Tag Archive | Ray

One last Chubby and Tubby Story

In December 1991 Ray and I were spending our first Christmas living in our own place. It was a tiny studio apartment whose windows overlooked an alley behind a bar. I was in the middle of getting divorced. Ray had had a recent significant job change that was complicated by the involvement of one of his exes. So we were both broke and most of our personal property was at least temporarily in someone else’s custody.

His mom or his sister had given us a small artificial Christmas tree that had been boxed up in a garage for some time. Ray came up with a few old strings of Christmas lights somewhere. We had bought a single box of very cheap glass ball ornaments in multiple colors, and a similarly cheap tinsel star tree-topper with a cluster of lights. So we had the small tree perched on a chest of drawers. It’s the kind of first Christmas stories lots of couples tell. One of the things I really liked about that silly star treetopper is that it looked exactly like one my parents had bought when I was a baby, and had been my childhood treetopper until sometime in grade school when they replaced it with an angel.

One weekend a couple weeks before Christmas, we helped one of Ray’s friends, Miss Lee. She was an older woman that Ray had met when he had worked as a nursing aide a few years before. She had only recently moved from a nursing kind of facility to a sort of assisted living apartment. It was the first time in years that she had had more than a single room of her own, and she had recently gotten a bunch of her things that had been in storage at a relative’s house, including a box of Christmas ornaments. She had been told she could have a tree and that the maintenance staff would take care of disposing of cut trees after the holiday. So she needed someone with a car to take her to buy a tree, and then help her set it up.

Miss Lee lived in the south end of Seattle, not far from one location of the former Seattle institution known as Chubby and Tubby. Chubby and Tubby started as an army surplus store run out of a tin shed in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle by two friends after they came home from serving in WWII. They moved to a bigger location in Rainier Valley in the mid-50s, then opened at least two other stores (the one in north Seattle being the one I shopped at most often), before the owners passed away, then eventually their heirs sold the locations and closed down the stores in 2003. Chubby and Tubby was a strange store that’s really hard to describe. They sold blue jeans and tennis shoes and fishing poles and tools and gardening things and… well, just a whole lot of weird stuff. Always cheap.

And every December, each Chubby and Tubby store offered Christmas trees for sale, cheaper than you could find them anywhere else. In the 80s and 90s the price was alway $5 a tree, no matter what size. I’ve talked to people who remembered during the 70s when Chubby and Tubby trees were only $3. The owners sold the trees at a loss. They said they wanted to make sure that people who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree could have one. The trees were usually Douglas Firs, and they were… well, they were never very symmetrical. They were never as scraggly as the proverbial Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but they were always unique. I had purchased at least a couple of Chubby and Tubby trees in the years before this particular December. We hadn’t bought one ourselves that year in part because I didn’t think we’d be able to dispose of it easily afterward. Also, the loaned artificial tree was even cheaper.

Anyway, Miss Lee wanted a Chubby and Tubby tree, in part because she had fond memories of getting trees from Chubby and Tubby when she was younger, but also because you can’t beat the price. Before we’d gone to the store, we had untangled her strings of very old lights and determined that at least one of them was probably a fire hazard and shouldn’t be used. So she also hoped to find a cheap string of lights or two at Chubby and Tubby as well.

It was less than two weeks until Christmas, and Chubby and Tubby was absolutely packed. It took Miss Lee a while to pick out her tree, mostly because she wanted one small enough to fit in the spot she’d chosen in her living room. And then there were strings of lights and ornaments to look at. There was one particular string of Christmas lights that Ray was very taken with. A string of a couple dozen lights with plastic teddy bears wearing Santa hats. It was at Chubby and Tubby, so it was cheap, but even cheap was out of our own budget at the time. Miss Lee wanted something simpler, with multicolored lights for her own tree. She offered to buy Ray the string of Teddy Bears, but he told her very firmly no.

At each check-out line they had a bucket of odd little brass keys. There was a contest. Every customer could pick a key out of the bucket, and then try the key on this Treasure Chest at the front of the store. If the key opened the chest, you’d get a gift certificate good for certain items in the store. Miss Lee told Ray to pick a key and give it a try. The key he picked unlocked the chest. Ray asked her what she wanted to use the gift certificate for, and Miss Lee said, “It yours.”

My late husband won this string of teddy bear Santa Christmas lights 25 years ago. Photo © 2017 Gene Breshears.

My late husband won this string of teddy bear Santa Christmas lights 25 years ago.

And yes, the string of Teddy Bear lights was one of the things he could redeem the gift certificate for. So we took home the string of teddy bear lights.

We got the tree back to her place, got it set up, helped her put her lights on the tree and hang her ornaments. She told us little stories about each ornament as she unwrapped them. It was a fun day.

When we got home that night, Ray hung up the teddy bear lights in the window over our bed. That silly string of teddy bear lights hung either in windows or on our tree every Christmas for the rest of Ray’s life. Ray died mid-November of 1997, not quite six years after that first Christmas living together.

For Christmas 1997 I barely did any decorating. Ray had only been dead a few weeks at the time we would normally start pulling decorations from the basement. I knew if I started unpacking our ornaments and such I’d break down sobbing and I wasn’t sure I would stop. I barely felt brave enough to open the storage closet in the basement to pull out one of the smaller artificial trees that I knew I could get to without opening other boxes. I decorated using some ornaments and a string of lights Ray had purchased on sale somewhere a week or so before he died, thus they were already upstairs and they didn’t have a history of Christmases with him.

In 1998, as I unpacked boxes of ornaments, I broke down crying several times. Ray had loved Christmas so much, and so many of the ornaments evoked memories of when he had found that particular decoration and showed it to me in the store. Or times he had fussed with where to hang it to best show it off, et cetera.

Yes, one of the times I broke down was when I pulled the teddy bear santa lights from one of the boxes. I hung them in the bedroom window that year. The next several years I put the teddy bear lights up. At least once on the tree, but usually in one of the windows. The last few years I’ve gotten them out and looked at them, debating whether I should put them up. They’re more than 20 years old. At some point old electronics, even something as simple as strings of mini lights, break down and/or become fire hazards. So I would plug them in, look them over, and some years I’d decide to put them back in the box. But most years I have still hung them up.

Our building, which was the last home Ray lived in and has been my home for a bit over 20 years, has been sold and the new owners want to do major renovations. They’ve given us advance notice that everyone’s going to be evicted sometime before 2017 year is over. So this was my last Christmas in the place that was Ray’s last home. I’ve been… moodier than usual this holiday.

I put the teddy bear lights in the kitchen window. Every evening they turned on and shown their silly light until the wee hours of the morning. I checked them frequently, but they never showed signs of problems.

But when I took them down out of the window, I noticed that several stretches of the wire are stiffer than other sections. The plastic doesn’t actually crack when you bend it in those locations, but clearly 20-some years of use is taking its toll.

While we were packing things and taking the tree down, I was looking at all of our decorations with a critical eye. If we have to move, it would be silly to move old ornaments and lights we know we’re never going to use again. I now have a couple of big boxes of old light strings and the like to recycle, and a big pile of other decorations that I think are in good enough shape to donate, if I can find a place that will take them.

And those teddy bear lights (or at least the string itself) shouldn’t be used again. No one wants the lights to start a fire some December in the future. So its time to says good-bye to Ray’s teddy bear lights. 25 Christmases later, they’ve earned a rest.

Not forgotten

Nineteen years ago today I had to sign some papers.

Then a couple of nurses turned off the monitors, removed the respirator tubes, and turned off the rest of the machines.

I held Ray’s hand, and said “Good-bye.”

I’d been crying off and on for hours—days, technically (though I’d only slept a couple hours out of the previous 59-ish, so it seemed like one really long, horrible day).

I don’t remember if I cried again. My last chronologically-in-order memory is taking hold of his hand that one last time. My memories for the next few months are like the shards of a thoroughly shattered stained glass window.

My friend Kristin recently sent me this picture saying, “How I like to remember Ray.” This was a trip we all took to the beach. He's prepping his kite for launch.

My friend Kristin recently sent me this picture saying, “How I like to remember Ray.” This was a trip we all took to the beach. He’s prepping his kite for launch.

He promised me he would stay with me for the rest of his life.

And he did.

…on my mind…

Just a bit over 26 years ago I met a boy…

He was 25 years old, so not really a boy, but then I was only 29. I wasn’t completely out of the closet, yet. I regularly went dancing at a gay country bar, and I had just started singing with a newly formed lesbian & gay chorus, so I wasn’t deeply closeted, either. But as far as I knew at the time, other than one cousin none of my family knew I was gay. And only a few of my long-term friends knew.

Ray and I met online on a gay BBS system, and after lots of chatting over several weeks, had finally agreed to meet at a restaurant. I had trouble finding him, because he forgot to tell me that he’d recently dyed his hair. I wasn’t looking for a redhead.

I suspected he was a keeper when I saw the small bookcase beside his bed. I knew he was a keeper when we talked about one particular worn hardback. Not because of which book it was, but because he had a favorite book that he re-read several times a year. And talking about it made him start talking very animatedly about a lot of his other favorite books.

We’d been officially dating for a few months when he first told me that he liked to write. He hadn’t mentioned it before because I earned my living as a technical writer, and while my fiction had mostly been published in small, non-paying ‘zines, he was a little nervous about showing me his work. Turned out he’d never shown anyone his writing before. He had a bit of an inferiority complex about his education: he’d dropped out of high school after his father died to go to work to help his mom support his younger siblings. He had since gotten his GED and taken some community college classes, but he wasn’t confident in his writing skills.

I asked him if he wanted my honest opinion. I admit I was a bit nervous, too. What if I hated his work and couldn’t hide it? Fortunately, the first story he showed me wasn’t bad. It needed work. But he was happy to receive critiques and borrow some of my books about the writing process.

He kept working at it. Revising, writing, reading. He started occasionally sharing his work with other people. He even managed to get a couple of stories published in small ‘zines.

Then he got sick. When the doctors first told us he had two years or less to live, I refused to believe it. I was certain we were going to beat this. For the next few years there were lots of tests, treatments, a few scary visits to the ER, and then chemotherapy.

One night just over three years after they had told us he had less than two years to live (seven years and three months after our first date) he had a seizure and fell into a coma. I spent the next several days sitting beside his bed in an intensive care unit, waiting for him to wake up. But it wasn’t to be.

During the weeks afterward I went through his things, with help from his mother and sister. In the cabinet under the night table on his side of the bed, inside an envelope that said, “No Peeking!” I found a small package wrapped with Christmas paper, with a gift tag that said, “To Gene, Love Ray.” I didn’t open it. But the package was the size of a paperback book. And in another envelope in the same cabinet were two identical copies of a paperback anthology, along with some correspondence from the editor of the anthology.

He had sold two short stories that were included in that anthology. He’d sold them the year before, and had received copies of the book nine months before he died. And he’d never said a word to me about it. He’d wanted it to be a surprise.

He had a deadline for another anthology with the same editor coming up. I couldn’t figure out which of the stories he had on his computer he had intended to submit. I wrote to the editor and explained that Ray had died. The editor sent a very thoughtful condolence note back.

Ray had made his first professional fiction sale—two stories! —a mere six years after shyly admitting he was afraid to show his work to other people, but didn’t tell me because he wanted to see the expression on my face when I opened the package Christmas morning. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d been able to tell him how proud I was of him. I wish I’d been able to grab a Sharpie, hold the book out to him, and ask for his autograph.

Make no mistake, I love my husband, Michael. Every time I see his smile, I feel like the luckiest man in world. But I loved Ray, too. I miss him. I wish he had lived to see the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to see the citizens of our state vote to give same-sex couples the right to marry, to see the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and of course to see that same court make marriage equality the law of the land.

This week Michael and I are going through our things, hauling stuff to Goodwill and so forth. We’re both packrats from long lines of packrats, so we have to do these purges every year or so. I tend to hang onto things, and I get overly sentimental over a lot of those things. I had a couple of rough moments Monday. One was when I came across the book with Ray’s stories on a shelf. Another was when I was pulling plushies from another shelf and found a small, peach-colored Teddy Bear. Only a few weeks after we started dating, Ray had to fly to Georgia for a business obligation. He picked up the teddy bear for me and a coffee mug for himself in a souvenir shop. Yes, 26 years later, I still have the “Georgia On My Mind” mug, and I still think of it as Ray’s mug.

Ray unpacking after we moved into our second apartment.

Ray unpacking after we moved into our second apartment.

If he’d lived, today would have been Ray’s 52nd birthday. That’s right, our birthdays were only two days apart. We usually wound up celebrating both birthdays together with his family, and then would celebrate just the two of us on our actual birthdays. I assume that that is the reason that I start getting a bit depressed and moody every September. I can’t think about my birthday coming up without thinking about his birthday that we don’t get to celebrate.

I would love to see his goofy grin over a cake covered with candles at least one more time.

A rose, some memories, and a goofy grin

A bud from a branch I had to trim off one of our roses late last week has finally started to bloom (© Gene Breshears)

A bud from a branch I had to trim off one of our roses late last week has finally started to bloom (© Gene Breshears)

When Ray and I moved to Ballard 20 years ago, I’m not sure I would have believed you if you’d told me I’d still live here two decades later. We had stayed in our previous two apartments less than three years each, for one thing. And Ray had been given an estimate of two years left to live about 19 months prior to the move. Not that I believed it, mind you. I refused to accept that he wasn’t going to get better, somehow. For one thing, I was older. I was the one who had chronic medical conditions when we met. So I was convinced that it would be him who outlived me.

The previous two places we had lived had not had any sort of yard. They were like the archetypical city apartment, in that regard. So when we’d found a place with a small lawn and a couple of flower beds that would be ours, Ray had been ecstatic. Particularly since there was already a rose bush in one of the beds.

The rose had clearly been there a for many years, with the thickest cans being nearly three inches thick. When we moved in in February, the rose was just leafing out, with no sign of buds, yet. But it wasn’t long before enormous red roses were appearing on it. We took some pictures and shared with friends who knew a bit more about roses. More than one person guessed it was a Mr. Lincoln, a fairly well-known red rose. Later that summer, when I was digging down deep around the roots of the red rose (we were trying to excise wild deadly nightshade, which grows as a weed up here), that I found the original stamped metal tag that had come with the rose whenever it had been planted, which identified it as a Patrician. It’s a red rose that was specifically bred to emulate a Mr. Lincoln, though it is supposed to be a bit hardier.

That same spring Ray came home from a shopping trip one day with a new rose to plant at the other end of the same bed. It was labeled a Maid of Honor, which was not a rose I had heard of. I learned much later that the name Maid of Honor does not represent a recognized cultivar of a rose, but is rather a name that sounds like it ought to be a real rose breed which gets slapped on various pink or yellow roses sold be, shall we say, less than scrupulous distributors.

We didn’t know that, at the time. We planted it, took care of it, and we were both a little shocked at just how quickly it sent canes shooting up for the sky. We would get these enormous pink blooms, often in clusters above the eaves. The next spring I remember quite clearly one Friday finding a new cane that had grown to about 8 inches in length. By the next Friday, that same cane was more than 6 feet tall.

To say that it was an aggressive climbing rose might be an understatement.

So I have learned that I have to be a bit aggressive in trimming our pink rose. Not just in the fall, but throughout the growing season, as side branches soon block off the walkway, and the tall branches hang down into the driveway.

Ray died before our Maid of Honor reached its third spring. Another rose that we found that same year, a pale lavender rose whose labeled breed I have forgotten, lived only a couple more years after Ray did. But the Maid of Honor, and the original Patrician, continued to go strong.

A couple of years ago, I apparently got too aggressive at trimming the Maid of Honor, because the the root stock started sending even more rapidly growing canes up. Roses don’t breed true via seed, so when you buy one at a nursery, what you get are several canes grafted off of an original (or more likely, a graft of a graft of a graft… et cetera… of an original) and onto a hardier breed of rose. Usually a wild rose or tea rose. So if you get new shoots from the root ball, they are a different kind of rose, altogether.

The root’s flowers on mine are very tiny white blossoms that almost don’t look like roses once they open all the way. It’s branches grow even fast than the pink ones, but they never get quite a thick as a pencil, so while they are very long, they droop and wind around the thicker, stronger pink branches (and anything else they can reach).

Our building is getting painted right now, and I’ve been having to trim both the white and pink branches multiple times because the rose keeps getting up around the eaves or into the porch railing. Late last week I trimmed a new tall branch, and it had a single bud near the end. So I trimmed it some more and stuck in in the vase where I had some flowers (some that I had bought myself, and some that friends brought over when they heard the news about my dad).

Sometime while I was sleeping last night, the bud began to open. So I took a picture.

Every time I stop and look at any of the buds from the Maid of Honor, I think about of Ray. Who loved to smell those pink blooms, give me a goofy grin, and ask me if I agreed that it was pretty.

Not forgotten

Ray unpacking after we moved into our second apartment.

Ray unpacking after we moved into our second apartment.

Seventeen years ago today I had to sign some papers.

Then a couple of nurses turned off the monitors, removed the respirator tubes, and turned off the rest of the machines.

I held Ray’s hand, and said “Good-bye.”

I’d been crying off and on for hours—days, technically (though I’d only slept a couple hours out of the last few days, so it felt like one really long, horrible day).

I don’t remember if I cried again. My last chronologically-in-order memory is taking hold of his hand that one last time. My memories for the next few months are just fragments—bits and pieces of time scattered through a fog of bewilderment.

He promised me he would stay with me for the rest of his life. And he did.

Trying to maintain

Ray unpacking after we moved into our second apartment.

Ray unpacking after we moved into our second apartment.

If Ray had lived, today would be his fiftieth birthday. Unfortunately, Ray died when he was 33. I try to maintain a good perspective on it. A bit more than three years before, the doctors had said he had maybe 6 months to 2 years to live. He’d beaten their expectations. It hadn’t been pleasant for him. There had been surgery, chemotherapy, and various side effects of various drugs.

When we’d met, he’d been this tall, thin (skinny, really) grinning goofball with a mop of curly hair usually died in multiple colors. As his illness had destroyed his lung tissue and caused painful lesions to erupt on his bones, making movement ever more difficult and painful, he’d gained weight and lost all that manic energy. The chemo didn’t make all of his hair fall out, but it got very, very thin, and he hated how it looked. The pain had slaved his sleep schedule to his pain pills. During that last year he would take his pain pills, wait for them to kick in enough to let him sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up and try to occupy himself for about four hours until he could take his next dose, sleep for two more hours, wake up and wait, et cetera.

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The last several weeks have not been good on the mood front.

At all.

Read More…

When it IS broke…

Many years ago—I think it was just before Ray and I moved in together (thus, years before Ray got sick, years before the chemo, years before he died)—I called Ray to confirm when we were next getting together.

He was crying.

It took a few minutes to get the story out of him. He’d been on his way out of a store, and he stopped to hold the door open for someone. Another person ran by on the sidewalk, bumping into Ray and knocking his shopping bag to the ground, which was followed immediately by the sound of breaking glass.

Ray had just purchased some sort of glass sculpture. I don’t know what it was of. All Ray would tell me that it was “beautiful, just beautiful.” But it had been smashed to a million pieces, he said.

I asked him what store it had been, so I could go buy him another one. But that just set him off worse, because it had been a present for me. He repeated how beautiful it was, and that he couldn’t afford to buy another one, and the person who had caused it to be smashed hadn’t even stopped to say he was sorry.

Nothing I could say or do made him feel better. And there was nothing anyone could do at that point. If we were living in a Lifetime movie, maybe the person who had knocked the bag from his hands and kept running, waving dismissively when Ray called out, would have encountered us again, and there would have been some kind of amends making.

But we don’t live in Lifetime movies. Sometimes bad things happen, and we just have to live with them. Ray got over it. Life went on.

I was reminded about that incident this week when I found another present from him broken.

I don’t know how it happened, for certain, and probably never will.

It begins a few weeks back when we were having a mini heat wave. We’d had enough hot days (for our climate) in a row that we’d decided to put the window fans up. During the summer we have mounted window fans running in the kitchen, the computer room, and the bedroom. Depending on which side of the house and what time of day it is, they’ll be either blowing fresh air in, or blowing hot air out.

So the second day the fans were going, I found a print on the floor. It’s a large piece of art our friend, Sky, made a few years ago. It’s a reclining courtesan in a green and blue kimono. It isn’t mounted in a heavy frame, it’s just matted. It’s 18 inches by 22 inches, so it isn’t a huge life-size portrait, but it’s large.

It hangs in our bedroom on the south wall. After I confirmed that Michael hadn’t taken it down for some reason, I decided that it must have been knocked down by the wind. We had fans in the window on a thermostat, and we’d forgotten to turn off the standing fan when we left for work in the morning. It had been a little windy that day. I figured there must have been some inopportune gusts of wind that knocked it off.

Never mind that it is nowhere close to the window, and other similarly lightweight pieces are hanging on the wall Closer to the fan. I figured either the wind angle had been just right, or because all of the other simply matted pieces are smaller—they hadn’t had enough surface area to catch enough wind force to bring them down.

Then this week, I found something else on the floor. In exactly the same spot the picture had landed. A resin “sculpture,” about 10 inches tall, which had been on a shelf about a foot below the picture.

Ray had given me the sculpture about a year after we moved in together. It’s an odd thing: a fairy tale castle built impossibly on a pair of rock spires coming up out of the ocean. At the time Ray gave it to me, I think he said that it reminded him of something I’d written. I didn’t remember writing about that sort of castle, but I write both sci fi and fantasy, and I tended to talk to him a lot about ideas I hadn’t yet turned into a story, so maybe it was something in one of those.

But this gets us to the part of the earlier incident that I could never tell him. Ray and I had very different tastes in decorating. We both tended to like very different kinds of kitsch (and yeah, sometimes my tastes are extremely kitschy). So when he said the glass sculpture which I never got to see was “beautiful,” I knew that there was more than a slim chance that I might have thought it hideous.

This resin thing isn’t hideous, but it’s not the sort of thing I would have ever bought myself. Even for only a quarter at a garage sale. So, even with his explanation that it reminded him of something I wrote, I didn’t quite understand why he thought I would like it.

I’m quite certain some of the things I gave him elicited the same reaction. Sometimes you think someone will like something, and you’re just completely wrong.

I haven’t kept every knick knack and tchotchke Ray ever got me. His family members asked me for some of them to remember him by. I gave a few others away to friends who expressed an interest. One particular friend, Kats, suggested when I was agonizing, about a year after Ray died, over a bunch of things that I really didn’t like but couldn’t bear to just toss, that I mail them to her (since she’s as much of a packrat as I am). She said she would find them good homes. We both knew that she would probably toss most of them, and that she was prepared to lie to me if need be about how she’d kept them all. But sometimes you need a little help deluding yourself when you’re being irrational.

This castle, though, I kept. I can’t really say why, because I don’t like it for itself. Neither do I dislike it. It’s just every time I look at it, I think of Ray trying to explain to me how it reminded him of stuff I wrote. Ultimately, it reminds me of the journey we both went through trying to learn to understand each other better.

So when I found it on the floor, broken in several places, I was more than a bit annoyed. Also, confused. I had an explanation for the picture falling down two weeks ago. This was something else. It’s too heavy to have been blown over, at least inside the house. The only other thing I found disturbed was a small plush Tigger that had been near it on the shelf. And one of the fragments that broke off was embedded, at a really weird angle, into the wooden bedstead. If it fell off the shelf, bouncing off the bedstead is almost a certainty, but it just looked odd.

We don’t live in a house, but rather a triplex. On the other side of that wall is the neighbor’s kitchen. A previous tenant had a tendency to slam the cupboards a lot, and sometimes it would make the pictures shake on our side. I haven’t heard anything like that with the couple that have lived there the last few years, but if it’s happening at a time of day when we’re not around, I wouldn’t hear it, would I?

It would be simple enough to glue the castle back together if I could find all the pieces, but I can’t. On the other hand, it’s just a silly tchotchke which, truth be told, I haven’t looked at at all in the last several years except when I decide to clean up that end of the bedroom. It’s just a thing, not a person. I should just get over it and move on.

And I will. But I don’t have to like it.

Not forgotten

Fifteen years ago today I had to sign some papers.

Then a couple of nurses turned off the monitors, removed the respirator tubes, and turned off the rest of the machines.

I held Ray’s hand, and said “Good-bye.”

I’d been crying off and on for hours—days, technically (though I’d only slept a couple hours out of the previous 59-ish, so it seemed like one really long, horrible day).

I don’t remember if I cried again. My last chronologically-in-order memory is taking hold of his hand that one last time. My memories for the next few months are like a collection of shattered glass pictures.

He promised me he would stay with me for the rest of his life. And he did.


I was sitting in my usual seat at practice for the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus. I was tenor section leader at the time, and we had just finished singing a song that I particularly loved. The conductor then said the name of another song, “What’ll I Do?” an Irving Berlin classic from back in the 1920s. I should have known what would happen.

We started singing. I always had a freaky good memory for music, so I always had songs memorized very early in the typical practice cycle, and would start memorizing the other harmony parts to keep my focus. Besides, my favorite choral professor in college had insisted that was the only way to learn.

So I was one of the few people in the chorus who was off book. Good thing, too. The first half of the first refrain is when it started:

What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do?

The song is about a lost love. And most of the lyrics refer to the loved one being with someone else, now. So it’s a break up song. I had not broken up recently.

But my first husband had died only weeks before.

And I started crying.

I kept singing. A part of me got very stubborn. I knew the music. This was rehearsal for an upcoming concert, one that was going to be dedicated to Ray, in fact (since he had been involved as a volunteer for years, specifically the music librarian the last year and a half before his death).

I wasn’t sobbing. I mostly managed to keep control of my breathing. But the tears were flowing and I couldn’t make them stop. I didn’t want to disrupt the rehearsal by standing up and walking out.

We reached the end of the song. And it was break time, anyway. The conductor told us to be back in 10. I tried to get away. But Adrienne grabbed me.

She had been a super volunteer with the chorus for years, as well. She and Ray had often working together at the back of the room on various things for the chorus while we sang.

She grabbed me. She kissed me, and then she let me finish fleeing the room.

I found out later that most of the folks sitting around me had not realized I was crying while we sang the song. As Mary 1 (we had two Marys singing tenor) told me, “I didn’t know until I saw Adrienne grab you, and saw the tears welling up in her eyes.”

I was standing around outside, cursing myself for having quit smoking just a year or so before—and seriously thinking of walking over to the group of smokers to bum a cigarette. But also knowing how angry Ray would be at me for starting up again on his account. He had never managed to quit, see. Even when his illness and the chemo started destroying lung tissue, he just couldn’t. He had been unbelievably proud of me for quitting. Knowing how disappointed he would be had been the only thing that kept me on the wagon for months after he died.

I pulled myself back together, walked back inside, and finished the second half of the rehearsal.

It’s a little early in the year for me to start getting melancholy about Ray. But only a little. His birthday was two days after mine. So as my birthday gets close, I keep thinking about him. I start being moody. And it doesn’t let up until November, when the anniversary of his death comes around.

I think about him at other times of the year, of course. I don’t always get weepy. Sometimes I smile, or even laugh. I remember it was a bit more than a year after he died when I realized that I would smile when remembering him about as often as I was sad.

But the September through November period is fraught. Ray was a little crazy about anniversaries. He would give me anniversary cards for things like our first date, the first time he made me breakfast, the first time I made him breakfast, the first time I bought him flowers, et cetera, et cetera. I could never remember all of those anniversaries. I knew our first date had been early in September, and when we had our commitment ceremony a few years later, it was on National Coming Out Day, in October, but all those other things blended together, for me.

Even though I don’t remember the exact date of those anniversaries, this time of year reminds me a lot of those firsts. And as we near November, it reminds me of a lot of our lasts (which at the time we didn’t know they were, of course).

It’s been fifteen years, but being awakened by any sound too close to that of a bookcase falling over still sends my heart into panicked super overdrive.

But crying is good. It reminds us that we were loved. That the loss hurts so much should also remind us that we had something precious enough to deserve being cried over. And it should remind us not to take what we have now for granted.

I have a lot of wonderful, talented, loving people in my life. I don’t deserve to have all this wonderfulness in my life. Thank you for letting me be a part of yours.

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