Mourning Pages

kids12_1A few days before Rob died, I started doing this thing called Morning Pages. It’s a pretty famous exercise from a pretty famous book called “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. I was in a creative funk and needed to kickstart my writing again, and this seemed like as good a way as any to help me find my muse.

As you can tell by its name, you’re supposed to do it as soon as you wake up. It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness exercise where you just vomit out whatever is in your head—without stopping to edit—until you reach three pages of longhand writing (I cheated and typed). And then, presumably, you have the rest of the day to unleash all of the creative brilliance that had been buried beneath the stuff you just puked up. It’s also supposed to help calm you and center your mind, two things I desperately needed.

You’re not supposed to share these pages with anyone or even go back and read them yourself, but I recently did and will now share them with you (sorry, Julia). This is what I wrote on February 6, just a few hours before everything changed forever.

***

Hello? Is this thing on? Testing, 1-2-3. Hello, hello, hello, how low. Hi! How many words was that? Are we almost done? Okay, no more fuckin’ around. Let’s do this thing.

I know I’m supposed to be doing this first thing in the morning and doing it every day, but stupid life keeps getting in the way and I just can’t help it. So here I am at 5 o’clock in the afternoon sitting at the keyboard, and where shall I begin?

It’s got to be about Rob because it’s almost always about Rob. I saw him yesterday and he’s not a happy camper and it’s always so complicated with him, and that’s probably more on me than on him. He seemed tired and burnt out because he’s juggling like four different crappy jobs just trying to make ends meet and I’m pretty sure he’s in some deep shit, and yet I told him I didn’t want to hear all the gory details this time around because I have my own fuckin’ problems to worry about (to say nothing of me trying to “detach with love”), so he’s been sparing me the particulars, but I always know when he’s not happy because every parent knows.

Rob’s been not happy a lot lately. We went for dumplings and fell into our usual bullshitting about all the stuff that doesn’t really matter, and I would so like to have an honest conversation with him one day instead of us dancing around each other with our clever jokes, and me trying not to piss him off. I don’t even know if it would do any good, like if I could come up with some magic words that would somehow put him on the right path or wave a magic wand that would miraculously cure him of whatever fucked-up shit he’s dealing with. I guess I wanna be Harry Potter. When I was a kid, I so wanted magic to be real. The worst thing that I ever did back then was buy a few books that revealed how all those cool tricks were really done and—voila!—it’s been downhill ever since.

The same can be said for Rob. He’s come a long way this year. Literally. He came out to L.A. against my advice and things were fucked up even before he arrived. He was on the train coming out west when he called to say that his new roommate needed $750 immediately or he couldn’t move in, and the dude would only accept Venmo or some bullshit like that, the usual Rob story, the usual sob story, and he swore he was gonna pay me back. And me being his primary enabler and primary loan officer, I of course “lent” him the money, and we were off to the races.

He was kicked out of the apartment a few weeks later, and then even more horrible stuff happened to him, so he came to live with Maura and me for four months, and the whole goddamn thing has been a shitshow ever since. Maybe I’ll write the real story someday, but not now. Now I’m just killing time, which just reminded me of the classic snotty quote by Truman Capote when asked how he felt about Kerouac’s “On the Road”—“That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

So…so is a good way to start a sentence. It’s intimate, almost conspiratorial. So…I got nothing. Rob told Caryn that he’s depressed and needs meds and I’m thinking that I’m right there with him. Being unemployed is just the worst. I can’t think of too many things that are as painful. It just bums you out and makes you feel small and worthless and not good at anything. As the days fly by, I’m sitting here waiting for something good to happen, hoping that it’s just gonna appear out of thin air, like some Ricky Jay sleight of hand. Here’s your card, Larry, it’s an ace job that pays a lot of money! Fuck you again, magic, for not being real!

Now I see why this practice should be done first thing in the morning. I’m already too beat to go on and none of this makes any sense and, yes, Julia, I know that’s the fuckin’ point (she can be so annoying sometimes), and every few minutes I look at the word count to see if I’m coming close to my three pages, and it’s like I’m on a Soul Cycle bike, pedaling away like a demon trying to make it to the 1,000 words finish line. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop. Keep pedaling, keep typing. This sucks. I suck.

I’m just so bummed out today because of Rob. What else is new? He knows that I worry about him but has no idea that I get like this. Every time I need to intervene on his behalf or just communicate with him in general, I get this sick feeling of anxiety in the pit of my stomach and it stays with me for the entire day. Even when I was signing him up for health insurance a few hours ago so we could get him anti-depressants, I was feeling it, and he has no idea that he has this soul-crushing effect on me. It’s such a shitty feeling and I stay in this shitty headspace for the rest of the day and then infect Maura with it, which makes me feel even shittier. This just in: “shit” has almost replaced “fuck” as my favorite word. Almost.

Tomorrow is another day (I just made that up!) and I’ll try to knock this out first thing in the morning like Julia wants me to and see if my mood is any better and see if anything happens on the job front or really on any front. I never know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that I need to make things happen rather than waiting around for the phone to ring. But today, I just can’t, so I’m gonna let it go and hope for the best and all the other things you’re supposed to hope for. And it’s a good thing no one will ever read this shit because I’m really a fuckin’ mess today. Bye.

The Worst Is Over

THE WORST IS OVEROnly an idiot would ever say “the worst is over.” I know this because I was that idiot. It was partly wishful thinking and partly a sigh of relief. It was a calming mantra, and yes, I know, I’ve been living out here in L.A. too long. I said it after we left the chapel on the way to the cemetery. I said it again after we put Rob in the ground, threw dirt on him and left a bunch of rocks. I said it on the way to Julie and Bob’s house for the Shiva.

The worst kept being over. Over and over again. That should’ve been a sign right there, but back then I wasn’t paying attention to signs. I could barely see straight. To a certain extent, it was true. We’d made it through the worst thing that had ever happened to us. But those words implied that relief was just around the corner.

The thing we didn’t ask ourselves when I said “the worst is over” to Caryn as we drove to the Shiva (a word that works even better phonetically) is—what comes next?

I was going to write about us sitting Shiva, a seven-day mourning period that we near Jews decided to condense into a one and done, and how we didn’t observe any of the more traditional customs of covering up mirrors, lighting candles or sitting on low stools.

I was going to make the sad joke that Rob hated his birthday parties when he was a little boy, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve had a good time celebrating his death.

I was going to tell you about how I mainly hung out with his friends and listened to them tell stories about all the crazy shit he did, and how I needed to give each and every one of them a giant hug because I know they all loved him so damn much.

I was going to tell you how I didn’t really get enough time to talk with so many of my friends who came to support me when I needed it the most, and how I hardly ate anything that day other than a good Rosner bagel and a handful of rainbow cookies which tasted like my childhood.

I was going to tell you how that rainbow cookie made me time-travel back to my mom’s Shiva when I was just about Zach’s age, and how her best friend Thelma came over to me because I was sitting alone and she told me how each day is precious and that we should live every one of them like it could be our last (she really knew how to cheer a guy up).

I was going to tell you how I thanked Julie and Bob from the bottom of my heart for opening up their beautiful house to us, and that I couldn’t stop thanking Bob the entire time I was there. I think that’s all we talked about, and he could not have been more gracious and compassionate, and although I’m ranting on a bit here, I need to say it again (in writing because it’s important to me): I will be grateful for his and Julie’s hospitality for the rest of my life, so thank you, guys. I love you!

I was going to tell you about all of the touching conversations I had with everyone there, and how there was so much extraordinary love in that room that I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just let it wash over me.

I was going to tell you how Maura won Shiva and how so many people mentioned how lucky I was to be with her.

I was going to tell you that I never felt closer to and more protective of Caryn and Zach on that terrible day when the worst was supposedly over.

But those fuckin’ words had a mind of their own. The moment I said them we were jinxed—forever. As it turned out, the worst was over until the next morning when it started right up again. It’s been almost six months of the worst–nonstop, day in, day out–and I fear the worst is yet to come because only an idiot would think that the worst could ever be over.

Let the Good Times Roll

MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY IN THE WORLDThe best thing about burying your kid? You get front row seats in the chapel! I told Zach that when it comes to eulogies, it’s always good to open with a joke, so there it is.

Caryn sat down between her friend Stephanie and Zach. I sat with Maura and what I remember most clearly about that moment, aside from the uncontrollable sobbing and the unrealness of it all, was that we needed to do this next part for Rob.

We chose the least Jew-y rabbi in Long Island (no easy task since Woodbury is basically Jewville), and he turned out to be a man of few words, none of which I remember other than him saying that it was now our turn to speak.

We didn’t really have a plan (other than taking beta blockers courtesy of my friend Tony a few minutes before we went into the chapel), so Zach took the initiative and walked to the podium.

“Robbie used to torture me,” he began and then took a long pause before he added, “The end,” and faked walking away. I loved that he had taken my advice, but it still took me by surprise. “I’m going to freestyle this, but like any good freestyle, some of it was prepared,” Zach continued.

I don’t remember all of what he said because I was crying the whole time, but I do recall that he spoke about last Christmas when we were all together in my house, and what a great time he and Rob had and how later in the afternoon they went out for a walk to buy a pack of cigarettes, just the two of them, talking about the usual bullshit, making each other laugh and just enjoying each other’s company like only brothers can, not knowing that this would be the last time they’d be together. It was the sweetest, most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard, and I was never prouder of Zach.

Next up was Rob’s best friend, Sarah. We’d never met before, but Rob had talked about her often. I think she may have been the one person in the world he really confided in. They were “twin souls” and I was happy to learn that Rob had had her in his life.

Sarah talked about their friendship, about his wacky money-making ideas (manufacturing beard brushes and cheap sunglasses), about him being a Pastafarian (it exists, look it up!), about him always being in the middle of a dance circle, and about joining him on his quest to try every burger joint on Long Island. She concluded:

Any time I needed Robbie he was there for me. At times I felt bad that he was stuck being my best friend because I am truly a lot to handle, but Robbie never once complained or questioned why he was friends with me. He simply loved me and our friendship for who and what it was…We were more than friends—we were family and we always will be. Robbie, I will forever love you and cherish the memories that we made. 

Then it was Caryn’s turn. She asked me to come up to the podium to help keep her steady. “I don’t know if I can do this, babe,” she whispered when I got up there. “Just start, babe,” I said, and she did.

She began with the Serenity Prayer and a poem called “Legacy of an Adopted Child.” She then read a poem of her own. Here’s the beginning:

Robbie was a gift to us, from an angel that wanted him to have more.

She didn’t know when she placed him in our arms, he was already broken at his core.

At three years old he said to me, Mommy, I have a hole in my heart that never closes.

That’s too much for any child to bare, so we tried to fill it with love and roses.

And here’s the ending:

You will never know, my dear sweet son, how much you were loved and by so many.

The pain you felt each day you woke, must have been unbearable and heavy.

 And now you have left a hole in our hearts, and somehow Robbie we all see…

That this world was just too hard for you, and you can finally rest in peace.

Caryn sat down and cried in her friend Stephanie’s arms while I wiped the tears off of my glasses.

I was the closer. I was the one who would finally get this good time over with. Before I began, I looked out at everyone seated in the chapel and I couldn’t believe how packed it was. It was a sea of black dresses and suits, but it was also a sea of love, and I felt every gentle ripple in my bones. I’ve always had a fear of public speaking, but this was different. It felt like Rob was up there with me. This is for you, dude, I thought and took a deep breath. This is what I said:

I got to see Rob a lot these past two years since he moved out to California. For all his troubles, he was a good hang. I don’t know why but it always surprised me just how smart and funny he was. We mainly talked about bullshit—our favorite TV shows, movies, songs that we both liked because Zach turned us on to them. The deepest we ever got was when he talked about his cat Biscuit. We went out for dumplings a lot and always ordered too many and always knocked them off. My favorite part of our visits was when I dropped him off in front of his place and he’d say, “I love you, Dad.” And I’d say, “I love you, Rob.” We both needed to say it and we both needed to hear it. And I think he knew it, I think he knew how much we all loved him.

With that in mind, I’d like to read a couple of excerpts from a letter I wrote to Rob about 20 years ago…

You were born a poet. Let me quote a few of your best lines:

I bet my birth mother is still crying.

I wish God would take the sadness off me.

If she kept me, I never would’ve known you.

I have a space in my heart that never closes.

As I sit here wrestling with words that invariably elude my grasp, I wish I could write like that. But what do I expect? You are seven and I am only forty-two…

*

I hope that one day God grants your wish and takes the sadness off you, because your mom and I know how truly blessed we are to have two beautiful sons—one chosen by us and one chosen for us. It’s like we wrote at the end of your baby book:

Mommy and Daddy waited a long time for a baby–a baby boy just like you. And though it might have been nice to have you grow in mommy’s belly … always remember that you grew in our hearts!

Perhaps the only thing we neglected to consider at the time was your heart. Which reminds me of sandcastles. A few summers ago, you and I built a beauty on Uncle Stephen’s beach, and you wanted to surround it with a moat, so we started to dig a hole with your big yellow bucket. We kept digging faster and faster until the hole got so deep that you jumped in. “Daddy, get the water,” you said, and I ran into the waves, filled the bucket, dragged it back, and dumped it into the hole. The sand quickly drank it up, so I kept going back and forth, trying to fill the hole with water, but it was like pouring the water down a drain, and after a while we finally said the hell with it and ran into the ocean.

You are the sand, little boy, and I will always be the water.

And that was where I intended to end this letter until you came padding into the room in your G.I. Joe pajamas. “What are you writing about?” you asked. And when I told you it was a story about you, you asked, “Is it going to be in a big magazine?”

And I said, “Yeah, how do you feel about that?”

And you said, “Scared.”

And I said, “How come?”

And you said, “Because I’m going to be in it alone.”

And I said, “No you won’t. I’ll be in it with you.”

And you said, “I love you daddy.”

And that’s when I had to stop writing.

*

The good time wasn’t quite over. Next stop: the cemetery.

Holding On

HOLDING ONEverybody grieves differently. There’s no right way or wrong way. It turns out that we’re all pretty great at feeling terrible. It just comes naturally, like breathing air, and at the same time, we instinctively know that that’s the most important thing–to just keep breathing.

Some people need to be around other people, some people need to be by themselves. Some people cry every day and others keep it all bottled up inside. Some of us experience the whole Kubler-Ross stage thing, but we all experience it differently in our own particular order, and that’s if we even experience it at all. Some of us need constant distractions while some of us just want to stay in bed under the covers with a Family Size box of Cheez-Its.

The good thing about grief is that you can’t really fuck it up too badly because it’s already fucked you up worse than you’ve ever been fucked up before. There are only two things that we sad sacks share in common:

1) You have to go through grief. There are no detours.

2) The pain is unbearable yet you must bear it.

This is all my way of leading into something Caryn sent me yesterday morning.

***

So Larry asked me if I’d like to write something for his Sand and Water blog.

I said yes–but there wasn’t one idea about this tragedy in particular that stood out for me.

It’s all been one big blur of an unbelievable reality.

So he sent me a few suggestions that resonated with him, but they were things that happened to me after Robbie’s passing.

So they are mine, and I realize they will remain mine. I will not share them with anyone because that is not how I am able to grieve or heal or move forward or any other synonyms you’d like to use.

I will hold on to my experience with this in a way I was not able to hold on to my son.

Let’s Get This Good Time Over With

LETS GET THIS GOOD TIME OVER WITHWhenever we were going to something that we really didn’t want to go to, like a Bar Mitzvah for a friend of Zach’s or the wedding of a cousin’s kid who we barely knew, Caryn and I would quote her father’s famous sarcastic line just as we were walking out the door: “Let’s get this good time over with!”

Which is what I said to her as I held her hand when we walked into Gutterman’s for Rob’s funeral on Friday morning. From here on out, I may be a little fuzzy on the details, as this was the longest day of our lives, preceded by the longest week. The weird thing is that it still feels like yesterday, the most fucked-up yesterday in the history of yesterdays.

We got there early because that’s what we always did (and still do) no matter what the occasion. It was just the two of us sitting in the reception room that leads into the chapel, just like we did on another long-ago yesterday when we looked at Rob through the window in the hospital nursery on the day he was born. That’s when I first fell in love with him. And now we were here to say goodbye.

I know I’ve used the word “surreal” a lot to explain everything that went down, and that’s mainly because I wasn’t in my right mind. I was there and I wasn’t. I was so light that you could’ve blown me away like a dandelion puff and so heavy that I thought I had turned to stone. What were we doing there and who were all these people coming through the door?

It started out as a trickle. Aunt Robin arrived next, followed by Caryn’s BFF Stephanie, and then it was like a sad Fellini movie, only sped up and starring everyone we’ve ever known. I’ve never been in a room with so many crying people before. Hard crying, ugly crying, some of the most painful crying I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t anything like this when my mom and dad died or when my in-laws passed away. This was a special type of crying, the type reserved for a special type of tragedy, the worst nightmare you can think of—namely, ours.

It was a total shitshow and yet I’ve never felt so much love. The hugs I received on that day are forever etched in my soul. I mean it! I felt everyone’s heart and I needed that more than anything.

People kept pouring in like water. Rob’s friends, my friends, Caryn’s friends, our families, people we hadn’t seen in years, people we no longer liked, people I didn’t know—it was a full house and they were all there to pay their respects to the one person who didn’t make it.

The funeral director asked Caryn and me if we wanted to see Rob’s body before the service began. We both said that we did. He ushered us into the chapel, and I held Caryn as he removed the top of the casket. And there was our little boy, looking like he was fast asleep. They’d done a nice job cleaning him up. There was only a trace of a bloody lip. We couldn’t decide what clothes to dress him in, so there he was, all wrapped up in a burial shroud. Like an angel. We kissed his forehead and cried for him and cried for us. We cried all day. We had been crying all week. There wasn’t enough crying to keep up with how we were feeling. There may never be.

Zach also wanted to see Rob, so I went in with him for a second look while a conga line of mourners formed around Caryn.

“It looks like he’s asleep,” I said to Zach. “He’s at peace.”

“He looks better than I thought he would. Although he looks so little. What the fuck, dad? What the fuck?” Zach said and we both cried in each other’s arms.

I kissed Rob again, and a few minutes later the “good time” began.

Certain Things I Can’t Remove

CERTAIN THINGS I CAN'T REMOVEThere are certain things I can’t remove.

Let’s start with my iPhone. I still have the voicemail from the coroner’s office that was left on February 7, 2019 at 4:18 AM:

Hi, this message is for Larry Carlat. Um, my name is Jennifer Herzog and I’m an investigator with Los Angeles County. I’m looking for family for Robbie James Carlat born on January 18, 1991. If you know Robbie, if you could please give me a call back. My direct best extension is 323-343-0677. Again that’s 323-343-0677 and please reference case number 201901035. Again that’s 2019-01035. And again I’m looking for family for Robbie Carlat. Thank you.

I’m not sure why I haven’t deleted it. It’s not like I pop it on like a favorite Steely Dan song. In fact, today was the first time I’ve heard the message since receiving the original call. Jenny starts out kind of fun and peppy with the first line–Hi, this message is for Larry Carlat–almost sounding like maybe she’s calling to say that I’ve won some type of prize. And then she drops the hammer with her momentarily hesitant “um.” As soon as I heard that little word, it was game over. I knew that I wouldn’t be winning any prize on that sickening day.

I also can’t bring myself to delete Rob’s phone number from my Contacts and Favorites. We cancelled his service a few weeks after he died, but I still call his number every now and then. I know it’s crazy, but just seeing his name appear on my phone with a tiny version of the Menendez Brothers photo next to it satisfies my yearning to hear his voice again.

Anytime I call anyone on my Favorites list (a small handful of people who I call and love the most), there he is right where he belongs, in the middle of Zach and Caryn, and I just can’t imagine a time when Rob won’t be there–although I live with that horrible reality every day, as we all do.

The other thing I can’t remove is his six-month AA chip that I have on my key ring. As you may recall, he gave it to me as a Father’s Day gift last year. It’s a small, metal square and etched on the front are the words “6 Months,” “Sobriety” and “One Day at a Time.”

Little did I know that these words would someday apply to me. We’re coming up on six months since Rob died, I can’t think of anything more sobering and “One Day at a Time” is exactly how I’ve been living without him.

The last things I can’t remove are 128 emails from tyco118@gmail.com. They begin on October 1st, 2009, asking my opinion on a design for his “Life Rolls On” tattoo and end with an edit of his resume that I sent to him on January 19th, a day after his last birthday.

In between is the usual medley of Rob hits including several requests for money (usually beginning with “I hate to ask, but…”), long threads about Weird Al Yankovic, photos of him and Zach when they were little boys, discussions on the series finale of Weeds, IMs with him freaking out after losing a debit card, articles I sent him about Mr. Robot, jokes he sent me from Reddit, songs that we sent each other, making plans to see him for a Fourth of July barbecue in Binghamton, my user names and passwords for Hulu and Netflix, one that says “Emergency, had an accident,” and a few others with “Favor” written in the subject line.

I’m not sure why I keep these either. I’m not sure why I keep any of this useless crap. It doesn’t bring me joy, it doesn’t help me remember him any better, it doesn’t do anything other than remind me that Rob’s no longer here.

And yet I just can’t bear to further erase him.

I’ll Always Have His Back

ILL ALWAYS HAVE HIS BACKMy friend Tony emailed me yesterday to say that he thought my letter to Zach was lovely, and then he reminded me of something I left out:

But you didn’t mention that he has a tattoo of he and his brother on his back—which is extraordinary and says so much about who he is.

As always, Tony was right, so I thought I’d share the following story, written about seven years ago when Zach first got that tat.

***

“Don’t be mad,” Zach said over Instant Messenger, “but I’m getting this tattooed on me.”

He then sent a photo I took of him and Rob, when they were maybe 13 and 14. Zach’s wearing an Arizona hoodie and Rob’s in an AND1 long-sleeved T-shirt, and they’re both smiling so hard, but it’s not the usual cheesiness for the camera. I don’t remember what anyone said that day or why they look the way they look, but the picture captures a moment of pure joy and brotherly love. It’s one of those things that parents live for.

“Why would I be mad?” I texted back. “I love it!!”

A few months ago during spring break, Zach and I were hanging out at my Brooklyn apartment one night and I was telling him all about my recent adventures with feng shui. Laura, a feng shui consultant, had opened my eyes to the methods of the ancient art, and made countless suggestions—called “cures”—for every room in my place. One of the things that blew my mind was when she pointed out that none of the photos of my children, which are pretty much wherever you look, showed them smiling. I had always thought they were beautiful shots and a little arty.

“These photos are for your own peace of mind and for when your sons come to visit,” Laura said. “If you change them, they’ll see themselves not looking sad, and this will help you all reconnect with happy moments.”

Well, Zach loved all of the new smiley-faced pics of he and Rob, and was obviously enamored with the one he had just texted me.

And that just about kills me! Not just because Zach chose that particular photo, but that he chose to have it with him forever. It’s such a deep expression of the way he feels about his brother, and I know Rob feels the same way about Zach. I don’t think there’s anything in the world that can make me feel any prouder of the two of them.

Which is not to say that it was always fun and games in our house. We endured some pretty tough times, and maybe that’s why this gesture of love is even sweeter. I remember talking with Zach in his room a few years ago, when Rob was going through an especially rocky patch. “No matter what,” Zach said, “I’ll always have his back.”

Not to sound too touchy-feely about it, but Zach’s new tattoo has given my heart a permanent smile, and I needed to tell him that.

“I’m glad you like it,” he texted back. “That makes me very happy!”