Stillwater Cove


Mom and dad and I just returned from our annual trip to Sea Ranch on the northern California coast. We spent most of our time spying on wildlife, staring at the ocean, soaking up the sun, breathing deeply. It’s a lovely place to visit no matter the time of year and we’ve started adding birthday weekends to the rotation.

Each time we go, we drive to Stillwater Cove 30 minutes south of the house we rent. Tom and dad had camped there years ago and when going though Tom’s things after his death, a few photos of the beach were tucked in a drawer of odds and ends. Dad had been wanting to buy and dedicate a bench overlooking the water at Crissy Field where Tom’s ashes had been scattered, but it wasn’t possible. The photos made him choose Stillwater Cove instead.

There’s a metal plaque embedded in the wooden picnic table that includes these words chosen by my dad:

Beautiful Son
Loving Brother
Devoted Partner
Best Friend

It’s nice to go there to watch the water and chat about Tom. We toasted him with champagne this time. It’s especially nice for dad, I think. He was there with Tom so it’s something he can remember enjoying with him.

It’s been 182 days since I’ve written about Tom but I’ve thought about him every one of those days. It seems to be getting harder. For several months now, when I think of him I see is him in the hospital. I wish it was not the first thing that popped into my mind. I have a longing to change some of the things that happened those last few days – things I said, or didn’t say. It’s gnawing at me. I don’t want it to become an obsession but I’m finding it difficult to shake.

Sitting at the table at Stillwater Cove I cried, but it was brief. I tried to look at the water and think about Tom looking at the same waves, breathing the same air, squinting in the same sun. I tried but I didn’t feel him there with me. I feel like it was probably my fault, that maybe I wasn’t concentrating enough. But maybe he was sitting next to dad this time.


Ten Months

In just two months it will be the one-year anniversary of Tom’s death. It’s amazing. Almost a year. Already? Only one year. My sense of time is skewed. It’s difficult to explain.

I guess it’s like being shocked that you graduated 30 years ago when it feels as though it could not have been more than ten. Or when you think about an exchange with an old crush that still makes you smile although years and feelings have passed. It must be what parents experience when they look at their teen and see a 5-year-old.

My thoughts and feelings about Tom come and go fluidly. I find that I don’t mention his name as frequently as I did only six months ago. It bothers me. Yet when I do say his name — repeating a story, referencing a mannerism — it feels natural, less shocking. I don’t think about how others feel when I say his name. It just rolls off my tongue like before. I guess there will come a time when I’ll have to explain who he was when I mention him in small talk. Or I’ll say, “my brother” and it will lead to questions.

My birthday is around the corner and preparing for it — it’s a milestone birthday — feels ominous. Last year I cheerfully went about my business of planning a weekend getaway as a late celebration. There was no foreshadowing; I was not aware of the news I was about to receive. This year I see the distant cloud threatening to cast a shadow. Maybe it will blow my way but maybe it will stay put. A gray reminder that he’s not here to celebrate. A gloomy sign that I’m approaching the anniversary of something horrible.

I keep thinking… what would we do if he were here? We would talk frequently as I made my plans. He would give me advice on my party menu. He would want to see pictures. He would send me a lovely card, maybe a special gift. Maybe I would go to NYC for a visit. Better yet, he would join me here. That would have been perfect.

He’s still with me, I know, just not the way I want.

The Rest of Us Already Know

The holidays have come and gone and it was rough, as expected. Our small family of three didn’t so much celebrate the holiday as we did acknowledge it with modified tradition. There wasn’t much baking, no trip to Grace Cathedral, no dinner out on Christmas Eve. We even dispensed with the Christmas Tea. Never the less, Tom was missed and Christmas Eve is when it hit my mom. I felt it Christmas Day. Although a bit numb, we made it through. It’s now behind us.

Yet here I am a few weeks later sorting through a stack of greeting cards and I’ve come across a stack I bought for Tom. Last year at this time I made a mini resolution to send Tom  a card every week to let him know I loved him. I wanted him to know I was in his corner, rooting him on. But time ran out. Sadness grips me again as I am reminded it’s not behind me: it never will be.

One of the cards had these words written on the cover, “Your strength may surprise you. The rest of us already know.”

It’s perfect and I wish I had sent it to him. I can’t send it to anyone else. I’ll keep it and think of him each time I read it. I also can reflect on how surprised I am by my own strength as my grief evolves as each month goes by.

Philadelphia Freedom

Tom was a life-long musician and music lover. When we were kids, he had stacks and stacks of 45s, LPs, and cassette tapes, but the first record he bought was Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John. I can’t remember the first 45 I bought, but for Tom it was a defining moment. I remember spending Sunday afternoons laying on the living room floor listening to Casey Kasem’s top 40. Tom would have his finger poised over the buttons on his stereo waiting for Kasem to stop talking so he could press “record” and tape the latest hit.

Many of my memories of Tom involve music. When we were young, he made mixed tapes which he took very seriously – carefully choosing which songs would be included and in what order. Later that passion and talent morphed into trying his hand as a DJ.

Tom was also a cellist. He played in Junior High and High School, and also played in our local symphony along with adults. He was really good. It’s awesome to see someone you love take pride in that which they truly excel and enjoy.

Several years ago he had an opportunity to buy some equipment and take a few years off from work to pursue making his own music. He also DJed at a few events and parties. It wasn’t the kind of music I really get into, but he loved the creative process and it gave us a chance to work together (I created the artwork for one of his DJ parties).

When I moved to San Francisco, Tom flew out to Ohio and drove with me to California. When you spend hours in a car together, at some point you have to listen to music. I wasn’t a fan of Tom’s dance and trance music and he wasn’t thrilled with my love of classic and alt rock and blue grass. But we managed to find common ground: Billy Joel, Rush, Queen, ABC, and, of course, Elton John.

When I listen to Philadelphia Freedom it reminds me of Tom, but not just because he like the song. The upbeat, fast tempo sounds like Tom’s personality. He would have loved this version of Elton John singing with an orchestra. He probably heard it at some point.

I love that music, in general, reminds me of Tom. And I love that I can listen to specific songs and still feel connected to him.

Tom and his cello | Kinren Chronicles

A boy and his cello circa 1980.

Always Go to the Funeral

Although he had definite beliefs about God, Tom wasn’t much of a church-goer. So, rather than a traditional funeral, we held a “celebration of life” for him seven weeks after he passed away. The room we booked for the event was packed with Tom’s friends – all of whom loved him and were willing to share stories, give us hugs, and tell us how much he would be missed. It was very cathartic to eavesdrop on them as they had their own moments of joy remembering a funny anecdote, or sorrow as they expressed disbelief. Their attendance – not only Tom’s friends but also my parents’ friends and my friends – was a gift to us. It showed us the value of Tom’s life and it let us know we were not alone in missing him.

In her essay, Deirdre Sullivan shares how she came to her life philosophy. Always go to the funeral: you do it for the family.