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There are some things going on in this world that bother me ... that offend me ... that don't make sense, and never will. I dedicate this site to those who seek truth even where it is difficult to find, and who are willing to agree and disagree in principle, while steadfastly refusing to let irrelevant detail overshadow core truth.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Janice

This is a departure
from my previous posts;
something much more personal.

She was unique; a child set apart from her peers by a fierce commitment to self, so rare among us. Even when it does manifest, it usually takes much longer to develop than had been invested in her brief time with us, a lifetime of a mere twenty-two years. In fact, it was only in her passing that we really began to appreciate the wonder that was Janice.

Her mother, Susan, and I began as second-degree friends, bonded by common tie to another, her best friend … my girlfriend. We were each engaged in our own youthful relationships, each too quickly consummated in one of those brief teen-age marriages so rampant in the early sixties. Both events were our way of coping with, and escaping, our troubled teen-aged lives, each as the eldest of three from a broken home and an abusive mother. Our respective spouses were convenient and willing, surprising in that both were from complete and enduring families, lovingly attended to the end by their original parents.

Our marriage lasted half as long as theirs, for we didn’t have the benefit of pending child to carry us through the first trivial conflict that effectively severed our pledge, “… until death us do part.” Almost immediately, I became a regular in their home, consuming dinners Susan lovingly prepared, sharing the melodrama of my wife’s transition “to a better man,” and increasing my friendship with her husband, John, as we boisterously studied well into the night, frantic to stay ahead of the draft and our country’s commitment to the Viet Nam war.

I was among the first to know they were expecting a child, as it was a primary catalyst of their marriage. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of Susan’s resentment to my intrusion in their life, an ire that apparently grew in direct proportion to the child in her womb. In retrospect, I do remember a mounting irritability, easily attributed to her discomfort in the last weeks of the pregnancy and first weeks of wanting to create a peaceful environment for the new baby, in spite of the rowdy men carrying on at all hours of the night in their small apartment. My indifference to her discomfort peaked the day they brought Janice home from the hospital. John invited me along, I drove them home, and Susan seethed.

It was not more than a handful of those postpartum weeks that the bubble burst, and John was gone; a conveniently sudden victim to the fear of responsibility, of being a father. There we were, Susan and I, our tenuous bond weakened by my own insensitivity to her discomfort over the previous months, and this incredible child-person, one-hundred percent dependent … a thousand percent gorgeous. It was inevitable. We were married shortly after Janice’s first birthday.

We never had time to fall in love, nor for our friendship to mature to a sustainable level that often fuels successful marriages. We were parents, soon to three amazing young and wholly dependent lives. I was a student; she a mother. Our hands and waking moments were full. Yet our bond was real and we had a run of nearly ten, mostly good years. We finished growing up together, and we grew apart. In the end, we gave up with too little struggle, two-time victims of broken marriages, unprepared to live up to our vow “… for better or for worse ….” Thankfully by then, we were caring friends and friends we fervently chose to remain.

For most, persona evolves much like physical growth. It seems if you’re with children day-in-and-out, you don’t notice the subtle changes and, in retrospect, seldom can remember when that apparently new characteristic wasn’t always present. Janice’s unique character developed sporadically, with significant events cutting a rigid new facet to her mounting complexity, with a clear cause-effect relationship. Once apparent, each new facet was a permanent part of her, and she adhered to it with a tenacity uncharacteristic of the young.

From the beginning, and well into her teenage years, Janice hated being at the center of attention, especially when that attention was focused from beyond the cocoon of her immediate family. It isn’t clear that she was ever completely comfortable with direct attention, although as she matured, her range of tolerance seemed to expand marginally, as ripples in a pond. What parent, or grandparent for that matter, can resist the compulsion to outfit the first daughter with frilly pink dresses and white patent leather shoes? As these prizes were conferred upon her from time to time, the ceremony seemed to startle her even more than it had before, until one day she declared that she would no longer wear dresses, or pretty little girlie things. Not yet three, she was adamant that thereafter she would only wear pants; a conviction she held until after she graduated from high school.

Early on, Janice was not an outwardly affectionate child. Once she outlived the necessity of being held for feedings and such, she rarely sought or offered affection. In fact, clearly her favorite form of giving and receiving love was through gifts. When she received a gift, she knew that she was loved. When she gave one, we knew she was particularly loving and, although it wasn’t necessarily infrequent, it was always with a purpose. Admittedly, there were times when a smidgeon of paranoia would creep in and I would attribute her lack of affection directed toward me to her somehow knowing at a very young age that the person she called Daddy was an imposter.

Then one day, as always through the portal of a significant event, it all changed. Susan and I had long been discussing when and how to explain that I wasn’t Janice’s real father, and that I had adopted her shortly after her mother and I were married. We faced that moment with great trepidation, often postponing it to a better time. After all, she was only eight. How could we expect her to grapple with the complex issues of divorce, adoption and such? And who were we to explain these things? We might have continued to postpone indefinitely, had Susan’s parents not threatened to take matters into their own hands.

So, we carefully set the stage in a manner we hoped would give her the most comfort; created an occasion for just the three of us in the security of our own family room; fed her from her favorite menu; and gave her a small gift to demonstrate our love. The time would never be better, so we waded in.

“Janice, there’s something we’ve been wanting to tell you.”

Big eyes … back and forth … Mom to Dad … back to Mom.

Without verbal consent, we muddled on. “When Mommy and Daddy got married, you had already been born; you were nearly a year old. Mommy was married before, to your real-Daddy.” Unfortunately, the concept of birth-Dad wasn’t a part of our jargon until many years later. I hated saying “real-Daddy” for it seemed to exaggerate my own fear of being less in her eyes.

Then by some miracle, we hit upon the magic phrase that made it all seem right and, to this day, I don’t remember which of us said it, but “Daddy fell in love with us both … he chose us” floated out there, barely audible I am sure. Amazing, that such a simple comment could have had such an effect, but in that moment we both knew that all sense of fear, or worry, or not being normal, or even of too much focus of attention all melted away. She had been chosen. Somehow that was more meaningful, more important to her than anything she may have understood about how babies are made, real parents, whatever adoption meant, who her real father might have been … anything. That she had been chosen was the miracle of the moment and one of those significant life-changing events for Janice.

Almost immediately Janice transformed into an affectionate, openly loving child, most noticeably at first with me, but also with her Mother and even, though less often, with her younger sister and brother, Jenni and Lawson. She would often crawl into my lap and sit there, content, sharing moments in a way that we’d never experienced in the first eight years of her life. She would reach out to touch us as she recounted events from her day, or sit between us as we would read or watch her favorite programs on television. And although there were honest moments when she expressed curiosity about her birth-father, I was Daddy, later just Dad, and that never wavered through the many trials she endured in the next fourteen years. Even when, with my full encouragement, she finally met her birth-Dad, it was a non-event; a mere satisfaction of lingering curiosity; a check-box out of necessity, not longing. She had been chosen, she was loved, and that was all that mattered. Well, nearly all, for she never completely outgrew the sense that whenever anyone gave her something, a gift, it was always taken as a special expression of love. And, growing older was accompanied with a mounting appreciation for expensive gifts.

From the beginning, it was much clearer to her Mother and me than to her sister and brother that she really did love them deeply. To them, it must have manifested more as tolerance than caring, and I’m sure they truly believed that she wholeheartedly subscribed to the concept of a pecking order in families from Dad and Mom to the eldest, and then to whomever had the misfortune of coming thereafter. And they did love her, even if that love seemed to be filtered through the gauze of their not fully understanding their older sister. For her, especially in the pre-teenage years, every interaction with them had a purpose that served her own agenda, or it was a non-event.

Janice didn’t readily admit strangers into her world. Even some of our closest friends were treated with indifference until years later when she began to admit some of our closest and life-long friends into her inner circle. She was considered shy by most, yet all who dismissed her as such missed out on the opportunity to know a truly amazing person. Those who invested the time to break through were rewarded with a deep and lasting friendship.

I continued through school for several years while the kids were young. For three of those years, we lived in the married student housing on the Irvine campus of the University of California. The apartments were incredible. Our three bedroom unit went for $135 per month, all utilities paid. They were arranged in octets, four apartments on the ground floor, four immediately above them, with external wooden stairs leading up to them in pairs. We’d been in one of the upstairs apartments for a few months and had begun to settle into student life with all that it entails. We met friends that remain among our closest, and we continued to share them as friends even through the divorce.

One day a new family moved into the apartment directly below us and we were itching with curiosity about how Janice would react, for we knew she’d never met or interacted with black people in her young life. It didn’t take long to find out. Tim was a graduate student and the head of a newly formed interracial studies department at the university. He was tall and, one must remember this was the late sixties; he had the biggest Afro hairstyle I’d ever seen. We’d invited them up to get acquainted and were sitting in the living room talking when we heard Janice skipping up the wooden steps to our apartment. Susan and I glanced at one-another, we were about to find out how she would react.

Tim was sitting closest to, and with his back to the front door. To get to her room, Janice would certainly notice and have some reaction. The moment hung for what seemed like half-time at the Super Bowl. The door sprung open and in came Janice to the back of Tim’s head. Without missing a beat, she walked on by toward the privacy of her room. In passing her precious little hand reached out and wove through Tim’s abundant Afro … back to front. The moment held interminably, silence permeated the room. Then with a slow, deep, baritone rumble, Tim began to laugh the uninhibited, belly-laugh typically associated with primal humor.

Before Janice’s entry, we’d been talking about our respective families and some rumors that Tim had heard around the university administrative offices about a man abducting young girls near the campus. Fortified with the knowledge of Janice’s shyness and our proper parenting, Susan and I assured him that she would never fall prey to the wiles of a complete stranger, not-withstanding her recent jaunt through his Afro. “No parent can be sure,” says he. “We know our daughter,” said we. And the stage is set for a test. We call her out of the security of her bedroom to answer the tough question, “What would you do if a stranger said, ‘Come here, little girl, I’ve some candy for you.’?” Timidly she emerges around the corner, carefully we pose the question. The eyes flicker between the safety of Mom and Dad, to this unusual, large, dark stranger with whom she had just shared the brief stroke of curiosity. Wanting to please and afraid of giving the wrong answer in front of them, she paused for the longest of moments; then quietly she said, “I’d say … please?”

Throughout grammar school, Janice kept us on pins and needles through the first semester of each year. Countless parent-teacher conferences were based on their belief that she would have to be held back a year. She was not participating in class and certainly was not grasping the material. For the first couple of years, one can imagine, these conferences scared the hell out of us. We’d research tutors and private schools, and invested endless hours working with her on her homework, and with her teachers to eek out whatever special time they could afford her. By the middle of the second semester, she always seemed to rally, managing to squeak through by the end of the year. The teachers were amazed and could hardly say enough about their most improved student; what a dear she turned out to be in the end. Did she have a learning disability? Was she lazy? Unmotivated? We hadn’t a clue. None rang true, and we knew she was a smart little cracker. What then?

It finally dawned on us that her fear of strangers was her nemesis here, each new teacher began as a fright, but through the focus of attention they paid directly to her and the bond she allowed to gradually build to them, she began to work to please them, always managing in the end to catch up to her grade level and graduating on to the next year.

Still, the uncertainty over several months at the beginning of each year was more than we were willing to accept without battle. We were determined to find the secret motivator, something that would entice her to tend to her lessons from the outset. In the process, we stumbled onto another of those life-changing, redirecting moments in her life. One weekend we drove her and her best friend, down to the stables where Peggy kept her horse, well, it was a Pinto pony, actually, named Twinkle. I think it was a setup, but she never confessed. Still, not only did we all fall in love with Twinkle, but we learned in the span of that one trip that Peggy was getting a real-horse (there’s that “real” word again), and would be looking for just the right home for Twinkle … and wouldn’t it be just grand if they both had a horse to ride? To complete the setup, Peggy’s Dad was on hand to explain that the animal was friendly, gentle, well trained and that he’d let it go to us, and us alone, for far less than they were thinking of asking, a mere $300. And he’d teach me how to care for it in the bargain.

We knew we’d been had, but we didn’t let on. We agreed to talk about it overnight and to give him our answer in a day or two. Janice tried to fill our cups with her abundant enthusiasm, but we asked her to give us the time to make the right decision – fait accompli or not – we were committed to looking beyond the momentary impulsiveness to focus on the big picture; cost, time, implications on her studying for school, and more. One of our greatest concerns, aside from the time, was that this would further involve Janice in individual activities; she wasn’t a joiner. We really wanted her to appreciate the benefits of being a part of something larger than herself, to be part of a team.

Epiphany. I like to define it as that moment that comes around three in the morning, after you’ve gnashed and struggled with a concept, your thoughts failing to lead to a meaningful or acceptable conclusion, when you’ve tossed and turned in futile attempt to put it behind you and sleep on it. When the lights finally go out from sheer exhaustion, they pop back on all too soon with the answer that was there all along. Epiphany. Don’t ask me to spell it. Kind and gentle am I, so in lieu of waking Susan up to rehash everything all over again, I jot some notes and table further thought until breakfast in a few short hours, quickly succumbing to the dead sleep of the resolved.

Over coffee and corn flakes, I outlined my plan. We agree. Janice trips in to her parents smiling faces; she knows she’s going to like the answer, even if it turns out to be a compromise of sorts. The deal is simple. She can have the pony and one of us will drive her down to see it every day … but there are three conditions. First, she must take full responsibility for the care and feeding of her new friend. “I don’t clean stalls,” I laid down the law. Second, she can only go to visit Twinkle after she satisfactorily completes her school work each day and that she maintain a reasonable grade in every subject. She must never again give us concern that she might not graduate to the next grade. Third, after school let out for the summer, she had to agree to join a team sport … soccer, softball …anything, and see it through before we would buy the pony. In the meantime, assuming school was going well, she could visit Twinkle each day and begin to learn how to care for this new creature in her life. After careful consideration lasting all of a second, her one-word response, “Deal.”

The first condition was a no-brainer, we could have known that she would care for Twinkle at least as well as she cared for her beloved puppy, Shaun. As for her school work, she had turned on the moment, never again giving us concern that she wasn’t working diligently on her schoolwork. She quickly developed a reputation for not only doing her assignments, but for doing them early, to the point she once turned in a semester’s term paper the week after it was assigned, much to the chagrin of her instructor who patiently tried to explain that the paper was intended to be based on the semester’s class work; that she wasn’t ready to turn it in. Reluctantly, she took it back; turning it in, unedited, on its due date and receiving the passing grade.

For the next thirteen years, she maintained that pace as though each day she might not be allowed to see her beloved pony. Never once did she give us reason for concern that she might not complete her grade, or graduate intermediate or high school. She even surprised us by enrolling at the University of Portland the year after high school, and continued her pattern of vigorous study habits. She was never in danger of being at, or near, the top of her class, but no one worked harder or more consistently to accomplish passing grades, and I think in the end she got a lot more out of her education than those for whom it all came so easily.

As for the team event, Janice blew us away when she chose to join the community swim club as her team sport, the same one that her sister and brother had done the previous summer. Now Janice was an impressive physical presence for her age: tall, small at the waist, with broad shoulders – swimming would have been the right choice, based solely on her physicality. And she was great at the dog-paddle; she just had never swum an official stroke in her life. Who would teach her? How was this going to be a positive experience as she demonstrated her complete lack of understanding for the sport and embarrassed herself in the process? Good going Dad!

School ended and the first swim meet was just a few days away. Our panic on her behalf was mounting daily. Janice was showing the lack of concern of the uninitiated, and we couldn’t remember if she ever had come to watch her sister or brother in their previous meets. Her younger sister, Jenni, and I took her to the pool in futile attempt to teach her the strokes in time and she spent a considerable amount of time, one-on-one with her coach. We didn’t get her into the water for the first meet, or the second as I recall. She always stood back from the pool, watching her team mates swim their little hearts out. But she really wanted that pony. In the third meet, she swam a heat of freestyle and, to our surprise, her strength and natural athletic ability kicked in to serve her well, in spite of very rough form. She didn’t win, but she didn’t lose either; finishing near the middle of the pack.

Over the next several meets she improved with each race, even winning a few white and red ribbons, but as I recall, never a blue in the freestyle. The summer was nearly half gone before we convinced her to try another stroke. She’d been watching and practicing, but it took a long time for her to agree to try any of them in a meet. The first was breast stroke and my recollection is that she took third in her first, or at least her second race; ultimately winning several blue ribbons in the breast stroke.

Then came the backstroke … here she was a natural. In her first race, she came in second to the community champion of her age group, and then never lost to her again through the end of the summer. She was a sensation; her powerful strokes pulling her shoulders nearly out of the water as she distanced herself from the field. And she seemed to really be enjoying herself. At the end of the season she had amassed several ribbons and the admiration of her friends; her bulletin board a colorful array of white, red and blue. Daddy was proud and couldn’t wait until the following summer. I even began to dream about potential high school championships, college scholarships and, why not, the Olympics. The day after the final swim meet, we were all at lunch and I told her how proud she had made me. I asked her if she’d had fun. “Yes.” Did she learn something? “Yes.” Was she looking toward next year and what she might accomplish? “No, I’m done. I won’t have time. Now I’m getting a pony.”

Susan and I didn’t quite reach the ten-year mark before we packed it in. It’s a classic story with enough details to stand on its own, most of it not really important here. Suffice it to say that for the first year or so, Janice, Jenni and Lawson remained with me while Susan explored herself and finally fell in love, igniting a relationship that has flourished over these past thirty years and will endure the rest of their lives. He was and remains to this day one of my very best friends and I cherish the fact that they found in one another that which we all seek, but I had yet to find.

“Mommy has gone on a trip and will be back to see them soon,” was all I could muster, and while I know they pretty much saw through me, somehow they had the grace to allow me to stick to my story until years later when we all filled in the missing pieces. Janice was the least outwardly effected by this, oh so significant transition in their lives. In fact, at the age of ten, she slipped right into the lead female role for the family, cooking and cleaning, and taking Jenni and Lawson to task on all their childhood indiscretions. She was so intent on making the home right for Daddy, she often locked them out of the house until just before I came home from work. And they were none-too-pleased with their surrogate Mom. The space between her and the other two widened a bit, and they clung more to one another to get through this period.

I jumped into the single parent role with vigor, attempting to fill my personal with any number of young ladies, most of whom proved not to be good for me or my children. There was one with some real promise; the kids really seemed to take to her. My response to all that was some kind of silly role-reversal-rebellion – I dumped her, married the wrong lady, dumped her met one of the loves of my life, second only to my present wife who has the unnatural ability to forgive me all of my fallibilities and will be with me to the end (this is a true statement that I add here for my own protection) – and attempted to introduce her to my family of three. Janice nailed it, nailed me for that matter with the simple question, “Dad, is she younger than me?” Point taken, but this marked another major transition in our relationship and the beginning of a transition with all three that I cherish to this day … the transition from them being my children, to them being my friends. I’d always learned a great deal from them, but only at that point was I able to admit it.

There was another transition early in this period, the most difficult of them all. Susan and her husband had bought some horse property in Oregon and were moving the 1,000 miles to enjoy a very different lifestyle than either had ever known. They wanted to take our children (my children!) with them, and they wanted my blessing. Blessing be damned, this papa bear was going to fight for his cubs. Somehow, by the grace that watches over us all, and before it truly got ugly by turning our children into a battlefield, we found the wisdom to ask them what they wanted. Janice answered for them all, and it went something like: “Well, we’ve lived with you for a while and it has been great. But I think I’d like to try living with Mom for a while. You can come up and visit anytime, and we’ll be down here on vacations and stuff.” Janice was really growing up, they all were. I was secure in the knowledge they loved their Dad; but at that point in her life, she really needed her Mom; Jenni wasn’t far behind. And Susan was ready to resume her role as full-time Mom. And so she did; and so they flourished.

Janice had many interests, but there were two that occupied the top strata in her internal hierarchy of importance. She loved horses and cars, primarily high-performance cars – with one notable exception. When she turned sixteen I bought her a brand new, candy-apple red Honda Civic so she could drive herself the twenty miles or so to school. To me it was necessary transportation, but to her it ranked right up there with the Lamborghinis and Ferraris she later came to worship. At the time they were living on some horse acreage just outside of Portland, Oregon; a climate that probably sees more rainy days than dry. Yet for a span of more than three years, virtually every day she owned that Honda, she would get up early in the morning, put a heavy overcoat on over her nightgown, pull on her boots and go out to clean that Honda inside and out, just before she fed the horses. Twice a month, perhaps more often, she would also clean the engine. After three years, the car was pristine, more so than the day I bought it for her, and she ultimately sold it for considerably more than I paid for it.

All too soon, Mom overtook Daddy as the most important person in her life and it lasted until her first boyfriend. But they were always the best of friends; there was an unusual bond between Susan and Janice that was at the same time beautiful and a source of jealousy for her brother and sister. They would shop together, have lunch downtown, exchange clothes, give one another life-living advice … inseparable and dependent friends.

During her last two years of college, Janice decided she needed part time work, and found her dream job – the person tasked with detailing the inventory at Portland’s premier high-performance car lot. Shortly after she started, she was also given the job of picking up new arrivals at Portland’s port of entry and driving them back to the dealership. During these two years she refined her technical knowledge of these and many other high performance cars, to the point she was the resident expert on specifications and performance for every one. Imagine the surprise and embarrassment when, with some regularity, a cocky young man with way too much disposable income would come onto the floor to mix it up on auto specifications with whichever salesman was unlucky enough to draw him. They simply called her up to the showroom and stood back while this pretty, twenty-year-old tomahawked them with details, facts and performance data they couldn’t begin to comprehend. There were rumors that the dealership was going to offer her a sales position when she graduated from college.

Janice was a Virgo, not that I really understand any significance that may have. She was also fastidious and had I said that before I’d declared her a Virgo, those in the know would have immediately drawn that conclusion. It may be the only connection I am capable of drawing between the two. That said, she was the most organized person I’ve ever known. Everything had its place and it seemed effortless on her part to maintain a high level of orderliness that I can’t begin to comprehend or appreciate. Because of her great love for horses, early on she amassed a significant collection of model horses, all shapes, sizes, materials, colors … literally hundreds of them. And every one had its place, all in her room, on book cases, her desk, shelves, tables, the radio, window sills … every level surface had at least one. And never a speck of dust in the room, not even near a seemingly untouched figure in the furthest corner of that room.

Being her all-knowing father, I was always trying to get her to lighten up, play more, and tidy-up less. Whenever I would visit, I’d sneak up into her room and move just one, seemingly unimportant little horse a fraction of an inch or a few degrees from its previous resting place. Or I’d find two nearly identical, actually there were two that were the same as far as I could tell, and swap them taking as much care as possible to reposition each in exactly the same place of its predecessor. Later, as we were lounging around the house and she retired, within moments of her arrival in her bedroom, the silence was broken with the single exclamation, “Daaaaaaaaad!” I swear she had surveillance cameras in the room, but I never found one.

Then one day, at the age of twenty-two, she was gone. It was Christmas, and I was staying at their house while their Mom and other Dad were taking their annual trip to the desert. Janice had grown up, graduating from boys to men, and was dating a fine young man of thirty, who adored her. He drove a Ferrari which was good; what was better was that this wasn’t even in the top ten on a list of his best attributes. Well, at least not my top ten, he was a pretty special young man. I am fairly certain it was in her top ten, albeit near the bottom of that list. She cared for him, but was also determined to graduate from college and start her career before she settled down to marriage. She never admitted to me that she ever intended to produce any grandbabies for us. Some time later, Tom (the boyfriend) confided that he was going to ask her to marry him as soon as she graduated; and to sweeten the pot, he was going to give her the Ferrari as a wedding gift. This guy knew how to get the order!

Tom had been visiting his family in Southern California over Christmas and was flying back late one evening just before the New Year. I had driven up for this visit and Janice was going to pick him up in my new BMW, then spend the night with him. We had dinner and we talked some. She went upstairs to write some letters which we mailed the next day. She gave me a hug, told me she loved me … and she was gone.

Later, after meeting his plane, on the drive out of the airport parking lot, her heart went into arrhythmia and no one got to her in time. Tom was helpless; later unconsolable.

I got the call around 2 in the morning. “Mr. Smith, does your daughter take drugs?”

“Wha … what are you talking about? No, of course she doesn’t take drugs. Who is this?”

“Mr. Smith, there’s been an accident. You need to come down to the Portland General Hospital immediately.”

When I arrived, she was already cold; she’d already left the building. I wept, mumbled my private farewell and went home to tell Jenni and Lawson. Then I had to call her mother; and I don’t remember much of the next few days. Truthfully, I was numb. This is not supposed to happen. Children always outlive their parents. Denial had set in and I found that I was looking for her face on each person I encountered. There were times when I could hear her wicked little cackle that always accompanied forbidden goings-on. I had more I wanted to say and needed to hear. This seemed so final, yet hadn’t provided enough closure for me.

Around the rest of our family and close circle of friends, I was stoic … the rock; had to be; always was; wasn’t about to change now. Alone, I struggled. So unlike me, for one of the few times in my life, I avoided being alone, surrounding myself with people, but avoided the subject; keep busy; denial, denial, denial.

We held the wake at their house … everyone we could think of was there. We wanted it to be a celebration of the person she was; no sorrow-fest for us. We encouraged people to share their favorite stories about Janice. The greatest gift of the day came from the least expected source, in a completely unexpected way. Susan had pulled down one of her many photo albums to reminisce with some of our friends. After a few pages, she’d been telling everyone how Janice had become her best friend, but had to confess that she didn’t know everything she wanted to know. “I don’t even know if she knew about loving a man.” For most of the afternoon, Tom, her boyfriend, had been fairly quiet, responding but not really reaching out. Compelled to speak up, bashfully and gently, he said, “She knew. I’ve brought something to share with you, and this seems like the time to do it.” He went out to his car and returned with yet another album, this one containing not one picture, but rather a compilation of every love note they had written to each other from the beginning. The book was thick, and it was rich with some of the funniest, most heart wrenching, raunchiest and loveable notes – some long, some not so much. Her mother was reading them aloud. “I love you, Tom. I know my parents do, too; because you have a big dick.” We were on the floor, in laughter and in tears. She was with us and I could hear that wicked cackle in harmony with our own tearful laughter; Janice was loving our reaction.

Janice was a woman, and then she was gone. We heard from everyone there that in the 20 or so days before she departed, she had written each of them a wonderful note to tell them she was OK and how much she cared for them. To most of them, she’d written often; some not so often; more than a few never before until this one time. Somehow she knew, and it’s a mystery I’ll never understand but will always remain a part of the wonder that was Janice.

It’s been thousands of days since the night I got that call. Although the pain is perpetual, it is no longer acute. I used to count the number of times each day she crept into my consciousness. She still does, but I’ve stopped counting, and somewhere along the way I’ve learned how to create those moments rather than be surprised by them. Our visits are not profound or prophetic, no glimpse of the other side, no “I’m OK” or “I’m in a better place.” Yet somehow I accept these truths, content that confirmation will accompany my own transition in due time. Her visits are seldom visual or audible, generally a comforting presence and exchange of thoughtful emotion. Mostly, I keep them to myself now; it’s what I do.

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