Anyone who has lost someone near to them to death knows how difficult memory can become. Is it best to remember, or best to forget? Should I dwell in the past or march with blinders into the future? And what about her things, his things, our things? Should they be left, stored, given up, thrown out? Does that picture on the wall gladden my heart with memory or weight it down with remembrance?
Sooner or later, if you're lucky, you'll have to ask these questions.
I was asking them directly, a few days ago, when I visited the grave of my wife, Cat, with her brother, Tom. It was her birthday, and we brought red and white gladioli, then made ourselves comfortable graveside, reminisced and gazed out over the gray Pacific. Towering dark clouds had mounted in the west, and the breeze coming off the water was cold.
We talked for a while about whether this day--roughly two years since her passing--was a blessing for all the years we had with her (34 for Tom; five for me) or a curse for all the years we will have without her. We agreed that it was a blessing because everyone dies, and because Cat--an eternal optimist--would have slapped us both silly for thinking otherwise.
Convincing ourselves that we should be in a good mood because this was, after all, a birthday, we told favorite stories about his sister and my wife, stories that ranged from Tom's and Cat's childhood days in Tanzania to Cat's and my less exotic but equally enjoyable days in Orange County, Colorado, Key West, New Orleans, Cayman, Mexico.
The liquor of these memories warmed our insides. We laughed hard at times, as people under duress tend to do (visit your local tavern and hear the expulsion of stress in the barfly's roar). Between the funny stories there were serious ones, revealing ones, touching ones. Tom's arms were covered with goose pimples from the wind. My stomach muscles shivered. We wished Cat a happy birthday, ran our hands over her grass and gravestone, then got back in Tom's car and turned up the heater full blast.
On the way back to Laguna, we talked instead about home stereo speakers. We could only take so much of a good thing.
That night Tom's band, the Bytes, played a gig at the Sandpiper in Laguna, the nightclub in which I'd first admired the band and especially the band's lead singer (Cat) a decade and a half ago. On a scorching September day in 1988, we had our wedding reception there, and Cat, wearing a pale blue dress and backed by excellent musicians, sang for me a special song--"Since I Found You."
The Sandpiper has changed little since then, little in fact for the last 40-odd years. It was like walking into a picture from my wedding photo album, except the girl singing on stage was named Donna, not Cat, and an endless river of memories visible only to Tom and me raged directly through the dance floor, out onto Coast Highway, across the continent and into the night beyond. I caught him looking at that river when he sang "Tupelo Honey."
As I sat there in the 'Piper, looking at the strenuous comedy of white guys with no rhythm trying to dance, it was easy to see myself there with Cat, and numerous family and friends, on that sweltering afternoon half a decade ago. It was too easy, in fact. I headed home.
A few days later, in the quaint Baja village of Puerto Nuevo, three friends and I were walking around shopping for curios, choosing a restaurant for lunch, enjoying the passage of time. We walked past one of the older restaurants there, a two-story affair called Josefina Y el Negro, where, of course, Cat and I had dined some years back. For just a moment, as I studied the menu board outside, we were back in that upstairs room on a spring night, the only customers, toasting with complimentary shots of tequila gold and settling into what was to become one of the finest evenings of our lives.
It wasn't an evening you'd read about in a book or see in a movie, just two lovers alone in a small restaurant on a rocky coast, watching the slow nocturnal motions of a village, later driving through the pitted street with Clapton's "Holy Mother" playing on the deck. Behind every great evening is a song. That was it.
Easy to remember, all of it, standing there looking at the restaurant.
Seconds later, a bizarre image burst from the front door of the restaurant. He was tall and slender, dressed like a foppish cowboy, with his tight jeans tucked into his boots, a rakish bandanna around his neck and beneath his thick mustaches a smile made for the art of the hustle. He looked like Zorro on a Methedrine jag.
"I can get you in here!" he screamed to me.
"I know a better place down the street," said a friend.
So much for that fond memory.
Later, we set off a big skyrocket that spiraled out over the sea, zipped beneath the surface and exploded in a muted, subaqueous flash. I could not remember having seen such a thing happen before and I enjoyed it immensely. It had nothing to do with memory. It was fresh and alive and new.