As the holidays approach I find myself thinking about Ben daily. Due to both of our illnesses, we haven’t spent a Christmas together in a few years but I think we had a 10 year run before we broke our streak. On the years we weren’t able to reunite we still squeezed in some trips but something was always special about our holidays together. Most of my friends knew Ben so his visits during the holidays were always cause for get togethers and celebrations.
I guess when someone you love passes away it’s normal for you to retrace your steps in the woulda-coulda-shoulda department and although not usually helpful or insightful, I find myself doing exactly that a lot lately. I think that most people end up feeling that they didn’t do enough, but what they did do, they hoped helped. Ten years later and I’m still wrestling with guilt from my Father’s passing but this is different. My Father led a long and exciting life. He was an adventure, and so was Ben, but Ben’s time was cut short and I find myself re-living every conversation we had before he passed this past May.
I spoke to him the week before he died, and remarkably he seemed almost like his old self. His confusion was minimal and his smartassery was fully in tact. You know what we discussed? Fucking ginger ale.
Today as I was on my morning run I talked to him as I ran along the river. It was early and it was foggy, grey, and still. I told him about my weekend, and the parts where I thought of him. I told him I missed him and I’m still pissed about his leaving me behind. As the tears started to well up I told him I wished he’d give me a sign of some sort. A sign he’s listening, a signal that he’s still with me. The request was part nonsense and part hopeful. Just then Cher’s song Believe came on my iPod (yes that’s right I still have one and you’ll pry it out of my cold dead hands, assholes) and although I put the damn song on there in the first place and it was on random shuffle I began to laugh out loud as I ran and then burst into Oprah’s ugly cry and had to stop running and wipe my eyes.
During one of our trips to New York years ago, Ben and I had wandered into a gay bar on the upper east side but it was after we’d been “over served” at many establishments and had found this place purely to bogart some air conditioning and re-hydrate. It was early afternoon and there were only a few folks gathered around the horseshoe shaped bar. We were not in the best of shape. We’d been partying for four days straight and it was the end of June and hotter than the hinges of hell. We were exhausted, and we stunk. I truly think it was one of the few times where Ben and I just sat in silence. As Ben later would lament, we’d had a little bit of enough.
And then it happened. One of those old queens crammed a crinkled up bill into that tragic jukebox and on it came with what seemed like 10,000 decibels, BELIEVE, by Cher. It wasn’t rehearsed and it wasn’t choreographed, it was just ridiculous. Ben leapt to his feet and began dancing and I jumped up with him, laughing and incredulous at his sudden burst of energy. In seconds the few folks that were in the dump began dancing too and our bartender handed me a tambourine while shouting encouragement to all of us. Ben was doing his very best Cher as I banged the tambourine on my hip in what I thought was the beat, laughing hysterically the entire time. We danced and spun ourselves around and the bartender poured pink shots of something delightful for all of us. As the song ended there were cheers and applause and Ben and I collapsed into our martini’s giggling until the point of snorting while we high-fived the rest of the impromptu ensemble. For years we joked about that spectacular shared moment with complete strangers in the awful heat of the summer in Manhattan.
That was a long time ago but it came flooding back with cutting precision this morning and although I felt lucky to remember it in such detail, it cut loose a piece of my grief that I’d been clinging to like Ben’s memory.
WHY? I want to know why. WHY didn’t I just go to him when he first got sick? Why didn’t I call more often? Why didn’t I call his Doctor’s and get more information? WHY WASN’T I THERE FOR HIM? He would never have left me like I left him.
Of course, I know in my heart that’s not the case. I know it’s not the truth and it’s my guilt and remorse talking. I sobbed by the river and slowly came to the realization that at the time I simply couldn’t go to him. I COULDN’T have helped him because I was in the fight for my life at the exact same time that he was. I wasn’t in my right mind, and I couldn’t make decisions for myself let alone think through a process in which it would take for HIM to recover. The difference between us is that I had help. I had a husband and a family and people in my life that would not let me give up. Ben had ostracized everyone and that is exactly what alcoholism does to you in the end. It tells you what you want to hear and common sense and rational thinking go out the window. He shut everyone out and one by one, we all tried to help him in our own ways, but he just wouldn’t let anyone in. Looking back I feel like I didn’t really try listen to him because in my heart I knew in the end, it was all lies. He, in turn, told me what I wanted to hear and he kept it up until the day he died. It was a dance of sorts and we both knew it. We knew the last time we saw each other that it might be the last time but we didn’t discuss it. I still don’t know how I feel about that.
I truly believe in my heart that the real tragedy is that by the time Ben was willing to accept help, it was simply too late. His body and brain were ravaged by his disease and it was just too damn late. And that’s the heartbreaking part of this whole thing, his hope at the end. Now the world is short one hilarious, kind and gifted person and I’m short one best friend. Like I’ve said since he passed away, now I have to make MY life count twice as much.
I hope he knows. Knows it all, I mean. How much I loved him and still do. How much I miss him and will always. How every Christmas from now on will be bittersweet in his absence. I profoundly hope that he’s found the peace that he so desperately searched for while he was living.
Can he see me? Is he watching me on my journey? Does he know how I feel and how I wrestle constantly with the choices I made for the both of us?! Does he know he mattered? Does he know my heart feels emptier now that he’s gone? I hope so. I hope he knows that we are all better people for having known him.
Yes, I think he knows. That’s what I choose to believe.