ORIGINALLY POSTED: SATURDAY, MAY 13, 2017
How can forty days go by like this? I’m surrounded by the memory of him, so how can he be gone? Our photos. The cards and poems he wrote me. Our memories are everywhere.
I still cry myself to sleep every night. I sleep with one of his favorite shirts. Sometimes in the mornings, there is a moment when I first wake up and I have not yet remembered. I can smell his scent on the shirt I’m holding. His shirt. And in that moment, I’m certain that he is next to me.
Sometimes, when I first wake up he is still here.
And then, he’s not.
Two or three days after he died, I had a dream that he wasn’t alive and yet I was still walking around and doing things. In the dream I was putting gas in my car and doing dishes and talking to people on the phone and laughing too. In the dream, John was gone but I was ok.
On that day though – which was just a few days after he’d died – when I woke up there was no moment of forgetting and I was not ok.
Forty days later and I am walking around and doing things. I am putting gas in my car and doing dishes and talking to people on the phone and even laughing sometimes. But I am not ok.
John is not here and nothing is ok.
All throughout the day, I think about that moment in the morning when I’m certain that he is still here. I tell myself that moment is just as real as these forty nights of knowing that he is gone. I fall asleep clutching his shirt because I remember when he wore it. I wake up holding on to it still – because that is what I want to do with the memories of him. I want to hold onto them forever.
I can’t walk around and do things and also be this lost in my grief at the same time. It never leaves. It does not go. But I have to step around it in order to take a step forward.
Most of the time I hate these days. I hate waking up and remembering that he is not here. I hate trying to figure out how to step around the burden of myself and everything I’m feeling. I hate when people tell me how good I look or how well I’m doing. I hate that they don’t recognize that there are times when trying to look like I’m not in pain – makes the pain even worse.
And I’m worried that in moving forward, some part of me will stop trying to forget his absence, and instead will try to forget that he was ever here.
My heart does not want to forget. I do not want to forget.
So I will write him down and put him into words and allow myself to remember.
John was real. These memories are real. My memories of us belong to me, and nothing – not even this pain – gets to take the memories away.
I’ve noticed that some people are having difficulty looking at me. Some people are having trouble starting a conversation, casual or otherwise. There are some, even good friends, who are stepping away, because of this tragedy. Worst of all, I have noticed that some people are afraid to even say his name out loud.
I understand the impulse. Grief is difficult to see. We don’t learn in this culture how to honor the departed and how to hold space for the grieving. This is no one person’s fault. I understand.
I know too that I’m also blessed that for every person who has turned away – I do have many people who have turned toward me.
John’s own family has created a net into which I can fall when I need others to stand beside me and remember him. They are there when I need others to be devastated too. They never try to hurry me up or hush me. His family has been there and they know that on some days I miss John in the same way one might miss breathing.
Perhaps I take such comfort in standing beside John’s family because I know they have John woven into their very blood. Their pain is likely even greater than mine. I cannot and will not deny that they knew him differently than I did, and surely they miss him more deeply than I do. In many ways, they are the ones I’m looking to in order to see how one bears a grief that seems so utterly unbearable. And that is what they show me, every single day.
There are times when the extent of my guilt is agonizing. And there are those who reach out and love me even when all I can think about is that I do not deserve to be loved anymore.
To those who held me up – and hold me up still – those of you who sat with me and my son during those first few weeks, ensuring that we were never alone, to those who brought us food, and gave us rides, and provided shoulders to cry on and hands to hold too – to all of you, my gratitude is endless.
Some have patiently listened to me tell the same stories, share the same memories, and repeat the same regrets – over and over again. They understood, instinctively, that I just needed to say the words out loud, and if I needed to say them a hundred times over – that was ok.
There is the friend who let me sleep on her couch for not just one week but two and then three. She let me sleep on that couch even though she had a spare bedroom – because I felt the spare bedroom was too far from her own bedroom and too far for me to be away from another person. To her, I am forever grateful.
Just two weeks after John died, I had to move from the house I’d been living in, to my new little cottage. To the many people who helped me move – you’re all the reason I have somewhere nice to call my home. Thank you.
And even still, just like my grief is still here, just like my tears are still here and just like my love for John is still here – there are so many people who are still helping.
One friend has brought me food more than once. She brought me other household staples because she understood that I was too overwhelmed to even walk into a store. She even helped me break down boxes a few weeks after my move, because I was afraid a spider might crawl out of one of the boxes and I just didn’t want to be alone.
There are the invaluable friends who have fixed my car and fixed my kitchen cabinets and just made sure that I had what I needed to get through day.
A few people who’d mainly been John’s friends before – have now invited me places or spent time with me or sent me messages full of love. I know that these people are honoring their own memories of John by reaching out to me. They understand that John wants us all to be ok. I know I am being loved in part, because so many people knew what a loving person John was.
These are all the people who carry me through from hour to hour. These are those critical people who help me remember that no matter how broken my heart may be – I am also still loved.
So, I guess I can tolerate those who are afraid to look at me. I can step past those who are afraid to say ‘Hello Chelise’. If they must forgo my presence, if they must forget my name – so be it.
What I can’t tolerate is the fact that some are afraid to say his name.
John Bernard Macaluso should not be forgotten. He was many things to many people. He had just as many names. Equally so, he appreciated the beauty and diversity of the people in his life – so he had many names for us.
I will not forget.
To John, his parents were Mom and Dad, and he called his sister Weesa.
When John was a very little boy – he couldn’t pronounce his sister’s given name, ‘Teresa.’ so she became Weesa. ‘Weesa’ is what John called his beloved big sister, until his very last day.
He often called me Bella. Most of the time he called me Babe, and sometimes he called me Boo. When he called me by my given name, he always prefferred my full name, Chelise, to the abbreviated Chel.
I am so glad that I still have many voicemail messages from John on my phone.
“Just checking in on my Boo.”
“Hey Babe, just calling to tell you I love you.”
I am so glad I still have his voice with me. I am so glad I can hear him again. I am so glad I can remind myself what it sounded like when he told me he loved me.
I am so glad. I am so glad. I am so glad.
And because John was many things to many people – he himself had many names.
He picked up the nickname Superman from a friend, and it stuck. “Whassup Supe?” People would say to him. I often called him my Italian Superman, It just seemed right. How could it not?
His childhood friends and his friends from college often called him J-Mac – because it was his name after all – and it sounded cool.
Other friends called him Johnny Boy.
His sister called him Chary.
When John was little and couldn’t pronounce his sister’s name – his mother suggested to Teresa that she call him something silly too. ‘Perhaps Puchari?’ His mother offered.
Puchari didn’t quite feel right to Teresa, so she shortened it and called John ‘Chary’ instead.
Weesa and Chary. Names that lasted through his lifetime. Names that were made up, but were shared between siblings whose love for each other was very real.
John adored his nieces Gianna and Emily, and they always called him Zio – Italian for Uncle. When the girls found out John died, one of the very first things they said was that they were worried about me. They made me cards from scratch, to remind me that John cared about me. ‘Zio loves you!’ is what they each wrote on the card they made.
In my heart of hearts I believe it’s true. Their Zio loved me when he was alive, and their Zio loves me still.
John’s father called him Son. Out of affection, as a point of pride, as a sweet reminder – he called his youngest boy Son.
John’s loving mother, like I, primarily called him by his given name – John.
Sometimes though, I called him ‘Babe’ too.
But in the hours after I learned that John died, something deep and maternal came out of me. I curled up into a ball and rocked back and forth – the thought of his pain sinking in. “My poor baby! My poor baby!” I wailed between sobs.
And his mother – though so stoic those first few days – would break down too. In tears, she would call out to God. She would call out out to whatever angels were nearby. When she did, it was to tell them who John was to her. She reminded us all who her youngest son was – in just three words.
“My beautiful boy.”
That’s what she would say. Her beautiful boy.
So, John had many names to many people. And you can look away from me. You can avoid my gaze. You can try to forget that I am standing nearby.
But don’t forget him.
Her beautiful boy.
And oh, his mother was right. John was beautiful.
We took a lot of photos together, he and I. They are all over my house now. Reminders of his lips. His kisses. Reminders of his arms around me and of his hands which spent so much time holding mine. I can still look at his hair and the little curly cue in the front which often fell onto his forehead. We took a lot of photos together and they help me to not forget.
John’s eyes were the color of water. I stare at them in those photos now and I imagine that his eyes are a river that will carry me back to him. Forty days have gone by and I am so glad that I can still look into his eyes, even if it’s just in the photos. I can still get lost in his gaze. If I try hard enough, I can still feel myself float away in those eyes of his that were the color of water.
His mother was right. John was such a beautiful boy.
I know that John wasn’t aware of how handsome he was. He couldn’t take it in, no matter how many times I told him. And yet, he was extraordinary at making me feel as if I were lovely, at least to him.
John told me I was beautiful, every single day. On our very first date. On days when we were fighting. On days when we were madly in love. John told me I was beautiful, even when I was struggling and during the times when he was struggling too.
Sometimes when he looked at me, he would say: “You are so beautiful it hurts.”
Who will tell me I am beautiful now? It doesn’t matter. From our first date on, John was the only one I wanted to be beautiful for. He was the only one then, he is the only one now.
He is the only one.
Most people know that we shared a mutual love of superheroes. He particularly loved Superman, and my favorite for years has been Wonder Woman. I must admit though, John knew more about her story and her history than I ever did.
We each thought the other person was funny – even when other people would have argued that neither of us were.
John and I both shared an extraordinary love of dogs. One of our regular outings was to go and see the dogs at ARF or the SPCA. We would talk about what kind of dog we might own together one day.
We both loved movies and plays. Early on I lost count of which movies we’d seen together at the theater. There was more than once when it seemed as if we had seem them all.
And of course, we knew a lot of the same people. We both belonged to a community of people who were working to better their lives and who were helping others to do the same.
John told me he was committed to living a life of service to others. Service, compassion and empathy were John’s professed and demonstrated goals in life. I was so inspired by him. I can only hope to be as committed as he was to those same things.
On John and I’s first date, we decided to see a movie. When I got to the theatre, before I got out of my car to meet John, I called a friend to tell her I was there.
“What are you wearing?” She asked, so I described my outfit in detail.
“No, no, no. you have to wear it down,” she told me. Wearing it down would be a signal to John that I was interested, she said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. Wear it down.”
So I took out my bun. Suddenly, I felt nervous. I took a picture of myself and sent it to her.
“Yeah, that’ll do.” She said.
I wouldn’t change a minute that went by or the words that John and I exchanged on that day. After all, it was the first step toward losing my footing in such a wonderful way. It was the first step toward our falling in love.
I don’t know what John’s main concern was in regard to my age. He never complained to me about my age or what it might mean for our future.
I had one concern though. I was worried that he’d end up having to take care of me in my old age. When I would hit the elderly age of eighty, John would still be a relatively young sixty four. I thought it was likely that as the years went by – the age difference would feel more conspicuous. What was I asking him to give up, in terms of his future, by wanting him to commit to me?
I was sure that John would outlive me.
Most people who knew him, knew that John was incredibly generous. With his things. With his money. And especially with his time.
More than once he helped to foster a dog, at no cost, when the dog owner was in need.
He stopped by his parents’ house whenever he could – often several times a week.
He helped people move.
He babysat children and ran errands for friends anytime they asked.
More than once, John dropped everything he was doing to bring a friend ice cream, because they were hurting over something unrelated to him.
These weren’t always his favorite things to do. Sometimes he felt tired, or overwhelmed, or frustrated with hearing people cry about the same circumstances over and over again. Often he felt inadequate if he couldn’t fix something or make someone feel better.
The thing is, no one knew he felt frustrated or tired or overwhelmed in these ways. He did things with love and offered his time and efforts graciously. When I’d comment on how nice he was to always be helping people, he’d say:
“I just want to be a good son.”
“I just want to be a good friend.”
“I just want to do what I can.”
And I’d remind him – every time.
“John, you are a good son. You are a good friend.”
John often went above and beyond and still, he always felt as if he couldn’t do enough.
John hadn’t been in love before and he thought a boyfriend was supposed to take care of everything. Sometimes I had to remind him of my independence. Other times, I know I took advantage of that part of John. Mostly though, I was touched, flattered, and all that much more in love with him because of it.
John was my flat tire rescuer. My chauffeur when my car was in the shop. My cookie delivery service when I was not feeling well. He brought me dinner when I was working late. He gave my son rides, and helped out my other friends as well.
I always called John my big strong arms, because that is part of who he was to me. The person I could count on, the person I could always reach, and the person who would always reach out to me.
I know there were times when he felt frustrated with all the minutiae I asked him to do for me. I was not always as generous with my time as he. I know there were times when he felt that his efforts were not reciprocated.
Despite his frustration though, he was always there for me. Always.
He would tell people that he was helping me with stuff because he was doing “boyfriend duty.” He would tell me he was helping me with so much, because he wanted to be a good boyfriend.
But John wasn’t just a good son, a good friend, and a good boyfriend.
John was a good man.
I have PTSD and I remember when I told him that sometimes I have panic attacks. It was early on in our relationship. I was shaking and embarrassed when I said the words out loud. When I finished he was quiet so I asked him what he thought.
“I think that must be really hard,” he said.
“Yeah… Anything else?” I asked.
“Well, if you are worried I’m not going to want to go out with you anymore because of it, you don’t have to worry. I’m not going to leave because you are hurting. I’m not going to do that.”
In fact, I did have more than one panic attack when I was with him, and its true – he never left.
The third time it happened, I was in the corner, curled in on myself, sitting on floor with my back pressed against the wall. I looked up and watched as John pulled out his phone and opened up a memo he’d made. After reading it, he came over and kneeled in front of me.
“Is it ok if I touch you?” He asked.
I nodded my head and he put his hands on my knees.
“Can you take a deep breath and count to ten?” He asked.
So I did that, while he kneeled there in front of me, with his hands on my knees. I took a deep breath and counted to ten, and soon enough I felt safe again.
John didn’t leave me when I was overwhelmed with PTSD symptoms. He didn’t chastise me or tell me that I had to stop.
What John did do was look up the ways that you can help someone when they are having a panic attack. He made notes and kept the notes on his phone. I never asked him to do this. I didn’t even know he’d done it. I never knew until that day when he helped me to feel safe again.
John saw that as his boyfriend duty too – making me feel safe. And like he did with so many other things, he went above and beyond.
There were nights when I’d get home from a difficult day. Maybe someone had hurt my feelings. Maybe I was the one who had hurt someone else’s feelings. Sometimes I was just overwhelmed. I’d call John while I was crying. I’d tell him that I was afraid to go to sleep. I’d tell him I felt all alone.
“Keep me on the phone.” He said one night.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t hang up. Just put the phone down on your pillow and keep me on the phone. You can go ahead and go to sleep. I won’t hang up. You aren’t alone Chelise, I’ll be right here.”
So we did that. He did that for me. We did it so many times I can’t count. I’d call him at the end of the night, upset about one thing or another.
“Will you keep me on the phone?” I’d ask him.
“Yes. Always. I’m here.”
I’m not an easy person to love. At least not romantically. I can be selfish and insensitive and demanding. My own mental illness challenges are enough to overwhelm even the strongest person. I know this about myself.
John used to say to me ‘I love you more.’ That wasn’t possible, I explained to him. And then he told me that he didn’t mean that he loved me more than I loved him.
John told me that he loved me more than the challenges that each of us was facing in our own recovery. He loved me more than the the difficult times. More than the conflict. More than misunderstandings. John always made sure that I knew, he loved me more.
In fact, John was incredibly good at making everyone feel cared about.
He volunteered at the small thrift store where I worked, and eventually he was hired and worked there too.
Because of its location in downtown Concord, homeless and indigent people would often come into the store. I would always watch them like a hawk, ready to ask them to leave if their behavior seemed suspicious.
Occasionally these people would come up to the counter and ask if they could have something for a discount – or even free – saying that they had very little or no money.
I would always say no. Sorry. No. I didn’t want to set a precedent. I didn’t want anyone to think they could take advantage of me.
But John? He would pull the money out of his own wallet and buy the person whatever it was they wanted.
Every. Single. Time.
John never boasted to anyone about the fact that he did this for people. And I never saw anyone return to take advantage of John. I saw many people thank him. I saw a few in tears.
If John and I passed someone who was begging on the street, John always gave them whatever he had, be it food or money or a jacket on days when it was cold. John would stop and talk to homeless people. He ensured that just for a moment, they didn’t have to cope with that invisibility that so many homeless people do. John would have entire conversations with them.
I think he got this ability to talk to anyone about anything, from his beautiful mother, Jo. No matter where she goes, when Jo meets someone new, within minutes she knows their name and seemingly their entire life story. Somehow she learns deeply personal things from complete strangers. John’s family says that Jo has always been like this, and because of it – no person was a stranger for long.
And that’s how John lived his life too. There was no such thing as a stranger to him. If he didn’t know someone, he’d set about befriending them.
When people were less fortunate than John and they asked him for help – he’d provide them with whatever he could, and he never humiliated anyone in the process.
John not only gave those that were suffering money or food, he was gifted at handing them their dignity at the very same time.
John liked languages and poetry. He liked to write and he loved Rumi. He had apps on his phone which prompted him each day to learn a new word from the Oxford Dictionary, and also a new word in Spanish. He was a communicator and he was always striving to do better.
Though not fluent, sometimes he spoke to me in Italian. Especially in the morning.
I am an early riser. He was not. Somehow he still managed to send me early morning texts so that I would always wake up to his loving words. Most of those messages were in Italian. and in those messages he always called me Bella – reminding me that he thought I was beautiful.
‘Buon giorno Bella, ti amo’ John would write.
‘Ti amo anch’io.’ I would reply.
I called him my Italian Superman, because that is who he was. I found him a t-shirt that had the Superman emblem in the same colors as the Italian flag.
It was one of his favorite shirts.
I have it now, and keep it in a basket beside my bed.
John had a lot of quirks too.
He hated book jackets. The removable covers. He took them off of every hardback book he owned. He could never explain it, but no book jacket was safe in his domain.
He cracked his knuckles and picked at his cuticles and chewed on his nails. His hands were a veritable treasure trove of activity. He would stop only if I were offering him my own hand to hold.
John nearly always wore flip flops. Even in the freezing cold. Even in the rain. He only wore closed toe shoes on special occasions. It became a favor to me. “I’m not wearing flip flops,” he’d point out when we were going on a special date.
Today, I have a pair of his shoes at my bedside. A reminder of the silly things that he did just for me.
For whatever reason, whenever this would happen – I’d laugh. Some of his quirks were hilarious, and this was one of them.
When eating, John couldn’t leave anything on his plate. If it was creamy, saucy, or just crumbs – he was sure to compliment the cook by eating every single thing. Perhaps he was practicing the Italian ritual of fare la scarpetta – the process of taking bread and using it to scoop up every bit of sauce left on a plate. John did use bread sometimes. However, he also used his fingers when bread wasn’t available. I am not sure that there is an Italian term for that habit, but it’s what John did at the end of every meal.
John liked almost all food – but cucumbers weren’t his favorite. And though he loved sweets – he never liked cake much, unless it was very dense. There were only a few things he wouldn’t eat at all, and coffee flavored ice cream fell into that category. He did drink coffee occasionally though, and he preferred it black and not very hot. He’d down the entire cup at one time. He drank it only for the caffeine shot.
Among the many sweets that John did love, he had a favorite candy, See’s Scotchmallows. I’d never been a big fan, until he brought me a box on our second date. Then, I was hooked.
John had no favorite food. No favorite color. He said he didn’t have favorites – because how could a person be expected to choose?
I want to say he had no other favorites at all, but of course that wouldn’t be true. There was one sports team that he favored above every other.
John loved all superhero and comic book inspired tv shows and films. Most know that he eagerly awaited every big screen superhero movie as it approached. Very few though know that one of his favorite comic book inspired movies was a more obscure film that came out when John was only ten years old.
V for Vendetta.
Early on he asked me to watch it with him, so I did.
In exchange, John watched When Harry Met Sally for me. His favorite line was the same as mine. Toward the end of the movie, it’s New Year’s eve and Billy Crystal rushes to Meg Ryan’s side in order to deliver this adoring line:
“I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
We also talked about the fact that he wanted children. I was too old to have a baby, I told him. So he said we could adopt. I wasn’t sure that I’d want that either, but we agreed to put off talking about it more until we felt we were ready to put the plans for marriage in place.
Besides, I am sure those children would have been lovely, Astrid and Giovanni. Both of them, adopted or not. Lovely, because they would have been loved by John and I.
He knew, without question, that he was loved – but somehow he managed to be unaware of how completely lovable he was. He thought he was lucky. Sometimes he felt weighed down by the responsibility that he deemed being loved brought along. John didn’t realize what a gift it was to others, when he gave them the opportunity to love him.
I don’t want to forget any of these things about John. Sometimes it hurts to remember, but it also brings me just as much joy. This is the dichotomy of life, I know. That grief and joy are so often wrapped up in one package.
People tell me that when the memories fade, so will the pain. ‘Move on, move along, don’t conjure up these things, just let him rest in peace’, they suggest. ‘How will you get over this?’ They ask. ‘One day you will want to meet someone new!’ They explain.
But I don’t want the memories to fade.
I know that time goes by and people change and that people grow and heal from tragic circumstances. I know that. I don’t need anyone to tell me that I just need to let some time go by and that then I’ll be ‘ready again’. Whether that is true or not – it’s not true for me now, and today I can’t imagine it ever will be.
If I never date again – that’s ok with me. They say there is a lot of value in retiring when you are at the top of your game. In so many ways, John was the top of my game when it came to being with someone. I got to have that. I can’t ask for anything more.
I will not forget.