Faith in the Big Yellow School Bus

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When my children were young, the big yellow school buses crisscrossing the neighborhood streets were my official timekeepers. Weekdays revolved around the sound of their diesel engines. The first bus of the morning carried middle school- and high school-aged students. I remember the days when I never could imagine that my grammar school children in front of my eyes, wearing Pokémon socks and innocent smiles, would ever pull off the trick of growing big enough to travel on the early morning bus. The future felt as far away as the high school, which is at least a good half-hour ride to the adjacent town.

About forty-five minutes after the first bus, the next bus, carrying grammar school students, roared down the road parallel to us. That meant that breakfast dishes were tossed into the sink, backpacks flung over shoulders and the three of us dodged out the front door, down our cul-de-sac, past the next door ranch-style house. By the time we made it to the stop sign (we always did!), breaks squealing, the bus halted completely in front of us. Eli, the bus driver, swung the door open, ppssss.

“Good Morning!”

The vocal magnitude of the two words ballooned big and booming, and made you feel as if you were on the other side of a bear hug. Eli’s broad beaming face erased any clouds as well as the discomfort of cold, hot, rainy days. His vigorous body language, combined with his waving hands, hailed in each new day as if it were a greater victory than the one before.

My children climbed up the metal stairs. Once they were safely inside, perched on their seats, Eli accelerated, spewing diesel exhaust fumes along the way. In those days, I was clueless about the toxicity of diesel fumes. Those were the days when I poured over parenting books, sure they would continue to navigate me and my family on the road map to happiness. Certainly those were not the days that reading books like the New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours provided me with therapeutic relief. The historical novel by Lisa Wingate is based on Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From 1924 to 1950, Tann got away with stealing and selling an estimated 5,000 children. It is also estimated that behind the organization’s closed doors, around 500 kids died at the hands of Tann, not to mention the countless children who were mentally, physically and sexually abused. In a morbid way, after I was dealt my unspeakably painful playing cards in the game of life, the book left me feeling as if I were the lucky one. I had the lucky hand.

Anyway, during the childrearing years, life went at a fast pace, but I moved in a slow enough pace to appreciate my bubble home. Weekdays, I performed household chores and tackled freelance writing assignments while keeping my ears open, listening for the big yellow school buses. Their daily routes helped to increase my productivity. “I have to hurry up before the kids’ bus gets in” outlined my day better than a day planner and kept me feeling safe and secure.

Years went on and before I knew it, magically, my kids graduated to the big-kid yellow school bus. Then in a flash of an eye, my grown children went to live on their own.

Before as well as after our family tragedy, apart from my Spotify background music in the kitchen, I blanked out most outside interference and noise, and fell into the routine of my days. On occasion, vaguely, I would hear the release of the squeaky air brakes on the school buses. Then suddenly, the world was completely floored by the Covid-19 pandemic and the neighborhood was emptied out and quiet. It were as if everyone of all ages were playing hide and seek, but none of the players got beyond the “hide” stage. Sometimes out of the blue when my blue moods would lift a tad, I had a sensation to roam outside and patrol the neighborhood, shouting “Olly olly oxen free!” and cry for life to wake up.

I’m not sure what the mask mandate is, but a few weeks ago, I am sure the town children started school again. I was driving down the road, and the cheery man bus driver with thick, white Santa Claus hair slowed down the big yellow school bus and waved at me. In the last few years of my children’s high school education, he replaced Eli’s job after Eli retired. I wrestled with my emotions and inspected the empty school bus. Suddenly, I gazed through the sight wearing my pair of rose-colored glasses and called out in my mind, “Olly, olly oxen free!”

I looked up and down the bus, but it remained empty. My imagination would not escort me beyond the reality in front of my eyes. The bus pulled away.

Hours later, running errands, I walked outside the drugstore in a strip mall. I heard a big yellow school bus barreling down the main road. I glanced up and spotted the sweetest looking ginger-colored boy I could imagine. He looked like he was around eight years old and wore the identical glasses my son did at that age. The loneliness in his face was as familiar as my arm hairs. The aura of isolation around him was overwhelming as if the big yellow school bus, completely empty, swallowed him whole. Sadly, the look on his face told me that he had learned early in life to accept his fickle finger of fate as if it were change returned from a vending machine. The bus, carrying the boy, moved past me and disappeared.

I wanted to wave the bus down. Wind the clock backwards. Instead, I stood like a prism. Pain passed though on every side until I became numb, my usual state these days. Like the boy on the bus, I accepted my state of isolation and managed to drive home and survive the day. The next morning, at the sound of the diesel engine, I move outside on the back balcony and observe the bus pick up the grammar school-age children. As I watch above ground, I think: this is my universe. It’s interesting to think how the shapes of galaxies are influenced by their neighbors, and I recall how many tragedies our little universe has endured: the spouses that have died before their prime, and the parents that have lost young adult children due to a number of different causes. I can clearly see the young mom who joined us at our school bus stop, later dying from cancer before her children ever graduated high school. I also visualize one child, older than my children, holding a saxophone case who also shared our bus stop for a few years, only to later die at 28 years old from what is rumored was a drug overdoes.

I think of how my neighbors and I have suffered alone and in solidarity with others. I picture how we have grieved inside our houses as the world spun on, as the big yellow school buses met their mapped out routes, crisscrossing the neighborhood as if invisibly connecting every single person who lives here, and who once lived here through the generations. My isolation lifts, realizing that gravity holds us all together like hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy. We are all the lucky ones on the same path to the same final destination, I say out loud as I watch the big yellow school bus muscle its way into the distance and realize how very little I see from this spot. Concurrently, I am filled with a child-like excitement of taking the very first school bus trip, having faith there is plenty of room inside and the big fat seat in the big yellow bus is designed for comfort, intuitively knowing that everything will be alright, because the route is planned. In the sheer scale of things, it is larger than our own milky way galaxy and defies imagination.

Faith Muscle

For the love of the prized pistachio

“Valuable things in life are free – love, moral support and time,” my karmic sister Prema shared this wisdom in her feedback after she read one of my blog posts a few weeks ago.

The way I see it, it boils down to living not for the adrenaline chase or the state of “more-ism” to fool us into believing we are immortal, it boils down to appreciating the moment. One of the best pieces of advice I received after experiencing our personal tragedy was from my friend Tippy who said that looking backward brings remorse, looking forward brings anxiety. The only place where we can find peace and contentment is in the present.

How do you do this? One way that I learned the wonderful art of mindfulness was by eating pistachios.

What sparked my memory of why I appreciate pistachios was a few recent advertisements that I received via email. I realized that I had a huge grin on my face while perusing the sales copy for them. (Disclaimer: I have no financial connection to this company and/or brand and am not employed and have never been employed by this company and/or brand.)

Reading about and seeing the wonderful pistachios made me recall a string of wonderful times. When my children were growing up, thankfully, they did not have food or nut allergies, and always loved pistachios. We were on a tight budget, but occasionally I’d splurge and buy a bag or more of pistachios to surprise them. Each and every time I presented a bag to them, they screamed in delight. It was the “I-scream-for-ice cream” kind of delight, but, in this case, it was for a penchant for pistachios.

The moment I walked into the house with the booty in hand, whether they were working on homework assignments, playing video games or with our beloved poodle, our world stopped spinning long enough for us to hanker down and nosh on the tasty morsels. Not only chores, but concerns went wayside as we ate in a slow motion fashion. With the pistachio, of course, we didn’t just gobble them down like gluttonous renegades on the prowl, because the shells don’t allow it. Sometimes, though, I did become aggravated when I’d encountered the uncrackable shell, and I started feeling as if we were wasting our time snacking. This was when the dirty dishes, homework and chore list started to clamor in my mind. However, after a few moments, perhaps, because the salt had an ocean-like calming effect on me, I managed to erase the annoying interference.

I look back at these times as holy moments. Moments when we paused, in-sync, in harmony and, really, really grateful for something so small that possessed the uncanny power of providing us with an extraordinary amount of substance. Some people may have found comfort in possessions like horse stables, built-in swimming pools and spas and vacation homes around the world. We had banked on shared bags of pistachios. The investment never failed and, instead, bonded us with love, belonging and awakened every fiber of our authentic selves. We esoterically understood “valuable things in life are free” as we ate those “wonderful” treats in a kitchen accented in generous sunlight, laughter and spontaneous movement.

Who would have dreamed that during those “blessed” moments things were growing, changing, transforming, metamorphosing like our own body cells. Nothing, after all, is permanent.

In the classic novel, Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier writes, “I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day, and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched.”

Untouchable is the word to categorize that time of mindfulness with my children before time itself twisted and warped the outcome. I can’t look back for too long like Tippy advised, but I can take a quick peek and garner some positive inspiration from the past that fills me with faith today. I can take advantage of the Wonderful Pistachio sale and go shopping for a bag of wonderful pistachios. Returning home, booty in hand, I can take aim at my higher senses and taste the magic of the moment, because this moment, this very moment is like a farewell and will only leave a barren shell behind to look back at one day.

Faith Muscle

Hallmark’s Hallmark?

Photo by Michelle Leman on Pexels.com

(The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.)

Since 1986, I’ve harbored a secret resentment against Hallmark Cards. In that year, in my 20s, I though it was a slam dunk to apply for a job opening at the company that I saw advertised and was all psyched to move from New England to their Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters.

Growing up pre-internet days, while some kids played baseball, bowled and participated in other leisure activities, I bicycled to the drugstore downtown and browsed through greeting cards that I later personalized, writing about my life’s rather mundane updates. Just like an evening ritual glass of milk before bed, I had my trip to the mailbox at the end of the street where I would deposit a handful of Hallmark Cards addressed to friends and family.

Understandably, I had one hundred percent, unshakable faith that I would land the Hallmark Card writing job. Plus, I possessed the required education and background and enough creativity to grow old with the company. For a solid week after my day job, skipping dinner, I typed my application into the late-night hours, which included brainstorming and writing a variety of sample greeting card sentiments. Upon completion, I packaged the bundle and mailed the application. Afterwards, I even mentioned to a number of people my impending Kansas City move. I spent weeks elevated behind my rose-colored glasses, visualizing a future made for a sappy greeting card.

I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come.

That was my theme song that I sang to myself as the days rolled into weeks. By week six, I received a form rejection letter from the company that floored me. Like all form rejection letters, it basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

After receiving the bad news, I felt utterly dejected for weeks. My dreams of becoming a greeting card writer were strip cut and made undistinguishable as if they were forced through a paper shredder. Deep inside, decades later, I still feel a tad resentful over the missed opportunity that when I least expect it, kicks in the “What if’s.”

My failed career experience, however, did not stop me from being a loyal Hallmark customer. I still purchase Hallmark cards along, of course, with other brands, to send to family and friends. Though I’ve cut the volume down immensely, thanks to the internet, sending a few cards for special and “Just Because” occasions is still like a secret mission of mine that I like to keep up on.

Needless to say, I am part of the Hallmark Gold Crown rewards program, which means I receive monthly promotional coupons.

Here’s the dicey part. After our family tragedy, I felt like an out-of-control mechanical bull was bucking and spinning in my belly when I realized that every Hallmark Card coupon code started with four letters: “SUIC.”

Granted, to 99.9% of the population, those letters are an innocuous, random combination. To “survivors” such as myself, the manual control joystick on that mechanical rodeo bull in my belly malfunctions, gets stuck in “10,” the highest speed, and cannot be disabled.

Each and every time I wanted to reach out to the company, but between my PTSD and my age, I don’t stray too far from my safe bubble. So, month after month, I “let it go” and turned a blind eye to the coupon code.

Recently, I opened my Hallmark Gold Crown rewards email, and the bull straddled my belly, kicked and spun so hard that, without a second thought, I immediately sent Hallmark customer service a note. Part of it stated: “….As a loyal customer, every time I receive a Hallmark Gold Crown rewards certificate, I am distressed to see the following promo code at the beginning of all promo codes: ‘SUIC.'”

To me, I always fill in the rest of the blanks SUICide. Aren’t there any other letters you can start your promo codes with? Is it in anyway possible to change this letter combination considering the sensitive nature of suicide loss survivors?”

I hit the “Submit” button and didn’t expect much. This time, 24 hours later, Hallmark sent me much more than I expected. It might have been partially a form letter, but not completely.

“We are deeply sorry to know about your loss and appreciate the time you have taken to let us know your thoughts about the initial name of the promo codes. We understand your concern because we strive for great customer service. We hope you will accept our apologies for this inconvenience. As with all of our incidents, this will be sent up to our feedback department so it can be reviewed by them in their next discussion and take into consideration. We can assure you that your feedback will be heard, but we can not guarantee a change will occur.”

Rose-colored glasses removed, cynical me, I figured, “I’ll never hear from them again.” Surprise! Surprise!

So a few hours after the letter, I receive a new coupon in the mail:

$2 Reward

2021 August | EXPIRES: 10/31/2021

Use this PROMO CODE online: SUIA459890056

Notice the SUIA instead of SUIC

I don’t know if this is a result of my feedback, but, man, that helps gives me faith. Perhaps, during one of those rare moments in my life, I’ve been heard and influenced a tiny smidgen of life. My long-ago resentment is wiped clean, the mechanical rodeo bull disabled, and I’m taking my newest coupon to the Hallmark store to stock up. I’m fired up to restart my spreading-good-cheer mission initiative. Who knows, maybe while on a high note, writing notes, I’ll revisit my resume, research what greeting card writer opportunities are out there these days.

UPDATE:

So much for helping me keep the faith. I received a new code coupon with the SUIC code again. Bummer. I think I’ll write an old-fashioned letter to the corporate office. 😞 (I will keep my blogging community updated!)

Blessed 🎂Birthday

Hurricane warnings canceled my birthday “celebration” plans this past Sunday. Honestly, I was happy as a clam, relieved that I didn’t have to venture too far. Although I didn’t hide under a clam shell as I wrote about in my last blog post, I did hide under a rain hat and enjoyed a light, enjoyable brunch at a restaurant in close proximity to our house.

The morning kicked off with flower deliveries, as well as thoughtful wishes from my blogging community, and I want to thank those who remembered, Alec, Prema, Judy and Kathy specifically! In fact, shortly before I turned on my computer that day, I thought of my “Karmic Sister” Prema. She not only provides assistance to me through this grief journey, but is instrumental in helping me keep the faith and not lose my footing. And wouldn’t you know it, as part of her birthday greeting, Prema wrote: “Let us show our faith in the divine by being cheerful, surrendering to Cosmic will. We are blessed as pain has a purifying effect on us.”

Blessed? What?

After surviving some harsh realities over three decades ago, in comparison to my old life, it was easy to count my blessings. Every moment was an abundance of gratitude. After our family tragedy 21 months ago, I certainly did not feel blessed and removed the word from my vocabulary since I no longer had a clue to its meaning. Now, thanks to Prema, I am beginning to comprehend that “blessings” are not necessarily people, places and/or things to tick off my personal agenda list.

One example that puts the word “blessed” back into my vocabulary is calling to mind the people like Prema who have been brought into my life. They are the brave ones who do not shy away from mortality and pain, but are less self-centered and, thus, confident and courageous enough to accept their own human vulnerabilities. Call them the chosen ones, or the lucky ones who walk into the dressing room of life with ease and without a desperate need to cram themselves into too-tight, ill-fitting “attire.” Instead, they accept what is appropriated to them and walk with their heads held high.

These are the people I am blessed to be around. They are the people who value me instead of judging me, because they manage to accept “what is” and not “what isn’t” and this peaceful state enables a channel of love to radiate and multiply. These are the people who are the ones that blaze a path for me to follow.

Transparency is natural above normal with them. As a matter of fact, I found myself this past week sharing secrets of the harrowing, graphic details involving my tragedy with another grief-stricken friend. After I took the risk of baring my soul, I looked into my friend’s eyes and knew I had reached a plateau of holiness; a sacred space where I no longer had to suffer in silence, but where I was heard and appreciated and allowed to cry out and feel that I really matter in the big world where it is so easy to get lost and flushed away. I mean, how many people are blessed to experience this type of intimacy that goes beyond reason?

Another blessing I thought of, thanks to Prema, is how the pain and suffering I have endured have washed away murky and meaningless priorities and people in my life. I now understand that phoniness carries no meaning. With meaning comes courage to speak personal truth.

I am finally heeding to 12-step advice I learned so long ago. “Say what you mean, but don’t be mean.”

As far as I am concerned, the art of true living is honesty. l am working hard on telling people how I really feel and, in turn, I hope they are comfortable enough with me to reciprocate. One recent test that I scored an “A” in was for confronting a neighbor about a charity pledge she promised, but did not deliver. Unfortunately, after our conversation, she skirted the entire issue. I did not get the intended result, but I did gain a new confidence in myself. In essence, I feel purer because I did not compromise myself by putting her needs above mine. In addition, I did not enable her to make a promise to me she did not intend to keep. No, we cannot control someone’s behavior, but we can control our words and behavior. Ultimately, if I am in the full spin cycle of purification in my life, one of the things that doesn’t serve me any longer is being nice for the sake of being nice and not hurting someone’s feelings, especially when he or she has wronged me.

I looked up the word “purification.” Among other things, it means, “the removal of contaminants from something.”

At this point of my life, I do not want to carry the burden and weight of heavy contaminants. I am overweight enough. So I’m purging. I’m uncluttering. I’m simplifying. I’m seeing truth for what it is and sharing my feelings. Feelings, after all, are not right or wrong, they are simply a part of what makes us who we are. If, however, they fester, build up inside me, they will eat me or explode in an inappropriate way and cause an unnecessary pain, a false representation of who I am.

What I am finding in the process is that most things like the political or religious affiliations that we carry really don’t matter. For the most part, our words and how they are carried out by our actions define us.

Carrying the grief, finding a sacred space for it, is among my many accumulated treasures in my long journey. It weaves a silver lining ribbon through this final chapter of my life in which the working title is “Blessed.”

Faith Muscle

22 Strong

Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

Twenty-two is an unlucky number for one of my closest friends. The reason she feels it is jinxed is that her mother died on the 22nd of September. The number, on the other hand, is a favorite one of mine, not necessarily lucky or unlucky, but a good powerful number in my eyes, and it was just happenstance that I was born on the 22nd of August, which happens to be five days away.

Don’t ask me what I’m doing for my birthday; likely, hiding under a clamshell, which is my plan every year that is yet to materialize. I think most suicide survivors have an incredible array of feelings and emotions to contend with when their birthdays roll around, beginning with “Why?” and ending with “Why?” and in the middle, a gossamer-spun dark cloak of shame, guilt, regret, sadness.

I spent my life grappling with depression that skyrocketed at adolescence. A few years after my last suicide attempt at 23, the darkest period of my life, I met an exceptionally trained, intuitively gifted psychiatrist. He presented me with an interesting theory. He said mental health experts were finding a growing body of evidence to suggest that when a mother considers aborting her child, but decides to birth it, the child is more prone to develop suicidal tendencies and thoughts throughout his or her life.

Now, I don’t know if my mom thought about aborting me. But I wouldn’t hold it against her. She had her two sons well over a decade before I crashed the party. I know for sure that it was not a surprise, but a shock for her to get pregnant for the third time. I know my mom was 36 and tired when she birthed me. All in all, I’m uncertain if that theory holds water as far as my mother is concerned, but it’s still an intriguing one.

As fate would have it and as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I started to turn my life around more than 36 years ago, which doesn’t mean I still don’t wrestle with the gang of crazies that drop by uninvited inside my brain every once in a while. They set up a picnic there and start clamoring in dialogue laced with self-hatred and negativity. With the help of others, I’ve trained myself to block out the mental invasion. Some people at retirement age have achieved the level of mastery in their chosen field. I, in contrast, have achieved self-mastery. That accomplishment has brought me here, five days away from another birthday, four decades after my near-fatal 23rd year.

Since our family tragedy 21 months ago, I am flooded with memories of my birthday that involved my son. The last time I celebrated my birthday with him was five years ago. I remember feeling my usual self: in-sync and in harmony whenever I was with him. I don’t fully recall what we did, which was likely an informal dinner at our house, but I believe my son brought me a sweet card as he usually did, always signing it at the end with “Love” and then his first and last name. His custom signature struck me funny each and every time. Like I don’t know who my son is, and he has to sign his last name just to make sure? I always thought to myself after I read his cards.

My son wanted to strike out on his own from the time he hit adolescence. His idea of growing up was relocating to another state. A few years prior to the final birthday I spent with him, he had driven from the New England area with a friend, who was relocating to North Dakota. As it turned out this so-called friend just used him as a driving companion and, after their arrival, at the end of the week when this so-called friend settled in with his family that resided in the state, he fought with my son. Ultimately, in a rage, he drove my son to the airport, kicked him out of the car and threw his luggage and belongings after him before he rode away to his happily-ever life. Fortunately, a homeless man helped my son gather his items spewed all over the airport terminal. Needless to say, I paid a hefty price for his return flight that night, but I was delighted to do it. His life was priceless. I was so relieved when he returned home to us. In fact, I almost fainted from the feeling of euphoria the moment I saw him stroll, safe and whole, into my view at the airport terminal.

My son was always the restless type. He wanted to relocate to so many places all the time. The raw truth is, he wasn’t going to stay HERE on this earth for very long. He possessed a tumbleweed spirit. It’s ironic how often he, too, said he wanted to move to the desert out west one day, where tumbleweed thrives.

Anyway, four years ago I spent a lovely Sunday enjoying barbecue on our outside deck. I bid him goodbye without realizing how short our time together was in so many different ways. He had been living with his godmother, Pat, at the time. The next day, August 14, a Monday, he woke up and took her by surprise. He was packed and ready to go. Out of the blue he announced, “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.”

I was also clueless to the plan he executed when he moved from our state and drove away in the hopes of creating a better life for himself in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The trajectory, of course, was the beginning of his demise.

He left no trail behind. After I learned the news of his departure four years ago, I was hard hit and felt abandoned and betrayed over his behavior to dash off without notice and without waiting long enough to at least celebrate my birthday together. Mind you, everyone in Bowling Green was a stranger to him. He had no job waiting there for him. He only had his car and a small amount of savings. He was doomed from the start, and I knew it. All I thought about was how I wasn’t able to give him a proper goodbye or proper send-off with a small family gathering or a card or present. It just didn’t feel right from the start.

Miraculously, he pulled it off. After a rough start, he secured successful employment with an incredible company that mandated college classes and on-the-job training. Scoring an 86 in trigonometry, his least favorite subject, he proved to be a solid “A” student all the way. However, he failed when it came to shutting down the demons in his mind for very long. In the end, the raw truth is, they won his soul at 26 as they came so close to winning mine at 23.

Every birthday I celebrated as a mother, all I wanted from my children was their presence. I was grateful from the second I found out they were in my belly. In fact, their godmother and I prayed over my belly for months before both of their births.

No other “stuff” could come close to satisfying me on my birthdays or any other day. In Bowling Green, my son nearly forgot my birthdays when they rolled around. I didn’t care in the least. My present was seeing how well he was doing and feeling so good about his course in life. That’s where I deposited my faith: wellness and success. It sounds corny as heck, but my greatest joy was to watch him and my daughter grow up into strong, capable, healthy adults.

Since the tragedy, grief has beat me down to a pulp of an apricot, but it has not warped my sense of gratitude. This year will be my second birthday living a “new normal” while hiding under a clamshell sounds appealing and homey.

Likely, though, when the 22nd hits, I will shower and change into something I haven’t worn for awhile, and join the kids’ godmother or someone else in my tiny circle and go out for lunch or dinner and mark the occasion in solidarity.

Another day in paradise, I can hear my son remark sarcastically as he so often did in his latter years.

Yes, I say to myself, “Another day in paradise” with a nuance of true meaning in the words. I imagine a sun-kissed, sandy seascape where there exists clam shells galore for the sole purpose of feeling as if you’re grateful to be alive.

Entering the Gates of 🌤️Heaven

While checking into the Hilton in Long Island, New York, this past weekend with my daughter to attend her former college roommate’s wedding celebration, across the lobby, we witnessed a platonic embrace between a man and a woman that stopped us in our tracks and, for a few seconds, so did our world.

Nineteen years ago, shortly after my brother Mike died suddenly from a stroke, someone gave me a wallet-sized, inspirational card with an illustration of a beaming Jesus hugging a young woman. On the card it said, “Entering the Gates of Heaven.”

Whether you are a Christian or not, the image represents the essence of universal love. In real life, if you are fortunate to experience the magnitude of this type of love, it would equate to living a thousand lifetimes onboard a peace train of which the grandest theme is acceptance and harmony so powerful, it reaches and washes out your deepest, darkest, ugliest, most shameful crevices and allows the sunshine to warm, caress and heal every wound, scar and trauma.

Watching this young couple across the way at the hotel, I saw the young man’s face in the face of Jesus pictured on the prayer card, along with the woman’s windblown hair whose silhouette also resembled the image on it.

The woman could barely catch a breath in between her tearful cries, because of the emotional exhilaration, and it felt like the hotel walls would pop open from the joy. For a moment, superimposed on the man was my now deceased son and on the woman was my daughter. Obviously, I don’t know what my daughter’s take on the sight was, but what I saw was a reunion between the living and the dead unfold on a white marble floor of a Hilton hotel.

After the dramatic embrace, it turned out that my daughter knew both of the people, and, in fact, they were all part of the bridal party. The man had just flown in from Los Angeles, California, and the woman had flown in from Richmond, Virginia. The two people, who had embraced, once shared a semester abroad, along with the bride, in Germany. The reunion between them was a telltale sign of how a connection grows through the passage of time and memories shared, painted in easy, carefree, lofty and heavy highlights.

This is how the wedding weekend began. It was a postponed wedding due to COVID-19. A wedding I dreaded attending, knowing the pain points it would touch. Fortunately, I was prepared; warned by a dear friend about the “Mother and the Groom” wedding song. My defense tool was advice from another dear friend Michelle: In essence, I was there to be happier for the bride and groom than sadder for myself. The advice worked! (Thank you, Michelle!)

The wedding began with love between friends reuniting and then moved to a couple sealing their vow of love. One of the readings at the church was from Corinthians 13, 4-7, a favorite among ceremonies and, in fact, one of the readings at my wedding over 30 years ago, a now dissolved marriage. The famous last line states, Love Never Fails.

The way I interpret the passage is that love failed in our family, because many falsehoods prevented it from forming a pure, genuine love and, ultimately, our unit failed. I’m okay with that for today, because if I do not work in truth, there is no hope for love.

Anyway, the wedding crowd was composed mostly of young, brilliant adults who are changing the world in positive ways. During the reception, I never dreamed I would dance without guilt, but I did! I saw it as long overdue exercise, and it worked. I was, however, overpowered by some flashbacks sitting at the table during the reception, remembering how at the last wedding I attended in 2018, my son kept me glued to my cellphone for a good part of the wedding, despairing about his agonizing love life. The last wedding he ever attended was when he was seven. Deep in my pained gut, I knew he would never have an opportunity as an adult to attend a wedding function, which included his own. By the end of that night, half the male bridal party was commiserating with him outside on the patio on my cell phone. I laughed at the situation, feeling we were all working in the solution mode and on that night, it was true.

At this past weekend’s wedding as the night rolled on, when the traditional wedding songs began, I darted into the restroom until they ended. I can participate in life, but also allow for human limitations by guarding myself.

Looking back, the weekend moved along smoothly, a few hiccups, but no hacking or fevers. I’m left meditating and pondering upon genuine, unconditional love and different types of love. When I first married my husband, in my heart of hearts I believed it would last forever. I believed we would retire, rent an RV and take a year to drive to Alaska, adopting as many old, unwanted shelter poodles as we could along the way. In his own words, he wanted the same ending, but midway through the book, I turned the page, and he disappeared. Though he verbalized what he thought I wanted to hear, he failed to verbalize the truth and allow me to accept it and risk my not responding with unconditional love. In this manner, love failed. Fake love always fails.

From that point, the three of us that were left behind tried to survive best as we could. I will always harbor a tremendous amount of guilt today knowing and realizing the mistakes I made as a mother. One thing I always put my faith into, though, was the greatest thing that mattered to me: seeing both my children grow up as happy, thriving adults. I had faith with fabrication. My son held back nothing from me. Incapable of meeting him on his level, because I believed that the solution that worked for me would work for him, I spoke to him as if he were my twin. It was only a matter of time, when everything backfired and my dream shattered in half, with only one-half remaining, my daughter. I never thought I could be more grateful to have her. She is brilliant and compassionate, much like my son was and also gregarious, positive and confident – in that respect, a total opposite of my son. I am over-the-top grateful these days for her existence.

Now, for damn sure there won’t be any earth-stopping reunions in this life between my daughter and her brother or me and my son. I might dance for the sake of exercise, but not for the sake of pure joy. Those days are done and useless to think about like disposed tattered socks.

Fortunately, I have the mental capacity to still love a little and feel a big happy heart for others while throwing off the pitiful feelings for myself. In this way, I did receive a surprise bonus during our wedding weekend. The groom – quiet, introverted, kind, a good listener, considerate and compassionate – reminded me so much of my son. His image comforted me to the point of giving me such a sense of fulfillment that it felt like a spiritual reunion akin to a group hug teeming with lace, glitter and a gown’s trail long enough to almost reach heaven.

Faith Muscle

Winning the🏆Real Prize🏆

Connecticut Press Club Award Banquet, July, 27, 2021

In all my days, I’ve arrived late, on time, but never early for a function. When my daughter, her godmother, who is my best friend, and I arrived for the Connecticut Press Club (CPC) awards banquet, we had 20 minutes to burn before the banquet started.

Last week, I wrote about my surprise when I realized I won the 2020 CPC second place for my blog post. After some arm-twisting from my daughter, I agreed to attend the awards banquet. What sealed the deal, as I also previously mentioned, was when I auspiciously discovered an inexpensive but beautiful turquoise necklace at a local store that seemed custom made for my black pantsuit that I planned to wear for the event.

Turquoise Necklace

“Turquoise, focus on turquoise.”

I know this is a nontraditional mantra, but repeating these four words helped me release most of my anxiety and PTSD symptoms on the day of the event. In my mind, all the negative, black thoughts were switched out. In their place rolled out a mellow turquoise the color of a New Mexico sky, moments after sunrise, very much akin to many of the photos that my friend sister Anne shoots.

What I am now aware of, that I was unaware of before, is that individuals suffering from mental health challenges cannot employ a mantra to slay their demon minds. Their demon minds slay them. For my son, this meant, outside of his workweek, total isolation.

I remember shortly before our family tragedy, I tried to help a close friend who was undergoing a tremendous amount of anxiety. I advised her to incorporate self-talk into her daily routine. Frustrated, she replied, yelling, “Self-talk doesn’t work for me.”

It was the first time that I started to comprehend the extent of individual variations of mental illness. Still, slaying my private demons decades ago, I fell into the group of positive psychology proponents. I believed that if you incorporate strategies like self-talk, mantras, positive affirmations and the like, it can help turn on a fluorescent light inside a darkened mindset. “Attitude adjustment” was the core belief. Now I know, you have to deal with mental illness before dealing with the attitude. In other words, if your mind is programmed differently as my son’s was, void of windows that allow the healing light to flow, there is no magic mantra to pull from a magician’s hat.

So, lucky me, last Tuesday evening, I possessed the mental clearance to leave the safe confines of my home. Upon arrival, wearing my turquoise necklace and saying my turquoise mantra, I can’t get enough of the turquoise sky crowning the Greenwich Water Club in Cos Cob, CT, a neighborhood in the town of Greenwich. The establishment is a private dinner/recreational club with an emphasis on water-related sports and boating activities for members, I gather, who never have and never will have to poke their rubber gloved hand into the cool water of a ceramic goddess and wash her majesty, a toilet.

Greenwich Water Club, Cos Cob, CT

As we make our way through the nearly full parking lot, the dust and sand from the spew of pebbles seems to undermine the club’s reputation. The clubhouse building ahead is impressive, but not imposing, perched on the Mianus River. The grounds are overrun by children and adolescents rather than adults. Members eat, swim at the built-in pool and, most obvious, relax, wane with the waning summer’s day that has turned into early evening. It is a Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week, but the sound of the children’s light laughter feels like a massage targeting just the right pressure points on my brain.

Inside a reserved space upstairs from the main restaurant, we are greeted with friendly CPC members who dispense name tags and apparently have no qualms about our early arrival. I scan the other name tags on the table, spotting one familiar one, Amy Oestreicher. It is a young woman and, although I haven’t been on Facebook for a number of months, a Facebook friend and fellow writer, not to mention artist and actress.  If given an opportunity, I make a mental note to approach her after she arrives.

Our trio nests in three leather, oversized chairs. I am stationed like a cut-down tree stump. I am there, but not really. My daughter prods me, “Go network.” Fortunately, it is the crowd I’ve grown up with: writers, journalist, PR professionals and all creative types that evenly pump my blood flow. I can do this. I rise and converse with a man who turns out to be the contest director. He informs me that the blogging category was fiercely competitive. Boo-yah! Ego found after being lost through 20 months of grief, isolation and sheer trepidation.

Later, in my seat, CPC officials, along with the evening’s emcee, award-winning journalist and TV personality, Mercedes Velgot, graciously greet us.

Before the presentation, though, I catch the eye of a woman directly across the way, who is with a dapper-looking gentleman. I smile and quietly admire the bright colors she wears.

“Do you know her?”

“No,” I reply to my daughter.

The presentation begins as Mercedes takes her place behind the podium, svelte and towering in a little black dress that elevates the word “perfect” to a higher level.

I’ve attended a vast array of awards presentations through the years and, overall, they are boring, not due to monotone speeches, but because the ego inflation makes my gut heavy, like it’s a soda can depository.

In total contrast, Mercedes’ opening remarks are succinct but packed with the kind of compassion, empathy, and honesty that makes you feel like you are listening to a dear friend’s counsel in your living room. The theme, of all things, is how every cloud has a silver lining, and how we need to learn to discover it.

She goes on to elucidate the many COVID-19 challenges of the prior year and how our world suffered in the eye of death, illness and separation. She also explains how her nine-year, award-winning travel show was canceled. Amazingly, too, she speaks about her voluntarism in different capacities during the height of COVID-19 as a front line worker, including training as vaccination assistant.

“This year has really taught us to be resilient. It’s taught us how to pivot. It’s taught us how to be grateful for each and every day. “

In addition, she credits prayer and “spiritual strength to persevere through all of life’s challenges.”

And adds, “Here’s to all of you … your talents in finding beauty in the human spirit through your pens. Keep writing and keep looking for your silver linings.”

I am blown over by her loving kindness and if the mind demons kidnapped me, instead of sitting in this lovely room with an extraordinary group of people, I would be alone in my bedroom faced with a three-D movie screen in the maniac projection room of my mind in morbid reflection of things best forgotten.

As if listening to the awesome speaker and watching other award recipients claim prizes wasn’t enough, when the award is announced for Amy Oestreicher, Mercedes informs the crowd that the recipient’s parents are present to accept the posthumous award for their daughter.

Posthumous award? How can Amy be dead? She was so young, talented – intent on living.

Question your thinking. I remember one of Mercedes suggestions during her opening remarks. Question your thinking. Self-centered was I to think I would be the one and only griever among the group. The one and only pain-ridden person.
Immediately, after the ceremony, I offer my condolences to Amy’s parents whose daughter died at the age of 34 from medical complications only four months prior. The grieving dad, it is obvious, is the mom’s anchor. Mom is a ball of fire. In spite of living through out-of-order death, the mom is an optimist. Her mission is to spend her life honoring Amy’s memory. The mom’s positivity is contagious and my faith-o-meter brims over.

My brilliant daughter advises me that I should mirror the grieving mom’s optimism. She winks her eye when she asks, confidently, “What are the odds of you meeting her and her husband on the same night you win an award?”

I nod my head. Is it coincidence or fate?

Looking back, the entire evening is lifted high in my memory by a faith muscle, fueled by the encouragement and support of my blogging community (thank you all!) and my close friends and, of course, propelled by my spitfire daughter.

ME
Connecticut Press Club Award Banquet, July, 27, 2021

To sum it up, I recall a well-known mantra that is intended to help anxiety: “Soham,” meaning “I am that” or “I am the universe.”

The idea reinforces the knowledge that I am one tiny brush stroke in a massive piece of artwork, a mixed-media, collage of life. The awards banquet last Tuesday is significant in my life because it reminds me of my insignificance. It reminds me how I can comfortably take a seat in the arena of life because whether we are in Cos Cob, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio, or south of the Congo River, there is a designated space for everyone of us if we are wired properly to see it.

I am reminded, too, that no matter how stationary I am at any given moment, time is fleeting. Nothing remains the same. Everything is temporary. One day we are there, sitting. The next day “Poof!” we disappear. Paradoxically, as if on a magnificent piece of artwork, all parts, seen and unseen, make a whole, a never-ending composition of triumph.

It is all there is and ever will be. Right now as my own life fleets by, I can’t stop time, but I don’t have to wait until it is too late to say and claim it: I am that.

Faith Muscle

🏆Blogging Award🏆Announced!

I was in the process of writing a blog post on humility, of all topics, and I was bombarded by emails from the Connecticut Press Club about their awards banquet, emceed by award-winning journalist and TV personality Mercedes Velgot, which happens to be tonight, my least favorite day of the week.

I am a member of the Connecticut Press Club that is an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) and includes both male and female members. Every year, the club sponsors a Communications Contest. The last CPC award I won was for an article I wrote in 1997. The article garnered a first place award for travel writing.

Earlier in the year, since I’ve been pouring so much blood, sweat and tears – lots and lots of tears – into my blog posts, I decided to submit one of my blog posts for CPC’s 2020 contest, Am I in the Right Room?

To provide some of my blogging background, I started WTF (Where’s the Faith) in 2013 as a personal blog when I was working in the corporate realm. The blog uses the tagline, “A blog of comfort during unpredictable times.” WTF draws on both secular and spiritual principles to support, encourage, inspire and sustain readers while they face challenging situations. 

Although I started WTF in 2013, I rarely updated it on a regular basis. In 2019 after my personal family tragedy, I terminated my personal writing projects, including a novel that I’d been working on since 1996, and sunk inward. Four months after the tragedy in March of 2020, my fellow writer and longtime friend, Laurie Stone, who recently won a National Society of Newspaper Columnists award, encouraged me to return to blogging and suggested that I simply write posts about how my “Faith-O-Meter” (as I now refer to it) is on empty. 

I followed Laurie’s advice and began to post on a weekly basis. With the exception of one post that was accidentally scheduled, my posting schedule remains the same: Every Tuesday at 1:51 p.m. This is the timepoint when the Russellville, Kentucky, coroner notified me of my 26-year-old son’s death by suicide. 

Some grieving parents build organizations, charities and foundations for their departed children. I now forge a bridge of faith, in honor of my son Marshall, out of word bricks, hoping that my pain will help heal the world.

Anyway, as I undertook completing the award entry submission, in the back of my mind, I thought, “With my luck, I’ll win.”

Of course, in my prior life, my normal life, the goal of entering a contest was to win and receive an award. Ah, duh! During the 1997 CPC awards presentation that I attended, I remember flicking around the spotlight like a giddy moth.

Nowadays in my life, I am worn down dodging abundant minefields rigged with booby traps. The most innocuous people, places or things – questions like “How many children do you have?” – can trigger emotional pain that further shatters every broken part of me like a massive electrical explosion.

Personally, at this time, I am safest, and achieve my desired equilibrium when I keep my presence to a minimum in the outside world. Even if this pandemic fully disappears, I will likely continue to spend as much of my time as possible in a quarantine mode.

Knowing all this, I took a risk, hit the submit contest entry button and dove into my daily work schedule. When I received the spring notice and realized that I did not win first prize, I breathed a great sigh of relief and happily returned to tackling my overloaded work schedule.

Fast forward mid-summer, Thursday to be exact, and, as I mentioned, I’m bombarded by CPC emails. Suddenly, last Thursday, the salutation caught my eyes: “Dear Contest Winners …”

Contest Winners?

Wait A Minute!  

Immediately, I download the list, scan like a crazed sleuth-hound and find the improbable that is now A reality: I won SECOND PRIZE for my blog post.

Really?

My mind switches to an instant projector mode and in front of me is a panoramic view of my son. A stage. An award that I won for my attendance in a work-related program. The year is 2016. Last minute, my son accompanies me as he sits in the passenger seat while I drive to the awards presentation. It is a big step for him since he is withdrawn by nature and crowds trigger him. He is a 23-year-old bundle of nerves. Halfway there, his fury and rage forces me to veer to the side of the road and halt. He does not want to attend and makes it known, shouting: Why do you force me into these things? Why did you “make” me go? Why do YOU control ME? 

I’m an adult, he repeats.

Instantly, I scream back in attack. I’ll take you home right now. Turn around. You ruined my whole day. My special day. My award. Why do you do this?

We are parked in front of a massive Queen Anne-style house, and his brawny physique, suddenly, seems to shrink in size. I catch his eyes and realize that an uncontrollable sense of fear has shut the shade on the actual reality of the situation. Somehow by some miracle, I refrain from lashing out. Actually, it isn’t a miracle. My 30+ years of 12-step life kicks in. Pause. Instead of working off his rage, my empathy takes me on a brief tour, into the pit of his fear, sadness and black hole, lost in an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.

It will be okay. You always go through this. Once you’re there, everything will be fine — that’s what always happens. We will make it together. My tone softens.

We both grow silent, his favorite state of being, and we drive to the awards banquet, not another word exchanged. As per his usual modus operandi, after we arrive, he was all smiles, refined, quiet, looking dapper, but covered with a light sheen from sweat under his blood-red shirt. 

I envision Marshall as he perches over the balcony, beaming as bright as the spotlight in his typical seat-for-one seating arrangement at a small, round table. I feel his glow as I receive my award. Later, in the night, I pry him from out of the background like a fly on a tape trap and prompt him to join me and other celebrants. Still all smiles, he is amicable. Everyone likes him.

On the car ride home, he talks about the pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence, which was one of the presented topics at the awards ceremony. As I listen to his discussion laced with lofty facts, I have a burning sensation of looming dread in the pit of my stomach sensing a cryptic future lays ahead for us both.

Recalling my premonition switches the instant projector mode into a high, out-of-control gear in my mind. As difficult as it is, I refocus on my winners list inspection. It’s my name, maiden name and one-time married name. My children’s last name. The one Marshall took so much pride in.

I won SECOND PRIZE for my blog post.

Really?

I think back to the first award I won was in 1994 from Northwestern University for a parenting magazine article that I wrote for parents and how they can prepare their child for hospitalization. I wove my son’s story, who underwent open heart surgery in his first year of life, into the article.

My first award-winning story was about my infant son’s recovery. Now, this “award-winning” story is written as a result of his out-of-order, young demise. I wrote it with his blood. This is how I won an award? A “losing” topic for me? 

I am now crying, bawling in my office alone, because this turn of events should not have happened. My son should be here and not perched on a random star in another galaxy as my best friend so succinctly contrived in an attempt to lighten one of my meltdowns not that long ago.  

Really?

He should have won the award for his AI speech that he presented me with after the last award I won in 2016. Or, he should have won the award for the extraordinary metal parts he engineered and created shortly before his death with his gifted hands. And, I am bawling harder, knowing that his first-grade kindergarten teacher should receive the dunce award for stressing our family out because she failed in properly assessing him and said he lacked “fine motor skills.”

Really?

So, here’s the point. As most, if not all, award recipients promenade into the banquet located in no-less Greenwich, CT, primped, proper and ready, I know that I will be dodging these kinds of 3-D thoughts and visual minefields and booby traps. I will be the one working overtime to shut down my out-of-control images, triggered by PTSD, and silence the thought pattern that questions the why behind the award and toiling even harder when the what if tries to force its way in. I will now have a firsthand take on how my son felt in crowds.

For all these reasons, and more, I did not intend to attend the awards banquet. That is until my spitfire daughter, who happens to be visiting with kitty for about three weeks, kicked into her battle cry that is preempted with “Life is for the living.”

Needless to say, last Thursday night, I put lipstick on my drained and depressed self and joined my 26-year-old cheerleader daughter for dinner. Afterwards, we stepped into to a nearby store. I never shop for jewelry, but a long, dazzling, silvery turquoise necklace caught my eyes. I knew the piece was made for the black pantsuit I discussed possibly wearing to the banquet earlier that night during dinner with my daughter.

It goes without saying, first thing on Friday, I ordered three tickets: one for me, my daughter and her godmother, my best friend for the awards banquet.

It takes place tonight, July 27, a Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week.

So, here it is: SHOWTIME! Dear blogging friends and community, please think of us tonight. Actually, as I think about it, let me humbly prepare myself to think of all of you as my 12-step program teaches me

These posts since March 2020 have turned out to be a means of catharsis, one of the only places where I feel safe to express fully my sadness, grief and, yes, hope and faith. The reason behind this sense of security is that I feel heard and supported by many of your comments, “likes” and personal communications. For the first time in my life, I am learning about different cultures, an area of fascination for my son that I never had the opportunity to share with him.

Obviously, I will not have an opportunity to share this moment with him either. What gives me solace, the faith to step into the minefield and booby traps of the banquet hall, is the visual that he is nesting inside a star somewhere in another galaxy. This time, fear, far removed, is replaced by a celestial glow in his eyes that, I hope, will also cast a spotlight on our souls tonight.

You can do it, Mom. Like you used to tell me, “Whether you win or lose is not the point. You’re a winner for showing up.”

You can do it. You have to take the first step into the field before you can locate and deactivate a mine.

Faith Muscle

Mary Days

“Remember that no one is better than you, but that you are better than no one.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Some days are Mary Days, and I spend a good part of the day reflecting on Mary, a woman whom I didn’t know well, but one who still intrigues me nonetheless. By the world’s standards, she wasn’t pretty and didn’t try to be. She never attempted to dab the excess oil off her Miss Piggy face. Her chocolate-colored, shoulder-length knotted mess of hair begged for a a hairbrush (a comb wouldn’t go through it) and at least a five-inch trim. You kept your distance walking behind her, because you didn’t want to get caught in an avalanche of her mountain slope of dandruff.

In middle school, where I met Mary, the kids bullied her for having a “pig’s nose” and outweighing a bulldozer. She never retaliated. Instead, she was a hidden, voiceless figure that roamed the school’s hallways like a ghost. She hid her obese form underneath solid, dark, below-the-knee tent dresses as if they were parachutes that, unlucky for her, she couldn’t dive farther under and take cover from the world. Mary did, however, wear an oversized brown-framed pair of eyeglasses. Conveniently, when kids slapped their remarks at her, she placed her index finger in the middle of the eyeglass frame, lowered her head and took shield under her eyeglasses.

Out of hundreds of mostly white, affluent kids, there was only a handful of over-sized youth in our suburban school system. I fell into that group. I had blown up like a soft decaying onion when I was around nine and had to contend with the same bullies, who switched out my first name for new names like “fat” and “fatso” and “tank.” Years later, I had heard that one of the “fat girls” in our group stole her father’s hunting gun and blew her thick chest to smithereens with it. She saw no other alternative to end the painful voices.

Anyway, it was Mary I gravitated to the most. Nonetheless, I never commiserated with her. In fact, I was relieved on the day she, or one of the other “rejects,” caught the bullies’ full venom. Mary and I survived those merciless years, only to greet each other in passing with quick salutations, our voiceless mouths on our wilted heads, dropped toward the school’s hallway floors that we trudged.

In my high school sophomore year, I fell head over heels with my first lover, a bottle of amphetamines. In fact, the illegal prescriptions not only brought me down to 98 pounds, but also leveled out my ADHD symptoms, an undiagnosed condition in the 70s that I would learn about and understand many years later.

Along with the weight loss came the tight jeans and halter tops, and I gained a fake voice and smile and indulged fully in my new fake cool girl role. Some of my best  “hallelujah” moments were when I challenged everyone during gym class to jump besides me on the trampoline. A few people took the challenge, but no one could compete with my frenzied, drug-induced moves.

Anyway, I am happy to report that I did not use my new cool to graduate to a seat on the bully-ship. Except, that is one time, when about a half dozen of the cool bullies tossed down one of the thin, quiet, Frida Kahlo-eyebrowed students on the football field. Soaring on adrenaline, I darted into the crowd and pulled her fat wool knee socks down to her ankles and fled laughing. Though that incident sounds innocuous, its dark shadow crept over me for days, weeks on end, and I felt so guilty that it motivated me never to break down the already broken.  

By the end of sophomore year, one day sitting in the school cafeteria eating a meager apple, my typical lunch, I spotted Mary from afar. She was hunched over in a burlap tank-like dress that appeared way too hot for early spring. I noticed, of all things, the napkin neatly place on her lap and her proper dining etiquette. She placed a tidily folded bag of her bagged lunch on the side and had laid out her sandwich and snacks in a symmetrical pattern on a hot lunch tray. Even though she positioned herself like a question mark, when she lifted her peachy toned head up, Mary chewed slowly with her mouth closed. Her expression was glazed over as she sat alone at the corner of a lunch table. I saw my old, broken self in her. I rose, and to my classmates disbelief, I left the cool clique and moved over to Mary, asking her if I could join her. At first she was reluctant, but then she happily agreed. That day started a regular lunch date for the rest of our high school years. Apart from having a lunch buddy, not much changed in Mary’s life and the bullying persisted. I, on the other hand, moved from the cool kids clique to the creative, theatrical kids’ clique.

During those Mary Lunch Days, as I came to call them in my mind, Mary talked about her beautiful, talented sisters who aced tests and won dance awards. She never spoke about herself. What would she talk about? How she spent weekends alone? How she did not go to the prom? How she likely would never date a man, or if the case was, a woman? How she would never get married and have a family? She did not need a crystal ball. She knew and accepted her fate from the start. She used her sisters as a catharsis, and it seemed her lot in life was okay, and she accepted it.

I don’t know if she had a spiritual belief, but I can understand how she did not have faith in the world that she was discarded into like a runt from the liter. Mary was not about to change her slipshod presence. Unlike me, she did not allow our peers to buy her and then program their people-pleasing buttons inside her.

Our connection derived from a deep appreciation of our differences. I did not pity her. I appreciated her bravery and resilience. I appreciated her subtle, petite voice and even tone. I appreciated how, when I was on a particular adrenalin rush, she gave her whole attention to me without trying to change me, because I mattered in Mary’s eyes and, in some uncanny way she was the first one on earth to show me how to flex my nearly destroyed faith muscle and show me that unconditional love really was possible.

After graduation, Mary went into the workforce as most of the high school classes did in those days. Perpetual bookworm, I continued my education. Distance did not separate us, and we still exchanged letters. By the time I got married and started a young family, I reconnected with Mary, who lived alone in a modest apartment, working a government job. We talked on the phone on a weekly basis. Most of the conversation centered around my young toddlers. Mary thirsted to hear about every little milestone, every little step and tooth in their lives. It felt as if she were taking notes, recording them in a future book to call her own.

Her life, on the other hand, was like one big blank that was part of the page of life. When she shared, it was obvious she was friendless and dateless, no sign of human connection anywhere. However, she was like a hummingbird, feeding on her three sisters’ good fortunes of careers, bustling households and all the things worldly beauty can own.

Once our family moved to a larger house in 2002, my life became busier, and our calls ceased, but our yearly Christmas cards did not stop. Around 2009, shortly before our household fell apart, I spotted Mary at the local supermarket. She had gained so much more weight since our high school days that that she was strapped in an electric mobility scooter, unable to carry it all. I immediately ducked. I did not want to cause her any embarrassment.

Now, looking back I think about how self-centered and assuming I had been. Why did I think I would have embarrassed her? It makes me sad to think how the world and it’s people-pleasing ways had wrapped me around it’s fickle finger of fate. Instead of putting my faith into substance, I put it into fake appearances. Why couldn’t I have just accepted her as she was? Made the stretch, widened my arms around that dang scooter, and exclaimed to her how beautiful she was in her own, unique way.

A few years after I avoided her in the supermarket, I found out Mary died in 2015 at 54 years old from what sounded like a medical condition. I regretted missing her funeral, but what I missed more was her deep sincere shamrock green eyes and how they looked at you as if you were the most precious soul on earth, because in Mary’s eyes anyone who could see through her layers was.

I spend many days in my Mary Days ruminating about the world’s inequalities. I think about the people who are bullied, like I was, like my son was, like Mary was, and how so many others are today. I think about those who, long after the fact, allow those bullies to invade their brain and live shamed, little and low, like walking silent question marks, like ghosts who will never spook anyone because they are more invisible than vapor. It’s interesting though, how vapor refers to “a gas phase at a temperature where the same substance can also exist in the liquid or solid state, below the critical temperature of the substance.”

And, yes, maybe, just maybe with a little faith, these victims can rise above and exist, despite the critical climate. And, sometimes if a friend, family member or intuitive stranger lends a helping hand to lend weight to the words of his or her belief system, a unicorn, let’s call her Mary, finds a holy ground to roam free. Sometimes sharing a lunchtime sandwich is the first brick that jump starts a path to holiness.

Faith Muscle

Leap of Faith

Image by Marta Cuesta from Pixabay

My mother witnessed the horrors of World War II firsthand and in all of the 56 years that I knew her, I estimate the length of time she spoke about her wartime memories equals a total sum of thirty minutes, and that’s pushing it. Erasing most of her past was a self-protective mechanism for her. If she stepped into the harrowing memories for too long, she would have toppled over in the rubble of grief and loss. Of the few things she revealed was, when she was 16, her home and the region surrounding it in Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, was destroyed.

“I looked back, and all I could see were flames.”

(I recently read that during the WWII German occupation, the major towns of Minsk and Vitebsk lost over 80% of their buildings and city infrastructure.)

The aftermath of the destruction she experienced left her with two choices: run back, dodge the flames and risk her life to locate her, most likely, deceased family and friends or take a leap of faith. Forward she went. I’m not clear if she simply hid in the streets for a period of time or if the Nazis snatched her up and immediately kidnapped her to Germany. I did learn that she eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, I later learned the appropriate term was “slave labor.”

On the internet, it describes the compensation that was awarded for the sad set of evil circumstances: “Between 1992 and 2006, Germany and Austria jointly paid compensation to surviving Polish, non-Jewish victims of “slave labour” in Nazi Germany….”

Although my mother, at this point, an American citizen for decades, qualified for the compensation stipend as described above, she could not reexamine the horror of war and bring herself to apply for it. She opted to continue doing what she always did: focus on her daily, routine chores that provided her with an outline for living, one that created daily order and organization and, in effect, great solitude and, in essence, a compensation for a painful, traumatic life that could not be improved in any monetary way.

Washing dishes, sterilizing counters, watering her precious ivy, tidying closets, today, her routine ways shadow me along with her poignant words she once shared. You see, my brother, Michael, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and her eldest son, died at 55 years old from a sudden stroke. For about five years, she was in deep emotional sorrow and distress. Nearly ever day, I drove her to the family’s cemetery plot and each and every time, at the end of our visit, I found myself peeling her weeping, petite body off the ground where my brother was laid to rest. Suddenly, the day arrived, and it was as if she were emotionally drained — forever. My mom never mentioned my brother’s name again. In fact, it was as if she wiped clean every memory of him. Erased him in the same manner she erased the war memories.

“Why don’t you talk about Mike anymore?” I asked her one day.

“Some things are best forgotten.”

And so I carry those words as part of my survivor’s backpack on my own personal grieving mom’s journey, because now I have a fuller understanding of what it means to be left behind feeling like a sole survivor still standing. Like my mother, I am not sure I have it in me to acknowledge the weight of it, because by doing so I may cave under the rubble of personal grief and loss. The only way is not to take a leap of faith forward. Instead, accept that an inch ahead is a monumental accomplishment.

Faith Muscle