Cloudy. Looks like showers; maybe even thunderstorms. Temperature: 65 degrees.
Every morning since the day I met Ally, and our relationship lasted for over 20 years until she died of cancer, she recorded the weather with a ballpoint pen in her six-by-eight inch journals. Out of the classic, lined, hardcover journals, she had one inscribed with the following quote, Let your faith be bigger than your fear. – Hebrews 13:6
Ally was not a religious woman. She didn’t go to church or ever mention God. Instead, she lived a message of love and as a member of the local garden club, she spent endless volunteer hours helping to keep the town green and gardens growing pretty. Ally also dedicated her life to working at a local wildlife rehabilitation facility that aided birds and other wildlife.
One day I realized that in the same manner that people wake up in the morning and recite prayers and read spiritual material, Ally recorded the weather. It acted as her touchstone for the day. It gave her a larger perspective on life, helped deflate her ego and discover her true self. In other words, it ironed out her fear and made her fearless to float forward fearlessly into the thunderstorms and hail of life. Amen!
On the topic of weather and prayers, I call to mind my dear friend Brian. I’ve written about him before, but as a refresher, he identified with Native American spiritual beliefs. Once when we were driving in his truck from a weekend in Canada, we were suddenly caught in a monsoon storm. Joining other travelers, Brian veered his truck over into the emergency lane and parked. Seconds after he shut the engine off, he bolted outside and moved in front of the truck. Right before my eyes, he lifted his head and outstretched his arms while the rain beat down on him like the sights and sounds of linear drumming.
“Great Spirit! Great Spirit!”
It turned out to be the man’s prayer of thanks for every possible thing imaginable, including what others, most times, perceive as inclement weather, Brian saw as a gift.
Ally, like Brian, saw the weather, regardless of whether it was a mean storm or a mild spring day, in the same grateful way because she understood that it meant another sunrise of life occurred. This insight enabled her to charge forward into the day with faith. In fact, anytime I saw her, even after she received her diagnosis, she never stopped recording the weather and continued to act like a big, fat cloud bursting with an “Amen!” kind of jubilation.
Author and MD, Robert Eliot said, If you can’t fight and you can’t flee, flow.
In this way, you can switch out the word FAITH for the word FLOW. The concepts are connected because when you flow through life, you have faith in it, and you gain a deeper awareness and thereby, find a greater meaning in it.
Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter, said: Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storms, but to add color to my sunset sky.
Heads lifted skyward, arms overstretched, Brian and Ally looked past the clouds and storms to pinpoint the colors of the sunrise as well as sunset.
Patchy fog. Hot and humid. Temperature: easy, breezy, flowing forward fearlessly.
If you recall, the press club awarded, Am I in the Right Room? a second prize in the blogging category for CPC’s 2020 contest.
As a side note, one of my travel stories also won an honorable mention in the 2021 travel writing category.
The awards will be presented in June, and I will keep you updated.
I am humbled and, at the same time, honored to be recognized. It has been a bittersweet, 40-something year writing journey. When my children were growing up, and I spent every weekend and holiday “working” on a project, I never doubted for one minute that my earnest efforts would pay off and, in the future, I would have ample family quality time. One day, I thought, I would be able financially to “retire” or, at least, have weekends off. Of course, living in my writer’s fantasy, my dreams were simply illusions, pipedreams dribbled down on paper. I am left with thinking about the years of Sunday movies at the theater that I did not have the opportunity to watch with my young and growing family.
When it comes to writing this blog, sometimes I fear that I shouldn’t be transparent and, instead, keep my vulnerabilities to myself. At this point in my life, though, I work hard at steering clear of judging others and keeping my opinions about others to myself and, as such, the only opinion about moi that matters is my own. This mindset has proven to be of great therapeutic value to me and allows me to express myself during the times I need to. In turn, I am grateful to you, my blogging community, for providing me with a judgment-free zone that is my safe sanctuary and certainly my faith muscle and a “winner’s circle” all around.
Maybe it’s the melancholy pieces of classical music that stream in my office, or the frosty end-of-March days accented in snow sprinkles, or maybe it’s that my bones are achy as I close in on the final chapter of my life and my bookshelf topples over with a bibliophile’s grand list of “Books to read before you die”; likely though, it is the combination of these things that has motivated me to take a little breather from my weekly introspective blog posts that I’ve been writing for two years this month.
You see, for the last 37 years I’ve lived under deadlines and commitments and as the days roll in, I want to roll out of bed, shake the aging bones and walk for miles aimlessly at the seashore as I once did as a child and allow the salt air to fix everything that hurts.
The years ahead are far fewer than the years behind. I am like a ramshackle house that requires a laundry list of self-care.
That being said, beginning next week, I will be posting faith-related “Quotes” for the next few months, before I make a final decision about the direction I want to take with WTF, Where’s the Faith.
Above all, I thank you all for your faith in me. It helps fan my faith-o-meter and propels me forward.
I wish my dear friend Patricia a happy birthday today. She is an incredible woman, a living icon and my children’s godmother, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many decades. I can’t believe it was only three years ago when we threw her a surprise 85th birthday party in her honor. The day of the celebration was four months after our family tragedy, and a few days before the world shut down from the global pandemic. Her party serves as an emotional bookmark and significant pause in my life.
As far as the Stand With Ukraine rally that took place this past weekend goes, hundreds of people turned out, but from the enthusiasm, it felt more like a thousand. The mood was solemn, yet hopeful and optimistic. Best of all, I’ve connected with a group of superior human beings whom I am quite certain will become life-long friends. Our common thread is that we have made it our duty to catapult off our couches and soldier forth with a vision to change the world for the better, even if it amounts to getting a war warrior and/or Ukrainian refugee a pair of new socks. A pair of socks may not penetrate the bleeding hearts of the Ukrainian people at the given moment during this time of continued war atrocities and future uncertainties, but someone nearly 5,000 miles away will at least have warm feet to help him or her inch forward.
War rips people apart and also brings them together. That is the common theme that I’ve been living this past week. Days before I started working on the rally, my dear friend and fellow journalist Kathy called to inquire if I needed any help. Once we decided to start a rally, I took her request seriously and she’s been there every step of the way. Now we have been led to work on a very exciting story about a hero of mine and hers, and I hope in the next few days as we draft and sculpt this story to its fruition, he will become a hero and an inspiring figure to many others.
In addition, I worked side-by-side with Brother Paul (he’s a water sign, I’m a fire sign and even if you don’t believe in astrology, it paints the picture) as well as his wife, my sister-in-law Diane, this past week. In the eye of what matters and counts in life, unconditional love has a way of squeezing into the cracks of broken hearts. With resolve of so many, our team effort paid off. The rally raised over $5,400 donations that will provide humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Ukraine.
Post rally, I also reunited with a childhood friend, another first-generation Ukrainian American woman, whom I haven’t seen in at least a decade. She reminded me of shared memories and her act of love helped me root myself deeper into my outreach efforts.
Birthdays, rallies, reunions. Faith is pretty plain sometimes like walking into a cobweb. You can’t see it, but when it wraps around you, man, it feels almost impossible to untangle.
My father grasped a plastic bag in his dry, reddened, calloused hands, a mirror of the good earth that he loved to work on. During our frequent train trips to the East Village, a part of Greenwich Village in New York City, my dad’s blank face pointed one way: forward.
“Come on!” he commanded in his broken English when we arrived at the station, finally breaking the silence after the nearly two-hour ride. He grabbed his other half-dozen or so bags and boxes in the train’s overhead compartment and slid some over one arm and the rest over his other arm.
He ricocheted across Grand Central Station. My short, young legs fell farther and farther behind. He streamed outside, squeezing through the crowd on Lexington Avenue and hailed a cab. By the time I caught up, I could see the cab driver’s face as he veered towards the sidewalk. The driver parked, and we got in.
The cab snaked through the city streets to a retail clothes store on Second Avenue. Inside, the shiny skinned, Russian-Jewish shop owner, with his one lazy eye, mildly greeted us. My father hoisted his items on the counter for him to inspect every inch of the clothes, shoes, socks, purses and scarves, so many scarves, that my dad and mom had collected for my dad’s mom and the rest of his family in Lviv, Ukraine.
My dad, who was fluent in French and a number of Slavic languages, spoke to the man in Russian. I didn’t comprehend many of the words, but I detected a stiffness in my dad’s tone. At last the store owner approved my family’s goods to be shipped to Ukraine (and I believe he always did), and began packing everything into a large parcel. My father cracked the first smile of the day, retrieved his faded cowhide wallet from his pocket and enthusiastically purchased about a half dozen extra scarves to add to the package. In addition, he also handed him an envelope addressed to my relatives to also enclose. After that, the store owner copied the mailing address from a tattered, folded up piece of paper that my dad kept in his wallet and finished preparing the package for shipment to Ukraine. At the end of the exchange, my dad paid for the scarves, postal fees and services.
Once the door closed behind us, back outside my dad always said the same two phrases and nothing else, “Hope it goes through. Damn communists.”
He bought me a hot sweet potato from a street vendor down the block and refrained from spending any money on a treat for himself. His steps were lighter and easier for me to follow as we walked partially back to Grand Central Station before hailing another cab.
My dad passed away in December of 2000. Since the attack on Ukraine by the Russians last Thursday, I find myself remembering so many things about the man whose legacy of action outweighed any of his promises, because, in fact, I don’t ever remember him promising anything. He lived his motto: promise low, deliver high.
I am relieved that my dad is not alive to watch the atrocities and devastation in his beloved homeland. I don’t think the Ghost of Kyiv, an anonymous fighter pilot who is said to shoot down Russian planes, is just an urban legend. I think it is my reincarnated dad doing all he ever did, being his real self and fighting for freedom, family, country and tradition.
I was a first-generation American who spent most of my childhood playing and riding my bicycle in my affluent, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant neighborhood in Connecticut. Days were rare when my dad didn’t stand outside on the porch and echo, “Nastuna!”
The name, as far as I can figure out, was a child-like rendition of my actual name, Anastasia.
I furiously pedaled home and begged him to shush. He yelled it louder and started throwing out a few other choice Ukrainian expletives that intercepted his usual lecture about loyalty, heritage and truth and made sure everyone in earshot could hear his Ukrainian words mixed in with English ones. I didn’t dare cup my hands over my ears. Apart from a few isolated minor strikes on my rear, my father did not employ corporeal punishment, at least not on me, the only daughter in the family. In spite of that fact, I still held an innate fear of my father.
My dad exasperated the bullying situation, and the neighborhood kids snickered and laughed and instead of calling me “Anastasia,” they mocked my father and called me “Petunia.”
I never lived down the foreignness of my dad even after the second grade teacher took it upon herself to change my name to “Stacy.” (That’s another story for another blog.)
I never was able to purchase a pack of petunias without my heart beating inside my eardrums until I was around forty years old.
My dad, on the other hand, rose above the element of exclusion that followed us as well as many other first-born Americans of foreign parents.
“Ehhh. I’ll outlive them all,” my dad insisted.
And in the end he did. He lived to be 86.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1990s and after, oddly, Americans weren’t familiar with Ukraine. My mother, who was born in Belarus but adopted my dad’s family heritage, advised me just to tell my first grade class that my family was from Germany. Everyone, of course, knew about Germany. I even wrote a paper about my family’s “native” country of Germany. The idea of “coming from Germany” wasn’t totally inaccurate because my parents were “displaced people,” refugees, without a country for about seven years, after they lost their homes to the Nazis before they immigrated to America. My mom and dad met and married and birthed my two older brothers in Germany.
After working a number of jobs while learning the language, he met Peter Martini, a first-generation American from Italian roots, who owned a septic cleaning business. He gifted my dad with the best thing you could ever give someone: a future. He taught him everything there was about septic systems. My father, in fact, asked Mr. Martini to be my Godfather, and Mr. Martini obliged. Because of his generosity, my dad landed a job at the town’s sewerage treatment plant and worked there until he retired.
My dad was the most predictable man on earth and never missed pulling down our driveway after work at 4:08 p.m. When he stepped inside our house, it was one of the few times he wasn’t his stoic self, because he had a smile as wide as his face.
His lips were sealed with gratitude. In my dad’s book, if you worked hard and did the right thing, you were a good person. Simple as that.
Years later, I learned from one of my dad’s former co-workers that my dad’s boss sent my dad to investigate any underground sewer gas leaks or other toxic sewer systems emergencies. Long before organizations like OSHA appeared with safety measure implementations, my Ukrainian-American dad’s “alien” status ranked him as the low man on the totem pole, and, thereby, he was the scapegoat of the department and was the one to have his life jeopardized by fixing hazardous sites.
A WWII war refugee, my dad never went beyond grade school, but to this day, he is the smartest man I’ve ever known and I am quite certain, he knew he risked his life during those toxic emergencies. Leave it to “pops,” he did it fearlessly, honorably and humbly because he was also the most loyal man I’ve ever known. He did it for his family and those he loved.
He was a man of pride. I think one of his proudest moments was when he learned the man who took over his job after he retired held a degree in engineering.
Over the years, my Ukrainian father never stopped correcting people who insisted he was from Russia. He would grow frustrated, saying, “One day, they will know. The world will know about Ukraine and its people.”
“Today,” I wish I could tell my father that the world knows. THEY KNOW! In the eye of evil and calculated, intentional injustice and genocide of the Ukrainian people, the nation without divide of class or jurisdiction – former beauty queen alongside 80-year-olds – has entered the ring to fight against the evil dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his consort of dark angels.
As horrified as I am witnessing the destructive path of one man, I am honored by my dad’s Ukrainian roots.
I am lifted up by the humanitarian efforts of people across the globe and the people in my own tribe, including Kathy, an old-time friend whom I’d lost touch with over these last few years, asked me over the phone: “What can I do?”
I intended to write about how the developing news of this loss since last Thursday magnifies other losses, and, yes, we do have family still in Ukraine. Instead, I ended up writing about my dad, because so many times when I am lower than low, he is my ghost pilot that lifts me up and gives me faith like no other: “Get up and do what you’re suppose to do. I don’t care you hurt.”
So, thanks to the legacy of this mighty oak of a man, I am proud to report that I am organizing a Stand with Ukraine rally on March 5th….. and invite my blogging community to join me IN PERSON if you can — and certainly in spirit!
Some experts say that occasionally it’s necessary to “take a break” from grief. I learned this firsthand during a frigid December 2020 Christmas day, 36 days after I lost my beloved 26-year-old son who died by suicide. My then 24-year-old daughter, Alexandra, returned home during this time, and we mourned together. Lounging in the living room in shabby sweatpants and tops, noshing on a conveyor-belt assortment of Trader Joe’s chips and other salty and sweet snacks that my dear childhood friend Anna supplied, we insulated ourselves, cranked up the heat indoors as the temperatures dipped to below freezing outdoors. Alexandra’s soft, furry slippers with funny smiling sloth faces, the ones that arrived a month prior in a condolence gift box from her former college roommate, Suzanna, felt like they were out of sync with the preceding extreme 36 days, oozing with despair, agony, regret, remorse and anger. We symbolized the walking wounded. Drained and hollow as if we were toilet plungers.
Who would believe that only a year prior, we were in New York City’s West Side in a beautiful church singing Christmas carols as if we were Carnegie Hall performers? Three hundred and sixty-five days later, half eaten tubs of white paper take-out food containers brimming with Chinese dumplings, noodles, fried rice and legions of lo mein lined the coffee table, our designated sanctuary, the view outside obstructed by the drapes drawn closed.
My daughter and I spent about twenty minutes scanning for TV channels to watch, searching for something to numb the pain. I finally surrendered to Alexandra’s request to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, especially since she had never seen it before. Before the tragedy, I was The-Marvelous-Mrs.-Maisel loyalistsince its premiere in 2017. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it opens in 1958 and ends in the early 1960s and centers around Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Although her role that begins as a happily married woman with two children changes, chasing her stand-up comedy dreams and adhering to her affluent New York City lifestyle remain constant.
After the tragedy, I was reluctant to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because I felt it was something that aligned with a “happy-people’s” existence. Not only did we end up watching the episodes of the new third season that Christmas, but we watched the previous two seasons as well!
There are so many things in the show that resonate with me. For starters, a lot of the show is filmed in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a hotbed of stand-up comedy. “The epicenter of the city’s 1960s counterculture movement” is by far my favorite place in the world. Even now, whenever I go there, the young heartbeat I feel in the village lifts my old, worn-out spirits. To me, this is the epitome of America, for the most part, at its best. The village is more than a melting pot. It is a pot of gold, laden with people from all walks of life. The important thing is that the village really is a village because it encourages free expression. If you are bullied anywhere else in the world for any reason, the best therapy is to spend a little time here. Although you may appear outwardly very different from others around you, the sense of belonging is inherent; there tends to be a feeling of recognition in the air. In fact, the village is where I enrolled and participated in stand-up comedy workshops in the 1980s and experienced my own marvelous, albeit short-lived, show biz stint.
Anyway, watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, f-bombs and all, saved our souls that fragile holiday season of 2020 and gave me faith knowing that although my laugh had lost a lot of its carefree boom, its flame had not faded.
So, this brings me to a very important date, February 18, 2022: season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. From the minute I heard about the new upcoming season,I was eager for its long-awaited arrival, like a kid getting his or her braces removed after walking around for two years with the metal invasion in their mouths.
As is, the new, season four, series rolls out two one-hour long episodes at a time. I planned to watch one hour of the show on Friday and the other hour on Saturday. Initially, I was timid to hit “play” because the minute I saw the old, familiar characters, my heart tumbled as I recalled the unbearable swords of circumstances that transpired in November 2019 and how the show helped me cope. Nonetheless, I hit the forward button, and one hour led to two. I was hooked from the beginning to the end of both episodes.
If you can get past the f-bombs and a few select scenes that some viewers may find inappropriate (nudity, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking, adult themes), the first two episodes are one big ode to the meaning of opposites. Free expression and individual voice versus repression and suppression. The importance of a financial framework versus the desire to pursue art as your true calling in life. And so many other things that call to mind the breadth of Greenwich Village, and its ability to tug hard at your heart strings and awaken your soul that was likely lost about the time your identity was wiped out when you understood and accepted the untruth behind the social conditioning of, “Big girls or big boys (especially) don’t cry.”
The first two episodes of season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel touched upon nearly every tenet of existentialism and so much more. Miriam, the main character, is ballsy and brash and bold and is going to be heard, damn it, no matter what, and turn over convention. Subsequently, though, she’s not about to part with her hoity-toity upper west side New York City tastes either. All the while, she’s trying to rise up again from a rubble of failures and secure her share of the American Dream.
What’s happening in the show at its core, synonymous with the Greenwich Village vibe, is that so much that is not talked about and kept taboo unhinges and revolts. It can no longer shut up. It cannot be shutdown. It needs to be spoken, heard, not judged or erased.
It needs the human seal of “I see you” approval that we are all desperate for. My once alive son was a good example of wanting to be seen, heard, appreciated, in spite of how his differences made him feel separate from the rest of the world.
It’s as simple as that.
What fits in with this overall “fitting in” theme is a book that I’ve just finished reading Wintering, the power of rest and retreat in difficult times by Katherine May (2020).
The author writes about her mental breakdown at 17-years-old and, after the experience, she talked about it and talked and talked. She continues the story as she writes:
“I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times when we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely normal process and have thereby given those who endure a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of ordinary life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.“
Okay, so what I’ve realized about myself now is that, as opposed to Miriam, I became a “good girl” and discarded the rebel status that I initially strived toward. This outcome, I found out 35 years later, can be a consequence of living a so-called sober, so-called adult life. It’s not a bad thing that I’m no longer the firecracker Miriam is and, quite simply, the fight in me now is, for the most part, exhausted.
But the thing about grief is that it has forced me to make a place for it. It is locked in me, next to my memories and my hopes and dreams. In the process, grief has peeled me to the core. So now I am left with my core and me. I don’t have the strength nor burning desire to be a rebel anymore, but my inner voice says that I don’t want to keep hiding anymore either. I’m done with listening to all the blood-hungry critics in the world that managed to seize my brain and ferment it. I keep hearing the song, “Kill the voices” on the radio.
My son had lost his ability to “kill” those voices that erased him. So he did it the best way he knew how, impulsively and brutally, leaving us spewed like squashed roaches in the aftermath.
All the more reason that I’m not keen on too many opinions and certainly those that come from pulpits, real and imagined. I’m not keen too much on my own opinions either, because I found out the hard way, how many times I am more wrong than right.
One thing that I am keen on is hearing Midge’s voice, f-bombs and all. At the end of the day, the story really is about an outspoken woman who knows her worth. And it is clear in the show that women have to work twice as hard to succeed. In turn, if others give her a chance to tell her truth, maybe it will spread beyond places like the village where she performs stand-up comedy. Maybe, too, we can all start learning the impossible art of listening for the sake of hearing, not changing, ignoring or stifling; for the sake of an “I see you” universal nod.
So, after watching the first two episodes of season four last Friday night, I laid down in my bed in a flood of tears that was as surprising as a drain that bursts in the bathroom in the middle of the night. I realized how Mrs. Maisel lends her voice to me right now, because I’ve fallen so far inside myself, I don’t know if I can muscle my way out unscathed. I don’t know if I have the courage. I don’t know if I can kill the voices, or if they have killed me, metaphorically instead.
In the interim, I am trudging through this week, waiting for Friday to hear the voices and the antics that not only give me comic relief and, if I am lucky, grief relief, but also a channel where I imagine I am in my twenties again. It was during a time when I orchestrated my world so easily in a leopard top and black rimmed glasses, my voice booming into the microphone loud and clear, laughter rolling through like a seamless tide rolling in to cleanse the sediment on the crusty shoreline.
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.”
My mother sullenly responded anytime I invited her to join me in a fun activity or special event. As I’ve previously mentioned, she was not only a World War II survivor, but trauma and pain shadowed her for most of her life.
A flat out “No” from her was unnecessary since the sharp tone of refusal was unmistakable. However, I discerned the truth. Her baby-like face, twinkling, daring eyes and partially upturned pink lips forcing down what would be a natural upturned smile, revealed the opposite of her initial response: “Sure, I’d love to go to … “
In fact, until she grew much older and frail, in spite of her protests, she willingly accompanied me on outings, whether they were to the local library, a tag sale, diner lunches or most of the extracurricular activities my kids were involved with when they were young.
After she died in 2015, I missed her company, but forgot about her fussing that preempted our outings. That is, until after our family tragedy and the aftermath of trauma in 2019. Suddenly, whenever I received an invitation or gift of any kind, my mom’s familiar words entered into my mind, “That’s for happy people.”
Survivor’s guilt can do a number on you. To say it feels like you’re “carrying a heavy burden” is pushing it. It feels more like you are stuck in a life that has become a hunk of hardened glue.
This brings me to the generosity of my dear friend Michelle who, at the end of last year, gave me a gift card for a massage. What do you think my response was? Thank you! Thank you! On the other hand, my contradictory mind, though, lamented: “That’s for happy people.”
Sadly, my last massage experience took place about one month before I lost my beloved son. I laid on the table incredibly relaxed and melting to pieces, but my mind battered me. I felt tremendously guilty, pampering myself while my son led a miserable dark, depressed life. Flashbacks of this dreadful time, of course, made me even more reluctant to schedule another massage.
Before Marshall’s birthday rolled around, I knew to “sit around” like a magnet attracting more darkness to the severity of the painful situation would not be wise. I found, however, to sequester and seek solace helps my pain management the most. So why not, I reasoned, take advantage of a massage — in a quiet space under a pair of healing hands?
The day before his birthday, I made an agreement with myself. “If I am able to schedule a last-minute appointment at the place then, so be it. It is meant to be.”
It was meant to be because wouldn’t you know it, there was an opening. The massage therapist’s name was Dawn. I also interpreted the double meaning in her name, the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise, as a sign.
I put my full faith into Dawn, a random woman I never set my eyes on, but who could either break the rest of my broken pieces or help me try and not shatter any more of the messy debris.
Needless to say, I was a wreck when I arrived on a brisk early afternoon, January 18, 2022. It boiled down to, I really, really needed a good massage.
When the woman who greeted me asked, “So, what brings you in?”
I swear I was so close to replying, “My dead son.”
Instead, I said, “A gift card.”
Ironically, Dawn turned out to be a nondescript woman who wore a mask that covered more of her face than necessary in a facility that requires everyone to wear face protection during these pandemic times.
Later, undressed and comfortable on the massage table, every time my mind started to scatter and squirm like an army of ants without my consent, I did my darnest to focus on what was. Be in the now. Humorously, her freezing cold hands won most of my focus. Then suddenly out of the blue, I recognized: “This is my life now.”
I was inspired from the publisher’s description of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir; a quote I could easily apply to myself now. “There is a frank acknowledgment of the widow’s desperation—only gradually yielding to the recognition that ‘this is my life now. ‘”
A few moments later, I heard my son’s voice in my mind shout, “Don’t touch me!”
Perhaps because of his shaky early years in the hospital, but my son, in the way some people don’t like to be around cats or dogs, was uncomfortable with physical touch and didn’t like a lot of human interaction.
The realization flew at me like a boat’s paddle: That was his life then and this is my life now.
My faith in Dawn paid off. At the end, I felt fluid. And it felt good physically. Mentally, my gift of peace was still intact.
On what would have been my son’s 29th birthday, after allowing Dawn’s icy hands to kneed and stroke me, I signed up for a year’s worth of massages.
This is my life now — if all goes per plan, I am now booked for a year of massages to take me through to his thirtieth in 2023.
This is my life now. Some, like Michelle and Camille, have stayed with me. Others have disappeared — to many of them I represent the fragility of our existence. In contrast, I honor my grief and the voices, oh, the unmistakable, unbelievable magnitude of voices that spin inside me and are part of all that I am and all that I will ever be, planted forever in the soul of now and every tomorrow, rising above the physical plane of temporary to the dawn of permanence and eternity.
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.
I'm glad I learned to express my thoughts clearly and everyone loves to read them. Sometimes it takes a lot of thinking power to think about the surroundings. Someone who likes it, someone who enjoys it, appreciates that he is writing very well. Reading and commenting on the post I wrote would give me a lot of bullshit and I would get new ideas to write new ones.
I'm really glad I got your response.