Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Leslie's Other Love

Apart from the kids and I, Leslie's other love was the Steelers.  When I moved to Pittsburgh, one of the first ways in which Leslie and this City changed me was supplanting my old sports allegiances with new Pittsburgh versions.  We went to Penguins games, and Pirates games, and Steeler games.  And she loved all of the teams...but chiefest of these loves was the Steelers.

Leslie was a bit of a tomboy, or at least as much of a tomboy as a princess can manage.  Leslie was a daddy's girl.  Daddy was a big time sports fan...and Leslie was too.  I retrieved her first ever Terrible Towel and took a picture of it.  She made it.  In fourth grade. 

You don't wash terrible towels.  It would wash the excellence out of them. 
I don't know...and I don't WANT to know what horrible things have stained this one since 1979 (ish)
Her dad got season tickets back before the team had rings, and Leslie (and I, ultimately) benefited.  I don't remember when we officially took over the other two seats (from my father-in-law's friends), but I know I've been going to Steeler games regularly since probably around 1997. 

Ritual and tradition (one way in which Emma and Leslie are very similar) were so important to Leslie, and Steeler Sunday at the field (first Three Rivers, now Heinz Field) had little rituals all their own.

We used to leave the house at 10 for 1 o'clock games.  When they were at Three Rivers we'd park in the lot and find our friends the Miletics for Root Beer (flavored Everclear, if we're being honest) and tailgating before the game.  At Heinz, we ultimately ended up going to a bar named Finnegan's Wake about a half mile from the field. 

I'd order the steak chipotle wrap.  I think we went the the Super Bowl the first year I started ordering it (maybe the second) so I never changed.  Steak Chipotle wrap and a Smithwick's (pronounced smiddicks).  Leslie would order a Harp and whatever looked good that morning.

She bought me my Terrible Towel.  And lots of team jerseys.  And I bought her jerseys too...and they were almost always cursed.  Every year she'd get a new jersey, and then that player would almost immediately get injured, retire, or get she'd need a new one. 

But here's the thing I want to talk about.  I shared the "Little Things" post on facebook, and a friend mentioned this little thing Leslie did that I know I'm going to miss like crazy.  Leslie, devout fan that she was, refused to watch or listen to ANY pivotal play.  If the play had game winning/losing consequences, she retreated to a do-it-yourself sensory deprivation chamber, squeezing her eyes shut so that they wrinkled at the corners, curling forward in her seat into a ball, jamming her fingers into her ears...until the play was over.  She was present during some of the most amazing plays in Steeler history...but didn't actually see any of them happen.  At the game or home watching TV, it didn't matter.  If the game was on the line...she was in the blackout mode. 

Sometimes, the Steelers would have a huge play.  Like say the other team was about to score.  Say it was first and ten on the one and they were going to run it in to take a 1 point lead with no time left.   I would watch the play.  I would always watch the play.  Let's say the Steelers forced a fumble, picked it up and returned it for a touchdown.  I would "punish" her.  I would sit stoically closed-mouthed.  The play would end.  No yelling.  She would assume the worst. 

She'd open her eyes slowly and glance up, her fingers slowly coming away from her ears.  She would look confused at first and then glance at me and I would say in mock anger, "Yeah, fumble.  We picked it up and returned it for a touchdown.  Game over.  We win.  THAT is what you get for not watching!!"

And she'd call me an ass and laugh but then we'd high five and scare the shit out of our kids with our yelling.  (Emma would leave the room during Steeler games because Leslie's cheering/jeering was so.  goddamned.  loud.  that it frightened her.)

In her lifetime Leslie got to see Willie Stargell and Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Troy Polamalu, Jerome Bettis and Barry Bonds, all in person.  After the Stanley Cup, Leslie (who used to party at a bar called Froggy's (which is no longer in existence) kissed Bryan Trottier on the mouth and drank from the Stanley Cup.  THAT is living life.  That is unbridled joy.  That is sports, baby!  And Leslie was game!

Lookin' sassy at training camp

Father's day present...her dad, my dad, and her.

We went to a Klout event!  Because I'm a "Steeler" expert apparently.  We met
Larry Foote and listened to him speak, and tried on a Super Bowl ring.

After the first bout of cancer.  She hated this hat because it was a cancer
survivor hat and because she didn't want to be identified as "cancer ________".  She
felt like it called her out.  She just wanted to live her life.

Tipsy sleepy Leslie, resting her head on a Steeler blanket
four stories above the gathering crowd at Heinz Field

Just Leslie being cute and fun and happy at Three Rivers

We're so cute.  Look at that sweater.  LOOK AT IT

One of my first games I assume, because that coat came with me
from Montana, and I think I might have still had it at the cottage house,
but not much longer than that...

Not sure how long ago this was, but it's in Heinz field, and she's got on her
Hines Ward jersey (the only one she ever had that was "valid" more than one year)

Les and her dad...not game time yet...those seats will fill up shortly with
drunken, stupid, obnoxious fans.  She missed going to the games.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Little Things

I'm trying to come to terms with all the little annoying things that your spouse does that irritate the shit out of you, but...simultaneously endear them to you, to the point where they become the things that you miss most...or maybe it just seems that way because the alternative to having to deal with them is too horrible to contemplate.  All the stupid things that grate on your nerves, once silenced, seem like music, and I already miss them. 

Leslie used to poke her tongue out to eat food.  It was subtle, and if you didn't have breakfast and dinner with her every day for 15 years you probably wouldn't even notice it, but she'd just poke it out a tiny maybe a half inch...and it would greet her food, and she'd use the fork to push it into her mouth.  Honestly that didn't annoy me.  It just made me laugh.  Emma and I would exchange glances at the table and she'd giggle and Leslie would say, "What?", and then I'd slowly push my tongue out, and take a bite.  And she'd laugh and shake her head at me.  It was weird and quirky and great.

Leslie used to mess up cliches.  It was sort of her trademark.  When we lived in the cottage house and she was actively training people every day, I was like, "How can you give presentations for a living and still not know that those expressions are completely wrong?"

Some examples: 
"I really screwed myself in the foot on that one."
"Vicious snowball"
"Six and a half dozen of the other"

And she'd say them and my eyebrows would shoot up to my hairline like "Really?  you're going to leave that hanging out there?" until she'd glance up at me and notice and say, "W-was...was that not right?"  And it never was.  And it was great.

Leslie used to make this weird breathing noise.  Like maybe she'd been holding her breath without realizing it, and then would slowly but audibly let it out. 

"You're doing it again."
"Doing what?"
"You're making that funny noise."
"What funny noise?"
"That...breathing thing."
"I'm not doing any such thing.  I don't make funny noises."

But she did.  And it was great.

Leslie had a booming laugh.  I call it the "Dowden laugh".  Her Dad has it, her younger sister has it, and she had it.  And you could find her in a room full of 500 people or a building with a hundred offices just by zooming in on that laugh.  If I had ever had a problem being the center of attention I would have hushed her or something, because that booming bark of a laugh was a "look at me!"  It was so great. 

She would clean the dishes with soap and water until they glistened...then put them in the dishwasher.  So clean.

She called her mother five times a day.  Every day.  Once I pulled out the phone bill (back before I got it electronically) and I forced her to look at it.  Sometimes there'd be a call to her mom for 5 minutes, then one minute would go by, then there'd be another call for 2 minutes, then ten minutes, then a call of 1 minute, then twenty minutes, then a call for 8 minutes.  I was so exasperated by it.  "What could POSSIBLY have come up that you needed to call back 1 minute later??"  Any time the phone would ring...ANY time..."It's your mom, Les," and I was probably only wrong 5% of the time.  We didn't need caller ID.  We already knew.  Those were the days.

She kept the house immaculately clean but her car was always a mess.  We'd have long talks about how I just didn't see the dust or dirt or need to clean inside the house, but when we climbed in her car...she was totally unaffected by the filth.  She bought a collapsible garbage container for her minivan and hung it by a little hook.  She'd fill it with garbage...but never empty it!  Looking back at was all great. 

All those little stupid piddly annoying things and soooo many more...and I want them back.  I want them all back. 

I told Emma at breakfast this weekend that on Mother's Day we'll make everyone poke their tongues out when they eat their food just like her mother did.  She laughed, and then she and I both poked our tongues out and at our pancakes and smiled.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Good Times Bad Times

I promise I'm going back to the Leslie story soon.  I have pictures to find.  I haven't been able to locate the ones I want yet.  Also, I find that it's when I'm feeling saddest that I tend to also feel most driven to write.  Which is actually good because the writing is cathartic and I end up feeling less sad when I'm done than I did when I started.

But I did want to just make a couple general statements about how I'm handling this whole grieving thing.  First of all, thank you to everyone who has been so complimentary about how I'm doing this with the girls and our family, and I don't really know what to say except..."thank you" which I already said so now I feel stupid.  And it's all your fault.  No, but honestly, I'm just trying to really think this through and do what is healthiest for me and for the kids.  I don't want the kids ever to be scared to talk to me.  I don't want the kids ever to feel like they can't mourn because it upsets me.  I don't want the kids ever to feel like they have to be strong for ME.  I don't want the kids to ever be embarrassed about their grief.  So I try to think about all those things when I'm talking to the girls, and specifically when I'm talking to Emma.

Back to me.  A couple days ago I posted something on Facebook that I probably didn't think completely through.  I'm typically pretty tight-lipped about my feelings (one of the things Leslie told me I needed to work on when she was gone) so when I posted that I was struggling and that I was going to log out for a while, I didn't anticipate people thinking I was maybe in crisis mode.  And maybe you didn't.  Maybe you just thought you'd be nice and check on me.  Thank you for that.  And sorry if you thought I was a wreck.

I'm discovering this weird phenomenon that I feel good about mourning, and I feel bad about having good days.  And the bad feeling is driven by guilt over not mourning hard enough and the good feeling is driven by respect for Leslie's memory, and I'm not sure either is "right or wrong" per se, but that's what's going on.  So in a weird sort of way, when I'm feels right.  It feels good that I'm sad about Leslie's passing.  She was so important to me and so important to my family, and I'm strangely "at home" in my grief.  I feel like grieving is normal and natural and so even though I said I was struggling the other day...I was fine.  I was just sad.  And that's okay.  I'm okay with sad.

On the other hand there are times when I don't miss a beat, business as usual, I'm not even sad or thinking about her loss or her life, I'm just reacting or communicating or working or whatever, and while that means I'm not "struggling" also sort of makes me feel bad, because...well...shouldn't I be super sad?  And I know the answer is no.  Just like I know when I tell Emma the same thing, that she has to live her life, have fun with friends, laugh and giggle and do everything else that other 13 year old girls are doing that what I'm telling her is right and healthy, it's still something I feel and something I'm working through.  I have to live my life and be happy and have fun with friends and laugh and ...maybe not giggle...maybe chortle or chuckle...and do whatever other 45 year old men are doing.  But that feeling is there.  I asked a grief expert if there's a term for this, but I haven't heard back.

I'm alright.  I really am doing well on the whole with this.  In general I consider each day a good day.  And if I struggle a bit or I'm sad...that doesn't change the fact that it was a good day.  I was just sad during my good day.  I just wish I had Leslie to share my good day WITH.  And that's the whole grief thing. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Just a Lil Walk IV

This is the fourth "walk" for the Walter family.  The first walk without Leslie. 

Leslie loved the walk.  I know it delighted her how people came out of the woodwork online and in person to support little Lily.  Autism was Leslie's cause.  I know that it probably seems like maybe cancer could or should have been her cause, but Leslie was never comfortable with that.  She never wanted to wear pink.  She never wanted to broadcast her breast cancer.  Supporting Lily was her cause.  This walk was and is the "event" that the Walter family used to express that support.  Please read below and consider joining us on May 16th as we walk for Lily.  Leslie will be walking alongside all of us in spirit.


It's that time of year once more. I'm inviting friends and family to participate in Highmark's, "Walk for a Healthy Community" with us again this year. "Just a Lil Team" will once again be marching for Autism Connection of PA (aka ABOARD). The beauty of the walk is that 100% of the donations go to the charity.

Four years ago around September, when this blog was newer and greener, I broadcast a plea for help to the autism community at large and asked this question, "To whom should I donate my money if I want it to benefit autistic people and their families and caregivers?" That post is >>HERE<<. If you're getting this message via snail mail, you can't click the >>HERE<<, so stop trying, you're just tearing the paper. If you're getting this message and can click, but refuse, I'll summarize it:

Anyone who was autistic said, "Don't give money to Autism Speaks". There were a lot of reasons, and most of them were good. The consensus was, "give to someone who can help autistic people locally, or give to food banks or shelters", because the sad fact of life is that many autistic people not receiving supports or services are the people in the homeless shelters and benefiting from the food banks. I'm paraphrasing the masses (it was not a particularly well-commented blog post of mine, but linking from post to post by others who had covered the topic, that was the message I got). One local autistic adult mentioned ABOARD. They had helped her personally. I had attended a couple workshops they had put together with my wife, and had previously donated to them. They're the folks who put together the Autism Friendly Santa Visit at the mall, (they did one for the Easter Bunny too, but we didn't go).

Since then we've gone to many of their sponsored events:

days at an indoor playground
Trips to see the Pirates play
Nutcracker Ballet
Lion King
Art March
Symposium (in the Spring)
Grandparent seminars

And these are just the things our family has attended. They've become our personal pet Autism Charity. We're forming a team again this year, "Just a Lil Team", and using Lily as our rallying point. This is a cause that's important to her, or will be some day when she's able to take it up herself.

We'd love for you to join our team and walk with us on Saturday, May 16, 2015, at Stage AE on the North Shore in Pittsburgh, PA. (Registration is at 7:45 a.m., walks start at 9:00 and 9:15 a.m. if last year is any indication). can sign up as a virtual walker. You don't have to be WITH be with us. If that makes sense.

Here's the link:  If you click that it should take you to the page.  Register as a walker, donate, or register as a virtual walker.  If you are walking with us, please get word to me what your tshirt size is, so I can have enough shirts (and the right sizes) made.

I'll also link the event to the Just a Lil Blog Facebook page.   I've set a goal of $3,000.  I hope we beat it.

Lily and Emma and I will be down by the stadium at Stage AE on May 16th to walk. Whether we raise the $50 or $2500 or $10,000, we'll be there, and we'll have fun. And we'd love it if you could join us, or if you can't, if you could donate to the cause.

We have about three weeks to put together what we can sponsor/donation/team-wise so that I can get tshirts made for participants and make sure we get them in time for the walk.  After about the first week of May, I won't be able to change the tshirt orders.

Just a Lil Walk Team (Jim, Leslie (in spirit), Emma and Lily)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Always and Forever

Taking a break from remembering Leslie to talk a little bit about how we're doing...

Emma had a nice long weekend with friends...a sleepover, a birthday party, just hanging out.  All different friends.  She asked me about it. 

"It feels weird that everyone wants to do stuff with me," she said, perhaps feeling strange accepting invitations that she worries came as a result of her mother's death. 

"Em, these are your friends.  They were your friends before too.  It's natural for your friends to want to try to make you feel better, take your mind off things.  These things are also kind of a wakeup call for people."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, sometimes in life you lose track of people.  You go in different directions.  You might not ever stop enjoying a person's company, but life gets in the way.  Things get busy.  You lose touch.  A lot of times, these sorts of things wake people up to the fact that they miss you.  And that they don't want to let time go by without spending time with you because every moment is precious.  Don't think of this attention as 'pity', think of this as friends wanting you to know that they're there for you."

She mulled this over and seemed to accept it. 

Last night she got home and I told her how I really hadn't gotten a chance to see her over the weekend.  She said she was sorry and I told her not to apologize, that she needs a chance to be a kid and have fun and live her life.  I told her I was just fine, but missed her.  I asked her how she'd been, code for, were you sad while you were gone.  She said she'd been fine. 

She got ready for bed, and I busied myself cleaning or putting lunches together or something, and when I climbed the stairs to tuck her in (or the 13 year old equivalent...lie down, chat, kiss her goodnight and go) I found her crying on my bed.

"Awww, honey, what did it?"

"I was fine, and I came into your room to see if you were up here and I saw the bed, and mommy's side was still made, and unslept in, and it just made me think about her and how she's gone."

Ugh.  We cried a little together and talked, and then she got up and went to bed and I followed her in.  I eased back onto her bed and we chatted just a bit more before I kissed her goodnight.  Before I left her room I told her, "I love you always and forever."

"Always and forever," she echoed.

A week ago Emma and I were comforting each other and she said, "Dad, when I'm much older, like in my late twenties or even thirties..." (Here I interupted her with some protest about how much older I must be if late twenties is "much older")..."I want to get a tattoo in an infinity sign that says "Always and Forever". 

"Why that," I asked.

"It's what mommy said to me every night when she put me to sleep...'I love you, Em, Always and Forever."

Cue the fucking waterworks.

"Oh yeah," I said, remembering, "She said something different to each of you.  To Lily she would say, 'I love you no matter what.' and Lily would always reply, 'No matter what!'"

And I was sooo tempted right then and there to say, "You can get that tattooed tomorrow!" but settled instead for, "Em, when you're old enough for a tattoo, I'll go with you to get it."

Every night since she told me that I stand in her doorway before turning off the light on her fish tank and closing her door and tell her, "I love you always and forever."

And Em replies, "Always and forever."

If you read this blog and you know Emma or talk to Emma, please don't mention Always and Forever to her.  Right now I think she's holding it near and dear to her heart.  I'll ask her tonight if she's prefer that was something just her mom used.  I feel a little guilty using it myself, like I'm somehow usurping her mom's catch phrase, but I think she likes it.

One day at a time.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Leslie's Spaghetti

The last few days Emma’s aunt Lauren (Leslie’s sister) has been messaging her things like, “what’s something that made you smile today?” or “what was one positive thing you remember from today?”  I sort of love that little interaction.  Lauren was Leslie’s “go to guy” for advice and really valued her outlook on life and her big brain.  I love that Lauren is keeping things positive for Emma.  And that she’s pushing herself a little more into Emma’s life because…well…obviously there’s a big hole there to fill.

I’ve been doing sort of the…well…not really opposite…same thing from a different angle.  Every night at bed time I ask her what made her sad today.  And then I tell her what made me sad.  We talk about why it made us sad and I think, sharing it, it makes us a little less sad, and sort of puts us in a big “shared experiences boat.”  One of the reasons I’m doing it is because I have a tendency to put on a brave face, and I want Emma to know that however brave a face I put on, I still think about her mother all the time.  I want her to know that I don’t take this loss the same way I might brush off a bad recipe or a lost dollar bill.  Her life mattered to me.  It made a big impact on me.  I’m grieving the loss.  I don’t want her to ever think that her mom never mattered no matter how brave a front I put on for “company”. 

Last night as we were lying in bed I asked her if anything at school made her sad.  Her science teacher had actually emailed me previously to say this:  “We were discussing ‘learning’ vs. instinctual behaviors.  One of the learning methods is imprinting – which most examples involve children and their moms.  As I was explaining situations like how the sound of a mother’s voice imprints on a baby while she’s in the womb, meaning the baby will always recognize its mother’s voice I could tell Emma was reflecting on it and getting sad.”  He went on to explain how he tried to modify the lesson toward “dads” but didn’t want to halt it because he didn’t want to draw attention to it in front of the class.  He said she handled it, but wanted to let me know. 

So Emma said, “It was in second period.”

“What’s your second period class?

“Science.  We were talking about how baby zebras scan (and I think I’m getting this partially wrong here) their mothers’ faces and imprint them so they can recognize individual facial patterns in the herd and find their mother.  And (insert kid’s name) said, “I couldn’t do that.” And I said, “I could,” but as soon as I said it I remembered and I thought to myself, “not anymore, I can’t,” and I was sad for a while.”

I was glad that her teacher had emailed me, because it prompted me to ask that question specifically, but I think it’s something I’m going to share with Emma at bedtime nightly.  I think it’s…helpful.  I gave her a squeeze and said, “you know what made me sad today?”


“Tomato sauce...” and then I explained.

Back to our story

We lived in the cottage house for four years, and had so many memorable adventures, but I need to move forward with Leslie’s story.  Maybe I’ll share some here or there as they crop up.  This one doesn’t necessarily advance our story together, but it’s worth noting because today in the store the tomato sauce aisle made me so sad…

Spaghetti sauce is this strange sauce as life metaphor…it is both unifying and discriminating.  I think almost every kid loves his mom’s spaghetti sauce.  But…every mom’s spaghetti sauce is different so almost every kid doesn't like some other kid's mom's sauce.  Maybe that's nothing like life.  I don't know.  Bottom line...spaghetti sauce is mysterious.  I remember loving my mom’s spaghetti sauce, but hating the idea of having spaghetti at a friend’s house because…well…it wasn’t the right sauce.  

Leslie started cooking her spaghetti sauce in the cottage house.  I had my mom’s recipe.  She cooked it.  For her it was okay, but Leslie was a much pickier eater back when we first started dating (the list of ‘don’t likes’ included peppers, onions, beans, tomatoes, chunks in sauce, etc…my mom’s spaghetti sauce had 4/5 things included).  For Leslie, it was her mom’s sauce.  She cooked that for me and for me it was okay, but it didn’t have as much zip.  We had dinner with my sister and her husband one night and he made spaghetti sauce that she liked.  She asked him for his recipe.  He’s very much the “throw a bunch of shit in a pot until it’s right” kind of cook, daring, but recipeless, though he did give her a couple tips.

Leslie, using her knowledge of my likes and her own, his tips, and a starting point of her mom’s recipe, created something that worked well for both of us.  There were probably four iterations before she got it perfected.  One was too spicy/chunky (it was my favorite, but not hers), one was bland, one was good, one was better…and she went with it. 

Fast forwarding to the present...both kids eat my wife’s sauce.  This is noteworthy.  Autistics are often famously picky-eaters, but Emma is possibly more picky still.  But both eat my wife’s sauce.  This is huge, because I can make dinner for the whole family, not mini dinners for each kid and another for me.  It has the sausage and wine in it and that gives it a little tang and spice.  It's not so spicy or zippy that it offends Emma, who as a much younger child cried the hard cry because "I got a spice on my tongue", and who, when making her own pizza waves the pizza sauce over her crust (like a drunk waves vermouth over his martini shaker so as not to dilute the vodka...shut up, I don't mean ME), imparting pizza sauce flavoring via air molecules because any more than that is "too much sauce".  And it has some magical quality that remains unnamed because Lily says, "I want mommy's spaghetti."

So yesterday as I was driving my shopping cart through the Giant Eagle, killing time while the pharmacy prepared my strep prescription and I glanced down to see the large Contadina tomato sauce cans and was instantly pole-axed.  I don’t have my wife’s sauce recipe.  She had it in her head.  Oh my god…we’ll never have her spaghetti sauce again.  It was such a stupid comical sense of finality to have hit me over a friggin’ can of tomato sauce, but I was instantly sad.

This morning I texted my former brother-in-law and asked him for his ‘recipe’.  I’ll talk to my mother-in-law tonight. 

I will recreate that fucking recipe if it kills me.  I know 5 cans of tomato sauce.  I know one pound of Italian sausage links.  I know a half cup (or more) red wine.  I know the spices.  I have the meatball recipe (thank GOD I have the fucking meatball recipe). 

So yesterday as I was thinking about returning for the next installment of Leslie’s story, I was thinking about all the cooking we did in that little carriage house, and of spaghetti sauce, and of how much I’ll miss it and her.

More later…(sorry no pics.  I’m at work.  On lunch break)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On Faith and Grace and Flanksteak Pinwheels

I just went to the doctor's office.  I was feeling under the weather.  Feverish, sore throat.  I slept like crap last night and the night before, waking in a cold sweats.  It turns out I have strep throat.

On the one hand I want to cry "Uncle".  On the other hand, this is the first time in months, possibly a year that I've been sick.  Ever since Leslie lost her ability to care for kids by herself I've been healthy.  And ever since then I've lived in constant near panic..."what if I get sick?"  But I haven't.  Until now.

I don't know what to make of that.  You can find signs anywhere and in anything if you care to look for them.  I talked to Leslie about God a few times near the end.  I think I asked her why she bothered with all the prayer and church.  Given the circumstances I knew where God stood in my book, with one trial after the other being thrown my wife's way, and her soldiering patiently and positively forward.

She just said, "It's faith that's helped me get through all of this.  God is comforting me.  God is supporting me."

Religion was a sore subject with us anyway, because I'm not particularly spiritual.  One of my regrets, though, is that near the end, Leslie stopped talking to me about God and her faith.  She started talking to friends and family instead, because I was not a receptive audience.  It makes me sad that I should have been the one person in the world she never needed to censor herself around, but she had to.

I know this because I heard a lovely story from someone (my mom?  her mom?).  My mother had given my wife a passage from the bible, Isaiah 41:13:
"For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you."
And when Leslie would climb the stairs to go to bed at night, she struggled.  She would send me ahead of her and she would slowly climb the steps, pausing about halfway up to catch her breath before resuming.  The stairs in our house became a hurdle she couldn't manage in the end.  Too much effort.  Took too much breathing.  But when she was still climbing those hated stairs, she did it with her right hand held that God could take it, and help her up the stairs.

And it makes me cry even now to think that I never knew that.  Never saw that.  Still, it's a lovely story, and it underpins what my wife told me long before...don't blame God, he's the one helping me up the steps.

Sort of a one set of footsteps in the sand kind of thing.

I feel okay with how the subject of religion was left.  After the doctors told us that the end was very near Leslie commanded, "Emma can't hate God!" and I promised that she wouldn't.  My own feelings are twisted and hazy, corkscrewed with anger and doubt and loss.  I need time.  But Emma knows how much God helped her mother through those last days, and how much her continued belief and love for God meant to her mother.

Back to our story...

We visited Montana a few times after that first fishing/hiking adventure.  We skied, we golfed (didn't we?  I think we did), we even saw a hockey game there (more on that at a future date).  We saw my nephew's christening.  I complained about the noise level of my sister's kids.
There was a picture of Leslie and I holding baby Gino, but my face is all oily and gross and Leslie just looks gorgeous here holding my niece Gianna.  This is at the christening I mentioned.  Jesus, those kids were loud.
Just Leslie...being game.  I think that's the peace sign, or an homage to the movie "Better Off Dead".

But we always returned to our cozy cottage house overlooking my landlord's pool.  When I started writing this I thought we'd lived there a couple years at most, but the timeline says it's more like four.  And that's probably about right.

I was telling a young woman at Leslie's viewing about one of our cottage house adventures.  She had just finished telling me how graceful Leslie was (she was a majorette with Leslie in High School).  I laughed and told her how clumsy my wife was.  I'm allowed to say that.  Here's why:

Leslie and I were sitting at the kitchen table in the cottage house.  The house itself didn't really have a kitchen so much as a kitchen/dining room.  Is that a dinette?  I don't know.  Anyway, we'd just finished cooking something really yummy.  Maybe it was flank steak pinwheels.  That's something she and I used to cook all the time.  We fancied ourselves foodies...for flank steak.


Flank Steak Pinwheels:
1)  buy one flank steak.  Have the butcher run it through the tenderizer twice (three times and it)  shreds it)
2)  lay flat.  season with salt and pepper.
3)  place partially cooked bacon length-wise across the width of the flank steak.
4)  take a thawed package of frozen spinach and cover the bacon and steak. (we didn't understand "fresh" back was before food network)
5)  roll up.  push wooden skewers every inch or so along the length.  Cut between skewers.
6)  grill 5 minutes, flip, grill five more.  
Bang.  Done.

We would drizzle them with store-bought Bearnaise sauce, powdered McCormick's brand, I think.  (foodies...pfft)

End Sidebar

So we finished our steaks and Leslie was doing something.  I don't recall exactly why, but she dropped something, maybe a knife.  Maybe she danced away from it quickly to avoid getting impaled, but whatever it was I laughed and called her a klutz.

Leslie repeatedly told me about how she'd danced as a kid growing up.  She was a majorette for godsake.  She was no klutz.

"Okay, I'll make you a deal.  If you can go two weeks without doing something clumsy I promise never to call you a klutz again."

She mulled this over.  "Fine," she said, and we shook on it.

"Want some ice cream," she asked?

"Yeah, that sounds good."

She walked into the kitchen and got out the ice cream.  It was really cold from the freezer.  I don't know what I was doing while she was getting ice cream, but I know I was still sitting at the kitchen table.  I couldn't see what she was doing.  Apparently the ice cream was resisting her efforts to scoop it.

With what I can only imagine must have been a look of sheer panic, she watched helplessly as the ice cream at last yielded to her vigorous efforts...too quickly...and a dollop of it sailed across the kitchen to land on the floor.  When she quickly looked at me, she saw I was unaware and moved to erase the evidence, but slipped on the ice cream, landing in an awkward near split in the middle of the floor.

That got my attention.

"What the hell?"

She told me what had happened.  She tried to convince me that she deserved another chance to prove her grace, pleading that it was a flukey accident, but I wasn't having any of it.  She lost the bet less than five minutes after making it.  She was forever labeled clumsy by me.

But only in jest.

More later...

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

She Was Game

I think what I appreciated most about Leslie was that she didn't require me.  It's nice to be needed I suppose, but Leslie was sufficient unto her self.  When we went to parties if we were separated I never had to worry that she couldn't hold her own.  I'd spot her a few minutes later talking to a group.  If she caught my eye, she'd smile or wave, not requiring that I rejoin her unless I wanted to.  And usually I did.  She was game.  That's what I told her.  "You're game."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I just mean, that you hold your own.  I don't have to hold your hand or be with you constantly for you to be secure with me.  It's nice.  It's refreshing."

We spent most of our time together.  When my apartment complex raised my rent I wrote the sort of indignant letter that only a 25 year old or a CEO can write about how it was "unacceptable" and how I would grace them with my presence one more year only if they lowered my rent.  I was filled with righteous wrath. 

Shortly after that I moved just outside of Cranberry.  It was probably 20 - 30 minutes from Leslie's apartment, so she ended up spending a lot of nights with me.  Ultimately, I asked her to move in. 

I keep wishing I had her to fact-check this, but I suppose if I misremember, who is going to call me on it? 

I seem to recall her really worrying about her parents' reaction to us living in sin.  And (and this is where I wish I had her to fact check me) one night at a Super Bowl party at a friends house, we got in a fight about it and she broke down.  Her parents kept asking her what was wrong, and she wouldn't tell them (also at the party) what she was actually upset about because she was afraid they'd be pissed at me, so she told them she lost a lot of money on a bet.  Because...she was a huuuuuuge gambler.  I'm not sure why she thought that would fly.  It didn't.  And maybe they were initially not super excited about us living together, but they were also okay enough with it that I never felt judged by them or "out of favor".

The place I moved into was an old carriage house that my landlord wasn't using.  It was decorated in early 70's wood paneling and thick bright shag carpeting.  I had a waterbed because "cool".  The place had no air conditioning.  But it was relatively large (by our standards) cheap, and it shared a yard with a swimming pool and jacuzzi, and the landlord was always gone and gave us free run of the place.  Behind the cottage house was wooded and it sloped gently to the North Fork of Big Sewickley Creek.  We invited friends to bonfires in our "back yard" and drank beer that I brewed with a friend in our kitchen and smoked cigars and lived like DINK couples can. 

Every month she wrote a check for $212.50 and every month I did too.  Because we were going dutch. 

We had some amazing times there.  We'd get a bottle of wine, I'd grab a cigar, and we just soak in the jacuzzi while snow fell around us until we were either too drunk or too cold (or too hot) to stand it anymore, then we'd cart all our things back across the pool to our place.  Last night I was looking through pictures.  It was soooo long ago.  These were pictures and memories I'd almost completely forgotten, despite living there for maybe 2 or 3 years.  God she looked happy and alive.  I don't mean it literally like I could given that she's not alive anymore.  I just mean...she was vibrant, she was joyful.  It beamed out of her 10,000 watt smile.

We flew back to Montana to meet my parents.  We were going to hike.

Sidebar:  Leslie had ulcerative colitis.  She'd just been diagnosed maybe a couple months after we moved in together.  At the time she didn't know what was going on, and she was really suffering from a flare up.  I remember being SO.  PISSED.  At her.  She told me she had to go to the doctor.  I asked her about it.  She said she was bleeding.  I'm like...okay...yeah, you need to do that.  She said, "well I didn't think it was that big a deal, it's been going on for a year." I just stared at her.

" did you think bleeding for a year wasn't that big a deal?"  I drove her to the doctor.  Step one:  Prednisone.

Okay...sorry for the sidebar, but it dovetails with the Montana trip.  Prednisone made her blow up.  She was moon-faced and her joints hurt and she was very self-conscious about those facts.  We prepared for the hiking trip by going on exactly one walk in the wildnerness at Moraine State Park north of where we lived.  Clearly we were ready.

The elevation conspired against us.  I remember growing up in Montana thinking about how tourists complained about the elevation.  I remember thinking it was bullshit.  I remembered that as I was gasping for breath less than 1/10th of a mile into the 3 mile hike.  Leslie was struggling as much as I was.  She thought she was going to throw up and she was in tears because there was no way we'd get up that trail and she was "ruining" the whole trip. 

Dad jokes to this day that Leslie had curlers in her backback.  Curlers and makeup and a blowdryer.  She didn't.  No,'s just a funny story!  Telling it 20 times doesn't change the funny story into a fact!

Anyway...I sat down with her. 

"Les, I'm dying too.  We're just going to take lots and lots and lots of breaks for 'pictures'." 

We pulled ourselves together.  Dad took Leslie's pack and his own and my friend Derek (who would one day be best man at our wedding) and the two of us started again up the mountain. 

"Picture break!" we'd announce loudly.  So.  many.  picture breaks.  But it became a joke.  The tension was defused.  Three and a half hours later we made it to Slough Lake.  She caught her first fish on that trip.  She gutted her first fish on that trip.  Because Leslie was fucking game

She did freak out mildly at one point because we didn't pack any food up the mountain (because obviously we were just going to fish for our supper) and pushed the fishing rod at me apologetically.  Her body language saying, "yes, it was neat catching that please take responsibility for catching more so we don't starve to death in the wilderness."

We camped that night miles from anything or anyone.  I remember it was so dark you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face.  
Jim + just have to look really hard.

I was telling Leslie that they use these guide poles to decide when to stop plowing the road.  It was August when we were there, but when snow tops the pole...time to stop plowing. 

More later...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Do What Feels Right

The funeral director told me that there was no wrong way to grieve, that I should do what feels right in my gut.  Whether I was picking out songs for the funeral mass, or discussing burial arrangements, she told me to defer to that feeling.  Leslie has been my deciding vote for so long, I feel exposed when I make decisions without her.  But this feels right...I'll start at the start.


I moved to Pittsburgh in 1994.  It was the end of the year, just past Thanksgiving.  I moved here knowing only the few people I worked with and nobody else.  My closest relatives were in New Jersey.  I was flying by the seat of my pants, but it felt good to be putting myself out there.

The first week after I arrived, the apartment complex I lived in (moved in sight unseen...) had a Christmas mixer.  Maybe it was a holiday mixer.  Holiday was more PC.  My neighbor across the hall was married, but I hijacked him and we went to the mixer together.  We played pool and drank until the apartment manager came over and offered to introduce me to some people.  She introduced me to Leslie and her roommate. 

We settled in, scraping bar stools together to chat about life in Montana, and "what are you doing in Pittsburgh??" (what would become a question I'd answer by rote) over gin and tonics and beer.  Many drinks later we left the bar and drove back to the apartment in her Hyundai Sport.  The black paint sun-damaged ("black is hard color to keep" the Hyundai dealership told her), the car freezing cold.  We scraped a hole in the frost large enough for the driver to peer through and stupidly drove home.

They invited me the following week to their own Christmas party.  My apartment complex was flight attendant central, and the apartment across from hers was vacated by friends who let her party spill over into their apartment. 

I went to the local liquor store and asked the guy working the counter, "What's a traditional Pittsburgh drink?"  I explained where I was headed. 

"Pelinkovac," he replied. 

I got to the party and produced my traditional Pittsburgh drink to the collective cricket chirps and confused head scratches of the gathered party guests.  Nobody had heard of it.  We all took shots.  It was awful.  To this day when I reference Pelinkovac nobody knows what I'm talking about.  Nobody.

I became a fixture at Leslie's apartment.  We hung out and listened to Zombie by the Cranberries.  Because the apartment next door was vacant they would blast it as loud as their speakers could handle.  It shook the fixtures.  When we finished they'd press play again.  We watched Friends and barbecued on our tiny patios.  We drank wine and played tennis.  We went out to dinner.  But we didn't date. 

And I think we didn't date because for the first time I was truly enjoying the friendship of a woman without fucking it up by dating her.  And she was...and is...the first and only girl I've ever not gotten tired of.  We had our ups and downs for sure, but beneath our relationship was always the foundation of friendship that we built in that first year in the apartment complex.

She took me on a blind date because she was nervous about the guy she was going out with.  She took me to weddings when she didn't have a date.  And ultimately, she liked me.  And I liked her.  But I wasn't going to fuck it up by dating her.  Because history had shown me that there's no surer way for me to fuck up a relationship with a girl than by dating her. 

And then my sister and brother-in-law came to visit, and my sister fell in love with Leslie and fell in love with the idea of Leslie and her little brother, and she pushed her into my arms. 

One night after watching Friends over wine, she confessed she wanted to date.  I sat that there I fuck this up, or do I say let's be friends?  What the hell...

I stood up and walked to the door.  Leslie told me later that she thought I was going to ask her to leave.  Instead I turned the lock on my front door.  I slid the bolt home.  That's not a euphemism.  Well...

We dated.

More to come.

Leslie from her "Rachel" phase.  I'm sporting the "Chandler".  She loved this picture, but I used to give her endless shit because it looks like she's cupping my genitalia.  This is at a wedding for one of her flight attendant friends.

Picking Up the Pieces

This will seem scattered probably...

I wrote last night about Leslie.  It was crap.  It was so down and negative, talking about the long slow slide at the end.  Emma came down from her room while I was typing.  Couldn't sleep.  It was 11:40.  I gave her some ideas about how to calm herself and told her I'd be up in about 20 minutes. 

I always do that for Emma.  When her brain gets too hot and she needs to distract herself, I've given her "dreams".  For years I've given her dreams. 

"Daddy, can you give me some dreams," she'd ask? 
"Sure baby."

The dreams were just me giving her a focus for her mind.  I'd usually pick a seasonal fantasy...a day at Kennywood, a snow adventure, that sort of thing.  I'd lie down with her and tell her, "Okay, I want you to try to dream about a day at Kennywood, just our family and whatever friends you want.  There are no lines.  It's hot, but not too hot.  Just hot enough that the water rides splash up around your clothes and feel refreshing.  You can walk up to any ride and you get immediately on.  You can ride it however much you want.  When you get hungry, you just ask for cheese fries or lemonade and they get it for you right away."

And she'd occupy her imagination with the seeds of a dream and usually that was enough.

Last night I couldn't think of a happy dream that didn't in some way shine a spotlight on her missing mother.  I told her to try to imagine a trip to Sky Zone without grownups.  Just the kids doing what they wanted.  I sent her back upstairs to her bedroom and continued typing.  My dream seeds didn't take root. 

20 minutes later I was done writing just past the part where we told Emma the news that her mother was going to pass, and I'd had enough.  It was all wrong.  All about doom and gloom, and nothing about the woman we lost.  All facts, no love.  Maybe I was protecting myself.

I walked into Emma's room and found her lying on her side, staring, wide awake. 

"Come on, sweetie.  Why don't you lie down with me."  She came back with me to the room I'd shared with her mother and curled into the covers.  I scratched her back for a while and eventually we both fell asleep. 

Things are rocky right now.  I think it's going to be a long time before things are "normal" in our house.  Right now the most normal part of it is Lily, who is COMPLETELY normal despite her mother passing, which, ironically, is not normal. 

She doesn't get the finality.  She hasn't even really processed that Leslie's gone.  She is happy watching Wiggles.  We say our prayers and she dutifully "godblesses" her mother, but says nothing else that indicates she's aware that Leslie isn't in our house, or our lives.  It is simultaneously heartbreaking and relieving.  Although I'll continue to watch her carefully...she seems blessedly unimpacted by Leslie's passing.

I have grief like pregnancy cravings.  One minute it's Leslie's voice.  The next it's her scent.  I'll look feverishly through the house for videos or audio files with Leslie's voice on them.  It doesn't satisfy the urge.  There isn't enough. 

This weekend while Emma slept, I couldn't bear to wake her.  What if she was dreaming of Leslie? 

When we are around people we're fine.  We entertain.  We chat.  Our attention drifts from Leslie's absence even if we're talking about her.  When we're alone, it's harder. 

If I think about the future without Leslie it hurts too bad, and I stop myself.  It hurts remembering the past happy moments too, but not as much as looking into the future.  Mother's day is a month away. 

Leslie's presence looms so large in our house.  Everywhere I turn something sucker punches my emotions.  I'm tempted to sweep my house clean of every trace because it hurts.  I know that I can't do that.  I know that it'd be ten times worse if those things were out of my grasp forever.  Too final.  Am I tricking myself?  I don't know.  Either way, I have to give it time.  I'd rather realize that I'm trying to hedge Leslie's death in a few months, then realize I overreacted in a few months.  I can ALWAYS throw that stuff away later.

A friend online offered to make quilts for the kids from Leslie's clothes.  I'm going to take her up on it.

More later...