There are many ways to lose your children. Indeed. And last weekend I spent three days at the Compassionate Friends Conference listening to tale after heart-breaking tale of just how many, many ways there are for far too many parents to suffer this most unimaginable of all losses. They say that when you lose your parents, you lose your past and you’re called an orphan. They say that when you lose your spouse, you lose your present, and you’re a widow or widower. But when you lose your child, you’ve lost your future, and there’s no name for that. It’s simply too terrible to contemplate.
Last weekend in Chicago, we didn’t simply contemplate this, we talked about it, we hugged about it, we breathed about it, we cried about it, and we walked about it. The conference was in the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, which was like a small city, complete with a central elevator system and four external glass pods whisking guests to plant-covered walkways leading to over 1000 rooms. All weekend long, bereaved parents were beamed up and down to attend workshops like the ones I spoke at, workshops with sobering titles such as Multiple Loss or Sudden Death-Vehicular. These are the subjects for which I’m a vertitable thought leader, topics I know way too much about, but it’s my absolute honor and privilege to share my experience with other kindred souls in rooms where no parent wants to sit.
On the first day of the conference, we had a luncheon speaker mention that when he’d checked in, the clerk informed him that there was another guest with his same name and then asked if he was there for our conference or the, um, other one? Upon investigation, he learned that there was another gathering in the hotel and that it was some kind of porn convention. Later that day, the front desk called to inform him that he had a package. But when he inquired further, it turned out that the package was for the other guy. He admitted to the room full of 1300 snickering bereaved parents that he was still wondering what was in that package and kind of wished he’d gone to find out.
The next day, I was slated to speak about writing your story and I met in the lobby beforehand with Coralease, the lovely lady who was to be our panel moderator. Coralease is a genteel soul, a retired nursing professor from Howard University, and we settled into two stuffed chairs to get acquainted while she ate her lunch. The standard conversation opener at a wedding might be something along the lines of how you know the bride or groom. The standard conversation starter at a business convention is probably something about where you work. At a Compassionate Friends Conference, bereaved parents wear name tags bearing not only their own name, but also the name(s) of their dead child(ren), and they often proudly wear buttons bearing their child(ren)’s photos as well. There, the typical conversation ice-breaker is something we rarely talk about as we go about our average day—how our child(ren) died. They say that water seeks its own level and it is only at these conferences that we find our kindred spirits. We all meet each other where we’re at. We are all bereaved parents. And we move on from there. We talk about what happened and we don’t have to worry about hiding our pain from others or making them feel uncomfortable. We are all there because we are those people for whom there is no name. And for three days we all float down the same stream.
It was only a matter of time before there was a confluence of the two hotel conferences. As Coralease munched on her salad, I sat facing the lobby where the escalators and stairs descended to the front doors. We began to get acquainted in the TCF way and she was recounting the tale of her daughter, Candace’s, accidental death while I sat on the edge of my seat, actively listening like you do when someone is sharing the contents of their heart. But it was also lunchtime in the lobby and I noticed that there was a steady flow of folks congregating there before exiting the building. And I also noticed that many of them were dressed in a variety of distractingly disturbing costumes. I tried to pay attention to Coralease, but now and again I had to interrupt the flow of our own conversation to say, “Oh, my, Coralease, you have got to look at this,” as a dominatrix in full leather attire waltzed out the door to find a sandwich. Or when a young lady dressed in rainbow-fringed boots looking rather like a unicorn pranced on by with her skirt clear up to her yin-yang, as my mother would say, her bare buns proudly displayed for all to see. This style of skirt became fairly standard garb as the weekend wore on and I imagined there was a boutique at the other conference selling all kinds of things like that.
Billed as the largest event in the USA dedicated to love and sex, the Exxxotica Expo 2014 was in full swing alongside the 37th Annual Compassionate Friends Conference. On their opening night, over 8000 women attended the free Ladies Night, breaking all attendance records to date. While we attended seminars on grief, their record-breaking crowds learned about Breaking into the Biz and Swinging 101. The convergence of our seemingly disparate groups became manifest as bereaved parents posed for photos with porn stars. Bereaved Dads stood between high-heeled transvestites and smiled for their wives.
Bereaved Moms proudly displayed I-phone photos of themselves flanking Ron Jeremy, a legend in the XXX circles. I’d never heard of Ron before last week, but since then I’ve researched his Wikipedia entry for our combined edification. You might want to jump on anyway to see him accepting his 2009 Positive Image Award or if you already know all about him, enjoy his photo here and feel free to skip the next paragraph.
Nicknamed “The Hedgehog,” Ron was once ranked the number one porn star of all time. He also appeared in a variety of non-pornographic films, none of which I’ve ever heard of (Orgazmo anyone? How about Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead?), and was also on Wheel of Fortune where he won a trip to Mexico. Ron is listed in the Guinness Book for the most appearances in Adult Films, having perfomed in over 2000 and directed another 281. By way of comparison, John Holmes, whom most people name when you say that last weekend in Chicago you saw the most prolific porn star in history, has only 384 acting credits. Ron was even in the infamous Debbie Does Dallas, Part 2, but, no, not the musical. Who even knew there was a D3 musical?
Meanwhile, back at the conference each morning, I’d step into one of the high-tech glass elevators hoping to find that they had built-in coffee makers, only to share my caffeine-deprived disappointment and my downward ride with some young stud decorated with giant earlobe gauges sporting a t-shirt that said, Screwed, Blued, and Tattooed. And his girlfriend wearing way too much makeup and one of those yin-yang skirts. How, I began to wonder, did their parents feel about them proudly displaying their birthday suits before breakfast? According to my research, Ron, himself, was born in Queens, NY to a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Arnold, was a physicist and his mother was a book editor who served during WW2 in the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. Ron, himself, went to high school with former CIA director George Tenet but apparently had no interest in following in either of his parents’ footsteps, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and theater (which appears to have come in handy) and a master’s degree in special education. He taught awhile but left teaching early on to pursue his acting career in the Big Apple where he got his first big break when his girlfriend submitted his photo to Playgirl, and, pardon me, but it wasn’t the usual head shot she sent. The rest, as they say, is history, and you might say that he’s worked in the special education field ever since.
I don’t know for sure how Ron’s parents feel about his career choice and I never shared the glass elevator with him so didn’t get to ask. Perhaps it’s disclosed in his memoir, Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz, which was published by Harper Collins and gives you an insight as to what kind of books gets traditionally published these days. But as our joint conferences progressed, I started to think that perhaps TCF should have invited the parents of the the over 120 Exxxotica Expo stars to join us. I couldn’t help but feel that somewhere in Queens are parents who aren’t thrilled by their daughter proudly displaying her morning buns or that their son is best known for his super-sized family jewels. According to Wikipedia, Ron had to substitute his middle name for his last after people persisted in pestering his grandmother following his Playgirl appearance. “She had to move out of her apartment for a month,” Ron confided. “My father told me, ‘If you want to get into this naked, crazy business, so be it, but if you use the family name again, I’ll kill you.” Which leads me to conclude that he’s probably not too proud of his son’s success after all.
At the final TCF dinner banquet, we listened to a song composed in honor of my friend, Darcie Sims, with words she’s known for, “May the love be what you remember most.” The TCF conference is, indeed, about everlasting love, love that transcends even death. But when I think of the Exxxotica conference, I find myself channelling my inner Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” I, for one, am happy that I was at the TCF conference and find the staggering attendance at the Exxxotica to be quite disturbing. There are, indeed, many, many ways to lose your children. Some involve death. Some involve life. Both, I’m sure, entail heartbreaking grief.