🏆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

Final Blastoff

The 4th of July by Harold Davis

The day before Fourth of July 2010, my now ex-husband flickered around like a moth in a pageant of holiday lights. Impulsively, he corralled my then 17-year-old son and his best friend, Robert, and they jumped in his vehicle and rocketed away as if running from a disturbed hive of hornets and disappeared.

It was a spur of the moment decision. They traveled some 300 miles to another state to purchase legal fireworks, but illegal in our state, and they would motor them back to fire up at our house for the holiday.

I was all for it. My ex had spent the earlier part of the year in a dark depression and to witness signs of rebirth in him was like drinking a glass of sweet tea on a particularly hot day in Austin, Texas, where I attended college many moons ago.

When my ex and the young men returned with the booty many hours later, I discovered my ex had spent some $800 on fireworks. For nearly every previous Fourth of July, we “had a blast” in our backyard with legal, inexpensive fireworks intended for simple family play. I knew this fact, but I retrieved my rose-colored glasses, secured them perfectly over my eyes and did not argue. Instead, I shelved the fact that we were having difficulty meeting our monthly mortgage payment, never mind spending an insane amount of money on a frivolous, last-minute action.

I was determined to believe: we would meet our debt, and the daily stress would alleviate. We were taking the bumpy, longer-than-planned route, but we would arrive at our happily-ever-after destination and nothing was going to disintegrate The Maxwell House, as I first dubbed our happy home in 2002.

What I didn’t see was the separate household, some 600 miles away, that my then husband had begun to set up. What I didn’t see was his relocation to his new home in November 2010. What I didn’t see was 18-year-old Robert’s accidental death in January 2011, shortly after our marriage ended. And, I certainly didn’t envision, in a trillion years, my son’s premeditated death in November 2019.

All I saw was the solid black canvas screen that projected the light show on that last Fourth our family, including my daughter and the children’s godmother, would spend together. In the backyard, my now ex-husband launched dozens of bottle rockets, among his arsenals, into the sky as if he were a comic character set free from the confines of a book. The two teenage boys followed behind, laughing, mimicking his frantic movements. From the deck above, the rest of us screamed in delight, flashing smiles almost as big as the dazzling, sizzling and soaring fireworks. It was a night to remember and behind my rose-colored glasses I wore that night, no one could convince me that we would not experience decades of forthcoming holidays like boxes of traditional firecrackers strung together.

The illegal fireworks that my now ex bought to celebrate July 2010 accompanied us through 2017, which was the final Fourth I spent with the children’s godmother and my son, who had inherited the responsibility of launching the fireworks since the dissolution of our family unit. (My daughter was working as a summer camp counselor in Upstate New York.) Sadly, I remember on our final blastoff together, I felt irritated and bored, impatient between launches; thinking of all the projects and ruminating over an endless task list in my mind. And then it was as if “POOF” he was gone. First, he relocated to Kentucky, some 600 miles away. And then two years after the relocation, he disappeared entirely like stars and roman candles that fizzle out and leave behind a black tar hue that blinds your world without any sign of light or an escape door.

Fourth of July was my son’s best friend’s favorite holiday. It was my son’s second favorite holiday, after Halloween.

I’ve heard that many mourning mothers memorialize their dead children all over their homes with photos and other reminders of holidays and good times past. After the funeral at the end of 2019, the children’s photos remained where they had always been. The new addition in the entrance hallway, above a set of stairs leading to the front door, was an 8.5 inch by 10 inch framed photo of my son that was signed by his co-workers in Kentucky and delivered to the funeral home as a thoughtful gift.

By mid-March of the following year, I started getting woozy from the grief build up of viewing him in the photos at different stages in his life, and having him stare intensely at me from that enlarged photo at the entrance hall day in and day out as if pleading to me, “You saved the world. Why did you not save me?”

Feeling the blood on my hands, the maggot-like raw reality of the tragic situation ate me up. I would never see his white toothy smile. Hear his irritating giggle, reminiscent of mine. Or smell his familiar Irish Spring soap scent in real life. He filled every part – big, small, significant and insignificant – of my day in, day out life, and then “POOF” he was gone.

And so it was, I silenced all the expert opinions and advice and in stillness boxed up every single photo and reminder of him, only to deposit the painful treasures safely out of sight. Fortunately, my therapist stood by my decision. Afterwards, my angst, miraculously, subsided. The blank wall where the signed photograph resided bothered me though. The blankness seemed to grow emptier. I didn’t have a clue what I could display there.

The following month, I attended an art show, my artist friend’s exhibition. Harold is a gifted man, and I am truly humbled every time I view his creations. Since my new normal, I allow a handful of people into my life, Harold and his wife Chris have been two of them. We share on a gut level that never fails to fill my spirit with faith.

Anyway, after the show ended and I was headed towards my automobile on that beautiful spring day, Harold stopped me.

“I have something for you.”

“What?” I responded, surprised.

He summoned me to follow him to his vehicle and I did. It was then that he presented me with a vibrant-colored abstract painting of his.

“I wanted you to have this.”

As I stared at it, mesmerized by the boldness, I turned it over, only to find its title, “Fourth of July.”

After thanking the artist, I responded, misty eyed, “I have a blank wall that’s been waiting for this.”

Harold’s painting looks larger than life on my previously blank wall ever since. It isn’t a photo of my son. It is a piece of art that I see, perhaps, 20, 30 or more times a day. The bright colors fill my my mind’s dark horizon like fireworks blasting in the sky. The image fills me with an abundance of Fourth of July memories that I once was so grateful to share with my now sizzled out young family. The image energizes me and ignites my soul ablaze.

I also feel like the painting represents an eternal flame that fans my faith and courage, so I manage to accomplish the daily climb up and climb down on the stairs of a house once built on petals of love as sweet as the scent of roses.

Faith Muscle
Faith Muscle