January 30: My Personal Day of the Dead

In my dream, I was trapped under the back right wheel of a car, one of those large 1950s cars, a Buick or a Pontiac like you see in Cuba. My father Leo walked beside the car next to me. As the car rolled inexorably backward, I hung onto its rear bumper for dear life, afraid my legs would get caught under the wheels. Somehow they did not.  “Stop, stop the car!” I kept yelling, but Leo paid no attention. Nauseated and trembling, I woke up hard at 7 a.m.

Had he lived, David would have been 76 today. Stew died 9 years ago today, January 30, 2006. When David and I first got together we invented a ceremony to mark this bizarre conjunction of events. Since Jewish holidays even for agnostics begin the night before, David and I would light Stew’s yartzeit candle the evening of Jan 29 then go out to celebrate David’s birthday the next day.

When I came downstairs this morning, l said happy birthday to David’s picture then lit two yartzeit candles and recited kaddish in fractured Hebrew for my two dead husbands. The dead you love deserve to be remembered. Still, the depth of my grief for David is prompting me to grieve Stew’s loss in a way I had not done before. When Stew died I was overwhelmed by panic; then jumped straight into fight or flight mode and got the hell out of Portland. This second time around I am going through grief in a calmer, more deliberate way. I know enough to pay attention to my emotional self.

Tonight I’ll go to Chez Panisse (upstairs) with four dear friends. In 1968, Stew introduced me to Nancy in a run down tenement with red brick walls on the top floor of 5 St. Mark’s Place New York City, home of Yippies. Joining us tonite will be Mike and Betsy who met Stew once but became close friends of both David and myself, and Elizabeth, David’s friend of 30 years. We’ll raise a glass of pinot gris to our memories of two remarkable – and remarkably different – men,  each of whom did what he could to change the world.  Along with sadness I can also celebrate: I have been privileged to be loved so fully and so deeply by two such men. But I have to ask : why, in my dream, did my father not hear my cries for help and stop the car?

UPDATE: Here is a poem written and read for this occasion by Betsy and Mike.

January 30, 2015

Vas machts du Stew?
And David, nu?
We gather to remember you.

Veterans of Woodstock Nation
Survivors despite our alienation
Come now and join our celebration.

A day of passing, a day of birth
There’ll be some tears
We’ll share some mirth
Of stories, there will be no dirth.

L’chaim!

 

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Exaggerated Anger

Woke up this day at 5 a.m. Consumed by an outrage that felt out of proportion to my usual clenched teeth wake-ups. Rage against political injustice is justified yet on this early morning the wretched state of the world infuriated me beyond measure. I was incensed at the images of vicious Muslims who sacrificed their children in the Blockbuster film American Sniper and enraged past any reason that a friend could not understand why I, a former cultural revolutionary, would choose to step outside my liberal birdcage to watch a movie that is a bellwether of American national chauvinism. I was furious at David for dying although I knew he could not help it; and I was angry with myself for my hyper-vigilant emotionality. Bob Dylan spoke for me when he said, “If my thought dreams could be seen they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”

I got back to sleep at 6:30 and woke up at 7:30 determined to go through the stuff in David’s office. Before a good friend came for a sleepover. And a friend of David’s will arrive soon who deserves a few mementos. This sleep-deprived, angry, nauseated fool forgot how much emotional energy it takes to spend even one hour cleaning David’s office. Was I postponing the inevitable fatigue-induced meltdown? My answer is complex – yes, yes-but, and no. All of the above.

UPDATE : still felt tired but better after a walk in the Marina and this. The egret has flown!.

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Stalinist Grieving

I was raised in a Communist Party family with Soviet images of the heroic. I still possess a 30 kopek Stalin stamp, all green, complete with dictator’s head and mustache superimposed on a line of eight white horses charging forward, flags waving in the wind.  Stew and I came up with the phrase “Stalinist discipline” a joking reference that described both my childhood and our desire to stay heroically on track. In those few hours of meetings with the lawyer and financial planner, my heroic self emerged: I generated ideas, I talked details through, I felt fine when I teared up. Unlike when I’m paralyzed by the passivity that accompanies deep grief, I could bring my love for David into the room. What would David want? I queried Hale the lawyer and we figured it out. How would David do this? I asked Jim the financial planner. And teared up. David arrived through other’s recollections to help me through decisions that had to be mine alone.

My Stalinist upbringing means its easy for me to love the take-charge Judy Gumbo.  But Stalin, as we know, had no sympathy for the weak. When I’m in the throes of grief I find it difficult to accept and love the wimp, the Judy Gumbo who is vulnerable and imperfect. I fear I’ll make a wrong decision.  As things turned out, Tje decisions I made over the last two days were perfect, but they were good. And nor are they irreparable.  The process I began has relieved my anxiety of tasks undone and taken the stress they caused me off my proverbial plate.

By 2 p.m. yesterday I was exhausted.  I retreated to the comfort of my bedroom with its peacock-blue walls painted in a color David and I selected together before I moved in.  I vegged out in front of our TV for at least six hours.  By myself.  It was that kind of lonely evening I’m learning may be typical for me as nighttime falls. I felt sad but also calm. I’d found a new way to process grief: to  accomplish what I wanted and at the same time allow myself not to be a Stalinist hero.

I woke up this morning looking forward for the first time since David died to getting out of bed.  When I came downstairs to make my morning Peet’s French Roast, half decaf and half regular, I greeted David’s picture with “Hey Smiley, “and heard longing in my voice but not the pain. To my surprise, my version of an upbeat mood stays with me. I may still be as fragile as a dandelion seed floating on the breeze;  even the slightest brush with negativity may blow me off my balance but before the day’s exhaustion sets in I will enjoy my relaxed body. Like Janis Joplin says: get it while you can.

 

Knee Deep in the Big Muddle

My capacity to make decisions may be compromised by grief; still I decided I am ready to wade into two consecutive visits over the next two days – to my lawyer and my financial advisor. My dear friend Bets asked quite rightly why don’t I put such decisions off while I cogitate and let the answers rise on their own to the surface? It’s an excellent thought. But my upbringing insists that I’ll feel better if I adhere to  Stalinist disciplineo and move forward.  I got a decent night’s sleep last night. The wrinkles under my eyes are less. For the moment my brain has entered its familiar, instrumental “deal with” mode that can block me from processing emotions. I convince myself I do this for my own well being, so I can finish up the tasks surrounding Davids’s death, tasks embedded in my brain that, if left undone, niggle at me like an itch I cannot scratch and make me anxious. Better to repress, I tell myself , than to postpone any longer. I hope my clear-brain mode will hold until I’ve taken care of business. But I have no guarantees. The fog of grief surrounds me on its own schedule; I cannot control when or where it chooses to appear.

Flat Tire

I am deflated. Like a flat tire. I sit by the side of the road and watch my world whizz by without me. I can do nothing but stay put. The phone rings. The call comes from a 212 area code. I tell myself it might be someone I know in New York City. Naturally, it’s a phone solicitation. The line clicks. I hear a human voice. It belongs to Frank. Frank asks to speak to Albert. “Frank,” I reply, in my most put-out, angry widow voice, “Albert has just died. Take me  off your list.”  I hang up.

What a hoot! Only total strangers confuse Stew’s last name with his first. It’s true, David, Stew and even Albert are all dead. But thanks to Albert, wherever he is, this formerly flat tire can get back on the road again.

Clutter and Quantifying Grief

Jessica told me two days ago I was on the verge of a melt down.  By which she meant I needed a good cry. She was right.  I’ve spent the two months since David died assuming I was grieving.  I’d tell myself the more quickly I could accomplish a task, the more rapidly my pain and sadness would pass and my energetic, flamboyant Judy Gumbo self would re-emerge. What foolishness. I was re-writing my own history; collapsing how I suffered the first year after Stew died into eight weeks. Now I’ve stepped back on Macy’s escalator, sobbing in its lonely basement, lonelier and sadder now than I’ve felt since David died. It may feel terrible but I see this as a good thing. I can feel raw pain.

Before my melt-down, in my “get things done and the pain will go away mode,” I cleaned up some clutter in  David’s office – Consumer Reports and Harvard Medical Letters in pristine condition, two and three years old.  David had used his three-hole punch on them, then filed the magazines by year in blue binders, to my knowledge never to be referred to or opened.  Did having them on his shelf give him some degree of …what? Comfort? An  unimpeachable knowledge base he could go back to should the time and need arise? Or did David just collect for the hell of it; he did come from an extended family with a few self-styled hoarders.  For sure David was an idealist. Perhaps his unsorted piles of stuff represented a commitment to projects he hoped one day to accomplish. But hey, it was his office to do with what he chose.  And now it’s mine.

As much as I can, I chose  not to live with clutter. I prefer clean lines and unimpeded surfaces; I like to “see the oak” as a  wise nurse and colleague in the rural Portland hospital where I briefly worked once told me.  But soon after I finished a very partial clean-up, I  began to miss the chaos of David’s clutter. His office was silent, sparse. No object moved or changed unless I made it happen.

After Stew died I’d visit his grave in Jones Pioneer Cemetery and pound the bare earth trying to wake him up. In bed at night I’d howl like a wolf, but during the day I’d focus on fight or flight: get the fuck out of Portland, dragging with me to Berkeley  a truckload of Stew’s and my stuff I was not emotionally able to discard. With David it’s been different. I live in a house I love, surrounded by David’s stuff but not by him. As every piece of clutter goes, a bit of David follows. When my clean-up is complete will I, by my own actions, have made what little I have left of David vanish too? If so, I couldn’t stand it.

There’s an article circulating in my circle from last Sunday’s NY Times titled Getting Grief Right.   Grief comes not sequentially in stages but in chapters, the author writes. I agree. I’ve said the same since Stew died: grieving is not linear. The author goes on to explain: the depth of your sadness is a measure of the love you had.  When I first read this sentence I rejoiced, I felt the author had given me the gift of a new and profound truth.  But then I began to wonder:  How do you measure depth of sadness?  Or love for that matter? I howled for Stew and beat the earth over his grave with my fist while with David all I did was sob and carry his ashes and totem stuffed eagle upstairs to their place next to my bed. Do my actions mean the depth of my sadness for David is less than my suffering over Stew? It sure don’t feel that way.

My love for Stew and for David was as different as the two men were – and if you are among those who knew them both you’ll understand.  I acted out my grief for Stew dramatically, appropriate to the times we lived in and revolutions we made.  My love for David was tempered by age and the difference between a relationship of 40 years and one of 7.  Everyone grieves in her or his own way. To see depth of sadness as a measure of love feels mechanistic, instrumental. My love for my two dead husbands was quite different but equally deep. And I am equally sad.

 

Too much too fast?

Americans – and I include myself – love a happy ending. Us former revolutionaries admire courage, strength, determination and heroism in the face of terrible odds. Including death. But I woke up this morning thinking I’m doing too much too fast. Doing, as we know, is my way to run away, to fill the blanks in my day, to meet the expectations of others – and myself – that I’ll feel better soon. I push myself to make my pain diminish and allow my happy ending to arrive. This may be a false hope, still I want to get back to feeling like myself as quickly as I can. Awakenings are hard.

Last night I attended a well-known Berkeley Shabbat group. And met people I didn’t know. I introduced myself by talking briefly about David’s death. “I’m so sorry for your loss”, was their response. “Thank you” I replied and smiled wanly, grateful for this sentiment, so much better than the generic “How are you doing?” To which my stock answer often is “I’m here. ” Or “getting by. ”

The conversations that followed led invariably either to my new acquaintance’s illness or to the death of her/his parent or close friend. I understand – the person I was talking to was trying to express empathy, to share common ground with me. This is what we’re taught, it’s comfortable, it’s what we know. “What would you prefer people say to you, Judy?” I can imagine someone asking. It’s a fair question. To which I have no answer. I’m in one of those “we know what you’re against but what are you for” moments. I wanted and I chose to be at this event, still, except for a few very close friends, it’s difficult for me to listen to other people’s problems. Beyond that, everything is murky. Now I understand. In the true spirit of Shabbat, the Shabbat group did what Shabbat groups must: made me remember that the essence of the holiday is to slow down. To take it easy. To declare that all my worldly tasks are done whether they are done or not, to reject their claim on me, to
deny their existence. To go back to what I wrote about being and doing.

Judy Gumbo Rides Again

I walked yesterday with my friend Ruth around the Berkeley Marina, absorbing the spectacle: a calm spink, blue and grey mist topped by orange sorbet sunset. Ruth and I talked, among other things, about my memoir Yippie Girl.  I haven’t felt confident enough to get back to it yet, I’m fearful I will fuck it up. That’s the fragility of writing; knowing when to start but also when to stop. Perfectionism is my enemy; it resembles my own fragility; just when I think I’m feeling better I hit a wall. Nothing stays the same inside my fog of grief; no moment, no hour, no day.  Which is why I’m nervous about jumping in. I don’t feel very Yippie Girl these days.

Ruth has written a letter about Yippie Girl to a friend of hers, a literary agent. Ruth asked what name I wanted her to use for me. Her question stopped me cold. I have lived with this dilemma all my political life: what last name to use? From time immemorial, or at least for centuries, we women take first our father’s and then our husband’s last name. Clavir, my family name,  contains within it both my alcoholic mother and enabling father, plus the authoritarianism of growing up in a Communist Party family. I’m compelled to reject it.  Not knowing better, when I was 23, I married my first husband out of lust and to  escape the Clavirs.  It was 1964. I took his last name, Hemblen, only  to come home two years later to discover him in bed with another woman. As if he’d found a way to punish me for his infidelity, the name Hemblen has stuck to me like a leech; the FBI refers to me as Hemblen throughout my  files.

Although I could never have predicted it, I’ve had four major romances and three marriages. I took the last names of two of my three husbands; I also had a lover who I met in person only six times in exotic capitals of the 1970s revolutionary universe. All except Hemblen are now dead.  When I first took up with Stew, his friend Eldridge Cleaver called me “Mrs. Stew.” I objected.  It was 1969, the  women’s movement was ready to explode. “I am not Mrs. Stew,” I railed with some trepidation at the Black Panther Party Minister of Information. “I’m me, Judy…” then I paused.  What to say?  I refused to identify myself with the dysfunctional Clavir clan. Eldridge, as was his wont, took my choice away, “All right then, I’ll call you Gumbo,” he had declared.Eldridge had born in Arkansas, in his world Gumbo went with Stew.

I’ve come to understand my last name is fluid, and changes as I embark on different phases of my life. I was flattered at the time to be annointed Gumbo by a celebrity black male Movement leader, even though the  name Gumbo defined me by my relationship with Stew. When I broke up with Stew at the height of women’s liberation, I renamed myself Judy Gumbo.  Judy Gumbo marked my time of freedom, a name, as close as I could make it, of my own.

Time passed. Stew and I reconciled, married and had Jessica. Eldridge came out as a Moonie and a right wing Christian. Gumbo had to go.  In terms of what last name to use I bi – or even tri- furcated.  In my book The Sixties Papers I was so ambivalent I concocted the name Judith Clavir Albert. As a Vice President of Development for Planned Parenthood I used Judith Albert, Ph.D. CFRE. and by so doing discovered the pitfalls of first name change. We’ve accepted women changing last our names, but first names imprint themselves deep into consciousness.  To teach someone  to call you by your formal name then ask them to use the diminutive turns out to be close to impossible. None the less, throughout my middle years, I lived with confidence as both Judith Albert, professional fundraiser, and Judy Gumbo Albert, mother, friend and activist. Whenever I felt depressed I’d tell myself to “Bring Back Judy Gumbo” to draw on my old charisma and love of risk taking.

Stew died in 2006. Judy Gumbo Albert moved back to Berkeley.  My name kept Stew with me, my Berkelely friends recognized it, I was used to it and it even gave me the perk of having a last name that begins with A to put me at the head of lists. In 2009 I married David.  I retained Judy Gumbo Albert (how un-pc to take the name of my new husband when I was already in my mid 60’s!), although, when David died,  I did get condolence cards especially from David’s relatives addressed to Judy Dobkin, whoever she is.

With David’s death, I’ve been thrust against my will into another new phase of life,  one both informed and colored by the old. If I keep the last name Albert, it’s only fair to David I add Dobkin. And there’s no way Judy Gumbo Albert Dobkin cuts it. It’s as if I’d hung a necklace of dead husbands last names around my neck.

Yesterday turned out to be one of those afternoons I broke down and sobbed but today, thanks to Ruth and the orange sorbet sunset, and while I understand that wherever he is Stew might get pissed, my way feels clear:  I’ll drop my last name Albert and let the invincible Judy Gumbo reign!

 

The Indefatigable Mary Poppins?

Joking that she rarely uses words with so many syllables, my friend Jeanne  referred to me the other day as the indefatigable Mary Poppins.  I laughed when Jeanne said this, but I hope she’s right. Four days after Tucson my upbeat mood holds.  I did, however, notice slippage this morning. It’s not just David’s loss, it’s the loss of trust in myself that blank spaces in my day will fill, that I will make up the gaps in my social schedule I see ahead of me. Even Comcast has gone down, causing me to miss the openings both of Good Wife and Downton Abbey. I’m grateful I have them taped.

I’ve chosen to ignore Private Judy who warns me I may jinx my mood merely by writing down what feel like accomplishments: I haven’t taken  Xanax since I returned from Tucson. My Fitbit tells me I was awake only twice last night and logged 6 hours and 44 minutes of sleep.  Last evening for the first time, I left the photograph of a smiling David in my living room instead of carrying it upstairs like a baby to my night table. I find more emotional resonance in a photograph than in any impersonal black box,  even one filled with David’s ashes. Still I needed his companionship. So I took the black box , perched the stuffed eagle comfortably on its top, then placed it on the floor in that corner of my bedroom next to where David slept.

Material objects are symbolic; I’ve begun to integrate pieces from my life with Stew into those from David.  I
put Stew’s father Harold’s 1930’s Martin ukelele on top of David and Donna’s tonsu;  their brown woods match.  On top of David’s CD shelf I’ve added a beige 1930’s vase that Jessica calls “the vagina vase.” It looks like an open ribbed scallop shell on a pedestal.  I bought it when Stew and I lived in the Catskills, over Stew’s objections. Women love this vase while every man who deigns to notice takes an instant almost visceral dislike.  That I can change my home’s decor to integrate both husbands makes me realize I have accepted David’s death, at least to the point where I can begin to re-imagine what used to be David’s and my house – and life – into mine alone.

The escalator I take down to Macy’s basement still has its allure, especially when I run into setbacks.  Yet, to mix a metaphor, I want to fly away, still sheltered under my Mary Poppins umbrella so recently collapsed by grief.  I also reserve the right to let go of that umbrella and step back on the escalator. Death may be permanent, yet today is the first day of the rest of my life.

 

Stop, stop you’re torturing me

My first morning home from Tucson, I woke up from a dream. It was 5:44 a.m., or so said the too-bright Comcast clock. In my dream, David is on top of me. His  tongue licks my neck, tickling me so much I can’t breathe. I struggle, wiggle my body back and forth, unable to free myself  from under his weight. I’ve always been extremely ticklish so in my dream I panic out of helplessness. “Stop, stop you’re torturing me, ” I yell out and then wake up.

A dream can re-enact an extreme version of reality.  But what am I to  make of this? Am I weighed down by some misunderstood aspect of  my relationship with David, or does my dream represent a new awareness set free by the serenity of hiking between Tucson’s psychedelic Saguaros? Has my grief for David been so deep it feels like torture? Let’s add my resurrected anguish over Stew to the mix.  Am I to understand that the dead have been torturing me, or does my dream make clear I have been torturing myself?  That I’m torturing myself is the kind of revelation that seems obvious only once you have it. I rarely remember my dreams, but now I understand why, after Tucson, I could walk into what I now call my house, say hello to David’s picture and feel at home. I’ll still tear up at each condolence card that continues to come in the mail, and I’ll still grieve especially as night and darkness fall, but this morning I enjoyed a calmness I had not felt since David died. I hope it holds.

Leonard Cohen puts it this way: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. ” I think it may be time to start listening to Leonard again, just as I did after Stew died.

FOLLOW UP: Second morning home wake-up dream: David wears a beige silky one piece woman’s bathing suit from the 1950s. Explain that one, Dr. Freud!