The Presence of Absence – or, Bookends of BoDeans

…absence is a thing – a weighted blank thing that lurks … where he should be.

UPDATE

Well, it turns out there will probably never, ever be any reunion of Sam Llanas with the BoDeans, and it appears there’s a real good reason on top of the ones originally given – how sad – and how creepy, since this band once recorded a song with the lyric, “sweet little Mary was just 13, walking down the street she’d make a good man mean…”

Eeeeeewwww. I debated taking this post down when I heard about this, but the post reflects my experience before I heard of these accusations. Yet I didn’t think it would be right to leave this post as it is without acknowledging that I now know these accusations have been made. I wish I could unknow about them, but I can’t.

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Even if you knew it was coming, the death of a spouse or other family member creates an absence that feels physical; that heavy blank space over there is where he is not.

And it feels like that absence is a thing – a weighted blank thing that lurks in chairs where he should be sitting, over there on the rug where his hospital bed used to be, by the stove in the kitchen where he should be cooking.

I spent the last fourteen months managing that thing, first raging at it, crying and sobbing and panicked by it, hating it, feeling attacked by it, as if it would erase me or reduce me to a shadowy thing myself, some kind of half-being, ghosting around aimlessly. “I’m just a ghost in this house.”

Then I decided to engage it. I started talking to it, taking it out places with me. I created a sort of “memory tour,” attending concerts and events Mike would have enjoyed, trying and many times succeeding in feeling him with me in the car, in the box at the opera or the too-expensive seats at the hockey game.

And I went to see the BoDeans.

Years into our marriage, Mike and I discovered, in casual conversation, that before we met, we had been at the same BoDeans concert at the Riviera Theater in Chicago. I was there alone, he with whoever his then current girlfriend had been.

And Sam was there.

If you haven’t heard this band, go back in time to their earliest albums – Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams, Outside Looking In, Black and White, Home.

But you really should listen to their live compilation album, Joe Dirt Car.  The BoDeans are a kick-ass live band and put on a great live show.

And the lead vocal you hear on almost every song is Sammy – Sam Llanas.

I remember that show at the Riv as just that –  kick-ass rock’n’roll fun – singalongs, clapping, stomping, great time.

That was a long time ago – 1989.

I had put the albums (yes, vinyl) and CDs away years ago, and hadn’t thought about them until last year when I saw a poster around town announcing a BoDeans show – they were playing at a benefit at a community center very close by, and I couldn’t believe my luck at getting a chance to hear them again, and to take Mike’s “present absence” with me, and remember with the memory of Mike what fun it was, to dance and stomp and sing along with this band.

And I went and they put on a full-blown, burn-the-house-down rock-n-roll show with lights and fog and great sound at this recently rehabbed little theater that started life as an elementary school auditorium.

I had a great time there by myself with the crowd, as I had done so many years before.

But Sam wasn’t there.

Because something happened, years before, as often does in marriages, and in bands that have been together for a long time – Disagreement? Jealousy? Misunderstanding? Resentment? Exhaustion? Who knows.

But Sammy wasn’t there – Sam’s voice wasn’t there.

It didn’t really register with me too much last year at that event – the band seemed to stay away from the songs that really had to have Sam’s voice to make them what they were. Or maybe it was the crowd – a liquored-up, wealthy, charity-event attending crowd that knew how to party and was on their feet, dancing and singing along the whole show (so this is how rich people party? Oh, OK. Pretty cool. And for a good cause.)

And then this year, by accident again, I found that the BoDeans were playing within reasonable driving distance, almost exactly a year (less one day) from that show I went to in memory of Mike.

So I went, and this time I knew that Sam wouldn’t be there.

And his absence was very present for me this time.

Maybe it was the geriatric nature of the crowd – they just wouldn’t get up and dance, even with the bar open, until after the break, when several women of a certain age, dressed as if in memory of their younger years, got up to shake and bounce what they had, groupie-dancing down by the stage.

And I was shakin’ it in the aisle, dressed in my own recently-achieved too-tight jeans and shirt, trying to remember the fun, but hearing that live album, Joe Dirt Car, in my head, and missing Mike, and missing Sam.

There were some fun moments – a Tom Petty tribute inserted in the middle of the show, some amusing musical quotes of other artists, and the sing-along songs that depended more on the crowd than on Sammy’s voice. And although geriatric, the crowd at least managed some singing along.

And then the band did a song called “Naked.”

I can think of a lot of BoDeans songs, “Black, White and Blood Red” or “Going Home,” or “Far, Far Away from My Heart” or “Misery” that require Sammy’s voice, but none more than “Naked.”

It’s about sharing your secrets, committing to not holding back in a relationship – at least that’s what I hear in it – “I’ll stand naked with you, you’ll stand naked with me too.”

And when Sammy sang it, there was a raw, raspy desperation in the sound, like he really was tearing himself open.

You just can’t sing it without that – without Sam.

So you have a choice – don’t sing it.

Or forgive, forget and ask Sammy to come back.

Because he can. He’s right there in Wisconsin. It would have been a few hours drive, no more.

Mike can’t come back.  He can’t come with me to a BoDeans concert, ever. In fact, after our child was born, we never went to a rock show together. He’d go to shows he wanted to go to, and I’d go to mine, and whoever wasn’t going was staying home with our child because we didn’t use sitters, not with our special needs child – our beautiful, vulnerable amazing child.

So we switched off, took turns – called it a “shift change,” when I got home from work, and he, exhausted from a day of cooking, cleaning, playing, shopping and chauffeuring, retreated upstairs to read and relax.

No shift changes for me anymore. Adult child is far less vulnerable now, and I’m doing the best I can at my job of enabling greater independence, but each day there’s still, “A day without Dad. You ok Mom? You’re here in this world, the first world, with me? Right? You’re not going, you’re here. You’re good.”

Yes, my lovies, for as long as I possibly can be. I’m here right now, for you.

But Mike can’t be here for me, or for our child, anymore.

Life is short. Forgiveness is worth it.

I have to wait until the end of my life for a reunion, but you guys don’t.

And I find now that the presence of Sam’s absence in that band means I just can’t see them again. And listening to Joe Dirt Car just makes me sad now, thinking about the permanent presence of absence.

Because Mike’s not here for me, and he can’t be, and he can’t be here for our adult child either, and the best I can say is “remember what Dad told you? Dad’s love never ends.”

And it doesn’t, but it is so hard even for a neurotypical person to understand that, and to feel the abstraction of love from the next world.  How can I help an autistic person understand that?

My year of dating Mike’s shadow, his present absence, is over, and I’ll have to find something new, a new band to follow or maybe a new person to love, to be a presence for the two of us, now.

But I’ve been honest with our child – we’re never going to stop missing Mike, or stop feeling incomplete, without him. That is a present absence we will just have to absorb, and carry, within and around us, every day. We can’t add anything or anyone that will take that absence away. We can only try to love what we carry – memory and hope and whispers of love in songs we hear in this world as Mike’s messages from the next.

Grief and Grace

Grief consumes memories … And in Grace lies the hope to be, or to become, free of regret.

“Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

-Leo Tolstoy

Mike actually read Tolstoy. War and Peace, long before we were married. After he got sick he asked me to buy him several classic books, things he could read through the hours of infusions.  Anna Karenina was one of them, along with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He made it through five of the six volumes of the latter before he lost the strength to read anymore. I haven’t yet tried to take up either or any of those.

He was an exceptional reader – but he very rarely dove into novels like those classics. If he wasn’t reading chess books or poetry, he was reading literary criticism, or politics or history. Dense tomes that I found, at best, uninteresting; at worst, impossible – I was exhausted just looking at some of the books he read.

There are so many things I admired about Mike, and so few times I told him that. He didn’t like expressions of gratitude or appreciation. No matter how genuine or heartfelt, he seemed to believe these offerings were fundamentally insincere. I don’t know why.

Substitute the word “marriage” in the Tolstoy quote above, and you will reveal a truth that grief consumes – the memories of the petty battles and the major ruptures that occur in any long marriage that are unique to that marriage. But in grief, the weight of those things evaporates to reveal the longstanding love beneath. And in grace lies the hope to be, or to become, free of regret.

In the large and varied autism community there is a saying: “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual on the spectrum is different from every other. Unique. There is no “generic” way to understand an autistic person.

Likewise widows. I’ve started reading other widows’ blogs, and the thing that hits me of the few I’ve seen so far is how very different each experience of widowhood is from mine. Not just the widow’s age, or the manner in which the spouse was lost, or the length of the marriage, but the many ways a widow’s life changes and the new challenges she faces.

One wrote about having to do things she hadn’t had to cope with before – buying a car, fixing things around the house, etc. Nope, I always had that role. Mike was a stay-at-home Dad, and a fantastic one; just the right guy to raise a child with autism. He was a great cook, a genius at finding free, entertaining things to do with a child who needed special care, and a music lover always discovering new, interesting bands and artists and sharing that music with a child who never forgets a lyric or who sings it.

But he was not what you’d call a “handy” guy.  If it required set-up, assembly or repair it was usually me who handled that, unless brute strength was called for (with the notable exception of an incredibly complicated model roller coaster I bought years ago for our child for Christmas – he set that thing up in a marathon session, and when he was done and it worked, he said, with triumph and glee, “didn’t think I could do it, did ya?” He also took charge of the Christmas train at the base of the tree. I haven’t tried to set that up without him). I set up the computers and the router, fixed the toilets and figured out how to program the remote. Maintenance Mom. He was Fun Dad.

And Fun Husband, too. We laughed together a lot – sitting together in our little library room listening to Mozart or Bach, we’d read aloud to each other, passages we thought were hilarious. I’d read snippets of Patrick O’Brian to him, he’d read John Ashbery poems to me.

Another widow wrote about coping with family members or friends who had objections to how the widow was performing her widowhood. There are Expectations and people who feel entitled to impose them on the widow.

Not for me. It was, pretty much, all on me. There were four people at the burial – myself, our adult child, the hospice chaplain and my regular pastor. I made all the arrangements and all the decisions, alone.

That’s a long story – too long for a blog and wrong for a blog that is about learning to live a daily life of love and laughter. I’m working on telling that long story in a book. A book that I hope will inspire laughter with the pain. A book that will certainly establish my bona fides as a ridiculous woman.

But when I write about my Mike here, I want to remember and honor the Mike I knew at the beginning of our relationship and the end – both before we were married and when the weight of years of marriage evaporated – on the day he decided to accept hospice care.

That day happened to be my birthday.

And the hospice care was at home. Visiting nurses.

The doctor told him he had three to six months. Mike optimistically chose to hear the six month part.

The nurse told me that based on her experience and how he looked, he had, maybe, six weeks.

He died at home just short of eight weeks later.

But those eight weeks were the best eight weeks of our marriage, where, as he described it when he had the energy to write, the bubble of tension between us burst, and the love was there, revealed, still glowing, and we knew that even though it was weird to believe this, the cancer was at least in this way, a gift.

On my side, our relationship and my return to church, started as an expression of gratitude. I went back to church because I was grateful that I had met Mike. That there was, it turned out, finally going to be a guy for me.

And our relationship ended in gratitude, for the chance to remember how we loved each other, out from under all the crap that builds up over the years, all the day-to-day squabbles and the year-to-year strains. Gratitude, forgiveness and love.

It shouldn’t have taken losing Mike to bring these back to the surface of who I am. And it shouldn’t take so much work to keep them there. But that’s what grace is for. I’m counting on that.