You Say It’s Your Birthday

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Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear Rob-bie
Happy birthday to you!

We all know there’s no need to sing the second verse. Rob’s 28—now and forever.

Rob was never a big fan of his birthdays, particularly when he was a little boy, crying his way through many of them. We always thought it was about adoption and the whole “hole in my heart” thing, and these celebrations just amplified his ineffable sense of abandonment. Now I know exactly what he was feeling.

This birthday—and, I imagine, all the ones to come—will be pretty much the same. Instead of calling Rob and goofing on him for being an “old man,” I’ll call Zach and Caryn and we’ll all feel shitty for a bit and probably cry. I suspect that it may get easier in the future, but for now it’s just a brutal reminder of how much we love and miss him, and how much we’d rather have him here with us. No one liked to party as much as Rob, but even he would find this one to be a real drag.

I was just looking at photos of his birthdays from when he was 12 to 17, and he’s smiling and mugging for the camera in almost every one. Boy, do I miss that smile! He chilled out about these celebrations as he grew older. During his teenage years, we generally marked the occasion by doing all the standard birthday stuff—eating pizza, singing the stupid song and blowing out the candles on a giant chocolate chip cookie cake thing that Caryn had baked and that we all loved. Then it would be time for the funny cards, with funnier things we wrote inside of them, and we’d top it off by giving him increasingly lavish gifts, which culminated in a tricked out Ford Focus when he turned 17. These were mostly happy days.

When he lived in L.A., Maura and I celebrated one of his birthdays by taking him out to an old-school red sauce Italian restaurant in our neighborhood that served unlimited garlic knots. We didn’t get together with him last year because he was either busy working or going to a meeting, I forgot what his excuse was. Of course, I had no idea that that would be his last one.

Whenever I think about Rob’s birthdays, my mind time travels back to a few weeks after he was born. We had this great party in our apartment in Forest Hills and invited all of our friends and family to help us celebrate his arrival. We sent out invitations that said “You are invited to the debut performance of Robbie James Carlat in It’s a Wonderful Life. And on the day, it certainly was.

We ordered food from The Homestead, this excellent German gourmet shop right down the block from us on Austin Street, and I only remember bits and pieces of that night but every memory is pure joy. I was floating from person to person, hugging and kissing everyone, introducing friends to my other friends, and ushering people into our bedroom to meet the little man of the hour, who was in Caryn’s arms, wrapped up tight in a blankie, absolutely clueless about the festivities in his honor. Other than the days that he and Zach were born, I can’t remember ever being happier.

One of the happiest days of my life is now one of the saddest. There are no balloons, no funny cards, no cake and no Rob. So I’ll blow out the imaginary candles for him and make a wish, knowing that it can’t possibly come true.

One More Day Full of Worrying

WORRY

Rob always hated it when I told him how much I worried about him.

“You don’t need to worry, Dad,” he’d assure me, having no idea that I didn’t have a choice. I worried about him from the day he was born until the day he died.

I’m a worrier by nature and, in Rob’s case, by nurture. I worried about him when he was a baby and wailed like a banshee. I worried about him when he didn’t have that many friends in grade school. I worried about him when he was hanging out and doing who knows what with his tight group of friends in high school. I worried about him the day he got his driver’s license and shortly after that, when he got into a fender bender the first time he drove the new car we’d just bought for him. I worried about him when he first went off the deep end at 17 and had to be hospitalized. I worried about him when he and his girlfriend Taylor moved to Binghamton, and a few years later when he returned to Long Island. And of course, I worried about him the day he told me he was moving to Los Angeles, and every day afterward until we finally ran out of days.

I’m not sure what any of my worrying ever accomplished. Part of it was just the way I’m wired, part of it was PTSD from my own shitty childhood and part of it was girding myself for the inevitable bad news. But worrying is more than the sum of its parts.

When you know that the shitstorm is approaching, when you can see it coming right at you and your heart is beating out of your chest while your head’s ready to explode, worrying about someone you love is the most natural thing in the world.

Worrying about Rob was always just part of the deal.

It was my job as his father mainly because he gave me plenty to worry about. I rarely worried about Zach, except when it came to his relationship with Rob. I worried that Rob would someday hurt Zach and I worried that Zach would someday retaliate and hurt Rob, but I mainly worried that they would eventually become disconnected from each other. I don’t know if I could’ve dealt with that fissure (which happens to run in my family), and thankfully I never had to.

I can’t think of a time when I didn’t worry about the idiot. When things were copasetic, I worried that he would suddenly spiral out of control. When he was out of control, I worried that things would get worse. When things got worse, I worried that we would lose him.

“You don’t need to worry, Dad.”

I did most of my worrying with Caryn, and our corresponding anxieties fed off each other until we were completely debilitated. And then we’d continue to worry about Rob separately. I can’t imagine any parents who worried about their kid as much as we did.

I worried about Rob with my friends Tony and John, with my sister Patti and in recent years with Maura. Sometimes I worried about him with Zach, but I tried to keep that to a minimum. Still, it makes sense to worry about someone you love with the people you love.

What prompted me to write about this worrisome topic was an email I received from an old friend who lost her brother several years ago. She mentioned how her parents struggled with many of the same problems that Caryn and I had to deal with, and how worrying about their son became a full-time job. But there was one sentence in her email that cut to the heart of the matter:

My dad said, “I’d give anything to have one more day full of worrying about him.” 

That one line sums up my grief more than the 100,000 words I’ve written about Rob over these past 11 months. That one line sums up how I feel and will continue to feel for the rest of my life.

Letter of Introduction

LETTER

Hi Mom,

Remember me? It’s been a long time since we last talked. Too long. You’ve been gone for more than 30 years—nearly half of my life—and a lot has happened. I’m not going to get into all of the details because that’s not what this letter is about. This is more a letter of introduction.

You know how you sometimes send an email connecting two of your friends who’ve never met each other before? Of course you don’t because there was no such thing as email back then. Anyway, this isn’t about friends. It’s about connecting family. It’s about introducing you to my son—your grandson—Robbie.

Maybe you’ve already met. I heard Dad was there to greet him and help with the transition to whatever it is you guys transition to, and I don’t know if you’re still close with Dad or not because I have no idea how the whole afterlife thing works. In fact, I didn’t even believe that there was such a thing until Rob died. But then I had to believe, which is why I’m writing you this letter. I’m hoping that you can read it or read my mind or do whatever it is that spirits do.

I don’t have many regrets (that’s not entirely true and we can talk about that some other time), but one of the biggest has always been that you weren’t around to meet my kids and be their grandma. I know you would’ve loved them and they would’ve loved you, and that’s always the first thing I think of whenever I think about you.

I remember how, when you found out that the breast cancer had returned and metastasized, you just didn’t have it in you to fight anymore because you were physically and emotionally exhausted. Patti and I were sitting with you at the dining room table in the house on Horace Harding, pleading with you to give it one more shot. I tried laying a guilt trip on you about not being around to see me get married and be there for my kids, but it was too late and you had already been through too much.

I’ll get to Rob in a moment (and I’ll tell you all about Zach the next time I see you), but I just thought of something else. This may sound harsh and I really don’t mean it to be, but the truth is that I don’t think about you all that much. It’s not that I didn’t love you—you know I did, and I know you loved me too, so I’m not really sure why you’re not in my thoughts more often. Sure, some of it is the passage of time and some of it is my reluctance to look back, but lately I’ve been wondering if there could be another reason.

I brought it up with my therapist Katarina the last time I saw her, and she said something interesting. She said that maybe I had worked out everything there was to work out with you in more than 30 years of therapy. When I went to see a psychic/medium to contact Rob from the great beyond, she mentioned the same thing. She told me that we were all good, that we had a loving relationship and there was nothing left unsaid or undone. I know that’s all true, but it still kind of bothers me.

Now more than ever. A day hasn’t gone by that I don’t think about Rob, and I can’t imagine a day when I won’t. Speaking of which, it’s time I tell you a little about him. The first thing you should know is that he’s really, really funny, and I’m sure he’ll crack you up. Nothing gave me more pleasure than making you laugh when you were alive, and I like to take a little credit for Rob’s sense of humor, so I feel pretty confident that you guys will enjoy each other’s company. I only wish I could remember what your laugh sounded like.

The second thing you should know is that he’s incredibly loving. He and his grandma Phyllis shared a deep and special bond, and I can see that happening with the two of you now. I’ve often said that Rob was a pain in the ass who was deeply loved by many, but you have the advantage of not having to deal with the pain in the ass part. You just get the very best of Rob.

Now that he’s no longer tormented by the many things that tormented him here on Earth, you just get to enjoy his tremendous spirit. That’s the thing I miss most about him. And come to think of it, that’s also the thing I miss most about you.

The crazy thing is that we were together for such a short period of time. I had more time with Rob than I had with you! I’ve lived more of my life hearing “Dad” than I have saying “Mom.” I wrote about this once before, but I screwed up the chronology, so I’ll state it correctly for you now:

Twenty-six years is not nearly enough time for a boy to be with his mother. Twenty-eight years is not nearly enough time for a boy to be with his father. I am the boy and I am the father, and I miss you both very, very much.

I’ve been having these weird, vivid dreams lately (it has something to do with EMDR therapy), and you and Dad have been in them, as have Rob, Zach, Caryn and Maura. We’re all jumbled together, and sometimes you’re there with Rob and Zach when they were little boys, and sometimes I’m a little boy with them too. It changes every night, and Maura has had to wake me up a few times—she said it sounded like I was in distress. I don’t remember any of the specifics other than how jarring this time travel feels when I wake up, and how it makes me miss both of you even more.

It doesn’t make sense to me that it took Rob’s death to make me miss you more than ever, but so many things in life don’t make sense. Maybe in death, they do.

It also took Rob’s death to make me let go of my anger with Dad. You loved him more than any of us, so there must have been some good in him to love. If you should bump into him, tell him I said all is forgiven, and that I very much appreciated him being there to meet Rob on the other side.

So that’s pretty much it for now. You guys can take it from here.

Love,

Larry

What’s the Difference Between God and Bono? 

BONO 1

It’s a new year and a new decade, but some things never change, which means it’s time for another monthly check-in with myself. 

Lar: You know, we don’t have many more of these to go.

Me: This is the penultimate episode.

Lar: I’m dying to know how this ends.

Me: Jeez, dude. Must we?

Lar: Sorry, it just came out.

Me: I get it. We are indeed in the home stretch. How were the holidays?

Lar: Everyone kept telling me that the holidays would be difficult and I was like, Why should they be any more difficult than the previous months have been? As it turned out, everyone was right.

Me: What were you feeling?

Lar: Oh, nothing really…except for the unbearable loneliness of Rob not being here. Wherever I looked, it was joy to the world. You know, the most wonderful time of the year and all that crap. And everyone was blissfully running around, buying presents, listening to shitty Christmas music, and all that happiness just amplified my sadness and made me miss Rob even more than usual.

Me: You were a regular Scrooge McGrinch until Tiny Tim came to town. It was a Christmas miracle.

Lar: God bless us, everyone! My small heart grew three sizes that day! All kidding aside, we had the best time. Zach has come to L.A. for the last few Christmases, but this time was different. Maura was in Boston visiting her family, so it was just the two of us. And last Christmas, was…well, you know.

Me: The last happy day. Did you guys talk about it?

Lar: We actually didn’t. I told you last time that I can’t be sad when I’m with Zach. He’s my baby, my one true source of happiness—he’s always been and always will be. And maybe before Rob passed, I took that for granted, but now I cherish it more than anything on Earth. When I dropped him off at the airport last week, I told him that there’s no one in the world I’d rather hang out with, and I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

Me: I know, dude. I feel exactly the same way.

Lar: And the thing is, we don’t have to be doing anything in particular. It’s just us being together. He did kick my ass in H.O.R.S.E. again, but to be honest, I kind of like that he did.

Me: When the student becomes the master. Did you guys talk about Rob at all?

Lar: Only when it came up organically. Like when we were in the car and Zach synced his iPhone so he could DJ and the first song we heard, magically, was “Cotton,” one of Rob’s faves. You know, we didn’t have to talk about him because we both felt like he was there, hanging out with us.

Me: He’ll always be there with you guys. So…changing the subject, let’s talk about the new year.

Lar: It couldn’t have come fast enough. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway—last year can go fuck itself! Although I have no idea what will happen next. I suppose my grief will continue to change and the pain will probably/maybe ease up a bit in a “time heals” type of way. But that’s as far as I can see. I’d say that this year has to be better than 2019, but I know better than to tempt fate or annoy God…

Him: Did I hear someone say My name?

Lar: Not again! What the hell are you doing here?

Him: I thought I could be like a special guest. You know, just do a little cameo appearance.

Lar: Ugh. So what great wisdom do you have to impart?

Him: Um…I didn’t really prepare anything. I thought that maybe we could just riff like you do with yourself.

Lar: How very on-brand of you, with the whole “working in mysterious ways” bit.

Him: Love that song. Which reminds me of a joke: What’s the difference between Me and Bono?

Lar: Are you fucking kidding me?

Him: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Lar: Well, I’m not in a jokey mood.

Him: You know, sometimes you can be a real drag! Okay, let me leave you with this parting thought: Every day is a gift—from Me to you. There’s no guarantee of tomorrow, so find the good in every day and make the most of it. Peace out!

Me: Wow! I didn’t know that you knew Him.

Lar: Well, I always thought that He was you.

Me: Which makes Him you.

Lar: This is giving me such a headache. Can we get back to whatever it is that we usually do here? Thank God we only have to do this one more time—next month, on the one-year anniversary of Rob’s death—and then we’re done.

Me: I don’t think you really want me to thank Him, but what you just said is a perfect segue to what I was going to ask you: Have you heard of the anniversary effect?

Lar: I can guess what it is, but why don’t you tell me.

Me: It’s basically you feeling extra-shitty in the run-up to the first anniversary of the day Rob died. Anniversary effects are like a post-traumatic stress response, but in calendar form. You may reexperience the whole fucked-up thing or it may heighten the stress related to grief.

Lar: I’ll be the last person in our grief group to deal with it. Everyone else says the anticipation and dread leading up to the anniversary is worse than the actual day, and whenever it’s “everyone” saying something, it usually turns out to be right. So the next few weeks should be a barrel of laughs. And let’s not forget the added bonus of Rob’s birthday two weeks before he died.

Me: It’s always darkest before the dawn, my friend. We’ll get through this together.

Lar: I won’t bust your balls for that tired cliché because here’s the thing: It’s not like I’m going to wake up on February 7 and feel any different. When you said “get through this” you conveniently left out the part where “this” lasts forever.

Me: Well, that brings up my next question: How are you going to feel about not writing about Rob anymore?

Lar: I honestly don’t know. All I can say about it is that I felt compelled to write about him right from the get-go. It kept me connected to him and helped me process my feelings. It also became an obsession. Writing about Rob was the only thing I cared about in those early days. It hurt like hell and yet I couldn’t get enough of it. I also knew that if I didn’t document exactly what I was feeling when I was feeling it, I’d never be able to recreate what I was going through.

Me: So what’s changed?

Lar: Everything changes with time, or maybe I’m just running out of things to say, who knows?  But over these past few months, it began to feel a little like a burden. Maybe I just need a break from it. Writing about Rob has kept me immersed in my grief 24/7, and I kind of need to catch my breath. Frankly? I’m just exhausted, and it’s time to live—rather than document—my life. It’s time to think about the future. More than anything, I know Rob would want me to.

Me: I hear you loud and clear, Lar. Like He said: “Find the good in every day and make the most of it.”

Lar: I can’t believe you’re quoting Him! We’ve come a long way from Joan Didion.

Me: I knew you were going to say that, so I came prepared with the following advice from St. Joanie’s Magical Thinking gospel: “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

Lar: I agree, and that point for me is exactly one month from today.

Him: SorryLC, but I really need to finish my joke.

Lar: Ugh! Sometimes you can be so annoying! Fine. Let’s get this good time over with!

Him: Thank you. Ahem…What’s the difference between Me and Bono?

Lar: Tell me.

Him: Rob has never met Bono.

Me and Him

ME AND HIM 2

God has been on my mind recently, which is kind of weird for me because I’m not sure if I believe in Him. I do, however, follow Him on Twitter and He’s funny as hell. For instance, the other day He posted: Take it from Me: prayer is for shit. 

We totally agree on that, so I thought maybe it was time for me and Him to have a little sit-down and settle our differences man-to-the creator of the universe.

***

Um…hi?  Hello? Anybody home?

WHO GOES THERE?

It’s Larry. Shouldn’t you have known that?

COME BACK TOMORROW!

But I’m here now.

DO NOT AROUSE THE WRATH OF THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ! I SAID COME BACK TOMORROW!

What are you talking about?

HA! I’m just playing with you, Lar. Relax. Take a load off. What can I do you for?

Well, first of all, I don’t really believe in you. And second of all, if you do exist, I kind of hate you!

I totally–and when I say totally, I mean encompassing all knowledge of the universe past, present, and future–understand, and we don’t have to get into either of your issues right now. Let’s just have a friendly chat. What’s on your mind, my son?

That’s what’s on my mind–MY SON! And I hate you because you took him from us!

I know that you’re hurting, Larry. You loved Rob like nothing else. You were a great father and did everything you could’ve done for him.

And then you took him away!

I can see why you feel that way, again, because of the whole omniscient thing, but you already know why Rob is no longer with you. You said it yourself.

What the fuck are you talking about?

It was in one of your stories a few weeks ago. By the way, love the blog! Although I was less than thrilled with that whole Vengeful Motherfucker post from a while ago. That one was no bueno, mi amigo. Otherwise, very powerful stuff, but I wish there were a few more lighter pieces. You tend to bum people out. 

I still don’t know what you’re talking about.

You wrote, and I quote, “The soul knows when it’s time to go.” And that’s it. That’s all there is to it. THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ HAS SPOKEN! But seriously, Rob decided that he had had enough and didn’t want to be down there anymore. It was just too difficult and painful for him.

Fuck you! You did this!

I understand that you’re angry. A lot of people get angry with me. They blame me for all kinds of stuff, but the truth is that none of it is my doing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I created all life on Earth, but then things began to, as the saying goes, take on a life of their own. I’m not the grand puppet master everybody makes me out to be. You people have free will. Shit happens. Things change.

Shit happens? Things change? Who are you, David Mamet?

Love that guy! “Put. That coffee. Down. Coffee’s for closers only.” Sooo good.

Well, Mamet also said, “We all die in the end, but there’s no reason to die in the middle.”

Sometimes there are reasons to die in the middle and sometimes people die in the middle and there’s no explanation. That’s just the way life works. It’s just a big bowl of randomness. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but… “That’s the way (that’s the way) of the world (of the world).” EWF rules!

Goddamn it!

Jesus H. Christ! Haven’t you ever heard of the third commandment? Lemme make it easier for you. Just call me OMG.

You know, I don’t even believe you exist! You sound just like me, so this is simply another conversation with myself!

But secretly, when all is said and done, you’d like to believe, wouldn’t you? You need to believe in Me because it makes you feel a tiny bit better about Rob. If you believe in Me you can also believe that Rob is in a better place and that he’s no longer suffering, and that’s consoling and better than believing in nothing.

How do you know that?

Because I’m you, because I’m God…“because, because, because, because, because, because of the wonderful things He does!” HA! You stepped right into that one, Lar!

So is Rob with You?

Yes, definitely.

How do I know that you’re telling the truth?

It is certain.

Are you just fucking with me?

Signs point to yes! HA! I love doing the Magic-8 Ball shtick with people!

You’re a pretty funny guy for being God.

I’m surrounded by funny people up here–Groucho, Carlin, Pryor, Shandling–some of it is bound to rub off. Personally, though, my favorite joke about Me is by Steven Wright: “If God dropped acid, would He see people?” That’s just so genius! Can’t wait for him to get here so we can hang.

Well, I guess I can see how you’d get along with Rob.

Are you kidding? I love that kid! He makes me laugh like no one else and has such a big heart. You wrote that yourself in the Wonderful Life story, which was one of my favorites.

Mine too. So…are you me? Or are you just one of the voices in my head?

What’s the difference? How does this convo make you feel?

It makes me feel okay, I guess.

Why?

I dunno, maybe because it gives me hope. Maybe believing that there’s some sort of afterlife makes me feel less afraid of death. Maybe that takes away some of the horribleness of losing Rob. Maybe believing in You provides a little comfort.

Maybe believing in yourself does too.

So are you me or are you You?

Reply hazy, try again.

That whole You working in mysterious ways thing is super fucking annoying.

Without a doubt.

Ugh! Okay, you win. Last questions: Does grief get any easier? Does the pain ever go away? Will I ever learn to live without Rob?

Better not tell you now.

Those Fucking Soup Dumplings

THOSE FUCKING SOUP DUMPLINGS

I’ll never be able to eat soup dumplings again without thinking of Rob. This is both a good and bad thing. The good is remembering all the lunches we had together, just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, while associating the deliciousness and my love for this food with the deliciousness and my love for Rob.

The bad pretty much contains the same ingredients and usually hits a few minutes after I’ve polished off the meal. The bad is when I’m so full that I have to unbuckle my belt. That’s also when a foul aftertaste begins to creep up on my lips and then heads back down to my stomach. It’s just the sickening feeling I get whenever I think about how I’ll never see Rob again.

There’s a great restaurant called ROC right down the block from where my grief group meets, so I’m pretty much there every two weeks. The waiter knows me by name (I’ve become the Norm of the place) and has memorized my standing order: pork soup dumplings, scallion pancakes and something called a beef roll, which is a lot more appetizing than it sounds. It’s a lot of food and it’s usually the only thing I eat for the entire day, which is how I rationalize eating like such a pig, as if I needed an excuse.

We used to get deliveries when Rob lived with us, and I’d order twice that amount and there were never any leftovers. I loved to watch him eat. He was such a terrible eater when he was a little boy. It was Captain Crunch, McDonald’s, mac and cheese, pizza and done. It always surprised me how much he could put away as an adult, and the motherfucker never gained a pound in his life.

Every time I reach for a soup dumpling and dip it in the mix of soy sauce, vinegar and ginger, I think of us quietly sitting together at Din Tai Fung happily stuffing our faces. Whatever was going on in Rob’s life at the time—and as you’ve come to know, there was always something going on—would vanish while we were eating there, which seemed to add a little bit of tasty magic to our meals together.

Lately, one of my friends from our grief group has been joining me for dinner an hour before we meet. We’re the only two single fathers in the group, and we share stories about our lost sons while sharing everything I order and then some. Both of our boys were adopted and suffered from addiction issues. They were the same age when they died. My friend and I are basically two peas in a pod, which we don’t order because neither of us likes vegetables.

When we’re done, we split the check, hop in our cars and drive around the corner to where our group meets. There’s usually a jar of candy sitting on the coffee table in our meeting room, and for dessert, we each take a miniature Hershey’s chocolate bar and top it off with a little cry.