The Story of Tom and Monica: A San Francisco Serial Memoir Part 16

(Monica in Barcelona, March, 2003)

Do I have permission to do this how I want? I was going gangbusters with “The Story of Tom and Monica” for quite a stretch until one day I felt I couldn’t. I didn’t want to look back, I needed to move forward and heal for a while. Now I find myself thinking of different times, maybe not exactly in order, but this will probably work itself out in the end.

The first 15 “chapters” mostly came easily. I was in a space that was vibrating, electric with emotion. What had been suppressed for years was pouring out of me so quickly my brain and fingers could hardly keep up. That sort of writing is addictive. That sort of writing is fun. I’ve relied on it quite a bit in my life as a songwriter, those times when I am a radio tower at the top of the highest mountain, messages coming at me from every direction. There’s no “trying” involved.

As both a writer and a teacher, I am curious about process, desire, commitment and determination when it comes to writing. Rachel advises me to listen to my body more closely and for now, at least, not to force myself to do what my terrified self says not to. A couple of months ago, when I complained to her that I was feeling particularly frustrated at my recent lack of creativity, she had me stop and feel into the idea of writing again. When my heart started to race and my jaw clenched she suggested that maybe it wasn’t time yet. There is a clash between a racehorse rearing at the starting gate and an old mare who just wants to go back home and contemplate the barn’s interior. It surprised me when she told me to listen to the one who wants to go back home. “You can only move as quickly as your slowest part, Monica”. The old mare was relieved.

I just passed the two and a half-year mark in my therapy with Rachel. In some ways the changes are immeasurable and profound, but if you asked me why and how, I would be hard-pressed to describe in concrete terms what is different. It just is.

I was going to take Tom to a movie the other night. Before driving into the city his caregiver, Idel, called to tell me he had thrown up a couple of times that day. She said he was eating too fast but I know that this symptom appears when he is having a new MS attack. Tom doesn’t understand and can’t be relied on as a witness to his own health. It’s up to those of us around him to act as detectives and piece our information into a story that makes sense. I am hyper-aware and clear about Tom’s health in a way that I’ve never been about my own.

I decided to come visit him but not go to a movie. It was a selfish move. I am too self-conscious to deal with even the possibility of his getting sick in public. But it didn’t really matter to Tom as he just wanted to see me. Whether we go to a movie or stay home to play Scrabble, it makes no difference to him.

When I’m with Tom it is always the same: the same pictures get pointed out, the same stories get told, though reduced more and more to a kind of mantra, probably not real memories now, more words he can say with confidence. The photos are evidence of a life he’s lived. There I am, sitting at the piano at the Noe Valley Ministry, performing at Blame Sally’s first CD Release concert. And there I am, standing in front of a brick wall in Barcelona, Spain. How innocent and young I look, though I wasn’t young even 14 years ago. That was March of 2003, the day before the US decided to bomb Iraq…yes, we were more innocent then.

As I sit at Tom’s round table to play Scrabble, I face the little window that’s next to a beautiful portrait of Townes Van Zandt, one of Tom’s favorite subjects. Though full of books and photographs, CDs and vinyl, Tom’s studio is mostly tidy now. Idel and Maria have taken over caring for Tom where I left off, and in this respect, do a much better job than I ever did. Throughout most of our relationship I had had a very uneasy detente with Tom’s studio….at once a fascinating expression of his rich life mixed with his compulsive need to document, collect and store. There are 1000s of LPs, CDs, mix tapes, mix CDs, books, scraps of found-iron, old magazine, fridge-magnets, and, of course, the photos.

(Tom in his studio, 2017)

I always admired the photos but felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of images. Every flat surface and every inch of wall-space is covered with photographs, and inside every framed photo, extra photos are tucked in. It drove me crazy at home when he would do that — a constant battle between my desire for visual harmony and his desire to see all his images.

“How can you be such an amazing photographer and be so aesthetically obtuse?”, I would ask.

It sounds cruel now. How long did I not understand what was happening to him? Those pictures are the strings that keep him connected to who he was.

More and more I leave Tom out of my life, but still, he breaks my heart. Rachel believes that it is an over-identification, a kind of redirecting of a young wound. I cannot separate my pain from his. Others might feel guilty for not calling him or checking in more often, but for me the guilt and sadness are so profound that they sometimes stop me from being his friend. I run, I pretend that I am free. Is this why people meditate? I wonder if I could ever reach that kind of nirvana, acceptance without panic.

Instead, I feel the walls closing in on me, a kind of confusion: love and sadness followed by an overwhelming desire to escape.

CATALUNYA, SPAIN, 2003

(Tom in Catalunya, March, 2003)

In 2003, Tom and I visited Spain for the second time. It was our third trip to Europe together. We were in Barcelona in 2000 and then in England and Italy in September 2001, stuck there for an extra week or so after 9/11.

In 2003 Tom had not been diagnosed with MS, though I guess it was already hiding in him, messing with him and me in ways that I only deduced years later as I looked back at what had seemed like intentionally maddening behavior. I blamed pot, though in retrospect pot was probably the one thing actually helping to keep some of his symptoms at bay. But that’s not what this story is about.

No matter how challenging our everyday life was, I always loved traveling with Tom. Tom was a complete extrovert and a voracious consumer of experiences. He noticed things and people everywhere we went. It didn’t matter which airport we were in or which city street we were walking down, inevitably Tom would spot somebody he knew, or at the very least, somebody he recognized. And he wasn’t shy about approaching them.

I am the opposite in every respect. No matter where I go, my thoughts tend to be inwardly focused. It takes a great effort for me to look out and notice the physical world. It’s a deficit I have compensated for by surrounding myself with visual artists. But aside from the fact that I rarely notice or recognize anyone, if I do happen to see someone I know my immediate instinct is to look down or duck away somewhere out of sight. The effort involved in making connections is often too overwhelming to be appealing.

(Catedral de Barcelona, March 2003)

A few days after arriving in Barcelona we were walking in the main plaza and circling the grounds of the Catedral de Barcelona. As usual, there were thousands of people, but suddenly Tom spotted two women on the steps about 100 yards away and exclaimed, “that’s Rena and Kathy.” He ran off and up the stairs where they stood outside a doorway. I reluctantly tagged behind. I always worried about Tom’s puppy-like enthusiasm. He wasn’t exactly sensitive to other peoples’ reservations. He would trample over any hesitation they might have, literally wearing them down until they would give in to the wonders that he had in mind. The truth is, Tom was always fun.

After their initial surprise, Rena and Kathy warmed up to the idea of spending the day with us. They asked if we were planning on going to the demonstration that evening that would create a mile-long human chain starting at the American Embassy and extending all the way to the main Government offices in Barcelona. We called my sister and asked if she would mind if we brought our friends and some art supplies to her house to make signs for the demonstration. She said no problem and don’t bother with the supplies because she had plenty. Like our mother, Maggie is a painter, though so far she has kept it strictly an amateur pursuit.

All was arranged and the four of us took the train to Les Planes, climbed the steps that cut directly up the mountain, intersecting with the winding road three or four times before finally arriving at Maggie’s street, Calle Marco Polo. Maggie lives in a pretty house in the forest that had practically been a tear-down when she and Jose Luis bought it some years earlier. Before they moved in they did a remodel that made it lovely, though still quite tiny. A few years later,after Jose Luis’s father died and left them with a substantial inheritance, they did a second remodel. I think in 2003 they were between the first and second remodel.

When we got there Maggie had already laid out all the supplies we needed on the table and we got to work. Being from San Francisco our protest slogans leaned towards the artistic and esoteric. Mine was a colorful and ornate sign that read “Gaudi Si, Guerra No”, which I soon found out was a little odd for the Catalans who came out to protest that evening. They were both more direct and more reserved in their expression, most carrying the same printed signs that simply read: “Aturem La Guerra!”.

(Train ride in Barcelona w/ Monica, Maggie, Kathy & Rena, March, 2003)

At about 6 pm we all left Maggie’s house, walked back down the hill to the train station and made our way to Passeig de la Reina Elisenda and to the front of the American Embassy where there were only about 100 other people, though it was 7pm and time for the march to begin. Almost everyone else there was American or a reporter. Confused, we approached a uniformed guard who explained that 7pm was more conceptual than firm and not to worry, people would show up soon enough. We felt a little square.

Across the street from us, a group of young Catalans were unrolling a big sign that read “Yanquis Go Home”. When they spotted us looking at them they quickly started waving their arms and yelling — “Not you, we don’t mean you”. We responded with a friendly thumbs up.

(Outside the American Embassy in Barcelona, March, 2003)

With not much happening yet, the reporters from La Vanguardia and some local tv stations ambled towards us and in broken English started to ask what my strange sign meant, and could we please elaborate on the American opinion of the impending war. Our friends and a few of the other Americans standing around all looked at me, even Tom hesitated, and let me take over as the designated Spanish speaker in the bunch. The reporters were relieved to hear me speaking pretty fluently and took extensive notes on “the American viewpoint”. I was happy to inform them that my own city of San Francisco was actively protesting the war: taking to the streets and shutting down bridges. No matter what they had heard officially about the Americans and our politics, there were plenty of us who objected with all our hearts the imminent bombing of Iraq.

(Being interviewed outside the American Embassy, March 2003)

More and more Catalans started arriving and by 8:30 or 9pm a chain of over 300,000 humans, starting with us few, timely Americans at the Consulate, stretched a mile across the city: a beautiful, hopeful and ultimately futile cry for peace by a people who knew first-hand what it means to have their villages bombed and their country torn apart by a vicious war.

(Human Chain Protest in Barcelona, March, 2003)

The next day a picture of me and my funny sign, along with Tom, Rena, Maggie, Jose Luis and Kathy in the background, appeared in La Vanguardia. My words, for that one day, representing the American viewpoint.

IF YOU ENJOY READING THE STORY OF TOM AND MONICA, PLEASE CONSIDER PLEDGING ON PATREON

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