Day in the Life of Ups and Downs

I haven’t blogged for a week. It’s a good thing, I tell myself  with some trepidation (kina hora – protect me from the evil eye) but I feel like I’m getting my old self back. My former Judy Gumbo optimism is now tempered by grief and a deeper understanding of life’s impermanence. I’m learning to live in the moment. To take things as they come. At least that’s how I feel this morning.

Let’s take yesterday.  I got a call from my dentist, Dr. Sharma, a wonderful Indian woman. “Could I come in an hour earlier for my teeth cleaning? ” All right, I thought, I’ll get four hours in between her and my appointment with my lawyer to complete the legal details surrounding David’s death, a space of time I really wanted, since I’d been feeling anxious, pressured by too many projects. Another reason I hadn’t blogged. What do I really want? I ask myself. My answer: to get back to Yippie Girl. 

Dr. Sharma noticed a chip in my  left front tooth. We decided to take the time to fix it. I’ve always been ashamed of my front teeth, ever since Peter Kastner, a childhood friend of mine, now deceased,  and son of two old-style Communist Party friends of my parents in Toronto, held a plate up to my mouth when I was six or seven so I could lick some cake crumbs. He slipped, I moved, something happened, my front right tooth broke in half. Half way up. Raw tooth nerve. Excruciating pain.  My parents out-of-town. Since that day I’d worn a fake  front right tooth that never quite matched my other teeth in color. It was held in place by a gold edging that oxidized over the years into ugly black. Dr. Sharma had rescued me from front tooth hell perhaps two years ago. I don’t care what anyone else thinks, and I may be flouting my own feminism, but for me looking my best for no one but myself is an up.  When David and I got married, one of his relatives said about me, “She’s a good catch.” What else could I do but take this as a complement?  I get it – I’m no fish. I don’t want to catch another man (god forbid) but I left Dr. Sharma’s office with two whole front teeth.  And happy.

Two hours later: Going through papers in the lawyer’s office I tear up. I hadn’t considered that, but there it was. Bye bye happiness, like the Everly Brothers sang.  My lawyer, Hale, is a congenial man, slightly younger than I am, with grey hair who writes with a deformed right hand that’s barely noticeable . I felt free enough to tell Hale how signing papers that legalized the transfer of David’s assets to me brought back my pain at David’s death. Hale responded that such feelings are  to be expected. His admission became a comfort in itself.  I must be learning to acknowledge the downs with greater equanimity. 

After Hale came acupuncture and body work with John Kokko. A restful and relaxing up.  At home I found an e-mail from Barbara Stack of the FSM titled “Groovy article mentions Stew” It includes fabulous pics  both of Jerry and Stew’s campaign for Sheriff.  Stew got 65,000 votes for sheriff in 1970 and carried the city of Berkeley.

Another up but tinged with sadness. Both for Stew and for the never-changing racist state of law enforcement, exactly what Stew ran to oppose. At 4:30 I chatted on the phone with Jessica. Simon is taking his first steps, almost walking by himself.  Jessica is much appreciated at her job;  she and Dan hate Silicon Valley traffic and commute. Up and down. Then Shabbat at my house with Ellen.  Breaking bread together is a ritual that promotes happiness and a long life, or so says  Mario Martinez, a neuropsycholgist who Ellen and I heard speak for KPFA two nights ago.  The sound system sucked, Martinez was a little scattered but I liked his message.

Up and down, up and down. The young Judy Gumbo used to get off on ups and ignore or run away from downs.  The Judy Gumbo I am becoming four months after David died feels both more vulnerable and more flexible .  What  next? Stay tuned.

Today, in a perverse inversion of the bar mitzvah mantra, I am a wreck. Like David often  said,  “Ya never know.”



Wise Child

My daughter Jessica is a wise person.  I was complaining (no more unloading) on her about how the first year is the hardest. “How will I get through my birthday?” I demanded, feeling very sorry for myself. No matter that my birthday is months from now. I felt vulnerable, mourning the loss of a relationship no longer there, projecting my paranoia of the present into the future. “The missing phase” my therapist calls it. I could not get through this moment without the enormous support and caring of my many and dear friends, but now that Stew and David are both gone, so is that special intimacy in my life. How I am experiencomg this loss turns out to be universal: it cross lines of distance, history, career and worlds.  Mme. Binh, my newest role model on how to grieve just as back in the day I adopted her as the exemplar of revolutionary courage, writes that when her husband died, 

And so, our plans, simple hopes, deep attachment, and our thoughts that, after I retired, we would take better care of each other and travel as tourists to different sites— all that disappeared in a flash! I had many friends and comrades around me. They were endlessly sympathetic, but I still felt truly alone and bereft. That pain is endless. To this day, I do not have anyone with whom I can pour out every thought, confidence, and worry, from whom I can receive encouragement and the words of comfort that I need. 

Jessica’s response to my complaining? “Each friend gives you a piece of that intimacy. You yourself become the whole. David has only been gone for 4 months. Live, and grieve, in the moment. ” 

Like I said, Jessica is a wise child. 

Mme. Binh, Buddhism, Suffering and Grief

In the spring of 1969 during People’s Park, Berkeley was under martial law.  I was friends at the time with a woman named Randy Rappaport who now goes by Randy Ross.   Randy and I were part of a group of radical activists who, among other things, wrote a manifesto we called  the Berkeley Liberation Program. (Google it!) As Stew, Tom Hayden and a slew of others argued,  Randy, a group of women and I wrote our women’s liberation plank in the most intimate location we could find: the Art Deco foyer of a women’s rest-room in a downtown Oakland hotel. 

Randy and I lost touch in the intervening years, but we met again in the spring of 2014 at a Boston women’s liberation conference. David was with me. Like me, in the 1970s and again in 2013, Randy had visited Viet Nam.  She’d also met lead Paris Peace Accord negotiator Mme Binh, and recently helped out with Mme. Binh’s autobiography. Over the last two days Randy and I began what I consider a fascinating e-mail conversation. Here’s a mash-up:

RANDY: Oh Judy, I am so so sorry to hear about David’s death. I really enjoyed meeting him in Boston. Such a kind dear person! But it was way too brief a time.

JUDY: Thank you for your kind words about David. I’m glad you had a chance to meet him.

RANDY:  I read your blog last night. It was just before I intended to go to sleep, so sleep was long in coming. The pictures of Stew and of David, your writing about “Dewey,” and your honesty about the agony of your days (and nights) touched me in a way that I am still trying to comprehend.

We have all had losses, of course, and we have all had grief. But do we face the grief or run from it, bury it? My father died in 1962, when I was 17, dropping dead from a heart attack right in front of me. It took at least ten years and a lot of running (most of which was during the movement years) to finally stop and begin to feel the grief. I say “begin,” because I have realized over the last fifty years that I revisit that grief and sadness again and again. Sometimes with fresh insight, sometimes just feeling the old sadness wash through me all over again.

JUDY: You are so right when you talk about stopping running to feel the grief. After Stew died I entered a total panic, fight or flight mode and got the hell out of Portland. It made practical sense in that I needed to move anyway out of our 4 bedroom house that cost $800 a month to heat during the winter, and Jessica  was down here by then so I up and left. I railed against my fate but, being an activist, I acted. I didn’t take time to grieve Stew’s loss with depth or insight. So now, as I mourn David, here comes my grief for Stew in a deeper way. And that’s a good thing.

RANDY: Reading your blog, and perhaps knowing you (strange after so many years of not knowing you, to say I know you, but it feels right somehow), it is clear that you try to face your grief. Maybe we know we have to by this time in our lives, but there are many who never do face the grief, let it run through and over them, submerge and nearly strangle them. It is how waterboarding might feel somehow. Can’t breathe. Can’t speak. And this is the second waterboarding you’ve had to live through.

JUDY:  You are the perfect person to answer a question I’ve been wondering about.  I’ve heard it’s important to have role models of how to grieve. How did “the Vietnamese” (or “our” Vietnamese as opposed to the South’s Vietnamese) deal with grief? Repress and keep on fighting? How did being surrounded by suffering, adversity and death affect Mme. Binh’s outlook if it did?  Mme Binh was one of my role models, but I for one have very little information about this aspect of her life. You ask how you could help me. If you have any ideas, thoughts, speculations, imaginings about this, I’d love to know.

RANDY: I went through my copy of Mme. Binh’s  autobiography to find what words of wisdom she might have for you (and all of us, as we age and lose our loved ones) concerning her husband Khang’s death:

MME BINH:  In 1989 [25 December], two years after beginning work with the Union of Friendship Organizations, I suffered a major loss. My husband Khang passed away from illness. At the time, our son Thắng was studying in Czechoslovakia. It all happened suddenly. On 24 December, a Sunday, Khang and I were talking about our two grandchildren. That evening, we took Khang, in an emergency run, to 108 Hospital, which had treated him before. I wanted to stay over at the hospital to look after him, but he insisted I go home to rest. His character was like that. He would never trouble anyone, not even his wife or children. The next morning I arrived to visit him before going to a National Assembly session. He was very weak and could only say, “I’m so tired!”

The doctor arrived to give him an injection for his heart. With that, Khang stopped breathing! And so, our plans, simple hopes, deep attachment, and our thoughts that, after I retired, we would take better care of each other and travel as tourists to different sites— all that disappeared in a flash! I had many friends and comrades around me. They were endlessly sympathetic, but I still felt truly alone and bereft. That pain is endless. Until now, I do not have anyone with whom I can pour out every thought, confidence, and worry, from whom I can receive encouragement and the words of comfort that I need. Life is like that. What can we do?

RANDY: Her last two sentences, simple though they are, seem to me to hold the clearest way of understanding how she, and others like her, handle their grief. Acceptance — Life is like that. What can we do? Impermanence and suffering are part of life, not just because of the political situation, though that certainly can make the suffering far worse.

Me and my hero Mme Binh.

Judy and Mme. Binh, Hanoi 2013

RANDY; One story that may explain why I feel that this is her meaning…. When I was in North Vietnam with Eldridge and the others, we met one day with Pham Van Dong. Though I don’t remember the context, he said something that has stayed with me all these years. He said, “Vietnamese Communism is a blend of Marxism-Leninism and Buddhism. It is our unique way.”

JUDY: I love that quote! And also what you said about Mme. Binh.

RANDY: You probably don’t know this about me, but I have been a very serious Buddhist meditator for decades, since just a couple of years after returning from Viet Nam in 1970 and then going to Paris in the summer of 1971 to meet with Mme Binh. it was Pham Van Dong’s words that led to my interest in Buddhism.   I went to my first Buddhist retreat in September 1973.  I  have often joked that I went to Asia (remember — North Korea, North Viet Nam and China!) a Communist and came back a Buddhist. A bit flip, but it has some truth.

JUDY:  A friend of mine,  a widow and like you a Buddhist, talked me into taking a course about Buddhism called “Awakening Joy. ”  I’m learning a lot. Meditation techniques help. Old age, suffering and death are inevitable and universal. I want to learn how to approach my life with compassion. But there’s something about Buddhism I really resist.  How do I reconcile accepting pain, suffering and death with what all of us, and especially Mme. Binh believed in : fighting against oppression and for national liberation? If one accepts the inevitability of death, why not accept the inevitability of foreign occupation? If one accepts suffering as part of life, why fight against being poisoned by Agent Orange? Is suffering caused by injustice right to fight against, while the best response to  inevitable suffering is, as Mme Binh says, to tell yourself,  ‘Life is like that, What can we do?” I guess what I’m really asking is – where does being a rebel fit in? So this is what I wrestle with about Buddhism.

RANDY:  This is an amazing and important conversation. And believe me, I have struggled with EXACTLY the question about activism/acceptance that you have raised. I have some thoughts, but of course no answers. It is our particular koan as social justice advocates.
Randy’s words reprinted with her permission. To be continued….
ADDENDUM: I reported this conversation to Kokko, my acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist.
KOKKO:  You were a monk in a past life. You don’t have to come back and do it again.

A Gerbil on a Treadmill of My Own Making

I woke up at 5:15 a.m. yesterday morning sobbing.  It was one of those loud, achy noises I could imagine coming from a character in  a Dickens novel, or the Tarot card illustration of a ragged woman followed by a man on crutches who trudge through snow while behind them five pentacles glow through a stained glass window. In Tarot divination, the five of pentacles represents isolation, worry, financial loss or poverty of spirit. Unlike those poor souls doomed to march across their Tarot card forever, at least my anguish lasted no more than 30 seconds.

 I don’t know why I awoke in such a state, but I can guess. Its been over a month since I’ve felt miserable enough to cry anywhere except my therapist’s office. Prompted, I believe, by Jack Levine’s funeral, I awoke my brain dominated by images of both Stew and David’s final hours: Stew, naked, catheterized, held up by friends, determined to stand upright like a manly man to take his final piss before he lay down in his hospital bed, never to arise. And David being walked slowly down our stairs, supported on three sides by two men from our community plus his late wife Donna’s brother, his legs grotesquely swollen like an elephant. I know I am not friendless but this wake-up made me feel so very much alone. Crying was a good release.   Still, I was not able to get back to sleep. 

Two days ago, as part of the endless clean-up that blocks me from what I really want to do – get back to Yippie Girl – I discovered a small note card. I remembered it arriving on my doorstep  accompanied by a bouquet of flowers. Handwritten on the outside in clear but child-like  letters typical of a teenager were the words: Mrs. Dropkin. Mrs. Dropkin? Now there’s a new identity.

It’s often said the good slips by but painful events stay with you. My widow’s brain, which resembles chemo brain, means I no longer can recall exactly what prompted David to order flowers on-line for me. But I remember he did. In contrast to his public persona as a congenial and beloved figure, David could, in private, say mean things. And then regret his words. Stew, an equally beloved and congenial figure, did not so much get mean but he would lose his temper. When this occurred, Stew and I would retreat to  Portland’s first Peet’s coffee shop, a strategic choice that put limitations of public discourse on our private argument. As if our personal problems were as weighty as the Paris Peace Talks, we’d negotiate a moratorium on disagreements which we’d label a Peet’s Treaty.  (My theory is that as their un-diagnosed cancers spread, both Stew and David got more and more physically uncomfortable and thus increasingly irritable. ) By the time Stew died, our need for Peets Treaty’s had vanished like an underground guerrilla fighter.

A few days before David died,  but three weeks after we knew he was doomed, David was sitting on a chair at the foot of our bed. I perched on the bed facing him. David looked at me, his hazel eyes brimming with love and announced out of the blue: “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” I asked.

“I’ve been mean to you.  I know I can be a mean person. I’m so sorry.”

All emotions are exaggerated when  the one you love is dying.   I remember feeling devastated. And delighted at the same time.  Given my childhood history of verbal abuse from an alcoholic mother, I’ve lived a  lifetime of over-reaction to meanness, real or imagined. David’s apology undid me. In the most positive way.  It may be a cliché but when I discovered that tiny note card addressed to my new persona, Mrs. Dropkin, it made me happy: it was a reminder from the dead that words can affirm as well as hurt. The card read,

“You’re the greatest wife.”

David was the  greatest husband.  As was Stew. They gave me love, approval and appreciation. Beyond that, they taught me to forgive.

My Remarks at Jack Levine’s Funeral 3.5.15

Notes to self: 

  • Read condolences from Leslie Kay and Bob Joondeph from Portland.  Leslie and Bob cannot be with us because they are  in NYC where it’s 24 degrees and snowing . Please excuse my pronunciation of Swedish.
  • Talk about the political context in Portland in which Stew and I knew Jack & Ann.
  • The grieving process.

From Leslie & Bob:

I met Jack in Portland, Oregon in the 1980s through our sons, Aaron and Asa, who met at a New Jewish Agenda Chanukah party and instantly bonded.  When we left the party we needed to pry Aaron and Asa apart and met the parents, Jack and Ann, and subsequently became friends.  The obvious…., Jack loved books and music.  The not so obvious, …Jack spoke Swedish and was married to wonderful Ann, from Sweden.  We had the Swedish, as well as the Jewish and the books and music things in common. We shared Swedish holidays, concerts, book discussions and more together.   The childhood friendship of Aaron and Asa culminated in a joint bar mitvah.  One of my lasting memories of Jack will always be his remarks during the ceremony holding up a piece of matzah in one hand, and a round of Swedish hard bread (called knäcke bröd in Swedish), and comparing and contrasting the Swedish and Jewish cultures.  Jack was funny.  Sometimes very funny.

I know Jack wanted to be around this earth a little longer.  He adored Ann, Aaron, and the new members of the family, Clare and Isabel.  I saw him recently, before his illness caught up with him.  He suggested that I read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian.  He was happy, upbeat, still reading.  Good bye Jack, it has been very good to know you.

-Leslie Kay and Bob Joondeph, Portland, Oregon 

 My Remarks: 

My name is Judy Gumbo Albert.  I first met Jack and Ann when I lived in Portland and all of us were members of New Jewish Agenda. In the late 1980s & 1990s as I recall. I remember Jack being very passionate in his unique way about New Jewish Agenda’s mission: to bring about a two state solution in Israel so that Palestinians could have a state of their own in Gaza and the West Bank based on pre-1967 borders. Jack and Ann organized and participated New Jewish Agenda activities:  Israel Therapy, in which Portland Jews spoke without reserve about Israel. The Cousins Club, meals and meetings with local Palestinians. Shabbat dinners. Taking on the conservatives in Portland’s established Jewish community. If you look at Israel today, it’s apparent that on the international scale our local group failed miserably to bring justice to the Palestinian people. But our effort was righteous, heroic and bonded all of us together. 

 My first late husband, Stew Albert, was one of Agenda’s leaders. I’ll tell just one anecdote about Stew: when it came time for Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah, Aaron, along with Asa would come to our house in Portland and Stew – who had absolutely no training as a rabbi but who Agenda members considered to be more rabbinical than Portland’s synagogue rabbis  – mentored the two boys. I have no idea what Stew taught them about Judaism but I do recall peals of laughter rising up from my living room. 

 Stew died of liver cancer in 2006. It’s possible Jack helped put together the music for Stew’s funeral but with my widow’s brain (which resembles chemo brain) I can’t recall. After Stew’s death, I moved back here to Berkeley and was lucky enough to meet a man named David Dobkin. He and I loved each other for 7 years, and were married for five. Three months ago, right around the time Jack was beginning his own decline, David died of an aggressive cancer in his liver, lungs and spine. As I grieve Jack’s loss, I also grieve the loss of my two dear husbands. 

Ann- I don’t presume to give you advice about grieving since everyone does it differently, but this is what I’ve learned:

  • Grieving is not linear. The Kubler-Ross stages of grief –denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and their multiple variations – don’t logically follow one after another. After depression, the stage of accepting your loss does not arrive automatically like a loaf of bread on an assembly line.  Except for the exhaustion that walks hand in hand with grief, I never know how I’ll feel from one moment, hour or day to the next. Emotions tumble at me from every corner of my mind.  
  • Living with grief means I must be gentle with myself. That’s not easy for us goal-oriented, achievement-driven folks. Being gentle means I’m learning not to blame myself for failing to achieve whatever I set out to do that day or week or moment. Instead, I do my best to live with ambiguity. I tell myself: “It’s OK, Judy, you can stop whatever you’ve told yourself to do. You are grieving. Take the time to rest.”
  • Ann, I can’t promise things will get easier for you quickly. Or that they won’t. There are bromides about the first year being hardest, don’t make any major decisions etc. etc. But I do know this:  each of us deals with loss and death at our own pace. All you can do is go through it; the pace at which you do it is yours and yours alone. Don’t rush it. After Stew died I did just that, I entered into “fight or flight” response. And got the hell out of Portland. Now, as I mourn David, I have the time and patience to go deeper, and grieve Stew’s death as well. And today, especially Jack. 
  • Finally, while I can’t predict the future, I’ve come across one piece of wisdom about what to expect. It comes from a man named Harry Turtledove who I knew in Portland. Harry was a supporter of Planned Parenthood where I worked, an advertising executive, straight out of the TV show Mad Men. “The wound will heal,” I remember Harry telling me after his wife Pat  died, “but the scar remains.”

Ann, my wounds still feel raw, as I imagine yours do as well. I am so sorry for your loss. You know you can call on me at any time for affection and support. Much love to you.