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

Dear Son

Coincidentally, this month I discovered a concept known as Blue Monday. It gained popularity in 2005, after a British travel company played up psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall’s theory that the third Monday is the most depressing day of the year. He backed his findings with such measurements as weather factors.

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

Other companies followed suit and used the day to sell products to help elevate the Blue Monday mood. Naturally, there was a lot of backlashes in this approach since it minimized the enormity of what it meant to live daily with depression, as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which, you knew all too well, is a form of depression that may manifest in certain seasons.

Anyway, Blue Monday is the kind of interesting concept you would have uncovered and brought to my attention. I can only imagine how we might have dove into an esoterically free exchange of ideas about it. I’m not writing to debate Blue Monday. I wanted you to know I took the research one step further in the same manner you would have done. Turns out, on January 18, 1993, you were born on, yes, the third Monday of the month, Blue Monday. Before I conducted the extra search, I already knew the results.

After informing you of this discovery, I pictured your perfect head tilting right and then left, your over-sized eyelashes cast over your eyes as you whispered in defeat, “Figures.”

Anyway, I also wanted to tell you that fresh on the heels of your birthday, one of my dreams of you was that you were a young boy, maybe six. You kept jiggling two of your loose bottom teeth, and with every movement, I felt pins and needles jabbing my body as if I were enduring a full-body tattoo all at once.

I kept pleading, “Marshall, stop doing that. Stop!”

You listened to teachers, friends and the bullies that led you to the grave, but from the moment you were a toddler, I don’t ever remember when you listened to my directives. How I argued with you to come inside for dinner. Leave the house for school or anywhere else. Put on your shoes. Take off your shoes. You name it, whatever my request, you didn’t oblige. As you grew older, it got to a comical point.

On the other hand, you listened for hours when we dove into the most random topics of discussions over the years. In fact, your sister, who happened to be eavesdropping, wrote a note about one such discussion. You were probably around seven, and, ironically, we discussed the “grim reaper.” At the end, Alexandra wrote, “Mom talks him straight.”

“Faith Note”

The note mysteriously turned up shortly after the tragedy. I preserved it in plastic under plexiglass on the nightstand in my bedroom. You wouldn’t think the topic of the grim reaper could warm my soul and help my faith walk, but it does because it gives me a sense of peace: I talked you straight. Do you know how relieved I am to think I managed to do that although it only amounted to a one-time deal?

Looking back, my purpose in life was to be the best mother I could be to you and your sister. I failed forward many times. I’d say I succeeded many times too. It warmed my heart the many times you told me you had “a wonderful childhood.” I hope you knew that I loved parenting both of you. Your sister, for the most part, stayed on the beam. I did keep a close eye on her though, because some of her falls were pretty rough. You, on the other hand, well, it was more like “Where IS the beam?” Man, I felt like I was chasing after a flyaway balloon sometimes. Hell or high water, I resolved to set that balloon “straight” in my hand and never let it go. Thinking about it still energizes me.

Of course, no matter how it seemed that I “talked you straight,” I was never in control of your destiny. In fact, even those big brains at Yale couldn’t get your birthday “straight.” I wonder if you weren’t born on Blue Monday and, instead, in mid-April, maybe then you wouldn’t have been so down.

Anyway, I never told you about the details of the day you were scheduled for open heart surgery at ten months old. Frankly, I didn’t give it one thought before the tragedy. I will tell you now about that day and how your father and I paced slowly down a Yale New Haven Hospital hallway that was marked by a sudden dip in temperature. You felt like fresh-turned butter waddled in the hospital’s plaid checkered blanket in my arms. On route to the operating room, I noticed a heavy-gauge stainless steel gurney. I developed a wild, sudden inclination to secure you on it and wheel you in the opposite direction.

Without incident, we reached our final destination, a large area that reminded me of a hangar for planes. Instead of a turbojet, a nurse, dressed in scrubs with cartoon characters that seemed sickeningly overdone with smiles, appeared. I cannot remember her words, but I remember her reaching out for you to take you into the OR. Instead of handing you to her, my hands became tighter. I froze, resembling the twin sister to the heavy-gauge stainless steel gurney.

“Give her the baby,” your dad said, an unmistakable irritability in his tone. “Give her the baby.”

Instead of complying, I stepped back. The nurse, like a purse snatcher, moved in closer and attempted to pull your angel-like body out of my grasp.

“Give her the baby.”

My stainless-steel hands melted as the authoritative nurse retrieved your sweet, quiet body and disappeared in a huff. I was left behind, feeling as if she had amputated my arms.

Since last week, I’ve been replaying that moment over and over. Letting you go, over and over.

So, as it turns out, yesterday was the third Monday of January, Blue Monday and Martin Luther King’s birthday too. Today, you, our “miracle baby,” would have turned 29. If someone gave me a choice between being a famous billionaire or watching you grow into the incredible man you had become, the choice would be a no-brainer.

Marshall’s 24th and FINAL, birthday celebration together. Last week, I came across this photo, only to realize that the shirt Marshall would be buried in was the one my partner, Mark, wore that evening in 2017. In 2019, four days after our tragedy, I frantically looked for the “right” shirt for Marshall to wear in his coffin. I came across this blue striped shirt and mistakenly thought it was Marshall’s, and he was laid to rest in it.

What I don’t think you also never knew was that after they successfully repaired your heart, I felt as if I had won the biggest lotto sweepstakes of all time. Actually, thinking back, I did. There was no room for Blue Mondays back then, the odds were in our favor — until they weren’t.

Now, the remembrance of our winner’s circle is in full view in a little note of faith waddled in plastic under plexiglass.

Blow out the candles, sweet, quiet son …. I love you with every bit of my broken heart and grief-scarred soul.

Mom

Faith Muscle

No Going Back

Photo by gerald fredrik on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart squeezes again.

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

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

Faith Muscle

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

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

22 Strong

Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

Twenty-two is an unlucky number for one of my closest friends. The reason she feels it is jinxed is that her mother died on the 22nd of September. The number, on the other hand, is a favorite one of mine, not necessarily lucky or unlucky, but a good powerful number in my eyes, and it was just happenstance that I was born on the 22nd of August, which happens to be five days away.

Don’t ask me what I’m doing for my birthday; likely, hiding under a clamshell, which is my plan every year that is yet to materialize. I think most suicide survivors have an incredible array of feelings and emotions to contend with when their birthdays roll around, beginning with “Why?” and ending with “Why?” and in the middle, a gossamer-spun dark cloak of shame, guilt, regret, sadness.

I spent my life grappling with depression that skyrocketed at adolescence. A few years after my last suicide attempt at 23, the darkest period of my life, I met an exceptionally trained, intuitively gifted psychiatrist. He presented me with an interesting theory. He said mental health experts were finding a growing body of evidence to suggest that when a mother considers aborting her child, but decides to birth it, the child is more prone to develop suicidal tendencies and thoughts throughout his or her life.

Now, I don’t know if my mom thought about aborting me. But I wouldn’t hold it against her. She had her two sons well over a decade before I crashed the party. I know for sure that it was not a surprise, but a shock for her to get pregnant for the third time. I know my mom was 36 and tired when she birthed me. All in all, I’m uncertain if that theory holds water as far as my mother is concerned, but it’s still an intriguing one.

As fate would have it and as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I started to turn my life around more than 36 years ago, which doesn’t mean I still don’t wrestle with the gang of crazies that drop by uninvited inside my brain every once in a while. They set up a picnic there and start clamoring in dialogue laced with self-hatred and negativity. With the help of others, I’ve trained myself to block out the mental invasion. Some people at retirement age have achieved the level of mastery in their chosen field. I, in contrast, have achieved self-mastery. That accomplishment has brought me here, five days away from another birthday, four decades after my near-fatal 23rd year.

Since our family tragedy 21 months ago, I am flooded with memories of my birthday that involved my son. The last time I celebrated my birthday with him was five years ago. I remember feeling my usual self: in-sync and in harmony whenever I was with him. I don’t fully recall what we did, which was likely an informal dinner at our house, but I believe my son brought me a sweet card as he usually did, always signing it at the end with “Love” and then his first and last name. His custom signature struck me funny each and every time. Like I don’t know who my son is, and he has to sign his last name just to make sure? I always thought to myself after I read his cards.

My son wanted to strike out on his own from the time he hit adolescence. His idea of growing up was relocating to another state. A few years prior to the final birthday I spent with him, he had driven from the New England area with a friend, who was relocating to North Dakota. As it turned out this so-called friend just used him as a driving companion and, after their arrival, at the end of the week when this so-called friend settled in with his family that resided in the state, he fought with my son. Ultimately, in a rage, he drove my son to the airport, kicked him out of the car and threw his luggage and belongings after him before he rode away to his happily-ever life. Fortunately, a homeless man helped my son gather his items spewed all over the airport terminal. Needless to say, I paid a hefty price for his return flight that night, but I was delighted to do it. His life was priceless. I was so relieved when he returned home to us. In fact, I almost fainted from the feeling of euphoria the moment I saw him stroll, safe and whole, into my view at the airport terminal.

My son was always the restless type. He wanted to relocate to so many places all the time. The raw truth is, he wasn’t going to stay HERE on this earth for very long. He possessed a tumbleweed spirit. It’s ironic how often he, too, said he wanted to move to the desert out west one day, where tumbleweed thrives.

Anyway, four years ago I spent a lovely Sunday enjoying barbecue on our outside deck. I bid him goodbye without realizing how short our time together was in so many different ways. He had been living with his godmother, Pat, at the time. The next day, August 14, a Monday, he woke up and took her by surprise. He was packed and ready to go. Out of the blue he announced, “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.”

I was also clueless to the plan he executed when he moved from our state and drove away in the hopes of creating a better life for himself in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The trajectory, of course, was the beginning of his demise.

He left no trail behind. After I learned the news of his departure four years ago, I was hard hit and felt abandoned and betrayed over his behavior to dash off without notice and without waiting long enough to at least celebrate my birthday together. Mind you, everyone in Bowling Green was a stranger to him. He had no job waiting there for him. He only had his car and a small amount of savings. He was doomed from the start, and I knew it. All I thought about was how I wasn’t able to give him a proper goodbye or proper send-off with a small family gathering or a card or present. It just didn’t feel right from the start.

Miraculously, he pulled it off. After a rough start, he secured successful employment with an incredible company that mandated college classes and on-the-job training. Scoring an 86 in trigonometry, his least favorite subject, he proved to be a solid “A” student all the way. However, he failed when it came to shutting down the demons in his mind for very long. In the end, the raw truth is, they won his soul at 26 as they came so close to winning mine at 23.

Every birthday I celebrated as a mother, all I wanted from my children was their presence. I was grateful from the second I found out they were in my belly. In fact, their godmother and I prayed over my belly for months before both of their births.

No other “stuff” could come close to satisfying me on my birthdays or any other day. In Bowling Green, my son nearly forgot my birthdays when they rolled around. I didn’t care in the least. My present was seeing how well he was doing and feeling so good about his course in life. That’s where I deposited my faith: wellness and success. It sounds corny as heck, but my greatest joy was to watch him and my daughter grow up into strong, capable, healthy adults.

Since the tragedy, grief has beat me down to a pulp of an apricot, but it has not warped my sense of gratitude. This year will be my second birthday living a “new normal” while hiding under a clamshell sounds appealing and homey.

Likely, though, when the 22nd hits, I will shower and change into something I haven’t worn for awhile, and join the kids’ godmother or someone else in my tiny circle and go out for lunch or dinner and mark the occasion in solidarity.

Another day in paradise, I can hear my son remark sarcastically as he so often did in his latter years.

Yes, I say to myself, “Another day in paradise” with a nuance of true meaning in the words. I imagine a sun-kissed, sandy seascape where there exists clam shells galore for the sole purpose of feeling as if you’re grateful to be alive.

B-Day Bashes, Messy Dryers &Other Musings

B-Day Bashes, Messy Dryers & Other Musings

One year ago yesterday we had a surprise birthday party for my dear friend Pat on her 85th birthday. In essence, it also symbolized a good-bye party. Little did any of the celebrants know that our world was about to change BIG TIME. I mean, I don’t think there was one single person at that party that could pronounce the word “Covid,” never mind define it.

Over this past year, I remember the party and feel it symbolized a halcyon day of rebellion. We happily huddled together. Shared endless trays of food. Who would have ever dreamed of covering our over-stretched smiles with a mask? No way.

Wow, we were fortunate to get in one last hurrah, before the world turned around like a load of laundry in the dryer, and you never knew what would tumble out at you first when the drying cycle finished.

To this day, none of us at that party, as far as I know, ever caught COVID-19. Of course, others in the world were not as fortunate as we were. This past year, though, most of us have faced a range of pandemic-related challenges and stresses like lost jobs and a rise in mental health illnesses.

No doubt, over this past year, faith tests were generously distributed. I know I nearly flunked a few, but mostly achieved some pretty impressive scores. How was this possible? Because as I’ve written about before, the pandemic was a good time for me to regroup. Grieve peacefully. Grieve fully. Do you know how much fire-ball energy I realized I saved by not having to put on a fake face forward?

For me, it’s been a recovery period in which I could truly just back up from the world and lean into what matters–an intimate circle of friends and family.

Pat, for instance, is part of that group. Never mind that she is, in my eyes, one of the few highly religious people that I’ve known who is not a hypocrite. As we say in the 12-step program, “she walks the walk.” Never mind that her faith, even in the eye of total injustice, never fails to see the goodness of love.

If I could ever choose anyone at anytime to be in my foxhole, it would be her. In fact, she was the one who peeled me off the hardwood floor after learning the tragic news about my son who died by suicide 16 months ago. And, in the days and months that followed, I felt like a marionette who dropped off the stage of life. Pat was the one who lifted the strings, gently, consistently until I could accomplish a bit of light lifting on my own.

Guaranteed, her score on her faith tests over this past year were straight As. When I was a child and struggled in school, my mom used to say, “Sit next to the smartest kid in class and see what they are doing.”

Yes, Pat has been my guide, inspiration and “study buddy,” especially these last 16 months since the tragedy and the pandemic and when the world started to whirl like an out-of-control dryer full of clothes. Let me tell you, I would have been a no-show for the first faith test presented, never persevering and enduring the series that followed.

When it comes to faith, she has made Mensa in her life. Maybe it takes 85 years to reach that status. Me, I have a ways to go!

HAPPY 86th birthday, Pat!

Faith Muscle

Landscapes of Wisdom

Photo by Paul IJsendoorn on Pexels.com

During my college art appreciation classes, I learned about the concept of how art creates space with the use of foreground, middleground and background. This idea came into play about a year ago when someone wisely suggested that I needed to find a space in my psyche for my departed son. The idea alleviated the unbearable pain of out-of-order death, because it made me feel that my son was a PART of the landscape and not DEparted.

That said, for almost 15 months, he is, mostly, in the foreground of a custom-sized sacred space on my life canvas, closest to me, looming larger than anything else.

Anyway, last week, I conversed with a young man inside the waiting room of a dental surgeon’s office. He informed me that it was time for him to have his wisdom teeth extracted.

“Really? I had mine out at 19. How old are you?”

“Twenty eight.”

“Twenty eight!” I exclaimed. “That’s too old to get your wisdom teeth out.”

I don’t know what made me the authority of the wisdom tooth extraction timeline. At that given moment, it was my own, very personal, anything but humble, reality. When I spoke with the man, my sole focus was on me and my one-time 19-year-old pain that I recalled.

The dialogue ended after a dental assistant led me into the other room for my procedure. Suddenly, I felt like I was smacked with the herbal packs that the dentist, who extracted my wisdom teeth so long ago, inserted into my mouth to ease the gum pain.

Wisdom teeth, I suddenly remembered. The thought immediately shifted to a seat in the foreground of my mind.

The last time I visited my son alive in his home state, the trip started with the idea of his scheduling a dentist appointment to remove his wisdom teeth. Petrified of dental procedures, I planned to visit and support him through his ordeal. OMG! I remembered: he ended up canceling the procedure. The 2-D image in the foreground that chewed me up in a 3-D way was my son buried, wisdom teeth intact. Death can paint my mindscape with abstract and random images.  

Settling into the dentist chair, it hit me. If I had spoken to the 28-year-old man and my son was still alive, the exchange of dialogue would have been completely different, far removed from the talk of the appropriate age of wisdom teeth extraction.

“My son’s twenty-eight too!” I would have exclaimed, proudly, to the man in a newfound common space, a foreground of connection. From that point, I would have bored him with all kinds of details about my son.

In reality, I was ripped off of my son’s 27th year and now the sunrise of his 28th. So ripped off, in fact, that his twenty-eight-year old image settled into the background of my psyche. How odd, I thought, his one-time existence was relegated to the background, the plane furthest away from view. What, on the other hand, was in full view, was remembering his full set of wisdom teeth. Either way, I am filled with sadness, shuffling around my son’s memory, a re-imagined shell game in which the ball under the cup gets lost in a confusion of turns.   

In faith matters, I wonder if a space has to be permanent in order for it to be sacred. I believe as a young family, this idea of physical space for spiritual matters was one major reason we as a young family rarely, if ever, missed Sunday church services.

Now, living in this new normal, I understand that sacred space doesn’t have to be defined. Nor does it require a reservation. Sacred space can be spontaneous. Sacred space can also be temporary like the “Grief Forest.” It runs fluid and, depending on the inhabitant, both spiritual and secular and, certainly, personal and created by infinite hues and styles. In fact, it is like a juxtaposition of bright yellow color on a dark background that gives faith a three-dimensional aspect and, if the viewer observes closely enough, he or she will uncover the doorknob that turns, leading into a fourth dimension.

Unremarkable Life

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Last Monday, January 18, 2021 marked what would have been my son’s 28th birthday. Numerous times he declared that he wouldn’t see 30, and he fulfilled his statement.

Last year, the first year without him, my daughter, his Godmother and I commemorated the day with a chocolate birthday cake. We lit 28 (one for good luck!) candles, topped off with a solemn rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Initially, this year, I planned to spend the day with my daughter, who lives in the next state, especially since we both had the day off. As it turned out, she is a teacher and had to prepare for her next day’s class.

“Chop wood and carry water,” I told her after she conveyed the update. In other words, get what’s done in front of you.

There are many interpretations to the Zen saying. In those early days after losing my son, my friend Betsy, who also lost her young son a decade prior, gave me faith like no other when she offered the wisest advice. “Chores need to be done.”

Washing dishes. Scrubbing the sink. Vacuuming. During the earliest days of the horrific period, it wasn’t a monumental moment that kept me alive, it was those dull, little duties in life that made it possible for my unbearably battered heart to beat.

Taking it a step further, “Chop wood and carry water” also refers to mindfulness and living, breathing, moment-to-moment. “Pay attention,” my loyal friend Bob reminds me often. “Be present.”

Accepting the present moment as is, sans judgment or inner conflict, helps lighten the load of the griefcase I transport on a daily basis.

So, “chop wood and carry water” for me meant two days of baking turkey pot pies that started one day before my son would have been 28. I imagined him eager to tear into the flaky crust. Then I could picture him in agony, but at the same time satisfied with a “it’s-worth-it” twinkle in his eyes after he burned his mouth on the food as he always did whenever I served his freshly made meals, which was most of the time, at least before he went out on his own.

In my kitchen, as I created these little golden sensations, I threw a Pot Pie Pity Party. Me and the Pies. When I was first getting sober in the early 80s, I was wisely instructed to throw pity parties for myself–with a time limit! No more than one hour. And so, there I was, my eyes sobbing until I couldn’t visualize the pot pie assembly line in front of me. When the hour was up, it’s a lucky thing a pot pie is the ultimate comfort food. Soul food it was, slice after slice.

I should add that when I made those pies, through my tears, I was able to bear to open another can of my son’s corn.

I imagined him tossing the can into his shopping cart at Kroger in that stupid “Unbridled Spirit” State that I have come to love and hate. I know he would have not noticed the brand name, only the price. Corn, especially on the cob, was among his favorites. Happy Harvest. That was the brand name. It was sweet and crunchy and was a perfect ingredient for comfort food.

Charlie Ambler wrote a very interesting post, Chop Wood, Carry Water

He starts it by saying, “There’s an old Zen saying— “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

Then he says, “Zen requires us to make peace with ourselves, our time, and our place on Earth. We don’t do anything remarkable after we realize that the key to life is simply to live.”

Here is what he wrote that I find mind-boggling:

“There’s no reason to strive for any sort of higher living, or to do extraordinary things just to feel extraordinary— it’s all one and the same. Once we make the distinction between higher and lower, we create boundaries that cause us endless suffering. Instead, we can follow our own bodies and the intuitive gleanings of meditative practice to reach a place where cooking rice or cleaning the toilet are no different from conquering the world or becoming rich and famous.”

A level playing ground is a part of what Charlie is talking about here. My son would have done much better living on this kind of plain. I know I sure do. I decided not to post anything on Facebook on what would have been my son’s 28th birthday. I relished in slices of homemade pot pies with sweet corn. I washed dishes. Cleaned the stove. Washed office windows. In other words, I wrapped myself in my unremarkable little life, and it felt warm like a faith blanket lined with kernels of extraordinarily sweet corn.

Faith Muscle

“First” Birthday — Holy Smokes

Prior to living my new bereaved normal life, most of my life was based on wishful thinking. However, I relapsed into wishful thinking over the weekend. My secret desire was that “My Marsh” would provide me with a gift this past weekend on my birthday. A sign.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

This kind of thinking has lead to most of my life presenting itself as a disappointment, but admittedly during my birthday, I felt a childlike sense of a scavenger hunt, waiting for “the sign.”

Though no sign arrived, I did receive bouquets of flowers, candy and other presents from loved ones. Of course, I was grateful, but my mind was soaked with sadness, remembering the last birthday I had spent with my son in 2016, because three days later he relocated 600 miles away for a “new life.”

I, along with others who loved him, was not prepared for his departure. In truth, when I learned about his last-minute move, I felt betrayed. His car packed with his meager belongings, he turned to his Godmother and proclaimed, “If I don’t go now, I will never go.”

I can write down 150 regrets right now about that moment, but I obsessed about every single one of them on my birthday, and it is unnecessary torture to list them yet again.

After he relocated to Bowling Green, Kentucky, one of his first text messages to me stated: “I have more anxiety here than I had there.”

I knew then as I know now, escaping demons feeds them, only for them to grow bigger until they are strong enough to conquer and overthrow. And, despite his remarkable career advances, he eventually lost his battle on earth, isolated and alone. He always ran looking for a kinder place and that is exactly the hope he held onto in the end.

So my first birthday after my 26-year-old son’s death was certainly not a day of celebration. However, under the regrets, guilt, remorse and reliving so many memories that slammed me into a sad state, there was a sobering peace. My greatest healing comes through silence. With that being said, I temporarily deactivated my Facebook profile.

Even though outside interference forced its way in from well-meaning loved ones and they “should” all over me by saying things like I “should be going out,” I “should be celebrating,” and so on, I held onto my own self-care program. I live the principles of “To thine own self be true.” This inscription is on a coin I carry with me everywhere. In fact, a duplicate coin, with this same inscription, I folded into my dead son’s bruised hands before the funeral home staff closed his coffin for the final time.

Actually, somewhat of a miracle it was that under the regrets, guilt, remorse and reliving so many painful memories, I was able to get out of myself periodically and think of others. I gift wrapped a small token of love for a dear fellow who is celebrating her 8-year sober anniversary this month. I cooked for our house full of special need cats. I helped search for draperies for my daughter’s new apartment.

Day’s end, faith was found in a rack of smoked ribs that my significant other surprised me with.

What people don’t realize is that grieving is an exhausting emotional process, at least for me. I have to go slow. Go silent. Not go-go-go as I did in the old days.

I’m in the slow lane now and it may not, like most of my life, be the place I choose to be in, but for today it feels safe and steady. I just have to follow the official road signs and not allow my “heart signs” to lead me in the wrong direction. It feels like I can drive responsibly as long as there is minimal interference, except, of course, when I brake for a smoking’ hearty meal that not only refuels my body, but also my soul. 

Faith Muscle