Ghosts in the Cloud

Monte Smock, or “Mama Te” as he was affectionately referred to by many who knew him, died of cancer on October 11th, 2011. He was one of those magnificent, larger than life people who made everyone smile whenever he appeared. One of my favorite memories of him was at my son’s baby shower, held at a Beer Garden in Queens, New York, naturally. My ex (then my wife) was about 8 months pregnant and huge (my son ended up being about ten pounds at birth). Monte had a rich, thunderous, gospel voice, and he knelt down next to her belly and sang a rendition of Amazing Grace to my unborn son that brought tears to my eyes.

That moment is how I choose to remember Monte. 

Even though he passed away nearly three years ago, he’s still on Facebook. I was reminded of this recently when I stumbled across his account. It was jarring at first. But then I flipped through some pictures and found this nice one of us with a few other friends at a beach house in the Hamptons. So all in all, it was a pleasant experience.

But it got me thinking. How many people have died but are still online? What does it mean when we leave this echo of ourselves behind that never fades?

 

In Memory of Meghan Smith: A retraction of sorts

I wrote an essay about my first real high school girlfriend that appeared in a Harlequin anthology called Crush last Spring. The essay was called What Good Is Sitting Alone In Your Room? and it was about a very wonderful and troubled girl, haunted by abuse and drug addiction and probably other things I wasn’t even aware of. After we broke up, she would occasionally reappear unexpectedly in my life for short periods, still wonderful, still deeply troubled. I always welcomed her, but she never stayed for long. She was a free spirit, wild and reckless, and I respected that. Eventually, I lost touch with her completely.

At the end of the essay, I wrote:

“I don’t want to give you the idea that I’m sad for Sally, or that I pity her in some way. That would demean her and what she stands for. You see, I was wrong about her not having inner strength. She chose her path and never wavered from it. And she has paid a hard price for that. The truth is, she is the type of person who brings forth so much of this world’s fierce, flawed beauty. I know my life would have been much more drab without her. And for that, she doesn’t deserve pity. She deserves gratitude.”

Her real name wasn’t Sally. I changed it because I felt that when you talk about someone who becomes a stripper and drug addict, you should ask them if it’s okay before you use their real name in public. And since I didn’t know how to contact her, I couldn’t ask her.

Now it doesn’t matter. Her real name was Meghan Smith and I recently found out that she died of a drug overdose eight years ago, at the age of 27.

I’m not sure now if I agree with the ending I wrote in that essay. I don’t know if I can still find any gratitude knowing that her choices cost her life. The truth is, now I am sad. I’m sad for her. I’m sad for her family. I’m sad for those of us who loved her and tried to help her and failed for whatever reason.

I believe that those we are privileged to love, we never stop loving, no matter what. Every person I have loved fully, deeply, still occupies a small part of my heart and always will. Sometimes it feels more like a burden than a blessing. But here is my hope:

When your heart breaks, it heals. And when it heals, it scars. That scar tissue is perhaps not the most attractive thing. But it makes your heart a little bigger each time. And some day, my friends, some day our hearts will be gigantic.

Who Says Readers Are Antisocial?

There were earlier warning signs, of course. But I think I can pinpoint the exact moment in 5th Grade when that sharp, elegant stake of book-love was driven deep into my heart forever. Picture it: a young Skov in the late 80’s, glowering in the passenger seat beneath the bangs of his asymmetrical skater haircut. In the driver seat is his aunt, a tall, tanned, chain-smoking horse trainer from Miami. She turns to him:

“So, I hear you like Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like that.”

“Yeah,” says young Skov. “But there’s nobody to play with. All anybody else wants to do is sports.”

“You know, if you like all that sword and sorcery stuff, I bet you’d like this book I just read by this guy, Piers Anthony.”

“A book?” says young Skov skeptically. But the profound awe he holds for his tall, chain-smoking horse trainer aunt keeps him from dismissing it immediately.

“Yeah, okay, I’ll try it.”

The worn paperback is handed off and the next day young Skov and his father drive home. It’s a long drive from Eerie, Pennsylvania to Columbus, Ohio and his father is not one for idle chit-chat. It is on this drive that relentless boredom finally forces young Skov to crack open A Spell for Chameleon and unwittingly begin a life-long love of sweeping epic fantasy. A love that he discovered he shared not only with his aunt, but with his father, and his grandfather as well.

A lot of time has passed and I can barely recognize that sullen emo kid. But the love of big fat epic fantasy novels remains. When my father and I, two very different men, find ourselves sitting somewhere with nothing to do and little to say, we always have that. And when my grandfather was nearing the final stages of Alzheimer’s, everyone told me not to take him to the Fellowship of the Ring movie because he just wouldn’t get it. But I took him. And he absolutely hated it. But the beautiful thing was that, at a time when he often could not remember my name, he was able to clearly articulate exactly why he hated the movie. I think it was the last time I saw him as I had always known him.

Recently, I’ve had several conversations with women who are trying to find some way to understand these strange beings that their sons have turned into in their teenage years. These moms want to connect, but they just aren’t sure how. And there is no magic bullet. But chances are if you read this blog, you, like my aunt, are a reader. And if you have a teenage son, or you know one, and you know what their passion is, then find the right book and just put it in their hands. They may not read right away. It might even sit for months. But I’m willing to bet that they will pick it up. And open it up. And open up the worlds of possibility that lie within it.

The act of reading may be a solitary act. But the act of sharing a book can sometimes forge surprisingly deep connections.

Tonight I’ll be talking on a panel hosted by David Levithan called “Getting Inside the Mind of a Teenage Boy” at the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca, NYC at 7pm. If you’re in town, come check it out!