Some Things I’d Like People to Know About My Favorite Poet, and Some Things I’d Like People to Think About when Thinking About Grieving

  • This is not a blanket post about grief. Grief is individual to the person experiencing it. I know that I have been guilty of some of the things I’m calling out in this post, but I’m trying not to be.

Last week, a young poet by the name of Max Ritvo passed away from end-stage Ewing Sarcoma. He was 25 years old. He had an extraordinary way with words, and a way of inspiring those around him that I’ve never encountered in another artist. His first book of poetry was accepted for publication and is now available for purchase. He was a teacher at Columbia University. He had been married for a year. He was also a vegetarian and he played the ukulele and he liked the desserts that my mom and I would make. He called my mom Mama Schmidt. He was my co-pencil (his words, and by far the best thing I’ve ever been called). He had the most beautiful soul. He was one of my favorite people.

Other people have written (and will continue to write) about Max’s gift for relating his experience with cancer to the rest of his world through his words, and the unprecedented genius that led him to being a teacher at Columbia at such a young age, and the book that he wrote when he was 17 about his experience with his first round of cancer. All those things are true, and barely measure up to what a magnificent artist he was. But I’m here to talk about my friend.

I found out about Max’s death this past Wednesday, and my world is irrevocably shaken. I don’t know what to do without the person who supported every one of my dreams, no matter how unrealistic. I don’t know what to do without the person who showed me that you should never, ever apologize for who you are, no matter how seemingly weird. I don’t know what to do without the friend who told me that no matter what, he had to have blanket approval for the person I would someday marry, and that he would wear a blue dress at my wedding as my “made-of-honor.”

I have no idea at the magnitude of loss that all of his friends feel, because he was the type of person who, in understanding and respecting everyone around him as an individual, cultivated individual relationships with all of them that reflected that. He has left his fingerprints on so many souls, and will continue to do so through his poetry.

On Saturday night, I went to Whole Foods to pick up some groceries for my mom and some dinner. While in the check-out line, the cashier noticed that I was down, and asked me if I was sick. I replied that no; I had lost someone very close to me. As the cashier handed me my groceries, he looked me in the face and said to me, “I really hope that you start to feel better soon.”

“I really hope that you start to feel better soon.” It sounds so obvious, and yet so few people think to say it. It’s honest, and kind, and hopeful, and empathetic. It doesn’t minimize what you might be feeling, doesn’t tell you to cheer up, and yet it allows you to see a time when you might feel better without forcing yourself to compartmentalize the roiling maelstrom of emotions going on in your head, as is always, ALWAYS, the case with grief.

I have lovely friends and family who have expressed to me how much they want to help me right now, how much they want to say the right, perfect thing that will make this better. Although I appreciate the sentiment, and completely understand how they feel (having been on the other side of this equation, I know the wish to make people feel better and the powerful feeling of helplessness when you can’t), I’d like to say that there is no “perfect thing.” I know it seems to contradict what I said in the previous paragraph, but even though that man in Whole Foods said something to me that was beautiful and comforting and felt so true and kind, it wasn’t the magical phrase that suddenly took my pain away. There is no such thing. And that’s okay.

There is no person, place, activity, food or animal that will make this easier to bear, even though the chocolate cookie my friend Stephanie bought me on Friday made for excellent comfort eating. The only thing that will make this more bearable is time. And no matter how much we might wish it, none of us have control over time. If we did, if we could slow it down, then Max might still be with us, and I wouldn’t be writing this.

If we can’t slow down time, though, or speed it up, maybe the trick is to understand its messy, messy magic. How it can feel like it’s crawling one minute and flying the next. There have been two people during this process who have seemed to understand this- the man in Whole Foods, and one other: a young barista from Ohio named Cassidy.

I work with Cassidy at the Westwood Peet’s. He has the best customer service and most sarcastic attitude of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s also a great supervisor, despite being almost two years younger than me. He’s told me jokes that make me want to punch him in the face behind the counter, offered to cut off my fingers with a bread knife when I burned my hand, and he is a devastatingly kind friend.

Some of my friends from Peet’s had gotten together for an end-of-summer gathering, and as one girl is leaving for a study-abroad semester in London (I’ll miss you, Roxy!!!!!) I decided to go. My friends were lovely and comforting, but I’ve discovered that at the moment, being surrounded by people feels overwhelming, and this time was no exception. I was making my rounds, saying goodbye, and Cassidy (who is about a foot taller than me) looked me in the face and said, “I know how much it hurts, I’ve been there. But you have this. And I promise, you will feel better. We all love you.” And then he hugged me tightly and let me try to collect myself. I didn’t succeed but it didn’t seem to matter.

I don’t think I’m alone, gentle readers, in simply asking for some patience and a soft place to put my trust while I learn to navigate this feeling. Sometimes, it can be as small as saying “I’m sorry, and I hope you feel better soon.” It can be some quiet company and ice cream, or a contemplative walk. But really, the truth is that it lies in listening. That’s the only answer. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as we can come under the circumstances. Also, this is just my experience. And I know no one asked for my opinion, but as a blogger, I’m going to give it, so…….sorry. But also not sorry.

Thank you to everyone who has shown me so much kindness and love. I appreciate all of you more than I can say.

If you want to do something for Max’s family, please donate to Ewing Sarcoma research. http://www.childrenscancer.org/main/ewing_sarcoma/

If you want to do something for Max, please donate to climate change and environmental research.

If you want to do something for yourself but think of Max’s spirit, donate to your favorite cause.

And please, for your own sake, buy Max’s book: https://www.amazon.com/Four-Reincarnations-Poems-Max-Ritvo/dp/1571314903/ref=redir_mobile_desktop?ie=UTF8&keywords=max%20ritvo%20poetry&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_FMwebp_QL65&qid=1472401574&ref_=mp_s_a_1_1&sr=8-1

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