned round and round in chaotic circles. I had the sense that I was inside a “snow globe” and he was watching me from the other side. “HEY, where are you? I MISS you ya’ mo’fo’! “ Are you really here or am I losing it?” I was shouting upward towards the grey, blustery sky. “Please let me know, I NEED to know” I pleaded. As I did, I heard him say “lay on the ground.” Without hesitation, I crouched down on my knees and felt the burning, cold sand on the palms of my hands. I then laid my belly in the sand and turned my head to rest my cheek flat on the desert floor as well. When I did this, I felt as though we were together again and he was caressing my near-frozen face. It was the familiarity of him, without the presence of him. “Are you really here somehow?” I raised my head and rested my chin into the winter sand storm. I felt a sense of “purity” around me, a “holiness.” As I watched the sand swirl and dance with the wind, I realized that I “felt” him. I “felt” him in each grain of sand. I “felt” him in each tiny snowflake. I “felt” him in the wind, the sky, the clouds, the cacti, the stones, the jack rabbits scurrying by- I “felt” him in everything. I heard his unmistakable giggle and then he said “I am everywhere.” I was so overcome with emotions that I was unsure what to do. “I KNOW you are, I can FEEL you everywhere,” I said. “I am not quite sure I understand how this is possible” I said, but “It feels so good to be with you in this new way but it just makes me miss you even more,” I whispered to him softly. I know that you are happy again and that you are with your Mom and that means so much to me. “It is so hard here without you though. I am REALLY struggling” my voice quivered and cracked as I spoke. “Thank-you for showing me this though and for letting me feel your love again, I REALLY need it right now.” I almost felt embarrassed hearing myself confess that out loud to him. It was that Irish Catholic up-bringing. “You are still as beautiful as always inside and out, even though I can’t see you.” I whispered into the desert floor as I watched an ant cling to the miniscule grains of sand as my hot, exhaled breath blew him off course. I heard my “mariposa” giggle and saw his bright, comforting smile in my mind’s eye. There was a sudden gust of wind that swirled around me and then the desert became very still. I wiped the sand from my eyes and nostrils and lay there for a few minutes trying to make sure that I was not asleep and that this reunion really happened. I knew he had gone, as he never DID like saying good byes. “It DID,” I said giggling. “It did, Holy Shit!” I now felt his abandon and my solitude return once again. “HOLY SHIT!” I stretched my arms upward toward the churning heavens, softly sauntering across the sandy desert dance floor and waved my goodbyes. I screamed “I LOVE YOU” in his native tongue, which he had taught me before he had transitioned. I would repeat it to his Sister at his funeral, to let her know and make it quite clear that he spoke those words to me and that was what we meant to each other. I still use that phrase today as my mantra when doing energy work on my clients and of course whenever he stops by for a visit, which is quite often. We all need to hear that we are loved, no matter what language it is in. I took a few deep breaths, put my hands on my knees and hunched over for a few minutes trying to process what I had just learned and to catch my breath. I then, stood erect like a freshly starched collar, wiped my runny nose and watery eyes and set sail on the snowy winds, back towards my trailer. With a wide grin firmly planted on my face, I followed the morning star, shining high above the desert, back to where everyone had begun to gather. God Bless us everyone!