The date repeatedly magnified in front of my face on the oversized black- and-white 2010 calendar, the only wall décor in the attorney’s office where I sat for three and a half hours (no, she didn’t tell me she was charging per hour!) rehashing a month-long account of what had propelled me to file divorce proceedings against my then husband.
Trying to grasp the end of my 19-year marriage, my stressed brain couldn’t differentiate between November 1st and November 2nd, and which one commemorated All Saint’s Day and which one was All Souls’ Day.
If you are not familiar with the dates, the internet definitions are below:
All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian solemnity celebrated on November 1 in honor of all the saints of the church, whether they are known or unknown.
All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died, which is observed by Latin Catholics and other Christian denominations annually on November 2.
I finally realized that November 2nd was indeed “the Day of the Dead.” From that bleak day forward, the day slapped a bookmark into the pages of my life and paused a full spool of memories made prominent with lace-up-the sneakers, leaf-peeping adventures. From that autumn on, it took eight years to refill the fall time colors into my black-and-white, gray-hued calendar world. Finally, the afternoon arrived when I drove through the neighborhood, and the sudden sight of crimson, golden leaves inspired me to recite poetry out loud in the car.
A year after color poured back into the lines of my life, little did I realize that the bottom of my world would completely unhinge, and I would be left fluttering around in a pool of profound grief that became my permanent autumn shadow.
Recalling the eight years of robbed autumn color, I appreciate the reawakened awareness of the hues. Consequently, they will never represent the same brazen fire irons they once did. Long lost are the years when the children were young, and we sipped fresh steaming apple cider that wafted through our sunny kitchen with an aroma that was a recipe to create optimistic dreams that seemed as real as finding the perfect fit in a new pair of lace-up sneakers.
Of course, some memories can be like leaves running their final course and dropping silently like dribbles of rain, composting and disappearing into the good earth. Clearly, in the cycle of life, there are new seeds to sow, harvest and grow.
Time takes time. There are no magic seeds that bloom instantly. From November 2nd, 59 days remain until the end of the year when the earth is frigid and stubborn. From there, all we can do is mull around in the new year and wait until spring softens the ground. Live a day at a time. Drink steaming hot cocoa to compensate for winter’s barren wasteland and warm us with the faith of knowing we have passed another day of life’s test, and we are in the process of learning an important lesson: patience. Colors may fade, strip and vanish, but year after year, cycle after cycle, the master painter’s palette is infinite.
When my children were young, the first sharp breeze, autumn’s precursor, stirred my enthusiasm. It signaled for me to uncover a special jewelry box and open the top drawer gathering dust from the year before. Inside was a treasure of assorted inexpensive trinkets that I spent seasons past unearthing at flea markets and tag sales. To me, though, the pieces were priceless because they helped me amplify the excitement of holiday time. Halloween kicked off the tradition. Two weeks before October 31st, I reached for my favorite troll pumpkin earrings and cottony ghost pin.
Earrings dangling and pin attached to my top, I performed the annual traipse up the attic stairs and started to pull out the jack-o’-lantern and fall leaf wreath. Christmas carols played in the background simply because I lacked a repertoire of Halloween music.
As a first-generation American child, my parents, both Eastern European immigrants, were not accustomed to Halloween. When I trick-or-treated around the neighborhood, I either went alone or joined a family a few blocks away. Each holiday, I wore the same old sheet I had worn the year before. My favorite part was at the end of the night when I came home and uncovered the scarcely distributed Hershey Bars among the bag of loot. An hour later, the juicy crunch of a fresh apple lessened the overly sweetening taste in my mouth from my consuming endless tootsie rolls and candy corn pieces.
I’ll never forget the Halloween when the TV news broadcast warned about evildoers hiding razors in apples. Learning about the deplorable act marked my innocence with its first blemish and elicited a spooky creaking door effect on my world, my first experience in adult boot camp.
After Halloween passed, my parents were big on church during Christmas, but, apart from that, they both worked tirelessly and viewed Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as a burden. Looking back, my mother was completely bereft of organizational strategies, and her cooked meals turned out to be so late that my much older brothers had typically disappeared by dinnertime. She was exhausted and couldn’t eat. My father rushed through his meal, famished. I ended up eating my holiday meals in solitude.
It made sense that when I celebrated the holidays with my own family, I compensated for what lacked in the holiday memories of my youth. It all started with cracking open the dusty jewelry box and then pulling out the big decorations from the attic. A lot of the household décor I purchased the day after Christmas, long before frugal consumers understood the extent of the meaning behind “After-Holiday Sale!” savings. Christmas, in fact, got to a point where all the household décor was switched out for holiday ornamentation. Instead of one tree, we had two. We started with one fresh green pine and one white artificial that later transitioned into another artificial tree.
My then husband was not as keen on Thanksgiving and Christmas as I was. I feared I had recreated a familiar pattern, but I did appreciate how he loved escorting our kids trick-or-treating. Looking back, his crafted jack-o’-lantern had to be the spiffiest looking one in our neighborhood.
There wasn’t a moment that I did not burst with gratitude during any of the holidays, always feeling as if I were given a second chance to experience the magical component in them, and it started with flipping the lid open on the one dusty jewelry box. Even when some of the mostly China-made jewelry broke, I kept the pieces. To dispose of them was like discarding joy.
Some women might, rightly so, feel privileged by wearing mega-sized diamonds. For me, nothing could replace the delight I felt from the colorful plastic holiday turkeys on my jacket’s lapel and Christmas light bulb earrings catching on the collars of my clothes.
I am sure, if tragedy had not struck, I would continue to keep the jewelry box in my over-protective hands while woolgathering about myself dressed as a real-life ornament, a walking signal of joy among my future tribe of grandchildren. Instead, my hands are robbed by grief. The first sign was last year when I discarded the broken jewelry, only to slam the box shut, unable do anything else.
This year, I sorted through the rest of my holiday jewelry and then cleaned and polished the box before donating everything to Goodwill. As I did, I pictured the young children out there and moms who are cozy and busy with their lives, so much the way I had been. I know someone will uncover the stash at Goodwill with new eyes and hope for the future. Someone, I anticipate, who felt the same blissful way at Goodwill when they unearthed my freshly cleaned wedding gown that finally I was able to part with three years ago.
Like seasons, holidays are the ebb and flow of life. I read recently something I never knew. “Ebb and flow” means that sometimes our life flows toward our hopes and dreams, and sometimes it flows away. I see it as the rising and falling ocean, a harmony that can only continue if we hold tight while learning to surf, because the raw truth is, at one point or another, we realize we are all novices and there is no mastery at life, especially when it shocks us into knowing how true this is, and we are left grappling with abstract ideas like the meaning of faith.
When I was pregnant nearly 29 years ago with my first child, I did not appear visibly pregnant. My belly was not pronounced. I never heard any of the following comments: “How many months are you? When’s the due date? How nice!”
Mid-way through my pregnancy with my son, my now ex-husband and I were on a standing-room-only crowded bus in Washington D.C. and no one offered his or her seat to me as I fumed silently, worried if the added exertion would effect my pregnancy.
My son did not take up any space in my womb, and as I now realize, he did not take up much space in the world he was not planning to stay in for too long. The end of his story was symbolized in the total of four pairs of pants that my daughter and I retrieved from his meager belongings when we traveled to his final place of residence in Kentucky.
Who knows if I did suffer the consequences of not receiving any special attention or care while I was pregnant. All I know is that Marshall was born a preemie. Strangely, the doctors never came to an agreement on his actual due date. What we did know was that he was either one, two or three months early.
As I’ve written before, he was not only born a preemie, but also with a congenital heart defect, having to undergo two surgeries, the last one an open heart surgery before his first-year birthday. I won’t go into the details of the birth itself, but I was in the hospital, lying flat on my back for six days before he was born. After the ordeal, somehow one inch of his umbilical cord accompanied me home! I stashed it in my bedroom drawer and through the years I occasionally uncovered it to marvel at life’s divine handiwork.
One more month from today marks my son’s demise two years ago when I returned his umbilical cord as well as gave him the ashes of his beloved cat Cliff. They both were shut tight inside his coffin along with some of his life’s other mementos.
As fall marches along, memories drop like acorns and thump on my head, redirecting me from the day. When I first fell in love with literature at 16, I loved the character of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman because he was old and worn down from an unfulfilled life. It brought me great comfort and relief to know that leaves on a page confined his pain in a closed book. For me, I had uncovered my quest for the American Dream through Mr. Loman who lost faith in his American Dream, because that is when I decided to become a writer like Arthur Miller, sideswiping life’s hardships and, instead, capturing the anguish by using a pen and allowing the pen to dribble its tears. In other words, at 16, my sole objective was to become the master of my own universe.
In writing, this process works. In real life, thinking I have control over my life hurts, especially as it concerns my son. Taking me by surprise from day one as a preemie, my son never stopped surprising me with years of challenges and unexpected events. Through the years, as I worked on feature articles for travel and bridal markets and other feel-good subjects, and in my spare time on fictional stories, I glossed over the raw realities of real life and, instead, I wore my rose-colored glasses and viewed every situation like a cherry-on-top silly Hallmark movie scene. The first inkling of how horribly wrong things could actually be was when I started uncovering layers of a liar’s cake, frosted thick, that my now ex-husband started to create in 2010. I thought I got wise after that, but not wise enough. Nineteen years later on that awful November day at 1:51 p.m. two years ago, one month from now, I received the telephone call that left me bearing unspeakable pain and profound grief.
From that day forward, I realized my life full of dreams and aspirations and faith in good over evil stopped. Nothing I ever wanted would come to fruition, because I had lost one of the main characters, and you cannot fill a blank screen when the projector has died.
Everything I imagined never worked out. Instead of learning about successes, accomplishments, mental wellness and other how-to-control-your-life strategies, and themes that are directly opposite the Willy Loman stories, I wish I learned about the importance of being brave and facing the ugly side of life early on. I wish I learned that The Little Engine That Could sometimes Couldn’t. I wish I had learned and passed the lessons on to my children and helped them understand the cruel, cold realities of life will never disappear, much like the impact of mental health issues. I wish more people in life were brave and could teach us how to do it. I wish so many things.
In the “old days” I found my tribe in support groups. Now, fortunately, I find my tribe in a handful of supportive people in real life and in my blogging community. I have also gone full circle, finding another tribe in the characters I read in literature.
For instance, one of the main characters (Rill Foss/May Weathers Crandall) in Before We Were Yours by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate hits the ball out of the park conveying how I feel about the consequence of expectations through Rill in the scene below that illustrates how the character finally reunites with her long-lost father and life that she has longed for ever since it was stolen from her. Wingate writes:
He gets up and heads for the door, grabbing his empty whiskey bottle on the way. A minute later, I hear him rowing off in the skiff.
I listen until he’s gone, and in the quiet that’s left after, I feel like the world is coming down around me. When I was at Mrs. Murphy’s and then the Seviers’ house, I thought if I could just get back to the Arcadia, that’d fix everything. I thought it’d fix me, but now I see I was fooling myself, just to keep on going, one day to the next.
Truth is, instead of fixing everything, the Arcadia made everything real. Camellia’s gone. Lark and Gabion are far away. Queenie’s buried in a pauper’s grave, and Briny’s heart went there with her. He’s lost his mind to whiskey, and he doesn’t want to come back.
Not even for me. Not even for Fern. We’re not enough.
My heart squeezes again.
Everything I wanted my life to be, it won’t be now. The path that brought me here is flooded over. There’s no going back.
Unlike old roofs, circumstances cannot be fixed no matter how much we are fixated on fixing them. There’s no going back. Going forward for me isn’t an option anymore. Moving along, learning to live my life under the category of pain management, scouting out the brave ones in life, that is the only way of faith I can bank on.
PS: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful daughter this week who will turn 27 on the 21st. She is my everything and so much more! ❤️
One more day: I muster up blind faith and a guileless swagger. I am determined that my heartbreak won’t leak through the metal armor. The mission is to not allow a sobbing storm to leak through anyone’s rooftop and ruin his or her day, which, of course, doesn’t always work. I appreciate the super slim portion of the population that can actually affirm grief and heartbreak and unpredictability and let it be. I also appreciate the people who can look at life squarely without washing over any of it.
One more day: The morning’s first vitamin goes down easily as I swallow a small pint of water from a recycled jelly jar. The ritual started about 10 years ago when each and every day outran me, waking up in the morning with a duplicate to-do list in my hand from the day before. In those days, I was obsessed about crow’s feet around my eyes. My face was turning into a vase cracking from frequent use, decade after decade. Now, I ignore the lines, wrinkles and my face breaking as the days sit on me like topsoil.
A few weeks ago, I “kissed a ceiling fan” clueless to the oscillating fan since I was cleaning and intent on getting rid of dust bunnies. That night in the hospital’s emergency room, I ended up with nine stitches on my upper eyelid. Later, over the next course of days, I laid in bed at home alone weeping privately.
Afterwards, my therapist Louis got it right when he said, “The trauma exasperated the trauma.”
In fact, the painful accident felt like a contradiction. I finally looked outside the way I felt inside, and it felt like a relief. I didn’t have to hide anymore. It takes up so much energy to hide behind a smiley emoji.
How are you? People ask me in passing.
What would happen if I revealed the raw truth instead of participating in small talk? “Most days, I really don’t want to go on.”
Fine. I’m absolutely fine.
Today is going to be a great day!
In 1984, I began my journey as a mind warrior picking positive thoughts and affirmations along the way. By the time I became a mom, I was determined to raise little mind warriors who grew up into big mind warriors. I can remember my son’s seven-year-old face reflected in my bedroom’s mirror, reciting affirmations that I taught him: I am smart. I deserve to be happy. No matter how hard it is, I can do it.
When times were tough, I convinced my ex-husband, We can do it. He, on the other hand, affirmed, We’ll make it. Year after year, times became tougher. We can do it.
In our end years before I filed for a divorce, I reminded him, We can do it.
It’s a lie. We are failing. I hate my job. I hate the rat race. I hate this town. I hate this state. We are losing the house. We are behind the eight ball. Affirming something that isn’t true is a lie.
I heard what my ex-husband said, but I did not or could not make myself believe it. It was going to be okay. Of course, it wasn’t okay. Our marriage not only tanked, but life became like sitting on the edge of a hardwood chair with no flooring underneath. I felt like most of my affirmations and positive thoughts ended up as fulfilling as sweat on the heal of the hand.
As my son’s young world took shape into adulthood, instead of reciting affirmations, he sarcastically started to announce each day with, “Another day in paradise.”
I shuttered when I heard his description, but I, too, denied that I intuitively knew it was a dark foreshadowing of the future.
In the past, the autumn days represented red, gold and tangerine colors, and new to-do lists that involved purging closets. Now, I manage the autumn in slow motion, holding on stubbornly to the dead summer. After all, the fall marks the autumn of my son’s life. He did not make it to the winter solstice and the return of more sunlight.
We’ll make it. Sometimes my ex-husband’s voice bellows in all its youth and springtime vigor in my mind, and for a fleeting second, I see the four of us all young again, wearing forever smiles. And, I recall my long-ago affirmations: I am abundant; God cannot give me a desire without it already being mine.
Then my three fingers pinpoint my heartbreak in the middle of my chest, safely tucked away beneath the metal of armor.
Next weekend, we have a party we are invited to, and I am buffing my armor, getting ready. One of the guys who is attending and whom I ran into recently exclaimed, “Get your dancing shoes on.”
I am amazed at his unawareness. How clueless he is to assume that I live life in the same manner I used to when I had free rein of closets overstuffed with dancing shoes. Some might call my place in life prolonged grief, conveniently paint over it and make it pretty so it’s easily friended by millions of strangers. Others erase grief as they once erased my son because of his taciturn manner. Others direct me to move on and lament over how I am stuck in the past. Then there are a select few who know that grief is something you can’t lift, like age, and it isn’t something to fill and fix like Botox on crow’s feet.
It’s there always, like the inner peace I was gifted with nearly 37 years ago. Now, I’m learning how to shuffle everything within me to make space for the grief. For me, the process is like inching around in a new pair of stiff shoes.
One more day: I alone can do it without anyone’s bird’s eye view of my world, because I learned in these nearly two years that bird’s eye views are dangerously limited.
One more day: It’s a different day, yet it kicks in with the same vitamin and joint supplement regime that stays with me along with drinking it all down in a repurposed glass that I savor, because I am acutely aware of how repurposing is an end-of-life strategy that doesn’t always hold water and no positive thought or affirmation will ever make it any different.
As a follow up to last week’s blog post, a few days after I spoke to my neighbor, Felicity’s dad, who is wrestling with his remorse over her departure to a college some four hours away, I spotted him alone, slouched on a log behind an overgrown maple tree. He reminded me of Elmer J. Fudd, the cartoon character in Bugs Bunny, being thwarted by the “wabbit.” In my neighbor’s case, he couldn’t capture Father Time, and his little girl grew up in the blink of an eye.
Less than 300 feet separated us, but I did not impinge on his solitude as he processed the fact that the past is printed on a calendar of unrecyclable paper. Instead, I attended to depositing the trash into the garbage can, and the grief, heavy in its now permanently designated space, in my own heart. How I wished Hollywood movies, where friendship, family, justice and love always win in the end, were real. In my mind, I imagined the heroine/hero voice exclaim, “I have returned. I will stay and be your child forever and ever until you die. Witness a metamorphose from a cocoon into a butterfly, keep me close, a treasure in a jar, and be spared from an unspeakable hurt.”
The next day, less than a week after Felicity’s departure, my friend informed me that while she took her daily walk, she noticed that Felicity’s boyfriend and her parents commiserated in solidarity over dinner in the dining room. When my friend explained the details, I understood why she emphasized the location. Dining rooms are where family and friends gather to make formal toasts and share milestones. Dining rooms are where grievers congregate and leave an empty seat and, sometimes, a place setting, at the table during special meals to commemorate those who have departed. In essence, my neighbors held a “farewell dinner.”
“You can never have enough love!” I exclaimed, acknowledging the depth of affection that surrounds Felicity.
The neighbors’ planned farewell dinner reminded me of one unplanned farewell dinner we held in our dining room shortly after my ex-husband underwent a mental breakdown and, in the process, abandoned his family. It was at the end of 2010 and the lavish meal at the table belied his sudden disappearance. We ate our food with intent, forcing ourselves to believe in the possibilities of the future, taking comfort in how the meat and meatless entries, along with the potatoes, carrots, peas and other trimmings on our plates symbolically melded together and fit into some kind of balanced ensemble. And, as we swirled our forks around our plates and clanged our glasses against the china, we wondered what would be revealed next on the big movie screen of life. I remember how suddenly my brother Paul blurted out, “Who will walk Alexandra down the aisle when she gets married?”
“Marshall!” we all exclaimed, gazing into our identical crystal balls, happy illusions in our minds as my son turned scarlet red, forced a grin, but remained silent.
I would venture to say that our unplanned farewell meal and my neighbors’ planned farewell meal shared many of the same feelings and emotions: fear, hope and faith.
The fear element, during both dinners, likely stewed along with a slew of desperate questions: “How, how do I get through this trench without knowing where my boots are? How do I move forward?”
These are the same questions that haunt me every day for over 22 months after the sudden loss of my son to suicide. His is now the greatest loss that has led me numerous times to our dining room where dishes brim with the greens of life and morsels to satisfy the palate as I poke and stab, but feel emptier by the moment as every memory digs into me, teases me, because the reality is that I sit in an unfamiliar seating arrangement. In my neighbors’ case, I thought while her family and boyfriend dined and attempted to figure out how to sing a new tune without her, Felicity found her voice in her dorm room with her new roomie, perhaps, chatting, getting acquainted, making plans to go shopping on the weekend and tour the city close by.
I have a coin I carry with me everywhere. It says: “Behind you, all your memories. Before you, all your dreams. Around you, all who love you. Within you, all you need.”
Felicity’s journey to adulthood has naturally been a rough transition on her family and boyfriend. As the years unravel, I am quite sure, though, that they will reckon with life’s growing and going pains and come to recognize the continual goodbye that strings the moments together until the final goodbye. They, too, will recognize the wave of the hand, year after year, as life marches on until, if they are lucky enough, they witness that the string of days behind them is much longer than those that are in front of them. It is all this as well as all those recurrent memories beaded together into a bespoke treasure to which words do not do justice.
Occasionally, I have faith that life is a Hollywood movie, because no matter how sad the plot is, the reality is that the more phenomenal the cast of characters, the more love wins in the end. In other words, even though the curtain is drawn and the show ends for my son, I know I once had the honor to share a stage with one of the most captivating, humorous and brilliant headliners one can ever imagine.
I also have faith and a full heart knowing that the curtain is still open next door, and I can’t wait to see Felicity when she returns for the Thanksgiving holiday. I think I’ll give that young starlet a coffee card token just to let her know how much I appreciate the opportunity to take a seat backstage as her character arc develops and unfolds and takes us all on the next grand adventure.
Nearly a month ago, my neighbors’ only child, I’ll call her Felicity (one of my favorite names!), about whom I’ve written a previous blog post, relocated to attend a college about four hours away from home. I’ve not seen her mom, but her dad, as I’ve written about prior, is having a difficult time dealing with her departure.
All grief, as far as I am concerned, as I’ve also written about before, is valid. Whether you mourn the lose of a pet turtle or death of a child or grieve a child who has catapulted into the next stage of life, there is an infinite roll-out of feelings and emotions associated with a sense of loss. Grief is a natural response to a painful or traumatic experience that is part of the human condition over which we have no control over. This time, hearing my neighbor share a part of his heartbreak involving his daughter, I was able to step completely outside my personal emotional pain and maneuver my way onto the bridge that connects us humans better than Crazy Glue: empathy.
His tone had an absorbing melancholy when he discussed the slow fade of time. In other words, in retrospect, although you’re going all out, have both feet planted on the pedals, it’s a losing race.
“The house has a different energy about it without her,” he vocalized as his head tilted downward.
Energy. Yes, I thought, life is energy. In this same vein, his daughter’s departure could be a song: Felicity is packed. Ready to go. Boxes and bags, belongings and energy flow. All her belongings, only to leave us longing.
Thinking deeper about this, Felicity disappeared from her house, but not completely. You see, Biology 101 teaches us that the body’s cells and organs work together to keep the body going, to make it the energy field that it is. As a safeguard, the body is also equipped with many natural defenses to help it stay alive. For instance, in order to fight infections, we humans “lose 200,000,000 skin cells every hour. During a 24-hour period, a person loses almost five thousand million skin cells.” In one year, the total amount of dead skin loss per person is more than eight pounds, that’s about as big as a Labrador puppy.
The process is our human way of shedding. What falls off us collects as dust. All those fast-flying gossamer bunnies you find nesting in the corner of the radiator and on your tables and windowsills are amassed mostly of former bits of yourself, which, in turn, provide a gourmet haven for dust mites!
And, here’s the point I’m getting at. About 20 years ago, I heard a renowned historic preservation architect speak. If you don’t know already, a historic preservation architect helps preserve old buildings that have historical value. Anyway, he said that each time a building is demolished, not only do we witness an inanimate object disappear, but, along with it, is the annihilation of a trail in human history – thousands upon thousands of shredded cells from the lives that once laughed, loved and experienced the many highs and lows of life on the premises. The architect’s somber talk, which kept me on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears, changed my life forever.
In my own house, built in 1980, after hearing the talk, I thought about the “remains” of the two families that lived here prior to us. Even though I am a germophobe, I know that they have left their marks in secret places that are spared from my cleaning habits. Sadly, the boy in the second family died in a horrific accident when he was 13. My children went to school with him and they always felt creeped out to know he lived in our home. His bedroom was where I once housed my office. His shreds of long-ago life filled me with faith and reminds me that he matters.
In essence, Felicity and her energy are gone, but her shredded skin still coats her house like angel dust. And this goes for my departed son, mom (my dad passed away before he ever could see our house), brother and my relocated daughter, our pets, and even ex-husband who lives in a state 600 miles away, not to mention all the many friends, extended family and acquaintances who have crossed my house’s threshold to visit over this 20-year span. Yes, they are all here somewhere in places invisible to the naked eye, but still close, like a whisper in my ear. Their remains peeled off during ebbs and flows in the tide of their lives. They are all part of my household history like my own skin that sheds at this very moment as I stroke my creative muse. We partner peacefully, drifting, weaving tapestries from everything repurposed, sustainable and with a thread of hope that they will last through the remainder of the century and, if possible, push farther into the next dusty trail that sometimes seems like a riverbend ahead.
While checking into the Hilton in Long Island, New York, this past weekend with my daughter to attend her former college roommate’s wedding celebration, across the lobby, we witnessed a platonic embrace between a man and a woman that stopped us in our tracks and, for a few seconds, so did our world.
Nineteen years ago, shortly after my brother Mike died suddenly from a stroke, someone gave me a wallet-sized, inspirational card with an illustration of a beaming Jesus hugging a young woman. On the card it said, “Entering the Gates of Heaven.”
Whether you are a Christian or not, the image represents the essence of universal love. In real life, if you are fortunate to experience the magnitude of this type of love, it would equate to living a thousand lifetimes onboard a peace train of which the grandest theme is acceptance and harmony so powerful, it reaches and washes out your deepest, darkest, ugliest, most shameful crevices and allows the sunshine to warm, caress and heal every wound, scar and trauma.
Watching this young couple across the way at the hotel, I saw the young man’s face in the face of Jesus pictured on the prayer card, along with the woman’s windblown hair whose silhouette also resembled the image on it.
The woman could barely catch a breath in between her tearful cries, because of the emotional exhilaration, and it felt like the hotel walls would pop open from the joy. For a moment, superimposed on the man was my now deceased son and on the woman was my daughter. Obviously, I don’t know what my daughter’s take on the sight was, but what I saw was a reunion between the living and the dead unfold on a white marble floor of a Hilton hotel.
After the dramatic embrace, it turned out that my daughter knew both of the people, and, in fact, they were all part of the bridal party. The man had just flown in from Los Angeles, California, and the woman had flown in from Richmond, Virginia. The two people, who had embraced, once shared a semester abroad, along with the bride, in Germany. The reunion between them was a telltale sign of how a connection grows through the passage of time and memories shared, painted in easy, carefree, lofty and heavy highlights.
This is how the wedding weekend began. It was a postponed wedding due to COVID-19. A wedding I dreaded attending, knowing the pain points it would touch. Fortunately, I was prepared; warned by a dear friend about the “Mother and the Groom” wedding song. My defense tool was advice from another dear friend Michelle: In essence, I was there to be happier for the bride and groom than sadder for myself. The advice worked! (Thank you, Michelle!)
The wedding began with love between friends reuniting and then moved to a couple sealing their vow of love. One of the readings at the church was from Corinthians 13, 4-7, a favorite among ceremonies and, in fact, one of the readings at my wedding over 30 years ago, a now dissolved marriage. The famous last line states, Love Never Fails.
The way I interpret the passage is that love failed in our family, because many falsehoods prevented it from forming a pure, genuine love and, ultimately, our unit failed. I’m okay with that for today, because if I do not work in truth, there is no hope for love.
Anyway, the wedding crowd was composed mostly of young, brilliant adults who are changing the world in positive ways. During the reception, I never dreamed I would dance without guilt, but I did! I saw it as long overdue exercise, and it worked. I was, however, overpowered by some flashbacks sitting at the table during the reception, remembering how at the last wedding I attended in 2018, my son kept me glued to my cellphone for a good part of the wedding, despairing about his agonizing love life. The last wedding he ever attended was when he was seven. Deep in my pained gut, I knew he would never have an opportunity as an adult to attend a wedding function, which included his own. By the end of that night, half the male bridal party was commiserating with him outside on the patio on my cell phone. I laughed at the situation, feeling we were all working in the solution mode and on that night, it was true.
At this past weekend’s wedding as the night rolled on, when the traditional wedding songs began, I darted into the restroom until they ended. I can participate in life, but also allow for human limitations by guarding myself.
Looking back, the weekend moved along smoothly, a few hiccups, but no hacking or fevers. I’m left meditating and pondering upon genuine, unconditional love and different types of love. When I first married my husband, in my heart of hearts I believed it would last forever. I believed we would retire, rent an RV and take a year to drive to Alaska, adopting as many old, unwanted shelter poodles as we could along the way. In his own words, he wanted the same ending, but midway through the book, I turned the page, and he disappeared. Though he verbalized what he thought I wanted to hear, he failed to verbalize the truth and allow me to accept it and risk my not responding with unconditional love. In this manner, love failed. Fake love always fails.
From that point, the three of us that were left behind tried to survive best as we could. I will always harbor a tremendous amount of guilt today knowing and realizing the mistakes I made as a mother. One thing I always put my faith into, though, was the greatest thing that mattered to me: seeing both my children grow up as happy, thriving adults. I had faith with fabrication. My son held back nothing from me. Incapable of meeting him on his level, because I believed that the solution that worked for me would work for him, I spoke to him as if he were my twin. It was only a matter of time, when everything backfired and my dream shattered in half, with only one-half remaining, my daughter. I never thought I could be more grateful to have her. She is brilliant and compassionate, much like my son was and also gregarious, positive and confident – in that respect, a total opposite of my son. I am over-the-top grateful these days for her existence.
Now, for damn sure there won’t be any earth-stopping reunions in this life between my daughter and her brother or me and my son. I might dance for the sake of exercise, but not for the sake of pure joy. Those days are done and useless to think about like disposed tattered socks.
Fortunately, I have the mental capacity to still love a little and feel a big happy heart for others while throwing off the pitiful feelings for myself. In this way, I did receive a surprise bonus during our wedding weekend. The groom – quiet, introverted, kind, a good listener, considerate and compassionate – reminded me so much of my son. His image comforted me to the point of giving me such a sense of fulfillment that it felt like a spiritual reunion akin to a group hug teeming with lace, glitter and a gown’s trail long enough to almost reach heaven.
I was in the process of writing a blog post on humility, of all topics, and I was bombarded by emails from the Connecticut Press Club about their awards banquet, emceed by award-winning journalist and TV personality Mercedes Velgot, which happens to be tonight, my least favorite day of the week.
I am a member of the Connecticut Press Club that is an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) and includes both male and female members. Every year, the club sponsors a Communications Contest. The last CPC award I won was for an article I wrote in 1997. The article garnered a first place award for travel writing.
Earlier in the year, since I’ve been pouring so much blood, sweat and tears – lots and lots of tears – into my blog posts, I decided to submit one of my blog posts for CPC’s 2020 contest, Am I in the Right Room?
To provide some of my blogging background, I started WTF (Where’s the Faith) in 2013 as a personal blog when I was working in the corporate realm. The blog uses the tagline, “A blog of comfort during unpredictable times.” WTF draws on both secular and spiritual principles to support, encourage, inspire and sustain readers while they face challenging situations.
Although I started WTF in 2013, I rarely updated it on a regular basis. In 2019 after my personal family tragedy, I terminated my personal writing projects, including a novel that I’d been working on since 1996, and sunk inward. Four months after the tragedy in March of 2020, my fellow writer and longtime friend, Laurie Stone, who recently won a National Society of Newspaper Columnists award, encouraged me to return to blogging and suggested that I simply write posts about how my “Faith-O-Meter” (as I now refer to it) is on empty.
I followed Laurie’s advice and began to post on a weekly basis. With the exception of one post that was accidentally scheduled, my posting schedule remains the same: Every Tuesday at 1:51 p.m. This is the timepoint when the Russellville, Kentucky, coroner notified me of my 26-year-old son’s death by suicide.
Some grieving parents build organizations, charities and foundations for their departed children. I now forge a bridge of faith, in honor of my son Marshall, out of word bricks, hoping that my pain will help heal the world.
Anyway, as I undertook completing the award entry submission, in the back of my mind, I thought, “With my luck, I’ll win.”
Of course, in my prior life, my normal life, the goal of entering a contest was to win and receive an award. Ah, duh! During the 1997 CPC awards presentation that I attended, I remember flicking around the spotlight like a giddy moth.
Nowadays in my life, I am worn down dodging abundant minefields rigged with booby traps. The most innocuous people, places or things – questions like “How many children do you have?” – can trigger emotional pain that further shatters every broken part of me like a massive electrical explosion.
Personally, at this time, I am safest, and achieve my desired equilibrium when I keep my presence to a minimum in the outside world. Even if this pandemic fully disappears, I will likely continue to spend as much of my time as possible in a quarantine mode.
Knowing all this, I took a risk, hit the submit contest entry button and dove into my daily work schedule. When I received the spring notice and realized that I did not win first prize, I breathed a great sigh of relief and happily returned to tackling my overloaded work schedule.
Fast forward mid-summer, Thursday to be exact, and, as I mentioned, I’m bombarded by CPC emails. Suddenly, last Thursday, the salutation caught my eyes: “Dear Contest Winners …”
Wait A Minute!
Immediately, I download the list, scan like a crazed sleuth-houndand find the improbable that is now A reality: I won SECOND PRIZE for my blog post.
My mind switches to an instant projector mode and in front of me is a panoramic view of my son. A stage. An award that I won for my attendance in a work-related program. The year is 2016. Last minute, my son accompanies me as he sits in the passenger seat while I drive to the awards presentation. It is a big step for him since he is withdrawn by nature and crowds trigger him. He is a 23-year-old bundle of nerves. Halfway there, his fury and rage forces me to veer to the side of the road and halt. He does not want to attend and makes it known, shouting: Why do you force me into these things? Why did you “make” me go? Why do YOU control ME?
I’m an adult, he repeats.
Instantly, I scream back in attack. I’ll take you home right now. Turn around. You ruined my whole day. My special day. My award. Why do you do this?
We are parked in front of a massive Queen Anne-style house, and his brawny physique, suddenly, seems to shrink in size. I catch his eyes and realize that an uncontrollable sense of fear has shut the shade on the actual reality of the situation. Somehow by some miracle, I refrain from lashing out. Actually, it isn’t a miracle. My 30+ years of 12-step life kicks in. Pause. Instead of working off his rage, my empathy takes me on a brief tour, into the pit of his fear, sadness and black hole, lost in an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.
It will be okay. You always go through this. Once you’re there, everything will be fine — that’s what always happens. We will make it together. My tone softens.
We both grow silent, his favorite state of being, and we drive to the awards banquet, not another word exchanged. As per his usual modus operandi, after we arrive, he was all smiles, refined, quiet, looking dapper, but covered with a light sheen from sweat under his blood-red shirt.
I envision Marshall as he perches over the balcony, beaming as bright as the spotlight in his typical seat-for-one seating arrangement at a small, round table. I feel his glow as I receive my award. Later, in the night, I pry him from out of the background like a fly on a tape trap and prompt him to join me and other celebrants. Still all smiles, he is amicable. Everyone likes him.
On the car ride home, he talks about the pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence, which was one of the presented topics at the awards ceremony. As I listen to his discussion laced with lofty facts, I have a burning sensation of looming dread in the pit of my stomach sensing a cryptic future lays ahead for us both.
Recalling my premonition switches the instant projector mode into a high, out-of-control gear in my mind. As difficult as it is, I refocus on my winners list inspection. It’s my name, maiden name and one-time married name. My children’s last name. The one Marshall took so much pride in.
I won SECOND PRIZE for my blog post.
I think back to the first award I won was in 1994 from Northwestern University for a parenting magazine article that I wrote for parents and how they can prepare their child for hospitalization. I wove my son’s story, who underwent open heart surgery in his first year of life, into the article.
My first award-winning story was about my infant son’s recovery. Now, this “award-winning” story is written as a result of his out-of-order, young demise. I wrote it with his blood. This is how I won an award? A “losing” topic for me?
I am now crying, bawling in my office alone, because this turn of events should not have happened. My son should be here and not perched on a random star in another galaxy as my best friend so succinctly contrived in an attempt to lighten one of my meltdowns not that long ago.
He should have won the award for his AI speech that he presented me with after the last award I won in 2016. Or, he should have won the award for the extraordinary metal parts he engineered and created shortly before his death with his gifted hands. And, I am bawling harder, knowing that his first-grade kindergarten teacher should receive the dunce award for stressing our family out because she failed in properly assessing him and said he lacked “fine motor skills.”
So, here’s the point. As most, if not all, award recipients promenade into the banquet located in no-less Greenwich, CT, primped, proper and ready, I know that I will be dodging these kinds of 3-D thoughts and visual minefields and booby traps. I will be the one working overtime to shut down my out-of-control images, triggered by PTSD, and silence the thought pattern that questions the why behind the award and toiling even harder when the what if tries to force its way in. I will now have a firsthand take on how my son felt in crowds.
For all these reasons, and more, I did not intend to attend the awards banquet. That is until my spitfire daughter, who happens to be visiting with kitty for about three weeks, kicked into her battle cry that is preempted with “Life is for the living.”
Needless to say, last Thursday night, I put lipstick on my drained and depressed self and joined my 26-year-old cheerleader daughter for dinner. Afterwards, we stepped into to a nearby store. I never shop for jewelry, but a long, dazzling, silvery turquoise necklace caught my eyes. I knew the piece was made for the black pantsuit I discussed possibly wearing to the banquet earlier that night during dinner with my daughter.
It goes without saying, first thing on Friday, I ordered three tickets: one for me, my daughter and her godmother, my best friend for the awards banquet.
So, here it is: SHOWTIME! Dear blogging friends and community, please think of us tonight. Actually, as I think about it, let me humbly prepare myself to think of all of you as my 12-step program teaches me.
These posts since March 2020 have turned out to be a means of catharsis, one of the only places where I feel safe to express fully my sadness, grief and, yes, hope and faith. The reason behind this sense of security is that I feel heard and supported by many of your comments, “likes” and personal communications. For the first time in my life, I am learning about different cultures, an area of fascination for my son that I never had the opportunity to share with him.
Obviously, I will not have an opportunity to share this moment with him either. What gives me solace, the faith to step into the minefield and booby traps of the banquet hall, is the visual that he is nesting inside a star somewhere in another galaxy. This time, fear, far removed, is replaced by a celestial glow in his eyes that, I hope, will also cast a spotlight on our souls tonight.
You can do it, Mom. Like you used to tell me, “Whether you win or lose is not the point. You’re a winner for showing up.”
You can do it. You have to take the first step into the field before you can locate and deactivate a mine.
“Remember that no one is better than you, but that you are better than no one.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
Some days are Mary Days, and I spend a good part of the day reflecting on Mary, a woman whom I didn’t know well, but one who still intrigues me nonetheless. By the world’s standards, she wasn’t pretty and didn’t try to be. She never attempted to dab the excess oil off her Miss Piggy face. Her chocolate-colored, shoulder-length knotted mess of hair begged for a a hairbrush (a comb wouldn’t go through it) and at least a five-inch trim. You kept your distance walking behind her, because you didn’t want to get caught in an avalanche of her mountain slope of dandruff.
In middle school, where I met Mary, the kids bullied her for having a “pig’s nose” and outweighing a bulldozer. She never retaliated. Instead, she was a hidden, voiceless figure that roamed the school’s hallways like a ghost. She hid her obese form underneath solid, dark, below-the-knee tent dresses as if they were parachutes that, unlucky for her, she couldn’t dive farther under and take cover from the world. Mary did, however, wear an oversized brown-framed pair of eyeglasses. Conveniently, when kids slapped their remarks at her, she placed her index finger in the middle of the eyeglass frame, lowered her head and took shield under her eyeglasses.
Out of hundreds of mostly white, affluent kids, there was only a handful of over-sized youth in our suburban school system. I fell into that group. I had blown up like a soft decaying onion when I was around nine and had to contend with the same bullies, who switched out my first name for new names like “fat” and “fatso” and “tank.” Years later, I had heard that one of the “fat girls” in our group stole her father’s hunting gun and blew her thick chest to smithereens with it. She saw no other alternative to end the painful voices.
Anyway, it was Mary I gravitated to the most. Nonetheless, I never commiserated with her. In fact, I was relieved on the day she, or one of the other “rejects,” caught the bullies’ full venom. Mary and I survived those merciless years, only to greet each other in passing with quick salutations, our voiceless mouths on our wilted heads, dropped toward the school’s hallway floors that we trudged.
In my high school sophomore year, I fell head over heels with my first lover, a bottle of amphetamines. In fact, the illegal prescriptions not only brought me down to 98 pounds, but also leveled out my ADHD symptoms, an undiagnosed condition in the 70s that I would learn about and understand many years later.
Along with the weight loss came the tight jeans and halter tops, and I gained a fake voice and smile and indulged fully in my new fake cool girl role. Some of my best “hallelujah” moments were when I challenged everyone during gym class to jump besides me on the trampoline. A few people took the challenge, but no one could compete with my frenzied, drug-induced moves.
Anyway, I am happy to report that I did not use my new cool to graduate to a seat on the bully-ship. Except, that is one time, when about a half dozen of the cool bullies tossed down one of the thin, quiet, Frida Kahlo-eyebrowed students on the football field. Soaring on adrenaline, I darted into the crowd and pulled her fat wool knee socks down to her ankles and fled laughing. Though that incident sounds innocuous, its dark shadow crept over me for days, weeks on end, and I felt so guilty that it motivated me never to break down the already broken.
By the end of sophomore year, one day sitting in the school cafeteria eating a meager apple, my typical lunch, I spotted Mary from afar. She was hunched over in a burlap tank-like dress that appeared way too hot for early spring. I noticed, of all things, the napkin neatly place on her lap and her proper dining etiquette. She placed a tidily folded bag of her bagged lunch on the side and had laid out her sandwich and snacks in a symmetrical pattern on a hot lunch tray. Even though she positioned herself like a question mark, when she lifted her peachy toned head up, Mary chewed slowly with her mouth closed. Her expression was glazed over as she sat alone at the corner of a lunch table. I saw my old, broken self in her. I rose, and to my classmates disbelief, I left the cool clique and moved over to Mary, asking her if I could join her. At first she was reluctant, but then she happily agreed. That day started a regular lunch date for the rest of our high school years. Apart from having a lunch buddy, not much changed in Mary’s life and the bullying persisted. I, on the other hand, moved from the cool kids clique to the creative, theatrical kids’ clique.
During those Mary Lunch Days, as I came to call them in my mind, Mary talked about her beautiful, talented sisters who aced tests and won dance awards. She never spoke about herself. What would she talk about? How she spent weekends alone? How she did not go to the prom? How she likely would never date a man, or if the case was, a woman? How she would never get married and have a family? She did not need a crystal ball. She knew and accepted her fate from the start. She used her sisters as a catharsis, and it seemed her lot in life was okay, and she accepted it.
I don’t know if she had a spiritual belief, but I can understand how she did not have faith in the world that she was discarded into like a runt from the liter. Mary was not about to change her slipshod presence. Unlike me, she did not allow our peers to buy her and then program their people-pleasing buttons inside her.
Our connection derived from a deep appreciation of our differences. I did not pity her. I appreciated her bravery and resilience. I appreciated her subtle, petite voice and even tone. I appreciated how, when I was on a particular adrenalin rush, she gave her whole attention to me without trying to change me, because I mattered in Mary’s eyes and, in some uncanny way she was the first one on earth to show me how to flex my nearly destroyed faith muscle and show me that unconditional love really was possible.
After graduation, Mary went into the workforce as most of the high school classes did in those days. Perpetual bookworm, I continued my education. Distance did not separate us, and we still exchanged letters. By the time I got married and started a young family, I reconnected with Mary, who lived alone in a modest apartment, working a government job. We talked on the phone on a weekly basis. Most of the conversation centered around my young toddlers. Mary thirsted to hear about every little milestone, every little step and tooth in their lives. It felt as if she were taking notes, recording them in a future book to call her own.
Her life, on the other hand, was like one big blank that was part of the page of life. When she shared, it was obvious she was friendless and dateless, no sign of human connection anywhere. However, she was like a hummingbird, feeding on her three sisters’ good fortunes of careers, bustling households and all the things worldly beauty can own.
Once our family moved to a larger house in 2002, my life became busier, and our calls ceased, but our yearly Christmas cards did not stop. Around 2009, shortly before our household fell apart, I spotted Mary at the local supermarket. She had gained so much more weight since our high school days that that she was strapped in an electric mobility scooter, unable to carry it all. I immediately ducked. I did not want to cause her any embarrassment.
Now, looking back I think about how self-centered and assuming I had been. Why did I think I would have embarrassed her? It makes me sad to think how the world and it’s people-pleasing ways had wrapped me around it’s fickle finger of fate. Instead of putting my faith into substance, I put it into fake appearances. Why couldn’t I have just accepted her as she was? Made the stretch, widened my arms around that dang scooter, and exclaimed to her how beautiful she was in her own, unique way.
A few years after I avoided her in the supermarket, I found out Mary died in 2015 at 54 years old from what sounded like a medical condition. I regretted missing her funeral, but what I missed more was her deep sincere shamrock green eyes and how they looked at you as if you were the most precious soul on earth, because in Mary’s eyes anyone who could see through her layers was.
I spend many days in my Mary Days ruminating about the world’s inequalities. I think about the people who are bullied, like I was, like my son was, like Mary was, and how so many others are today. I think about those who, long after the fact, allow those bullies to invade their brain and live shamed, little and low, like walking silent question marks, like ghosts who will never spook anyone because they are more invisible than vapor. It’s interesting though, how vapor refers to “a gas phase at a temperature where the same substance can also exist in the liquid or solid state, below the critical temperature of the substance.”
And, yes, maybe, just maybe with a little faith, these victims can rise above and exist, despite the critical climate. And, sometimes if a friend, family member or intuitive stranger lends a helping hand to lend weight to the words of his or her belief system, a unicorn, let’s call her Mary, finds a holy ground to roam free. Sometimes sharing a lunchtime sandwich is the first brick that jump starts a path to holiness.
Eleven years ago, my ex-husband suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his family. Last Father’s Day, my then 25-year-old daughter, Alexandra, had weathered the holiday storm well, especially considering that she was in isolation as a result of the worldwide pandemic, and it was the first Father’s Day she was grieving the loss of her 21-month older, only sibling.
A few people over the years have offered unsolicited advice, saying that my role was to be a father as well as a mother. I told them that’s pure nonsense. I can only be a mother, because that’s my role. My role is not a father role. My role as a mother has changed, but during those times when a situation baffled me, my 12-Step foundation kicked in and the answer never failed: unconditional love.
I knew it was a sad holiday for her and on the wings of faith (and Mama Sandra) this past Sunday, I did what I really was scared to death to do, but did anyway, and that was to drive into New York City from our little green town about an hour and a half away for a visit with Alexandra. After 30 minutes, I regretted my decision since it seemed everyone on the road was vying to size up for the Indy 500. In comparison, I felt as if I were Grandma Moses hitting the highway, taking a folk art painting break for the day.
When I finally arrived, Alexandra and I went to a nearby movie theater to see In the Heights. My daughter, a former Washington Heights resident, had been raving about the movie since its premiere. I suppose most people attend movies in the same manner they brush their teeth – without overthinking it. For me now, I live in the screenshot of life, but, in actuality, I am also knee deep in a subplot that changes, but what doesn’t change is the reoccurring theme of pain.
This was the first movie I saw since the passing of my best bud, brilliant 26-year-old son, Marshall. As we walked inside, down the movie theater’s hallway, my PTSD from losing a child kicked off. Here’s a little snapshot of the subplot that played in my mind:
What was the last movie he ever saw? Oh, that’s right. It was about two years before he died alone in the bedroom closet of a house he rented in Kentucky, a death later sealed with a clean toxicology report, the site of two previous suicides. I have no clue what movie he saw, but it was shortly before the landlord wouldn’t allow him to break the lease of the house he despised. He went with a woman he had recently met online. I was overjoyed at the idea that he met her and did not have to be alone on the weekends. As it turned out, for about a month in Kentucky, she finagled every dime she could from my son to provide complimentary entertainment and dumped him after Marshall started realizing that she was taking advantage of his resources.
What was the last movie I saw with my son? I believe it was Avatar in 2009. When we were still a family unit, the four of us sat engrossed as we watched the movie. Silly me, I lavished in those moments, not because of the movie, but because I was sitting next to the three most important people in my life. During that time my gratitude could fill the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and that was just to start with, because it overflowed. Silly me.
In essence, since the 2019 tragedy, I have trained myself to black out my mind’s screen. Inhale. Exhale. Real world.
I chanted my mantra: Keep the faith. You will make it through.
However, ten minutes into the movie’s preview section, I took a nosedive into the dark abyss. I felt like a flea that was swallowed up by a bad, bloody case of hemorrhoids as overblown as the theater. This time faith was futile. No mantra would work.
You see, two separate movie trailers involved two young men who died of suicide. Both of the clips hit deathly close to home. I braced, tried not to fall too far into the bloody swamp. I heard my daughter ask, “Do you need to go into the lobby?”
No lobby. Just a lobotomy I need. That was what I wanted to say but froze and somehow my sick humor helped to pull me up, and I returned into my skin as the hemorrhoidal monster shrunk.
Keep the faith. You will make it through.
By some miracle, I was able to focus on the movie. You do not have to be Hispanic or a first-generation American or immigrant to relate to the musical that is filled with a sense of hopefulness in the eye of the hopeless and voices in a climate of the voiceless.
“We are all one.”
That’s what I thought as I saw Alexandra’s tears flow. It was then that I realized living life in America is not always about achieving the so-called American Dream: Life, Liberty and Justice for All. It is also about lifting each other up as a community when we fall into the subplots of life that do not appear as if they were written for us in mind. Those times when we feel forced to wear costumes in which there is barely room to move, because they are not suited for us, yet we manage to stuff ourselves down to our “soles” and walk the line of courage with fake faith and hope.
Examining the movie closer, my daughter saw her grandmother, my mother, who died in 2015, in the character of Abuela Claudia, matriarch and surrogate grandmother of the barrio. She keeps her culture alive and never loses the true definition of value. Abuela is the perfect example of how we, as a society, should not measure people by their titles, but on the ground they stand on because, in the final analysis, it is how they make it sacred – turn it into a better place than it was before they stepped on it, even if that means undertaking a tiny action like making their bed in the morning.
Abuela’s ground is sacred because she views everything as sacred, even a bread crumb. Powerless to her meager circumstances, she finds willpower to forge on in life by stringing herself along on the small details that skip others by, details like hand embroidered towels. Likewise, even though the world beat my mom to the ground, she survived by seeking leverage from little things like robins and sparrows. No matter how insignificant to others, she reveled in the details, a perspective the movie brings to light.
I, in fact, remember my mom making the sign of the cross three times and kissing a piece of bread before reverently putting it in her hand to eat. I can also recall my mom flattening wrapping paper in her soft hands and putting it in a drawer that smelled like a lilac garden. The drawer was full of crumbled wrapping paper from gifts she or our family had received over the years. To her, it was not just her appreciation, but the value of the giver who put the effort behind presenting the gift. It was as if she took the love that was given and continued its acknowledgment into infinity.
Thankful for every little crumb of substance, like Abuela, my mom, as limited as she was, did not limit her generosity and was truly delighted to bestow gifts of her own. For years, when I was growing up, she knitted poodle dogs around whiskey bottles for many of the neighbors. Sometimes I was saddened because she wrapped things that were already in the house and gave them to me on my birthday or Christmas as presents. Today, I realize it wasn’t that we didn’t have the money or she was being vicious, it was that everything to her was a gift. Like Christians who spread the word of the gospel, she spread love through re-gifting, because nothing in her eyes lost its value even if it loitered around for years and years.
In fact, when my mom gave my daughter or son something of hers like a butterfly pin, it wasn’t just a piece of jewelry. It was a part of her and she gave it with her heart and soul. That was why Alexandra wept, because each and every little token her beloved baba presented, no strings attached, to both her grandchildren, is the spirit that weaves through her and brightens my daughter’s sad and cloudy life. Hopefully, one day the good memories shared with her brother and maybe, by some miracle, her father, will also lighten the load she carries.
My soul, too, is a tapestry of unconditional love, gifts I have received over the years. It patches me up when I am down lower than dirt so I can stand my ground and maybe be strong enough to give pieces of it away. This is the faith I walk. Giving others unconditional love is my duty to carry on the legacy.
Alexandra summed up the movie as we hit the hot air outside the theater: “It’s all about community!”
I remembered when she was younger and said DNA did not make a family. Love did. If this is the case, my daughter and I have a huge family bulging at the sides! It is our little barrio full of people like the children’s godmother and my partner and his family and my friends Michelle, Camille, Anna and Anne and the handful of people who walked March 2020 on Marshall’s behalf to raise awareness that we are all vulnerable, regardless of how we act, what we do or what we say; and so many others, who drive the extra mile to visit. It is the people who do not understand our pain, but will ask us about it because they are ready to listen without judgment. It is the people who are brave enough to mention my MARSHALL’s name and share a beautiful memory about him.
In the movie, the community of Washington Heights experiences a blackout, but at their lowest point they prevail because of the one lone voice that tickles the imagination to believe in Santa Claus proportions. Eventually, the electrical power comes back and lights up the Heights. In the end (spoiler alert) Abuela dies, but the director successfully presents the process of dying as walking into a bright light.
That’s our non-DNA family: a bright light that if we can’t find it, it will find us, and we have a steel-like faith that we will travel through those Indy 500 days even if it knocks the wind out of us because in the end, the only thing of lasting value is love.