March 12, 2016

flowersIn the last two weeks, two friends died in separate, unrelated car accidents. Dealing with their deaths pushed me into a sad, heightened state of self-awareness. Missing them makes me realize that all true friendships are precious. Sharing about them now is the only way to keep them close.

They taught me stuff I didn’t know about love.

Writing about specific people in my life gets tricky. Not everyone likes the attention. But Paul Golio, 52, loved the fact that I blogged. So it’s an honor to mention him by name. He was a huge bear of a man, a  colorful local character who worked the receptionist desk at Dobbs Ferry Animal Hospital. Over the million years that I’ve been taking my three cats and dog there, we’d talk in the waiting room and encourage each other to stay creative.

He always told me to believe in my writing and updated me on his latest gigs; Paul was a ventriloquist with a cartoonish Mae West-inspired dummy and a tiny white Maltese dog named Mae. When it came time to put down my ancient, ailing dog and one of the cats, Paul knew how to comfort me was as I sat in the waiting room, sobbing.

He taught me stuff I didn’t know about love.

Now it’s my turn to cry for Paul. He was on his way to work when a car hit him as he crossed busy Ashford Avenue. From local news accounts and social media, I learned about the brutal aftermath: brain damage, broken bones, stroke, pneumonia, medically-induced coma. All this, in the one week before he slipped into death. During this week, a GoFundMe to raise money to cover his medical bills has so far raised more than $43,000 from more than 600 people who knew him and loved him.

The other friend I’ve lost is harder to write about because she treasured her privacy. Let’s call her M*. We met nearly a quarter century ago in my first life. Our husbands were buddies, throwing us together as young wives. Back then, my definition of friendship was narrow. I was the Chinatown native with white friends from work but very few non-Asian personal friends. I didn’t feel much of a bond with M*, a white girl originally from small-town America. She thought otherwise and made me and my husband the godparents to their two kids.

“If anything ever happens to me,” she said, looking me directly in the eye, “I want to know you’ll be there.”

She still felt that way, even after my divorce in 2000. So I kept sending the godchildren presents on their birthdays. Once, as a newly single mom, I flew out to visit her. By that time, she and her family had moved far from New York. We talked about the past with a new heart-to-heart openness. “I always felt you never really liked me,” she said, “but I always thought the world of you.” I melted, right there.

She taught me stuff I didn’t know about love.

Over the next few years, we’d talk on the phone around the time of the kids’ birthdays. Gradually though, contact faded away. Beyond sending an annual gift card to her son, the connection to M* and her family felt barely there.

Then two weeks ago, my goddaughter texted me out of nowhere. Her brother had just been injured in a car crash that instantly killed their mom. She didn’t ask to see me. Still, I knew exactly what to do.

Flying out to spend a weekend with them felt awkward. But they made me feel so welcome. What a privilege to be included in their crisis, to hug my grieving, traumatized godchildren and their dad. I met so many of their friends and relatives, people I used to hear about and knew by name. At one point, my goddaughter, now a mature young woman, listed all the birthday gifts from me that she still saved. And, thank God, my godson — now much taller than me — is expected to make a full physical recovery.

These days, I struggle to accept a new normal. I am passing through an unfamiliar but important new door.

My departed friends taught me stuff I didn’t know about love.

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Until two weeks ago, I defined “friends” as those in my current, inner circle. Now, I understand that people who believe in me at whatever level we interact — they are friends. Whatever I give to them from the richness of my own life counts as friendship too.

I am struggling to accept that they are still with me, just in a different way. On that note, I especially like a passage posted on Paul’s “Prayers for Paul” Facebook page. Of course, as someone who teaches writing, I want to change the clunky use of “I am I” to “I am me” in the passage below. But that’s nit-picking in what is otherwise, a very powerful piece of thinking. It might speak to you too, if you’re missing someone special:

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Paul and M* have crossed to the other side. They have died, just like my parents, my beloved dog and my old cat. They are still with me as I find fresh meaning in fond memories. Every single one of them continues to teach me stuff I didn’t know about love.

Loving people are there in each of our lives, offering care and kindness. We might not count them as friends because we take their presence for granted. Like me, you might foolishly discount them because you don’t consider them “close.” But “closeness” is a deceptive concept. In reality, intimacy is the act of living and giving in the moment, in ways large and small. That’s my new definition of closeness.

With that, take a minute to really appreciate those around you. Give a hug, a genuine smile, honest eye contact. Share a thoughtful word. Know that acts of caring matter, whether we realize it or not.

Celebrate. Appreciate. And, if these new moments of gratitude with the living and the dead move you to tears, remember this: It’s okay to cry. This is all about learning stuff about love that we didn’t know. xo