Friday, March 29, 2013

Bottoms Up! Grief on the Fast Track

If you moved at a steady clip through all five stages of grief, getting to the other side of the loss would probably take a fair amount of time.

In my home, growing up in the '60s, grief was managed at a faster clip.  The pace went more like from Zero to Cocktails in the time it takes to shake up a frothy whiskey sour.  Or pop a heavy barbiturate called Tuinol.  Or two Tuinols  (Two-Tus). Or slide back a Valium with a daiquiri.

As I mentioned, it was the late '60s to early '70s, and that's just the way we did it.  No school psychologists, no support groups.  No worries.  Just swallow.

My experiences with death began to gather and build from an early age.  A childhood friend, Julian, died around the age of 6 from congenital liver disease which also took all his siblings.  My maternal grandmother unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack, I was told, as she waited to check in to the Mayo Clinic for a scheduled face lift -- a whopping thirty thousand dollars, cash, stashed in her brazier. My gentle grandfather followed not far behind, and tragically on the day after my brother Nicholas' birth.  In between these losses, and after, more fatalities landed within my reach.  In elementary school, my friend Morgan O'Brien's sister, Hopie, was bounced out of the back of a top down convertible as it drove, 5mph, over a speed bump, pre-seatbelt days.  In the fifth grade, my friend Roberta's mother leapt from the third story of their beautiful Greenwich mansion to her death.

Two years later, when my brother was rounding the last stretch toward his sixth birthday, and my older sister,  Madeleine, was fourteen, we were told one morning that our mother had died.  Suddenly, shockingly and mysteriously.  "Improperly medicated by an intern" we heard.  "Malpractice" was the whisper.  "Suing won't bring her back to us" lamented our father.  My mother was, I believe, forty-one, but our father changed the dates in the obituary, making her thirty-nine; "under forty" dad said, in deference to a more cordial time when one simply did not reveal a lady's age.  I was twelve.

I believe that the day I heard the news, or possibly the day after, I just went to school.   During the months after our mother died, my sister and I were handed, and sipped on,  the various sweet cocktails. We took the pills we were given, we played loud sad songs by Simon and Garfunkle, and we spaced out. There were, of course, casseroles for a while, and parties.  Dad dated and he worked and he also drank a lot and played "Always Something There To Remind Me" by Jose Feliciano so loud you couldn't hear anything else in the house. And he wept out loud and in my arms and told me that he didn't worry about me as much as the other kids because I was a lot like him so he didn't need to worry.  And sixteen months later he was remarried.

I remember once, maybe a year later,  drinking a mini green bottle of Rolling Rock on my early morning walk to school, just to see what would happen.  My life long friend and I raided our parents' medicine cabinets for Valium and barbiturates, which were "in"at the time and handy.  Our older sisters set us up with small, oily black chunks of hashish so thick and gooey they reminded me of  bits of licorice. These we smoked in pipes we fashioned hastily out of aluminum foil.

So it went like that. Death continued to travel through the edges of my life at a slow trot, pulling greedily to steal my remaining grandparents but also quite a few young friends. Virginia (fire); Linda, Daniel and Diane (cancer).  All these deaths were pre-AIDS era.

Given my out-sized experiences with losing loved ones, my familiarity with how to actually sidle up to and embrace the aftermath of loss and all it's accompanying, changing pain, is astonishingly limited.

When I was in my early twenties and working in the circulation department of the Financial Times of London, my young boss, a Scarsdale girl named Randy Silverman, lost her dad.  She was so astonished by my apparent inability to connect her loss to pain, that she mentioned it to me.  I was just yammering away on her first day back to work after this devastating death in her family, maybe even whining and complaining, as if nothing had occurred. She look at me dead in the eye and said, with a perplexed expression and annoyed tone, "Elizabeth.  Do you understand I just lost my father?" I snapped momentarily into her reality with an "Oh. Sorry."

I'm much older now, and a mother, and I handle the inevitable losses my family suffers much differently. With my son, we talk about our beloved people and special pets, now gone. We revisit and relive our memories with stories and photos. We check in with each other, without overkill -- and certainly without the drugs and alcohol.  We take it bit by bit, knowing that losing someone we so dearly loved has forever  changed our lives and made our world feel less safe simply because they are no longer in it. And we remember also that our lives are fuller for having had the privilege of knowing and loving and remembering them.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Gator Club

In memory of my father, William Lee Ballard, 1926 - 2007

One of the things my dad passed on to me was an appreciation for bars and bar life in general.  I'm not referring to loud, hot nightclubs, but to a good neighborhood bar, the type of place dad referred to as a "good saloon."

Back in the 1960s when the business of advertising was still fun, Billy Ballard was a bit of a legend.  Those were the days when martini lunches and after hours cocktails were part and parcel of the job.  Dad had an extraordinary wit; he was notorious for his colorful tongue and outrageous irreverence, as well as his thoughtful generosity and unpretentious ways.  He was also a resolutely unapologetic drinking man.

Over the years, during our many father-daughter lunches and dinners, I learned that a good saloon can take on an element of sanctuary. It is at once a meting place, a book swap, a podium for debaters, and a message hub where you could also pick up sound advice.  It was where you caught up on the latest news or local gossip, or where you could ask about a reliable plumber or a good stockbroker.

A good saloon was usually an establishment frequented by locals who expected or demanded the trusted absence of change. It was a place with a rhythm all its own, its dependable beat tapped out by the steady coming and going of its patrons.  You could tell the time of day by who walked in the door, who was settled into their regular spot, or by the absence of a particular patron.

And, for the last ten years of Dad's life, that particularly good saloon was The Gator Club, in Sarasota, Florida.

Part of Sarasota's early history, The Gator Club is a pinkish brick building on the corner of Main and Lemon and has served, over time, as Sarasota's first grocery store, a brothel, a dive and a package store, and an upscale gentleman's cigar and scotch bar.  And for a good stint, the Gator Club served as my dad's "office." 

Rose, the day bartender, said she knew it was opening time when dad's face appeared at the side entrance, his wicker and Styrofoam ice bucket in tow, filled with his own ice cubes made in those aluminum, pull-handle trays. "Rose, don't give me any of your half-assed ice cubes!" dad would protest.  He also carried with him his own mixers in small bottles, feeling strongly that "the stuff that shoots out of that bar gun is shit, Rose.  I've strongly recommended to Ernie that he change to bottles, but Baby, I'm fighting an losing battle."  And of course he always had with him his signature Tervis Tumbler.

Dad would take his seat at his table, the central-most round, marble high-top set on a heavy, filigreed iron pedestal, and directly beneath the line of wicker fans that swayed gently to and fro under the tinned ceiling.  From about 11:00 a.m. until around 1:00, the place really belonged to dad. He even had a telephone installed at the back bar (which remained closed until the Gator transformed into a nightclub after dark) to use for personal calls with some degree of privacy.

Entering in dribs and drabs as lunch hour neared, the group would gather and the conversation took on a momentum that reflected whoever was present.  There was quick-witted banter and serious, heated debating, or, more often, bawdy, ribald and racy exchanges.  

At first glance into any local pub, and taking in each character one-by-one, they look like a pretty squirrelly bunch; a mix of kooks and misfits.  But taken together, they made up a collective ethic you could trust, even to look after a lost kid until a parent or the police were contacted.  And as far as characters went, The Gator certainly had its share. 

At the next table was the unstoppable and loquacious, fidgety telemarketer, "Talking George,"  whose left hand was limp from a war injury and who went in and out of jail.  If the television channel was set to the stock quotes,  "Flaherty," a stockbroker whose eyes never strayed from the ticker running across the bottom of the screen, was in the house, sipping a vodka on the rocks.  For a time there was "Alabama Rick," an outrageously funny, loud and commanding gay dope dealer missing three bottom teeth. Alabama Rick held court at the table next to dad's as his buyers came and went, until one day he was hauled off to prison. 

One of the most colorful characters was a tall, albino diabetic, a double-amputee who managed to also be a gay veteran with no less that four angry ex wives.   Dubbed "Peg Leg Charlie," he once strode into the Gator on a new set of prosthetic legs and proudly  announced  that he was now a full two inches taller.  And at the helm was Billy, my dad, the guy who set the rhythm going every day, the one everyone gathered around, asked about, checked in to see.  The one they all went to for advice, for an occasional loan, and of course, for a drink.

Once, during dad's Gator Club tenure, I overheard him on the phone in his kitchen as he gently directed the rescheduling of a planned, outpatient eye surgery so that the operation would end in time to allow for his usual Gator Club stop.  He was polite and soft spoken with the receptionist as he gently explained his predicament. "Darling. You have them operating on me at noon. By then I'll have had nothing to eat or drink starting the night before.  That's a full seventeen hours, dear.  Now I'm a serious drinking man.  I'm what you might call an accomplished alcoholic.  And I'd like to have my driver pick me up from the surgery by one o'clock, at the latest."  (I wss his so-called driver.)

Eventually the days of dad and his Gator group fizzled out. Talking George changed companies and had to switch bars.  Peg Leg Charlie drowned in his tub after an evening of too much wine.  Flaherty fell out with the group and stopped showing up.  Others moved away. Alabama Rick went to prison. 

But for a good while The Gator Club was a fundamental and integral part of dad's and our daily rhythm.  It was when and where he started his day, where plans were made, books and opinions exchanged, news and gossip shared.  For a long time it was his compass.  And for a long time, he was mine. Lucky me.