“AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL”

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

I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.

I  met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.

The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.

I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.

When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.

“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”

Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately, Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.

When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.

He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.

He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.

As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.

When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.

I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.

Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.

“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”

“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”

Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.  

From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.

No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.

Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.

That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.

“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”

Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?

“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”

Where am I?

After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.

Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.

Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”

Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.

Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.

Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.

Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.

As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.

Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”

Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.

From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.

Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.

At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.

As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.

We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.

After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.

I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.

Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.

I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.

“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.

What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.

Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.

“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” – Sogyal Rinpoche

Faith Muscle

Juxtaposition Axiom

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There is a tall and svelte woman Peggy that regularly jogs in my neighborhood. She works as an accountant at a startup company where her husband is the chief executive officer.

She spends more on keratin hair straightening treatments than most people spend on their monthly grocery bills. Temperatures and humidity could be soaring, and Peggy won’t break a sweat.

While I listened to the news on my car radio about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, that left 19 children and two adults dead, adding to an alarming series of mass killings in America, she rolled past my view like a smooth, scarlet-colored ribbon.

I was headed to Trader Joe’s for a bag of reduced fat cheese puffs. It was my usual justified, self-trickery. Predictably, I would return with two bags of additional snacks and ice cream.

During my shopping trip, in my mind, I pictured the families of the deceased as well as the families of the perpetrator. Faces seized by shock’s fire. Raging in sorrow, grief. Confiscated homes that were once smooth and sound and as predictable as compiling a grocery list. Lives similar to normal plane mirrors, a mirror with a flat (planar) reflective surface. Sure, you wipe them off. Remove the smudges and streaks. In turn, they work for you. Not so.

Men, women and children now trapped in a not-funny fun house of distorted mirrors where every turn from here on means smacking into another jarring convex and concave section. Where to go? How to go? Direction is lost in a maze of thick grief, ground sodded and planted with inescapable emotional booby traps.  

My mind’s photos create a juxtaposition between scenes from the recent Texas tragedy and Peggy’s face, smooth with a ladybug complexion. I picture her scouring the pages on Amazon’s website, searching for blankets, sheets and pillows, helping her son get ready for his first year at an Ivy league school …. Gearing up for her jog the next morning.

During the rest of the week, the Texas tragedy unfolds on the news. I see the victims’ faces. Each one represents a wrinkle- and scar-free youth. I see the families’ faces. Each one, muscle lost, thin skin, ten-thousand tomorrows lived in a moment.

I repeatedly spot Peggy jogging out on the road. Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s “stunning” Italian wedding plaster the other news sections on my computer screen. By the time last weekend arrives, Platinum Jubilee celebrations of England’s queen steals the limelight as she hails “a renewed sense of togetherness.”

Maybe because it is my brain of COVID-19 (I was recently diagnosed), but I feel like I’ve lost my bearings, and I am out of touch, caught in unfamiliar terrain. I ponder, why can’t we all live a royal life of jubilation? Wander around, spending our days in a fun house where we can laugh at distortion, because it’s not real.

Why is it that some adults and children never seem to get a lucky break? Have they broken mirrors and it resulted in bad luck that exceeds its seven-year limit? Or is it that infants are born already swaddled in bad luck? Always by-passed. Never chosen to play on a sports team, while others seem to live life enjoying a daily picnic spread with plenty of no-calorie desserts?

Whether you consider yourself one of the lucky ones or not, the real question is, how do you find faith when there’s so much disparity? I don’t have the answer. I do know when I stay off the national news and social media and do something more productive like water ivy houseplants, I feel less anxious, less sad, less mad. I float on my sea of grief, cease the mean fight against the waves. It puts me back in my own shoes, and I can forge the walk-the-walk trek in life that I was taught 37 years ago. Pick up the discarded empty cigarette packs along the roadside in my teeny-tiny landscape. Pick up extra snacks at the store and give half away. Choose listening over talking. Stop thinking so hard and just be, because I am most precious to myself and others when I am humble, brave and free of distracting airwaves.

Faith Muscle

Be at Peace

My strongest walk of faith is when I listen to my inner voice that comes to me on the wings of my inner spirit and NOT society’s real-time GPS that “directs, tracks, routes and maintains the fleet.”

Be at peace today. Steal a moment of quiet for yourself in today’s bossy, noisy world. You may be astounded at what you hear!

Faith Muscle

Missing Tooth Fairy

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My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.

On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.

From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.

“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.

Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.

Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.

My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.

Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.

At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.

“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”

I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”

“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.

In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.

“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”

There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.

“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.

Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.

Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me.  My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.  

After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.

A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”

Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.

Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”

Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:

…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:

“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”

In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:

Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.

After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.

The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”

Faith Muscle

Turner Tales

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My friend Turner taught me two things: one, to never underestimate the power of a door and two, to never underestimate the power of God.

After a few minor scrapes with the law as a juvenile, Turner committed multiple armed robberies in his early adulthood. He paid gravely for his crimes, spending more time behind bars than on the outside. After his final incarceration, he participated in a number of rehabilitation programs, determined to keep himself on the straight and narrow. I met him in a support group two years after his final prison release, and he remained in my life for over twenty years until he died of cancer about five years ago.

Turner acquiesced wholeheartedly into society and became a respected, hardworking, tax-paying citizen, not to mention a mentor to many, including me. However, he functioned in a state of high alert in the free world and could not escape the tight grip of hypervigilance. Whenever he saw or heard a door in motion, he couldn’t help but flashback to the echo of heavy metal. It spilled over him like a slow-motion train slipping off the track.

Turner explained that in lockup, the opening and closing of the security doors follow the daily schedule of a prisoner and attentiveness to prison doors stands above clock-watching. Life seems as predictable as peeling a potato, but over the years, the deafening, resonant clang of the metal doors knifed Turner’s brain more than the constant bellow of insults and orders behind prison walls.

In fact, the first time Turner faced the dungeon gate, he tumbled backward. His one-time youthful hopes, dreams, plans dissolved. When you serve time, he said, no matter if they open or close, prison doors lead to nowhere. You begin where you end, like hopping into a prop car bolted onto a stage floor. Needless to say, ten years after his release, he bought a house and removed every single interior door.

Over the decades, Turner acquired a deep faith in the God of his understanding and never forgot to thank his higher power for his new life and the freedom to do such things as remove doors at will — at least in his home. He also never failed to express his gratitude to our group. As is our tradition, we encouraged Turner in the same way we did each other. Despite our empathy and understanding, we experienced a few occasions when the subject turned to God and His will for us. Typically, a few members plowed into a tangent and looped themselves into an esoteric, high-pitched dialogue about the nature of the supreme influence over the universe.

Rising like a three-hundred pound totem pole, Turner’s nearly seven feet of height would tower over us. His reddened face reared with bulging eyes, turning side to side above his vintage leather jacket that crackled like kernels changing to popcorn.

“God? God? You want to talk about God? Go ahead! I’m out of here, because who the hell am I to hear or talk about God and try and figure out what his or her plans are or aren’t? I’m nothing in the face of God, the divine, the almighty. Nothing. I have less significance than a roach racing around a prison cell compared to him. Her. It. And that’s a good thing because all I know is: I matter. You matter. We matter. And if we get all holed up and locked into trying to figure out things that aren’t to be figured out, we’ll lose sight of what really matters today. There’s no guarantee of tomorrow.”

Each and every time, Turner instantly deflated our egos, a sense of peace saturated the room into an unplanned moment of silence. An outsider could have felt the brotherly-sisterly connection of those thirty or so people in the group. We sure did. Fortunately, Turner never barged out of the room, and the meeting resumed in a calm, collective spirit. You see, this former Hell’s Angel was our angel of wisdom. He opened the door that led us to a spiritual space where the door shut tightly behind us. We were safe because self-seeking was left on the other side of the door. Our holy ground we secured under our feet among notorious sinners who, in our eyes, were on their way to sainthood. What I’ve learned from Turner and so many like him, is: if false pride is the deadliest of all sins, then humility is the greatest virtue.

To this day, every time I get into the war zone of my crazy, little, take-charge head of mine, I remember Turner. I inhale deeply, swing open the confinement of my mind’s door and run wild and free.

Faith Muscle

Powerlessness

Out of the Darkness Campus Walks for Suicide Awareness, sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi.

This past Friday, my partner’s eldest daughter called to extend her condolences to me and my daughter for Marshall’s death. Of course, she previously had offered her condolences to us over two years ago when our family tragedy occurred. In fact, she was here every step of the way. When I mean “here,” Laura and her husband were “here” in our kitchen. They cooked, cleaned, enabling me to tend to other matters. I will be indebted to them forever.

Anyway, it took another tragedy for her to obtain a closer, bird’s eye perspective of our painful journey and the extent of what it means to be powerless.

During the telephone call, Laura explained that her dearest friend’s 14-year-old son died by suicide on December 1st. He was star athlete, well-liked at his high school and did not have any substance abuse issues or outward signs of mental health challenges or depression.

“One day you see them and then you don’t.”

I remember these words uttered by a young man and how he elucidated in a somber manner the death of his high school football teammate who had died by suicide. I met him in Norwalk, Connecticut in March 2020 while participating in one of the Out of the Darkness Campus Walks for Suicide Awareness, sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi.

The man I met at the walk explained that he last saw his teammate cheerfully perched on the high school’s bleachers.

“One day you see them and then you don’t.”

As I spoke to Laura over the phone, I steered clear of the background details. Right now, though, as I write this blog post, the young man is brain-dead and his mom has spent every waking hour by his side at the hospital, squeezing the time-limited moments like membranes of an orange in a drought-riddled, barren land. Although I’ve never met them, mom and son have been ironed into my thoughts like starch since I heard the news.

For over 37 years, I have followed a program that teaches me that I am powerless over people, places, things and most situations. This means, although I was able to help many people, I could not help my own son at the end. (I was powerless over the situation — despite my ego reprimanding me repeatedly, shouting, “You could have saved him.”)

So, distraught after hearing Laura’s news, I revealed the situation to a close friend without breaking the 14-year-old’s anonymity. She said, “Well, you have walked in his mom’s shoes. You know how it feels.”

Right then and there, I responded, “No!” (Please note the exclamation point!)

I walk only in my shoes. I can’t fit my big clunkers and a partial bunion into anyone’s shoes no matter how I try. I might fall into the International Shoe Size Chart, but the whorls and ridges are unique in toe prints. Like hand prints, no two footprints are identical and neither are heartbreak, grief and pain. Everyone processes human emotions and feelings differently.

Mattie Jackson Selecman is point on in her new book, Lemons on Friday: Trusting God Through My Greatest Heartbreak, “Everyone’s grief is different. What is true for most grievers: the illusion of control over our lives — the tight, self-preserving grip we thought we held on our person and our plans — is now gone. What we thought was secure has been snatched away.”

The quote helps to elucidate what I believe I have in common with the grieving mom in the ICU. We realize what it means to be powerless — really, badass, fall-down-on-the-ground, kicking and screaming, dust-particles-flying everywhere powerless. In other words, I have no control over people, places, things and most situations. (I only have power over my own behavior.) Dictionary.com defines powerlessness as without ability, influence, or power.

The mom grieving over her brain-dead son and I undeniably understand what it is to be helpless in the face of a situation that is totally unjust, unfair and worse than cruel. There is nothing we can change about what has been thrust upon us. There are no miracles in our human eyes.

“Surrender to win!”

That is a familiar saying among my peers. When all else fails, life support is removed and there is no hope for recovery, we surrender to what is, not what was or could be.

In 2015, Writer Maria Popova wrote an excellent book review for H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. In her review, she poignantly captures the essence of surrender: “And yet somehow, Macdonald unboxes herself as she trains Mabel into control and Mabel trains her into the grace of surrender, of resting into life exactly as it is rather than striving for some continually unsatisfying and anguishing version of how it ought to be. “

My friend Brian A. used to say it best: “Accept everything all the time.”

“It is what it is,” my daughter constantly reminds me.

This also means, we do not seek answers, play the blame game or find cowardly tactics to bolster a lost cause that, in the end, causes us to seep further into despair, anguish and a meritless rabbit hole of a self-made hell. Instead, we stare at the raw reality in terror and plunge deeper into our souls and pan desperately for the gold that is our inner strength.

Yes, it is what it is and so it is.

“One day you see them and then you don’t.”

My own personal tragedy aside, I know almost everyone has experienced some sort of loss and pain. Regardless of the circumstances, I am one of the fortunate ones. I was able to uncover a priceless reserve of peace that I first started panning for — about the same time I began to comprehend the word powerless — over 37 years ago. What this essentially means is that I can extend a listening ear and a safe place of my heart to a fellow sufferer, an empowering space amid the turmoil of the world to which we retreat, surrender our egos, rest into life, press through the hard and hold tight to faith, hope and each other.

Faith Muscle

Love 🤍 Lives Here

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Every time I see a lawn sign: “Love Lives Here,” I think of Geraldine. She was decades older than I was and has since relocated to another state, but was my support group mentor for two years when I was in my 20s. Geraldine was a budding artist married to a world renowned architect. The couple lived by the sound in an area known as the Gold Coast, an affluent part of western Connecticut.

We spent a good amount of time driving around the area, deep in conversation about the messy sides of love and life. Every now and then, I espied a particularly luxurious house and the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head, leading me to ask with a sneer, “Why can’t I live in a house like that?”

Geraldine’s response was always the same. “Don’t make assumptions. Facades are built to impress. We forget they are not real. The people inside are real. We do not know them. They can be poor in spirit. Sick with cancer. The facade you are looking at right now could be a cover up for domestic violence or child abuse.”

Geraldine taught me not to accept things on face value, examine beneath the surface of what appears to be real and discern the truth. It only makes sense that whenever I drive by a lawn sign, “Love Lives Here” (or any of those other saccharine signs), I immediately wonder if the sign merely conceals what is really going on inside — disease, death, destruction, dread and despair — suburban hunger and poverty.

So, this brings me to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. We were fortunate to spend another Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Anna and her family. The family consists of mostly well-educated, affluent medical doctors. They had invited their neighbor’s caretaker, Jose, to join us. He lives in the basement of his employers’ mega mansion. The family he works for were away for the holiday, and he was alone. In fact, this was the case last Thanksgiving when Anna and her husband also invited him to join them, taking proper precautions since it was during the pandemic’s mandatory quarantine.

It just goes to show, Anna doesn’t need to display signs of love on her lawn. You will find all the love you can imagine behind closed doors.

I had never met Jose before, but I knew he feared returning to the political and civil upheaval in his Latin country. When he arrived at the door, he wore a polyester beige top, chocolate-colored, loose-fitting trousers, with his head lowered. He grasped a burgundy wool knit hat. The skin on his hands resembled the surface of a cracked asphalt driveway. His indigo hair was sleek, straight as a piece of construction paper and held that just-brushed appearance. I would estimate he was around 50, but, maybe, the life lines covering his hardened face masked his true youth.

Realize, too, Jose does not speak a lick of English. Fortunately, Anna’s husband is fluent in Spanish, and he translated our conversations. Before our meal, Anna asked Jose to recite the prayers that he grew up with in Mexico. He willingly obliged. The words came easy like a well-worn, comfortable melody, softened with grace and elegance. I did not have a clue as to what he was saying, but I understood every word, because the language of love is universal. It tears down walls and barriers and connects us in all things good, pure and holy.

Rising above my own grief and sorrow, Jose’s eyes revealed secrets of his own sorrow as he prayed. Our connection of despair actually made me smile. We were unicorns that felt solidarity built upon a foundation of truth and faith. I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I didn’t need a billboard to figure out that the meaning of Thanksgiving stretches to every day of the year when it is engineered with the grand and noble emotions of the human heart.

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

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

🏆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