1- Peggy is dead
Even as I walked through St. Michael’s graveyard that cold morning in late December, I struggled to hold in a piss.
I never understood why each time I needed to mourn someone, my bladder went haywire.
It had happened at the wakes for uncles and aunts, even when I waited for the wake of my best friend, and later, my mother.
Now, eleven years after Peggy’s death, as I marched up one row of graves and down another, looking for the headstone that was hers, it was all I could do to keep from peeing in my pants.
I blamed the chill that had fallen over northern New Jersey like a shroud, bringing us deep into the heart of winter when the calendar said the official start was still days away.
Weather forecasts hinted of a possible white Christmas.
And I felt numb.
I couldn’t keep the chill out of me even though I had wisely worn four or five layers of clothing, knowing that I might be in graveyard for a long time in search of Peggy’s grave.
Through the gloves, I could barely keep a grip on the single rose I intended to decorate the grave with.
Like a fool, I had come with the mistaken notion that I would have no trouble finding her grave. Some how fate would lend its hand and point me in the right direction or that Peggy’s spirit would forgive me for the slights Peggy in life never had.
So up and down the rows of grave stones I walked, growing older and more desperate for a toilet, promising Peggy’s spirit that I would not give up until I found the grave, despite my bladder.
The fact that I had come eleven years after her burial only complicated matters. There was no fresh dug soil to provide me clues at to which stone her remains rested under. I didn’t know if she had a big store or a small stone, or was buried alone or with some family plot. So I could not afford to over look any of them, and so twisted and turned, my eyes straining to make out the complicated letters that made up the Polish and Ukrainian names for the exact combination that made up hers.
And I ached to take a pee.
This was the Sunday before Christmas and although the cemetery had an office that included public toilets, both were closed.
While St. Michael’s was not large, its arrangements of graves was complicated, and moving up and down the uneven rows, I was never quite sure if I had missed the one with Peggy’s name on it., and there were enough graves to require a significant amount of walking.
Having lived in the area for almost two decades, I had passed this place more than a hundred times without noticing it, I’d even jogged passed it, and worked up the road from it in both directions. Indeed, one small irony I did not realize until later was the fact that Peggy’s grave when I found it was within eye sight of the Stage Coach Inn, one of the Lodi strip clubs Peggy had danced in when I first met her.
Although my family had lived in and died in Lodi, too, their remains were located in an older cemetery on the far side of the nearby college, and even there I struggled sometimes to find the right grave.
News of Peggy’s death had reached me only a week earlier – and that by sheer accident when after promising a friend I would finish a novel I had been working on for years, I decided to do a little research on what actually happened to Peggy, who was the model for one of the book’s main characters, and found her listed in Social Security Death Index.
Her sister, Susan, told me via email that Peggy had taken her own life.
It was no accident that she had picked the eve to St. Valentine’s Day to do it. She was a dedicated romantic to the end. Susan’s message was simple: “Peggy tried to turn her life around, but…”
I kept remembering the roses I had seen once withering on her kitchen table when she still lived on Harrison Avenue, in Lodi, back in 1987.
Down deep, I couldn’t believe Peggy was dead. She was one of those bigger than life people that I hoped could overcome all obstacles and live forever, though I knew from the start that she could come to no other end than the one she did.
Perhaps I had selfish motives for coming on that cold Sunday morning, some deep need to see Peggy settled in one immovable place after she had lived her life as a free spirit.
Perhaps I just needed proof, to see the grave and feel her name engraved in stone for it to feel real to me.
The fact that her ghost still haunted me a whole quarter century after we went out, is testimony to how powerful a being she was.
During that time, I knew, however, Peggy would not age gracefully and the fact that she decided to end her life before her 40th birthday made sense to him, even if it also caused great pain.
Her sister put it delicately, simply saying Peggy decided “not to be here anymore.”
While Peggy was a monument in my life, someone – who by my just knowing her – changed the direction of my life forever, I had assumed she saw me as less significant, one brick in a long road to her self destruction, someone who had passed in and out of her life without leaving much of an impression, or at best a negative one.
In retrospect, I might have been wrong, and might have played a more significant role than even I realized.
But I also miscalculated back then, thinking that I could “save” her from herself, and in making the attempt managed to make something of a fool of myself.
It was not a long relationship. I first became aware of Peggy in the fall of 1986, just at the moment when her precious New York Giants were starting their successful march to the Super Bowl, and it ended with in late May on her 28th birthday, marking the most emotional eight months of my life, full of passion and panic, the like of which I had not felt before or since, the memory of which remains vivid in me as if these events had just happened.