We fade in reading books. My parents were former hippies who had gone legit: a Jewish father who had just opened a small-town matrimonial law practice, and an Irish-Catholic mother who taught Math and Earth Science at an alternative education high school. By the time I hit my mid-20s she had moved on to district administration, his practice had exploded, and they were making a very good living with money to spare. But as a child, in that house out in the country, we lived mortgage payment to mortgage payment. It was a comfortably middle-class American upbringing — a fundamentally happy childhood. I was kind, the people around me were kind, and life consisted only of playing outside, video games, sports, school, and books. Mostly I fade out reading books.
Christmases we spent with the Clarks, my mother’s parents in Parsippany, New Jersey. If we were maybe middle to upper-middle class, they were very clearly middle to lower-middle. My grandfather at this point was a full-blown alcoholic, glued to his recliner in the living room, while my grandmother, Alice, was, I dunno, some sort of saint. This was the Catholic side, and though my mother is basically an atheist, the holidays were important to Grandma, so we always went down there in December when school was out. First Hannukah in Ithaca, then Christmas in New Jersey. I was the envy of all my single-religion friends.
Alice Clark, as I said, was some sort of saint. She had lived through both World War II and a life-long marriage to a hyper-intelligent, underachieving alcoholic. Tom Clark had been an aerial photographer, scouting forward positions on the western front, then turned so hard to bitter when he came home that it was impossible to see what had once made him happy. My clearest memory of him is bare-foot, hippie-child Joshua trying to give him a hug, and him pushing me back and extending a hand. Men shake.
Alice though, must have spent half her tiny pension on junk for me and my brother. All the useless plastic crap that my parents refused to buy us somehow ended up under that Christmas tree: A plastic bow and arrows with suction cups, which – so unlike the cartoons – fell only a few limp inches when fired; an elaborate black Lego castle that must have cost 100 bucks, and which my parents had dubbed ‘The Castle That Cost Too Much;’ that sort of thing. She spoiled us rotten and loved us to pieces. They lived in what was basically a one-story trailer, built up on a foundation, and chain-smoked incessantly when we weren’t around. It wasn’t until years later that I identified the smell in that place. I loved it there.
What I really loved, of course, was fading in on Christmas morning. Every year, me and Alice, we played a game: it was a race to see who could get up first. Every year I woke up in my tiny Mighty Mouse pajamas, in the blue-black morning, thinking this would be the year. And every year I raced out into the living room and there she was, sitting calmly at the table, drinking her coffee with a quiet smile. Not a smug smile, just a sort of, maybe next year kiddo, don’t give up smile. Then we fade out waiting together, shaking presents, eating sugary crumb-buns from the local bakery, until around ten or eleven when my uncle finally came out of his room in their house, bleary-eyed and hung-over, and Christmas day could begin.
Then I fade in on the Christmas morning when things changed. As always, I hopped out of bed in my pajamas, the whole family still asleep, and went racing out into the living room. There, for the first time, all the lights were off; pre-dawn darkness ruled with equal indifference outside and in. I learned something then in that dark room about getting what you want. Unsure of what to do, I sat down in her seat at the table and crossed my legs like a grown-up. What I know now is that Alice was still in bed because she had a malignant tumor growing inside of her. She refused to admit it, never went to a doctor, and by next Christmas she was dead.
That same year both our golden retriever and our german shepherd had to be put down, and Grandpa checked out almost 6 months to the day after Grandma shocked us all and disappeared forever. I fade back in later that year walking into my mom’s room and finding her crying. She told me our cat was missing. I said, well heck, let’s get some fliers together, go paper the neighborhood, get off our butts and go find Tigger! She said oh, dear, no.
I sat down next to her, she put her arm around me, and she explained that Tigger wasn’t really missing. She was old. Cats sometimes have a way of going off alone to lie down with dignity. I think we both cried, or maybe just she did. The last time I know I cried, for sure, was at Alice Clark’s funeral. I must’ve been 10 years old. The next year I started having panic attacks during health class and passing out in the coat room.
There’s so much to feel, and taste, and smell, and do, all at once, it’s overwhelming. Life is difficult for everyone, everywhere, and existence on this planet can get way, way worse than death. But right now it’s here, just here, and in this moment it’s all sort of okay. You’re here, I’m here; just stop for a minute and be here with me. Notice all the little sounds hiding in this silence. There’s so god damn much to experience before the darkness comes back for us. Taste every flavor of ice cream, feel every emotion, laugh at the sheer absurd unlikelihood of any of this. Laugh just to hear the sound. Then let it go. You gotta let it go. Fade in, fade out.