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 to 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 kind to kittens and puppies, and…the list goes on and on.

Yes, I’m fine now. The mood has passed.

But sometimes it!s just too goddamn much to deal with, and I’m overwhelmed by the reality of things. 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…