Clyde

Five years ago, when I knew I’d be losing my hair anyway, Bernie advised me to chop it all off in advance. Getting used to short hair was prudent preparation, and honestly, the thought of long, blonde clumps circling the drain was more than I could handle. Katherine booked an appointment for me at a fancy salon. I still have no idea how she convinced them to squeeze me in, just two days before Christmas. Well, I guess I do. It’s very Katherine to chase down Boston’s most famous hairstylist in Beacon Hill to insist on a favor for a friend. Appointment secured, April came to fetch me, and we drove into the city on a dark, snowy afternoon.

That night in the fancy salon was blurry. I chose an edgy, short hairstyle out of a magazine. I was terrified I would start sobbing. Suddenly, there was someone who didn’t look like me in the mirror. I don’t remember paying (thanks, guys). April and I returned to the car, and it wasn’t there. We navigated slushy streets in the wrong shoes to find an ATM and then a cab to the sketchiest parts of a city where cars are towed. We paid the scary man, found the car, and shared nervous could-it-get-worse?? giggles the entire way home.

A month later, a few days before surgery was scheduled, my short haircut was getting shaggy. But I wasn’t going to return to the fancy salon on Newbury Street for a trim. It was time to come clean with Clyde.

Clyde had been my go-to guy for a quick cut and color since 2007. Back then, I was a walk-in to his studio as an exhausted, frumpy-feeling mom of tiny boys. I needed to mask the gray and just wanted to feel pretty, dammit. Clyde promised me this would be easy, as I was already pretty (and now I already loved Clyde) and he also assured me fabulous hair for small money in a short time. We were fast friends and I’ve been a regular at Clyde’s station for a decade.

A typical exchange with Sandy, the front desk receptionist:

“Hey, it’s Britt… can I get in with Clyde, like, TODAY?”

“Hold on babe…. yep. When?”

“1 o’clock?”

“You got it.”

“Really?”

“You know he’ll squeeze you in whenever you want, doll.”

My girly readers will attest there can be quite a bond between a gal and her hairdresser. Geez, there are entire movies centered on conversations in swivel chairs and over contoured sinks. Though I will watch Steel Magnolias every time it is on and love the idea of being a regular at Truvy’s, Clyde is a true departure from any stereotype you have of a hairdresser. Picture an extra from The Sopranos: slicked back, black hair (when he had it), sleeve tattoos, and a Harley. Clyde is Andrew Dice Clay in a beauty parlor.

After umpteen hours in his chair–over most of the years of my marriage– Clyde could quote my mother-in-law and recite the list of all of the extra Asians we’ve housed over the years. He even talked Shmo out of pink hair when he knew she was applying for jobs. Clyde and I shared similar taste in binge-worthy television programming and agreed that kids should never be forced to eat broccoli but should be dragged to Church regularly. We covered all of the topics.

After too many months without seeing Clyde, I booked my appointment, showed up with hair he hadn’t cut, and confessed.

“I cheated on you.”

“Sit down. What’s going on?”

That’s when I told him I had cancer. He understood entirely how I couldn’t ask him to lop off the hair he’d been perfecting for years. I knew he’d be too sad for me. And if Clyde was choked up, I’d start sobbing, and I only had so much Ativan, and that’s how close we are with the dear ones we choose to tend to our hair. It’s an oddly intimate relationship some of us have to the talented folk who know us well enough to forbid bangs.

Last night Sandy called me at home. Clyde is gone. A brain aneurysm means I will never see Clyde again. He was only 48.

I’m sad. I’m praying. I’ve been writing since midnight.

I have an irrational (?) need for his closest family and friends to know I loved him, too. Likely there are so many of us who have relied on him for years, have marveled at his talent and speed, and loved him, too. Clyde has been on the sidelines of my silly life—making me feel prettier when I felt invisible, literally shaping my recovery, and always telling me I was a cutie.

Clyde is gone, but I take solace knowing Clyde knew I thought he was fucking amazing. I hugged him hard, tipped him hugely, and only ever cheated on him with a fancy salon once. I told anyone who asked that no one was better at color than Clyde. Six years ago, I even yelped it, earning him a shout out from the corporate office.

“Do you really think I’m actually that awesome? I mean, no one has ever written a review like that for me.”

“Clyde, you’re fucking amazing.”

“Alright. YOU said it.”

And I’m so glad now that I did.

Day of Beauty Three

Hair by Clyde.

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Dreaming

In the dream, Joe picks me up like a little girl… high over his head… beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me up to the ceiling.

“Put me down,” I tell him. “You’re going to pop my implants.”

Joe laughter. Loud, unbridled joy guffaws from Joe. I’ll miss that the most.

Joe’s last will and testament directed The Stockpeople to join the extensive Burke clan and other good friends to celebrate his life. So we did just that, meeting in gorgeous Shoreham, his childhood home. We came from all four corners of the country to live like nuclear Stocktons before there were any husbands or babies or faraway jobs. The only thing missing was a golden retriever. It was exhilarating and exhausting, full of giggles and tears, ocean panoramas and pink skies. It was perfect.

My favorite eulogy was from Nancy. With classic Burke humor and love, she reminded us that Joe’s bigger-than-life persona included a larger-than-human ego. Joe was quite aware of his handsomeness, seductiveness, magnetism, and crowd-wowing abilities. He wasn’t perfect (who is?), but we adored everything about him. I read The Joy Vacuum out loud. I couldn’t get through that without ugly, gasping tears. But Joe appreciated things that were real… even if they were messy. So there was that.

I miss them already: Erin’s not-aware-how-stunning-they-are daughters, the overtall boys, the staggering beauty that accompanies the Burke genes. Why didn’t we do this sooner? We kept asking ourselves that. Joe probably had, too, as he traveled thousands of miles to visit everyone– one last time. Did he know we’d do it? Did he know we’d quit work early, board planes and ferries, rent houses, and buy cases and cases of wine? Maybe not. But if he knew we did (and we think he knew), it was just what he had imagined. We loved each other all over again and for the first time.

It was supposed to rain. Instead: this.

Joe's Sunset

One thing Joe did beautifully in his later years was to live soberly, with purpose, mindfulness, awareness, and kindness. In the past five years, Joe had introduced me to a handful of people I now call friends. If Joe thought you should probably know so-and-so, he’d broker the introduction, and then watch with great satisfaction as it all played out the way he knew it would. At his own memorial service, we could feel him mayonnaise-smearing his joyful love all over us, forcing us into a huge Dagwood sandwich of piled up people—messy and delicious.

*          *          *

At least an hour late, the Burke family pulls up to the Stockton home, noisily spilling out of the family car. Joe’s body fills the frame of the doorway, and announcing in his made-for-radio voice he bellows, “THE LOUD FAMILY IS HERE.” I’m 11. He picks me up, beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me to the ceiling.

I don’t want him to put me down.

The Joy Vacuum

Every photo picks at the wound. Every memory aches. Every time I think of you, gone, I stop breathing. But then I smile. And then I cry. And then I go back to Facebook to find your community—your ministry of fun and kindness—to pick at the scab some more. This is where we are today, Joe. Scab picking.

You’d want me to write about it. That I know. You told me some of your best writing flowed through tears. Where you are now is beyond the effects of flattery and clever words conceding your awesomeness. But here on our little island home, we still need them. I want to fill this huge hole, this joy vacuum, with thousands of words that say, “Me, too! I loved him, too! He was the best, most human of humans.”

You were one of Dad’s best friends. The two of you, so different except for the irreverent joy you brought to every room. The two of you, so smart and loyal and hilarious. The two of you, holding court, poking fun, quick to hug, slow to end the party. Booming voices, huge laughter, enormous personalities… the Heroes of my Youth.

It’s so quiet, Joe. Jay and Heather told us about your perfect day. The best haircut, the promise of Spring, and the choice to walk home. (You’re Home now.) That helps us. So does your manifesto from July, presciently outlining this exact moment. There was no “glide path” for you. Neither fear nor anger at Nature’s timetable, you planned the ultimate road trip. I’m happy I was on one of the stops. Reading one of your essays feels like a visit with you, but actually pressing Burke flesh is food.

We’re a little bit more like you today. We’re making plans to be with each other and do the things we say we want to do… or at least figure out if we really want to do those things. We’re reaching out to everyone in your joy orbit to grieve together and marvel at the girth of your Spirit, the enormity of your Love. I think you’d like that.

Before I was born, you promised Dad to help paint my nursery. There was so much discussion about the wall paint, Chris thought that was my name. I’ve been WallPaint since birth. Except when I was Mewhinney. Or Blondie. Or whatever popped into that clever, fun-loving noggin of yours… and usually stuck. We could fill pages with the silly monikers you gave us. We’ll probably do that. We’ll do lots of things to make you feel closer. Anything to make the joy vacuum suck less.

I miss you viscerally, Joe. Though you had made peace with moving on, I wasn’t ready. But we’ll get there. Just a few more scabs, Joe. And then we promise to get to the hugs and giggles and some sort of serenity. Benny is going to help. Look at this kid so obviously infused with Joe-ness.

Benny

Me too! I loved him, too! He was the best, most human of humans!

I love you in that forever kind of way… your admirer, your friend, your Mewhinney, your WallPaint.

 

 

Grief, the sixth sense.

The Goddess

She stretched her long legs on the towel and coated them with Johnson’s Baby Oil. Her sun-streaked hair went past her freckled shoulders and when she wasn’t wearing her glasses, Patty was the sexiest girl at the Elk’s Club pool. She let my big sister and me tag along. Paige was thirteen, but I hardly remember a time when her figure and demeanor weren’t an all access pass to the older kids. But at age 11, I was little. I hung on every word Patty spoke—to Paige, and to Patty’s friends who were also exotically adult with their bikinis and bits to fill them. I wanted desperately to understand what they thought was so funny, learn the words to their favorite songs, and smoke those menthol cigarettes that filled them with a cool worldliness. I wanted to be both giggly and blasé about Boys. But I was still so little.

I was 11. Patty was… a Goddess.

I was twenty–home from college with one of the boys I encouraged for probably too long– when Patty and John drove up to show Mom and Dad the new baby. Chelsea was still at the put-her-on-a mat-and-stare-at-her stage. And over a few bottles of celebratory wine, I got a glimpse into newly married life. Patty and John made it look ambitiously easy and fun somehow, with their combined smarts and steadfast love. The baby seemed like a drag, but even that they did well: Chelsea was plump and adorable and mostly happy on her little mat. Sitting on my parent’s breezy screened porch behind their plenty big house, Patty said she and John wanted all the same things. I stared at my older, wiser cousin and her handsome husband and perfect child and I knew Patty would have it—all of the good stuff.

It was close to seven years later when Paige called. John was gone. John– Patty’s forever boyfriend who became her forever husband– gone. One hundred thousand no’s. THEY HAVE THREE SMALL DAUGHTERS. Because everything felt sad and helpless and impossible, we got on planes. And when we got there, Patty made all of us feel better. To date I’ve never witnessed a eulogy so full of love and promise and hope and forgiveness. Patty who had every right to be a keening, catatonic widow instead hosted us in the plenty big home we always knew they’d have. John died happy, exploring every passion, achieving every goal; this is a life to celebrate, she taught us. Patty lost her best friend, partner, and husband and she instructed us to honor a life well lived over mourning a life too short. It was Chelsea who broke our hearts, toddling around saying how this uncle or that cousin was “just like her dad” and then growing up to be an aerospace engineer… very much like her dad.

Always the overachiever, Patty found true love twice. Over the years, I have used My Cousin Patty as an example of how Love surrounds us, how Love is always possible, how there are Second Chances for Love. But that isn’t fair. Were any of us very surprised that Patty would find true love twice? No. Not really.

Patty is a Goddess.

I’m 44 now. Once so young I could never dent her rarefied sphere, now we’re essentially the same age. Seventeen or seventy Patty will always be that gorgeous girl with the oiled legs who graduated early and married young and had it all and lost it all and then found and curated something beautiful all over again. Along the way she has brought two loving, awesome men into our family fold and created five incredible goddess spawn who mirror her intelligence, determination, stubbornness, luckiness, and beauty. Today, on Patty’s 50th birthday, I offer this outsider view of her charmed and cursed and blessed and difficult and gorgeous life. Patty has inspired, impressed, and encouraged me in ways she cannot know. Happy Birthday to the sexiest girl at the Elk’s Club… our Goddess… our Patty.

Patty, on her second wedding day.

Patty, on her second wedding day.

Goddess Spawn

The Goddess Spawn… all five of them.

The Girl in the Hideous Poncho, by Katie McWane Diecker

Katie is a funny, blonde, talented mommy of three lovely children: two earthly blonde cuties, and one darling angel in Heaven. Reading about my Cancer-versary, Katie admitted to a measure of jealousy. Two years later, I have my hair back. But Zachary? Not any number of Zach-aversaries will bring him back. Putting fingertips to keyboard, Katie sent me this collection of paragraphs that she calls her Christmas miracle—the redeeming notion that maybe, after four years, she’s back.

I would like to offer those of you in the gutter of your grief, some hope (I hope). I just felt a Christmas miracle. Of course the best would be to have Zachary home, but recently I just sort of, well…woke up? And of course, I am a totally changed person, woman, mother from losing my biggest dream, my first baby, my Zachary. Sometimes I feel like people can see the grief all over me. Possibly that’s all they see, covering everything like some hideous poncho. But now I see that miracles happen, even to girls in hideous ponchos.

A few weeks ago an old child psychology colleague recommended me for a really great job, and the selling point of my employ-ability was this:

She is one of the funniest people…EVER.

Me? This was me she was advocating. Grief-stricken, Dead Baby Mommy, me? But when I read that cc-ed email, something shifted, and my blonde head started spinning. Wait, I was funny! I mean, I used to be funny. But not anymore. I don’t know how to be funny anymore. Funny stopped at Zachary. But maybe this email suggested that humor (humor!) had begun creeping back in. Great, now they’ll be expecting hilarious emails and witty asides. This is how grief (and human nature) distort otherwise lovely compliments. I wasn’t quite ready for Zachary-cancelling compliments.

But fate (God?) is persistent. Today I was at work with three people I spend more time with than my two small children. As a voice director for animation, we work hard, fast, and precisely to meet deadlines, simultaneously preventing those pressures from sapping our creativity or performance. I sit beside a recording engineer and we work in tandem, with a producer and casting director behind us. It’s Hollywood and badass and also tedious and repetitive. I love it.

Today was our last session before the holiday so we were unwinding, saying things we normally wouldn’t say, collapsing into the friend zone and sharing the best sort of inappropriate insights about our industry and the challenges of finding work. The casting director said, “You know Katie, you could be an actor.” Hmmm, “Yeah, I used to be, but I just don’t know what my ‘thing’ is, you know? You have to know what you are best at in order to sell yourself.” My engineer nearly slapped me in the arm

C’mon Katie you’re funny! TV needs you. You’re like Lucille Ball!

And now I’m crying. For the first time, I realized I’m back. Not because I’m ready to stop being Dead Baby Mommy, but because the world doesn’t see me that way anymore. I have a little boy in Heaven guiding our family, but I am a woman that no longer wears her grief first. It’s no longer the prow of the family ship. I’m not sure if any of this makes sense, but maybe it will to those who feel that sadness defines them, owns them. And my hope (my Christmas wish) is that your losses will come back. Though earthly losses remain, our personal ones can be filled with the love and appreciation of people who really see us under our hideous ponchos. My Zachary is gone, but I’m still here… laughing with other people. This happens. It’s a proof of love in the world, or the power of humor, or the grace of God. But this happens.

STOCKINGS

The Diecker house is trimmed for Christmas cheer, and love, and laughter… with a stocking hung for Zachary. Merry Christmas, friends.