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The healing has begun. Life without Gus…


It’s been three weeks now since Gus passed. I’ve been watching myself closely to witness my evolving reaction to the death of my best friend. I’ve had people die on me before—my father, my mother, my grandparents, my beloved cat, close friends, and people in public life whom I never knew but felt I did (e.g., JFK, Michael Jackson, George Harrison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg). But Gus was special to me in life, and he has been special to me in death.

My initial reaction to his death was sheer, spectacular grief. For days after he died in my arms, I could barely handle anything. I completely gave up on the notion of being the strong male who suffers in silence, and yielded to my shattered emotions. Gus had been my constant companion for so long, it was as if my heart had been ripped from my chest. When I took the job at Jackson Family Wines, in 2012, one of my negotiated demands (in addition to working from home) was that Gus be allowed to accompany me to meetings, and to travel with me on business-related trips. After I retired in 2016, we were together 24-7-365. To be so suddenly wrenched from Gus was the most awful thing I’d ever been through.

I knew, intellectually, that time would heal that particular wound. I didn’t know quite how the process would work, but the support I got from hundreds of people (some of whom, on social media, I didn’t even know) was tremendously helpful. Everybody told me I’d get over the immediate pain. Today, I can report that I have. It’s no longer like a match being held to my skin. It’s more of a dull ache. I haven’t cried, physically, for days now. But tears are only a heartbeat away. I am reminded of Gus dozens of times a day. His little bed, which I still have on the livingroom floor…his cremains in the urn…the empty chair he liked to sit on…the space next to me in bed where I was so used to finding him, in the middle of the night, now vacant. His absence is what shocks me the most. It’s like the Sun disappearing from the sky.

I’m an anomaly, I guess, in having reached the age of 74 and never experiencing this severe a loss until now. My thoughts turn to countless humans who have lost children, spouses, parents, friends. I see in my mind the suffering people in war zones, beating their breasts, ululating, in the worst cases carrying in their arms their dead children. I think of the FDNY firefighters on Sept. 11 who rushed into the towers. I think of Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in Jewish synagogues. I see images repeated across untold generations of humankind. Death surrounds us.

What differentiates us humans from the beasts, it’s said, is the knowledge of death. Gus didn’t know he was dying, not even at the end…or so I think. Maybe, in some mammalian way we don’t understand, Gus had a glimpse. There was a last moment, just before the drug kicked in, when our eyes locked: his looked into mine, mine into his, and I wondered…Does he know that this is it? But then, he fell asleep, the sedative knocking him into unconsciousness, and his eyes, still open, were lifeless.

Ah well. How beautiful and wondrous and strange and sad it all is. Meanwhile my plans to remodel my place are proceeding. It’s a fulltime job! Grout, paint, wallpaper, carpets, appliances, countertops, molding. It keeps me busy; sometimes my mind races. People say it’s good for me to be “distracted” from thinking about Gus. That’s the word they use: “distracted.” I suppose it is good, but I’m not “distracted” in the sense that I don’t think about Gus. I do, all the time. Memories of him rush through my brain, even as I look at paint samples or research refrigerators. But I try not to talk to him anymore. That would be weird. I have to check myself whenever I get the urge. It’s a hard habit to break, after so many years. “Gus, I’m home!” or “I’ll be back soon, don’t worry!” Not gonna turn into one of those crazies who talk to the dead. But what we had was extraordinary. As Gus wrote me, in that last letter, “It was good, Daddy, wasn’t it? It was really, really good.”

Yes, Gus. It sure was.

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