by Keith Hoffman
February 2nd 2014
I’m not conceited enough to think I know the answers to the big spiritual questions.
I do not pretend to know exactly what happens when we die or exactly who what or where God is. I guess I should admire those who do have utmost certainty, but I believe there is supposed to be an element of magic and mystery and surprise to it all. The one and only time I went scuba diving I was immediately in awe of how many shapes and sizes and colors there were of just fish alone. Whoever or Whatever made those fish must truly love to create. He or She doesn’t seem to be very much of a black and white thinker (except for zebras and pandas and penguins but, c’mon, those are amazing takes on that color scheme). So my personal God is a mysterious and creative God. And I will someday forgive Him or Her for the fact that I nearly drowned on that very same scuba dive.
I do wish He/She would at least tell us if He/She is a man or woman so my sentences could have a little more fluidity when writing about Him/Her.
What I understand is that if I try to be authentic and kind and forgive everybody and give myself even a little quiet time each day to listen to something besides my own neurotic brain, my life seems to have some purpose and direction. I have many friends who disagree that all the scoundrels out there should be forgiven but to borrow a phrase that is not my own: resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to get sick.
So I try to forgive everybody except litterbugs. I think litterbugs should go to a hell that is piled up with trash.
Anyway this is a big subject and people will start yelling about Hitler, and I really don’t want to start a big debate.
I just want to tell the story of how a homely gargoyle has proven beyond a doubt that life is bigger than me.
Unfortunately this is another story that begins with death.
I’m sorry. I can’t help it.
Ever since my father dropped dead when I was seven, death has been a running theme in my life. I’m not afraid of it. I’m actually kind of fascinated by it (but to be clear not in a serial-killer kind of way.) Which reminds me—do not list all the people who have died in your life on a first coffee date. It is the direct opposite of hot.
So since I was seven I understood we don’t live forever and was very curious exactly what happens after we die.
(Don’t worry we’ll get to the gargoyle. I’m building up suspense)
After my sister Julie died a couple years ago I started seeing orange butterflies.
I noticed them everywhere only a few weeks after her memorial. They would land next to me on the grass or fly in their frantic ragtag way around my head. One day a particularly bold one was hanging around me in the front yard as I talked to my Aunt Jody. “I swear to God there is one that is stalking me right now!” I said in amazement into the phone. When I went inside to get a Diet Coke I happened to glance out the window into the very narrow dark alleyway at the side of my house. And there it was—the same butterfly had flown over the roof and was fluttering on the other side of the pane.
Really, I swear.
Another time three of them flew next to my car on the busy 405 in LA dancing around each other while I was stuck in a traffic jam. Finally I whispered nervously to my sister, “Are you sure you are allowed to send such obvious signs??” I didn’t want her getting in trouble because of me.
Only after these incidents kept happening at a rate that defied logic did I start to read up and find that for centuries butterfly signs came to people after they lost someone they loved. I even happened to come across an old illustration from the New Yorker by Saul Stenberg where he talked about being followed on his bike by an orange butterfly after the death of his good friend Nabokov.
A few years later I was followed on my own bike in New York City by an entire herd (or the more correct term—“rabble”) of butterflies on the anniversary of my sister’s death.
Oh, and also the butterflies were always orange. Soon after they started pushily fluttering into my life, Julie’s husband called to tell me he had a random dream where Julie came to him and announced, “Keith’s favorite color is orange.”
Which by the way it is.
(Orange butterfly in my front yard)
All right, so lets say I kept noticing these orange butterflies in a desperate effort to convince myself that my sister wasn’t really gone. I mean seeing butterflies isn’t as uncommon as seeing condors or giraffes hanging out in my back alleyway right?
But then there were the crows….
My mom died shortly after my sister. It was a fucked-up year. A few weeks after her memorial as I was sitting in my front yard on a February morning in LA, a very straight line of those very large black birds dramatically flew directly in front of me right in my line of vision maybe five feet away. It was something one couldn’t miss. It was like the energy around me shifted as it happened.
I started counting: 1…2…3…4…
There were 13 crows in all.
Some would have taken this as an unlucky omen but after losing two members of my immediate family in four months, I didn’t really worry that my wonderful life might go tragically awry. What I did remember is that 13 was my mom’s lucky number. She actually called Friday the 13th her lucky day. She was contrary like that and if you reviewed the hardship of her life you may think she might have eventually chosen another “lucky” number but she was also very stubborn….kind of like a crow.
And I mean that in the most loving sense.
After that strange morning where I saw the straight line of crows I started to see them everywhere.
It got to the point where I would be with people who knew nothing about my weird “signs” and they would casually mention how odd it was that a crow was swooping so close to us.
One afternoon I was sitting in my office when a coworker began to look a bit frightened.
“What’s wrong?” I asked worriedly.
“There is a huge crow sitting on the window sill right behind you…” he said with alarm. “It’s looking right at us.”
I turned around nonchalantly and refrained from greeting it with a “hello mother” since I decided that may alarm my colleague even more.
Once again I got on the Internet and started reading about crows.
I found out the poor things are horribly misunderstood and maligned. Edgar Allen Poe did them and their relatives no favors and whoever decided a flock of crows should be known as a murder of crows was simply encumbering them with a PR nightmare.
Crows and ravens are revered by Native Americans and thought of as sacred messengers from the spirit world—the link between our ancestors and us. They are a symbol of the idea that from darkness comes light and rebirth. They signify change. And if you know my mom who I can only describe as the love child Dinah Shore and Beatrice Arthur would have had if they hooked up, you’d understand that unlike my gentle sister, this ballsy opinionated woman would have definitely picked a crow when God asked her to choose a sign to send her youngest child.
Let’s just ignore for now that they often eat road kill.
Oh here’s another little tip: Do NOT talk about seeing butterflies and crows everywhere and how they are signs from your dead mother and sister on a first date.
And probably not a second one either.
Trust me on this.
I was so inspired by these signs that I decided to get a tattoo of an orange butterfly on the underside of my right forearm right below my elbow. I figured at the very least when I was on my death bed I could look at my arm and be reminded that if my sister was indeed hanging out in the afterlife, she would be the first one to show me the papers I had to sign and the lines I had to wait in to register for heaven.
When I told the tattoo artist what this butterfly represented he responded quietly, “My sister died too. There is a reason you came to me.”
The crow tattoo was a lot bigger.
It took over my entire upper left arm– its claws perched on a branch near my elbow and its beak and attentive eyes on my shoulder keeping a constant watch on me. This was not a light undertaking as it took about six long sessions over several months to fill in the black of the feathers, but surprisingly this ritual of physical pain seemed to heal my soul. In the process I bonded with the most unlikely companion in my sad stoner amazingly talented and deep tattoo artist.
(with my dear friend Scottie–NOT my sad, stoner tattoo artist)
But this wasn’t the last of the grief tattoos. Just as the crow was getting his finishing touches, Julie’s husband found a colorful old expensive looking notebook in a box in his basement in Ohio. For some reason we will never know, my perfectly healthy sister had copied a poem down inside.
miss me and let me go – when
I come to the end of the road and
the sun has set for me – I want no
rights in a gloom filled room, why
cry for a soul set free – miss me
a little but not too long – and not
with your head bowed low – remember
the love that we once shared – miss
me but let me go and when your are
lonely and sick at heart go to the
friends we know and bury your sorrows
in doing good deeds – miss me but
let me go
Seesh. Talk about your messages from the grave.
He sent me the notebook and I brought it into the tattoo parlor with the idea that maybe we would burn a corner of the page that Julie had written on to mix in with the ink. That way her “essence” would be permanently embedded in my skin.
Hey, mourning makes you do some crazy shit.
But my tattoo artist had other ideas. He made a thermal copy of the diary page and traced it on my right shoulder blade so I had the poem on my back in my sister’s own handwriting.
The process was quick but insanely intense. It was a satisfying conclusion to this healing process and I have zero regrets about any of these tattoos.
Okay…I will admit that sometimes when I’m on vacation and lounging by the pool I’m a bit startled when someone asks me what my “back says”.
Inwardly I cringe. This poem is not exactly light summer reading. Explaining its history throws some people into apoplectic apologies. “Oh my god! I’m sorry!” they say recoiling in horror as if my mom and sister had actually been eradicated right then and there at the pool.
I am also forced into an inevitable and uncomfortable conversation any time I flirtatiously ask someone to slather sunscreen on my back.
“What is this word??”
“And this one?”
On the positive side, the tragic tattoo poem makes me sound awfully deep and wounded, which some people find kind of sexy.
But I’m rambling
Now to the gargoyle…
I bought the gargoyle somewhere in Central California a few hours from my LA home not far from the famous Hearst Castle. I was on a short vacation staying at a motel near the ocean where there were some booths set up in the empty lot next door. Vendors were selling all kinds of unusual and original things and it was close to my mother’s birthday so I had to check it out. I never liked buying my mom traditional gifts. I liked getting her something that was clearly and uniquely from me so that she never forgot who it came from. Instead of a nice sweater or scarf I would buy her lopsided rusty antique-looking chimes that I’d found in the back of some tiny decrepit shop. Once when I was going through my Barbra Streisand phase (from 1977 to the late 90’s) I gave her a Yentl poster with the words “Nothing’s Impossible” written on the bottom that she proudly hung in her bedroom. One day during the last months of her hard life she looked over at the poster with Barbra dressed as a Yeshiva boy and read the optimistic phrase on the bottom musing, “I’m not sure that’s really true…”
So when I saw this odd shaped winged fellow with an angular face, sharp nose, and somewhat wickedly gleeful smile perched on the edge of an old card table with his legs crossed at his ankles, I instantly knew I had found the perfect gift.
To be honest I don’t know how I got it to Cincinnati. I’m not very good at shipping things so at some point I must have lugged it home. What I know for sure is that for years after it proudly sat on my mother’s bookshelf gazing intently at Yentl across the room.
After my mother’s death, my big brother Paul and I had exactly one day to clean out her entire 84 years of accumulated life.
Four months earlier we had spent several weeks in Cincinnati dealing with my sister’s death so now neither of us could take more than a few days off from work. Other family members were busy with their own lives so my brother, his girlfriend, daughter and I volunteered for the task of sorting through her lifetime of things into KEEP, DONATE and TRASH piles.
This was an exhausting and soul-grinding task.
When you discover journals where your mom is writing about her insecurities and low self-esteem do you drag them home with you? Do you trash them? Certainly you don’t donate them. What about those stupid baskets she loved to collect? Sure they were stupid but if they had value to her….
The one bright spot of looking through her old cards was my own humor. Even in my tired grief I was amused every time I found a card with one of my handwritten notes:
“Happy Birthday! Maybe Next Year Will Work Out For You.”
“Get Well Soon But if You Don’t Can I Have Your Cat?”
“Happy Mother’s Day! I’m Sure You Did Your Best.”
“I’m funny!” I affirmed to myself chuckling until Paul walked past and barked me out of my reverie like a deranged drill sergeant. “WE’VE GOT ONE DAY TO DO THIS! KEEP SORTING!”
I read through endless piles of saved cards including one from my now deceased sister.
“Mom, I know I wasn’t the perfect child
But I sure came closer than those other misfits I call siblings”.
I smiled at her brattiness. She didn’t think one of the misfits would ever see this.
“Well at least we’re still alive.” I thought to myself smugly.
Finally we had things in some sort of loose order just as the sun began to set. My brother and the rest were driving home to Indiana that night but my plane wasn’t leaving until morning.
I stayed all night in the apartment that had once been my mother’s home but was now just 4 very empty rooms strewn with piles of stuff. It killed something in me to endure that emptiness all by myself but eventually the sun impossibly came back up again.
I looked around at the piles that were left for Paul and the rest of my family to haul out of the house the following weekend.
The poor gargoyle was sitting crookedly on the DONATE pile—his smile seeming a little less enthusiastic as he wondered what his future would hold.
I finished packing and began to lug my suitcase to the door before I took one more glance back.
He looked so abandoned.
Finally I scooped him up and jammed him in my suitcase.
I regretted this impulsive act only a few hours later as the woman at the check in counter at the airport told me my luggage was over the allowed limit. I had to frantically redistribute the weight of my bags feeling vulnerable and ashamed as my shoes; underwear and toothpaste were exposed to world of people in the line behind me.
My regret was gone by the time I got to Los Angeles where the weird little guy sat peacefully in my front yard for the next several months. Out of all those piles in her apartment this was all I really needed to remember us by.
When I got an offer I couldn’t refuse to move to New York, Paul flew out to help me load the huge moving van that was going out ahead of me. (We were getting quite proficient at these big life transitions.). Some special things I held back to bring with me on my drive across country. I was taking a week just for myself—a week of freedom where I belonged nowhere and had to answer to no one. I needed a few magical things for this mystical journey including my nativity scene (see my JESUS, MARY AND GLORIA blog), my lumpy old pit bull Sasha and my mother’s old gargoyle. I kept the gargoyle sitting between Sasha and me in my Mini Cooper as a sort of Good Luck Talisman.
We made the trip pretty much unscathed until somewhere in the flat lands of Kansas when Sasha dived after an errant McDonalds French fry I was devouring and knocked the gargoyle into my gear shift throwing us into neutral on the interstate. We all survived but the gargoyle lost a foot in the process that still sits in the cup holder of my car to this very day. Sasha was mostly a good companion during these trips—quiet unless she spotted a dog in another car, which would send her into an apoplectic frenzy while I tried desperately not to drive to my death in a ravine. More than one trucker yelled, “Nice Pit!” to me at rest stops that for some reason turned me into a southern coquette. “Why thank ya sir!” I would reply like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind or more likely the tragic aging Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire.
I had been in New York a week and a half when the real estate woman brought me to the apartment in Brooklyn. Her name was Janet, which I quietly noted was also my mother’s name. She was brash and opinionated just like my mother too. The very first place she showed me was the ground floor of a brownstone that had a fantastic backyard but a very small bathroom. I didn’t realize at the time that no place in New York on my non-millionaire budget was going to have unlimited space and that any apartment with a backyard was a huge find. We went to other apartments but one seemed to be worse than the other until we finally were afraid to knock on the nicked and chipped door at one location because its dingy and dangerous hallway served as a fair warning of what might lie on the other side.
Discouraged, I asked Janet if she would take me back to the first place one more time.
I stepped into the empty apartment and looked around with a new point of view.
The kitchen was huge which maybe would perhaps make up for the tiny bathroom. I mean this bathroom was tiny—you could use the toilet, brush your teeth and shower pretty much without moving. The living room and bedroom were nice but really what made this place so special was that backyard off the kitchen. It was long and rectangular shaped with a huge tree in the back and a stone walkway on the side. Outside the kitchen door was a patio followed by a lawn and garden all surrounded by a tall wooden fence.
And that is where I finally saw it.
I walked closer to the fence to see if it was really what I thought it was and a jolt of electricity made the hair rise on arms and neck.
It was a gargoyle with a pointed nose and its legs crossed at the ankles.
It was exactly the same gargoyle as the one I drove across country.
Nothing else had been left in this apartment.
They only thing left behind was this single gargoyle sitting expectantly on the fence.
I caught my breath as I processed this.
And then I noticed something else.
His left foot was broken.
The two gargoyles were an exact match.
“I guess I need to move here.”
“Well, I don’t know about you but I believe in signs.” Janet said after I told her the backstory.
I looked down at the butterfly on my forearm.
Did I believe in signs?
“She was a bossy old woman when she was alive and she’s a bossy old woman still,” Paul said as I sat on the phone with him in my new kitchen in the apartment I already adored.
I laughed as I looked out at my two gargoyles hanging out together on the fence.
My friend Mark suggested I was going to meet my soul mate in New York and that he would have a hooknose, pale complexion and a slight limp.
When I told my therapist about them he said simply, “Wow, there really is no such thing as time.”
And I knew what he meant.
The insane ‘coincidence’ of me being in Central California on the day that gargoyle was being sold, deciding on the last minute to take it from my mother’s house and then bringing it–not in a box–but in the front seat of my car next to me on my trip across country (breaking his foot along the way)…and then…whoever lived in this apartment before me not only buying the exact same gargoyle at some point in their lives but then breaking its foot and deciding to leave it—and only it—behind when they moved out that day…
Well, it staggers the mind.
So that’s what I think about when I feel like my life has strayed totally off course or I wonder how something could ever possibly work out. I think about those gargoyles and how these two unique, slightly wounded whimsical creatures somehow found each other from opposite sides of the country at the exact right moment in time.
And that is why I believe there is something greater than me moving things along and that I just have to do my part and let go and get in the flow.
I know that’s a very long story to get to what sounds like a cliché.
But that is the absolutely true story of the gargoyle that became the gargoyles.