Till Death Do Us Depart
A wedding, a funeral, a break-up, departure
I am packing, but not for the train trip. I will do that in two weeks. Right now I am packing for a weekend wedding in Portland. This wedding I’m going to is for the brother of my girlfriend, Em. My life is about to significantly change because of important choices I have to make, and so as I stare down at the two types of dress socks in my hand, I give up and throw them both in the bag. I need to conserve any brain power for more life altering choices.
The reason this wedding is significant beyond two people pledging their love to one another, the reason this wedding carries some emotional weight for me, a stranger to the happy couple by most definitions, is that it is the first time I will meet Em’s entire family. And for her family, being brought to a wedding to meet everyone means something. It means I have risen past the ranks of brunches, rides to the airport, and holiday meals. I am meeting everyone because the expectation is I am on my way to becoming a permanent fixture. The trouble with this is that is not the plan. My introduction to Em’s family is also my farewell.
Em and I have been together for over two years and it is almost certain that sometime shortly after the reception but shortly before I arrive at Union Station to board the Amtrak for two plus weeks, Em and I will break up. I know this because we have talked about it. Talking about it has been helpful in the present, but naturally more troublesome as time rolls on. The details of our relationship are perhaps of interest, but they are not mine to share because the relationship belonged to both of us, and so making them public seems like a joint effort, and that is not in the cards.
What I feel (un)comfortable sharing is that our planned uncoupling is hollowing me out, but necessary. We have a fundamental disagreement about how we should spend our time as we grow old. Neither of us recognize the other as being wrong, and perhaps time will reveal I am and she is simply being kind, but for now, the least heartbreaking route appears to be to move forward with a thoughtful and planned breakup sooner rather than later, as opposed to being blindsided or demolished by an unkind and regretful separation down the road.
I can disclose I do not want kids. That is my current feeling and as far as I can see down the road, the route never changes. But I hope that I am wrong. Everyone seems to think I am. “What a great dad you’ll be,” someone will present as a compliment despite me seeing it as evidence for the prosecution.
“My kids were the best thing to ever happen to me...you don’t know how much it will change you...how much it will reveal about your ability to love.” These are but a few of the many responses I have received when I present my position. And I am sure all of those sentiments are true. In fact, it’s those truths that keep fatherhood at bay for me. I believe parenting to be the most important, labor (of love) intensive, lifelong career a human can embark on, and I want no part of it. I do not want to spend my life worrying about the safety and joy of a person I brought into this world. I do not want to inevitably traumatize or scar the most important human in my life. I do not want to bring someone into this world and then watch helplessly as the world bullies and intimidates them. Or something worse. I’m certain my heart couldn’t take it. And I’m rarely certain about anything.
We’ve all got blood on our hands. Which is a coward’s way of saying, I’m culpable in passing along misery to my fellow humans. I suspect we all are. Men more, much more, than women, but that’s what people do. People hurt people. And that does not make it ok. Admitting to it doesn’t make it ok. But neither does not admitting to it. Apologizing doesn’t make it ok. Nothing makes it ok. That’s why we don’t want to do it in the first place. But admitting to it, and apologizing for it, and learning to be better helps it to stop. Which is the goal because it spreads so easy. Ubiquity does not equate to normalcy. We should be better. And my parents tried. They made a conscious effort. They were deliberately thoughtful in trying to raise a kind and thoughtful human. But still we stumble and skin our knees and leave bruises. It’s not ok, but it’s expected. And that expectation is not something I’m equipped enough to shoulder. And so for that very heavy and somber attitude, Em and I are blueprinting an exit strategy.
While that cloud looms heavy over us, we do our best to spot rays of sun and soak up our time together. We arrive at an exquisite Air B&B with a hot tub, a 60” TV, and six bedrooms. By all typical measurements, it is a luxury family home. Except for the garage. The garage has a bar, a disco ball, and a floor-to-ceiling pole for exotic dancing. Sure the pole could be for something else, but there is a pin in the bottom that can be removed so the pole spins, and there is also a collection of dirty magazines and a coffee table with cut-outs of naked women placed under the glass. This fascinates me. The natural habitat of dirty magazines is hibernating under mattresses, or roaming out in the wild on train tracks and in dumpsters on the path an eighth grader walks home. The closest they get to domestic living is when they’re purchased at the airport and stuffed in a carry-on next to a Toblerone or a souvenir Yellowstone postcard reprinting a rare photo of a Moose. It’s not often you get sexuality right there butting up against domestic living. We usually celebrate each independent of the other. Separate but equal.
Em and I go for a walk and get coffee, and we both feel a little under the weather. It could be our weak stomachs, not uncommon, or maybe we are in knots about spending our fleeting moments together while trying to celebrate eternal love. It’s a hard spot to be in. I can’t help but question if I’m the reason she and I are destined to be “Em and her plus one,” and not bride and groom ourselves.
Now I know that based on the earlier paragraphs, it would seem as if yes I am definitely the reason, but I guess what I‘m wondering is if it’s my destiny to be alone because I in fact am too afraid to give into caring without limit.
I’m writing on the plane back to L.A., post wedding but pre-funeral. I’m yada-yadding over the event because it’s not my event. To report on the ceremony feels like a violation. Know that it was magical. Know that love was in the air. And know I hope to never have to take a catering job to support myself as the stress of pleasing people would most likely cause me back pain and pit-stained shirts. But if I do, I think weddings would be my choice event. It’s hard not to be moved by people traveling from afar to toast to the love of a friend or relative. Also, weddings might be the one place you can witness parents uncharacteristically dance. And not briefly or to appease a crowd chanting them on. When music plays at a wedding, even Sir-Mix-A-Lot, the same parents who would frown at the off-color joke in the best man’s speech about pegging, will bust a move for the butt-obsessed MC. It’s really something spectacular. I’m grateful for every wedding I get invited too.
I feel more clear-headed on the trip back, in part because of the successful attendance and participation in the wedding, and in part because of the lack of diarrhea. I had a bout of it something awful, but it’s passed and I hope it’s the last time I mention diarrhea on this trip. Unless it’s something monumental like "in Chicago at the sight of Chris Farley’s ghost, I was overcome with diarrhea," or "turns out, signing a book deal gives me diarrhea."
My grandpa passed away in October 2016, but my family opted to have the funeral in June because so many of us are teachers and that’s when summer break is. I hate this choice. I can’t not feel like I’m putting my grief on hold. But I’m contributing almost nothing to the planning, so I bite my tongue.
I have been labeled repeatedly by both sides of my family as “sensitive,” “emotional,” and “over-thinking.” I am the youngest member of my family on both sides, or at least I was, for the better part of ten years. Then my sister had kids, but they somehow were always kids, while I remain the frozen baby. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to, my crying at a little league game, throwing a fit over no one coming to my college graduation, and crying after a haircut at the tender age of 15. My dad has said, in print, that he’s thankful there was never a draft for my generation as I am too sensitive and would not have survived war. All this is to say my opinions are usually taken with a grain alcohol. Someone a little stronger wouldn’t mind.
When I was a kid, my grandpa and I would walk on the beach and we would walk backwards so no one knew if we were coming or going. Growing up, we’d exchange letters. He’d send me a “few bucks” on my birthday and I’d write him detailed accounts of my adventures through elementary, middle, and high school. I can’t imagine how self-indulgent and pointless those letters must have been. Much later, my Mom said she visited him once, and she saw that he had filed all my letters away, and had highlighted and underlined all the important details.
When I went to college, he got an email address, and we would keep in touch about our living situations (for me the dorms, for him a new house he bought with his new wife who he met on eharmony). He was encouraging even when I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and he was vulnerable when, alone again, had to move into a retirement community. We were both going through transitions and I like to think the comfort I felt was mutual.
My dad and I stayed at his place for a couple of weeks one summer because we were helping my Mom, who lived nearby, build a pantry in her house. For two weeks, every morning, my 85 year old grandpa would get up early and pack us sack lunches with sandwiches, fruit, and mini candy bars.
When I moved to San Diego, he was 87 and only 30 miles away, so we started going out to lunch on Sundays, as often as every week. He still drove, but didn’t like to, so I’d park my car at his place and drive him and his girlfriend around in his. Nine years later, and 100 miles further away, I don’t think a month went by where I didn’t see him at least once for lunch. I could always count on consistence uniqueness from him. He’d sing to the server or hostess, or in the elevator to his girlfriend. He’d ask me if I was happy with work and if I had any ladies in my life, and he’d pick up the check. I’d thank him for lunch, and he’d tell me it was his pleasure and that I didn’t know how much my visits meant to him.
If I’m honest, I started visiting him because I felt it was something I should do, but now it’s clear it was something I needed. Aside from my roommate and a couple other people, he was the person I grew closest to during my time here in California. For twenty-three years of my life, he was my grandpa. For the last nine, he was my friend. He really got me through some tough times. He looked out for me, protected me, encouraged me, listened to me, and loved me. He lived a great life, did an outstanding job providing for his family, and taught me so much about being courteous and dependable and flexible and generous and kind.
I have anxiety over this funeral. It weighs heavy on me. I suppose that isn’t surprising. I fucking hate death. Who doesn’t? As a society, we remain shocked and destroyed any time anyone we love or admire dies, even when they are old and it is their time, or they just happen to be humans and all humans die. It’s one of our defining traits. How is it that still death gets us every time? It’s like re-watching The Sixth Sense and doing a spit take every time Bruce realizes he’s a ghost. I mean you knew it was coming, how did it surprise you, and why have a drink before the reveal? I should have known my grandpa would die. It literally happens to everyone. We all see dead people. We all love dead people. We all die. People.
The funeral is today but my recording of it will be sparse and as a result the recounting of it will also be light. You’re getting the stuff I felt emotionally present for, or the stuff that hit so hard it left an imprint which is to say, the ordinary and the overwhelming. I’m sitting in the La Quinta Inn in Riverside while Em showers. I got up before her, but opted for a waffle and bacon instead of the first shower. I met my dad in the lobby and we talked about Homeland. My adult relationship with my dad consists mostly of talking about what tv shows we both like. Not shows he likes and shows I like, but shows we both like. There’s not a lot of room for listening to one another. It’s mostly him talking to me about a show I like, that he’s watching. It’s like show and tell, except it’s eternally his turn, and we brought the same thing. We could also talk about my grandpa and his dad being dead. But we don’t.
Aside from a visit here to a friend almost 12 years ago, I probably haven’t been to Riverside since my grandmother’s funeral, and I haven’t been back to the cemetery since then. I’m reminded of my mom carrying me to bed. She used to carry me upstairs after I would fall asleep on the couch watching tv with her. She is 5’ 3" so this was more impressive every year as I continued my growth spurt, but it wasn’t something she could continue forever. And she has mentioned the notion of not knowing when the last time is the last time. I left the Air Force cemetery in Riverside over twenty years ago probably not thinking about whether I would be back. Even though my grandmother is buried there, I’m not sure it ever occurred to me to visit her. I’m not sure how often my grandpa did. But I sit in this hotel room, wondering if I’ll ever be at the La Quinta again. I may not. I will probably be here to Riverside again because I would like to visit my grandpa. That’s the thing I’m thinking about most. As I try to project out to my last days, looking back on the life I lived, my memories and time with my grandpa will have to share more and more space with new experiences and memories and relationships and I hope that the space for him is always protected. I read cards he sent me ten years ago, and he wrote me much more as a grandparent fulfilling his role saying things like, "it’s been nice to get to know you" and, "I enjoy your visits." And then when I look on more recent letters or think of things he said during our weekly lunches, he really saw me as someone close to him, obviously as a grandson, but equally a friend. A companion of sorts to usher him into his final years with some positivity. It has to be so hard to get old, to lose loved ones, to be left to wonder, to be idle, to miss and to love. I see now we probably made it easier on each other, my transition to California and his to old age. We were both on our own in ways we didn’t quite plan for, and we were there to make sure we had love and support along the way.
When he died, I fell apart. We knew it was coming and he went peacefully, but it didn’t make it any easier. My sadness feels like selfishness. He made California feel like home, and his love was so warm. When I was adrift, he made me feel like someone with something to offer. The last meal he and I had together he sang in the hallway, he asked about my job, and he told me how much he adored Em. When the check came, he instinctively went for his wallet, even though he hadn’t been carrying one for some time. I got to pick up the tab for the first time in our relationship, and he said how generous I WAS (I’d have to buy him a chain of Red Robins just to break even). I told him it was my pleasure, and that he didn’t know how much the visit meant to me. It was the first time our exchanges were swapped. And it would be the last time either of us said them.
At my grandpa’s funeral, his friend Rutledge, told a story of my grandpa going to great lengths to recognize and honor the men in his ROTC. Rutledge said my grandpa made sure everyone was acknowledged for what they did, and then it hits me. More like crushes me. He did that for me and everyone in his family. He always made sure to consider us as individuals. And I realize, not on that moment, but in writing this book and hundreds of hours of therapy, that that practice is what’s most important to me in my relationships. To be appreciated and to appreciate. Up until now it was never intentional, just a product of being Nick Jabbour’s grandson. But now it’s how I intend to honor him. To appreciate and acknowledge the value in others.
The Break Up
Em and I spend our last day together getting brunch and lying on her bed crying on and off. This feels like the healthy thing to do, but fuck if it doesn’t feel like it’s killing us. I would love to say I could see myself wanting kids to extend our time together, but the truth is I don’t and so I can’t start a life together with someone on what I perceive to be a lie, even if I don’t know myself well enough to know how I’ll feel in the future. Like I said, I‘d love if I was wrong about this, but if we get three years down the road, and she asks if I want kids and I say, “well I was hoping I would, but I still don’t,” then I have failed us both. It’s too soon to tell if orchestrating a break-up is a bad idea or a good idea. In fact, there’s nothing definitive about it except that we set out to do it.
I have never been in a planned breakup before. I mean I guess to some extent most breakups are planned. One person feels a shift, sudden or subtle, and they start the strategizing. To minimize casualties, to minimize the pain. But this one, this was a joint effort. Not unlike a divorce. We didn’t have property or children to think about, but we still had each other and the unanswerable question of “what are we doing?”
At the end of a beautiful day, she drops me off at Josh’s. I walk to Josh’s door and turn around, luggage in hand, and race back for one more hug. I am crying in the middle of the street like a character in a movie so absent of self-awareness he wins a Daytime Emmy. I’ve never been good with goodbyes. Anything from seeing someone off on a new chapter of their life to just leaving a bbq early, I always botch it. My preferred method is to not do it at all. I envy the people who own their farewells. I see people who leave by saying bye to everyone and everyone loves it, or at least appreciates it, but I get caught up in handshakes vs. hugs and what to say, and the whole thing is awkward and I know people take awkward over rude nine times out of ten, but not me. I don’t think not talking is rude. I think it considers other people’s feelings just as much as polite conversation. Extroverts lead this world so it’s common to think the nice thing to do is reach out, tell a tale, give a pat, but in the eyes of the introvert, we would just as soon rub their belly as squeeze their shoulder. Not saying there is anything wrong with a belly rub, just not something I would do with the person I shared potato salad with.
So a planned break-up is maybe the thing I fear most. Because it plants a goodbye out in front of you, navigates the route, and delivers you an ETA. All that’s left is to put on a podcast of your irrational fears and deepest insecurities and look for any pit-stop to delay the destination. The only thing worse than planning it out is not planning it out. Because you can’t brace yourself. You’re driving along listening to a playlist of greatest dates and then you pull over to relieve yourself, and when you step out, you’re flattened by a sixteen-wheeler carrying someone else’s feelings. The semi roars on, specks of your heart splattered on it’s grill, while what remains twitches on the asphalt.
“You have arrived,” my emotional GPS alerts me. It’s supposed to be the end, but I find us in the middle. In the middle of the street, in the middle of me completely falling apart, and in the middle of not knowing what to say or do next. Em and I agree to work on our shit. A very ambiguous declaration, and even as we said it, I knew it would only make the immediate separation easy. A little morphine as we drift away.
I wipe my eyes, clear my throat and drag my luggage across Josh’s doorstep.
There are social contracts most humans agree to when out in public, the most notable, don’t get emotional. Take the metro, or fly Delta, and you’ll see everyone doing their best passport photo pose. No smiles, no frowns, refrain from the obscene, and especially no crying. People break these contracts by yelling at their significant other, or drunkenly ordering another round, and when this happens, their peers are granted permission to stare. It’s in the fine print. Don’t stare unless someone shows emotion. Well, there is no more public place than Union Station, and no more unsettling emotion than crying, so I discreetly march head down through the lobby to the Amtrak window to get my tickets. A man playing a loud boom box is rapping and shouting, and I’ve never felt such relief for someone causing a scene. I pull my hat down over my eyes as they swell with tears, and stress-purchase $38 worth of snacks from the convenience store inside the station. I am overcome with the feeling I want to be alone. It’s not exactly the perspective one wants before embarking on a country wide storytelling and improv tour, but one doesn’t always get to choose how one feels. I take the next few minutes to stare out the window as we pull out of the station, and I reflect on being a crying man departing from Union Station Los Angeles whose next destination is improv in Maricopa, Arizona. I had an active imagination as a kid, but no amount of creativity could have predicted this version of adulthood.