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L.A. Affairs: How working as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl healed my grief

Yun Yao's illustration of man standing in the hills outside the Hollywood Bowl.
Being of service, I learned, is one of the best ways out of a depression.
(Yun Yao / For The Times)

I don’t believe in love at first sight. I don’t even believe in like at first sight. I do believe you can meet someone and instantly get a hint.

For me, it’s an involuntary interior voice that pops up and says, “Yeah, I could like this woman.”

At least that’s how it was when I met Olivia. She was a history teacher at Glendale High, and I was to be her substitute for the day. She was taking one of her classes on a field trip, and I would teach the rest. Olivia was writing out a lesson plan for me as I walked into her room. She looked up from her desk and gave me a beautiful smile, and I got one of the biggest hints of my life.

Olivia liked the way I handled her classes, so I became her regular sub. Once when she was going to miss several days in a row, she called me at home to go over what I needed to accomplish while she was gone. After the work conversation was done, I asked her to dinner. She said yes.

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So began my eight years and 12 days of Olivia.

I am an avid hiker, and Olivia soon joined me on my Sierra Club Friday night hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains — our weekly ritual, followed by frozen yogurt. It became one of the highlights of my life. I’m an amateur astronomer, and when I pointed out Jupiter to Olivia one night she enthusiastically responded, “Oh, wow!” and told me she’d always wanted to learn more about the night sky. I began pointing out the constellations.

My involuntary voice went off again, and this time it was way more than a hint. (What can I say? I’m attracted to people with a healthy sense of wonder.)

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We went to movies, plays and parties together, but for a long time only as good friends. There were past wounds and disappointments that made her reluctant to move things to the next level. I so enjoyed her company that I hung in there. We became best friends and then eventually she asked to stay with me one night.

I slowly but surely fell in love with her.

****

She had the surgery, the chemo and the radiation. But the breast cancer had been discovered too late.

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Eight years and 12 days after our first dinner together I sat at the edge of a hospital bed and watched her die.

It was the worst day of my life.

I spiraled into depression. I would sit at home at night, stunned to find myself alone. I once broke out crying while washing the dishes. My friends found ways to keep me busy. They gave me books to read on grief and often called to talk. One of the books warned that people sometimes deal with grief by getting lost in work. The author suggested that this method of grieving was just a postponement of the pain and not the cure.

“Does loving your second child diminish the love you have for your first? Of course not.”

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But I disagreed. I thought: But what if it’s the right job? What if it’s work that can help with the grief? I thought about this idea for a few days and then applied for a job as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl.

Music.

Lots of music.

That’s what I needed. And I got the job. Every night, week after week, I would be bathed in humankind’s greatest invention. It occurred to me that the Bowl had to be filled with positive feelings. I mean, who’s unhappy about a night at the Hollywood Bowl?

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So I would stand at the bottom of an aisle in my white shirt and black tie, ready to be of assistance. Normally, I’d be at the Bowl on the Fourth of July for an evening of rousing music and fireworks. The virus has taken all that away for now. I miss spending my evenings helping people find their way. I really liked that part of the job. Being of service, I learned, is one of the best ways out of a depression. It really did help.

Asking was my way of being flirtatious but asking was also the right thing to do, right? I’m not a caveman and I wanted her to know that. I also wanted to know what I had done wrong.

But it was the music that did the major work for me. Mozart’s concertos made me swoon with their beauty. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” lifted me up. In concert one night, Bob Marley’s son sang to me that “Every little thing gonna be alright.” James Taylor and Carole King both reminded me about the importance of having a friend. Van Morrison offered up some tough love. He told me: “You’ve got to roll with the punches ... that’s the only way to go.”

It was during one of these concerts that I had the breakthrough revelation that changed everything and began my true healing.

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The most basic fact about my experience with Olivia flooded into my brain.

When Olivia knew she was going to die, she decided to spend more time with me.

The author has written eight novels, including, “Company of Thieves.” He lives in Los Angeles.

Straight, gay, bisexual, transgender or nonbinary: L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for love in and around Los Angeles — and we want to hear your story. You must allow your name to be published, and the story you tell has to be true. We pay $300 for each essay we publish. Email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.


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