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My own tragedy coincided so closely with the nation’s that it is difficult to separate the two. November 2016 looms, ironically enough, like a wall – dividing the life I had before that month, and the life after. The chasm between those two countries is unbridgeable.
On November 8th 2016, Donald Trump was elected President and my world darkened. Exactly two weeks later, my partner Jeff Gillenkirk, as healthy a man as I’ve ever known, died without warning of a heart attack and the sun was eclipsed.
Jeff was shattered by Trump’s victory. He had insisted that a man who made fun of a disabled reporter could never be elected. After such a grotesque and cruel display, he felt sure, as many of us did, that it was over for Trump. When that proved to be wrong, Jeff was devastated.
Three days after Trump’s win, he texted me, “I have moved from despair to rage about what’s happening. Not quite sure what to do about it, can’t wait to talk. I cry a lot.”
As he often did when something weighed on his mind, Jeff decided to write about it. Ten days after the election he published “The New PTSD: Post-Trump Stress Disorder,” on the progressive news website Alternet. Written after consulting with one of my oldest and dearest friends, the therapist Deborah Cooper, the article described how the prospect of Trump’s presidency was keeping us all up at night and how therapists were dealing with their patients' overwhelming sense of fear and panic attacks about the future.
Jeff had been a speechwriter for New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who recruited him after reading one of his pieces in the national weekly Catholic magazine “America.” He consulted on many causes, including the campaign to end the death penalty. He wrote “Home, Away,” a wonderful novel about baseball and fatherhood and another called “Pursuit of Darkness,” a scalding satire of Washington D.C. that featured Fox News founder Roger Ailes as a vampire. He was co-author, with his close friend, the photographer James Motlow, of “Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town,” an oral history of Chinese immigrants living in Locke, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. He also had a very successful career in direct marketing, writing fundraising copy for Greenpeace and many others.
But at 67, Jeff was struggling to find his place in the new media landscape, searching for how to spend the remainder of his working life in a way that had purpose and meaning. He discovered that the San Francisco school system had a severe shortage of teachers, and so he decided to take the tests and training necessary to become a substitute. As any teacher could have predicted, it was much more challenging than he had imagined, but he was giving it his best shot. On November 21st, only his fifth time in a classroom, he jokingly texted me: “I'm going to look into alligator wrestling, or perhaps nuclear waste handling. xoxox – Mr. G, the 3rd grade teacher.”
The next morning he had a heart attack in that same third-grade classroom. I got a phone call from the elementary school saying he’d had a seizure, and that I should come to the school right away. When I arrived, a stricken paramedic came to meet me on the sidewalk and said, “I’m so sorry.” At that moment, the fault line opened that separated the before and after of my life.
Not long ago a man I know asked me, “What would you say is the thing that happened in your life that most defined you?” For Jeff, I think it would have been his mother dying suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage when he was only 19 years old. He found out too young that the worst thing you could imagine could actually happen. He could be depressed, moody, angry, sarcastic. But he also had, in the words of his great friend, the New Orleans writer Jason Berry, “one of the sweetest hearts and the greatest sense of purpose to other people among anyone I’ve ever known.” He never stopped trying to be self-examining and self-critical -- to grow, change, try to be better. I admired him deeply for that.
Several years after we met and fell in love in 2002, we moved in together, along with our two children from previous marriages – his son Lucas and my daughter Hazel. At the same time we started a business together, which in retrospect seems both brave and a little insane. It was hard, often very hard, but we never gave up on each other. We worked at our relationship and became a family.
Within hours of his death that day in late November, friends and family began gathering at our house, and for many days there were always people with Lucas, Hazel and me. At times I just sat listening to the threads of conversation around me, memories of Jeff interwoven with quiet, stunned discussions about the election. The anguish and shock were intermingled; we were mourning Jeff, and mourning what had happened to our country. The two unimaginable things had occurred in such quick succession that they were linked in a terrible embrace.
Had I ever realized the sheer magnificence of my community of family and friends? I had always appreciated them, but never as much as in those days after Jeff died. They were blankets wrapped around me, keeping me from turning to ice, or disappearing altogether. It felt vitally important to have people pressed up against me, sitting close, all day long, and everyone instinctively understood that without it ever being said. My sweet daughter hardly left my side.
And in the night, there was music. Fueled by wine, by inexpressible sorrow, by the sheer weight of emotion, we played music, louder as the night went on, and even danced, sometimes in wild circles around the dining room table. It was one of the strangest and yet most natural things I’ve ever experienced. Later Hazel slept next to me, and in the morning she made me strong Bustelo coffee and hot milk, and plates of turkey bacon and eggs.
After three weeks Hazel needed to return to her work life, and to rehearsals for a brilliant original play, a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” – all female, all hip hop – called “Curren$y,” created by the remarkable Dan Wolf. Their performance in Berkeley in December was my first venture back into the outside world. I felt like someone who had been shut in a dark room being led blinking back out into the light. The play was a clarion call about the power of art to illuminate, to connect, and to heal.
Art was the closest thing to religion in the house where I grew up. My mother, an English teacher for many years, often said that literature was the way we learned empathy for people we may never meet in life and who are not like us. There was always music, too; I had a vague sense throughout my childhood that the Beatles were related to us because they seemed so much like part of our family. Bach also seemed like he might have been a distant great-grandfather because my parents loved him with such familiar affection. My brother became a composer; my sister and I identify countless shared memories through songs.
Donald Trump -- the ultimate anti-art President – is characterized by his disinterest and downright antipathy towards artistic expression of any kind, an extraordinarily dismaying quality in a leader. It explains a lot about his proud ignorance, his shallow, casual cruelty. In the darkness cast by this anti-humane, anti-compassionate man, the experience of art with people I liked and loved was the light that saved my life. Art was the only language that made sense.
On April 17th, 2017, the day that would have been Jeff’s 68th birthday, a group of friends and family and I performed a staged reading of Tony Kushner’s play, “A Bright Room Called Day” in my living room. Our idea was to commemorate Jeff in a way he would have liked — art plus politics — and to thank everyone who had been so generous to us over the past painful months. Kushner, author of the magnificent “Angels in America,” wrote “A Bright Room Called Day” in 1985. Partly because the play made comparisons between Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler, it got mixed reviews when it came out and it is not well known. But re-reading the play now, which takes place primarily among a group of artists in 1933 Berlin, much of it is more prescient than Kushner could have known. Because it’s Kushner, it’s also moving, funny, and poetic. It was a transformative night that seemed to take place at some magic level above our ordinary lives. It still feels a little like a marvelous dream we dreamt together.
A few months later, I took on another project -- the completion of a one-woman play Jeff had been writing called “Ten Thousand Steps,” about Connie King, a Chinese woman whose life encapsulates the history of the town of Locke. Its focus on the Chinese Exclusion Act made it another strikingly relevant work at this moment in our history. The San Francisco International Arts festival had accepted the piece in draft form, and we collaborated with James Motlow, Maximilienne Ewalt, and the great Nancy Wang and Eth-Noh-Tec Theater to bring it to the stage in a performance in June. I relished the work of editing and refining it. The relief and joy I felt seeing the play come to life was profound; it was perhaps Jeff’s greatest wish as a writer to tell this story. It was so good to know that it would not stay in a box, unread and unseen.
The year went on this way, with our group of friends and family continuing to create art as a way to connect and survive. We had a “Reclaim the 4th of July” party with songs of protest and resistance that was meaningful and exhilarating. I sought out live music whenever I could and found myself drawn to any place where there was group singing -- piano bars, karaoke, house parties. It was the magic formula that could give me solace and put a smile on my face. I even got up to the microphone a few times and sang myself, somehow no longer afraid or embarrassed.
I wrote poetry, which I had rarely done before. For the first time I understood why certain experiences require poetry rather than prose. In one I saw grief as “the grey wolf at my door” who snarls and menaces me, but is the only companion I have. “I pat the bed/Come up and lie with me here/You're shaggy and smell of the grave/but also of him/Your eyes will glow all night anyway/So let us keep each other company.”
In another I asked, “How many pieces can a heart/break into?/It divides and redivides again/Like cancer. Like creation.” Poetry allowed me to envision the place where Jeff might be: “High in the high country on a mountaintop/Sleeping on the ground/which you loved/In utter silence/which you loved/under a canopy of fireflies/Beyond them, only stars.”
During that time I discovered the moving letter Helen Keller wrote about experiencing the vibrations of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1924. Somehow it captured what I had learned from the experience of grief, and what it is to go on living. She wrote in part: “…Of course this was not ‘hearing,’ but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty.… As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others – and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.”
The vessel that most exquisitely embodied my grief was a song, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” sung by the Portugese fado singer Ana Moura. It was my portal to the underworld, the pitcher of tears that I poured out over and over again, and that always stayed full. I played it as often as I could bear it. At Jeff’s memorial, my daughter, a beautiful singer, performed the song with my dear friend Dan Goldensohn on guitar. “You’re in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter/And so sweet.” The poetry saved me. The music saved me. They have constantly reminded me of the beauty that humans are capable of in the gloom of these miserable days, the beauty that prevents numbness and despair.
Often I wonder if these last two years would have been unbearable to Jeff. The separation of families at the border alone would have broken his heart. I thought often, “how could you have left me alone with all of this?” And sometimes I think that maybe it was merciful he did not live to see it. But of course he should have lived to see it, rage about it, fight it, wait it out, do everything he could to try to change it. We would have argued, commiserated, strategized, held each other, negotiated agreements about how much we could stand to talk about it all (before the election we had a “no talking about Trump after 10 pm” rule because it made Jeff too agitated to sleep). And his witty wonderful humor would have made it all so much easier to take.
Jeff was insistent and passionate about viewing the political present in historical context. He felt strongly that the focus should not be on Trump or any one person, but on what Republicanism has become -- the denigration of government itself, which Jeff knew meant a dangerous threat to our democracy. In October 2016 he sent me this text: “Concept: 2018 Congressional Elections. Coequal, co-important. Vote like everything depends on it. It does.” Everyone who knew him was familiar with his call to rebrand the midterms as “Congressional Elections” so that voters would better understand how deeply important they are -- as important as the Presidential election, perhaps even more so.
And so it was particularly gratifying for me this past November, when people really did vote in the Congressional Elections as though everything depended on it. The concrete result was on full display last week in the House oversight committee hearings with Trump’s repentant fixer Michael Cohen. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pressed Cohen to lay the groundwork for potential subpoenas of Trump’s state taxes. Representative Ayanna Pressley dealt in detail with the Trump Foundation. Representative Rashida Tlaib called out the use of a black employee as a racist prop. Representative Katie Hill asked detailed questions about campaign finance fraud. Watching these women I felt for the first time as though I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Jeff would have been happy.
I have become close to the man – an artist -- who asked me “What would you say is the thing that happened in your life that most defined you?” He lost his own beloved wife of nearly 40 years in 2015. Soon after we started seeing each other he invited me to a gathering of musicians he plays with every week in his neighborhood. Its combination of music and community has been his own salvation. I walked in as the group was singing Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and my heart swelled. I thought: life has many verses. On Valentine’s Day this year, he gave me a guitar, and I’m learning to play.
San Francisco, CA
March 5, 2019