Category Archives: Plucky Survivors

February 16, 2010

Again, this is how I remember it – what happened seven years ago today.

But first, one of my favorite pictures of the two of us…


My ring tone is the sound of a duck quacking. I don’t know why except that I’m lazy and cheap and don’t feel like changing it or buying something more interesting to replace it with. When the alarm went off at 1am I thought that maybe I should take the time to find something more appropriate for the situation. Do they offer funeral dirges as ring tones?

Well, yes, they do. Mary had the opening organ notes of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as hers for years.

I hadn’t really slept in the hour since I had crawled into the bed in the guest room. Under normal circumstances, considering the fact that I had only gotten a couple of hours the night before, I would’ve been out immediately but my brain was going a million miles an hour, reviewing every moment of the day past and anticipating the one coming up. Maybe dreading the one coming up. Part of it could’ve been a defense mechanism, I guess. When you go to sleep, the moment when you wake up seems to come faster than when you lay there, staring at the ceiling, pondering what is happening in the next room.

The lights were out in Mary and Steve’s room but Steve wasn’t asleep either when I came in. He turned on the lights and we checked on her. It was only notable in its complete lack of noteworthiness. Nothing had changed in the last hour. I’m not really sure what I was expecting.

Steve gave her the proper medications and I dutifully recorded it on my spreadsheet and then I set my alarm and crawled back into the guest bed.

The same thing happened at 2am; a carbon copy. Quacking, not really sleeping, waking Steve even though he wasn’t really asleep, medications, set the alarm for the next time.

I think I did sleep a little bit in the 90 minutes or so before the phone started quacking again at 3:30 in the morning. Steve may have as well, although he told me that he had spent at least some of the time talking to Mary, holding her hand, and occasionally singing to her.

While Steve was giving her the medications, I wandered upstairs to get something to drink and walked by the sideboard in the dining room. Sitting on it was a frame. I picked it up.

The previous summer I had moved and in cleaning out the nearly 15 years of clutter I had accumulated since I had lived in that apartment I found the cartoon strip – THE cartoon strip. It was “Bloom County” about Gilda Radner, and I had it on the wall above my desk at a talent agency that I worked at. It was the thing that made Mary stop and talk to me that day some 20 years earlier. When I rediscovered it I put it in a frame and gave it to her. She told me that it was the best gift anyone had ever given her and she liked to carry it around with her, holding it tightly.

In it, Opus the Penguin is upset about the cartoon series coming to an end. He says, “Stop it! Everybody stop it! This is upsetting me!! Life’s getting to wish-washy! Comic strips aren’t supposed to end! Neither are good marriages! Or friendships. Or loyalties or happiness… happiness isn’t supposed to just end. Gilda Radner isn’t supposed to end.”

I put the frame back down carefully.

I went back downstairs and while Steve took I break I sat with her, quietly at first. It had been hours since she was responsive in any meaningful way, although occasionally she would seem to respond to direct questions by trying to move her body or with noises as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t. Whether this is true or not – whether she really was cognizant of her surroundings – is probably up for debate and yet not worth debating.

Although others were talking to her, I really hadn’t been all that much. For some reason just being in the room… being with her was enough. And on top of that I really couldn’t think of anything all that interesting to say.

But this time I managed to find my voice.

“This sucks,” I said as I sat next to her bed. “I mean really sucks. But you know it’s okay, right? It’s okay that you go. I mean it’s not okay. It’s about as far from okay as you can get, but it’s okay. And I’m going to be okay, too. I know you were worried that I wouldn’t be, but I will be. Okay might look different than it does now, but I’ll be okay. I’m saying okay a lot, aren’t I? I promise if I ever write this as a movie script or a book I’ll make this much more intelligent.”

I was quiet for a moment. So was she.

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “But I wanted to ask you… Can I have the ‘Bloom County’ cartoon strip back?”

She hadn’t moved or done anything in the entire time I was in there but as soon as I asked that question, she made a noise, like a low moan, and struggled a bit.

“Afterwards!” I said quickly. “After you’re gone. Not now!”

She calmed down.

Like I said, debatable. But not worth debating.

When the phone started quacking again at 5am it roused 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 again.

Steve called the hospice nurse and family. I called friends to have them come back, although fewer than had been there the day before. If this was the final phase I wanted to make sure that it remained as peaceful as humanly possible for her.

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 brought it up on my phone and started reading aloud to Mary.

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnddddddd…..we’re off!

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 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 the signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the mail from Harper Lee years earlier. 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. Her mother. Her sister. Her brother and his family. Steve’s mom and brother and sister and their families. Bianca. Nettie. Robin. Me.

“We love you Mary,” someone said.

“So much,” I said, weeping openly, loudly.

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 where you realize that everything is destroyed and in rubble. It is final and uncompromising. It is the hardest thing in the world, ever.

I stumbled out of the room onto the back deck, gulping in huge breaths of air in between sobs. It was bright and sunny, a blue sky and green trees, which was wrong, somehow. Steve came out shortly after and grabbed him tightly.

He was her husband and I was her best friend – we were both important to her in different ways. And more importantly, she was the love of both of our lives.

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 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 removed everything from the home page of the site and replaced it with those photographs and this:

February 16, 2010

Dear Plucky Readers,

I’d like to ask you to take some time and go through the Plucky Survivors site… read our travels, look at the pictures, laugh with us, and remember our adventures and please, promise to have many, many more of your own.

But first, a note…

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 any of a billion tiny little events and coincidences and happenstances hadn’t, well, happened we never would’ve met. When Mary ruminated on this she got scared, as if an axe wielding maniac was 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 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 when she called to tell me she had cancer and I remember her worrying about my own health issues. 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.

Earlier today, February 16, 2010, her house was filled with family and friends, and her husband Steve, her mom, her dear friend Nettie, and myself were in her room with her, talking about how today was Fat Tuesday. New Orleans has always been one of her favorite cities and it was there that our very first Plucky Survivors trip started.

I looked over at her and said, “We’re going to go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?” And she raised her head slightly and then she was gone.

And so, a new Plucky Adventure has begun. Safe travels my friend. I love you.


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…”

February 15, 2010

This is how I remember it. I could spend a lot of time talking about the difference between perceived reality and actual reality and the huge canyon that straddles the gap, but it’s been done before and better than I ever could. For now, let’s just say that this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

I wrote this a long time ago. I read it every year. This the first time I have felt like sharing it. I don’t know why other than it’s been seven years and that feels like long enough.

So this is what happened seven years ago today. Tomorrow I’ll post what happened seven years ago tomorrow.

Before we begin, one of her favorite pictures of the two of us…


That day, Monday, February 15, 2010 was Presidents’ Day. Looking back on it, it seems fitting that it started that day considering how many different ways presidents and their museums figured into our Plucky Survivors See America journeys. But the most important thing, in terms of the sequence of events is concerned, is that I didn’t have to go to work that day. When I don’t have to get up with an alarm clock and be presentable to anyone, I usually stay up late and the night before was no exception. I think I finally hit the bed around 4am.

I do not wake easily even when I have had a full night’s sleep. I have two alarm clocks, both at a volume level marked “cacophony,” and both set to incorrect times so that when they go off I have to do a little bit of math to figure out what time it actually is. For some reason math wakes me up. Mary knew this about me and so anytime she called and suspected that she had caught me before my eyes were fully open, she would speak loudly and occasionally give me simple arithmetic questions.

Steve, however, didn’t know this about me so when he called at around 8am on that Monday morning, not only did he not increase his speaking volume to a low shout or ask me to calculate pi to the tenth decimal, but he also didn’t come across as terribly urgent.

“Mary is not doing so great,” he said calmly. “I think you should come over.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll be over in a while.”

I hung up the phone and rolled over, thinking that I would sleep for another couple of hours and then head over around lunch time. That seemed perfectly reasonable at that moment. As I drifted back to sleep though, my brain did its own version of math and put two and two together. I realized what the phone call really meant and I jumped out of bed as if there was an earthquake, instantly wide awake despite the fact that I had only gotten a few hours of sleep.

I showered and dressed quickly, calling Steve back as I headed out the door to tell him that I was now officially awake and was on my way over. He sounded relieved.

About a week earlier, just a couple of days after our aborted Plucky Mini trip, Mary had begun in-home hospice care. A hospital bed was brought in and installed in their bedroom, facing the windows so she could have a view of the trees in the backyard. She was put on a schedule of heavy drugs – morphine for the pain, ativan to keep her calm, and more. A portable toilet sat in the corner, although she had stubbornly refused to use it up to that point. There was no in-home nurse so Steve tended to her most of the time, while a rotating cast of friends and family came in to give him a little time off now and then.

I had last seen her on Saturday, February 13, when friends from her school came for a special ceremony. Mary had worked hard over the years to earn her masters in theology. She had completed all her coursework and the dreaded German language requirement but she had never gotten to writing her dissertation. That final step loomed large, especially in light of her deteriorating health over the last year.

But her classmates, professors, and the Dean all got together and reviewed the work she had done, focusing specifically on a paper she had written and presented at a conference in late 2008. Although not specifically her dissertation, it contained many of the basic concepts she intended to present when she wrote it, so the school decided that would do just fine under the circumstances. Her God School friends, a professor, and the Dean all joined Steve, me, and a few other friends at her house on that Saturday to officially confer her master’s degree in theology.

I was one of the first to arrive and seeing her there in that hospital bed, oxygen making her breathing a little easier but not much, was nothing short of devastating. It had been only a week since I had seen her last – dropping her off at home after the abbreviated Plucky Mini – but the decline in that short amount of time was almost shocking. It wasn’t just her appearance although that was certainly a part of it; thin – too thin, and sallow, her skin a dishwater gray and her eyes rheumy and unfocused. It became obvious quickly that her mental state had declined a lot also.

She recognized and greeted me but that was about the extent of our conversation other than her responding to simple yes or no questions. There was a moment where she came around enough to ask for a very specific blue scarf – she wanted to look nice for the ceremony, of course – and I went on a quest that threatened to turn into an Abbott and Costello routine.

“This one?” I’d ask.

“No, blue,” she’d manage.

“This is blue,” I’d reply.

“Different blue,” she’d say.

And then we’d repeat the whole thing over and over again until she finally accepted the ninety-seventh or so blue scarf that I found. Whether or not this was the actual blue scarf she was looking for or that she had merely grown tired of humoring me is up for debate but I suspect it was the latter. Regardless, the scarf and a nice suede hat improved her mood.

The ceremony was necessarily short; both funny and sad, although more sad than funny, I think. She got her graduation sash that replaced the scarf and a tassel that Steve laid gently on the suede hat, flipping it to the appropriate side at the right moment. After the Dean finished his brief speech, that left everyone including himself in tears, Mary said a few words – disconnected and a bit rambling but we all got the point: she was happy.

It was obvious that even this 15 minute ceremony was exhausting for her so we left her to rest while we all went upstairs to the living room for snacks and conversation. I wasn’t exactly hungry or in a talkative mood, but there was chocolate and it would’ve been impolite to eat and sulk in a corner. It wasn’t long before there was a noise from the bedroom downstairs and I went to go investigate only to find Mary trying to get out of the hospital bed.

“Mary, where are you going?” I asked.

“Upstairs,” she said firmly.

“No,” I said, going to stop her, “You’re staying there.”

She gave me a look that was a clear as any look Mary ever gave me – and believe me she had given me many over the years. There were looks that said, “You’re being an idiot but I’m too kind to say it out loud.” There were looks that said, “I love you but you’re in between me and food.” This particular look said: “There is a party going on upstairs; a party that is happening in my honor. There are desserts at this party. There are people I want to talk to at this party. I am going upstairs to this party so you can either help me or get the hell out of my way.”

There are two things that I remember vividly from the experience of carrying her up the stairs. The first is that I bumped her arm on a low overhang. She said “ow” softly but I don’t think it really hurt all that much. Yet I still remember it and have enormous guilt about it. The second thing I remember is that she was heavier than I thought she’d be. She looked as if she’d be light as a feather but she still had weight. I thought, “She’s still here. She is still solid and present.” It meant something at that moment. It meant a lot.

I placed her carefully on the sofa as everyone gave me dirty looks, wondering why I had entertained the foolishness of her desire to come upstairs. I explained the look and everyone immediately understood. They had been on the receiving end of many of her looks over the years.

She ate a bit of a cupcake and engaged in theological discussions with her God School friends. Well, they mainly talked and she interjected here and there, but she was engaged – more engaged than I had seen her all day – and we could all tell it was good for her. At times when all thought and reason go out the window and we are reduced to the basest level of merely attempting to survive to the next moment, being amid high-minded conversation is soothing somehow. An intellectual salve if you will.

I had to go to an appointment to get some work done on a tattoo that was turning out to be more epic than I had really intended it to be, so I gathered my stuff and said goodbye to the group. Mary started to get up off the couch.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I want to hug you,” she said.

This time I gave her a look and she got it. She settled back down and I went to her for a kiss and a hug.

“I’ll see you on Thursday,” I said, as that was my day to take a hospice shift so Steve could run some errands.

“Yay,” she said.

The tattoo I was getting was a large tribal design on my arm, chest, shoulder, and back that was made up of words inside the design. So far I had gotten peace, tolerance, chance, family, passion, creativity, courage, integrity, and chance. The words I added that day, on my chest over my heart, were joy, devotion, and commitment.

I had committed to being there at the end for Mary, although to be honest I didn’t want to. I had done it before for other friends during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, but this was different. This was my best friend. This was Mary. I wanted to be anywhere other than there and yet there was no place else I would’ve been, if that makes any sense.

“Hey dude,” I said as I walked in that Monday morning.

Her breathing was raspy and ragged; a dry rattle as she actively, as forcefully as she could, drew in as much oxygen as she could at a time. The simple act that we do unconsciously was a determined effort for her and the strain showed on every ounce of her. Her skin was clammy with a sheen of perspiration that felt warm and had a vaguely sweet scent to it. I inhaled as I leaned in to kiss her on the cheek and she smiled.

I sat with her as Steve went about calling family – hers and his – and other friends. We didn’t speak, really. She was only aware of her surroundings in momentary bursts at that point so mainly I just sat with her, looking at her, watching her fade as if the exhale of every one of those breaths she fought so hard for contained a little piece of her slipping away.

It was my turn to make some phone calls. I wrote an ugly script and tried to stick to it because anything else would’ve caused me to simply stop functioning.

“Hi, it’s Rick. I don’t think there’s much time. You should come.”

The house filled up rapidly with people. Mothers, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and in-laws. God School friends. The Marymount Girls. The Fat Pack. Back in my less than glorious youth I had been a bouncer at a nightclub and I wound up with that job description again, trying to control who was in the room and when and for how long.

Mary had been very clear who she wanted to be with her in her final moments and the list was short. It wasn’t because she didn’t want the people who loved her and whom she loved near, it was because she didn’t want to cause them any more pain. She knew how hard it would be for those dearest to her and it was obvious how much it took out of her every time someone came to the room. At times she’d recognize them and engage in a few words of conversation, but more often she would struggle both vocally and physically, as if it pained her that she couldn’t engage in witty banter with her friends and family.

So I kept the traffic moving and made sure that anyone who wanted to touch her did so in the right way. Holding her hand or stroking her hair seemed to cause her pain, so we tried to make sure that people only caressed her fingertips or gently put their hand on her arm or leg.

The hospice program had set up a very specific regiment of medication for her – morphine mostly but others as well that had to be put into an oral syringe and then fed to her slowly, drop by drop, like nursing a baby cub. Steve had been keeping track of the times and dosages on a random scrap of paper but I wasn’t having any of that. I went upstairs to Mary’s computer and created a detailed spreadsheet with spaces for the medicine names, exact amounts to be given, and schedules both past and future. In the face of chaos, I need order. Spreadsheets create order. Spreadsheets give me comfort.

For most of the morning and early afternoon I stayed in the room with her, leaving only briefly to use the bathroom or get something to drink. I had conversations with others in the house but I really don’t remember very many of them. I was too focused on what was going on in Mary’s bedroom. Anytime someone would stop me for some bit of chatter, my eyes would dart toward the stairs down to Mary, and while I was polite on the outside, on the inside I was screaming “Stop talking to me! I have more important things to do!!”

Sometime shortly after noon, Mary became more cognizant and when it was just her and Steve and I in the room, made it very clear that she was done. She wanted it to be over.

During her treatment, when things weren’t looking great, Mary had a conversation with her doctor about the end. He agreed to help her and the way she interpreted that statement was that he was agreeing to help her die. So she asked Steve to call the doctor and tell him that she was ready.

The doctor had a different interpretation for that conversation and while it took several phone calls to get to the crux of the matter, ultimately he stated clearly that he would not do anything to hasten her death. He would help her be as comfortable as possible and the end would come when it came.

Telling this to Mary, at least in terms that clearly, seemed cruel at that point, so instead we delayed her, we comforted her, we told her that we were working on it.

Thinking it would be over soon, Mary asked me to get a pen and paper so she could say a few things – some parting words. After struggling to form the words in her head and then trying to get her mouth to cooperate, she said this: “Thank you for taking care of me.”

And I wanted to. There was a moment that afternoon when she was crying, begging to be let out of the body that had betrayed her, that I almost walked over to the bottle of morphine sitting on the table near her bed. I had no idea how much I would have needed to give her but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. Take the dose she was getting every two hours and increase it to every hour, then every thirty minutes. It would be over sooner that way. I wouldn’t have told anybody, I would’ve just done it.

But I didn’t. I castigated myself for being selfish, wanting to keep her around for every moment I could even if she was in pain. I thought maybe I was just chickenshit, too afraid to actually take the kind of bold action that needed to be taken. In the end though, I figured out that it wasn’t something that Mary would’ve wanted me to do. She wouldn’t have wanted me to live with that. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone to live with that.

The house was becoming a bit of a circus with no fewer than two dozen people milling about. Built on a hill, Mary and Steve’s house had the main living room, kitchen, and dining room on the top floor, with the bedrooms underneath and so every footstep, every chair scrape, every voice carried down into Mary’s room. Any noise that was even slightly louder than normal caused her to stir and struggle. It was as if the noise was causing her actual discomfort.

Steve and I agreed that although the end was certainly coming, for some reason we didn’t think it was coming that night so we decided that all the people in the house were causing Mary too much anxiety. It was time for them to go.

“Don’t worry, Mary,” I said, “The Bouncer will take care of it.”

“Why is he doing it this way?” Mary asked groggily but plaintively.

“Because that’s the best way to do it,” I said, which seemed to satisfy her and she closed her eyes again. It wasn’t until later that I realized that she had an entirely different vision in her head of The Bouncer. The Bouncer was the one that was going to end it for her and she didn’t understand what was taking so damn long.

It wasn’t easy asking people to leave and I think more than a few of them weren’t very happy with me, but I didn’t really care. My mission at that moment was to give Mary as much peace as I possibly could. That’s what best friends do.

We got everyone cleared out by 9 or 10 that night and it was just the three of us – Steve, me, and Mary. Since the medications needed to be delivered on a consistent basis all night, we agreed that I would be the time keeper, setting my phone’s alarm to get up every hour or 90 minutes or so to wake Steve. It wasn’t a spreadsheet but it was something I could control.

At eleven o’clock that night, while Steve was in another room, I sat in a chair next to Mary’s bed and turned on the TV to watch “Friends.” Mary and I always joked that you could compare everything in life to an episode of “Friends” but I didn’t remember any that were analogous to this situation. None of the bright, shiny, happy people on that show ever died slowly and painfully.

I went into the guest bedroom shortly after the show ended, first reassuring Steve and Mary that I was there for the duration, whether that was a day or a week. I didn’t ask if that was okay but I knew it was. I knew it’s what she wanted. It was my commitment. I was devoted to her.

But there was no joy.

Mardi Gras Day 3: Part 1 – The Friendship Oak

I’m breaking the post about Day 3 into two parts because it would be too long otherwise and you might suffer from emotional whiplash.  Part 1 is a ruminative look back at a dear friendship while part 2 is about BBQ and boobs.  If you’re more interested in one or the other, feel free to skip around.

In order to understand what happened today I have to go back in time to look at a couple of snapshots from the past.

It was September 9, 2006 and my best friend Mary and I were on the last day of our inaugural Plucky Survivors See America road trip, a 2,500 mile journey that visited six states, went to the biggest ball of twine and the Britney Spears Museum, and saw me turn 40 in a depressing room with a suspicious stain on the wall in a Rodeway Inn in Hot Springs, Arkansas (just as I always dreamed it would happen).

We were winding our way to do a drive of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi back to New Orleans, one year after Hurricane Katrina, and this is what we saw…

This entire stretch along the Gulf, from Ocean Springs, through Biloxi and Gulfport, down to Long Beach, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian (some 40 miles or so), was all but wiped off the map by Katrina’s fury. We were at a disadvantage; foolishly, we hadn’t seen it in its pre-storm glory, but we could imagine.

Along the north side of Hwy 90 stood glorious Southern mansions, some dating back to the 1800’s, set amongst mighty live oaks. So it’s the best of the South, the most beautiful a beautiful region has to offer. And on the south side was the wide, wide Gulf of Mexico with warm waters lapping at white sand beaches. We looked at this, and said “Well, who wouldn’t want to live here?”

And now? The beaches are still there, but on the north side of the street, a broken driveway, a column or two, a ruin, but mostly….nothing. Mile after mile after mile of nothing.

Our final official stop of the trip was at the Friendship Oak at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast campus. This live oak is 500 years old (it was a sapling when Columbus landed!), its trunk’s circumference is over 18 feet, and its branches spread out 156 feet.

Mary and I sat on a stone bench under the tree’s mighty limbs, the plaque at our feet reading: I am called the Friendship Oak.  Those who enter my shadow will remain friends through all their lifetime. 


Mary died in February of 2010 – on Fat Tuesday, as it turned out.

On September 3rd,  2010, I came to New Orleans for my birthday.  It was the first year that I wasn’t doing a Plucky Survivors road trip with Mary, but I took a drive anyway.  I wrote this…

I turned 44 today.

That’s a mostly unremarkable occasion except for as it relates to many of the birthdays that came before it. I spent my 43rd birthday getting inked at the Baltimore Tattoo Museum. 42 came with a 250 mile journey into West Virginia to get a hotdog. My 41st I powered through nearly a pound of BBQ at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City. And of course 40 involved breaking into an abandoned dinosaur attraction in Arkansas and the Biggest Ball of Twine in Branson, Missouri.

Birthdays 35 through 39 were spent singing karaoke and eating bacon wrapped hot dogs. Before that, well, who knows really? I’m getting old and the memory is not what it used to be. But I know on many, if not most of them, I was taken out to dinner, usually somewhere involving Italian or steak.

The through line on all of those birthdays was Mary. I spent them all with Mary.

I left New Orleans at around 10:30 this morning, driving east under crystal clear blue skies. Getting out of the French Quarter by car is no easy feat, but I managed to not run over a single pedestrian, which I think earns me some sort of Big Easy cred.

US 90 is called the Chef Menteur Highway, although why is apparently up for debate. French for “Chief Liar,” there are some who say the region got its name from the local Choctaw Indians who were annoyed at governor who reneged on a treaty. Others say that it has to do with the Mississippi itself, all crooked twists and turns.

But whatever, the road is two and four lanes that cut through the eastern part of Orleans Parish, then up a narrow sliver of land between Lake St. Catherine and Lake Pontchartrain. It crosses a bridge and then meanders through the extreme southeast corner of Louisiana before passing into Mississippi and eventually becoming the highway that runs right along the gulf coast to Biloxi.

To say this area was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina is like saying said hurricane was a bad storm. In many areas Katrina literally scrubbed the earth clean, taking houses, buildings, trees, roads, bridges, and everything else and throwing it all a few miles inland. The devastation caused by the flooding in New Orleans was horrific; stomach-churning in a “this can’t be happening” kind of way. What happened east of New Orleans was unimaginable. It’s almost impossible to wrap your brain around it.

Five years and a few days later, it is still easy to see the legacy of Katrina. Some of the buildings that were left standing are still there, abandoned hulking ruins with the high-water marks still visible, like a dirty ring on a bathtub. In other places, especially as you move further east, there are driveways to nowhere – places where there used to be something but now all that is left are weeds filling the cracked pavement of parking lots.

But in between that are new beginnings. I didn’t drive more than a couple of miles at any given time without seeing some sort of construction going on. And there was much more that had been complete for years obviously. Shopping centers, restaurants, apartment buildings, houses, condominiums, schools, and more, outnumber the ruins these days.

And as you get out on that tiny slip of land between the lakes, dozens – hundreds – of new houses, all up on stilts 15 or 20 feet high, seeming to point toward the open waters saying “go ahead, I dare you.” I think, at first, that it’s crazy. There will be another storm someday and it seems foolhardy at best to want to come back here; to build here; to try to live here. But then I remember that I live in California where, at any moment, the “Big One” could come along and swallow the entirety of Los Angeles and I think, “Who am I to judge?”

But it’s more than that, really. It’s what we do, us humans. We get knocked down and we get back up again. Our homes get knocked down and we rebuild, hopefully stronger than before. And eventually, yes, there will be another storm, but we’ll rebuild after that one, too.

Mary and I always looked for themes, analogies, and metaphors for our Plucky Survivors trips. I had the better part of 70 miles worth of them driving along Highway 90.

It was just past noon when I turned off the highway into the Gulf Coast campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach. It is a metaphor in microcosm. Many of the buildings are still abandoned, their empty windows staring out almost plaintively, their foundations and walls still cracked and crumpled. But elsewhere there are brand spanking new buildings and rehabilitated old ones. The campus is starting its new chapter, slowly, but surely.

I parked and grabbed a few things from my backpack, and walked across the lawn until I got to the plaque.

“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…”

There is more grass around the tree than when Mary and I visited as the final stop of our very first Plucky Survivors trip in 2006. More grass and more leaves. The tree looked a little battered but basically intact a year after Katrina but now it looks alive, healthy, and ready for all of the students to come back to the school around it.

A few weeks ago, Mary’s sister Deborah (Plucky Passenger 2007!) sent me a photo she had printed out from the website. It was of Mary and me, sitting on the bench next to the plaque under the Friendship Oak. She had put it in a cow-print frame, of course.

I took the photo and the frame, along with the beads I was wearing on the day Mary died, and placed them gently into a crook at the base of the tree.

Then I opened the plastic baggie that Steve had given me and began to sprinkle some of Mary’s ashes.

There was a bit of a breeze blowing in from off the Gulf, and the ashes floated in it. The sunlight cutting through the leaves of the tree caught them and they seemed to sparkle, like they were infused with microscopic diamonds.

When it was done, I stood there, my eyes closed, listening to the air moving around me, through the tree and the grass. It whispered softly. Gently. It seemed to be saying, “It’s okay. You can go on now.” I didn’t even notice I was crying.

A car pulled up and two women got out, one in her fifties perhaps and the other a bit younger. They walked around the tree and started taking pictures of each other in front of it. I walked up to them, trying to wipe away my tears, and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of the both of them. They said yes, so I had them sit on the bench and framed the shot just so.

“Are you two friends,” I asked?

The older of the two hooked her arm in the other woman’s and pulled her close.

“Best friends,” she said.

I took the picture.

and then I walked back to my car and got back on the road.

So today, February 7, 2016, a couple of days before Fat Tuesday, nearly six years since Mary left, I took a drive again.

The highway is much the same, although of course 10 years later there are fewer scars of Katrina still visible.  Most of the buildings are newer and the bridges were washed out have been replaced.  And people are still saying “I dare you”…



For miles there are the pristine white beaches on one side…

nola_03_03And newer homes on the other side where those stately mansions used to be…

nola_03_04And because they really want to tempt fate, someone went and put a shopping mall AND a giant Walmart along the highway…


In some ways, it is like the hurricane never happened and yet you know it did.  You can still feel it in ways both big and small, from the huge new levees built along the highway to the occasional abandoned building, rotting in the sun a decade later.

The Oak is still there and seeing it was like seeing an old friend.  This is hallowed ground to me and I stood amidst the limbs and placed my hand on the trunk and stood in the place where I sprinkled Mary’s ashes.  I sat on the bench – now metal instead of stone – and gazed around the reborn campus, the previously gutted buildings now rebuilt but quiet on this beautiful, sunny, blue sky of a Sunday.

Those who know me know I’m not a religious man, but moments like that are the kinds that will give even the hardest of cynics a moment of divinity.