I know this entry will be difficult to write. And probably incredibly long to read. I'm warning both you and myself of these details.
In 2002, I wrote and produced (along with my friend/brilliant director, Michael) a fly-on-the-wall, documentary special initially called "Tattoo Nation", later to be repackaged into a half hour flashy-piece-of-crap, hosted by Dave Navarro and Carmen Electra, and renamed "Set in Skin" by the jughead executives at VH1. We spent tireless time finding subjects to be interviewed. Our goal: To find real people who were tattooed for life-changing reasons, interview them and the artists who helped them transform "tragedy" into art. Among the subjects I pre-interviewed and pitched: 5 NYC firefighters who were tattooed with memorial ink for their fallen brothers post-9/11, a man who turned his entire arm's chicken-skin-like skin graft into beautiful dragon flesh, and a 60 something woman on Long Island who, after having a double-mastectomy due to breast cancer, opted to have a lattice-work of flowers and vines tattooed across her chest and scars.
Her name: Julie. And I had no idea how my life would change thanks to meeting her.
We arrived to her tiny house in the tiny Long Island town and set up our interview. It was a tight space, the one bedroom home she was born in 6 decades prior, but we made it work. I sat across from the bubbly, quirky, and energetic lightning storm of a human and began the interview.
She was candid and explicit and unapologetic. She made me laugh and spoke of her surgery as a "relief".
"No more boobs going 'baBOOM, baBOOM!' when I run," she remarked with a dismissing wave of a hand.
We spent 2 days interviewing both her and the artist, Dana, who'd inked the beautiful tattoo across her torso (which Julie was more than happy to show the entire crew), and , at the second day's end, Michael and I were lucky enough to get tattoos done by Dana. The poor woman worked 2 hours on his Celtic knot and 4+ hours on a sailing ship on my arm. She must've been BEAT, but she did an outstanding job. Somehow. I think my hand would have cracked and fallen off.
I kept in regular touch with Julie on my work email address, letting her know, ultimately, that VH1 was reducing the 9/11 piece to 1 minute ("No one wants to hear about 9/11 - it's too depressing") and completely cutting out her segment. She took it in stride, as she'd worked as an editor (and as the assistant editor on the Oscar-winning film "The Conversation") and knew how the TV business operates (read: In a bullshit way).
As the life of the freelancer goes, the show ended and I drummed up more work with a different production company, leaving behind Michael's company for nearly 5 years to work on a variety of *cough crap* reality shows. Once in awhile, my mind would drift to the memory of Julie and wonder what she was up to. Of course, I was living in Los Angeles, so those thoughts of fancy were quickly shattered by strict deadlines, traffic, iced coffees and other handy, material distractions.
Then, in 2006, my then-wife and I separated, and my world came crashing down. I picked myself up and made the long and slow choice to take the pain and sadness and turn it into a lesson. This incredibly pivotal point in my life took a LONG time of dealing with letting go (I'll not bore you with the details here...well, not in this entry) and accepting that life cannot be controlled. And not just paying lip-service to that idea: Really FEELING it and noticing it.
Almost one year after this "existential awakening" as my therapist called it, I returned to work with Michael on a series he'd sold. I logged in to my old email account and began tossing out all of the junk that had accumulated. Apparently, my penis could have been 20 feet long by then and my credit score could have been checked 5,900 times. Then I came across scads of emails from Julie:
I was on a mass email list, and as I began scanning, it became quickly obvious that Julie was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's Disease") over the past handful of years, and the symptoms were advancing. The disease is neurodegenerative; that is, motor neurons slowly die, leaving the muscle tissue stagnant and eventually paralyzed. She would now by typing her emails with eye-detecting software, as her hands had lost strength, she wrote. I immediately fired a response telling her that I was back at the company and to email me at my personal address. Thus began a correspondence and friendship that would lead me through life-lessons I couldn't have dreamed up. And I'm big on dreaming.
Julie spoke very frankly about her death, as she faced it in an obvious way day upon day, in poems I'd regularly receive, sometimes of the torture, sadness, anger, regret, but also in pieces entitled, "Moments of Joy" with that day's date, chronicling the sounds of snow melting, visits from loved ones, breezes carrying the scents from her garden inside, and trips on her Equus motorized chair up and down the charming streets where she lived. More often than not, the tears would come, tears of sadness and joy and every shade of grey in between. Without trying, Julie was teaching me about death and what it means to die.
This isn't to say all of her emails were bustling with poignant and sagelike wisdom, nor do I think that's how she lived her life. Instead, softness, honesty and tenderness were conveyed with the understandable frustration and fear. Julie never once pulled a punch. And there, another life-lesson was imparted: FEEL what you FEEL, no matter how uncomfortable it is, because IT IS YOURS.
We'd exchange movie recommendations, I'd pitch her story ideas I was scribbling away at, I took my camera on runs with me and edited pieces together showing her the trails I was blessed enough to run along. The internet: Is there anything it can't do? I also told her of the memorial pieces I was shooting with a brain cancer patient, chronicling his life, celebrating his experience on this planet. As a fellow filmmaker, she was utterly ecstatic and intrigued, telling me how she wished she'd thought of doing this for herself years ago.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Julie that read, in part:
If i suddenly stop being able to eat, I quit.
Her symptoms were beginning to worsen. She was also growing low on funds and didn't qualify for state hospice care. And this morning, I received this email:
Geez, rusty, i wish i could send you a ticket to come and interview me
before my event. You know i always wanted to have a live memorial.
She spoke of fearing "not being" any longer and asked what *I* have discovered about death through my interviews with the brain cancer patient. Imagine that! Still humble, still honest, the teacher had turned to the student for a lesson.
It was in my response email that it dawned on me: I need to visit her, if only for one final goodbye, and to record at least part of her living memorial. I'm putting a plan into motion to head to Long Island next month. I pray that she's still with us.
Over a year ago, I received one of my weekly mails from Julie, one coming from an incredibly positive place. Following her jokes and spinning of stories, she signed it, "Remember me dancing on my bed! jz".
My next tattoo.