Thursday, January 29, 2015

Five Years and a Bunny - Celebrating Gabrielle Bouliane

Five years ago on this day we were expecting snow in Durham.  I was waiting to pick up some prescriptions that evening and by the time I left to drive home tiny, crystal flakes had started to fall past the street lights.  Small, beautiful jewels falling from the sky.  I was, at that time, in love with three very different boys, two of whom had recently informed me within days of each other that my love was no longer desired or necessary.  I was engaged in a seemingly hopeless battle for my own health and living thousands of miles away from the people I desperately wanted and needed.  I was sick and heartbroken and so incredibly lonely.  And none of those things were at the forefront of my mind because I was readying myself for a trip to Austin to say goodbye to a woman whose friendship had changed the course of my life.  

Maybe death has a way of exaggerating our memories.  It probably does.  But the day I met Gabrielle Bouliane she was walking up that big hill to the Globe Cafe in Seattle and she was backlit by a gorgeous sunset.  I remember thinking her head was glowing like she was on fire.  I remember her hot, tight jeans.  Her leather jacket.  Her boots.  I was intimidated as fuck because this woman was COOL.  She was cool and she knew it.  Later that night, after I read, she came up to me and said: “So, you need to come down to the poetry slam.  Maybe I can get you a feature.  Record yourself reading three of your poems and get them back to me.  Maybe you should host an open mic.  I can make that happen for you.  Hi.  I’m Gabrielle.”  I didn’t know then how rare she was.  I didn’t know how few women artists would ever go out of their way to help another woman get a leg up in this game.  I knew she was cool and she seemed to think I was ok and that made my life and my work seem possible for the first time.  

The next year when I made the slam team she gave me a gift to get me through Nationals… I recall there was a sleep mask, a protein bar, some tylenol pm and an epic amount of condoms.  Gabby loved the things that make life on this earth delicious.  She loved kissing and laughing and good food and art and sex and friends and cars and driving a little too fast.  She was the first person who showed me what a diesel femme was, even though I don’t know if she ever referred to herself that way.  It was impossible to be around her and not love these things too.  It was impossible to be around her without her constantly worrying if you were comfy enough, if your heart and belly were full enough….it was impossible to be near her and not talk about real things and laugh and sigh and laugh some more.  

When Gabby died five years ago today - from a fucking bullshit pancreatic cancer that still enrages me  - Grief showed up on my doorstep wearing a small and clean blue dress and she had a tiny suitcase with her.  She walked through my door and said: “Where should I put my stuff?”  And I said: “Not here!  Anywhere but here.  Go away!  I hate you!”  And then I set myself up to ignore her for a long, long time.  

When Gabby died Rachel called to tell me.  I remember my heart breaking specifically because I knew her heart was breaking and I didn’t want her to have to call anyone….and I remember feeling so grateful because I could not have taken that news from any other voice in the Universe.  When Gabby died Laura gave me a place to stay in Austin and I went there even though Bunny was gone and I laid on the floor of that gorgeous woman’s office and cried myself to sleep every night listening to the unusual Austin rain.  Missy and Annie caught me and hugged me and made me laugh.  There was poetry.  There was an entire world of poets whose breaking hearts matched mine exactly and we were all united and so, so alone in it.  When Gabby was dying Karen and I became friends….and then platonic life partners.   When Gabby died my beautiful sister Heather held my hand and my heart because she had recently lost her beautiful Libby and she knew.  For months I walked around in a stoned, pain coma that was only broken at three in the morning when that girl Grief jumped onto my chest and reached her slim hands into me to pull me up by my heart,  and then my wretched body would sob as quietly as it possibly could so that the boy in the other room who no longer loved me would not be disturbed or think I was crying for him.  

When Gabby was dying we would often talk late into the night about life and death and longing and though these years have been among my most lonely on this earth for a brief time it was not just me stuck in it.  We were connected by shitty luck and a growing mutual love…..*because this is the part that is most important*…..when Gabby found out she was dying she made the boldest and most brave decision I’ve ever seen a human being make. She actively decided to grow the love she had been growing her whole life even bigger.  She doubled-down in her love.  She made sure every single one of the thousands of people whose lives she had touched in this world KNEW we were loved and were perfectly seen by her.  She made sure we were comfy.  She worried that our bellies and hearts were full enough and if she decided they weren’t she set herself to the task of filling them for us.  

So Grief is sitting at my table, fiddling with the spoon in her tea and she says:  “You know I’m really sorry about Zelly….and Massey.”  And she looks down at the pleats on her tidy blue dress and starts to smooth them with her nervous hands.  And my breath catches a little as it does lately when anyone mentions either one of them in this way and I say: “I know.  I know you are.”  And then we sit for a little while and talk about not much at all but it is not the uncomfortable, hateful silence of five years ago.  Things are different now.  What I did not know then is that she was carrying things I desperately needed inside of her little suitcase.  I did not know she was a friend with a shitty job and that it is not fair to take my pain out on her.  What I did not know then is that she would hug me sweetly if I made space for her and that my lessons could come easier if I wasn’t thrashing around so hard.  

Five years ago on this day I had no idea  that so many of my hard times were still in front of me.   When Rachel called that evening I could not imagine my heart breaking any harder than it was in that moment.  That too was a blessing.  Maybe you will believe this next part and maybe you won’t but Gabrielle has been with me this whole time.  Homeless.  Terrified.  Hungry.  Sick.  Hopeless.  Embattled.  Suicidal.  Empty.  Crippled.  Enraged.  Despairing.  Addicted.  I have known each of these words these past five years and if it had been left up to me I probably would have given up on myself a long time ago.  But that love Gabby grew?  It envelops me, all the damn time.  I feel her.  I hear her and talk to her almost every day.  When I fall down it is her voice in my ear whispering: “Honey, get up.”  I suspect her hand in all of my blessings.  When my beautiful sister Heather took her life last summer because this world can be brutal Gabby came and slept next to me for a week.  When my shaky hands would consider harming myself to just to relieve the pain of my loss she would hold them in her own until the shaking stopped.  I don’t know how to convince you how real this all is - I can only say if you were blessed to be loved by this woman in your life you have undoubtedly felt the same from her at some point.  We are watched over and loved by her every day and if there is ever any doubt you can rest assured a living bunny will hop across your path and make you shake your head and laugh to yourself.  

I have fallen in love and come to depend upon the friendship of Gabby’s amazing mother, Gretchen who I like to call: The Source Of All Badassery to myself sometimes.  I have fallen more deeply in love with the people who loved  her the hardest every day for the past five years.  Most importantly I have learned that Grief is a gift for having loved fully and well in our time on this earth.  She is a blessing visited upon us and she gives meaning to our lives and our love. I have gotten up every time I have fallen down because I have a story to tell you about this woman who was on fire and who came into my life and burned so much of my fear down.  I have a story to tell you and it is the greatest story in the world: Love your beautiful, messy life.  Love your beautiful, messy people.  Love your beautiful, messy self and never stop no matter how hard you want to.  Maybe there is a God, maybe there isn’t.  Maybe heaven is real and maybe it’s not.  But I promise you this: Love cannot die.  Not ever.  And if you look around your life right now and see that it is not full enough with love you have to double down.  You have to get serious about fixing that right NOW.  

Every January 29th for the last five years has been hard.  Every single one.  I thank God for that and I thank Gabby for it.  Thank you for seeing me, sister.  Thank you for giving me a leg up.  Thank you for so much naughty fun and so much laughter.  Thank you for showing me how to be a badass, redheaded broad on stage taking up space and making people fall in love.  Thank you for your protection.  Thank you for your grace.  Thank you for the people you’ve gifted me with.  Thank you for the secrets only we share.  Thank you for catching Zelly.  Thank you for catching Massey when the time comes.  Thank you for reassuring me that Heather is safe and free.  Thank you for your poems and your films.  Thank you for the gift of grieving.  Thank you for being my friend and loving me across every imaginable barrier and circumstance.  Thank you for coming into this world and lighting it up more brightly and more Bunny-like than anyone else ever has.  

Before she died Gabby wrote instructions for us:  Live your life.  Live it hard.  Love your people.  Share your stories.  Master the art of balancing strength and vulnerability.  And perhaps the greatest lesson to her thousands of friends who are performers and artists: Always leave them wanting more.  


  1. this is perfect. you are perfect. thank you thank you thank you xxxx R

  2. I love you so much, McKibbens. <3

  3. Hadn't run into Gabrielle around Buffalo in about 8 years or so. While sitting here tonight I thought I'd Google her to see what she was up to. So saddened to hear that she has died . We dated briefly in college. I still have many fond memories of our time together. She was a true original and I was lucky to have known her. Your words above are beautiful and I really enjoyed reading them. 😓

  4. I'm so sorry to hear about Gretchen. This family has suffered so already. Thanks for all your musings on Gabe (how I knew her back at UB).I miss her too. The moon was full the night she died. A Full Wolf Howling, Trees Cracking Moon.