Birthdays, Rallies and Reunions

BIRTHDAYS

I wish my dear friend Patricia a happy birthday today. She is an incredible woman, a living icon and my children’s godmother, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many decades. I can’t believe it was only three years ago when we threw her a surprise 85th birthday party in her honor. The day of the celebration was four months after our family tragedy, and a few days before the world shut down from the global pandemic. Her party serves as an emotional bookmark and significant pause in my life.

RALLIES

As far as the Stand With Ukraine rally that took place this past weekend goes, hundreds of people turned out, but from the enthusiasm, it felt more like a thousand. The mood was solemn, yet hopeful and optimistic. Best of all, I’ve connected with a group of superior human beings whom I am quite certain will become life-long friends. Our common thread is that we have made it our duty to catapult off our couches and soldier forth with a vision to change the world for the better, even if it amounts to getting a war warrior and/or Ukrainian refugee a pair of new socks. A pair of socks may not penetrate the bleeding hearts of the Ukrainian people at the given moment during this time of continued war atrocities and future uncertainties, but someone nearly 5,000 miles away will at least have warm feet to help him or her inch forward.

REUNIONS

War rips people apart and also brings them together. That is the common theme that I’ve been living this past week. Days before I started working on the rally, my dear friend and fellow journalist Kathy called to inquire if I needed any help. Once we decided to start a rally, I took her request seriously and she’s been there every step of the way. Now we have been led to work on a very exciting story about a hero of mine and hers, and I hope in the next few days as we draft and sculpt this story to its fruition, he will become a hero and an inspiring figure to many others.

In addition, I worked side-by-side with Brother Paul (he’s a water sign, I’m a fire sign and even if you don’t believe in astrology, it paints the picture) as well as his wife, my sister-in-law Diane, this past week. In the eye of what matters and counts in life, unconditional love has a way of squeezing into the cracks of broken hearts. With resolve of so many, our team effort paid off. The rally raised over $5,400 donations that will provide humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Ukraine.

Post rally, I also reunited with a childhood friend, another first-generation Ukrainian American woman, whom I haven’t seen in at least a decade. She reminded me of shared memories and her act of love helped me root myself deeper into my outreach efforts.

Birthdays, rallies, reunions. Faith is pretty plain sometimes like walking into a cobweb. You can’t see it, but when it wraps around you, man, it feels almost impossible to untangle.

Faith Muscle

Ghost of Kyiv UNCOVERED

Ukraine flag photo created by natanaelginting – http://www.freepik.com

My father grasped a plastic bag in his dry, reddened, calloused hands, a mirror of the good earth that he loved to work on. During our frequent train trips to the East Village, a part of Greenwich Village in New York City, my dad’s blank face pointed one way: forward.

“Come on!” he commanded in his broken English when we arrived at the station, finally breaking the silence after the nearly two-hour ride. He grabbed his other half-dozen or so bags and boxes in the train’s overhead compartment and slid some over one arm and the rest over his other arm.

He ricocheted across Grand Central Station. My short, young legs fell farther and farther behind. He streamed outside, squeezing through the crowd on Lexington Avenue and hailed a cab. By the time I caught up, I could see the cab driver’s face as he veered towards the sidewalk. The driver parked, and we got in.

The cab snaked through the city streets to a retail clothes store on Second Avenue. Inside, the shiny skinned, Russian-Jewish shop owner, with his one lazy eye, mildly greeted us. My father hoisted his items on the counter for him to inspect every inch of the clothes, shoes, socks, purses and scarves, so many scarves, that my dad and mom had collected for my dad’s mom and the rest of his family in Lviv, Ukraine.

My dad, who was fluent in French and a number of Slavic languages, spoke to the man in Russian. I didn’t comprehend many of the words, but I detected a stiffness in my dad’s tone. At last the store owner approved my family’s goods to be shipped to Ukraine (and I believe he always did), and began packing everything into a large parcel. My father cracked the first smile of the day, retrieved his faded cowhide wallet from his pocket and enthusiastically purchased about a half dozen extra scarves to add to the package. In addition, he also handed him an envelope addressed to my relatives to also enclose. After that, the store owner copied the mailing address from a tattered, folded up piece of paper that my dad kept in his wallet and finished preparing the package for shipment to Ukraine. At the end of the exchange, my dad paid for the scarves, postal fees and services.

Once the door closed behind us, back outside my dad always said the same two phrases and nothing else, “Hope it goes through. Damn communists.”

He bought me a hot sweet potato from a street vendor down the block and refrained from spending any money on a treat for himself. His steps were lighter and easier for me to follow as we walked partially back to Grand Central Station before hailing another cab.

My dad passed away in December of 2000. Since the attack on Ukraine by the Russians last Thursday, I find myself remembering so many things about the man whose legacy of action outweighed any of his promises, because, in fact, I don’t ever remember him promising anything. He lived his motto: promise low, deliver high.

I am relieved that my dad is not alive to watch the atrocities and devastation in his beloved homeland. I don’t think the Ghost of Kyiv, an anonymous fighter pilot who is said to shoot down Russian planes, is just an urban legend. I think it is my reincarnated dad doing all he ever did, being his real self and fighting for freedom, family, country and tradition.

I was a first-generation American who spent most of my childhood playing and riding my bicycle in my affluent, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant neighborhood in Connecticut. Days were rare when my dad didn’t stand outside on the porch and echo, “Nastuna!”

The name, as far as I can figure out, was a child-like rendition of my actual name, Anastasia.

I furiously pedaled home and begged him to shush. He yelled it louder and started throwing out a few other choice Ukrainian expletives that intercepted his usual lecture about loyalty, heritage and truth and made sure everyone in earshot could hear his Ukrainian words mixed in with English ones. I didn’t dare cup my hands over my ears. Apart from a few isolated minor strikes on my rear, my father did not employ corporeal punishment, at least not on me, the only daughter in the family. In spite of that fact, I still held an innate fear of my father.

My dad exasperated the bullying situation, and the neighborhood kids snickered and laughed and instead of calling me “Anastasia,” they mocked my father and called me “Petunia.”

I never lived down the foreignness of my dad even after the second grade teacher took it upon herself to change my name to “Stacy.” (That’s another story for another blog.)

I never was able to purchase a pack of petunias without my heart beating inside my eardrums until I was around forty years old.

My dad, on the other hand, rose above the element of exclusion that followed us as well as many other first-born Americans of foreign parents.

“Ehhh. I’ll outlive them all,” my dad insisted.

And in the end he did. He lived to be 86.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1990s and after, oddly, Americans weren’t familiar with Ukraine. My mother, who was born in Belarus but adopted my dad’s family heritage, advised me just to tell my first grade class that my family was from Germany. Everyone, of course, knew about Germany. I even wrote a paper about my family’s “native” country of Germany. The idea of “coming from Germany” wasn’t totally inaccurate because my parents were “displaced people,” refugees,  without a country for about seven years, after they lost their homes to the Nazis before they immigrated to America. My mom and dad met and married and birthed my two older brothers in Germany.

After working a number of jobs while learning the language, he met Peter Martini, a first-generation American from Italian roots, who owned a septic cleaning business. He gifted my dad with the best thing you could ever give someone: a future. He taught him everything there was about septic systems.  My father, in fact, asked Mr. Martini to be my Godfather, and Mr. Martini obliged. Because of his generosity, my dad landed a job at the town’s sewerage treatment plant and worked there until he retired.

My dad was the most predictable man on earth and never missed pulling down our driveway after work at 4:08 p.m. When he stepped inside our house, it was one of the few times he wasn’t his stoic self, because he had a smile as wide as his face.

His lips were sealed with gratitude. In my dad’s book, if you worked hard and did the right thing, you were a good person. Simple as that.

Years later, I learned from one of my dad’s former co-workers that my dad’s boss sent my dad to investigate any underground sewer gas leaks or other toxic sewer systems emergencies. Long before organizations like OSHA appeared with safety measure implementations, my Ukrainian-American dad’s “alien” status ranked him as the low man on the totem pole, and, thereby, he was the scapegoat of the department and was the one to have his life jeopardized by fixing hazardous sites.

A WWII war refugee, my dad never went beyond grade school, but to this day, he is the smartest man I’ve ever known and I am quite certain, he knew he risked his life during those toxic emergencies. Leave it to “pops,” he did it fearlessly, honorably and humbly because he was also the most loyal man I’ve ever known. He did it for his family and those he loved.

He was a man of pride. I think one of his proudest moments was when he learned the man who took over his job after he retired held a degree in engineering.

Over the years, my Ukrainian father never stopped correcting people who insisted he was from Russia. He would grow frustrated, saying, “One day, they will know. The world will know about Ukraine and its people.”

“Today,” I wish I could tell my father that the world knows. THEY KNOW! In the eye of evil and calculated, intentional injustice and genocide of the Ukrainian people, the nation without divide of class or jurisdiction – former beauty queen alongside 80-year-olds – has entered the ring to fight against the evil dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his consort of dark angels.

As horrified as I am witnessing the destructive path of one man, I am honored by my dad’s Ukrainian roots.

I am lifted up by the humanitarian efforts of people across the globe and the people in my own tribe, including Kathy, an old-time friend whom I’d lost touch with over these last few years, asked me over the phone: “What can I do?”

I intended to write about how the developing news of this loss since last Thursday magnifies other losses, and, yes, we do have family still in Ukraine. Instead, I ended up writing about my dad, because so many times when I am lower than low, he is my ghost pilot that lifts me up and gives me faith like no other: “Get up and do what you’re suppose to do. I don’t care you hurt.”

So, thanks to the legacy of this mighty oak of a man, I am proud to report that I am organizing a Stand with Ukraine rally on March 5th….. and invite my blogging community to join me IN PERSON if you can — and certainly in spirit!

It will be

Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

Sometimes it seems as if certain people are granted an easier road to travel in life. My mother, though, always reminded me not to judge because, “You never know someone’s ending.”

What she meant by this lesson is that everyone has to face his or her final hour on earth, and we never know when, how or what the extent of that suffering will entail. The point of what my mother meant was not let it be but it will be.

After my personal tragedy, I fully appreciated my mom’s lesson in mortality. Take for example my former college roommate Susan, just a few years older than I. A recent retiree, she had led an extremely successful career in education. Susan brisked through a fairy tale life, with endless chapters of characters derived from a large, loving family and also a small, tight-knit community where she grew up.  I can tell you firsthand that she loved her roots. No matter where her life’s travels brought her, she toted her treasured family and small town pride everywhere.

One month before my tragedy, the doctors diagnosed 64-year-old Susan with cancer. I do not recall the exact kind of cancer that it was,  but it was the type that you have no doubt you will beat. After 18 months of surgeries and treatments, while she and others prayed dozens of prayers and never lost faith, it beat her down to a skeleton, and she died in the middle of savoring her ripe American Dream lifestyle. Bam! Just like that she disappeared right before the eyes of her loving, doting husband of 40 years, not to mention her healthy, successful children and their adorable offspring.

Sometimes even before our family tragedy, my eyes, bulging green with envy, inspected her Facebook pages full of the knitted scarfs, hats and mittens that she crafted for each of her grandchildren. I observed, too, how she toiled away on her month’s long project of converting her childhood Barbie and Ken playhouse into a revamped vintage toy dream house for her grandchildren.

When you have “it all,” or close to it, it’s so easy to believe life here on earth is eternal. In this way, the end is always a nasty surprise or, perhaps, a complete shock. There is no way around it.  Years ago, I watched a freaky movie. In it, a young boy could foresee the death of people that were alive in front of him. So often, this is the foresight I now have, carrying my mom’s interpretation of life. No one, not even people like Queen Elizabeth and Kim Kardashian, can escape our human fragility.  We can fool ourselves to think differently, but it will be.

I remind myself of it will be and, in the interim, let it be. Accept it. Embrace it. Just be. There’s a dark alternative and some choose that path of finality, but I’m not here to analyze, preach or judge. I’m here to hear my pain, your pain, the world’s pain and face the raw reality and, maybe, just maybe if we have a little faith in the universal language of human vulnerability, we can surrender our search for happiness, because we have made peace with ourselves.

And, when I am not in my own sorrow and mourning my own son and the consequences of his final act and what it means to us left behind, I can lift my thoughts to Susan and her family and the others she has left behind. I can remember my friend Mary. And I can think about how some of the pain people suffer behind the walls of their million dollar mansions is to the same degree as those of our homeless brothers and sisters in New York City. In this muck of feelings, failings and fallings, I can pull through a divine thread that is naked to the human eyes, but felt by the human hearts of those who surrender to the vision of how it will be and allow it to be because that’s how it is. 

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

Hoarding 🍬Candy

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Two weeks ago, Halloween “backup” M&M’s ready, yet our house was dark. I had stopped celebrating Halloween a couple of years before our tragedy. Frankly, the holiday became more of a hassle than something that symbolized nostalgia or fun.

When this Halloween rolled in, I was alone at home, and the sun was beginning to set. Suddenly, Ding Dong!

Oh, gee! I mean, really? Aren’t the kids suppose to wait until nightfall to start trick-or-treating? I thought to myself.

Go away! I commanded in my mind. Halloween reminds me of what no longer is and will never be to the point of cruelty.

Ding Dong!

I recall the phone conversation I had with my 27-year-old daughter an hour earlier when I told her I would not be distributing Halloween candy.

“How can you deprive little kids? Don’t you care?” she grumbled.

“There were only two little kids I cared about,” I retorted.

“Oh, I see you are in a ‘mood.’” No, I want to say to her, but refrain from ruining her evening. Not a mood. I’m in my constant state of agony.

So I decide to bolt down the hall, ready to open the stupid door and give the irritating child some M&M’s, but I espy a dark-haired boy’s back. He’s returning to his parents who wait at the end of the driveway.

I know darn well I can chase after him outside and beckon him to come back, but I freeze. I stand there on the other side of the front door until I suddenly notice the dark house across the street. In 20 years at my residence, my neighbor’s front porch was always lit up and ready for Halloween. I make the stark realization that he’s not giving out candy either. Guilt heightened. I feel like I double-crossed the boy and now play a part in ruining some stranger’s childhood, because not only did I not give him M&M’s, I couldn’t put my sadness aside to at least glance at his costume that he probably waited all month to wear and show off.

What a Halloween scrooge I am. What if when my kids were young they had to deal with miserly people hiding behind dark porch facades. When they were young, in fact, most of the houses in our neighborhood celebrated.

Two years ago it was the last Halloween I would ever talk to my 26-year-old son alive. Since eight grade he had battled depression, and he was at an all-time low.

“We had a few good Halloweens, didn’t we?” I asked him over the telephone in an attempt to raise his spirits.

For a moment, when he replied, “Yeah!” his mood lifted, and I intuitively knew we were both remembering many of our good times together as a happy family. Hearing him two Halloweens ago exclaim a mere four-letter word “Yeah!” made my memory rocket back to one of those funky 70s dances. When those disco balls started turning and twinkling, you danced without restraint and no matter what was happening in your personal life, you hit the lottery on that dance floor.

“Yeah!” I banked on those happy memories to keep him alive, to fuel him. I also learned, too late, the best investments can plummet.

I spend more time with the dead in my mind then with the living. Right there behind the door observing my neighbor’s dark house, I sit, perched. My low spirits sinking lower. I rise, turn and make a beeline down the hallway, seeking solace in my bedroom and do not turn back around when for the second time I hear Ding Dong!

Fortunately for me, after that, the street became quiet. Halloween came to a close. After depriving the boy, and whatever child or children who rang the doorbell after him, I couldn’t bear to eat the M&M’s so I froze them in the fridge. I still visualize the boy’s dark hair. I imagine him who might or might not grow up to be an adult one day. I wonder if he will have a family of his own. Mostly, I wonder if he will grow up to be a person who distributes candy on Halloween.

Extending myself, and helping others were some of the best ways I knew to lift my spirits, and that’s what I spent doing for a good 35-year run. Then the day came when I couldn’t help one of the closest members of my family, and I, for the most part, retired my savior’s role.

I would like to end by saying, Next year I’ll give out candy on Halloween. And, maybe I will. Likely, I won’t. We heal and grieve and live our own way and in our own time. To me, this means giving myself the permission to be true to myself: sadness and dark “mood” included. I’m okay with that for today.

In fact, if someone used a magic wand to make my feelings and emotions associated with profound grief disappear, I would stop them. My destiny is as much a part of my makeup as my hazel blue eyes. I’m paving my way through the best I can, and I have faith that just because I feel the way I feel, I haven’t flunked life. In fact, by acknowledging my private feelings, I’m seeing myself as an honor student of life. I’m nowhere near the point of saying my life is a bag of sweets, but at least I still have a stash of M&M’s in the freezer, and if I see that dark-haired boy, because I do keep an eye out for him, I might just break open the loot to share with him.

Faith Muscle

No Going Back

Photo by gerald fredrik on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart squeezes again.

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

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

Faith Muscle

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

Weapon for Success

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Jordon, around the age of my now deceased son, was always a proud nerd and geek. He’s a chemist by trade and also builds PCs from amassed components as a hobby. Jordon is tall and linear in appearance and in his mind. I’m not going to guess his IQ score, but I know for certain that I can’t decipher the book titles in his private library since they are all written for geniuses, a group into which I wouldn’t try to fake my admittance.

A few people I know have husbands like Jordon. He’s the kind of man that if he gets married, he’s a keeper. That being said, I introduced him to my daughter about five years ago. She immediately canceled out any ideas in my scheming head when I heard her verdict. “Nope. Not my type.”

Some bystanders over the years have labeled him with a case of social anxiety. I, too, have witnessed women his age roll their eyes behind his back and sarcastically whisper his name, “Jordon,” in a mean-spirited way. He, by no means, even remotely resembles the alpha male in hot-selling women’s fiction.

He is, however, who he was born to be. He is the kind of guy that will drive an elderly woman to the hospital in an emergency, the way my son had done. Unlike my son, though, he has a solid tribe around him, a few members reach as far back as grammar school.

Still, I sensed a loneliness about him. These are the years in his life that, while he grows bonsai trees in his kitchen window, many of his friends are getting married and starting families of their own. In fact, once I didn’t see him for a string of days and became overly concerned. Right when I was going to investigate further, he waved at me with his toothy, silly grin as I drove by when he was taking a walk. In solidarity, I understand how it is to suffer from loneliness and disconnection.

A few weeks ago, I again spotted him walking. Upon closer look, I saw that his bony arm was around a woman who looked like she could walk with swagger and determination down a model’s runway. Her hair was silky and long, a brunette photo-perfect image for a hair dye product. Symmetrically refined, her face could soften the mean waves of an ocean.

As long as I’ve known Jordon, he has seemed content with his loveless life. How did this happen? He isn’t on the dating circuit. He doesn’t even have a night life. What?  For days I fell into the black hole of no return. This is the usual route I travel when I start comparing my son’s life with someone else’s life. A losing battle, my therapist Louis continually reminds me.

Despite knowing better, I lost a string of days while engaged in a mindless battle. Wondering how a recluse like Jordon, against all odds, could have ended up in the relationship that he did and how, on the other hand, my recluse son never once found a suitable soulmate and, in turn, ended up the way he did. My many lectures beginning with, “The best way to get anyone back is to succeed,” fell on my son’s deaf ears.

I think, too, how my son, if he could have just waited a little longer, one more day even, things would have turned around. He would have garnered the attention he deserved. He would have had an opportunity to connect with someone special as Jordon had done.

Of course, you have to play the game in order to win, even if this means failing to win every battle year after year. I don’t know if Jordon was privy to other people’s judgment towards him. If he was, he had the mental capacity to say, “No thanks,” to the judgments as if they were an offer of cheap wine. He defined himself and forged on. Faith forward thinking catapulted him.

In order to move forward like that, the first step is to get up, even on the days when it feels like everyone is belting you down. Rise up. Sing, off-key or not, an anthem of resolve. Improvise as much and as long as necessary, because the only standing ovation that matters is the one standing eye-to-eye with yourself in front of the mirror.

Life Stages and Curtain Times

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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.

Faith Muscle

Faith in the Big Yellow School Bus

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When my children were young, the big yellow school buses crisscrossing the neighborhood streets were my official timekeepers. Weekdays revolved around the sound of their diesel engines. The first bus of the morning carried middle school- and high school-aged students. I remember the days when I never could imagine that my grammar school children in front of my eyes, wearing Pokémon socks and innocent smiles, would ever pull off the trick of growing big enough to travel on the early morning bus. The future felt as far away as the high school, which is at least a good half-hour ride to the adjacent town.

About forty-five minutes after the first bus, the next bus, carrying grammar school students, roared down the road parallel to us. That meant that breakfast dishes were tossed into the sink, backpacks flung over shoulders and the three of us dodged out the front door, down our cul-de-sac, past the next door ranch-style house. By the time we made it to the stop sign (we always did!), breaks squealing, the bus halted completely in front of us. Eli, the bus driver, swung the door open, ppssss.

“Good Morning!”

The vocal magnitude of the two words ballooned big and booming, and made you feel as if you were on the other side of a bear hug. Eli’s broad beaming face erased any clouds as well as the discomfort of cold, hot, rainy days. His vigorous body language, combined with his waving hands, hailed in each new day as if it were a greater victory than the one before.

My children climbed up the metal stairs. Once they were safely inside, perched on their seats, Eli accelerated, spewing diesel exhaust fumes along the way. In those days, I was clueless about the toxicity of diesel fumes. Those were the days when I poured over parenting books, sure they would continue to navigate me and my family on the road map to happiness. Certainly those were not the days that reading books like the New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours provided me with therapeutic relief. The historical novel by Lisa Wingate is based on Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From 1924 to 1950, Tann got away with stealing and selling an estimated 5,000 children. It is also estimated that behind the organization’s closed doors, around 500 kids died at the hands of Tann, not to mention the countless children who were mentally, physically and sexually abused. In a morbid way, after I was dealt my unspeakably painful playing cards in the game of life, the book left me feeling as if I were the lucky one. I had the lucky hand.

Anyway, during the childrearing years, life went at a fast pace, but I moved in a slow enough pace to appreciate my bubble home. Weekdays, I performed household chores and tackled freelance writing assignments while keeping my ears open, listening for the big yellow school buses. Their daily routes helped to increase my productivity. “I have to hurry up before the kids’ bus gets in” outlined my day better than a day planner and kept me feeling safe and secure.

Years went on and before I knew it, magically, my kids graduated to the big-kid yellow school bus. Then in a flash of an eye, my grown children went to live on their own.

Before as well as after our family tragedy, apart from my Spotify background music in the kitchen, I blanked out most outside interference and noise, and fell into the routine of my days. On occasion, vaguely, I would hear the release of the squeaky air brakes on the school buses. Then suddenly, the world was completely floored by the Covid-19 pandemic and the neighborhood was emptied out and quiet. It were as if everyone of all ages were playing hide and seek, but none of the players got beyond the “hide” stage. Sometimes out of the blue when my blue moods would lift a tad, I had a sensation to roam outside and patrol the neighborhood, shouting “Olly olly oxen free!” and cry for life to wake up.

I’m not sure what the mask mandate is, but a few weeks ago, I am sure the town children started school again. I was driving down the road, and the cheery man bus driver with thick, white Santa Claus hair slowed down the big yellow school bus and waved at me. In the last few years of my children’s high school education, he replaced Eli’s job after Eli retired. I wrestled with my emotions and inspected the empty school bus. Suddenly, I gazed through the sight wearing my pair of rose-colored glasses and called out in my mind, “Olly, olly oxen free!”

I looked up and down the bus, but it remained empty. My imagination would not escort me beyond the reality in front of my eyes. The bus pulled away.

Hours later, running errands, I walked outside the drugstore in a strip mall. I heard a big yellow school bus barreling down the main road. I glanced up and spotted the sweetest looking ginger-colored boy I could imagine. He looked like he was around eight years old and wore the identical glasses my son did at that age. The loneliness in his face was as familiar as my arm hairs. The aura of isolation around him was overwhelming as if the big yellow school bus, completely empty, swallowed him whole. Sadly, the look on his face told me that he had learned early in life to accept his fickle finger of fate as if it were change returned from a vending machine. The bus, carrying the boy, moved past me and disappeared.

I wanted to wave the bus down. Wind the clock backwards. Instead, I stood like a prism. Pain passed though on every side until I became numb, my usual state these days. Like the boy on the bus, I accepted my state of isolation and managed to drive home and survive the day. The next morning, at the sound of the diesel engine, I move outside on the back balcony and observe the bus pick up the grammar school-age children. As I watch above ground, I think: this is my universe. It’s interesting to think how the shapes of galaxies are influenced by their neighbors, and I recall how many tragedies our little universe has endured: the spouses that have died before their prime, and the parents that have lost young adult children due to a number of different causes. I can clearly see the young mom who joined us at our school bus stop, later dying from cancer before her children ever graduated high school. I also visualize one child, older than my children, holding a saxophone case who also shared our bus stop for a few years, only to later die at 28 years old from what is rumored was a drug overdoes.

I think of how my neighbors and I have suffered alone and in solidarity with others. I picture how we have grieved inside our houses as the world spun on, as the big yellow school buses met their mapped out routes, crisscrossing the neighborhood as if invisibly connecting every single person who lives here, and who once lived here through the generations. My isolation lifts, realizing that gravity holds us all together like hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy. We are all the lucky ones on the same path to the same final destination, I say out loud as I watch the big yellow school bus muscle its way into the distance and realize how very little I see from this spot. Concurrently, I am filled with a child-like excitement of taking the very first school bus trip, having faith there is plenty of room inside and the big fat seat in the big yellow bus is designed for comfort, intuitively knowing that everything will be alright, because the route is planned. In the sheer scale of things, it is larger than our own milky way galaxy and defies imagination.

Faith Muscle

For the love of the prized pistachio

“Valuable things in life are free – love, moral support and time,” my karmic sister Prema shared this wisdom in her feedback after she read one of my blog posts a few weeks ago.

The way I see it, it boils down to living not for the adrenaline chase or the state of “more-ism” to fool us into believing we are immortal, it boils down to appreciating the moment. One of the best pieces of advice I received after experiencing our personal tragedy was from my friend Tippy who said that looking backward brings remorse, looking forward brings anxiety. The only place where we can find peace and contentment is in the present.

How do you do this? One way that I learned the wonderful art of mindfulness was by eating pistachios.

What sparked my memory of why I appreciate pistachios was a few recent advertisements that I received via email. I realized that I had a huge grin on my face while perusing the sales copy for them. (Disclaimer: I have no financial connection to this company and/or brand and am not employed and have never been employed by this company and/or brand.)

Reading about and seeing the wonderful pistachios made me recall a string of wonderful times. When my children were growing up, thankfully, they did not have food or nut allergies, and always loved pistachios. We were on a tight budget, but occasionally I’d splurge and buy a bag or more of pistachios to surprise them. Each and every time I presented a bag to them, they screamed in delight. It was the “I-scream-for-ice cream” kind of delight, but, in this case, it was for a penchant for pistachios.

The moment I walked into the house with the booty in hand, whether they were working on homework assignments, playing video games or with our beloved poodle, our world stopped spinning long enough for us to hanker down and nosh on the tasty morsels. Not only chores, but concerns went wayside as we ate in a slow motion fashion. With the pistachio, of course, we didn’t just gobble them down like gluttonous renegades on the prowl, because the shells don’t allow it. Sometimes, though, I did become aggravated when I’d encountered the uncrackable shell, and I started feeling as if we were wasting our time snacking. This was when the dirty dishes, homework and chore list started to clamor in my mind. However, after a few moments, perhaps, because the salt had an ocean-like calming effect on me, I managed to erase the annoying interference.

I look back at these times as holy moments. Moments when we paused, in-sync, in harmony and, really, really grateful for something so small that possessed the uncanny power of providing us with an extraordinary amount of substance. Some people may have found comfort in possessions like horse stables, built-in swimming pools and spas and vacation homes around the world. We had banked on shared bags of pistachios. The investment never failed and, instead, bonded us with love, belonging and awakened every fiber of our authentic selves. We esoterically understood “valuable things in life are free” as we ate those “wonderful” treats in a kitchen accented in generous sunlight, laughter and spontaneous movement.

Who would have dreamed that during those “blessed” moments things were growing, changing, transforming, metamorphosing like our own body cells. Nothing, after all, is permanent.

In the classic novel, Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier writes, “I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day, and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched.”

Untouchable is the word to categorize that time of mindfulness with my children before time itself twisted and warped the outcome. I can’t look back for too long like Tippy advised, but I can take a quick peek and garner some positive inspiration from the past that fills me with faith today. I can take advantage of the Wonderful Pistachio sale and go shopping for a bag of wonderful pistachios. Returning home, booty in hand, I can take aim at my higher senses and taste the magic of the moment, because this moment, this very moment is like a farewell and will only leave a barren shell behind to look back at one day.

Faith Muscle