Cloudy. Looks like showers; maybe even thunderstorms. Temperature: 65 degrees.
Every morning since the day I met Ally, and our relationship lasted for over 20 years until she died of cancer, she recorded the weather with a ballpoint pen in her six-by-eight inch journals. Out of the classic, lined, hardcover journals, she had one inscribed with the following quote, Let your faith be bigger than your fear. – Hebrews 13:6
Ally was not a religious woman. She didn’t go to church or ever mention God. Instead, she lived a message of love and as a member of the local garden club, she spent endless volunteer hours helping to keep the town green and gardens growing pretty. Ally also dedicated her life to working at a local wildlife rehabilitation facility that aided birds and other wildlife.
One day I realized that in the same manner that people wake up in the morning and recite prayers and read spiritual material, Ally recorded the weather. It acted as her touchstone for the day. It gave her a larger perspective on life, helped deflate her ego and discover her true self. In other words, it ironed out her fear and made her fearless to float forward fearlessly into the thunderstorms and hail of life. Amen!
On the topic of weather and prayers, I call to mind my dear friend Brian. I’ve written about him before, but as a refresher, he identified with Native American spiritual beliefs. Once when we were driving in his truck from a weekend in Canada, we were suddenly caught in a monsoon storm. Joining other travelers, Brian veered his truck over into the emergency lane and parked. Seconds after he shut the engine off, he bolted outside and moved in front of the truck. Right before my eyes, he lifted his head and outstretched his arms while the rain beat down on him like the sights and sounds of linear drumming.
“Great Spirit! Great Spirit!”
It turned out to be the man’s prayer of thanks for every possible thing imaginable, including what others, most times, perceive as inclement weather, Brian saw as a gift.
Ally, like Brian, saw the weather, regardless of whether it was a mean storm or a mild spring day, in the same grateful way because she understood that it meant another sunrise of life occurred. This insight enabled her to charge forward into the day with faith. In fact, anytime I saw her, even after she received her diagnosis, she never stopped recording the weather and continued to act like a big, fat cloud bursting with an “Amen!” kind of jubilation.
Author and MD, Robert Eliot said, If you can’t fight and you can’t flee, flow.
In this way, you can switch out the word FAITH for the word FLOW. The concepts are connected because when you flow through life, you have faith in it, and you gain a deeper awareness and thereby, find a greater meaning in it.
Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter, said: Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storms, but to add color to my sunset sky.
Heads lifted skyward, arms overstretched, Brian and Ally looked past the clouds and storms to pinpoint the colors of the sunrise as well as sunset.
Patchy fog. Hot and humid. Temperature: easy, breezy, flowing forward fearlessly.
Naomi Judd, American Country Singer, January 11, 1946 – April 30, 2022
Sometimes you cannot sing without strain. Fortunately, music is not infinite, but has a finite number of possibilities. In a similar vein, sing a new song filled with faith and hope that calm waters will carry you to the safety of home.
Maybe it’s the melancholy pieces of classical music that stream in my office, or the frosty end-of-March days accented in snow sprinkles, or maybe it’s that my bones are achy as I close in on the final chapter of my life and my bookshelf topples over with a bibliophile’s grand list of “Books to read before you die”; likely though, it is the combination of these things that has motivated me to take a little breather from my weekly introspective blog posts that I’ve been writing for two years this month.
You see, for the last 37 years I’ve lived under deadlines and commitments and as the days roll in, I want to roll out of bed, shake the aging bones and walk for miles aimlessly at the seashore as I once did as a child and allow the salt air to fix everything that hurts.
The years ahead are far fewer than the years behind. I am like a ramshackle house that requires a laundry list of self-care.
That being said, beginning next week, I will be posting faith-related “Quotes” for the next few months, before I make a final decision about the direction I want to take with WTF, Where’s the Faith.
Above all, I thank you all for your faith in me. It helps fan my faith-o-meter and propels me forward.
My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.
On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.
From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.
“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.
Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.
Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.
My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.
Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.
At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.
“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”
I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”
“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.
In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.
“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”
There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.
“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.
Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.
Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me. My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.
After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.
A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”
Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.
Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”
Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:
…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:
“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”
In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:
Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.
After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.
The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”
My mother sullenly responded anytime I invited her to join me in a fun activity or special event. As I’ve previously mentioned, she was not only a World War II survivor, but trauma and pain shadowed her for most of her life.
A flat out “No” from her was unnecessary since the sharp tone of refusal was unmistakable. However, I discerned the truth. Her baby-like face, twinkling, daring eyes and partially upturned pink lips forcing down what would be a natural upturned smile, revealed the opposite of her initial response: “Sure, I’d love to go to … “
In fact, until she grew much older and frail, in spite of her protests, she willingly accompanied me on outings, whether they were to the local library, a tag sale, diner lunches or most of the extracurricular activities my kids were involved with when they were young.
After she died in 2015, I missed her company, but forgot about her fussing that preempted our outings. That is, until after our family tragedy and the aftermath of trauma in 2019. Suddenly, whenever I received an invitation or gift of any kind, my mom’s familiar words entered into my mind, “That’s for happy people.”
Survivor’s guilt can do a number on you. To say it feels like you’re “carrying a heavy burden” is pushing it. It feels more like you are stuck in a life that has become a hunk of hardened glue.
This brings me to the generosity of my dear friend Michelle who, at the end of last year, gave me a gift card for a massage. What do you think my response was? Thank you! Thank you! On the other hand, my contradictory mind, though, lamented: “That’s for happy people.”
Sadly, my last massage experience took place about one month before I lost my beloved son. I laid on the table incredibly relaxed and melting to pieces, but my mind battered me. I felt tremendously guilty, pampering myself while my son led a miserable dark, depressed life. Flashbacks of this dreadful time, of course, made me even more reluctant to schedule another massage.
Before Marshall’s birthday rolled around, I knew to “sit around” like a magnet attracting more darkness to the severity of the painful situation would not be wise. I found, however, to sequester and seek solace helps my pain management the most. So why not, I reasoned, take advantage of a massage — in a quiet space under a pair of healing hands?
The day before his birthday, I made an agreement with myself. “If I am able to schedule a last-minute appointment at the place then, so be it. It is meant to be.”
It was meant to be because wouldn’t you know it, there was an opening. The massage therapist’s name was Dawn. I also interpreted the double meaning in her name, the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise, as a sign.
I put my full faith into Dawn, a random woman I never set my eyes on, but who could either break the rest of my broken pieces or help me try and not shatter any more of the messy debris.
Needless to say, I was a wreck when I arrived on a brisk early afternoon, January 18, 2022. It boiled down to, I really, really needed a good massage.
When the woman who greeted me asked, “So, what brings you in?”
I swear I was so close to replying, “My dead son.”
Instead, I said, “A gift card.”
Ironically, Dawn turned out to be a nondescript woman who wore a mask that covered more of her face than necessary in a facility that requires everyone to wear face protection during these pandemic times.
Later, undressed and comfortable on the massage table, every time my mind started to scatter and squirm like an army of ants without my consent, I did my darnest to focus on what was. Be in the now. Humorously, her freezing cold hands won most of my focus. Then suddenly out of the blue, I recognized: “This is my life now.”
I was inspired from the publisher’s description of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir; a quote I could easily apply to myself now. “There is a frank acknowledgment of the widow’s desperation—only gradually yielding to the recognition that ‘this is my life now. ‘”
A few moments later, I heard my son’s voice in my mind shout, “Don’t touch me!”
Perhaps because of his shaky early years in the hospital, but my son, in the way some people don’t like to be around cats or dogs, was uncomfortable with physical touch and didn’t like a lot of human interaction.
The realization flew at me like a boat’s paddle: That was his life then and this is my life now.
My faith in Dawn paid off. At the end, I felt fluid. And it felt good physically. Mentally, my gift of peace was still intact.
On what would have been my son’s 29th birthday, after allowing Dawn’s icy hands to kneed and stroke me, I signed up for a year’s worth of massages.
This is my life now — if all goes per plan, I am now booked for a year of massages to take me through to his thirtieth in 2023.
This is my life now. Some, like Michelle and Camille, have stayed with me. Others have disappeared — to many of them I represent the fragility of our existence. In contrast, I honor my grief and the voices, oh, the unmistakable, unbelievable magnitude of voices that spin inside me and are part of all that I am and all that I will ever be, planted forever in the soul of now and every tomorrow, rising above the physical plane of temporary to the dawn of permanence and eternity.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the two years, this Friday, you’ve been gone, I discovered that anyone can purchase poison on eBay, and there are companies in China that will deliver it in an unmarked package via USPS mail for exorbitant costs.
About three weeks before the unspeakable happened, I heard Britney Spears perform “Lover” for the first time on Saturday Night Live. The song was on the album released in August, ironically, a day after my birthday of that horrible year. (In fact, I believe she debuted “Lover” live on YouTube on my birthday before the album’s actual release date.)
Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah
So many things, like one of our final nearly two-hour conversations led me to believe we were close. I told you I was preparing to pack my personal belongings and move them to what I thought would be a second home in your home some 600 miles away.
Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah
That song can push me to steep cliffs where the view is not pretty. If I hear the lyrics in some random store or any other public place that I have no control over, and they start to pierce what little whole surface is left in my Swiss cheese heart that now replaces my healthy heart, like the one you were born with before it was surgically repaired, I put my hands over my ears and let out a shrill scream to cancel the sound. Bystanders simply avoid me. By the looks on their faces, they assume I am on a day’s furlough from a psychiatric special care facility.
Other songs, too, have a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect. Would you believe, thanks to you, I can’t listen to country and western music anymore? To think, you and your sister were raised on what was once my favorite genre of music. I now realize how the lyrics so often involve white, Christian heterosexual alpha male cowboys and helpless soon-to-be dependent wives and, as such, marginalize diverse populations. I feel excluded. In the same way you did, son. Instead of you growing up to be like me, I have grown up to be so much like you.
In actuality, there isn’t much music I can listen to any longer. You’ll likely be happy (or maybe not so much, because it used to irritate you!) that I do still sing dumb songs. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.
I don’t, though, sing my silly songs as often. I sure don’t pray any longer. Instead, I curse in my mind at you all day long. I’m sure people would judge me, but you know how I feel about judgment, especially watching how you deteriorated from the bullies over the years until the end when they won your soul. Let the hypocrites, the judgmental bullies spew their well-meaning sermons on forgiveness. I’ll keep my new cursing habit; thank you very much. It’s has the monotone sound of a daily prayer and is one of the few things that keeps me here.
When you took your life. You took mine.
I say this along with the cursing in my mind. I only wish I had conveyed these notions to you out loud and saturated you with guilt in response to the threats you made to me a million times; threats that fell on deaf ears.
I wish I could prove to you how much I have changed, and how well I can listen and engage in conversation. Without the preaching. Without the positive psychology and affirmations. Without the quick-made solutions. Without the holier-than-thou attitude and putting my ego-inflated, false pride into the equation.
I no longer, believe it or not, for the most part, attend support groups. The people in them all sound like they are on fire with miracles that don’t exist for most people in the world. It boils down to false hope and it feels as real to me as “FakeBook,” which, by the way, I’m off and don’t miss at all! Don’t even start me on any kind of religious groups and how I fear them. Thank goodness for Father Ivan. He is still a kind and compassionate man. He’s right up there with the saints. I am sorry, son, though, that he forgot to add your liturgy on the church calendar this Friday. I readily accepted his apology and told him we are human and make mistakes in the same manner you would have done. I, however, declined his offer to add your name to a later date on the church calendar to “celebrate” your life. Take the money, I insisted, and put it toward a new church roof. I don’t need any more remembrances of how marginalized and painful your existence once was.
Can you believe this is me? If anyone ever told me that my major goal for each day is to dodge songs, prayers, social media, people, group gatherings as well as ropes, strings, belts or any kind of cord or suspended pendulum that swings back and forth, I would have reacted to the thought like my old laughing hyena self. Even though we still share that goofy giggle that irritated the heck out of me when I heard it from you, most things do not strike me as funny any longer. I am trying to remove the words “kill” and “hate” from my vocabulary.
I think you would really, really like this new version of me. Once you realized who I am now, you would really, really stay. At least a little longer.
Maybe I should have told you that my greatest aspiration was to see you and E grow up. Motherhood is far greater than any other role. I should have told you the reason that I toiled on pipe dreams was because I was certain they would pay off and make it possible for me to be with you, especially since your sister was always so much more independent and resilient. They did not pay off. In the end, before the unspeakable happened, I was ripped off in trying to get that web business going. Michael B. was the perpetrator’s name. He is your age. I forgave him. Last I heard, he was still alive and living in Florida.
I should have stopped “strategizing” so much and started finding ways to be alongside you. Before you relocated to KY, you asked me to go on a hike with you to Sleepy Giant State Park. It was mid-week, and I was working with Michael.
Love is showing up. Putting down the phone. Walking through hot coals if necessary. Regardless of my intentions (intentions can’t form a hug around anyone), I should have dropped everything and joined you on the hike in Sleepy Giant. I would have appreciated the memory. Who knows, maybe if I joined you instead of being left behind sitting in the home office, I wouldn’t have been duped into the lame website.
These “new normal” days I would dedicate to taking hikes with you even in a hailstorm, because I have brand-new, excellent all-weather gear. On the hike, I would at last speak the words to acknowledge how I reveled in your development and your mind. How I appreciated your accomplishments that were done completely independent from me. How I admired that your character was so much better than mine was at that age. The person I am today would have spent the rest of her life hiking with you, Marshall. Ultimately, the canteens have run dry.
You were always quiet in a noisy world. Subdued and humble in an entitled, egotistic world. With this in mind, few, if any, care to remember you. Even Father Ivan forgot. Steve Irwin gets a day on November 15. I wish I could get a day for you every year on the universe’s calendar, but what matters, really, is how much you matter to me. I would have given my life over a zillion times to spare yours. That was always the way it was. I only wish I had let you in on my secret. Instead, I kept telling you how your brain would clear up at 26 when the “logic” center developed. How I couldn’t wait for that year to come. This was because of some dumb brain documentary that I watched in the auditorium at your genius-only high school. A “top school” that’s tops in creating equality by making perfect products out of all people who enter through the doors. I can still hear myself saying, I can’t wait until you’re 26.
Now, I can’t wait to get through all the days. I’m sure you know that Saturday through Monday are especially painful. We could have saved you in those three days if we were there. Whitney and Bradley tried on that fatal, unbearable fourth day, a Tuesday. It was, obviously, too late. I think you would be pleased to know that Whitney and Bradley have joined our incomplete family, and it doesn’t feel as miniscule in size as it really is. They are the only reason I would return to KY. We still have family graves there, too, son, don’t forget. I have discovered that six hundred miles is not far after all.
When you took your life. You took mine.
I looked outside the window the other day and imagined you jumping in complete abandon on the neighbor’s trampoline. It made me recall one of those rare times when you were the star at the middle school dance, and you let go of all your inhibitions, and you danced as if no one was watching, although the entire eighth grade class gathered around and cheered you on the dance floor. It was all for you, my boy, my son, my first born. All the worldly applause. It was all for you. For you, Marshall, who was named after an American entrepreneur who became a famous multimillionaire. Sadly, from that night forward, you stopped dancing just as you stopped crying, because, marking your adolescence, you proclaimed to me, “Real men don’t cry.”
I wish you had kept dancing. I wish you had kept crying. I wish you had allowed yourself to be comfortable with all the uncomfortable things that made you feel like you didn’t belong to us or anywhere you traveled. Shame, of course, killed you. I’d like to think you are finally at peace. Maybe even dancing or crying or, at very least, just at ease.
In your note that “fell from the sky — you know what I mean” to me and your sister and Pat, you said you hoped the next world was kinder than this one. I hope so. There are no signs. No feelings I can sink my hope into. No muscle of faith that can pull me up and inspire me to sing, “Hallelujah!”
I’m still here. Maybe that is enough of a sign for now.
LOVE YOU ALWAYS AND FOREVER, YOUR HEART-BROKEN, SHATTERED-IN-PIECES MOTHER
Two weeks ago, Halloween “backup” M&M’s ready, yet our house was dark. I had stopped celebrating Halloween a couple of years beforeour tragedy. Frankly, the holiday became more of a hassle than something that symbolized nostalgia or fun.
When this Halloween rolled in, I was alone at home, and the sun was beginning to set. Suddenly, Ding Dong!
Oh, gee! I mean, really? Aren’t the kids suppose to wait until nightfall to start trick-or-treating? I thought to myself.
Go away! I commanded in my mind. Halloween reminds me of what no longer is and will never be to the point of cruelty.
I recall the phone conversation I had with my 27-year-old daughter an hour earlier when I told her I would not be distributing Halloween candy.
“How can you deprive little kids? Don’t you care?” she grumbled.
“There were only two little kids I cared about,” I retorted.
“Oh, I see you are in a ‘mood.’” No, I want to say to her, but refrain from ruining her evening. Not a mood. I’m in my constant state of agony.
So I decide to bolt down the hall, ready to open the stupid door and give the irritating child some M&M’s, but I espy a dark-haired boy’s back. He’s returning to his parents who wait at the end of the driveway.
I know darn well I can chase after him outside and beckon him to come back, but I freeze.I stand there on the other side of the front door until I suddenly notice the dark house across the street. In 20 years at my residence, my neighbor’s front porch was always lit up and ready for Halloween. I make the stark realization that he’s not giving out candy either. Guilt heightened. I feel like I double-crossed the boy and now play a part in ruining some stranger’s childhood, because not only did I not give him M&M’s, I couldn’t put my sadness aside to at least glance at his costume that he probably waited all month to wear and show off.
What a Halloween scrooge I am. What if when my kids were young they had to deal with miserly people hiding behind dark porch facades. When they were young, in fact, most of the houses in our neighborhood celebrated.
Two years ago it was the last Halloween I would ever talk to my 26-year-old son alive. Since eight grade he had battled depression, and he was at an all-time low.
“We had a few good Halloweens, didn’t we?” I asked him over the telephone in an attempt to raise his spirits.
For a moment, when he replied, “Yeah!” his mood lifted, and I intuitively knew we were both remembering many of our good times together as a happy family. Hearing him two Halloweens ago exclaim a mere four-letter word “Yeah!” made my memory rocket back to one of those funky 70s dances. When those disco balls started turning and twinkling, you danced without restraint and no matter what was happening in your personal life, you hit the lottery on that dance floor.
“Yeah!” I banked on those happy memories to keep him alive, to fuel him. I also learned, too late, the best investments can plummet.
I spend more time with the dead in my mind then with the living. Right there behind the door observing my neighbor’s dark house, I sit, perched. My low spirits sinking lower. I rise, turn and make a beeline down the hallway, seeking solace in my bedroom and do not turn back around when for the second time I hear Ding Dong!
Fortunately for me, after that, the street became quiet. Halloween came to a close. After depriving the boy, and whatever child or children who rang the doorbell after him, I couldn’t bear to eat the M&M’s so I froze them in the fridge. I still visualize the boy’s dark hair. I imagine him who might or might not grow up to be an adult one day. I wonder if he will have a family of his own. Mostly, I wonder if he will grow up to be a person who distributes candy on Halloween.
Extending myself, and helping others were some of the best ways I knew to lift my spirits, and that’s what I spent doing for a good 35-year run. Then the day came when I couldn’t help one of the closest members of my family, and I, for the most part, retired my savior’s role.
I would like to end by saying, Next year I’ll give out candy on Halloween. And, maybe I will. Likely, I won’t. We heal and grieve and live our own way and in our own time. To me, this means giving myself the permission to be true to myself: sadness and dark “mood” included. I’m okay with that for today.
In fact, if someone used a magic wand to make my feelings and emotions associated with profound grief disappear, I would stop them. My destiny is as much a part of my makeup as my hazel blue eyes. I’m paving my way through the best I can, and I have faith that just because I feel the way I feel, I haven’t flunked life. In fact, by acknowledging my private feelings, I’m seeing myself as an honor student of life. I’m nowhere near the point of saying my life is a bag of sweets, but at least I still have a stash of M&M’s in the freezer, and if I see that dark-haired boy, because I do keep an eye out for him, I might just break open the loot to share with him.
I'm glad I learned to express my thoughts clearly and everyone loves to read them. Sometimes it takes a lot of thinking power to think about the surroundings. Someone who likes it, someone who enjoys it, appreciates that he is writing very well. Reading and commenting on the post I wrote would give me a lot of bullshit and I would get new ideas to write new ones.
I'm really glad I got your response.