Jimmy Tomorrow

Today it’s been a month since Jimmie died.

Jimmie came home from the Neptune Society. I called them Monday morning, after making my chili for the Chili cook off, a festive and competitive annual event thrown by the production students. Then I called the Neptune Society and they said Jimmie was ready for me to pick him up. It’s been a strange few weeks of limbo, not really knowing where his corporeal body was. It was clear and wrenching from the moment he left that his spirit was no longer there. I’d experienced this phenomenon twice before and regardless of what I believe about the afterlife, I know that the human spirit is free of the corporeal at death.

I inveigled my colleague, Hannah, to drive with me to Sherman Oaks, where the Neptune Society is, on Ventura Blvd. and Woodman, a hop skip and a jump away from our home of 10 years in Valley Glen. It was right around the corner where Jimmie and I bought the really comfortable 7′ long yellow couch we had for years in our bonus room, and I was reminded of how many emotional touchstone points there are in a life and in a city when you start to drive around. 

Retrieving “him” was surprisingly quick, signing some papers, and receiving Jimmie’s cremains in a plastic box in what I noted looked like a Crown Royal bag. Others who saw the picture more kindly said he was clad in theatrical drapes fabric. It was emotional being reunited with him, after 15 days of limbo, not knowing or being able to visualize where his body was.

Hannah drove back to school, Jimmie “sitting” on the floor between my work boots. I reached down occasionally to caress the strings that closed the bag. When we got back, I eschewed the chili cook off – all I wanted to do was go home and have lunch with Jimmie. I didn’t think the students would appreciate my showing up with Jimmie to the cook off. Talk about traumatizing. 

Home we went. “We” had some clam chowder, Jimmie’s favorite, (No, I didn’t put any in front of him) and he rested across the table from me  in his seat, watching me do some administrative paperwork with the death certificates I had also picked up. Now that there was at least a physical representation of him in the apartment, I felt better, more grounded. Not alone.

Later that evening, I watched TV, cradling the blue box in the crook of my elbow, chatting with Jimmie about how crazy the news has been and about the prospect of the rain that would be coming later in the week. It felt good to be reunited.

Tuesday evening, I attended the holiday party in my building. I knew it would be difficult as it was the first time I’d gone alone at that event, and though I’m on a friendly basis with many of the home owners, social chit chat is a bit fraught right now. I lasted about 45 minutes at the party before I felt a deep, gutteral grief uncapping somewhere in my solar plexis. It happened, as it is likely to, when I was talking with someone who knew Jimmie and who was expressing concern about how I was doing. I felt my face reddening, and I blurted out, “I think I have to go now,” and quickly scurried away, the emotional magma rising with urgency when I hit the outside patio. Once I was in the elevator, it came, hot and fast, and by the time I got to the apartment, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly undressed, putting on the fluffy white robe that a friendly lesbian couple had given to Jimmie and me on our 30th anniversary weekend at the Langham.

As I’d been warned by so many of my widowed friends, experiencing the grief is essential and necessary. I sat on the edge of my bed, looking over at the photo of Jimmie, one taken during The Ice Man Cometh (1986) of him as Jimmy Tomorrow, which, due to the angle of the camera, allows his eyes to follow me where ever I go in the room.  Behind him sat the comforting blue box, and  in front of them both, I sobbed and tried to gain my breath. Ten minutes went by until I was spent, and then I went to look for something else to do. 

Fortunately, one of my friends had noticed that we had set up a holiday puzzle in our office to work on at lunchtime, and knowing what had transpired in my life, had thoughtfully purchased two puzzles for me to take home. I had just brought the Broadway Musical Puzzle home that evening, and so cracked it open to begin working on it. 

I’ve done winter puzzles every year for as long as I can remember. They are always intrusive to our small living space, because they take over the dining room table. This time, underscored by Broadway show tunes, it was the perfect invasion of color and the graphic comfort and familiarity of all those show posters spread out on the table like so many old friends. I made a cup of tea, and before I knew it, three hours had gone by and it was time to go to bed. And I was soothed and ready to sleep, under the watchful and protective gaze of Jimmie Tomorrow.

The Grieving – Aqua Alta, the 14 Coast Starlight Express and Mixed Metaphors

The days are jumbled together, with continual kindness the watchword. During the first week back at work I started slowly, spending the bulk of the first day entering petty cash receipts and doing equally unmindful tasks, trying to remain mindful. 

It’s a treacherous thing to wade back into the world after such a major loss.

Side note/Metaphor alert- I lived in Venice, Italy for a year after college, and in the winter during Aqua Alta (high water)  we denizens of Venice would put on our hip wader boots, and go to market, walking the boardwalks through the public squares (campi)  throughout Venice. Like the dance of the umbrellas through the narrow streets (calle) of Venice, one learned how to navigate so that you could pass people on the boards without plunging up to your waist in the water on one side or the other of the boardwalks. It was how you made your way to the necessary daily events amidst the extraordinary and haunting hassle of this flood of a magical city.

The first week back to work, donuts aside, felt a little like I was navigating the Venetian boards. I’m aware, and not in a critical way, because I get it, that some people are only able to walk by and salute you for being “on the boards”, while others will stop and fully acknowledge the depth of the waters all around you. My students, for the most part, were in the first camp. I knew they were glad to see me, but were unable to speak of what for them was the unspeakable. There were, of course, exceptions.

Perhaps they were being kind and not wanting to see me lose it, or perhaps they didn’t want to/couldn’t think about the lapping waters of death around their feet and the flimsy supports that keep us all out of the depths of despair and loss.  Okay, I’ll curb the metaphor before we all have to don our waders. It was just interesting to observe it happening. And yes, I did lose it several times during the week when someone acknowledged the depth of the waters around us.

But remember the words of my wise widow friends – you are either in the boat, or under the boat. Either way, you are where you are and you can’t resist or the flood of grief will last longer.

I remember coming away from years of sessions with my psychologist after losing my mom, knowing that words are words, feelings are really just feelings and they ultimately won’t kill you unless you overreact to their emotional impact. (Forgive my privilege as I recognize I’m likely shortchanging serious sufferers of the power of those emotions). 

What’s been lovely were the social events that happened this week, my dinner with Lynn and Christina, where we laughed and ate healthy food, then walked to the roof of Lynn’s building to survey the sights (see top image) and make silly faces. I only wish I’d captured Christina’s response to the stairwell…. 

Trust me, the silly faces were cute but I don’t want to risk being killed by my friends for sharing them here.

I made it through the week, facing with dread Jimmie’s birthday, which fell mercifully, on a Saturday. I knew I’d be a basket case anyway, so chose that day to clear the closets. 

There are those of you who probably think I must be cold or unemotional to remove his clothing so quickly, but actually I find myself gasping for space, for breath, for liberty from stuff. Stuff is stuff, it’s not Jimmie. This was his special birthday horoscope yesterday. I made chocolate cake in a cup to celebrate. I knew better than to make a full sized chocolate cake and have that lying around but it felt important to honor his favorite dessert.

Spooky, right?

My widow pal Jennifer, thoughtfully invited me to dinner at her house on Jimmie’s birthday, which she knew would be a tough day. It was so lovely to be in safe hands where our shared experiences sustained us both. 

When you go from caring for someone 24/7 the trap is to fill the 24/7 hours with activities. I did a bang up job last week doing that. I can see from my calendar that I’ve done the same for the coming weeks. I’m showing up. I call myself, affectionately, “Spectral Els” because I have a short attention span, a goofy good humor which is filo dough thin and can erupt into sobs at the least provocation. Consider yourself warned.

At the advice of my friend Tina, I’ve booked a train ticket to Seattle to join Chris and Whitney at Christmas.  A sleeper car and 33 hours to contemplate life as a soloist. Occasional people are starting to ask about what I’m thinking about the future.  I’m still treading the boards over the Aqua Alta, and that answer is way ahead when things start drying up. But I sincerely thank you for caring and for not being afraid to ask.