For my Differently today, I have a story I want to tell. I’ve told pieces of it before to various people; some of this is from a book I wrote but then never did anything with. But I’ve never put it together in quite this way. It’s a bit long but I hope you’ll indulge me.
The story starts a long time ago in a land far, far away. It was 1989 and it was Hollywood, which may not be geographically far, far away but is quite distant in just about every other way that is important.
I was 22 years old. God. Even typing that makes my head hurt a little. Was I ever really that young? There were pictures that apparently prove it but I have burned most of them. It was the hair. I had a lot of very big hair back then. Little did I know.
I had lived in Los Angeles for about four years and found it transitory at best. Friends were easy to come by but friends that lasted were a bit more elusive. Those who know me will attest to the fact that patience and tolerance are not exactly what you might call my strong suits and I have mellowed a LOT in the last couple of decades so you can imagine what I was like back then. I mention this because it was those qualities (or whatever the opposite of quality is) that ruined a couple of good friendships that I had cultivated during those early LA years.
So at 22 (ow) I found myself mostly alone. I had one good friend, a childhood pal that I had known since kindergarten who had moved to LA the year before. But by then he had started dating the guy that he would eventually marry (while it was briefly legal in California) and I could sense that our lives, while always intertwined, were taking different paths.
Still holding on to my dreams of being a part of that far, far away land in whatever shape or form I could get it, I took a job at a small talent agency. I have often thought of writing a sitcom about this place but it was so outrageous that no one would believe it. The two sisters who ran the place were blondes of an indiscernible age primarily because of their addiction to plastic surgery – when the fax machine broke, they wouldn’t get a new one because they were saving their money for whatever nip or tuck was scheduled next. The 70 year old accountant – a cousin I believe – had frequent, apparently vivid recollections of being in Britain during the Blitz. One of the agents had a dog that came to the office every day and almost every day peed or crapped on the carpet in the reception area. I was the receptionist. Guess who had to clean it up? The biggest clients were 70-year-old singing triplets and a guy most famous for being married to one of the beloved TV moms of the 1970’s.
In fact, it was that guy who wound up getting me fired. Well, not fired specifically, but rather “you can’t fire me because I quit”ted.
This guy was a jackass. He wished to believe that he was still relevant and important and powerful but since he was none of those things to most people he acted relevant and important and powerful around anyone who was in a position that required them to do what he wanted. Waiters. Taxi drivers. Receptionists. He treated them all like crap to make himself feel bigger and better. I recognize this now. Back then it just pissed me off. A reminder of the lack of patience and tolerance is probably worthwhile here.
I don’t remember exactly what happened that day but it involved me calling the TV mom’s husband an asshole and hanging up on him. Shortly thereafter I stormed out yelling those immortal words about not being able to be fired because I had quit. So there. Nyah.
Luckily about a week before, as I had quickly tired of the scary faces, dog crap, and random air raids, I had submitted my resume to another talent agency down the street, a much larger and more powerful one. Instead of the singing triplets and TV mom husbands they had actual honest to God movie stars.
The day after I quit/fired the small talent agency, I went in for an interview at the big talent agency and wound up getting a mailroom job there in April of 1989.
There are two brief digressions necessary here that will become very important in a moment. The first is that I loved Gilda Radner. Who didn’t? She passed away in May of 1989. The second is that I loved the comic strip Bloom County. Who didn’t? It ended its run in the summer of 1989.
Sometime between those two events – I believe it was late May or early June – as Bloom County was winding down, a strip appeared where Opus the penguin was devastated by the fact that the series was ending, saying good things like that aren’t supposed to end. He listed a bunch of things that weren’t supposed to end and in the final panel, he hung his head and said “Gilda Radner wasn’t supposed to end.”
I cut out that strip, blew it up on the copier, and put it above my desk.
Although I have no specific recollection of the event it was this comic strip hanging over my desk that made Mary Herczog stop and talk to me. She was working at ICM as an agent assistant, a breed that I mostly avoided because the only thing worse than an agent is someone who wants to become an agent.
But Mary wasn’t one of that particular breed. She was the kind of person who would stop and talk to the lowly mailroom guys because of a shared love of Gilda Radner and Bloom County.
We went out to dinner shortly thereafter where, as Mary described it, we realized we had the same sense of humor and that I was gay and she was straight so we had no other choice than to become best friends for the rest of our lives.
Four years ago today, February 16, 2010, my alarm went off at 5am, rousing me from a dream. I don’t remember what it was but I remember being grateful that I was not dreaming it anymore. The lights were on this time when I went into the room, and Steve was sitting with Mary, the grief on his face like a mask. Sometime in the last hour he was awaked by her breathing, which had grown even more raspy and wet and labored. When he checked on her he found that she had opened her eyes. I’d heard of the term “thousand-yard stare” before but I hadn’t ever seen it until that moment. She wasn’t looking at anything. Or maybe she was. I hope it was something nice.
We knew that she had entered a new phase in the process and although neither one of us was exactly sure if it meant that the end was near or simply nearer, we decided it was time to start making phone calls.
Steve called the hospice nurse and family. I called friends to have them come. Within a couple of hours, the house was full of people again – about a dozen total. They all took a few minutes with her and I gave them their privacy. Each of us had our histories with Mary and I wasn’t going to intrude on theirs. But I still made sure that either Steve or myself was either in the room or close to it at all times.
The hospice nurse showed up around 8:30am and checked her out. She was a sturdy woman who spoke with a thick Ukrainian accent. I thought this would’ve pleased Mary for some reason. She liked the Baltics and people from them.
Steve was on the phone to Mary’s doctor and it was just me and the nurse in the room for a bit. After she examined Mary, she made her own phone call to the hospice to make a report. She talked about blood pressure and responsiveness and breathing.
“Patient is actively dying,” the nurse said.
After she finished, I asked her if that meant it would be soon and she said, “Could be hours. Could be days. You never know.”
Days, I thought. It can’t be days. There’s no way any of us can take this for days. I pulled Steve aside when he came back into the room and told him what the nurse had said. He nodded, looking a little pale. I think he thought the same thing. We can’t do this for days.
A second nurse arrived and they got to work on cleaning Mary up. While we all waited outside the room, they changed her bedding, her nightgown, and her diaper. They washed her and combed her thin, dark hair.
“You look beautiful,” Steve said when we walked back into the room. I agreed.
There was a bit of a lull after that and I sat in the room with Mary’s niece Bianca and we started chatting about Plucky Survivors. I pulled up the website we had done chronicling our adventures and started reading aloud to Mary.
Believe it or not, we actually left pretty much exactly at the scheduled departure time of 8:30am. Oh, yes; Rick has it all plotted out in the Big Book O’ Fun, complete with detailed maps, car games, CD lists, and more, more, more! Why so early? Well, we had to be there right at the doors of the Britney Spears Museum in Kentwood as it opened, don’t you know.
I made it through the Britney Spears Museum, laughing about that ridiculous moment when the woman turned on the lights of the recreated stage and I swear… I absolutely swear on everything that I believe in that Mary had the faintest hint of a smile on her face. Maybe I was imagining it or maybe it was something else entirely but whatever was going on, she hadn’t looked that at ease in days.
People started coming in an out again for brief visits but this time I didn’t leave. At some point we realized that it was Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, and this became quite a big deal in the house. Having spent many a Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Mary and Steve had plenty of beads so we broke them out and everyone put on a strand or two. We draped some on her hospital bed and talked of the big party happening in the Big Easy.
Other coincidences… it was also her father’s birthday and the day she got a signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the mail from Harper Lee, a byproduct of one of our Plucky Survivors adventures. I don’t know if there is such a thing as cosmic timing, but this seemed to have it.
A little after 11am, Steve, Nettie, and I were in the room when Mary’s mom Claudia came in. She sat with her for a few moments quietly, not saying anything, while the three of us chattered away. Claudia got up to leave but I stopped her for some reason. I don’t know why, but I did. We began talking about this and that and eventually worked our way around to the beads.
“I was saying earlier that we should just say to heck with this,” I began and then caught myself. We had promised Mary that we wouldn’t talk about her as if she wasn’t there – no “Steel Magnolias” moments for her. I turned to Mary and said, “We’re just going to say to heck with all of this and go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?”
She turned her head slightly at that moment. It was the first time she had moved in hours. Her chin came up a bit as if she was looking up, and out. Away. It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t breathing.
“You guys,” I said loudly as I jumped to my feet.
Everyone turned to Mary and began crowding around the bed. Pounding footsteps came down the stairs as everyone crowded into the room.
I stood at the foot of the bed, my hands on her leg. I held onto her as she left. I watched as my best friend left.
I don’t care what you read or hear or even what you have experienced, but those who say that the moment when someone dies is beautiful are lying to you or perhaps to themselves. It is ugly and horrible. It is like the end of a war when you realize that everything is destroyed and all that is left is rubble. It is final and uncompromising. It is the hardest thing in the world, ever.
The next few hours were the classic and clichéd blur. I made some phone calls. I sat in the room with her body and sent some e-mails. I watched as a hospice nurse came to collect the medications. I watched as somber men came to put her body in a bag, then on a stretcher to carry her upstairs as the dogs barked madly. I watched as they put her body in a van. It had the name of a rental car agency on the license plate frame, which I thought was weird. I watched it drive away as all of us stood at the edge of the driveway and waved. Then the van stopped as the driver realized that he was going the wrong way, turned around, and drove back by again while we all waved again.
Mary would’ve thought that was funny.
I stayed for a little while and made sure that someone was going to stay with Steve before I collected my stuff and headed home. I slept for a few hours as the emotional toll and the lack of real sleep for the last couple of days finally caught up with me.
When I woke up it was dark and I considered just staying in bed until the morning but I knew there was one more thing I needed to do.
I went on to the Plucky Survivors website and found six pictures of Mary and I together. The first from 2006 of us in front of the Biggest Ball of Twine; the second of us recreating “American Gothic” complete with costumes in front of the Grant Wood house in Iowa in 2007; a third was the two of us sitting next to a statue of Colonel Sanders at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Museum in Kentucky, 2008; fourth was Mary sitting on my lap in the Washington DC airport at the end of our trip in 2009; fifth was the picture we took in her foyer the morning of our Plucky Mini trip in 2010.
I put those pictures and this, a version of something I had written to Mary a few years earlier, on the site:
Mary and I often ruminated on the odd randomness of things; how one event, if it had happened differently or not at all, could change things so dramatically. If I had not picked up dog crap and been treated as same by TV mom husband… if I had not been a fan of Gilda or Bloom County… if a billion other things hadn’t happened, we never would’ve met. When Mary thought about this she got scared, the thought of us not connecting as frightening as an axe wielding maniac hiding under the bed waiting to pounce.
I just remain in awe of it.
For more than 20 years, Mary was my best friend. We saw each other through the grand events and the minutiae that happen over the course of a life. For instance I remember when she started talking about this guy named Steve (which for the record would be one of the grand events although that wouldn’t become clear until sometime later when she married the guy).
I remember her being the first one I called when a theater company decided to stage a play I had written. I remember her being the first one I called when a TV production company bought a TV show I had written, which happened through a series of events that started with her sending a script to a producer friend of hers.
I remember road trips to Vegas. In fact it was Mary that got me started writing about Vegas. We wrote our first travel guide together back in 1998 about Las Vegas and that led to more travel guides for the both of us, my Vegas website, and me looking like a dumbass on The Travel Channel.
I remember when I mentioned that for my 40th birthday, lacking anything else interesting to do, that I might go see the “Biggest Ball of Twine” in Branson, Missouri. Her response: “Cool. Can I go?” Four years later we had covered nearly 10,000 miles across the country in adventures that we called Plucky Survivors See America.
I remember how we kept each other alive in many ways, even before we both got sick.
To say my life would not have been the same without her is too small. I can’t find words that are big enough.
Perhaps there aren’t any. Perhaps there are no words that can represent the bond, the love, the unbreakable solidity of a best friendship other than the knowledge that it will be there, always, even if we aren’t.
At the bottom of the page, I put the photo of us sitting under the Friendship Oak in Mississippi at the end of our first Plucky Survivors trip in 2006. Its branches reach out around us as we sit smiling on a bench, a plaque at our feet. It reads:
“I am called the Friendship Oak. Those who enter my shadow are supposed to remain friends through their lifetime no matter where fate may take them…”