In the space of two weeks, how did the supporters of a newly wedded 44-yr old help her go from planning a dream “Jewnorican” wedding to planning her husband’s funeral? Janice Messitte – stand-up comic, singer and actress who has performed on Conan O’Brien, Letterman, Comedy Central and The Friars Club – sits down with memory artist, Nancy Gershman to recall the details.Double check on your husband – especially when he looks fast asleep Mothers: be as happy as your happiest child Don’t beat yourself up for losing the husband on your watch Don’t sap your energy tracing bad luck to a possible curse What audience can there be for a videotape of a husband-in-a-coffin? Summer Camp Mode means treat the tragedy; cry later Dating a widow? Try harder to “fathom” their tragic event Feel blessed when you get discounts – without playing the Death Card The dead can be summoned to fix things that never worked The added weight of mementoes in your purse can weigh you down Your To Do List
“I was born in Queens, raised on Long Island. My father was an educator; my mother a weight loss lecturer. I was spoiled with a lot of affection and love. My parents are married 50-something years and I always ask: How do you do it? My mother always replies: ‘Good communication, a lot of laughing, and sex.’ To get through life, my parents would laugh. My whole life was based on that role model.
When I was 44 years old, I married for the first time. I knew this gentleman from my neighborhood– he the Puerto Rican cop; me the Sephardic Jew. We went to the same bar and I remember him coming over to me and saying “You’re very pretty, Mama” and I said, ‘What – does my mother have you on payroll? Don’t compliment me, you’re married.’ And he said, “You just can’t take a compliment. You’re a bitch.’ This made us laugh out loud. Willie was 5’7”on a good day, with the personality of somebody 6’ 5”. He always had a smile on his face, even with the crazy life he went through. Five years later he would be my husband.
So here I was, planning and negotiating this beautiful Jewnorican wedding down in Florida; a lot of Puerto Rican kids in flip flops on his side and the Jewish side bedecked in diamonds. As the unmarried middle child; the professional single gal, frankly no one thought I’d ever get married. My brother used to say, ‘I thought you switched teams, it’s been so long you brought a guy home.’ And I said to him, ‘Every guy I brought home fell in love not just with me but with our whole family. So I didn’t want that to happen again. The last guy ended up in a mental hospital.’
I felt that I had waited my whole life to meet the right person.
After the wedding, me and my new husband drove back to New York. Two weeks later I went to go get my nails done (which I never do, because I am a licensed cosmetologist who did nails my whole life). But I had a French manicure, and when you break a French, it looks like you broke a finger. I didn’t want to take out the repair kit because of the smell and the fuss. I thought, screw it, let me go pay the $8 bucks and let this Jewish girl treat herself. But the truth is, God didn’t want me to be at the house; I would have seen Willie die. Thank you, God. My last vision of him was beautiful.
The only argument I ever had with Willie was Who’s Going First. Every day he left my house he’d say to me, “Mama, God forbid if something happens to me, make sure that my kids are ok.” So one day I turned around to him and I said, “Nothing is going to happen to you: I’m going first! And what do you mean: you’d rather I die first? You’re a better sufferer than I am; I take an aspirin for everything.” The irony is that I was left to suffer.
Back to Willie. I walked in the door, and he didn’t even flinch – a cop who was always a very light sleeper …who’d wake up if a fly buzzed around his head. But I figured he was tired from doing all the driving from Florida, so I left him alone. I went to the bathroom to use a nail drill to correct the manicure – it sounds like a Black and Decker drill and went back into the living room where he was still sitting on the couch: arms folded, sleeping. With no pulse. So I said Holy shit, pulled him onto the floor, turned his head to the side, wiped out his mouth of vomit, gave him CPR. I said to myself, he’s got to be dead. He has no pulse. On my landline I called 911 and said ‘Officer Down.’
In an instant, I went from planning a wedding to planning a funeral. Willie went to sleep and never woke up and that was the first time I saw anything funny in what was going on. I realized Willie, you got your wish; you died in your sleep.”
“The morning after Willie died, Mom said over the phone to me, ‘I thought I had the worst nightmare. But when I saw the luggage at the end of my bed, I realized it really happened.’
My mother believes that a mother can only be as happy as her most unhappy child. At that moment, she could not believe what was happening to me. She was watching her daughter go down like the Titanic. So what do you do? You try a joke. ‘You’re 4’11” and you’re already shrinking,’ I told her. ‘Pretty soon you’re just going to be a head.’ Because she was shrinking from the sadness.”
“Your mind goes through so many different emotions when your husband dies, but one emotion I will not feel is guilt. I never said Why? It was more like, Why not? No matter how rich, tall, fat, thin you are: no one is excused from life.
Only a month before Willie died he was going blind from diabetes. He lost his vision and then regained it. Boy was I yelling at him! I didn’t wait this long just for him to die. So I said, ‘You fuckin’ die on me, and I’ll wake you up and kill you all over again. I’m not kidding.‘ ‘Mama, that’s really deep,” was what he said to me.
My husband also had very high blood pressure and should have been taking his medication. When I caught Willie taking his medication wrong – cutting it in half – he confessed, ‘My three inch killer whale doesn’t get as hard as it should.’ What can you do? My husband died on account of his dick. To me, sexual performance wasn’t as important because I had my husband’s constant affection – kissing, hugging. But to men, this is very important.
He was supposed to be medicated every day for his blood pressure and diabetes, and in the end, he died the way they all die in his family! (Except his father, who is still alive because he takes all his medication.)
I know in my heart Willie knows I did everything.”
“As I said, I wanted a Jewnorican wake for Willie so I personally went inside to talk to the priest. I wanted him to know who he’s talking about when he was up there. This was about my husband; not some Palm Sunday reading.
I told the priest that my luck may have gone bad. I remembered that when we visited his parents in Florida, Willie said to me, “Mama, don’t think my mom is going to rob your pocketbook.” What!? And Willie explained it to me. “You’ve got a bad habit of throwing your pocketbook on the floor.” Apparently, when you put money on the floor, it goes straight into the dirt. So that’s why I was broke my whole life! The priest and I laughed at that one. Otherwise, without the joke, I would have fallen apart.
But then I remembered something else that kind of was worrying me. When we got to his mother’s house, his mom said, “I want to give you and Willie my bedroom.” I told her, ‘That’s so nice, you don’t have to.’ And she says, ‘You’ll have a nice room, the one with the bathroom.’ So I’m making the bed when all of a sudden I hear glass breaking and feel something wet under my feet. I look carefully under the bed, and I see what looks like a broken water glass. I’m freaking out a little because in a Jewish wedding, the groom stomps on the wine glass you both drank from after your vows. But broken glass under the bed?? I ran and got my niece, Chastity, and told her that she’s got to help me; that there’s broken glass under the bed. That’s when she explained to me that it was the holy water I broke and here’s how you fix it. Bring a new glass to the bathroom, fill it with water, and put it back under the bed.
I told the priest that when I broke the holy water, I think I was screwed. He laughed and told me he was pretty sure that spilt holy water was not going to affect my relationships, or my future. Married to a Puerto Rican, with a tattoo and a pit bull, I’m going to hell in a hand basket anyway.”
“At the wake, there was lots of family from Puerto Rico. The one that stands out for me was my sister-in-law’s new husband. He started videotaping my husband in his coffin. What was he thinking? That Willie would sit up in the coffin and say right on cue: ‘Oh, just kidding. I just wanted to see how many people love me!’ I told the guy, ‘Stop videotaping. Wrap it up! ‘ and finally I go to Frankie, Willie’s brother and say, ‘What is this guy trying to do, kill my parents, too? That’s my husband there. And my mother-in-law’s baby.
She was the best mother-in-law, too; she didn’t speak any English.”
“Every box you’re supposed to fill out when you’re married, I didn’t get the chance to. Even though I was Lucky number 3, I had Willie at his best. He was retired. He’d already raised his children. He told me he was with his ‘Dream Girl; the love of his life.’
Yet, because Willie was a retired police officer and because we were not married 9 months, I lost all the benefits. I was his domestic legal partner for 5 years. We didn’t marry because I didn’t want to wear white so soon. I kept putting it off. When I got my ring, Willie said and kept saying, ‘Let’s do this already.’
The Pension Board office took all my health benefits away that day. They took all his social security back into the system. I was left with a very small pension and no husband. On top of being in shock, I went into what my dad called “camp mode.” In addition to being an assistant principal, my father ran sleep away camps. He raised me that when someone gets hurt or something terrible happens, you take care of the tragedy and cry later. If blood is gushing out of somebody’s head, you say, Don’t worry, you’re fine, you’re fine. You’re going to be OK.”
“When dates say ‘Oh you’re a widow. What happened?’ I say ‘I killed him. You want to be #2?’ Or they’ll ask: ‘Do you mind if I ask how you lost your husband?’ And I’ll answer, ‘He’s not lost. He had a great sense of direction. He’s dead.’ Some will even ask ‘What were his last words?’ and I’ll yell, ‘I’m coming! Get out of the way!’
Another common reaction is the guy who says, “I can’t fathom.” You know what I say? Fine. Some guys just can’t fathom, but what a horrible thing to say! Saying ‘I can’t fathom’ is like saying I can’t feel ….
Surely the worst loss is a child. But when your husband’s died and you know that it was the best relationship you’ll ever have, it’s a loss – but not a waste of time. I turned 50 this week and I can say that unlike the other ladies these guys are dating, I’m not divorced. I didn’t hate my husband. I’m not coming out of a relationship with the baggage of hate, anger and resentment. Instead, there was so much love. I was spoiled with affection. Let these guys fathom the fact that nobody compares to my husband, Willie.
Girlfriends aren’t that much better. One filled two pages to tell me how great a friend I was. But if it had been their husband, I’d have been holding their hand throughout, and I mean actually holding it. Some people couldn’t handle what was happening to me.”
“I’m a very spiritual person. And I felt blessed. Willie had died in his sleep beautifully – that’s why I had an open coffin. If he’d looked spackled together from some shoot out, I would never have had an open casket for his family. (We’re Jewish, we don’t show the body. We just look inside the casket to make sure it’s the right person.)
We had thousands of officers coming to see him, like he was Tito Puente or somebody. I even had to take the biggest room at the funeral home! But when you’re married to a police officer, a real old school cop who knew everyone on the block, who worked many funerals himself, that’s what happens. Willie was just a regular police officer, but he got a lieutenant’s funeral when somebody called in a favor. That meant horses, bugles – Amsterdam Avenue blocked off for 4-5 blocks. And a black stretch limo fit for Jackie O to take my parents and me to NJ to cremate the body.
At age 44, I was married for the first time, lost the love of my life, and had to make major life decisions. I told my mother I was totally prepared to use the “2-week death card” at the funeral home (which she wasn’t crazy about at all). I started with the guy who was showing me caskets for thousands of dollars. The ‘Come on, cut me a break – you can do better’ kind of thing. I told him, forget about the fancy casket. Just get a regular pine box, and we’ll put a nice piece of velvet on the inside.
But I ended up feeling blessed again when the guy took money off the coffin and told me not to buy my urns there (I needed 8!) and go get them at a flea market. That might not have happened if my inner comedian hadn’t come out. That led me to learn that the guy’s family had bought Pips, my favorite comedy club in Sheepshead Brooklyn, where I used to perform.
Funny, I never wanted real flowers at my wedding. The flowers lasted but my husband didn’t. Who knew silk flowers were cheaper than real? I knew that when you bring fresh flowers home they’re dead and on the floor in a minute. My husband died. But my silk flowers never died. They’re now in my mother’s foyer, perfect.”
“I believe in a higher power. I guess I’ve always had a sense of things about to happen. Thinking back, when Willie and I were driving to Florida, I felt death the whole way there. I just thought it would be his relatives.
At his funeral, I felt Willie. My parents drove to the funeral parlor in Willie’s new SUV, and parked it on a side street. Sure enough, one of the police horses from the cortege took a dump right on the driver’s side where Willie would have been driving. He always drove. Willie gets a send off, I thought.
Another thing. Willie and I were both cigarette smokers. We promised each other to quit smoking. So when he was laid out for two days in an open casket, I swear I heard him say, ‘Mama, you’re still smoking cigarettes and you can’t even get me a cigarette?’ So I ran out and bought a box of Newports and piled his badge, some other stuff and the Newports right on top of him.
Then there’s the clock business. Because Willie was a cop, because his son was in the military, he’d go by military time. The clock on the wall is digital. After Willie died, would you believe my clock was in military time, for a year! I’d reset it to standard; next time I’d look, it would be back to military. I’m thinking, am I going to have to do this every day of my life?
Willie also could fix anything. I once asked ‘Willie, do me a favor, can you fix the ceiling fan in my parents’ place? ‘ He took the whole wall apart and told us, the problem’s not electrical. It’s the remote that’s broken – but nobody had the part. So after he died, my mom and I yell, ‘Willie put the ceiling fan on,’ and each time we do, the fan goes on. Swear to God.”
“I have Willie’s photo up in the living room – in his police uniform along with other pictures from our wedding, some Buddhas, stones and rocks. When I travel I take my favorite wedding picture with us (it’s just him and me, beautiful and spiritual) instead of the typical Thank You For Your Sympathy card. I ended up hand writing, like, over 200 all in one Thank you/Bereavement notes. They read: ‘Thank you for the lovely gift and thank you for being with me at this difficult time.’
Now that I’m dating again, how can anybody tell me to get rid of that corner? I had a wall unit of mementos before. Now I just have a corner.
For a little guy, Willie carried around a lot of stuff: 40 lbs. of gear. After he died, I used to carry Willie’s handcuffs, badge, wallet – and travel around with all that stuff, too. But it got too heavy and now they charge you! So now I carry just that wedding photo and an inspirational note around in the book I’m reading.
As a Jewish person, I also keep memory alive by talking about Willie.
If I have a choice to laugh or cry, I’ll laugh. It’s a cleansing feeling. Nobody wants to be around you when you’re crying. But they sure as hell want to be around when you’re laughing.”
In the days or months (or even years) since your loved one passed, have you felt tender towards objects that used to be handled daily by them? In a sense, does his or her “stuff” feel almost warm-blooded to you? Are you, like Janice, finding yourself always carrying these objects around with you, transferring them from purse to briefcase to knapsack?
As Janice reminds us, there are practical reasons for weaning ourselves of this habit (the surcharges, sore shoulders, etc.). One practical solution you might consider is photographing the objects in a sort of still-life. The reason you’d arrange them in a still-life is because they would be compactly arranged, and that way they’d all fit within a credit-card sized photo you could slip into your billfold, or behind your Metrocard.
When you’re ready to do the shoot, why not invite a friend over to act as a “stylist” and have some fun with it. Maybe even insert some object that represents You in the pile. What might that be?