The Cost of Love

November 19, 2021. It was a day like no other.

Every day since November 19, 2019, the day we lost our beloved 26-year-old son, brother and godson, marking time takes on a whole new significance after our loss.

By day’s end after posting the letter to my departed son, the outpouring of support and encouragement that I received from this blogging community was beyond what I could imagine. Your support, along with the support of a handful of family and friends in my life, has sparked an unanticipated strength that has helped me survive the sudden eclipse of my soul. Through this grief journey, you have given me faith that the sun, even though appearing dark, still shines light into our eyes. In science, this is a fact. In my pieced-together heart, this is a fact too. When the dreaded Friday arrived, I was hurt that a few family members, not to mention a number of “friends,” have disassociated with me. Nonetheless, I focused on the positive.

It was an auspicious morning. I rifled through my closet for something to wear and coincidentally pulled out the t-shirt pictured above.

“Faith does not make things easy

it makes them possible”

Later on, my daughter, my children’s godmother and I enjoyed a quiet late lunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. Afterwards, we shopped for socks, but ended up purchasing a few additional food and practical items as if symbolizing the various forms of sustainment during our grief walk.

At day’s end, I was glad only our little trio gathered at the cemetery. Our unconditional love that we share made us comfortable and genuine. Standing at my son’s grave, out loud we effortlessly spoke our hearts. Our words of love, discontent, sadness, regret, guilt and the joyful opportunity of knowing him in our personal ways transformed into a meaningful elegy, resembling in many ways how our lives themselves have been molded in these last two years. It is incredulous to us still how so many irregular, broken pieces of our shattered lives have managed to create an artful mosaic.

Through streaming tears I realized, if I had skated through life unscathed as I always desired, I would not have been forced to live a life with wide open arms. In this life you take it all in. You feel deeply without numbing or canceling out the pain or heightening the joy. This, too, is the same life where you are lucky enough to own a cloak of love and support weaved by those to whom you matter.

That early evening at my son’s gravesite, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words resonated with me: “It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

My son lived a short life, but he was so much more than the demons in his head. He was compassionate and loyal. He was full of depth, insight and a sharp wit. He lived for purpose and passion and not for possessions. I only wish more people were fortunate enough to have met him — they missed out on knowing a superior human being.

“It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

When we three parted from him, we felt grief’s depth, the painful stretch of our marathon-trained souls. In life’s irony, we were like winners who had crossed the finish line.

Yesterday, on our daily walk, the neighbors’ dog raced across his yard to greet us. Our neighbor informed us that her dog isn’t friendly to strangers. “You must have a special aura,” she explained.

Among the many definitions, “aura” means, “a subtly pervasive quality or atmosphere seen as emanating from a person, place, or thing.”

Love is our aura. Loss has taught us the extent of love’s reach. It stretches to a point of excruciating hurt, ready to break but, defying logical odds, it digs in, roots firm.

If love is truly our aura, I cannot exclude loving the people who have abandoned us. Coincidentally, I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s national best seller, Wild. She writes that some people “scatter in their grief.” This concept pulls me away from feeling angry to coming to an understanding of the ones that we have lost along the way as a result of our loss. It is too much pain for them to endure.

Afterall, the price of love will shatter the femur of our hearts. The femur, BTW, is the only bone in the thigh and is the longest and strongest of all the bones in the body. The price is high. Our little tribe pays the cost. Like expert appraisers, no one can undermine what we have come to know as true value and we willingly pay the price.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

This Thanksgiving, although we will have an empty seat at our dinner table, it will not diminish my thankful and grateful heart and mind, thanks to all of you.

Faith Muscle

Dear Son *

I’m still here.

In the two years, this Friday, you’ve been gone, I discovered that anyone can purchase poison on eBay, and there are companies in China that will deliver it in an unmarked package via USPS mail for exorbitant costs.

About three weeks before the unspeakable happened, I heard Britney Spears perform “Lover” for the first time on Saturday Night Live. The song was on the album released in August, ironically, a day after my birthday of that horrible year. (In fact, I believe she debuted “Lover” live on YouTube on my birthday before the album’s actual release date.)

 Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah

So many things, like one of our final nearly two-hour conversations led me to believe we were close. I told you I was preparing to pack my personal belongings and move them to what I thought would be a second home in your home some 600 miles away.

 Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah

That song can push me to steep cliffs where the view is not pretty. If I hear the lyrics in some random store or any other public place that I have no control over, and they start to pierce what little whole surface is left in my Swiss cheese heart that now replaces my healthy heart, like the one you were born with before it was surgically repaired, I put my hands over my ears and let out a shrill scream to cancel the sound. Bystanders simply avoid me. By the looks on their faces, they assume I am on a day’s furlough from a psychiatric special care facility.

Other songs, too, have a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect. Would you believe, thanks to you, I can’t listen to country and western music anymore? To think, you and your sister were raised on what was once my favorite genre of music. I now realize how the lyrics so often involve white, Christian heterosexual alpha male cowboys and helpless soon-to-be dependent wives and, as such, marginalize diverse populations. I feel excluded. In the same way you did, son. Instead of you growing up to be like me, I have grown up to be so much like you.

In actuality, there isn’t much music I can listen to any longer. You’ll likely be happy (or maybe not so much, because it used to irritate you!) that I do still sing dumb songs. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.

I don’t, though, sing my silly songs as often. I sure don’t pray any longer. Instead, I curse in my mind at you all day long. I’m sure people would judge me, but you know how I feel about judgment, especially watching how you deteriorated from the bullies over the years until the end when they won your soul. Let the hypocrites, the judgmental bullies spew their well-meaning sermons on forgiveness. I’ll keep my new cursing habit; thank you very much. It’s has the monotone sound of a daily prayer and is one of the few things that keeps me here.

Marshall D. Maxwell, Antigua,  Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, March 1996

When you took your life. You took mine.

I say this along with the cursing in my mind. I only wish I had conveyed these notions to you out loud and saturated you with guilt in response to the threats you made to me a million times; threats that fell on deaf ears.

I wish I could prove to you how much I have changed, and how well I can listen and engage in conversation. Without the preaching. Without the positive psychology and affirmations. Without the quick-made solutions. Without the holier-than-thou attitude and putting my ego-inflated, false pride into the equation.

I no longer, believe it or not, for the most part, attend support groups. The people in them all sound like they are on fire with miracles that don’t exist for most people in the world. It boils down to false hope and it feels as real to me as “FakeBook,” which, by the way, I’m off and don’t miss at all! Don’t even start me on any kind of religious groups and how I fear them. Thank goodness for Father Ivan. He is still a kind and compassionate man. He’s right up there with the saints. I am sorry, son, though, that he forgot to add your liturgy on the church calendar this Friday. I readily accepted his apology and told him we are human and make mistakes in the same manner you would have done. I, however, declined his offer to add your name to a later date on the church calendar to “celebrate” your life. Take the money, I insisted, and put it toward a new church roof. I don’t need any more remembrances of how marginalized and painful your existence once was.

Can you believe this is me? If anyone ever told me that my major goal for each day is to dodge songs, prayers, social media, people, group gatherings as well as ropes, strings, belts or any kind of cord or suspended pendulum that swings back and forth, I would have reacted to the thought like my old laughing hyena self. Even though we still share that goofy giggle that irritated the heck out of me when I heard it from you, most things do not strike me as funny any longer. I am trying to remove the words “kill” and “hate” from my vocabulary.

I think you would really, really like this new version of me. Once you realized who I am now, you would really, really stay. At least a little longer.

Maybe I should have told you that my greatest aspiration was to see you and E grow up. Motherhood is far greater than any other role. I should have told you the reason that I toiled on pipe dreams was because I was certain they would pay off and make it possible for me to be with you, especially since your sister was always so much more independent and resilient. They did not pay off. In the end, before the unspeakable happened, I was ripped off in trying to get that web business going. Michael B. was the perpetrator’s name. He is your age. I forgave him. Last I heard, he was still alive and living in Florida.

I should have stopped “strategizing” so much and started finding ways to be alongside you. Before you relocated to KY, you asked me to go on a hike with you to Sleepy Giant State Park. It was mid-week, and I was working with Michael.

Love is showing up. Putting down the phone. Walking through hot coals if necessary. Regardless of my intentions (intentions can’t form a hug around anyone), I should have dropped everything and joined you on the hike in Sleepy Giant. I would have appreciated the memory. Who knows, maybe if I joined you instead of being left behind sitting in the home office, I wouldn’t have been duped into the lame website.

These “new normal” days I would dedicate to taking hikes with you even in a hailstorm, because I have brand-new, excellent all-weather gear. On the hike, I would at last speak the words to acknowledge how I reveled in your development and your mind. How I appreciated your accomplishments that were done completely independent from me. How I admired that your character was so much better than mine was at that age. The person I am today would have spent the rest of her life hiking with you, Marshall. Ultimately, the canteens have run dry.

You were always quiet in a noisy world. Subdued and humble in an entitled, egotistic world. With this in mind, few, if any, care to remember you. Even Father Ivan forgot. Steve Irwin gets a day on November 15. I wish I could get a day for you every year on the universe’s calendar, but what matters, really, is how much you matter to me. I would have given my life over a zillion times to spare yours. That was always the way it was. I only wish I had let you in on my secret. Instead, I kept telling you how your brain would clear up at 26 when the “logic” center developed. How I couldn’t wait for that year to come. This was because of some dumb brain documentary that I watched in the auditorium at your genius-only high school. A “top school” that’s tops in creating equality by making perfect products out of all people who enter through the doors. I can still hear myself saying, I can’t wait until you’re 26.

Now, I can’t wait to get through all the days. I’m sure you know that Saturday through Monday are especially painful. We could have saved you in those three days if we were there. Whitney and Bradley tried on that fatal, unbearable fourth day, a Tuesday. It was, obviously, too late. I think you would be pleased to know that Whitney and Bradley have joined our incomplete family, and it doesn’t feel as miniscule in size as it really is. They are the only reason I would return to KY. We still have family graves there, too, son, don’t forget. I have discovered that six hundred miles is not far after all.

When you took your life. You took mine.

I looked outside the window the other day and imagined you jumping in complete abandon on the neighbor’s trampoline. It made me recall one of those rare times when you were the star at the middle school dance, and you let go of all your inhibitions, and you danced as if no one was watching, although the entire eighth grade class gathered around and cheered you on the dance floor. It was all for you, my boy, my son, my first born. All the worldly applause. It was all for you. For you, Marshall, who was named after an American entrepreneur who became a famous multimillionaire. Sadly, from that night forward, you stopped dancing just as you stopped crying, because, marking your adolescence, you proclaimed to me, “Real men don’t cry.”

I wish you had kept dancing. I wish you had kept crying. I wish you had allowed yourself to be comfortable with all the uncomfortable things that made you feel like you didn’t belong to us or anywhere you traveled. Shame, of course, killed you. I’d like to think you are finally at peace. Maybe even dancing or crying or, at very least, just at ease.

In your note that “fell from the sky — you know what I mean” to me and your sister and Pat, you said you hoped the next world was kinder than this one. I hope so. There are no signs. No feelings I can sink my hope into. No muscle of faith that can pull me up and inspire me to sing, “Hallelujah!”

I’m still here. Maybe that is enough of a sign for now.

LOVE YOU ALWAYS AND FOREVER, YOUR HEART-BROKEN, SHATTERED-IN-PIECES MOTHER

*I’ll love you forever,

I’ll like you for always,

As long as I’m living

my baby you’ll be.

Faith Muscle

Hoarding 🍬Candy

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Two weeks ago, Halloween “backup” M&M’s ready, yet our house was dark. I had stopped celebrating Halloween a couple of years before our tragedy. Frankly, the holiday became more of a hassle than something that symbolized nostalgia or fun.

When this Halloween rolled in, I was alone at home, and the sun was beginning to set. Suddenly, Ding Dong!

Oh, gee! I mean, really? Aren’t the kids suppose to wait until nightfall to start trick-or-treating? I thought to myself.

Go away! I commanded in my mind. Halloween reminds me of what no longer is and will never be to the point of cruelty.

Ding Dong!

I recall the phone conversation I had with my 27-year-old daughter an hour earlier when I told her I would not be distributing Halloween candy.

“How can you deprive little kids? Don’t you care?” she grumbled.

“There were only two little kids I cared about,” I retorted.

“Oh, I see you are in a ‘mood.’” No, I want to say to her, but refrain from ruining her evening. Not a mood. I’m in my constant state of agony.

So I decide to bolt down the hall, ready to open the stupid door and give the irritating child some M&M’s, but I espy a dark-haired boy’s back. He’s returning to his parents who wait at the end of the driveway.

I know darn well I can chase after him outside and beckon him to come back, but I freeze. I stand there on the other side of the front door until I suddenly notice the dark house across the street. In 20 years at my residence, my neighbor’s front porch was always lit up and ready for Halloween. I make the stark realization that he’s not giving out candy either. Guilt heightened. I feel like I double-crossed the boy and now play a part in ruining some stranger’s childhood, because not only did I not give him M&M’s, I couldn’t put my sadness aside to at least glance at his costume that he probably waited all month to wear and show off.

What a Halloween scrooge I am. What if when my kids were young they had to deal with miserly people hiding behind dark porch facades. When they were young, in fact, most of the houses in our neighborhood celebrated.

Two years ago it was the last Halloween I would ever talk to my 26-year-old son alive. Since eight grade he had battled depression, and he was at an all-time low.

“We had a few good Halloweens, didn’t we?” I asked him over the telephone in an attempt to raise his spirits.

For a moment, when he replied, “Yeah!” his mood lifted, and I intuitively knew we were both remembering many of our good times together as a happy family. Hearing him two Halloweens ago exclaim a mere four-letter word “Yeah!” made my memory rocket back to one of those funky 70s dances. When those disco balls started turning and twinkling, you danced without restraint and no matter what was happening in your personal life, you hit the lottery on that dance floor.

“Yeah!” I banked on those happy memories to keep him alive, to fuel him. I also learned, too late, the best investments can plummet.

I spend more time with the dead in my mind then with the living. Right there behind the door observing my neighbor’s dark house, I sit, perched. My low spirits sinking lower. I rise, turn and make a beeline down the hallway, seeking solace in my bedroom and do not turn back around when for the second time I hear Ding Dong!

Fortunately for me, after that, the street became quiet. Halloween came to a close. After depriving the boy, and whatever child or children who rang the doorbell after him, I couldn’t bear to eat the M&M’s so I froze them in the fridge. I still visualize the boy’s dark hair. I imagine him who might or might not grow up to be an adult one day. I wonder if he will have a family of his own. Mostly, I wonder if he will grow up to be a person who distributes candy on Halloween.

Extending myself, and helping others were some of the best ways I knew to lift my spirits, and that’s what I spent doing for a good 35-year run. Then the day came when I couldn’t help one of the closest members of my family, and I, for the most part, retired my savior’s role.

I would like to end by saying, Next year I’ll give out candy on Halloween. And, maybe I will. Likely, I won’t. We heal and grieve and live our own way and in our own time. To me, this means giving myself the permission to be true to myself: sadness and dark “mood” included. I’m okay with that for today.

In fact, if someone used a magic wand to make my feelings and emotions associated with profound grief disappear, I would stop them. My destiny is as much a part of my makeup as my hazel blue eyes. I’m paving my way through the best I can, and I have faith that just because I feel the way I feel, I haven’t flunked life. In fact, by acknowledging my private feelings, I’m seeing myself as an honor student of life. I’m nowhere near the point of saying my life is a bag of sweets, but at least I still have a stash of M&M’s in the freezer, and if I see that dark-haired boy, because I do keep an eye out for him, I might just break open the loot to share with him.

Faith Muscle

Color 🎨 Outside the Lines

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“November 2”

The date repeatedly magnified in front of my face on the oversized black- and-white 2010 calendar, the only wall décor in the attorney’s office where I sat for three and a half hours (no, she didn’t tell me she was charging per hour!) rehashing a month-long account of what had propelled me to file divorce proceedings against my then husband.

Trying to grasp the end of my 19-year marriage, my stressed brain couldn’t differentiate between November 1st and November 2nd, and which one commemorated All Saint’s Day and which one was All Souls’ Day.  

If you are not familiar with the dates, the internet definitions are below:

All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian solemnity celebrated on November 1 in honor of all the saints of the church, whether they are known or unknown.

All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died, which is observed by Latin Catholics and other Christian denominations annually on November 2.

I finally realized that November 2nd was indeed “the Day of the Dead.” From that bleak day forward, the day slapped a bookmark into the pages of my life and paused a full spool of memories made prominent with lace-up-the sneakers, leaf-peeping adventures. From that autumn on, it took eight years to refill the fall time colors into my black-and-white, gray-hued calendar world. Finally, the afternoon arrived when I drove through the neighborhood, and the sudden sight of crimson, golden leaves inspired me to recite poetry out loud in the car.

A year after color poured back into the lines of my life, little did I realize that the bottom of my world would completely unhinge, and I would be left fluttering around in a pool of profound grief that became my permanent autumn shadow.

Recalling the eight years of robbed autumn color, I appreciate the reawakened awareness of the hues. Consequently, they will never represent the same brazen fire irons they once did. Long lost are the years when the children were young, and we sipped fresh steaming apple cider that wafted through our sunny kitchen with an aroma that was a recipe to create optimistic dreams that seemed as real as finding the perfect fit in a new pair of lace-up sneakers.  

Of course, some memories can be like leaves running their final course and dropping silently like dribbles of rain, composting and disappearing into the good earth. Clearly, in the cycle of life, there are new seeds to sow, harvest and grow.

Time takes time. There are no magic seeds that bloom instantly. From November 2nd, 59 days remain until the end of the year when the earth is frigid and stubborn. From there, all we can do is mull around in the new year and wait until spring softens the ground. Live a day at a time. Drink steaming hot cocoa to compensate for winter’s barren wasteland and warm us with the faith of knowing we have passed another day of life’s test, and we are in the process of learning an important lesson: patience. Colors may fade, strip and vanish, but year after year, cycle after cycle, the master painter’s palette is infinite.

Faith Muscle

Holiday🎃Season Kick-Start

When my children were young, the first sharp breeze, autumn’s precursor, stirred my enthusiasm. It signaled for me to uncover a special jewelry box and open the top drawer gathering dust from the year before. Inside was a treasure of assorted inexpensive trinkets that I spent seasons past unearthing at flea markets and tag sales. To me, though, the pieces were priceless because they helped me amplify the excitement of holiday time. Halloween kicked off the tradition. Two weeks before October 31st, I reached for my favorite troll pumpkin earrings and cottony ghost pin.

Earrings dangling and pin attached to my top, I performed the annual traipse up the attic stairs and started to pull out the jack-o’-lantern and fall leaf wreath. Christmas carols played in the background simply because I lacked a repertoire of Halloween music.

As a first-generation American child, my parents, both Eastern European immigrants, were not accustomed to Halloween. When I trick-or-treated around the neighborhood, I either went alone or joined a family a few blocks away. Each holiday, I wore the same old sheet I had worn the year before. My favorite part was at the end of the night when I came home and uncovered the scarcely distributed Hershey Bars among the bag of loot. An hour later, the juicy crunch of a fresh apple lessened the overly sweetening taste in my mouth from my consuming endless tootsie rolls and candy corn pieces.

I’ll never forget the Halloween when the TV news broadcast warned about evildoers hiding razors in apples. Learning about the deplorable act marked my innocence with its first blemish and elicited a spooky creaking door effect on my world, my first experience in adult boot camp.

After Halloween passed, my parents were big on church during Christmas, but, apart from that, they both worked tirelessly and viewed Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as a burden. Looking back, my mother was completely bereft of organizational strategies, and her cooked meals turned out to be so late that my much older brothers had typically disappeared by dinnertime. She was exhausted and couldn’t eat. My father rushed through his meal, famished. I ended up eating my holiday meals in solitude.

It made sense that when I celebrated the holidays with my own family, I compensated for what lacked in the holiday memories of my youth. It all started with cracking open the dusty jewelry box and then pulling out the big decorations from the attic. A lot of the household décor I purchased the day after Christmas, long before frugal consumers understood the extent of the meaning behind “After-Holiday Sale!” savings. Christmas, in fact, got to a point where all the household décor was switched out for holiday ornamentation. Instead of one tree, we had two. We started with one fresh green pine and one white artificial that later transitioned into another artificial tree.

My then husband was not as keen on Thanksgiving and Christmas as I was. I feared I had recreated a familiar pattern, but I did appreciate how he loved escorting our kids trick-or-treating. Looking back, his crafted jack-o’-lantern  had to be the spiffiest looking one in our neighborhood.

There wasn’t a moment that I did not burst with gratitude during any of the holidays, always feeling as if I were given a second chance to experience the magical component in them, and it started with flipping the lid open on the one dusty jewelry box. Even when some of the mostly China-made jewelry broke, I kept the pieces. To dispose of them was like discarding joy.

Some women might, rightly so, feel privileged by wearing mega-sized diamonds. For me, nothing could replace the delight I felt from the colorful plastic holiday turkeys on my jacket’s lapel and Christmas light bulb earrings catching on the collars of my clothes.

I am sure, if tragedy had not struck, I would continue to keep the jewelry box in my over-protective hands while woolgathering about myself dressed as a real-life ornament, a walking signal of joy among my future tribe of grandchildren. Instead, my hands are robbed by grief. The first sign was last year when I discarded the broken jewelry, only to slam the box shut, unable do anything else.

This year, I sorted through the rest of my holiday jewelry and then cleaned and polished the box before donating everything to Goodwill. As I did, I pictured the young children out there and moms who are cozy and busy with their lives, so much the way I had been. I know someone will uncover the stash at Goodwill with new eyes and hope for the future. Someone, I anticipate, who felt the same blissful way at Goodwill when they unearthed my freshly cleaned wedding gown that finally I was able to part with three years ago.

Like seasons, holidays are the ebb and flow of life. I read recently something I never knew. “Ebb and flow” means that sometimes our life flows toward our hopes and dreams, and sometimes it flows away. I see it as the rising and falling ocean, a harmony that can only continue if we hold tight while learning to surf, because the raw truth is, at one point or another, we realize we are all novices and there is no mastery at life, especially when it shocks us into knowing how true this is, and we are left grappling with abstract ideas like the meaning of faith.

Faith Muscle

No Going Back

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When I was pregnant nearly 29 years ago with my first child, I did not appear visibly pregnant. My belly was not pronounced. I never heard any of the following comments: “How many months are you? When’s the due date? How nice!”

Mid-way through my pregnancy with my son, my now ex-husband and I were on a standing-room-only crowded bus in Washington D.C. and no one offered his or her seat to me as I fumed silently, worried if the added exertion would effect my pregnancy.

My son did not take up any space in my womb, and as I now realize, he did not take up much space in the world he was not planning to stay in for too long. The end of his story was symbolized in the total of four pairs of pants that my daughter and I retrieved from his meager belongings when we traveled to his final place of residence in Kentucky.

Who knows if I did suffer the consequences of not receiving any special attention or care while I was pregnant. All I know is that Marshall was born a preemie. Strangely, the doctors never came to an agreement on his actual due date. What we did know was that he was either one, two or three months early.

As I’ve written before, he was not only born a preemie, but also with a congenital heart defect, having to undergo two surgeries, the last one an open heart surgery before his first-year birthday. I won’t go into the details of the birth itself, but I was in the hospital, lying flat on my back for six days before he was born. After the ordeal, somehow one inch of his umbilical cord accompanied me home! I stashed it in my bedroom drawer and through the years I occasionally uncovered it to marvel at life’s divine handiwork.

One more month from today marks my son’s demise two years ago when I returned his umbilical cord as well as gave him the ashes of his beloved cat Cliff. They both were shut tight inside his coffin along with some of his life’s other mementos.

As fall marches along, memories drop like acorns and thump on my head, redirecting me from the day. When I first fell in love with literature at 16, I loved the character of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman because he was old and worn down from an unfulfilled life. It brought me great comfort and relief to know that leaves on a page confined his pain in a closed book. For me, I had uncovered my quest for the American Dream through Mr. Loman who lost faith in his American Dream, because that is when I decided to become a writer like Arthur Miller, sideswiping life’s hardships and, instead, capturing the anguish by using a pen and allowing the pen to dribble its tears. In other words, at 16, my sole objective was to become the master of my own universe.

In writing, this process works. In real life, thinking I have control over my life hurts, especially as it concerns my son. Taking me by surprise from day one as a preemie, my son never stopped surprising me with years of challenges and unexpected events. Through the years, as I worked on feature articles for travel and bridal markets and other feel-good subjects, and in my spare time on fictional stories, I glossed over the raw realities of real life and, instead, I wore my rose-colored glasses and viewed every situation like a cherry-on-top silly Hallmark movie scene. The first inkling of how horribly wrong things could actually be was when I started uncovering layers of a liar’s cake, frosted thick, that my now ex-husband started to create in 2010. I thought I got wise after that, but not wise enough. Nineteen years later on that awful November day at 1:51 p.m. two years ago, one month from now, I received the telephone call that left me bearing unspeakable pain and profound grief.

From that day forward, I realized my life full of dreams and aspirations and faith in good over evil stopped. Nothing I ever wanted would come to fruition, because I had lost one of the main characters, and you cannot fill a blank screen when the projector has died.

Everything I imagined never worked out. Instead of learning about successes, accomplishments, mental wellness and other how-to-control-your-life strategies, and themes that are directly opposite the Willy Loman stories, I wish I learned about the importance of being brave and facing the ugly side of life early on. I wish I learned that The Little Engine That Could sometimes Couldn’t. I wish I had learned and passed the lessons on to my children and helped them understand the cruel, cold realities of life will never disappear, much like the impact of mental health issues. I wish more people in life were brave and could teach us how to do it. I wish so many things.

In the “old days” I found my tribe in support groups. Now, fortunately, I find my tribe in a handful of supportive people in real life and in my blogging community. I have also gone full circle, finding another tribe in the characters I read in literature.

For instance, one of the main characters (Rill Foss/May Weathers Crandall) in Before We Were Yours by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate hits the ball out of the park conveying how I feel about the consequence of expectations through Rill in the scene below that illustrates how the character finally reunites with her long-lost father and life that she has longed for ever since it was stolen from her. Wingate writes:

He gets up and heads for the door, grabbing his empty whiskey bottle on the way. A minute later, I hear him rowing off in the skiff.

I listen until he’s gone, and in the quiet that’s left after, I feel like the world is coming down around me. When I was at Mrs. Murphy’s and then the Seviers’ house, I thought if I could just get back to the Arcadia, that’d fix everything. I thought it’d fix me, but now I see I was fooling myself, just to keep on going, one day to the next.

Truth is, instead of fixing everything, the Arcadia made everything real. Camellia’s gone. Lark and Gabion are far away. Queenie’s buried in a pauper’s grave, and Briny’s heart went there with her. He’s lost his mind to whiskey, and he doesn’t want to come back.

Not even for me. Not even for Fern. We’re not enough.

My heart squeezes again.

Everything I wanted my life to be, it won’t be now. The path that brought me here is flooded over. There’s no going back.

Unlike old roofs, circumstances cannot be fixed no matter how much we are fixated on fixing them. There’s no going back. Going forward for me isn’t an option anymore. Moving along, learning to live my life under the category of pain management, scouting out the brave ones in life, that is the only way of faith I can bank on.

Faith Muscle

PS: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful daughter this week who will turn 27 on the 21st. She is my everything and so much more! ❤️

Weapon for Success

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Jordon, around the age of my now deceased son, was always a proud nerd and geek. He’s a chemist by trade and also builds PCs from amassed components as a hobby. Jordon is tall and linear in appearance and in his mind. I’m not going to guess his IQ score, but I know for certain that I can’t decipher the book titles in his private library since they are all written for geniuses, a group into which I wouldn’t try to fake my admittance.

A few people I know have husbands like Jordon. He’s the kind of man that if he gets married, he’s a keeper. That being said, I introduced him to my daughter about five years ago. She immediately canceled out any ideas in my scheming head when I heard her verdict. “Nope. Not my type.”

Some bystanders over the years have labeled him with a case of social anxiety. I, too, have witnessed women his age roll their eyes behind his back and sarcastically whisper his name, “Jordon,” in a mean-spirited way. He, by no means, even remotely resembles the alpha male in hot-selling women’s fiction.

He is, however, who he was born to be. He is the kind of guy that will drive an elderly woman to the hospital in an emergency, the way my son had done. Unlike my son, though, he has a solid tribe around him, a few members reach as far back as grammar school.

Still, I sensed a loneliness about him. These are the years in his life that, while he grows bonsai trees in his kitchen window, many of his friends are getting married and starting families of their own. In fact, once I didn’t see him for a string of days and became overly concerned. Right when I was going to investigate further, he waved at me with his toothy, silly grin as I drove by when he was taking a walk. In solidarity, I understand how it is to suffer from loneliness and disconnection.

A few weeks ago, I again spotted him walking. Upon closer look, I saw that his bony arm was around a woman who looked like she could walk with swagger and determination down a model’s runway. Her hair was silky and long, a brunette photo-perfect image for a hair dye product. Symmetrically refined, her face could soften the mean waves of an ocean.

As long as I’ve known Jordon, he has seemed content with his loveless life. How did this happen? He isn’t on the dating circuit. He doesn’t even have a night life. What?  For days I fell into the black hole of no return. This is the usual route I travel when I start comparing my son’s life with someone else’s life. A losing battle, my therapist Louis continually reminds me.

Despite knowing better, I lost a string of days while engaged in a mindless battle. Wondering how a recluse like Jordon, against all odds, could have ended up in the relationship that he did and how, on the other hand, my recluse son never once found a suitable soulmate and, in turn, ended up the way he did. My many lectures beginning with, “The best way to get anyone back is to succeed,” fell on my son’s deaf ears.

I think, too, how my son, if he could have just waited a little longer, one more day even, things would have turned around. He would have garnered the attention he deserved. He would have had an opportunity to connect with someone special as Jordon had done.

Of course, you have to play the game in order to win, even if this means failing to win every battle year after year. I don’t know if Jordon was privy to other people’s judgment towards him. If he was, he had the mental capacity to say, “No thanks,” to the judgments as if they were an offer of cheap wine. He defined himself and forged on. Faith forward thinking catapulted him.

In order to move forward like that, the first step is to get up, even on the days when it feels like everyone is belting you down. Rise up. Sing, off-key or not, an anthem of resolve. Improvise as much and as long as necessary, because the only standing ovation that matters is the one standing eye-to-eye with yourself in front of the mirror.

One more day

An appreciated note from one of my dearest friends that she dropped off recently with a bouquet of flowers. I keep it under plexiglass on my nightstand as an important reminder: ONE MORE DAY

One more day: I muster up blind faith and a guileless swagger. I am determined that my heartbreak won’t leak through the metal armor. The mission is to not allow a sobbing storm to leak through anyone’s rooftop and ruin his or her day, which, of course, doesn’t always work. I appreciate the super slim portion of the population that can actually affirm grief and heartbreak and unpredictability and let it be. I also appreciate the people who can look at life squarely without washing over any of it.

One more day: The morning’s first vitamin goes down easily as I swallow a small pint of water from a recycled jelly jar. The ritual started about 10 years ago when each and every day outran me, waking up in the morning with a duplicate to-do list in my hand from the day before. In those days, I was obsessed about crow’s feet around my eyes. My face was turning into a vase cracking from frequent use, decade after decade. Now, I ignore the lines, wrinkles and my face breaking as the days sit on me like topsoil.

A few weeks ago, I “kissed a ceiling fan” clueless to the oscillating fan since I was cleaning and intent on getting rid of dust bunnies. That night in the hospital’s emergency room, I ended up with nine stitches on my upper eyelid. Later, over the next course of days, I laid in bed at home alone weeping privately.

Afterwards, my therapist Louis got it right when he said, “The trauma exasperated the trauma.”

In fact, the painful accident felt like a contradiction. I finally looked outside the way I felt inside, and it felt like a relief. I didn’t have to hide anymore. It takes up so much energy to hide behind a smiley emoji.

How are you? People ask me in passing.

Fine.

What would happen if I revealed the raw truth instead of participating in small talk? “Most days, I really don’t want to go on.”

Fine. I’m absolutely fine.

Today is going to be a great day!

In 1984, I began my journey as a mind warrior picking positive thoughts and affirmations along the way. By the time I became a mom, I was determined to raise little mind warriors who grew up into big mind warriors. I can remember my son’s seven-year-old face reflected in my bedroom’s mirror, reciting affirmations that I taught him: I am smart. I deserve to be happy. No matter how hard it is, I can do it.

When times were tough, I convinced my ex-husband, We can do it. He, on the other hand, affirmed, We’ll make it. Year after year, times became tougher. We can do it.

In our end years before I filed for a divorce, I reminded him, We can do it.

It’s a lie. We are failing. I hate my job. I hate the rat race. I hate this town. I hate this state. We are losing the house. We are behind the eight ball. Affirming something that isn’t true is a lie.

I heard what my ex-husband said, but I did not or could not make myself believe it. It was going to be okay. Of course, it wasn’t okay. Our marriage not only tanked, but life became like sitting on the edge of a hardwood chair with no flooring underneath. I felt like most of my affirmations and positive thoughts ended up as fulfilling as sweat on the heal of the hand.

As my son’s young world took shape into adulthood, instead of reciting affirmations, he sarcastically started to announce each day with, “Another day in paradise.”

I shuttered when I heard his description, but I, too, denied that I intuitively knew it was a dark foreshadowing of the future.

In the past, the autumn days represented red, gold and tangerine colors, and new to-do lists that involved purging closets. Now, I manage the autumn in slow motion, holding on stubbornly to the dead summer. After all, the fall marks the autumn of my son’s life. He did not make it to the winter solstice and the return of more sunlight.

We’ll make it. Sometimes my ex-husband’s voice bellows in all its youth and springtime vigor in my mind, and for a fleeting second, I see the four of us all young again, wearing forever smiles. And, I recall my long-ago affirmations: I am abundant; God cannot give me a desire without it already being mine.

Then my three fingers pinpoint my heartbreak in the middle of my chest, safely tucked away beneath the metal of armor.

Next weekend, we have a party we are invited to, and I am buffing my armor, getting ready. One of the guys who is attending and whom I ran into recently exclaimed, “Get your dancing shoes on.”

I am amazed at his unawareness. How clueless he is to assume that I live life in the same manner I used to when I had free rein of closets overstuffed with dancing shoes. Some might call my place in life prolonged grief, conveniently paint over it and make it pretty so it’s easily friended by millions of strangers. Others erase grief as they once erased my son because of his taciturn manner. Others direct me to move on and lament over how I am stuck in the past. Then there are a select few who know that grief is something you can’t lift, like age, and it isn’t something to fill and fix like Botox on crow’s feet.

It’s there always, like the inner peace I was gifted with nearly 37 years ago. Now, I’m learning how to shuffle everything within me to make space for the grief. For me, the process is like inching around in a new pair of stiff shoes.

One more day: I alone can do it without anyone’s bird’s eye view of my world, because I learned in these nearly two years that bird’s eye views are dangerously limited.

One more day: It’s a different day, yet it kicks in with the same vitamin and joint supplement regime that stays with me along with drinking it all down in a repurposed glass that I savor, because I am acutely aware of how repurposing is an end-of-life strategy that doesn’t always hold water and no positive thought or affirmation will ever make it any different.

Faith Muscle

Life Stages and Curtain Times

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As a follow up to last week’s blog post, a few days after I spoke to my neighbor, Felicity’s dad, who is wrestling with his remorse over her departure to a college some four hours away, I spotted him alone, slouched on a log behind an overgrown maple tree. He reminded me of Elmer J. Fudd, the cartoon character in Bugs Bunny, being thwarted by the “wabbit.” In my neighbor’s case, he couldn’t capture Father Time, and his little girl grew up in the blink of an eye.

Less than 300 feet separated us, but I did not impinge on his solitude as he processed the fact that the past is printed on a calendar of unrecyclable paper. Instead, I attended to depositing the trash into the garbage can, and the grief, heavy in its now permanently designated space, in my own heart. How I wished Hollywood movies, where friendship, family, justice and love always win in the end, were real. In my mind, I imagined the heroine/hero voice exclaim, “I have returned. I will stay and be your child forever and ever until you die. Witness a metamorphose from a cocoon into a butterfly, keep me close, a treasure in a jar, and be spared from an unspeakable hurt.”

The next day, less than a week after Felicity’s departure, my friend informed me that while she took her daily walk, she noticed that Felicity’s boyfriend and her parents commiserated in solidarity over dinner in the dining room. When my friend explained the details, I understood why she emphasized the location. Dining rooms are where family and friends gather to make formal toasts and share milestones. Dining rooms are where grievers congregate and leave an empty seat and, sometimes, a place setting, at the table during special meals to commemorate those who have departed. In essence, my neighbors held a “farewell dinner.”

“You can never have enough love!” I exclaimed, acknowledging the depth of affection that surrounds Felicity.

The neighbors’ planned farewell dinner reminded me of one unplanned farewell dinner we held in our dining room shortly after my ex-husband underwent a mental breakdown and, in the process, abandoned his family. It was at the end of 2010 and the lavish meal at the table belied his sudden disappearance. We ate our food with intent, forcing ourselves to believe in the possibilities of the future, taking comfort in how the meat and meatless entries, along with the potatoes, carrots, peas and other trimmings on our plates symbolically melded together and fit into some kind of balanced ensemble. And, as we swirled our forks around our plates and clanged our glasses against the china, we wondered what would be revealed next on the big movie screen of life. I remember how suddenly my brother Paul blurted out, “Who will walk Alexandra down the aisle when she gets married?”

“Marshall!” we all exclaimed, gazing into our identical crystal balls, happy illusions in our minds as my son turned scarlet red, forced a grin, but remained silent.

I would venture to say that our unplanned farewell meal and my neighbors’ planned farewell meal shared many of the same feelings and emotions:  fear, hope and faith.

The fear element, during both dinners, likely stewed along with a slew of desperate questions: “How, how do I get through this trench without knowing where my boots are? How do I move forward?”

These are the same questions that haunt me every day for over 22 months after the sudden loss of my son to suicide. His is now the greatest loss that has led me numerous times to our dining room where dishes brim with the greens of life and morsels to satisfy the palate as I poke and stab, but feel emptier by the moment as every memory digs into me, teases me, because the reality is that I sit in an unfamiliar seating arrangement. In my neighbors’ case, I thought while her family and boyfriend dined and attempted to figure out how to sing a new tune without her, Felicity found her voice in her dorm room with her new roomie, perhaps, chatting, getting acquainted, making plans to go shopping on the weekend and tour the city close by.

I have a coin I carry with me everywhere. It says: “Behind you, all your memories. Before you, all your dreams. Around you, all who love you. Within you, all you need.”

Felicity’s journey to adulthood has naturally been a rough transition on her family and boyfriend. As the years unravel, I am quite sure, though, that they will reckon with life’s growing and going pains and come to recognize the continual goodbye that strings the moments together until the final goodbye. They, too, will recognize the wave of the hand, year after year, as life marches on until, if they are lucky enough, they witness that the string of days behind them is much longer than those that are in front of them. It is all this as well as all those recurrent memories beaded together into a bespoke treasure to which words do not do justice.

Occasionally, I have faith that life is a Hollywood movie, because no matter how sad the plot is, the reality is that the more phenomenal the cast of characters, the more love wins in the end. In other words, even though the curtain is drawn and the show ends for my son, I know I once had the honor to share a stage with one of the most captivating, humorous and brilliant headliners one can ever imagine.

I also have faith and a full heart knowing that the curtain is still open next door, and I can’t wait to see Felicity when she returns for the Thanksgiving holiday. I think I’ll give that young starlet a coffee card token just to let her know how much I appreciate the opportunity to take a seat backstage as her character arc develops and unfolds and takes us all on the next grand adventure.

Faith Muscle

Dusty Trails

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Nearly a month ago, my neighbors’ only child, I’ll call her Felicity (one of my favorite names!), about whom I’ve written a previous blog post, relocated to attend a college about four hours away from home. I’ve not seen her mom, but her dad, as I’ve written about prior, is having a difficult time dealing with her departure.

All grief, as far as I am concerned, as I’ve also written about before, is valid. Whether you mourn the lose of a pet turtle or death of a child or grieve a child who has catapulted into the next stage of life, there is an infinite roll-out of feelings and emotions associated with a sense of loss. Grief is a natural response to a painful or traumatic experience that is part of the human condition over which we have no control over. This time, hearing my neighbor share a part of his heartbreak involving his daughter, I was able to step completely outside my personal emotional pain and maneuver my way onto the bridge that connects us humans better than Crazy Glue: empathy.

His tone had an absorbing melancholy when he discussed the slow fade of time. In other words, in retrospect, although you’re going all out, have both feet planted on the pedals, it’s a losing race.

“The house has a different energy about it without her,” he vocalized as his head tilted downward.

Energy. Yes, I thought, life is energy. In this same vein, his daughter’s departure could be a song: Felicity is packed. Ready to go. Boxes and bags, belongings and energy flow. All her belongings, only to leave us longing.

Thinking deeper about this, Felicity disappeared from her house, but not completely. You see,  Biology 101 teaches us that the body’s cells and organs work together to keep the body going, to make it the energy field that it is. As a safeguard, the body is also equipped with many natural defenses to help it stay alive. For instance, in order to fight infections, we humans “lose 200,000,000 skin cells every hour. During a 24-hour period, a person loses almost five thousand million skin cells.” In one year, the total amount of dead skin loss per person is more than eight pounds, that’s about as big as a Labrador puppy.

The process is our human way of shedding. What falls off us collects as dust. All those fast-flying gossamer bunnies you find nesting in the corner of the radiator and on your tables and windowsills are amassed mostly of former bits of yourself, which, in turn, provide a gourmet haven for dust mites!

And, here’s the point I’m getting at. About 20 years ago, I heard a renowned historic preservation architect speak. If you don’t know already, a historic preservation architect helps preserve old buildings that have historical value. Anyway, he said that each time a building is demolished, not only do we witness an inanimate object disappear, but, along with it, is the annihilation of a trail in human history – thousands upon thousands of shredded cells from the lives that once laughed, loved and experienced the many highs and lows of life on the premises. The architect’s somber talk, which kept me on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears, changed my life forever.

In my own house, built in 1980, after hearing the talk, I thought about the “remains” of the two families that lived here prior to us. Even though I am a germophobe, I know that they have left their marks in secret places that are spared from my cleaning habits. Sadly, the boy in the second family died in a horrific accident when he was 13. My children went to school with him and they always felt creeped out to know he lived in our home. His bedroom was where I once housed my office. His shreds of long-ago life filled me with faith and reminds me that he matters.

In essence, Felicity and her energy are gone, but her shredded skin still coats her house like angel dust. And this goes for my departed son, mom (my dad passed away before he ever could see our house), brother and my relocated daughter, our pets, and even ex-husband who lives in a state 600 miles away, not to mention all the many friends, extended family and acquaintances who have crossed my house’s threshold to visit over this 20-year span. Yes, they are all here somewhere in places invisible to the naked eye, but still close, like a whisper in my ear. Their remains peeled off during ebbs and flows in the tide of their lives. They are all part of my household history like my own skin that sheds at this very moment as I stroke my creative muse.  We partner peacefully, drifting, weaving tapestries from everything repurposed, sustainable and with a thread of hope that they will last through the remainder of the century and, if possible, push farther into the next dusty trail that sometimes seems like a riverbend ahead.

Faith Muscle