Pipeman: On Driving My Daughter to School for the Last Time


My dear Amelia-

I have to say that I was slightly relieved that I didn’t know it was your actual last day of high school, the last time I would ever drop you off,  until you reminded me later that night.   If I HAD known I would have been an emotional basket case with running commentary, undoubtedly annoying the hell out of you,  pointing out with intentional dramatic effect, each tree, each light, each house, saying “This is the last time we’ll ever pass that on our way to school.”  Never again will we pass that hoarder’s house with its always growing number of broken down cars and random objects with you accusing me of always looking at it out of the corner of my eye (I mean really, how could I help myself?)

Our car rides were often the place of magic.  I had you captive for those 10 or so minutes, 5 days a week, and if you were so inclined you’d share things with me that were of great importance to you, whether if be a crush on a boy, concerns for a friend, or the magic of attending a music festival, your happy place.   You’d ask me how those in positions of power could possibly deny climate change, take away a woman’s right to choose, and why nothing was being done about gun control.  I loved those conversations.

Well, and then there were those drives where we were already so angry with each other, the residual fallout from whatever argument we had already had at home, when doors had already been slammed, where we’d drive in silence.  Just know, and never forget, that even during those days, I would always watch you as you walked across the crosswalk, all smiles and poise, and marvel at how spectacular you are.

I’ve been driving you to school for 17 years traveling from SEVEN different homes, each with its own distinct route.   When you were a toddler and I picked you up from pre-school, I would watch you for a little while before you knew I was there, playing in the sandbox, and when you’d notice me, you’d drop your shovel and bucket and  run to me with those little legs and joy on your face.  Thanks for still being happy to see me when I show up.

And this brings me to Pipeman, an almost daily fixture on our ride for the past three years.   I think at the beginning we were most impressed by how he could walk with that pipe in his mouth, puffing on it like an expert, never once removing it during his walk to the train.  Not only was he a gauge of how late or early we were, he was a point of fascination for us both.  I was so proud of myself when after several months of speculation I figured out that because he was carrying what was clearly an instrument that he must have been a part of the Boston Symphony.  I’m sticking with that story.  When we didn’t see him for long stretches I explained that he must have been touring the world, an expert at whatever instrument was packed into that small case.

I’ve asked you to write about Pipeman many times, to try and construct the details of his life and here’s what I’VE decided:  He comes home after rehearsal or a performance, pours himself a glass of scotch over ice and sits in a big leather chair and recaps his day with his wife who is undoubtedly very smart, probably either a college professor, a librarian or physics whiz.  That to me will always be Pipeman.

And so my sweet Amelia, there will be drives, a bit longer, to and from college where we’ll have the chance to catch up on so many things, listening to some amazing “fun” music, you by my side.  Your Spotify playlists will have morphed and expanded  into music so integral to the college experience, the inevitable Neil Young and Pink Floyd phase. You have earned and worked so hard, keeping your eyes on the prize of the place you knew you’d fit in the most.  I will miss you beyond words.

I and love and you.  Forever.



There Is No Shame In Spam: Eulogizing My Father


Howard Saks was my father for 51 years.  In three days it will be the first time I don’t get a phone call from him saying “Happy Birthday daughter.”

I’m now experiencing my father of 51 years in snapshots and sound bites so bittersweet they have been stopping me in my tracks at unexpected moments.

Dad had a zest for life and an evangelical passion behind everything he did.   If he loved something, he wanted to share it with everyone around him.  Growing up on Long Island Dad exposed all of his children to the culture that Manhattan offered.  He took me to fancy restaurants where he would order his then signature drink, a perfect Rob Roy straight up with a twist and me a Shirley Temple.  We went to   the theater, the ballet, museums, and even though I was young, I think I instinctively knew that he wanted to instill in me an appreciation of the things that mattered to him.  And it worked.

I remember when I was at boarding school he sent me a rather generous Amex giftcard.  I chose to take my roommate to The Russian Tearoom in Manhattan,  a place I had been to with him before.  I felt so sophisticated, so privileged at being able to do this.  She and I will never forget that meal.

On Sunday mornings Dad would sneak out of the house and partake in a weekly and mysterious ritual, a hunting and gathering of sorts that resulted in something akin to a Jewish Harvest. Instead of gourds and dry corncobs on our kitchen table there appeared heaps of bagels, lox, cream cheese and chives, whitefish and creamed herring.  This essentially gave us a good reason not to interact with the outside world for the rest of the day as our fishy breath would scare off even the strongest of men.   This food, given the choice, would be the main components of my last meal.

On only a handful of occasions I’d wake up to the smells and sizzling of Dad cooking in the kitchen. I’d come downstairs and see him, standing over slabs of perfectly rectangular patties, spatula in hand, the blue can with that I icnonic name off to the side—SPAM.      I can’t remember him cooking anything else, but, let’s face it, his mother Evelyn was no Barefoot Contessa. He explained the history of it, something about rations, giving me some sort of justification for this diversion from his more public standards.  I’m not sure where it was kept hidden in our house and even though Spam is really just a salt lick in a can, it is rather delicious.  Dad, there is no shame in Spam.

We all know that Dad was a brilliant man who was a seeker of knowledge until the end.  I can still picture the bookcase in the den where we lived on Long Island,  the titles on the colored spines.  Many of them made the journey to California with him, and I have smiled at those familiar titles just relocated to another shelf.   Not only did he instill a fierce love of reading in me, but for years he sent my daughter boxes of books from Amazon that he handpicked from the young adult New York Times bestseller’s list.  Her bookcase is now overflowing with those choices.

Dad was also a writer.  About once a month he would creep down to our basement to write a column for a highly respected industry publication.  This “column writing” was a big mystery to me since it was done deep in the bowels of our house, a place where I hardly ever went.  We knew not to bother him until there was an equivalent of an all-clear sound.  All of Dad’s children are excellent and expressive writers.  He would be so happy to know that when my daughter Amelia spoke to him for what would be the last time, upset and moved by hearing his very weak voice, the first thing she did afterwards was scramble around for her journal and pencil so she could write down her feelings.

When it came to learning, we weren’t allowed to be lazy. When I would ask what a word meant, instead of telling me the definition he would insist that I look it up.  When I said I was bored, he would say, “Read a book,” the same thing I say to my daughter now.

When I was in my senior year at boarding school in Mass, the one and only time I got a D on a report card, I was so nervous that I asked my stepsister to throw it away when it came in the mail.  I don’t know if that actually happened but it’s the story I’ve been telling ever since.

In case you hadn’t heard Dad LOVED Syracuse University.  I am a proud graduate, my nephew Ryan is, and his granddaughter Zoe is.  At least once a year he would ask me, “So Gayle, do you think your Syracuse education prepared you for the world?” or “Did you enjoy your time at Syracuse?”  I would say, “yes Dad, yes Dad” and it did (so, I was a journalism major and now I work with recovering drug addicts—but I’m excellent with writing about addiction!)  I just loved that he was so happy that I was quite literally walking in his footsteps.

The year before I graduated  a brand new Student Center was built.  I knew Dad had made a significant enough donation to have a small room named after him.  It was not an easy call to make to tell him that I had just stumbled upon the room he had named and it was the new meeting space for the Jamaican Student Society.

Dad was probably the last man on earth who still cut out articles from newspapers, put them in an envelope, hand addressed them and sent them off.  When I was caught smoking in boarding school he I would get these hand addressed envelopes, hold them up to the light to see if there was a check in them, only to find articles that might as well have just said “You are going to die!”

When I rescued my first dog, a pitbull right before my daughter was born, the articles became about pitbulls who bit off children’s faces.  My pitbull happened to be so fat and lazy that she could hardly move and didn’t have a mean bone in her body, unless you happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses.

And, when I started working with inmates, I would get lovely articles about how the type of work I was doing made a huge impact.  He was proud.

The best part about getting letters from Dad, and Dad wrote a LOT of letters, was this little self-portrait.  I miss his sloppy cigar kisses.

Dad had let’s just say, some less “refined” passions where he was equally as authentic.  He turned into a complete stranger at Rangers games when, holding a cheap plastic cup of beer he would scream at the top of his lungs at a ref who he thought had made a bad call “You bum!  BOOOOOOOOOO”  Then, on the way home on the train, I would laugh as he would fall asleep, head tilted backwards and snore, apparently  exhausted from these bursts of a different sort of passion.

One of my absolute favorite memories of Dad was him sobbing into a couch pillow after watching “The Champ.”  So, yeah, I cried too, but boy did we laugh at ourselves for our crying.

When Dad moved to LA, undoubtedly wearing plaid polyester pants and a mismatched polyester shirt, he embraced his new homelike he did everything else.  He would call from his car phone on the way home from work, practically giggling that it was even possible to do so in the first place, and use the word “glorious” a lot to describe the weather and his new surroundings.

“Gayle, I’m making my way up Beverly Glen on this glorious day and I’m talking to you from a phone in my car!” He had left his beloved Rangers in the dust and got season tickets to the Kings.  He discovered his new favorite restaurants, and met his partner for life.

Mickey, Mark and Donna, my amazing siblings, there is a huge piece of Dad embedded in all of us.  We are outgoing, confident and really funny.  He was proud of each and every one of us.  His grandchildren are all of those things too.  That doesn’t come from just anywhere.

And finally, Dad used to sing to me at bedtime.  He had a medley like I’m sure most parents do and it always featured “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”   I had a vision of me singing to him when I saw him for what would inevitably be the last time,  holding his hand, but I’m sure I wouldn’t  have been able to without crumbling to the floor.  So, here is what I would have sung, had I had the strength:

Come on and hear, come on and hear Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Come on and hear, come on and hear ’bout the best band in the land
They can play a bugle call like you never heard before
So natural that you want to go to war
That’s just the bestest band what am, oh Honey Lamb
Come on along, come on along, let me take you by the hand
Up to the man, up to the man who’s the leader of the band
And if you care to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime
Come on and hear, come on and hear Alexander’s Ragtime Band


That Time I Brought a Steak Knife To Jury Duty



I’m sitting in a room in a district court with about twenty people who have zero affect.  It’s the most stone-faced and quiet group I’ve ever been part of.  It’s my worst nightmare.

“Would any of you ladies happen to have a steak knife in your bag?”   This question is asked by an older man in a security uniform, the one who body scanned us in the small vestibule as we entered the building (For the record, I have never uttered or typed the word vestibule in my life.)   A man sitting to my left says, “Why, are you going to be serving steak?” and bingo, I had found my other human.

It took about 5 seconds for my brain to register that there was no question that I had to be the one who would inevitably become known during dinner conversation as that “old crazy lady with the knife.  I mean, she looked so NORMAL.”  I picked up my bag and worked my way through the lenswipes and pencil case, makeup bag and small Tupperware of blueberries, two paddle brushes and my paisley pill box and there it was, a steak knife that I had brought to work WEEKS ago to cut into a piece of leftover chicken (It is important to mention here that there was also a butter knife which clearly the security guard didn’t think had the same dramatic effect to announce to the group.)

I think I might have said, “Oh my God,” as I slowly pulled them out from the bowels of my bag (avoiding any sudden movements of course) and handed them over.  I did see one guy smirk as I tried to explain and make light of the whole thing but other than him, the others just looked at me undoubtedly thinking, “Please don’t put me on a jury with that crazy bitch.”  The guard came back and gave me a piece of paper with a number on it and told me I could claim my knives when we were done for the day.

We were then moved into a small basement room to watch the requisite jury duty video with the usual talking heads saying how we should consider it a privilege to be part of our judicial system and when it ended, again, total silence.  A woman was showing off by standing up and doing assorted stretches clearly looking down on the rest of us for sitting there like sloths.  When I texted my husband about the whole knife thing I got his stock response when he’s just a tad disappointed yet slightly amused:  “Oh babe.”

The last time I had jury duty it was in the eighties in the much larger Boston Superior Court with at least ten times the number of potential jurors.  I saw a woman about my age reading Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and started a conversation by saying, “Isn’t that a great book?”  Within a month we ended up as roommates (to people who know me this will come as no surprise) and when she later told me that she and her boyfriend would have frequent sex in front of the mirror in our living room, well, I vowed never to go looking for a roommate at jury duty again.

In the end, we ended up being dismissed, no cases needing a jury that day. I know it’s not ideal and a bit alarming that a man who was scanning our bags as they went through the conveyor belt to have taken long enough for me to have sat down, to spot a potential weapon in my bag.  I’ve worked in a prison before and I probably would have been taken away in handcuffs if that had had happened there.  Sometimes though, things like this need to be categorized as yet another absurdity in a long list that I have been able to laugh at along the way.   And let this be a cautionary tale– leave your steak knives at home in the silverware drawer where they belong next time you get called for jury duty.



The Next Group Photo


“Gayle, you’ve gotta to see this.” I’m sitting at my desk when about five of the guys who live in the halfway house where I used to work come over to me in a collective fit of laughter.  One of them holds a cellphone up to my face and I watch a short video of Matt, the only one NOT laughing, as he rolls what is clearly to become a gutter ball of epic proportions. I watch as he watches from the top of the lane and hear as Rich, the guy filming lets out a giggling, “Whomp, whomp.”

I used to love moments like these, realizing that the guys actually wanted to hang out together outside of the house because they truly liked each other.  I’d listen and smile as they would tell me about who got the highest and lowest scores, and how they almost missed curfew because Keith couldn’t untie his bowling shoes.  When I’d make some sappy comment or say, “Awwwww…” the most cynical of the group would remind me that bowling was sort of a sober substitute for their past lives.  Not that he didn’t enjoy it, but that it was a reminder that life before didn’t involve a curfew or peeing in a cup. He has since died of an overdose.

They’d show me post-AA meeting pictures of them at dinner, empty plates in front of them and glasses of Coke off to the side.  I would find myself fixated on those glasses of Coke and wonder if they were resented as some sort of consolation prize in a night of sober fun.  I’ve since come to the realization that that was me projecting.  I love nothing more than a cold glass of Diet Coke.

Two of the guys had what I used to refer to as a standing “date night” every Tuesday.  They’d get cheap Celtics tickets or go to a Chinese buffet, but it was their thing.  They were very Mutt and Jeff coming from two completely different socioeconomic backgrounds but they had their addiction in common and teased each other mercilessly.  I loved coming in on Wednesdays so I could hear about the night before, one always complaining how he had to shell out the money for the other’s food.  I remember the one time that one of these guys took someone else to a Red Sox game I felt as if he were being unfaithful.

We’ve all since moved on from that halfway house and I’ve kept in touch with many of the guys through social media. I still love seeing pictures of them getting together outside of the confines of  a structured program, two of them at a golf course, a couple of them at a beach, several after an AA meeting in their old neighborhoods.  Some have stayed sober but most have not.  Some have gotten into the endless loop of relapse and new halfway houses,  and new temporary friends to have sober fun with.

I look at the posted Facebook pictures of the guys at dinner with a whole new bunch and examine the faces of the ones I knew from the house.  In some I see joy and in some I see a sense of deep resignation, an exhausted resource of “here I go again.”  For so many of them this has been their lives for so long that they are inured to this folding into another set of prior strangers.  I know from my own life that resiliency can sap the energy from the strongest of us and I hope and pray that these wonderful men’s cycle will be broken and that pictures of them with their actual families, their parents and their spouses and children will take the place of the next group photo.






It’s Not Cancer


“It’s not cancer.”

These words are spoken to me by my (very) handsome surgeon as I’m still emerging from an anesthesia haze in the recovery room after emergency surgery.

“Okay…  That’s good,” I say, never really thinking that it was going to be.  This was a bit of an anomaly for me because I always assumed that anytime I felt something unusual going on in my body that I did indeed have cancer, but for some reason this time it hadn’t crossed my mind.

Several months ago after experiencing some intense stomach pain I went to my PCP who thumped on my distended abdomen for less than 30-seconds, told me to go buy some laxative and sent me on my way.  Five hours later I found myself in an emergency room where after a Cat Scan I was descended upon by two medical staff, had a tube jammed down my nose and into my stomach and was told that essentially, something was strangling my small intestine and I needed to be admitted.

Other than having my daughter sixteen years ago I had never been hospitalized for anything and everything happened so quickly that it was hard to process the flurry of activity– the IVs, the vitals being taken every four hours, the administering of medication and the monitoring of the stuff that nobody should ever have to see that was being extracted from my stomach via the tube.  I vomited repeatedly, something I haven’t done in 27 YEARS and that was more traumatic than any other part of this frenzied scenario.

I became this pliable mass, being formed and shaped into machines, onto cold metal slabs of tables where robotic-like arms took more 360-degree images of my abdomen.  I just did what I was told– let them attach stuff to me, insert more unknown liquids into my IV and accepted the Ativan that was offered to me every once in a while.  I’ve never felt more at the mercy of anything in my life.  It was the ultimate of relinquishing control.

I was naïve enough the next morning to ask during the 6:00 am rounds if I would be able to go home that day.  The doctor and surgeon, without having to say the words, basically let me know that that wouldn’t be happening.  When I begged to have the tube removed just for a little while, and immediately vomited rather violently the surgeon dashed out of the room and came back within ten minutes to tell me that he had put me on the schedule for surgery the following morning.  So, clearly, I wasn’t going home any time soon.

The surgeon presented a few different scenarios but never once mentioned cancer, and neither did I.  The procedure went off without a hitch, taking less than 45-minutes from beginning to end.  An errant band of tissue left over from laparoscopic day surgery in my twenties was causing a blockage and apparently with just one or two snips, the problem was solved and I was released the following day.

Ten days later at my follow-up with the surgeon I reminded him of those first words he said to me in the recovery room.

“I think I said it more for myself,” he said.

“Why, did you really think you were going to find cancer?” I asked.

He hesitated before saying, “Yes.  I thought it was a good possibility.”

As part of their jobs doctors have to keep their patients from panicking.  If he had told me of his suspicions before the surgery I would have completely crumbled.   I didn’t blame him for being honest with me but for the rest of that day I was thrown off, questioning my mortality, so when about 3 weeks later, there were some unusual things going on with my entire digestive system I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this time, I indeed had cancer.

I Googled every symptom I had, endless amounts of time a day, and the top three were all signs of cancer.   I scoured copies of my x-rays and Cat Scan results from the days in the hospital, using the internet as my medical dictionary.  No matter how many times I read the words “normal” and “unremarkabIe” I was still convinced that my surgeon had missed something, that malignant cells were somehow hiding in the places that weren’t visible during surgery.  Based on the things I read I staged my own cancer and read articles on how to tell my teenager that I was going to die.  I did this for three weeks, the earliest I’d be able to see a doctor to get seen.

I didn’t and don’t have cancer.  After I saw my doctor and he confirmed it for me, my symptoms immediately disappeared, but the relentless reminder of my age and mortality has stayed with me.  I’m 53 and other than needing to lose about 15 pounds, I’m in perfect health. As I age, cancer will always be a possibility and I know myself well enough that I won’t stop Googling every strange and new symptom that comes along, and that I will always pray to hear the words, “It’s not cancer.”

“She’s” My Memory


In the days leading up to this past weekend’s sixth biannual camp reunion, I was under the rather pretentious delusion that I would enter it with a sense of detachment, that I’d be on the sidelines, observing, in preparation for writing this recap post like I do the day after every reunion.  On Friday night, one of the guys, another stalwart at these gatherings sat down next to me at the bar and said I seemed different, “more composed” than I usually do but was harkening back to  a me from thirteen years ago when after an endless amount of tequila shots I pulled the second all-nighter of my life and actually saw the sunrise.  By Saturday night, I found myself spinning and twirling in a room, dancing to a Squeeze song, drink in hand, clearly all detachment thrown out the window.  How could I not have?  This group of 60 or so people is my comfort zone, my second family.

These weekends are a sort of pilgrimage, a flocking to a sacred place where we can all be ourselves without pretense, without judgment, the stripping down of our outside lives for a couple of days where every smell, every structure, every face is a shared experience, a shared memory.  It’s universal among us all.  It barely even needs discussing.  We know.

As in the past, the two years between these weekends, new relationships are formed through Facebook, usually kicked-off by a comment or two on another person’s post where you discover a new kindred spirit who you didn’t necessarily know that well before.  Whether it’s politics, the appreciation of the same music, movies, tv, you anticipate the carving out of time to get to know that person a little better, to turn the virtual into the actual.  Those moments have yet to disappoint.

This weekend I was able to be in the right place at the right time as a young woman who hadn’t seen camp grounds in thirty or so years first arrived. I was eager to meet her as she and I are the only two who live in New England, and plus her comments on our alumni page were pretty fucking funny.  We chatted for a little while, learning more about each other, along with another regular and rallier and the only other woman from her division.  Someone asked her what some of her memories of camp were and she pointed to her former bunkmate and said, “She’s my memory.”  My heart leapt at the poignancy of those three words.  Not only that, it provided me with the title for this post.

At the time, I took it as such a gorgeous homage to another one of those special camp bonds that we all have.  Then I realized that for me, it has a couple of meanings.  My camp friends fill in the blanks of my life.  They are the keepers of  tiny snippets of memories and they are there to remind me of things that I have no recollection of , including how my pre-adolescent thick fingers would always grab for the biggest piece of fried chicken from the family-style platter that was placed in the middle of the table where we ate.  After this reunion, my friend mentioned that she’ll never forget me playing Rizzo in a camp production of “Grease.”  I played along but I have absolutely no memory of that.  So, these friends are “my memory,” but they are also and always will be the snapshots of the visual memories that I still have embedded in my brain.

These weekends, whether or not fueled by alcohol or these new-fangled “edibles” I’ve heard so much about (apparently, if you eat more than a leg off a gummy bear, you’ve had too much) embolden us to say and do things we wouldn’t have the courage to do otherwise.  The best part about this is that we walk away, puffed up and confident, like a badge of honor to take with us into our day-to-day lives.

On my bleary-eyed drive home, sandwiched between a James Brown and Allman Brothers song, my clearly disparate Spotify playlist shuffled to “Tradition” from the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack.  I’m not making this up for dramatic effect.  I smiled and belted it out, sunroof open, and marveled at the very random selection of the song.  However in life, I have learned that there ARE no coincidences, that in the end, it all makes perfect sense.





But I’m HUGE in Argentina!

Wallpapers Flag of Argentina Flag Graphics (6)

Last week, after years of pitches and no response,  my first piece was accepted and published in HuffPost.   I was beside myself with excitement.  To me it was a huge breakthrough knowing how wide their readership is (According to my research and depending on who you ask,  they have between 100 million and 368 million unique global visitors–and yes, I’m fully aware of that disparity so let’s just go with a zillion.)

The subject line in my e-mail pitch had some compelling words that I hoped would grab the attention of the editors and when one answered back within twenty minutes asking for a full draft I knew I had to make it shine.  When I got a second e-mail from who became “my” editor (and after trolling his social media I discovered that he’s a gorgeous, tattooed, Jewish, gay man) and he told me how much I would be paid and that he would be sending back some edits and suggestions I was stunned and thrilled. With a round of three drafts flying back and forth,  his brilliance and way with words and my hope not to lose my “voice” resulted in the piece below:


The second it appeared on the HuffPost site I spent the rest of the day obsessively refreshing my browser and watched as the number of “shares” went up and up and up.  I was officially going viral.  The piece had a link to my personal blog and my stats skyrocketed,  strangers began following me and I started to get an endless stream of e-mails with their opinions on the piece.  In the first 48 hours I was able to tell that most of the readership was within the United States which was no surprise.    But when on the third day I got 200 readers from Argentina I got very confused.  I e-mailed my aforementioned gorgeous editor and asked him if he had a clue as to why this would be happening and he didn’t.  It wasn’t until I got an e-mail from a man in Buenos Aires with the link below that I was able to crack the case:


In a wonderful twist of fate I had the good sense to marry a Puerto Rican whose first language is Spanish and he began the process of translating.  For some reason the writer alternated between calling me “he” and “she” and some of the details weren’t quite right, but the below words that captioned a picture of me had me laughing until I cried:

“Gayle Saks is one of the most famous bloggers about everyday life in New York.”

Suddenly I had become the Carrie Bradshaw, the lead character of “Sex and The City,” of Argentina. The thing is I’ve never written about everyday life in New York because even though I grew up on Long Island, I’ve lived in Boston for over 30 years.  What I really should have done right away while I still had a captive audience is somehow got on the talk show circuit  and played the part, have that caption in huge letters on the screen and then fled the country in preparation of being discovered as a fraud.

I don’t know how I can milk my 48 hours of being famous in Argentina.  Can I start using it in my bio and in my pitch to agents to make them jump at the chance to have the honor of publishing my memoir?  Should I come clean and admit that in the world of bloggers I’m smaller than a grain of sand and then do a rousing rendition of Evita’s “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina?”  Perhaps I will be found, twenty years from now, holed up in a house in a teeny, tiny town in Vermont, a la J.D. Salinger, and some long ago Argentinian fan will step timidly up to my door and knock and when I answer I will hear the words, “Weren’t you one of the most famous bloggers about everyday life in New York?”  There will be a documentary about my life with film of me ducking from the paparazzi, begging to be left alone with my cats and Argentinian pinot noir, and I will once again, fade into obscurity.


The Sad and Suffering


“It says here that less than a year ago you almost jumped off a bridge?”

I’m asking this of a young woman, not yet thirty, as part of her intake assessment to the drug and alcohol rehab facility where I work.  I HAVE to ask questions like this in order to assess if someone is safe enough at that moment to be admitted or if they need to be taken to a more appropriate facility or what is known as “a higher level of care.”

This wasn’t her first attempt and during her rattling off the details with little-to-no affect she initially remembered two others, and later in the conversation remembered that there was another one that she had forgotten about while she was in sixth grade. Sixth. Grade.

It’s not lost on me or people who know me well that asking those suffering from addiction about suicide attempts comes with heightened and loaded emotions.  Both my mother and my best friend, albeit 30 years apart, committed suicide, my mother by overdosing on pills and my best friend by hanging.  My mother never turned to substances to ease her pain and trauma of surviving the Holocaust but my best friend, driven by a raging crystal meth addiction was spun into such a paranoid and psychotic alter ego that undoubtedly some imagined forces egged him on.

The men and women who have sat in front of me, men and women of all ages with different drugs of choice pretty much all admit to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.  Some don’t want to discuss their past trauma but others will, and after hearing some of their stories I truly don’t know how they are still standing.  I don’t.   There have been  many who have found their parents dead from overdose.  There are those who have lost children, been raped, have been shot-up with heroin for the first time at age ten BY THEIR PARENTS,  and have been hung by hooks from their belt loops as punishment.

It is impossibly hard to picture my very best friend going through the machinations of preparing for his death.  I can only go so far before I have to shake myself out of it.  I think of people stockpiling pills, buying a gun and bullets, figuring out the best place to sling a rope that will hold their weight.

The one patient I will never, ever forget was a beautiful woman in her forties who one day put weights in her shoes and clothes and lay down on a large rock with a bottle of wine, and waited and hoped that a powerful tide would pull her out to sea.   It didn’t happen and she was disappointed that it hadn’t.  I hope she is out there somewhere having found the hope and happiness that she was clearly missing at that point in time.  I pray that she is no longer sad and suffering.

Open Caskets


Last night I attended the wake for a magnificent young man who died of a heroin overdose. He was the epitome of sunshine.  The line to get into the funeral home was endless for the entirety of the scheduled three hours for people to come and pay their last respects.  There were young and old brought to their knees in fits of sobs.  There was a video being looped of highlights of his life, the smiling and happy him that he will be remembered for.

I spoke to his mother on the day after he died and in her flurry of processing the pain and logistics of losing her son she mentioned that there would be an open casket.  This didn’t come as a surprise since the majority of non-Jewish funerals I’ve attended include the opportunity for mourners to “view” the body of the deceased that one last time.

I’ve learned that the casket is generally just feet away from the receiving line made up of the distraught and suffering.  Last night and in the past I have done everything I could to avert my eyes in order to avoid the reality and finality of death but to no avail.  At a funeral for another young man who also died from an overdose, his arm was outstretched with a rosary draped across his fingers.  I will never, ever be able to unsee that.

Last night I watched as people knelt in front of the casket, weeping, howling in pain, some touching the body, others whispering to him.  Some brought flowers and placed them in the coffin, some went up in groups in order to support each other.  When the priest came to speak I had to stand in the back of the packed room but the casket, and this sweet young man’s body was directly in my line of vision.  It made no sense to me that he was being put to rest in a suit.  This was a kid who had pink hair, piercings and wore black concert tee-shirts.  I keep thinking how appalled he would have been to know that people were seeing him for the last time in an ill-fitting suit.

I watched as his teenage brother slumped in a velvet chair in the receiving line, at first with a bored look on his face and a split second later burst into tears.  His 19-yr old niece who was the most visibly devastated throughout the evening came up to me and wrapped her arms around me, sobbing, repeatedly saying that she wished she had told him more how much she loved him.   I had to tell her over and over again that he knew how important he was to her.   It seems clear that she will never forgive herself for what she perceives as the worst of transgressions.

I’ve heard that wakes were traditionally held as a way for loved ones to watch over a body in the hopes that the person would “wake” up.  I’ve since read that that is a total myth and am much happier knowing that in the Irish tradition, a lot of drinking is involved.  Either way, as much as I want to understand it, I just can’t wrap my head around the desire to see a lifeless person laying among stark white ruffles particularly someone who was once so full of life.




The Snuffing Out of Light


Two days ago I learned of the death of one of my first clients as a substance abuse counselor at an all-male halfway house.  As is often the case I hear about these deaths from a former resident and their biggest concern is how I will receive the news.  My husband has gotten too used to me getting a phone call or reading messages on my phone and having me crumble into a mass of sobs.   He will gently ask me, “Who?” and on this past Tuesday night, just as we were molding our bodies into our respective tv watching positions, I answered with the name of someone he knew I cared deeply about and one of a handful of guys that he and my daughter had actually met.

“T” was an exceptional young man.  When I first met him I was stunned to learn that he was almost 30.  He could easily pass for 19.  He had the words “Sick Boy” tattooed on the nape of his neck, the name of a character from the book and movie “Trainspotting,” and when I, a 50-yr old woman told him that it was one of my favorite movies, he instantly adored me.  He smiled his broad and welcoming smile, and I immediately saw the incandescent light that had to have been trademarked as his somewhere along the line.

“T” was open and out as a gay man among a house filled with brawny and toughened guys and he was adored by every single one.  Some of the guys let him color their hair pink and green, file their nails, and rub their shoulders.  He was the “pet” without EVER being condescended to.  He was the one who got up early to write famous and inspirational quotes on the white board in the kitchen, every single day for six months.  One day he picked flowers for me straight from Boston’s Public Garden which I had to tell him he could have been arrested for.  After that, every time he went home on the weekend he would snip a flower or two from his mother’s garden like he did below:


When he met my then 14-yr old daughter for the first and only time, he had a flower ready for her too.  When I told her he had died, she hugged me longer and harder than she ever has.

I spoke at the AA meeting where he received his one-year chip.  He beamed at me, and I at him, assuming that he had reached the end of his struggle with addiction.  He was ten months into a job that he loved and where he was adored, like he was everywhere.  When I learned four months ago that he had relapsed and essentially lost everything he had worked so hard for, I was devastated for him.  I reached out to him and got a text back that said, “Hi my love, things are pretty rough these days.  I just don’t know what to do.”  I answered back that he DID know what to do, that he had done it so triumphantly before, and that was the last I heard from him.

Every single Facebook post that started to unfurl on his page as people learned of his death uses the word “light.”  It is a somewhat overused descriptor, but with “T” it’s really the one word that can sum up his beautiful soul perfectly.

It makes sense for me to cite a Smiths song here, since “T” was a huge fan of the melancholy and angst in music.    In this case Morrissey got it all wrong when he writes “There’s A Light That Never Goes Out.”  “T” took his light with him and those that remember it, and him, will try so desperately to hold on to it, to bask in it, for as long as we possibly can.

This post was originally published on gaylesaks.com.