Birthdays, Rallies and Reunions

BIRTHDAYS

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.

RALLIES

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.

REUNIONS

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.

Faith Muscle

This is my life now

My dear friend Camille surprised me with this card on what would have been my son’s 29th birthday

“That’s for happy people.”

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.

Interior of my dear friend Camille’s card

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.

Faith Muscle

Community Strong

This week’s post is dedicated to all those who have lost loved ones and pets, homes, businesses and other possessions after powerful tornadoes left paths of destruction in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.”

Through the media, I have witnessed community resilience, response and recovery efforts during the dire situation this past weekend. For instance, one of the tornados ripped through and destroyed the Mayfield (KY) First United Methodist Church property. The pastor, Reverend Joey Reed and his wife, took shelter in the church basement and survived the catastrophic event.

During a TV broadcast interview, his gratitude for the safety of his wife and children prevailed. He said that things are replaceable; people are not.

In fact, the reverend further explained that the topic of “joy” was the theme he had planned for last Sunday’s sermon. Fortunately, he was still able to present the sermon during a service at another local church that the tornado bypassed. Interestingly, the only bulletin from Reverend Reed’s church that survived the calamity includes a synopsis of his sermon.

The sermon defines joy as something that is internal and thereby it is a permanent fixture for as long as we live. Happiness, on the other hand, is external and is fleeting.

“Joy is often mistaken for happiness, but happiness can change by a turn of events. Joy is something that abides. That’s what we’re holding onto,” Reverend Reed said.

In the same spirit of joy, although the parish has lost the sanctuary, he also stated, “That building was the repository of our memories. We have to remember that those memories still belong to us. They cannot be taken from us even by something as devastating as this tornado.”

I only hope that Clayton Cope’s parents, whose son would have turned 30 at the end of December, and all the other parents who lost young adult children at the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, and children of all ages throughout the six effected states will manage to cherish their “repository of memories” as they now undertake the most unbearable journeys imaginable.

To these bereaved parents and to all the other survivors who are swallowed by grief in so many forms from this tragedy, I stand with you. I salute your bravery as you endure your faith walk. Always remember, the power of faith lies in the acceptance of our powerlessness.

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

The Cost of Love

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

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

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

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

“Faith does not make things easy

it makes them possible”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

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

Faith Muscle

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

Mary Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle

GOoDness

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Last month, my friend finished shopping at Trader Joe’s, and while the cashier was ringing up her purchases, the cashier in the next checkout aisle, handed her a bouquet of sunflowers.

“These aren’t mine,” my friend informed the cashier, we’ll call him Zack. She mistakenly thought he assumed she had left behind her flowers.

“You look like you can use them. I bought them for you.”

Literally as well as metaphorically speaking, need I say on a cold day, a sunflower bouquet is like a pretty arrangement that can blanket the chill with a soft layer of faith?

As we later discussed the incident, it turns out that my friend had seen the cashier before, speaking to him only in passing. All she knew was his age, 20. We had no idea if he was an agnostic, atheist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or who-knows-what and who cares? All that matters is that Zack cared enough to pay attention to someone else. Buried in our busyness, it can be an impossible task. Little did he know that my friend recently underwent surgery and was dealing with a host of other challenges. In other words, the sunflower bouquet added the much-needed color on the drab, gray tablecloth that life laid upon her. Come to find out, sunflowers symbolize “power, warmth and nourishment.”

Somehow Zack had a sixth sense, a spiritual knowing that equates to nonsense in the rational world. God in skin, my 12-step community would label Zack.

My fellow Michael G. always said, “If a god embraces me with love, then that god is for me.”

If you aren’t debilitated from mental illness, and you don’t believe in a particular god or higher power or harmony or the spiritual realm of things, I hope you can still believe in GOoDness. Out of everything, GOoDness has carried me through on this 17-month grief journey.

And, the best magnet channel to attract GOoDness is to perform kind acts. For me, the gesture means breaking free from the bondage of myself and fleeing my tiny, sesame seed of a world, so I can pass on sunflowers to a stranger.

If sunflowers are out of season, extending an over-sized candy bar and a few singles to a stranger in the CVS parking lot might work. Wouldn’t you know this is exactly what happened to me this past Sunday? Earlier in the day I start to write this post about my friend’s experience and Zack’s kindness. Then, later I go to CVS, stroll outside, and I have a burning desire to dodge the toothless, rotund woman heading toward me like a frantic meter maid.

“Need help with your groceries, mommy?”

“Nope.”

The last thing I want is an intrusion into my insolated bubble of a world, pandemic or not.

Journalist at heart, however, I want to probe: “Do you like your life?” “Did you ever think about ending it?” “Are you freer from the monkey mind, a jumbled hot mess of thoughts, than the rest of us?”

Why did she look so happy and carefree? How did she carry on? Why did others like my brilliant, gifted, handsome son throw in the towel?

“Tell me the answer!” I heard myself shout in my mind. “Tell me the answer to this awful, perplexing existence!”

The answer is to imitate Zack at Trader Joe’s. Reach into my purse and offer her a reason to believe in the kindness of others. If she didn’t believe I was a kind person and simply laughed at me behind my back, so be it, I had to believe that in this world drowning in cruelty and noise, solitude and love could win, and it starts with Zack. It starts with me.

She began to converse with me. My old self would have jumped headlong into an esoteric conversation with her. My new self wants the comfy privacy bubble.

“It’s a nice car,” she comments, beaming.

“My son’s.”

The minute, I say that, I can’t erase the PTSD flashbacks and the memory of my son telling me how unworthy he felt especially in the last 30 days of his life, and how he did not deserve to drive such a beautiful shiny sports car that he had purchased on a whim in those final days.

Dry eyed, I want to say, “This is my son,” in the same manner Mama Sandra said in the temple, pointing to the turtle in the glass case.

“This is my son.”

“This is my son, you know.””

But, instead, I don’t murmur a word.

The woman replies, “That’s nice, mommy!”

Even though I have his name on a teal-colored decal on the back window along with his birth and death dates, I do not point out the commemoration to the clueless pedestrian. Instead, I squeeze that solidary moment and derive the last sweet drop, as if I had sneaked out for a joy ride behind my living son’s back, as if death had not crept in, pilfered and shattered my sheltered world, and spring had sprung as it did in the old days, and the hummingbirds returned to drink fresh nectar in our backyard feeder.

“Can I have the twenty?” she asks, spotting the bill in my wallet as I handed her my dollar bills.

“No.”

“You need it.”

“Yes. My allowance for the week.”

“Thank you, mommy!” she calls, satisfied with the singles. I climb in and veer the beautiful blue sports car, smelling like roses, out of the parking lot.

In the old days, I would have shouted, “Pray for me.”

Now, no words form.

I realize, this is our own kind of private prayer when I see her reflection in the rearview mirror, waving the dollar bills as if they are part of a beautiful bouquet. From her toothless grin, she heralds, “thank you, Mommy.”

Her toothless gums somehow seem as if they represent the GoODness of the world. Faith, after all, is believing in things you can’t see. For me that means missing teeth.

Later, I have a sense to beeline back to her and forfeit my sole twenty. But I stay on route, realize you can only give what you have, whether it be to pan handlers or your own flesh and blood. My PTSD subsides. My guilt dissipates. A sense of GoODness fills the air, and the road home opens before me like a smooth pedal surface.

Faith Muscle

What’s your Name, Anastasia?

Image by unimajinasi from Pixabay

Last week in my blog post, I wrote about how an Indonesian writer, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, impacted my life through his short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra?

I wrote: “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences. We are moms who have lost our sons to suicide while we still live and defy the natural order.”

In the story, the author elaborates on the ramifications of the main character who, after losing her son, is forced to change her name. Norman writes:

“Names were a baffling matter to Mama Sandra now. “Mama Sandra”—no one ever used to call her that. Her relatives back in Harianboho had called her “San” or “Sandong.” The people she’d met when she moved to Bekasi called her Bison’s mother, Mama of Bison—“Mama Bison”—submitting to the nationwide norm of calling a mother by her firstborn’s name.”

Prior to reading this short story, I was clueless about this cultural norm. If I were forced to live as “Mama Marshall,” it would feel like a “kick me” sign is permanently tagged on my most vulnerable parts.

“Mama Bison.” “Mama Marshall.” Initially names of endearment turned topsy-turvy into a scalding tirade of distress—and every day we mourning mamas dare open our eyes, it’s Groundhog Day (reliving the same nightmare every day). Paradoxically, after I discovered this Indonesian name custom, a ray of gratitude pierced through my 16-month grief cloud. The “short” story makes me think “long” range, beyond the tip of my nose-grief point, about every Indonesian mourning mama, AND mourning mamas in similar cultures, that are hot-iron branded. These mamas fight hard to open their eyes and when that dreaded ray of sun penetrates, it’s Groundhog Day.

Shown in the excerpt below is another layer of the complications that derive from the Indonesian name custom for Mama Sandra. Note, too, how the excerpt, like the rest of Norman’s descriptive writing, illustrates his precise wordsmith engineering.

“…And since Bison’s father was of Sinaga stock, of course that made her son a Sinaga too. Then her husband had run off with another woman, and all that remained was her, the solitary Borneng, with Bison her Sinaga son. The Sinaga sweat and tears that had gone into that boy’s blood didn’t amount to a shallow bowlful. Oh, but never mind that. He’d stay Sinaga for life.”

To repeat what I said earlier: “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences.” I don’t know if Mama’s Sandra’s ex-husband ever saw his son; perhaps, at the end he viewed his cold steel-like body. I do know that my ex-husband did not see his son, who carried his last name, for nine years. He reunited in front of his son’s corpse at the funeral home. I do believe that, although it didn’t justify a nine-year drought, the disguised sweat and tears that my ex-husband shed that day, did amount to much more than a “shallow bowlful.”

Now, all the commonalities I share with Mama Sandra has fed me with faith and a high flow of oxygen to push through the solemn tunnel of my final chapter. In fact, when I recall her grief, it helps me to not feel painfully alone, which was the coping mechanism I used when I wasn’t allowed to register my son’s car under my name at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The rude staff member, who not only neglected offering one condolence, wouldn’t accept my identification and comprehend the fact that I as an American citizen had lived my life with two different first names. I, in fact, submitted a stack of paperwork as evidence. Finally, a supervisor materialized in an attempt to break the deadlock. The supervisor, a piranha in disguise, didn’t extend one condolence either. She simply barked and badgered me to what boiled down to the question why I had “Stacy” on my driver’s license and “Anastasia” on my birth certificate.

I pushed through the ordeal, remembering co-partner grieving mama, Mama Sandra, under interrogation. In the exchange of dialogue in the short story, Norman writes, “What’s your name? Let’s hear your name.”

Coincidentally, the exchange at the DMV went something like this:

“You legally changed your legal name Anastasia.”

“No, I was a minor. ‘Anastasia’ was forced on me. To say it in a softer manner, it was Americanized to ‘Stacy’ in second grade at the public school I attended, and the DMV, as well as the Social Security Department, ‘adjusted’ the name accordingly.”

I felt humiliated in the same way I had as a child, a first-born American of two immigrant parents. I had to face the raw reality once again. I did not change my name to hide my ethnic identity and assimilate to the American culture; those higher up, starting with my second-grade teacher, took the responsibility on themselves. As much as my identity was ripped from me, the new name “Stacy” was a relief to me as a child. It freed me from the bullies who shadowed me at grammar school mocking the name “Anastasia.” These bullies were the Priscillas, Sues and Johns of the world who kicked Anastasia, not to the sidelines, but off the field entirely.

Anyway, back to the scene at DMV, where we were all raising our voices and getting nowhere. I had brainstormed a solution to the name dilemma, but the bottom line was, even if I presented notarized paperwork stating that I was the same person (Anastasia and Stacy), the supervisor insisted she would not accept any such evidence. I was beyond upset, salt in the wound, and it wasn’t just about the impasse in resolving my identification in order to register my son’s car under my name. It was about forcing myself repeatedly to eyeball my dead son’s death certificate through the process. It was about the tears spilled on route to the DMV, remembering when I took him for his driving test when I was silently sad because he knew, like I knew, his car fanatic, MIA father, should have been with us. It was about recalling that my last visit to DMV was when I had a real life strapping, healthy, handsome son. In fact, the man I was sent to initially to register my dead son’s car under my name was the same one who had been so kind and shot my driver’s license photo three times, before I approved it. In those days, my greatest grief was growing old.

I left beat up, and the sadness inward busted outward as an angry inferno. All I heard was my now deceased mother’s never-give-up voice, and I didn’t. One week later, I traveled to another DMV in another city with the same evidence that now included a notarized document that the piranha supervisor at the other DMV insisted was unacceptable. This time the woman at the desk immediately offered her condolences. Then perusing the paperwork, she glanced around, asking, “Who’s Anastasia?”

And, so the same—different name dilemma started, but this time when the personable supervisor appeared, the first thing she did was offer her condolences. Her sincere tone touched me deeply and my ocean of tears under my skin dripped.

Upon accepting the notarized paper, she replied, “We’ll make it work.”

Ten minutes later, my tears now dried, I almost fainted in relief when the teller presented me with the new license plate for the car and one less son-related trauma ever to be forced to revisit. Before I left the DMV, the staff woman, motivated by compassion, gave me a tutorial on how to order a vanity license plate commemorating my son in the future. This time upon exit I bawled again, because kindness from total strangers in my life is so rare and scarce that I feel guilty and unworthy when I encounter it. On the same token, I vacuum up every bit of it. I’ll happily take it like a pain reliever, because kindness from strangers is an elixir that helps me also cope.

I walked away realizing how I would change all my “Stacy” names on my documents into my birth name, Anastasia. How I can’t take my son back, but I can take my true identity back and try to replant the severed foreign roots in a way that maybe they would grow healthy. After all, if Mama Sandra could brave her name, so could I.  I remembered, too, how my son loved his name, as we all did. How he was named after a prominent millionaire and how beautifully American it sounded.

“It sounds like a General,” someone once commented about his name when he was a child.

Of course, a moniker is only a tidy identity. What matters is how we define ourselves and how generous we are at valuing ourselves. We can pay a heavy price getting caught up in name games and putting up fronts and not have the emotional strength to stand by our faults, because, like pores on skin, our human imperfection is part of our makeup.

Regardless of his high-powered sounding name, my son felt like a misfit. At his age, I, Anastasia, felt the same way. Aging, anguish and a decades-long journey of living in a 12-step program has made me build muscles out of pounds of flab. That’s how I see the main character, Mama Sandra, in Norman’s book: muscling her way on the bicycle of life where scammers have pulled the training wheels from under her, and the only thing she has to rely on is her faith muscle that helps her never to stop pedaling despite every single bruise, scar and backseat driver that says, “You can’t,” because you know you really can’t, but refrain from revealing the truth to your fast moving feet powered by the faith muscles in your legs.

Faith Muscle

Serene-dipitous moments

Photo by Michel Paz on Pexels.com

Sometimes having-keeping-finding faith does not magically erase an ocean of grief-filled tears under your skin. After losing my 26-year-old son, going forward is constant “pain management.” Describing my journey, my therapist Louis accurately dubbed the term “pain management” two days after the tragedy occurred eleven months ago.

I looked up the word pain management and I found it “is a branch of medicine that uses an interdisciplinary approach for easing the suffering and improving the quality of life of those living with chronic pain.”

Interdisciplinary means “relating to more than one branch of knowledge.”

Although I do not take medicines to ease my journey, my interdisciplinary approach includes a close relationship with my daughter and longtime partner, a network of true friends and censoring everything I read and hear so it doesn’t trigger unnecessary emotion.

Before the tragedy, serendipitous moments stitched my life together. Now, gray blankets wrap around ninety-five of my life. Faithful moments bind the other five percent. I wouldn’t call them serendipitous in the “old life” sense, but I would label them as serene -dipitous. In other words, these moments calm me. They provide the balance and balm to get through. As opposed to the old days of feeling giddy and happy instead of giving me the bounce in footing, these moments provide balance.

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One of the last serene-dpitous moments I experienced was inside CVS where I ran into a man of size, probably weighing nearly 300 pounds. I recognized his warm, sincere smile. He was one of the regular attendees at my weekly WW meetings before my world was ushered into a flatline existence and then the pandemic hit. He informed me our WW meeting room was still closed due to Covid-19 concerns, and we made small talk until we parted ways. His beaming smile resonated with me. Its glow sparked an optimism that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance in the future that I would attend WW meetings again, once the ban from the pandemic, of course, is lifted.

It’s not easy to carry the weight of the world, but smiles don’t cost a penny and freely given ones “light”-en the load. In my mind after my encounter, I sang that song, “Smile a little smile for me, Rosemarie, Rosemarie.”

I don’t know who Rosemarie is, but I know the universal language of pain. I know how suffering connects us, but we move around disjointed in our mostly silent suffering. Like tree trunks we are taught to put up a good façade. It’s not a BAD thing. I mean, society has to function and how would it be if we all hit rock bottom from emotional imbalance?

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So, here is what I learned in my grief journey.

  • Be vulnerable when appropriate. Carry the load, but unload some of the burden in a consistent manner to at least one other non-judgmental person whom you trust and who symbolizes a sounding board and/or a safety valve.
  • Be productive. Scrub your sink daily. Be proactive. Pay the electric bill. Doing something is better than naval gazing and ending up in parking areas full of obsessive thinking that can lead to bottomless pot holes.
  • To me, I rather organize a drawer than spend my time comparing my insides to someone’s outsides on FB.
  • Listen to pleasant music, not the news.
  • Smile even when your heart breaks.

“Lift up your pretty chin
Don’t let those tears begin
You’re a big girl now
And you’ll pull through somehow”

Find serene-diptious moments that help cement the puzzle pieces back together. Remember always, the big guys with the big smiles appear when your faith diminishes to the size of a mustard seed or even smaller chia seed.

Faith Muscle