There’s nothing new in saying that we are completely self-centered when it comes to death. It makes perfect sense, really, since we can no longer do anything for the person who has died: we’re all that’s left. Yes, we frame our thoughts in relation to the deceased, but, ultimately, we only think of ourselves: could I have done something more for them? Could I have acted differently toward them? What will I do now that they’re gone? And, the biggie: what should I have said that I never said to them? For some reason, the words are what we want most. The words are what we remember, what bring us closure. At the end of the day, they are just words, yet they are what keep us spinning in sadness. That we never got to say goodbye, I love you, thank you is the stone that sits heavy on our chests when we’ve lost someone, particularly when that loss is sudden. This is why we have eulogies: to say all that we never got to say in real time.
In dealing with the recent loss of my step-mother, my biggest regret right now is not having many words to say at all. Though Patti has been a part of my life for close to fifteen years, we did not have a deep relationship. We had different temperaments, different interests and lifestyles. We disagreed about how much time to spend in the sun and how much salt to put on our food. The first Christmas present I ever bought her was a Bill O’Reilly book my father told me she wanted. I thought I was going to throw up in the line at Borders. We kept each other at arm’s length, stayed resolutely on our respective ends of the line that connected us. I’m pretty sure we liked each other, but I don’t think we ever really knew each other.
But, here’s what I do know: Patti was beautiful. Genuinely and classically beautiful. She was tall, graceful, and, though dressed conservatively in her J. Jill attire, she was sexy. She had an amazingly thick head of hair, big eyes, and a smile that could rival Julia Roberts. She did not seem to get my kind of humor particularly, but when she laughed, she laughed with her whole face – a big laugh, open mouth, full of teeth.
Patti loved my dad. She hung on his every word and always recounted to me his silly puns and jokes, cracking up all the while. I was glad he had someone who found him as funny and smart as he found himself. She took care of him and made him start eating healthy. I remember meeting them at a hotel in Asbury Park, NJ to see the band Marah, and my dad told me that we couldn’t go out to eat before the show because he and Patti were on some kind of diet cleanse and could only eat green foods that week. This coming from a man whose idea of a good dinner was a Chocolate Junior and a YooHoo. I had never seen my dad eat a green food, or any food with color really, in my entire life. So, I can say with full assuredness that he, too, was in love.
Patti loved her children, and I was happy to take them on as the siblings I never had growing up. Our age differences may have precluded a closer bond, but I think we were always happy to have each other around. After I asked Lindsey, my step-sister, to be a bridesmaid in my wedding, Patti pulled me aside to tell me how much it meant to her that I wanted Lindsey to be in the wedding party, as though she had not expected me to include Lindsey at all. I looked at her in confusion and said, “Why wouldn’t I have asked her? She’s my sister.” Patti smiled her big smile, nodded, and walked away. I’m not sure how enthused she was to know that we snuck Lindsey (underage at the time) into a number of Philly bars and clubs on the night of my bachelorette party, but I know she was happy that the two of us shared that moment together.
Patti actually liked my mom. Many people are shocked by my divorced parents’ (and their partners’) amicability. I haven’t always understood it, but I’m not complaining because it made my life a hell of a lot easier. I liked seeing Patti and my mom together, mainly because they spent most of their time talking about their children and making fun of my dad. They both acknowledged the goodness and kindness of the other, and if they ever felt threatened or uncomfortable in some kind of way, they never showed it publicly. They have polar opposite personalities, which often made for a good show in and of itself, but they both were and are models of dignity and strength.
Unfortunately, Patti and I only have a few moments that we shared alone, my favorite being when we went to see The Pretenders at the Tower Theater. When I mentioned to my dad that I wanted to see The Pretenders, he told me that he thought I should go with Patti since she was also a big fan. As a bratty 20-something, there was nothing I wanted less than to be stuck alone with my dad’s lady at a rock concert. What would we do without my dad as a buffer? What would we talk about? Would she dance and sing, or just sit there? As it turned out, we did talk. And once Chrissie Hynde came out and started lighting it up, Patti did not just sit there – she got up and danced with me. To both of our surprise I think, we had a fantastic time.
It took fifteen years and Patti getting sick for me to tell her that I loved her. And, even then, when I finally did, I wrote it in a text message. I never got the chance to say it out loud to her face. Scratch that: I had plenty of chances; I just didn’t take them. Then again, neither did she. Though I regret it a bit now, our relationship just didn’t lend itself to I love you’s. But, we both loved the same man who loved both of us immensely and, therefore, by extension, we loved each other. And that’s just how it was.
It’s easy to get caught up in the should haves and could haves. I did that for a few days after Patti died (I should have been around more, I should have helped out more, I should have said this or that). But it wasn’t helpful, and my should haves and could haves were blanket woe-is-me laments that didn’t really jive with the relationship we actually had. We were there for each other as much as we wanted, we cared about each other as much as we wanted, and I don’t think either of us wanted any more or any less. It may not have seemed ideal to some, but it might be one of the most honest relationships I’ve ever had.