Saturday, May 19, 2012


I'm in California. I awake this morning at 4A local time to read a note from my sister: last night in Belfast, N. Ireland, her sister in law's estranged husband was struck and killed by a car. "He was 26. I don't know what else to say," are her final words to the very brief message.

I begin to cry. Because a young man's life is extiguished. And because I read these words on the morning of the 10th anniversary of Joey's death.

That moment--the one upon which you learn that someone you know has died--can arrest all of your senses. I find that I gasp, and I don't hear anything for a few seconds. I can't quite see. And although I didn't know Niall well, I did meet him. And he was only 26.

Thinking back to the day of Joey's death, I woke up crying. Because I knew that something was horribly, terribly wrong. The days preceding his death were a warpath of sorts for him, so this is not some oblique intuitive signaling that I am recounting as I write this post. The night prior, I received a phone call from him--one that I let roll into my voice mail system. The last call where I would have spoken to him. He started to dial my phone as he walked away from my backyard, having come to see if I was dutifully sitting on the sofa watching Saturday Night Live, one of our favorite rituals. I was. Winnona Ryder was the guest star. That's all I can remember of the episode. What I can vividly remember is re-playing his message a dozen times before I made the ill-fated decision to hit delete. He told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I looked sitting on the sofa, and how sorry he was he couldn't stay sober and sit beside me to watch our show.

I've yet to sit through an entire episode of SNL since. Just like I can't watch professional golf without getting a lump in my throat. Still.

Joey's death profoundly changed my life. It called into question every fiber of faith that I had at that time. I learned who in my world were friends for eternity, and who needed to be weeded out of the garden. Oddly, I lost my sensibility about people--one that I've prided myself on for years. It's like my radar shut down, and to be honest I'm not sure that it's fully restored. That sensibility is one that used to help me navigate many situations and size up the trust factor with newcomers into my life, and one that I've sorely needed upon occasion in these 10 years. He was even more critical about people than I was back then--critical in the best way: who could be trusted, and who had not yet passed the test. I desperately miss his guidance in that department.

The journey into the grief state was one that I can't quite describe, no matter how many times I try. I can only be sure that someone comprehends my words when they too have suffered a loss. It's a paradox of feeling everything and feeling nothing. And it doesn't go away in days or weeks or months--not when the loss is overwhelming to the grieving. To this day I can, and do, tear up when I regale someone with a story about Joey, but it's not a given. I can just as easily laugh and keep a smile on my face: because he loved it when I smiled and hated it when I cried. So I do try to pay tribute to him in some fashion, however seemingly insignificant, when invoking his memory.

There is no way for me to truly give homage to Joey through one post, authored and published on May 19, 2012. I'll share the song he was singing to me frequently before his death: The Promise, by When In Rome. Some lyrics:

I'm sorry but I'm just trying to think of the right words to say,
I know they won't sound the way I planned them to be,
But if I had to walk the world and make you fall for me,
I promise you, I promise you, I will...

You didn't have to walk the world, or leave the world, for me to fall for you, Joey Vennari. I loved you the day I set my eyes on your beautiful blue eyes in the Red Star in Fells Point (Baltimore, Maryland). Ours was a walk that can't be summed up through one awkward wasn't a perfect 8 year period. I fell down often, and made many mistakes. I do believe that through the addictions that had you so firmly in their grip, you loved your family and your close friends so deeply that we still feel the impact of your love and your loss in ways that again, can't quite be described. You left an indelible mark on the hearts of so many. On a day like today, people will tell me they remember your laugh, your sense of humor and impeccable comic timing, your easy sense of self. The fact that you were cool, period. There's not a friend from the Howard County area that can look back on time spent with you as anything other than fun.

Someone told me, a few weeks after his death, that I would receive gifts out of this loss. I had no idea what she was saying at the time. I know now that it's about harvesting the good intentions, the good times, the messages within the memories. And looking around at what is left standing. Joey left behind a bevy of close friends who have continued to stay by my side. They do not remain my friends out of any sort of obligation to Joey, but it sure is a nice common ground to have: people who know--not remember but know--how special he really was, without an explanation, without prompting. It has provided comfort to me at times when the force of reality Joey's not here has overtaken me. I see these gifts, and I am truly grateful.

Today is a stark reminder that life is too short. It really is. Say what you mean, say it clearly. Don't worry about what mistake you might make. Because you don't want that mistake to be missing the last phone call or not opening the door when someone is reaching to you for what is the final opportunity to say or show what is really in your heart. These are my biggest regrets, ones that no one--not anyone--can erase for me.

George McGovern writes of his grief over the loss of his daughter, Terry, to alcoholism. She slipped and fell in an icy parking lot, and froze to death after an in and out of rehab spin of 30 days. I'm paraphrasing but he said something like, "I regret that she laid there, freezing to death, wondering if I loved her". Those words came back to me as the details of Joey's last hours were being pieced together. "Did he lay on that bed wondering if I loved him?" He had made several additional unsuccessful attempts to reach me by phone. I'll never really know, but my heart believes that while his mind, riddled with drugs and alcohol at the time of his passing, may have questioned it--in every other cell of his body and his soul, he knew and still knows how much I love him. And I always will.

I try now to answer the calls, reply to the messages that I receive immediately. I knew we were on the precipice on May 18th, I just didn't know that May 19th was going to be the final act. And I don't want to suffer that regret twice.

There's so much more to say. Niall, I am sorry we lost you so quickly. I'm sorry to your family and your friends who will never "get over" your death. I hope that, even though you and Joey never knew each other on this plane--you will meet in heaven. Profoundly, truly sorry, dear young man.

I know that Joey is the angel who greets those who cross. I know when I make the march, he will be the first one there to take my hand (whatever that really means in the spiritual world). Until then Joey, I have things to take care of on this side. I miss you and I do something in your honor each and every day. Some days I have more success than others. You'd be so proud of the feline lives I've helped save and the kitties who live in my care. The friendships I've sustained...I wish you could be here to share all of this with me. Then again, I suppose you are...

With love and gratitude.

Joey and me, The Camden Club, November 1994. Baltimore, Maryland. This was his favorite picture of us.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Kitty Skype

Do you think that I could come up with a Skype for cats? Cuz I do believe that if Valentina could summon me on the computer, she would.

I'm trying to imagine it: Coco, Manhattan and Valentina all love my laptop so I could teach them how to go over and put their paw on a pad that would then make mama appear on the screen. And I could talk to them. They could purr and rub their faces on the camera. Then what?

In my mind, this is part of the solution to dealing with the seperation anxiety I feel being gone for so long. Skype.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Today, I write my blog post from sunny Burbank, California. I'm here on a 10 day business trip. Like most things in my life, this has presented quite a paradox: I love California, love coming here for work or vacation--but I detest being away from the kitties.

My preparation for departure was so intense that the day prior to my flight, I was on the way to the gym to work out with the wonderful Fieramosco--and I became ill in the car. Like three times dry heaved, pulling over to make sure I didn't cause an accident. I had to cancel and turn around for home. This is not like me: I don't vomit when I am praying that I could to alleviate nausea. The only explanation is anxiety. Sheer anxiety.

I'm not afraid of airports, or flying, or staying in a hotel. But I do hate the whole process of travel. The packing. The having to carefully choose what I bring and what stays behind. And forget it on the set up for the pet sitters~good grief. It's mind boggling.

My morning seems very bland without kitty paws and purring and playing at 5AM. My return to the hotel room is anti-climatic without the rush of curled up cat tails headed in my direction, greeting me and simultaneously demonstrating that it is feeding time.

However, this is a great town. And I have to learn to enjoy what is put in my path. Oh, not everything is joyful. But certainly a business trip to sunny So Cal, that can go in the "good" column.

I'm just getting adjusted to the time difference and over my initial exhaustion. Friday I hope to have dinner with a friend and then Saturday and Sunday enjoy the area: Santa Monica, maybe Venice Beach...and then Manhattan Beach on Tuesday with another friend...

I won't stop missing my girls...I can do both--miss them and enjoy the visit. Just don't ask me to choose one over the other.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

And the winner is....Manhattan!

I entered a little contest on Facebook: I Rescued My Pet... posted a picture of Manhattan after her first surgery. The contest sponsors, Whiskers and Leo, emailed me and requested a more recent picture of her which I happily sent along. 30 Minutes later I received notification that we won the contest. This means $25 off my next pet sitting service (convenient, as I have a business trip in the near future), and a $25 gift certificate from PetSmart. Additionally, Manhattan is featured on their Facebook page and will be on their home page.

Silly as this Facebook contest sounds, it made my day brighter. Because I remember the internal struggle I had while she was a street kitty: wanting so much to save her and integrate her with Coco and Valentina, yet afraid of having 3 cats and what that would do to my budget and my reputation (you know, "Crazy Cat Lady"). When she went missing from our normal feeding routine, N and I knew right away that something was wrong. We gained access to the underbelly of my building--once an A&P Warehouse--and found her. Starving and injured. Talking to us--trying to tell us the story of her battle within the feral colony. We would not know the full extent of her wounds until we got her to the second animal hospital and they discovered a bite that articulated from one side of her to the other: some critter [a possum? a rat?] had nearly bitten her in half.

She went into surgery the next day, and when the vet called to tell me she was out and recovering, and her prognosis was very good, I cried. This little 7 month old kitten had suffered because I wavered on a decision--and I was so relieved that I was able to save her from the clutches of death. Both the emergency vet and the regular vet who performed the surgery told me she was within days of dying. And both of them thanked me for helping her.

Today, if you had not read this story, you wouldn't know to look at her that she had been through such trauma. She plays and eats like a champ, and she snuggles with me whatever chance she gets. Each nite as I get ready for slumber land, she puts herself in her little kitty bed so that I can say goodnight to her before lights out. I learned so much from watching her fortitude during her recovery process, and through gaining her trust.

Thank you Manhattan for letting me rescue you: I know you were scared when we caught you, I know going to the vet and letting humans touch you for the first time was a horrifying experience. And I know being at the vet hospital and enduring two surgeries (life saving, then spay) was not an easy transition. But you made it and then came to live with your new sisters Coco and Valentina, and you've added a dimension to our life here that we didn't expect or know was possible.

Snoopy paws, The Mad Hatter, Little M...whatever name I call you by, I'm so happy I have you as part of my family. I love you, little girl!

During her first recovery from surgery in late February, 2010. And a more recent picture by her favorite bed and on her scratcher. The Winner of the Whiskers & Leo I Rescued My Pet Contest: Manhattan Bay...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birthdays and Anniversaries

This whole notion of time passage is hitting me square in the face right now.
I just turned 47 on Tuesday. My parents celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary the day prior. Severals days before, my little Valentina turned 3. And, looming ahead in the distance is Joey's 10th anniversary. Ten years since I've seen that face, held that hand. Heard that laugh.

I never know which way the marking of his death is going to hit me, physically, mentally, spiritually. Will I cry when I wake up? Will I melt down in the middle of Manhattan for no apparent reason? Will I go for a run and pass 8 miles before I realize that my legs are moving? All of these things have happened. It's the when part that is unknown. While the time frame is approximate, the feeling, when it hits, is quick and specific. Like an ice cold rush of water on the body.

Given that my mom's health is on the decline, her memory slowly slipping away in the sands of time, I am inclined to think more deliberately about my past. I try to bring forth a morsel of it to share with her on phone calls, to see what she remembers and how the two of us can review any moment of family life. What additional perspective she can give--if any at all--is always welcomed. I didn't do enough of this before her mind was impacted, and I lament that there are facts and details and loving things locked up like prisoners in the recesses of her brain. Will I learn that lesson, the lesson that keeps coming back to me: don't wish away time. Don't wish for more or better. Because more and better are right here. Abundance is within reach.

I said a few posts ago that I wanted to write more about the emotions that swelled up inside when I learned of the deaths of two youths from my home town of Howard County. I've been inert. Because it means looking at that date on the calendar, that May 19th date on the calendar, and remembering a loss so profound that it took about 5 years to shoulder the pain. I'm much better at that externally than I was back then. The flip side is an inability to communicate with any level of clarity my feelings about grief. I used to be better at this. How did that shift? Why?

This blog, if I can take on the routine and discipline of writing, will serve to help me go back to those emotions. Not because I want to feel sad--but because I want to remember the important details and feelings associated with those events. I know dealing with loss made me a more empathic person. Perhaps this paralysis set in when I lost my job over 3 years ago. I lost me somewhere in the process. I think my self esteem left town first, and then my sense about people took off as part of the search party.

Time to re-group, to pull together those emotions set asunder during the course of the last 4 years. Time to address the grief and loss and simultaneously celebrate the love and abundance. And remember the accomplishments in that timeframe too. It isn't all a tale of woe.

Days like today, I can't help but wonder what Joey would make of this life of mine: living outside of New York; the friendships I've forged; the stupid relationships I clung to for no good reason; the 5 kitties and the studio apartment and the marathons and all of it. My path alone. My path with him as my angel.

If I could, I'd tell him I'm sorry I didn't answer the phone one last time.
Through writing this post, I've unearthed the tears that have been storing up. Here we go, into the Valley of Grief.  Not to worry, I don't isolate myself there. I know how to live in that world and the real world at the same time.

Maybe in my next post I'll write about chocolate chip cookies. Something sweet and delicious.

Until then, I share with you the song that is currently on continuous loop in my head.

Sound Garden: Tears of Pearls