The Last Goodbyes


2020-09-26 21:50

I said my last goodbye to my mother today. I don’t think she heard me. I whispered, because I didn’t want to disturb her, and she’s hard of hearing as it is.

I don’t expect her to rally again. I don’t expect any more lucid minutes, or moments. I believe our mother is gone, but her body doesn’t know it yet.

The only time today she exhibited any arousal – not even awake, really – was when the home health aide came this morning and we changed her. She only accepted two syringes of thickened cranberry juice, and waved off the rest. She didn’t even wince when we pulled her higher up on the mattress, an act which was causing her excruciating pain just a few days ago.

She fell asleep after that. She slept all day. She still sleeps now. Her breath is shallow, but easy and regular.

It’s her third day not eating.

We’re just waiting, now.

2020-09-28, 22:00

It’s two days later. Five days since she’s eaten anything. It’s now been a week since we officially entered hospice. We are still just waiting.

She sleeps. She no longer has any even semi-conscious moments. Mornings had been the worst time for her pain. We’re still only moving her once each morning to change out her incontinence supports and make sure she’s not developing any compression injuries, i.e. “bedsores”. During this morning’s changeout, she had no reaction. She is gone. Her body just hasn’t caught up.

Goodbye #2

Still, I gave her another goodbye this evening. I held her arm and hand, the “bad” one, on the right side of her body, affected most by the cerebral palsy she was born with. Among other things, I said her hand was beautiful to me, that it always was. This goodbye was less tearful than Saturday’s. There is some acceptance in me, yes, but also I’m just exhausted.

When my father was dying, they drew up reciprocal documents naming each other as health care proxies, powers of attorney, and estate executors. When my father died, those roles and responsibilities transferred to me. There are some things we can do beforehand. Since my mother is no longer responsive, and can no longer speak for herself, I’m acting in accordance with her wishes.

We “check on her” adhoc, or whenever we pass by the room where she’s setup. She’s no longer restless or agitated in sleep, which is good. So for me, euphemistically “checking on her” means first looking to see if she’s (still) breathing. If so, I’ll check her temperature at her forehead, her hands, her feet, and adjust her covers accordingly. If her breathing is a bit labored, I may lower the head of the bed even further to reduce compression on her diaphragm.


At some point – soon, I hope – one of us will walk in on her and she will no longer be breathing. Whoever finds her, son or daughter, will tell the other. We will tear down the dams and release the rivers of grief we’ve been holding back. We will sob and weep, wordlessly holding each other, now just the two of us left in our little family. When we’re ready, I’ll start making the phone calls that will set us on our journey away from our mother.

I’ve already had the last conversation I will ever have with my mother. I’ve said all the goodbyes I can. I just want this part to be over.

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2020-09-25: Waking Up From Death 

2020-09-23: The Night’s Watch


The Night’s Watch


While the world burns down around us, I am sitting in a darkened room, with just the sounds of a small table fan and an oxygen concentrator, watching over my mother. My only company is Raja, one of the house cats in my sister’s house, keeping watch over my left shoulder.

John and I drove down from Brooklyn to Ocean County, New Jersey on Friday, after my initial physical therapy consult, part of my ongoing recovery from hand surgery three weeks ago. I had packed the night before. I’d been in daily conversation with my sister, by phone or text for the prior week, as our mother went into a steep, rapid decline. Of greatest concern was her lack of appetite; we have to crush all her meds to administer them with her food, all of which is pureed, mashed, or otherwise pulped.

It’s the longest my sister and I have spent together under the same roof since I left college.

Dissociation is my superpower. I have dressed and undressed my mother, seen her naked, wiped her bottom. I can attend to her, asking her the same question over and over, until I get a glimmer of understanding. Or I can move on, passing over the grief I feel that she is gone, cognitively, that I’ve already had the last conversation I will ever have with her, shared the last joke, excited the last smile, or smirk, from her aged lips.

Just now, a deep, low, relaxed groan escapes her. Startled by the sound, and its possible implications, I look up at her. Yes, she is still breathing, shallow and rapid, as she has been most of today. 

I am afraid to leave her side because I don’t think she’ll last the night. I have never experienced another’s passing. Some selfish part of me wants to be here for that, for her, for me. Like maybe there really is something? That it’s not just physics and chemistry and homeostasis keeping the machinery running? 

I don’t believe that, of course. But I understand the comfort that could be found in such beliefs. Especially now, sitting here in a darkened room, kept company by the sounds of tireless machines, each to its purpose.

Oxygen Concentrator

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Grief and Gardening: Ashes (Remembrance Day for Lost Species)

Detail, label, "Our Lady of Abundance," inside lid

My alarm wakes me Saturday morning. I go downstairs to the kitchen, nuke myself a cup of coffee, and get a fresh batch going. I didn’t sleep well. Today is the Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

I start prepping my mother’s breakfast. I put some orange juice in her small cup, and add some thickener, probiotic, and her liquid medications. I start working on crushing her morning pills. Each of the half dozen takes a different approach. Some crush easily. Others need to be split first.

Their remains collect in the well of the crusher. The easier ones are reduced to dust. The harder ones leave grit, and small, sharp shards.

A black cat with one spot on her chest, like a priest’s collar, finds me in my garden. She adopts me immediately. I name her “Spot”. She dies in my arms as we try to find the veterinarian emergency room in a snowstorm.

We bring her home in a small tin. Inside the tin is a bag. We transfer it to a reliquary box, an artwork of hammered copper, beads, and glass.

She carries me through 15 years of recovery, reconnecting, and relationship. She comforts the man whom I would later marry through his mother’s dying, and death.

The bag doesn’t quite fit the box. I want to rearrange it. It’s my first time handling cremated remains. I open the bag. Its contents are not what I expect. They are not ash. They are crumbs, and grit, and shards of bone, chalky and white. It’s all that’s left of her.

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. My partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors. I think of the photo one friend took of another, spreading his dead lover’s ashes from a plastic baggie – before he died – on their property in the Catskills. The images of ashes thrown over the White House fence. A sea of quilts, holding the names of my partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors, so scattered across the acres of battlefield, it takes hours to visit them all.

We are traveling upstate, our first real vacation together. Everywhere we go the mood is quiet, subdued. Whereever we go, people ask where we’re visiting from. When we tell them, their eyes well up.

I walk to and from work. The streets and gutters are filled with ash. It takes months for the rains to wash it all away.

We step out of the shop. I ask him to wait. I walk back inside. I return to where I saw the box. Its title is “Our Lady of Abundance”. I buy it for the meaning the word has for him. It goes to his apartment, then our apartment, then our home. Waiting.

I am standing in a mountain river, cold over my feet and legs. I am here for my father. I am here with my father. I take the small, ornate bronze container out of my pocket. I open it, and begin releasing its contents to the wind and water. It’s not what you expect: They are not ash. They are crumbs, grit, shards of bone. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his death. It’s all that’s left of him. I am here for my father.

It is Lost Species Day. We are burning the remains of countless organisms. Even long dead, we could not let them be. We are burning the world.

In the Catskills we watched the towers fall, again, and again, a hundred miles away. Where I bought a box of hammered copper, beads, and glass to give to a man to mark a relationship that arose out of deeply shared loss, like a phoenix, from ashes.

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One Score Years Ago

David Joseph Wilcox at Wigstock in Union Square, early 1990s. Scan from original slide, date unrecorded.
David Joseph Wilcox - Wigstock, Union Square

20 years ago, on January 22, 1996, my friend, David Joseph Wilcox, died from AIDS.

The last time I saw him was December 12, 1995. I wrote this on my return trip home on the F train back to Brooklyn from the East Village.

Was this the last time I saw you? I want to remember every moment of it, some muse of the eidetic ideal supply my memory for later recounting, to remember you perfectly.

As we leave your building you pause, press your hand against the brick wall, to steady yourself. “Are you okay?” I ask stupidly. Of course you’re not okay. But it comes out this way, my helpless wish that you not suffer more.

Your body answers, first with a contraction, from abdomen to shoulders, then a convulsion. Then I hear the weak, airless gagging sounds, you standing there shaking, retching, overcome by waves of nausea, unable to breathe.

Your body doesn’t understand you haven’t been able to eat for weeks because of the Kaposi’s which lines your throat, the infections which coat your mouth and tongue. Finally, a thin, clear gruel passes your lips, as your stomach offers up the little water you drank an hour ago, mixed with some mucous perhaps from your throat and mouth.

This repeats in another five feet.

And again, but now you lean on a part of the low chain fence which separates the frozen ground from the concrete of the entrance plaza.

Another five steps you sit down on the ledge of the steps. It’s bitterly cold out. In five minutes we’ve traveled 20 feet.

Story Corps booth in the PATH station at Ground Zero, January 22, 2006.
The StoryCorps booth in the PATH station at the World Trade Center/Ground Zero, 2006-01-22

In 2006, on the 10th anniversary of his death, my then-partner/now-husband, John, and I went to StoryCorps at Ground Zero to interview each other about our friend. Here are two short segments from that mutual interview.

The first, “Phoenix,” describes how John and I came together, and our current relationship developed, after Dave’s death.

The second, “Loss, Grief, and Remembrance,” is from the end of our recording time that day.

I cannot over-emphasize his importance to each of us as we shared our lives together, nor how his death transformed us. I still miss him, in part because he is not here to bear witness what we have become, each in ourselves, and together in this third entity. Though he might never admit more than his wry smile you see in the photo that opens this post, I believe he would be pleased.

I wrote the following on the F train on my way to visit him that day, not knowing it would be the last time. Because it’s out of sequence, it feels somewhat false, even trite, to place it here. However, reading it now, 20 years later, it rings surprisingly true. So I end with this.

Only in the midst
of disorder, of chaos,
complexity arises.
Life is born
in the womb of entropy.

As I survive,
outlive the scores,
who still guide me,
direct and indirect.
Accumulating the weight of these losses,
I carry this chaos forward
into the future.
But no longer will I see
dry crust around me,
scorched of life.
With my hands,
my heart,
my hope,
I create fertile earth as my ground.

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Full 45-minute StoryCorps recording


Ripley, 2000-2015

Our Ripley died with us around 1:30 this morning.

It’s still the middle of the night. We had an 8am appointment with the vet for an ultrasound exam to find out what was going on. Instead, I’ll be taking his body in for cremation.

I need to try to get at least a few more hours sleep. I needed to write something first.

We adopted him when he was almost 8 years old.

He had a good seven years with us – almost half his life. He had lots of love.
John & Ripley

He loved to get brushed. He had a porch to watch the birds, and more love.
Ripley and John, in mutual bliss

So much love.
John & Ripley mutually kissing each other

We adopted his baby sister, Annie, to help keep him company, because two grown men weren’t enough for him.
Greco-Roman Cat Wrestling

He’s been in decline for a few months. This is the last photograph I took of him. Three weeks ago, when the weather had warmed up, I took him outside into the front yard. He wanted to wander around and I had to keep herding him back. It was the most active he’d been in weeks. Eventually, he let me brush him – which used to be his favorite activity – and he settled down into the grass.
Ripley in the Grass.

I don’t want to dwell on the details of his passing. I might have more I want to say later. I’m just grateful we were both with him. With us there to give him what comfort we could, he passed quietly at the end.

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Off-Topic: Vows

Two years ago, on May 19, 2012, I married my husband, John. These were my vows:


I don’t know what I can say to you that I’ve not already said.

In front of family, friends, neighbors, and community, I can say this:

Today is not a beginning – We began many years ago.

Today is not an ending – There is much more for us to explore together.

I am grateful, that having moved apart, our separate journeys prepared us to come together again, and see each other with new eyes.

I love you, more than I could have imagined I would ever love anyone.

Today is a milestone on the path.

I want always to travel that path with you.

“We began many years ago”
John and I first met nearly 30 years ago at one of the then-many, now long-gone, gay bars in the East Village.
“having moved apart”
Somewhere explained in an earlier blog post. I moved from the East Village to Brooklyn
“our separate journeys”
Both John and I have spoken publicly about being in recovery. Speaking for myself, I needed a lot of work.

We’ve been “together” for 17 years or so. (John keeps track of these things.) We’ve been living together for 14 years. A few years ago, as the possibility of legal marriage in New York state seemed increasingly likely, I “pre-proposed” to John. I told him that, if and when it became legal in our home state, I would propose to him. He initially objected, “What if I want to propose to you?!”

In the Summer of 2011, marriage equality became law in New York state. The next day, we had a voice message from a couple of our straight neighbors: “When’s the wedding?!” All the pressure to marry came from straight friends and neighbors.

In the Fall of 2011, I ambushed John with a “surprise engagement.” I secretly gathered family and friends, and proposed to John on our second floor porch. We shared dinner after at a nearby restaurant.

Many years ago, when our partnership had not yet been secured, I vowed to John: “I commit to exploring relationship with you.” I maintain that vow.

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Dad’s Dogwood

The Dogwood which my family sponsored, and I helped to plant, outside the 3rd Street Playground in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Dad's Memorial Dogwood in Prospect Park

My father’s birthday was November 2. He would have been 79. He died almost two years ago, early in the morning of December 1, 2008. I’ve been going back over what I wrote about his death. But the best thing to read, to get a sense of who he was, is in his own words: How Old Will I Be?

This morning, Blog Widow and I helped plant a tree in his memory in Prospect Park. The Prospect Park Alliance Commemorative Giving program provides opportunities to sponsor an existing tree or plant a new tree. There are no plaques or signs on the trees themselves or in the park; their Web site provides an online register, indexed by commemoration name, of the sponsored trees, their locations, and the season they were planted, going back to 1983. My father was born and raised in Brooklyn, so this seemed an appropriate way for the family to remember him.

My Dad’s favorite tree was the native Dogwood, Cornus florida, so that’s what the family selected to commemorate him. Luis Lemus, the Prospect Park arborist who coordinated this morning’s planting, told me he purchased it from a nursery in Pennsylvania. Just three days ago it was in the ground. And now it is again. Luis was joined by his Parks colleagues, Eric and Jose. The three-man crew made quick work of planting. It was all over in a little more than a half-hour.

The location is lovely, just outside the 3rd Street Playground, behind Litchfield Villa. Prospect Park lost hundreds of trees over the past year, in a winter storm, and this summer’s tornado-macroburst storm. A few large trees were taken down in this location, opening up the canopy. Countless thousands of park visitors, a few of whom we met and spoke with during the planting, will enjoy this tree for decades to come.



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Prospect Park Alliance: Commemorative Trees


What follows is the text of the eulogy I read at my father’s memorial this afternoon. I started writing it months ago. The first paragraph is a rewrite from my response to my father’s first guest post on this blog.

“To Dad, From Your Loving Family” My mother wants the roses. At least one of them will be dried for a memento box. The rest will be removed and worked into new arrangements for a nursing home.
Floral Display

I am grateful that I was able to have a relationship with my father. It wasn’t always so. There were decades of silence, and strained relations. I’m grateful that we both lived long enough to heal and grow, independently and together, to allow us to enjoy each other’s company. I’m grateful for the friendship we shared, as two grown men with a unique bond and shared history. I am also proud of him. I’m grateful that I’m able to feel all this, and know it, and celebrate it. And him.

I want to honor the complexity of my father’s life. My father was not a perfect man. I’m not proud of him because he was perfect. I’m proud of him because of how he grappled, throughout his life, with his imperfections, to become the man he always wanted to be. I was not proud of his alcohol dependence; I’m proud of his recovery from it. I was not proud of his homophobia. I’m proud that he overcame it so, that he accepted my partner, John, as his own son.

There is so much of him in me. We shared the same dark sense of humor. I thank him for my full head of hair. There is also our love of nature, animals and babies; love of science, engineering and computers, and space; love of photography, theater and music; the desire to connect with and contribute to our communities; and endless curiosity about the world. There’s so much of him in me, that it will be a long time before I can accept that we will never have another conversation, share another bad joke, exchange another email or photograph, share another hug.

Laurie Anderson said, “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.” My image for this comes from the end of the film, “The Name of the Rose,” when the monastery tower goes up in flames. I feel like the monk, portrayed by Sean Connery in the film, staggering out of the smoke and ash, clutching a few smoldering volumes to his chest.


  • Checkers
  • Bullfrog
  • Deer throat
  • Gliders and flaming hot-air balloons
  • Coin collecting
  • Rocket launches
  • Stingray on the St. John’s
  • Vibrating beds
  • My first camera
  • Community theater
  • CB radio

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Exploring Biophilia Through a USB Microscope

Tiny Strawberry. Credit: Michaela and Cassandra.

I’m in North Carolina this week, visiting my parents with my sister and nieces. It’s a confusing time, with both my nieces and parents demanding both my sister’s and my attention. “Which imaginary friend do you want to help me feed?” “Did I show you this?” So I welcome activities which can engage everyone, including me.

For this visit, my father bought an inexpensive USB microscope. I’ve been thinking about getting one of these myself, so I welcomed the opportunity to play around with one. It also turned an otherwise ordinary trip through the backyard with the nieces into an expedition. We collected samples – “specimens” – along the way, for examination under the microscope. Here are some of the highlights.

Moss and Lichen from a decaying stump. Credit: Xris.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Credit: Michaela and Cassandra.

Tip of a fern frond (unidentified). Credit: Xris

Diseased Leaf, Credit: Michaela and Cassandra.

Another Diseased Leaf. Credit: Michaela and Cassandra.

Nurtured by our parents, Both my sister and I have a life-long love of nature, and she has clearly nurtured the same in her children. My nieces picked out all these samples. They identified, and I gathered many of the specimens (there was poison ivy about). In a half-hour expedition, we collected about 20 samples, most of which went under the microscope. Much of that half-hour was taken up by observing the wildlife: electric blue damselflies, swallowtail butterflies, a frog, fish, a cardinal, and a rabbit. My nieces each carried their own binoculars. They’re 7 and 8 years old.

All the images are snapshots at 10X magnification. This microscope also offers 60X and 200X, but the controls are mushy and it’s difficult to hold an image in the narrow field of focus. The software is intuitive; my nieces figured out the controls before I did! My nieces did most of the manipulation of framing and lighting for the images above. I’ve credited the photos accordingly above. It took me some exploration to figure out how to capture an image and export it to a JPEG for upload. I did some tweaks for image capture, and some post-processing for shadows and contrast.

They’re brilliant, sometimes scary-smart, children. It’s a privilege to share and explore the world with them.

Guest Post: The Man From B.R.O.O.K.L.Y.N.

I received the following from my Dad this afternoon. I asked him for permission to share it here.

APOLOGIA: YOU WILL FIND “I” AND “ME” IN HERE OFTEN. That’s because my wife, who is also from Brooklyn does not agree with my outlook. These are MY opinions and do not mean I am insulting my wife or son or other Brooklynites and THEIR opinions.


(Nope, that’s not right. How about)


(I’m still not getting my point across. Lessee)


I’m gone, by-bye, far away, moved. It took 65 years but no more $500 annual parking ticket budget, sky rats, strange people sleeping in the streets, passersby arguing with themselves and losing. No more rush hour, subway, shoulder to shoulder bustle and bump, “cleaning” windshields, strange green gobs of mucous on the sidewalk.

I was a Great Depression baby, born at home near the intersection of Myrtle and Decatur in Ridgewood. We moved to Queens early in my life but, same thing. Brooklyn was The City, just like Manhattan.

If you were a baseball fan, you had died and gone to Heaven early. A ten cent subway ride took you to the Wonderlands of Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. I was not a fan.

No sense belaboring it: it was a nasty Era and life stunk. My Mom made me wear knickers and a beret !

Our electric was more off than on. Fridays were always cod fish cakes and spaghetti (Franco-American) night.

During WWII we also had Meatless Tuesdays. Not that we could afford meat anyway but it makes a good bitching point.

When I was married we managed to move out on “The Island”, first to Nassau county and then Suffolk.

From that point on I tried very hard to protect my kids from the Big Bad City. I didn’t want them to endure what

I had gone through. I was still too much a Dad to realize or even conceive that my kids could think for themselves and make decisions. Wrong again, and not for the first or last time.

My son moved first to Manhattan and eventually to Brooklyn where he has a 100 year old Victorian home.

The daughter is very happy with her family in New Jersey.

The son writes a well received and popular “Blog” about life in Brooklyn, especially gardening.

They’re happy, I’m happy. I miss them but not Brooklyn.

Here is a partial list of things I do miss: American Museum of Natural History; Coney Island Aquarium; MOMA; the Bronx Zoo; hot chestnut vendors; Horn and Hardart’s Automat; Charlotte Russe; Loew’s Valencia Theatre; Tony the Ice Man; Macy’s Christmas windows; Rockefeller Center at Christmas; more. BUT, I could always visit. Oh my: swimming at the St. George hotel with its’ salt water pool and the mirrored ceiling; the Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day parades; Times Square on New Year’s Eve (just once);……..

Had to stop, starting to choke up. Take a deep breath.

OK. I now live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, selected as my retirement spot after years of study. Been here 15 years. I do very well, thank you. We eat out several times a week. I love it. We have a backyard about 100 feet deep and two football fields long. A stream runs through it at the rear boundary.

We live at the foot of a mountain.

The backyard is visited by a variety of wildlife: squirrels, flying squirrels, several species of rabbit, red foxes, muskrat, wild turkeys, deer, gray fox, ducks, geese and an amazing variety of birds including several hawk species. (They tend to harvest the mourning doves.)

Just a couple of healthy stones throws away is a herd of elk and a pack of red wolves. The gray wolves have not yet been re-released to the wild. The cougars/panthers/mountain lions are gone but you can still find feral pigs, some mixed with European Boars. They hunt them on foot, with spears!

What about bears? They are all around us but have never been seen on our property. Sightings have been made within a half mile. Usually a daily incident in the local papers.

We gotcher streams, creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and hundreds of waterfalls. Local fishing waters hold all species of trout; bass species include largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, peacock, striped, hybrid.

The North Carolina state record for Bluegill sunfish (2 ¾ pounds) was caught in our home county.

Culturally, we miss major league sports. However we have seen Itzaak Perlman, the Lippizaner Stallions, David Copperfield, many operas. We have musical and stage shows, lots of Celtic music and dancing and, as you might expect, tons of Blue Grass. The circus, pow-wows, gem mines. We’re not lacking.

Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina are within a half hour’s drive.

City lovers would miss the 24 hour lifestyle. We tend to roll up the sidewalks around 9:30 PM.

So, all-in-all, it was a great move. We still visit the son in Flatbush and the daughter in Brick, NJ. We absolutely avoid Long Island at all costs.

There are a few other ties to The City. I still have a plot in Calvary Cemetary. It will go unused.

So, my dear son: revel in your Brooklyn home with your partner. You have chosen, and wisely for you. My plan to protect you was a flop and thank goodness for that.

I am still happy to be FROM Brooklyn. But I have a friend there whom I can visit whenever possible. He opens my eyes to the things I overlooked and broadens my knowledge base and horizons, even at the age of 75.

I am blessed in all things.