“AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle

Hurrah Hosta

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When schedules and plans screw up, I owe my “it wasn’t meant to be” reaction to a former friend, Chris T. I met him over 30 years ago when black and white thinking, also known as a dichotomous thinking, caused me much disappointment when situations didn’t work out as planned.

You see, a few months after I met Chris, I was highly anticipating an upcoming out-of-town weekend away with a friend. Then she called me a week prior to our planned three-day excursion to inform me that she had to cancel our plans, because of family obligations.

Never mind black and white. All I saw was red. Even though she profusely apologized and the hotel agreed to refund our room deposits, I just couldn’t let the anger go. My emotions soared, as if I were commanding the wheel of a fire engine headed to a 24/7 wave of emergency blazes. Three days after reeling from disappointment, I ran into Chris and nearly hyperventilated as I conveyed my despair over my canceled trip.

When I finished explaining my situation, he simply stared at me and belted out, “So? So?”

I stood baffled at his response, waiting for an explanation.

“It’s a damn GOOD thing you’re not going!”

“What?” My bafflement was now more like shock.

“It wasn’t meant to be. Do you know you could have been involved in a car accident if you had gone? Maybe paralyzed for life — or maybe something worse. It’s a damn good thing you didn’t go. You should be grateful … ”

On and on he went. I felt as if I had accidentally landed on some remote island, met one of the natives and was trying with great difficulty to understand the language. I walked away without fully grasping the point he was making, but he planted a seed.

As my relationship with Chris grew, my perceptions about my life outlook slowly widened. I started comprehending the notion of gray thinking and, by doing so, I added a lot of interesting colors on my life palate. I mean, black and white aren’t even considered to be colors!

Below is an excellent explanation that I found on the internet of why:

“In physics, a color is visible light with a specific wavelength. Black and white are not colors because they do not have specific wavelengths. Instead, white light contains all wavelengths of visible light. Black, on the other hand, is the absence of visible light.”

As I consciously practiced this new, more flexible lifestyle, and learned to let go of unplanned outcomes, my trips to the gastroenterologist became less frequent. Over thirty years later, I cannot tell you how this conscious practice saves me each and every time when my black and white thinking returns, because it still does.

Take for instance, over a week ago. As much as I wanted to leave the house early and embark on a walk around the neighborhood, I left later than planned. By then, it was hot and humid, and it was making me feel crankier than usual. In fact, I almost turned around to return home. Those little critic critters in my mind kept beating my brain, saying, “You should have left earlier. You should have left earlier.”

Finally, I just shouted repeatedly to them: “Shut up!”

The strategy worked. It usually does. I made the rest of my walk in relative solitude. Looping back around, about 10 minutes away from home, I espied a sign, “FREE!” A kind, generous neighbor had plopped up the sign against a few dozen uprooted hosta plants that were for the taking. The plants had not been there when I had first started my walk. They were a gift to me, because it solved my dilemma as far as what type of flora I should plant around the house. I ended up picking the lot up later and putting them in my car’s trunk. A week later, they are growing nicely.

So, the moral of the story is: if I had left for my walk as planned, I would have missed the plant giveaway! Even though in my mind, the timing of the walk was off, it was, in actuality, exactly right! It illustrates exactly Chris’ point that changed my life so long ago.

Now, fast forward a few days later: thanks to the influence of Chris T. in my life and thanks to the hosta, I didn’t get too depressed about not being able to attend the Connecticut Press Club awards presentation last Wednesday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to attend.

Instead of being recognized for winning FIRST prize for blogging and an honorable mention for travel writing at the awards ceremony and having an opportunity to meet the presenter, who is a pretty well-know author, I watered newly planted hosta that night.

As a “consolation prize,” I squirted the hose, watered down my sad emotions and lectured myself that there was a reason that it was better I did not attend the ceremony. ‘Who knows,’ I told myself, ‘maybe I would have tripped and twisted my ankle … or … ’ It simply wasn’t meant to be. Have a little faith and just say ‘thanks’ to the universe for blocking the whole shindig.

I dreaded looking at the event’s Facebook pic, but I forced myself to observe all the smiling faces, and I even offered my “Congrats!” to the winners. They really looked happy. Ego aside, I was happy for them.

Two days after the awards presentation, the good news is, I tested negative and I am Covid-free. Admittedly, still tired and a tad congested, but I have the best winner’s circle: a clean bill of health and one of the most empathetic and inspirational blogging communities I can imagine. In addition, I also have an assortment of hostas that lift their stalks up to the sun and remind me that roaring success is based on daily building blocks of achievements, such as making the bed first thing in the morning and watering the plants before nightfall.

Faith Muscle

Juxtaposition Axiom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle

Today’s Temperature

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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.

Strong wind gusts. Dry, relative humidity. Temperature: 72 degrees.

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.

Faith Muscle

Calm Waters

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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.

Faith Muscle

Salute Your Inner Voice

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.

Faith Muscle

Missing Tooth Fairy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle

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

Powerlessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surrender to win!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle