Sometimes you can’t help but cry…

Here’s my latest essay for a book project I’m working on for friend Bathsheba Monk’s Blue Heron Book Works. The working title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

I’ve been avoiding mirrors and l look the other way when I pass a plate-glass window, lest I glimpse my reflection. But I just held up my iPhone and accidentally glimpsed a reflection of my puffed up face and bald head and watery eyes — and I cried. Not the loud sobbing kind of crying. Just tears, sudden and unexpected.

All in all, I’m actually feeling surprisingly well. I haven’t lost weight, I’m handling the very intense chemotherapy treatments, and the doctor keeps giving me good news about how well the treatments are working.

But I still worry about what the future holds. So far, so good. But what if something goes wrong again? Two unexpected health crises early on — my initial brain surgery and, one month later, a near-fatal loss of blood — have never escaped my mind.

And the side-effects, albeit relatively minor, are affecting me more and more, mostly emotionally. My feet and legs are swollen, which often makes it difficult to walk, especially walking up stairs. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that food has hardly any taste. My eyes keep watering –because my eyelashes are half-gone. Likewise, I haven’t had to shave for weeks. And I’ve been more or less unable to talk since February, which leaves me even more isolated and cut off from the world — although it looks like a throat specialist, and an out-patient procedure, will finally restore my (melodious) voice in just a few weeks!

So why am I being such a gloom merchant? Why am I succumbing to self-pity?

I’m extremely fortunate that my illness was caught while it was still treatable. Thankfully, my daughters, one in Brooklyn and the other in California, somehow knew that something was wrong with me, and twice got me the ER just in time.

And I’ve never been blindly optimistic: I’ve faced difficulties before, and I’ve always faced them head-on — and I’m still here to talk about it!

So why was I so weepy tonight? I think part of is my nature. I’ve always tended toward melancholy. I once told a friend that I was optimistic about life, despite all the accumulated evidence to the contrary. And there’s still a part of me that vibrates like a tuning fork when Dylan sings ‘Everyone is wearing a disguise/to hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes.’

But I think it’s mostly that I’m not super-human. Throughout, I’ve been upbeat, and calm, and resolute. I’ve continued to be charming, and witty, and creative, and kin, and…the list goes on and on.

I’m fine now.

But sometimes it!s too goddamn much to deal with, and I’m overwhelmed by the reality of things, and so sometimes — not a lot, just sometimes — you just can’t help but cry.

Night bird, white bird

My first great love? I was 19 and she was 18, and we met at college in upstate western New York. There’s one perfect word for it: I was smitten. She had long dark hair, pale white skin which freckled in the summer, a wonderful smile, and a sweet New England accent that buckled my knees and was the result of what seemed to me an idyllic childhood in a small Massachusetts town near the New Hampshire border – where she lived with her parents and 11 siblings – 10 brothers, one sister. They all played hockey on their own pond. Summer nights, they hung out at some place called the DQ. They all had those accents. One of the brothers was a smart, eccentric friend I’d met the year before – he introduced this Yonkers boy to the music of Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Todd Rundgren, as well as the essays of C.S. Lewis.

The girl and I were certainly in love, but it was a fledging, first-time love — and it succumbed to the strains of youthful angst and inexperience. We were together about six months. When we split up, I was devastated. I’d lost my first and only true love.

I ended up taking a semester off from school, heading back to Yonkers, in order to lick my wounds, contemplate what had happened, and figure out what was next. I missed her terribly. We tried a couple of times to try to get back together, but it didn’t happen.

Going home to Yonkers was a bad mistake. I worked five nights a week, midnight to 8, as a security guard at an IBM office building in White Plains. Go ahead. Laugh. I did, indeed, look pretty funny in my guard uniform and my shiny badge. And of course I was in no position to protect any IBM computer guys from whatever it was they needed to be protected from.

But I WAS in a position to read a book per night for the entire six months of my service to the Gleason Security Agency, which was certainly the best part of working the midnight shift with no one around and a security’s guard’s key to the stockpiles of food in the executive dining room.

The other two nights of the week, though, I was lonely and miserable. And now I’m getting to the point:

My life was saved by a bird – Alison Steele, the Night Bird, late-night DJ on free-form WNEW-FM.

She always began her radio shows with a poem – usually something reflecting those times – hippie stuff like “The Prophet” or something by Rod McKuen.

And then there was the carefully chosen music, a certain genre that fit the “Night Bird” theme so perfectly, our generation’s version of “The Milkman’s Matinee,” songs of lonely late night: “Riders on the Storm,” “Moondance,” “Free Bird,” “Piano Man,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell all come to mind – and have stayed there in my memory.

Romantically and remarkably, my Girl from the North Country came back to me — and I to her — decades later, after fulfilling lives and marriages that had  turned topsy-turvy and sad.

Part Two was much better than Part One…this truly felt like a miracle…but miracles require three proofs, and maybe we had one or even two, but after about three years of bliss mixed with sorrow — and, again, conflicting expectations — our great love fled among the stars once more.

And so it’s the wee, wee hours, and the milkman’s making his lonely rounds, and I feel like hearing the soothing  sound of Alison Steele, the Night Bird, who’s telling me: “Come fly with me…

 

Man in the mirror

World of Wonders

Here’s my latest piece intended for an ongoing book project, a collection of essays on mortality and memory  titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death.’

I’m not talking about Michael Jackson’s song. I’m talking about me, and mirrors, and how I just can’t bear to look at myself these days. It’s like I’m looking into a funhouse mirror — except it!s no fun.

This is what I told a friend the other day:
‘I don’t look like me. My face is bloated and red. I had a nice full head of hair. It upsets me -I guess it reminds me that I’m sick… A lot of friends have said they want to meet for lunch or coffee, but I’ve said no, not now, and it’s mostly that I don’t want people to see me like this…so vain, right?

Her reply: First, she completely understood. Second, it was interesting because she’d…

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Man in the mirror

 

Here’s my latest piece intended for an ongoing book project, a collection of essays on mortality and memory  titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death.’

I’m not talking about Michael Jackson’s song. I’m talking about me, and mirrors, and how I just can’t bear to look at myself these days. It’s like I’m looking into a funhouse mirror — except it!s no fun.

This is what I told a friend the other day:
‘I don’t look like me. My face is bloated and red. I had a nice full head of hair. It upsets me -I guess it reminds me that I’m sick… A lot of friends have said they want to meet for lunch or coffee, but I’ve said no, not now, and it’s mostly that I don’t want people to see me like this…so vain, right?

Her reply: First, she completely understood. Second, it was interesting because she’d read about the self-image issues faced by women in similar situations, but not about men feeling the same way. Third, she said ‘You look just fine.’

So, yes, that made me feel better. But vanity, thy name is Nick.

Guaranteed, then, if I suddenly encounter a mirror or reflection, I’m still going to cringe and cower like a B-movie vampire.

Tears, idle tears, I know full well their use

OK, so I’m showing off, quoting Tennyson in the title of this essay — the latest intended for a small-press project, started (ironically enough) before my recent health issues: a collection of literary essays on the subjects of mortality and memories titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death, the headline on a 1920s newspaper article about an ancestor’s surreal and terrible demise.

Anyway, here’s the latest essay:

*********

It’s a trait I inherited from my late father. I well up with tears when George Bailey’s brother shows up at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ — and it happens every time, and even though I’ve seen that movie a hundred times, Zuzu’s damned petals still make my lip quiver.

Worse, really dumb and embarrassing things can make me emotional — like once I stumbled upon a TV show called ‘Undercover Boss’ and the CEO of some fast-food chain gave some well-deserving employee a new car, $25,000 and a family vacation, and I nearly bawled and blubbered like some operatic Italian clown.

Today, though, was different. After emergency surgery several months ago, followed by another medical crisis nearly two weeks ago, I resumed treatments this morning – still confident, feeling fine, but bloated, practically bald, and wary about the effects of this latest round of therapy. A very caring and sweet nurse asked me about my latest ‘adventure’ — and I filled up with tears, couldn’t talk for 10 seconds, and accepted a tissue.

I suppose it’s a good thing to acknowledge. Being sick doesn’t just suck — it’s also sad, and something to think about, and significant, so it would be weird and unnatural to not get emotional about it once in a while.
And I’m fine now: watching some TV and reading some old essays by Annie Dillard, catching myself daydreaming about trips I’d like to make (to Alaska, to my grandparents’ village in Italy – and for yet another writing residency at a beloved artists’ colony in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains) – and hoping someone comes along and gives me $25,000 and a vacation and a new car…and a handful of Kleenex, because…well, there’s that thing about me and Zuzu’s petals….

 

 

 

 

The glory that was grease?

I’ve been recuperating and relaxing for the past four days, staying with my mother, and I’ve been letting her pamper me – including cooking meals – as I regain my strength and energy.

So one day she’s making grilled cheese sandwiches on this really old looking flat skillet and says “Your grandfather used to make grilled cheese on this.”

What?! Grandpa Nash! My grandpa died 51 years ago. That’s one old goddamned skillet. That’s a hell of a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. I want that griddle someday!

Wait! There’s more! The next night, Mom was boiling something for dinner. When she was done, and had washed out the pot, she held it up and said, “This pot is more than 60 years old. I bought it when I got engaged.”

My mother is still using a cooking pot that she bought years before I was born! I want that skillet and I want that pot!

I guess there’s no point to this, other than some vague notion that the big and expensive and spacious skillet given to me by my daughter a few months ago is a great skillet, but it now seems like some sort of poseur, some kind of upstart, a kitchen utensil that may never, to really stretch this and allude to one of those fancy old English poets, acquire the glory of my Mom’s old cooking pot nor gain the grandeur of my grandpa’s old skillet.

Give me a head with hair…

OK, this will date me, but I’ll point out that I was just a 13-year-old from Yonkers in my first year at Fordham Preparatory School and, being from Yonkers, I may have been totally out of my element among the boys from Scarsdale and Larchmont and Bronxville, but I was cooler than them all, and somehow found my way very quickly to the Fordham University Bookstore on that campus in The Bronx and bought the first record albums I’d ever owned: Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, and the album by Neil Young and Crazy Horse with “Down by The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Yes, very cool for a 13-year-old – but I have to confess the identity of the very first record album I purchased at that university bookstore: the original cast recording of the musical “Hair!” I can’t explain why, so don’t ask.

In any event, hair – not the album, the thing that used to be on top of my head – is much on my mind these days. So much so that I’m inspired to spew this poem that badly echoes the Beat poets of San Francisco (I’ve been reading Richard Brautigan lately), Asian poetry, and the prayer poems of my great friend Robert Lax:

Run my/Hand/Over/My head/I am holding/Handful/Of hair.

Chemotherapy, as the doctor promised, does that and did that. I’ve still got some left, but most of the hair is gone from the top of my head, all within the last two weeks, and who knows if I’ll keep any of the rest.

I know it will grow back. And I like the NY Yankees cap I’ve taken to wearing. But I’ve always taken great and vain pleasure from looking in a mirror and knowing that I’ve never gone bald and only in the past few years acquired a touch of grey. It’s a family trait on my mother’s side of the family – the Nash and Crooks side. My Grandpa Nash still had hair on his head when he died, and his son, my Uncle Elwood, had a full head of hair into his late 70s; my mother’s, her other brother – Uncle Ken – likewise kept his hair. And I’ve been so happy with that family inheritance.

There are other things I could write about my hair. How it once cascaded down to my shoulders – and how one time a guy in college saw me from behind, sitting in a chair, and thought I was a “chick.” I could write about fights I had with my father over the length of my hair – it was a threat to him, I understand now, both in terms of American society at the time and his whole image of himself as a second-generation Italian-American “man of the house.” And I could go back a few years before that, when my father would take me to the barbershop of his cousin Carlo, a hell of a nice guy and one terrible barber.

Or I could just end this by saying that, in my own way, I am pondering my vanity…and mourning my hair…and avoiding mirrors, at least for now.