The tip of my head to the bottom of my toenails hurt and every part in between. Last Wednesday, January 18th, on what would have been my son’s 30th birthday, I needed a lot of love. More than usual. The stillness of the day exemplified how the world has moved on, and I’m still stuck in the quicksand of November 2019.
The people I thought would at very least “check in” must have “checked out,” because I did not hear a word from any of them, and I found myself focusing on the disappointment rather than on the joy I felt from those who DID show up with kind-hearted words, text messages and emails.
My dear friend, Camille, in fact, surprised me with a lovely sunflower bouquet and beautiful greeting card.
In addition, during the last year, I’ve been honored to assist in writing a widow’s grief memoir. The relatively young widow, Michelle, happens to be a dear friend of mine. The book is partly composed of letters she writes to her deceased husband who passed away tragically three months prior to our family’s tragic loss. Last Wednesday, feeling weighed down with grief, I happened to reread one of her letters in which she elaborates on her mother-in-law’s grief of losing a son.
“I know she is as grief-stricken, but she is stronger than I am and loves more because she doesn’t want any of us to be sad for her. She knows we all have our own grief, and she doesn’t want to add to it.”
Miraculously, through the day I channeled this incredible woman, Rita, whom I know only through writing about her, and found myself feeding on her reservoir of love.
“I don’t want anyone to be sad for me.” I repeated, breaking the pronounced silence of the day.
A repeated lesson that I seem to have to relearn constantly is that love is the most powerful emotion in this world. It can change everything ALWAYS. It’s like a ray of sun beaming through the grayest of days. It is a life force; an energy; a mega dose of Vitamin C.
The day ended on a bittersweet note. I hadn’t heard from my 28-year-old daughter all day on Wednesday. I thought she needed the space and privacy, and the solitude to put one foot in front of the other and inch forward.
At around six p.m. that evening, she called, out of breath. I could barely understand her words. “The cemetery is so dark.”
“What?” You got in your car directly after work, jumped into the height of traffic, and you sat on the highway for an hour, just so you could visit your brother in the dark cemetery, even though I do believe it’s supposed to close at sunset? That all sounds kind of risky to me.
I refrained from saying how crazy I felt her actions were, especially since her character is usually driven by pure logic. Though I will say that they were incredibly similar to what I would have done at her age in her situation, working purely from an emotional realm.
Our conversation was filled with love and honesty, and it reaffirmed my faith in the power of love. This is what love looks like when it’s real — when there are tears and laughter and sadness all mixed together in one moment in time. In the end, all that matters is not a perfect public facade that masks our private despair, but the intimate moments of our imperfect hearts.
I’m learning that grief is my price to pay for love. Paradoxically, living through grief has helped me to push, stretch until it feels unbearable, love in an insurmountable way.
After hearing the news about Lisa Marie, my sadness seemed unrelenting, because I had followed every segment of her grief story. Each time she shared a bloody slice of her grief to the world, I grew short of breath. All that came to my mind was the figure of Atlas in Greek mythology. He was a Titan condemned to hold up the world for eternity.
Man, when I visualize Atlas, I can’t stand his back-breaking pose; and, alas, I imagined Lisa Marie’s face instead of his. It was like looking into a metaphorical mirror and seeing my own reflection.
Five months prior to her death, in honor of National Grief Awareness Day, “Lisa Marie Presley penned an emotional essay” about her journey and the lessons she learned after her son died.
In the essay, she writes: “Death is part of life whether we like it or not — and so is grieving. There is so much to learn and understand on the subject, but here’s what I know so far: One is that grief does not stop or go away in any sense, a year, or years after the loss. Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not “get over it,” you do not “move on,” period.”
Coincidentally, my niece sent my daughter and me a text, “This made me think of you both…” and a copy of the same essay that appeared in People magazine with the headline, “Lisa Marie Presley Said She Was ‘Destroyed’ by Son Benjamin’s Death.”
At the time my niece sent it to me, I couldn’t bear to look at it until days later.
In the same essay she wrote the excerpt below:
” … grief is incredibly lonely. Despite people coming in the heat of the moment to be there for you right after the loss takes place, they soon disappear and go on with their own lives and they kind of expect for you to do the same, especially after some time has passed. This includes “family” as well. If you’re incredibly lucky, less than a handful will remain in contact with you after the first month or so. Unfortunately, that is a cold hard truth for most. So, if you know someone who lost a loved one, regardless of how long it’s been, please call them to see how they are doing. Go visit them. They will really really appreciate it, more than you know ….”
Lisa Marie was on point. Loss can feel like a whirlwind, leaving nothing behind but destruction. It can be difficult to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding, especially when you are doing it alone, ditched by the rest of the world.
Her final, personal lesson is below.
” … particularly if the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense. You can feel stigmatized and perhaps judged in some way as to why the tragic loss took place. This becomes magnetized by a million if you are the parent of a child who passed. No matter how old they were. No matter the circumstances.”
Again, everything she concludes is absolutely true and not an understatement. Frankly, while processing the news of her demise from a “broken heart,” I also felt relief for Lisa Marie. Atlas’ weight was, at last, removed. I shared with my niece how completely saddened I was by her loss.
In response, she wrote,”Nothing wrong with finding a kindred spirit, no matter how it manifests.”
Today, I regret not contacting Lisa Marie back in 2020 after she had lost her son by suicide. I simply did not make the time. (Saying, “I didn’t have the time,” is incorrect since I am one hundred percent responsible for ME and MY actions.)
During last week, I spent a good deal of time reflecting on her death, pacing around my office where I have two calendars, one on the wall and one on the desk. Both of them have stick-it notes on them, smack center, covering up the January 17th block, the day I was so freaking sure my son would be born and covering up the 18th block, his actual birthday. Sometimes, with the world on your back, doing everything you possibly can to press forward, “blackouts” are the best weapon to tackle the challenge.
For this week’s blog post, every single piece of me is on fire with guilt, regret, pain and remorse, and my son’s voice from long-ago, stating, “I won’t make it to 30.” I really didn’t want to sit my inflamed body down to hurt it more and think of the unthinkable, but I was so moved by what Lisa Maria and her family endured.
Now, my heart goes out to the survivors of Lisa Marie, and I honor and acknowledge the grief of her family. In return, I am afforded the strength to honor and acknowledge my own grief.
The way I look at it is if we take a leap of faith and open ourselves up to love, we open ourselves up to the risk of experiencing grief. It begins with love and ends with love. If life surpasses death, then love is what will guide us through the infinite journey.
For Lisa Marie, Benjamin, and Marshall, I hope they are now liberated from their back-breaking duties on Earth. Whether it involves physical burdens or mental obstacles, I also hope they are no longer crushed by the weight of life and, instead, free to catapult and soar to new heights.
Since our family tragedy, my mind has a tendency to race when I drive. Let’s put it this way, the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day, but when I’m driving, 15 minutes or more down the road, probably a day’s worth of thoughts burst into my brain that amount to something likened to a hefty slice of the milky way.
I am beyond grateful that my daughter moved closer to home last August. So is she, because at the beginning of the month, as the world heralded in 2023, my daughter and her friends went on a long weekend escape, and I drove over 40-minute stretches one way for four days in a row to spend the day with her two fur baby rescue cats.
In my mind, the coming new year simply reinforced how the world continues to move on. In the revelers’ mental “crystal balls” they foresaw job promotions, reunions, trips, graduations and so many bright future possibilities. Over three years ago, I was part of this group. Now, I lack a crystal ball and determination. All I know is that it amounts to another lost year without my son. Another year in which I will strain a little bit harder to recall his deep voice, his silly smile, the way he glowed and his thick eyelashes fluttered when I assured him of his impending millionaire status by the time he turned 40.
Another year … another year … was my highway song this past New Year’s weekend.
“Did you stay up until midnight?” My daughter asked me in a text on the morning of January 1st.
I didn’t have the heart to inform her that, no, I was unloading laundry from the dryer at around midnight, trying to erase killer thoughts and staying to myself because I didn’t want to hinder anyone’s festive mood.
New Year’s Day evening rolled around, and I came home from the fur babies after a particularly disturbing exchange of “highway talk.” I sulked, sad and silent until I picked up my phone and saw an IM from my cousin in Ukraine, wishing me Happy New Year.
At first, I thought she contacted me for the sole reason of informing me of the arrival of the package. In actuality, she simply sent a wish: Happy New Year, my dear family.
No strings attached to her greeting. She didn’t receive the package, but she still cared enough to take the time out of her war-savaged world to wish me a happy New Year.
Now, I found something else to worry about. The package. Was it lost? Stolen? I mean, there is a war going on after all.
On January 2, I received the following IM:
I received your package today. I can’t express the joy of my children!!! I am very grateful to you for so many things!!! Everything is very good. one jacket was small for my son, and the boots were small for my daughter, everything else fit!!! I sincerely thank you, your friends. this is a very big help for me
Suddenly, 2023 came into full view by examining one sugar cube out of the big, bad bowl of unknowns.
Was I feeling better? Yes and no. I do best when I don’t judge ANY of my feelings, because my feelings remind me that I am a human being, a work in progress. Off or on the highway, it’s important for me to recognize the gravity of a situation and work through my feelings in order to move forward. NOTE: “Move forward” in this case does not mean “let go” of the grief because, as others have noted: we grieve because we love. (How lucky is that? LOL!) Moving forward, in this case, means to step through each day and be true to myself by allowing my feelings — whatever they are and for however long they exist. I consciously worked on this process for nearly 40 years, and what I’ve most definitely learned is that no one feeling will last forever (at least in my case). In addition, each and every time I sit with whatever feeling I am experiencing, I am stronger and more confident. The more I build myself up in this way, the less I have to tear others down. I am at peace in the world.
Feeling good all the time, FOR ME, is toxic positivity. It doesn’t work. I tried it in my early 20s and failed miserably. I remember when at 25 years old, I was out of control and a mess of emotions, because I always stuffed them behind a happy face. I couldn’t differentiate one emotion from another. How could I when I erased all my so-called negative feelings? My first newfound emotion was utter rage. (It makes sense to me now, because how else was I going to feel after having my identity robbed?) The day arrived when a mentor advised, “Embrace it. Embrace the rage.”
At first, I thought she was crazy. Then I decided I would try it. Day after day, I locked myself in the safety of my car and just hollered and screamed. That was my way to embrace the unwelcomed turbulence in my mind and before I knew it, it diminished in size and lost its demonic proportions. In other ways, over many years, I proceeded to deal and integrate other feelings and emotions. I embraced the pain. Embraced the sadness. Embraced the sorrow. Embraced everything else.
Before long, I could breathe normally again, and even learned to embrace the joy and the laughter, which I had felt guilty over. Suddenly I realized I could embrace the newness of a situation. Embrace the familiarity of old sheets, newly washed and calling for my tired body.
Mind you, embracing all this messy stuff wasn’t accomplished in a chronological or logical sense. I remember a lot of laughter while experiencing some of the most challenging, pent up feelings.
I consider myself fortunate in so many ways. Since I was 25, I learned how to embrace my messiness, because “my healers” embraced me during the process. I was never too messy to not be loved.
Maybe during the 1980s, folks were more in tune with their emotions. These days it seems no one wants to hear a sour puss or a sad puss or someone who isn’t happy and a great success through and through. Maybe it started with the inception of Fakebook when we lost our personal intimacy and human humility. Anyway, I’ve lost most of my early “healers” who loved every single bit of “the messy” I presented. I am grateful for their legacy, because it carries me and keeps me in balance.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself as I embrace what feels like but really isn’t the lowest of lowly emotions.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself when I feel I “shouldn’t” feel joy at a given moment, like when my grand fur babies are purring alongside me. “It’s okay,” I tell June, the deaf fur baby who chewed up my slippers. I can empathize with her anxiety. (Later, I found out it was Gemi who did it!)
“It’s okay,” I reiterate. (Before the tragedy I wouldn’t have been so understanding.)
I don’t need a crystal ball to see if it’s going to be another year of trials and tribulations, haunting memories and sorrow. It’s going to be up and down and all around, and with each passing day, I grow a day closer to the raw truth of my death. Even if I could have a crystal ball, I’d resist. Through it all, those wise owls that were once in my life gifted me with the priceless notion of faith. It’s made me into a big, bad mama, and I’ll take the ride flying solo, ‘cause I CAN, damn it. This is what I have learned. It is my proud culture pumping in my blood. In essence, I’m a born coward, yet biting the bullet, closing my eyes, taking baby steps into the landmine of life. I can do it, I can do it.Here I go, watch me.
One of my blogger buddies shared that self-motivation is tough and, obviously, that’s what it takes to blog on a regular basis. It’s even harder when there appears to be a lack of interest in the blog your write and, as a result, no or sparse comments. I can relate to why she feels that way. It can be scary to reveal your thoughts with the world. In return, it’s discouraging to feel like you’re not heard and people don’t listen to what you have to say.
Occasionally, I look at other blogs and marvel (with green eyes) over the thousands of followers and dozens of comments that each post attracts.
This concept is along the same lines as when my son, an adolescent at the time, cried out in defeat, “I’ll never be famous.”
No, he wouldn’t be famous. Not in the same vein as Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers. The reality is most of us are not famous or achieve an influencer status. Most of us just are. A close friend of mine, Father Francis Canavan from Fordham University, who passed in 2000, always taught me that being content with our mundane lives is a tough call for our ego to reconcile with. In our world of constant social media distractions, it is easy to feel we are missing out on the great life that everyone else is “Fakebooking” at the given moment.
We live in a society that celebrates beauty and success and encourages us to chase after it at all costs. Couple this phenomenon with an innate desire to be better, do better, and have more. It makes sense that when you tune into almost any news outlet for five minutes or less, it seems everything publicized is a punch fueled with greed, power and a lot of plastic surgery thrown in.
Don’t get me wrong, if these superficial things are floating someone’s boat, I’m all for it, but if outside impressions affect the silent majority, the “armchair onlooker,” to suffer in an unhealthy “I’m-a-nothing-compared-to-them” way, then the reaction can turn into toxicity and hurt them or, in its extreme, motivate them to turn against others or to resort to self-harm.
Of course, the antidote for ego deflation is to “live in the spiritual.” How? Who knows really what floats someone’s boat?
What provided me with some insight was watching a documentary on Mother Teresa this past Christmas Eve. I learned many things about this incredible woman, but the one that resonates with me is that she lived for 50 years, 50 YEARS feeling abandoned by God.
This state of abandonment is called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” and in Mother Teresa’s case, “The” night stayed with her for a total of 18,250 nights to be exact.
How did she forever change the world in such a profoundly positive way when she herself lived in despair? Certainly she did NOT allow herself to be guided by her dark feelings. She was, however, candid and wrote down her dark feelings and shared them to her own personal God and to a priest, who was also her mentor. Service, of course, was the glue in her life and later exulted her to a sainthood status.
Who, of course, would come close to exemplifying Mother Teresa? Certainly NOT me. After watching that wonderful documentary, I must say, my walk is lighter in my heavy-paired shoes. My faith is stronger and my hope is greater. In essence, I have a deeper understanding of how we really do matter in our own little ways.
And to that end, my son mattered to me. He mattered to Whitney, whom I spoke to on Christmas night. He mattered to a handful of incredible people who really loved him not only for his “worldly” facade (which was incredible!), but for the riches he left in all our hearts: his bright, inquisitive mind; compassionate heart and courage to go on for at least 16 years more than he could bear.
And, the same goes for my little, mundane life that I like so much in its own little way, because what elevates it to greatness is not my recent writing awards (although I am proud of them!), but of the special few people in my life who really, really love me. Who really, really matter to me.
A few of my friends, actually all of us, are aging faster than lightening. There is no other holier, loving gesture to me than looping my arm into a friend’s arm. Recently, for instance, my friend Camille and I were going into a Polish deli and, literally, strolled in arm and arm as if we were children, carefree; FREE AGAIN to just be the way we ARE.
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” — Mother Teresa
Camille did not need pierogies and, actually, doesn’t like them, but insisted that we go to a Polish deli she found on the internet a few days before the holiday, so I could get pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner, because the ones I hold dear to my heart “have to have pierogies for Christmas Eve,” and the Ukrainian church was too busy to make them this year due to the war. Pierogie is a type of food that originated in Eastern Europe and is now popular in the United States. It consists of a dough shell with a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese, onions, and sometimes meat inside.
A few days after my deli visit, on Christmas Eve after church, the next one I strolled arm-in-arm-arm with was my friend Anna from childhood, who is having knee problems these days. She has been struggling with medical issues. It was hard to see her like this, and it felt good to be by her side during this tough time. It was good for both of us. Just for a moment, we were kids again in the same church where we were raised; laughing as we once did, standing on the same floor that has anchored us through these many years.
Now, in this rather fragmented blog post that will probably not attract many comments 🤣, what I’m trying to convey is that, in my opinion, it isn’t the NUMBERS and FAME of my blog so much that counts as it is those few special blog buddies that I’ve developed relationships with — from Preema and Anand in India to Judy in California and Alec in England and Ana and L. Hale and Cindy and Kathy and … wow … with such a tribe, I can go on and on, but I hope you know who you are. You, members of my blogging community, are the ones who truly matter, not thousands of nameless people who deep down really don’t care and wouldn’t go out of their way to buy pierogies for me, if given the chance on Christmas.
And, you see, that’s love. It’s the meaning BEHIND the words and thoughts. The people who love me this year, really, really were there on Christmas (symbolic of Christmases past). First and foremost, I name my daughter who goes to church for me most of all. (And I go mostly to honor my parents and to see Anna, my childhood friend.) The love also spun through the gifts I received: from Anne in New Mexico with her woolly socks that she probably went on a long, pain-in-the-butt peirogi kind of hunt to find, and my friend Michelle with her thoughtful “pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunt” gifts and the same goes for my friend Hope, my daughter and the kid’s godmother and my fiance, who even took the time to wrap his gifts this year, and others who took the time because I matter in their lives. And, they, of course, matter to me and that’s why instead of scoping out something I like to eat, I’d rather go on my pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunts for them.
So, at the end of the pierogi trail, as it turns out, the pierogies from the Polish deli that Camille and I found were not nearly as good as the pierogies from the Ukrainian church, but it’s the thought that counts.
And that’s what I want every single buddy blogger in the community to know: YOU MATTER TO ME. YOUR THOUGHTS COUNT! You fuel my steps throughout each year and get me out of my all mighty, egotistical self so I can manage to think of YOU and some of the things that surround your lives that I see as quite monumental and not at all mundane.
I wish all of you, dear blogger buddies, a wonderful New Year, filled with people who love you enough to take the time to find and buy you pierogies (even if they aren’t the best-tasting ones!) because the love behind the pain-in-the-butt pierogi hunt without fail brings home the prize. The batch may not be the best food you’ve ever tasted, but I promise, the meal will last a lifetime in your memory.
Last week, I promised to share another story this week about “Hope” and faith. My friend Hope, as I previously mentioned, also tops my angel list. She lives in the town next to ours and is a full-time working mother, dedicated wife and mom to three children ranging in ages from five to thirteen, or somewhere in that range. Since they grow up so fast it’s difficult to keep track!
She’s a professional social worker. Her dedication to service goes beyond the bounds of her profession and into her personal life as well. Her name “Hope” suits her. She is one person I know I can count on. Over three years ago, for instance, she, along with her husband and three children, were among a handful of people who participated in the walk my daughter and I organized to raise money for charity in honor of my son. Then at the end of the walk, we were a few hundred dollars short of our goal, and Hope donated the amount that pushed us forward to reach our goal. She showed me how joy could share a seat in a roomful of sorrow.
Anyway, about six weeks ago, I received an IM from my cousin Olya in Ukrainie, which, if you haven’t heard, is fighting a war against Russia, “hello dear Stacey…how are you? sorry for reaching out, but I want to ask if you can help me. I need clothes for the children and for myself. shoes, jackets, something. maybe someone can give some of their children’s clothes, maybe there is any help for Ukrainians in America. I don’t know if it’s expensive for you to send the parcel to Ukraine. but I’m just asking, I’m sorry if something is wrong. it’s very difficult now, it’s all very expensive for me.”
“.… there is not enough money for everything. if it is expensive to send me a parcel. then I will understand .. sorry for bothering you. thank you for the answer, hugs)”
Over these last three years, for no particular reason other than I am a fervent reader and love history, I’ve read a number of books pertaining to World War II. When Olya contacted me, I was reading the award-winning novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The novel, which has been made into a movie, takes place first in 1939 when the Nazis invaded France. Below are a few highlights of the book’s description:
“ In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.“
“… The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France — a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”
At times I found the novel to be utterly intense (especially when it started to hit one o’clock in the morning!), and I forced myself to detach, albeit temporarily, and gave the novel a rest. Of course, the characters kept me company throughout the day, because I couldn’t stop thinking about them and how they were forced to face the atrocities of war.
Even if I wasn’t reading a war-related novel that made me more empathetic than I am, I’ve adhered to a set of practices and principles in my life and one of them states that I am responsible – when ANYONE, ANYWHERE reaches out for help.
Why? Because for well over three decades, I’ve been given examples to follow by some of the most incredible people, all ages and from all walks of life. They do not preach (please spare me!) but teach by example. Like Buddha (meaning awakened one or enlightened one), they are people of honor who are conscious of their actions. I always felt that my Big, Bad THANK YOU to these Big, Bad Buddhas was to fill their unmeasurable shoes and match their qualities as best as I possibly could.
SO, the goal formed, Mission: Pack and Ship Parcel to Ukraine to Sweet Cousin. The first challenge was to find out WHERE do I go to ship a package to Ukraine? It was brought to my attention that the senior center in my town was shipping packages to Ukraine. So that took care of that.
Next step was to figure out sizing, EUR versus U.S. At this point, the kid’s Godmother, Pat, my daughter and fiance were involved and we each turned up contradictory sizing research. Then things started to look clearer when Godmother Pat went to the shoe store and found (how simple!) that the boxes all have both EUR and U.S. sizes printed on them. She also bought a few pairs of shoes while she was there to add to a snowsuit and pants I ordered. How exciting finally to view the makings of a parcel, although we sure had a long way to go! And, I still had different clothes size charts to contend with.
Hope entered the picture when during a fierce rainstorm, she sent me a text message informing me that her electricity went out. I texted her back, “Hope electricity ⚡️ goes on soon. My poor cousin in Ukraine loses a lot too due to war….”
After a text message exchange, I told her about the parcel in the works and she replied,“I’d be happy to buy warm gear for the kids and adults if u have sizes.”
SIZES! Oh, boy! The clothes size dilemma restarted! In addition, I reiterated that she did not have to purchase new clothes because used clothes were perfectly acceptable and, actually, my cousin’s initial request.
Hope wrote, “Of course we want to help! U don’t think she’d want new clothes? I know she’s concerned about cost but we want them to have what they need ….”
In the interim, back to the drawing board, I tried to figure out the correct sizes. I contacted my cousin again, trying to convert sizes with her … we were getting closer to figuring out the right sizes for her family: My cousin; her husband who is working in Poland; her teenage son and her three and a half year old daughter.
Finally, it seemed we deduced the correct sizes, and I felt as if we hit the jackpot!
Hope shot me a text, “Boxes are on the way to ur house … hopefully both within the week.”
I thanked her and she said, “Happy to contribute! I can’t imagine not being able to keep my kids warm and well!”
While I was waiting for Hope’s deliveries, I ordered a few other things on our end, and the parcel was looking good.
Then Hope’s packages arrived and it resembled an early Christmas! I couldn’t believe the quality of the down jackets she ordered; plus, jars of vitamins and socks, socks, socks, not to mention a few toddler toys thrown in.
When I saw all the items, I couldn’t help but hear Whitney and Bradley’s faith-filled voices of affirmation and faith … “We’re already here.” That was the message through and through. I barely had to ask Hope for help and there she was already there, as was her track record.
Does it get more Christmas-y than this?
The story continues!
I ended up packing THREE different packages (I admire people who work in mail rooms) and delivered them to our town’s senior center only to discover that they weren’t sending packages to individual homes. Instead, they send donations to Ukraine as a common relief effort.
From there, I went to the post office, which was conveniently located near the senior center. I could ask, right? Mary, at the post office, weighed one of my three boxes just for the heck of it, and it turned out shipping charges totaled $150. Wow. By the time everything was calculated, I was looking at about $500 — if not more.
Fortunately, come to find out, the Ukrainian church where I’m a parishioner, ships packages every week. I didn’t know this information because I haven’t been actively attending services. Anyway, the people involved are a husband-wife team who volunteer to send packages to anyone residing in Ukraine. The priest gave me the contact information. I called the man, and he instructed me to come to the rectory at noon on the upcoming Sunday, and I followed his instructions.
After I arrived, the man and I decided that in order to save money, he would break up the contents of my three boxes and load them into one huge box that happened to be available in the small room that doubled as a mail room. I watched the man work diligently. He had huge hands, cracked fingernails and rough skin that only a man who works hard labor can claim. He said very little and reminded me so much of my father who passed away in 2000. In fact, he shares the same first name as my dad, Myron.
When the process was completed, the entire package cost what one package would have cost if I had sent it via the U.S. mail. In addition, the package’s expected delivery to my cousin is approximately two weeks.
When I returned home, I informed my cousin that her package was on its way. She responded, “I am sincerely grateful to you, and to everyone who helped you …. I am happy that I have a family, even though it is so far away. Thank you for your support in such a difficult time for us. Peace be with you and God’s blessings.”
I replied, “We are SO HAPPY to have all of you! Love you very much!!!”
In this case, expounding on what I wrote in my last blog post, “Family IS DNA (but still not necessarily just DNA)!”
We can all be a part of one Big, Bag Buddha Bunch, not divided by distance or culture, only united in the small time we have on earth.
As the year draws to a close, it is important to remember that there are only so many Christmases* on the calendar of life. This year, let’s shine forth our best Buddha.
Merry Christmas to all!
щасливого Різдва (Happy Holidays!) as we say in Ukrainian! Or, Христос народився! – Christ is born! In which we respond, Славімо його! (Let us Glorify Him!)
*Hanukkah; Kwanzaa … and whatever holiday you celebrate!
Probably the worst A-hole (excuse my expletive) topping my endless list, is Aunt, I’ll call her, “Jody.” “Aunt Jody” is my ex-husband’s mother’s sister who is semi-retired in Tennessee. Over three years ago around this time of year, my grief-stricken daughter and I discovered that Aunt Jody lived within the vicinity of my son’s last home in Kentucky.
Our plan was to fly into Nashville, sort through my deceased son’s belongings, attend his memorial service and drive his car back to my home in Connecticut. In light of the circumstances and to express solidarity, my ex-husband willingly offered us her contact information.
I sent Aunt Jody a text inviting her to my deceased son’s memorial service that was slated to be held at his place of employment during the week we were in Kentucky. I informed her that we understood if she was unable to attend and, in this case, would be grateful to meet her for a quick cup of coffee in order to connect.
The sole reason I contacted Aunt Jody was that I wanted to affirm to my daughter that she had roots. I have always maintained that strong roots bore healthy growth. From day one, that’s all I wanted for both my children: roots, family, a sense of belonging. However, as it transpired, both my children had minimal contact with their extended families. Ironically, one of the attractions that drew me to my then husband was his big, boisterous family that spanned the northeast and the midwest of the United States. I couldn’t wait to experience how it felt to be part of something so large. When my ex-husband’s grandparents, then in their eighties, and since long deceased, traveled from Michigan to Connecticut to attend our wedding in 1991, it reinforced everything I had ever dreamed of: unconditional love. After all, I was the one who wanted no less than six kids. To me the more family, the more love … and you can never have enough love, can you?
Anyway, over the years, my own family mostly died off and those who lived remained generally uninvolved. On the other hand, my ex-husband, as well as his family, totally abandoned my children at the end of 2010. In my ex’s case, he had suffered a mental breakdown. As far as the rest of his family, although there was no particular reason or a dramatic blow up, I inferred that they did not want an added burden or any drama in their lives. I get it – at least I tried to understand. (Over the years as I grew to know them, I thought up names that described them perfectly, Ice Queens and Ice Kings.)
There I was — my usual naive self — emailing invitations, calling, sending a note via U.S. mail to Aunt Jody. No response. So I kept at it. Finally, about a week prior to our dreaded trip to KY, I was in the car with my daughter and my phone lit up with her text message and I read it out loud.
“.… I thought the whole thing over and I don’t feel we really ever had any contact with each other before and I don’t see a reason for us to start that now …. “
“What else would you expect?” My daughter immediately responded. My daughter is a mental health professional, but the pain that sliced through her voice also tore through me.
What else would I expect? I’d expect her to sound as if she shared the same DNA as my daughter’s. I’d expect her to extend herself during the worst, most excruciating time of our lives. I’d expect her to empathize and to act on her so-called Christian principles and meet up with us to give us a hug in our sorrow. It is in sorrow we find strength. I’d expect her to represent the deeper meaning of Christmas. I did not even have the heart to reveal the outcome of his aunt’s response to my ex-husband; he never asked, because we, generally, do not communicate.
It may sound like it, but division is NOT the end of this story. Shortly after receiving the rejection in the text message from Aunt Jody, my daughter and I arrived in Nashville. While the world awaited Christmas, less than a week away, we held onto each other tight, painful and alone, separated by the incommunicable language of grief.
At the airport we rented a car and drove to our hotel in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The following day, we, out-of-town strangers, parked and exited our car on an empty road less than a block away from the sheriff’s department in a small town located about an hour outside of Nashville. We were early, and we defeated our unwillingness by dragging our feet toward the main entrance to begin the process of collecting my son’s remaining tangibles.
“I hope Whitney and Bradley get here,” I said to my daughter, my voice trembling, a sharp, bitter wind making me feel as if my tear-filled eyes would freeze. They were my son’s friends and co-workers who found my 26-year-old son dying in the closet and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate him. The same young age as my son, they learned firsthand how trauma could fold into a day that started out as an ordinary Tuesday in which your thoughts already paint inside the lines the fun colors of the upcoming weekend. They were the couple whom we spoke to since the traumatic day unfolded, a month before. They had promised to meet us at the sheriff’s office.
What happened next was something really out of a movie. Two figures intercepted our route. “We’re already here.”
We’re already here. And there they stood before us: Whitney and Bradley; bringing us warmth like two hot mugs of cocoa on an unforgivingly frigid December day would. We embraced in a manner only family could.
Fast forward to today. I’ve been to the icy and snow covered barren place where no human being should roam and, especially when I’m feeling vulnerable, it’s always easy to take a mind trip and be sucked into a destination that freezes my heart and soul.
Instead, I’ve consciously trained myself to choose a detour. It is signaled by remembering Whitney and Bradley’s angelic, booming voices, “We’re already here.”
From there, I may still have the weight of the black hole over me, but I see my big feet making little strides to shuffle forward to the next right thing on the list.
Three Christmases ago, Whitney and Bradley gifted us with a Christmas miracle: From the time they said “We’re already here,” to the time we left, they never abandoned us and, instead, met every single one of our requests.
Now, let me say, I have an Angel list that counters my A-hole list. At the top of the list, of course, is Whitney and Bradley. I have others on the “A list.” Some of them are reading this blog post right at this minute! Every year at this time, I work hard to focus on my list, teeming with Angels that give me the faith to carry on.
Next week, I will share another story that I hope gives you hope in a world that sometimes can seem as if it’s being overrun by A-holes. It is the story of hope, and the main character’s real name IS Hope, and she also instills a faith in me that reminds me of the Christmas miracle that Whitney and Bradley bestowed on us, teaching us the significance of family and being fully present and available — as my daughter said when she was around seven years old and already understanding the environment around her, “Family isn’t just DNA.”
Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.
This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.
The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?
If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”
Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”
After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.
So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton PresbyterianChurch could plummet me to the depths of despair.
Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”
He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”
Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.
It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.
(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)
In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.
I am because you are.
From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.
“Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019
My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.
There is a tall and svelte woman Peggy that regularly jogs in my neighborhood. She works as an accountant at a startup company where her husband is the chief executive officer.
She spends more on keratin hair straightening treatments than most people spend on their monthly grocery bills. Temperatures and humidity could be soaring, and Peggy won’t break a sweat.
While I listened to the news on my car radio about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, that left 19 children and two adults dead, adding to an alarming series of mass killings in America, she rolled past my view like a smooth, scarlet-colored ribbon.
I was headed to Trader Joe’s for a bag of reduced fat cheese puffs. It was my usual justified, self-trickery. Predictably, I would return with two bags of additional snacks and ice cream.
During my shopping trip, in my mind, I pictured the families of the deceased as well as the families of the perpetrator. Faces seized by shock’s fire. Raging in sorrow, grief. Confiscated homes that were once smooth and sound and as predictable as compiling a grocery list. Lives similar to normal plane mirrors, a mirror with a flat (planar) reflective surface. Sure, you wipe them off. Remove the smudges and streaks. In turn, they work for you. Not so.
Men, women and children now trapped in a not-funny fun house of distorted mirrors where every turn from here on means smacking into another jarring convex and concave section. Where to go? How to go? Direction is lost in a maze of thick grief, ground sodded and planted with inescapable emotional booby traps.
My mind’s photos create a juxtaposition between scenes from the recent Texas tragedy and Peggy’s face, smooth with a ladybug complexion. I picture her scouring the pages on Amazon’s website, searching for blankets, sheets and pillows, helping her son get ready for his first year at an Ivy league school …. Gearing up for her jog the next morning.
During the rest of the week, the Texas tragedy unfolds on the news. I see the victims’ faces. Each one represents a wrinkle- and scar-free youth. I see the families’ faces. Each one, muscle lost, thin skin, ten-thousand tomorrows lived in a moment.
I repeatedly spot Peggy jogging out on the road. Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s “stunning” Italian wedding plaster the other news sections on my computer screen. By the time last weekend arrives, Platinum Jubilee celebrations of England’s queen steals the limelight as she hails “a renewed sense of togetherness.”
Maybe because it is my brain of COVID-19 (I was recently diagnosed), but I feel like I’ve lost my bearings, and I am out of touch, caught in unfamiliar terrain. I ponder, why can’t we all live a royal life of jubilation? Wander around, spending our days in a fun house where we can laugh at distortion, because it’s not real.
Why is it that some adults and children never seem to get a lucky break? Have they broken mirrors and it resulted in bad luck that exceeds its seven-year limit? Or is it that infants are born already swaddled in bad luck? Always by-passed. Never chosen to play on a sports team, while others seem to live life enjoying a daily picnic spread with plenty of no-calorie desserts?
Whether you consider yourself one of the lucky ones or not, the real question is, how do you find faith when there’s so much disparity? I don’t have the answer. I do know when I stay off the national news and social media and do something more productive like water ivy houseplants, I feel less anxious, less sad, less mad. I float on my sea of grief, cease the mean fight against the waves. It puts me back in my own shoes, and I can forge the walk-the-walk trek in life that I was taught 37 years ago. Pick up the discarded empty cigarette packs along the roadside in my teeny-tiny landscape. Pick up extra snacks at the store and give half away. Choose listening over talking. Stop thinking so hard and just be, because I am most precious to myself and others when I am humble, brave and free of distracting airwaves.
Some experts say that occasionally it’s necessary to “take a break” from grief. I learned this firsthand during a frigid December 2020 Christmas day, 36 days after I lost my beloved 26-year-old son who died by suicide. My then 24-year-old daughter, Alexandra, returned home during this time, and we mourned together. Lounging in the living room in shabby sweatpants and tops, noshing on a conveyor-belt assortment of Trader Joe’s chips and other salty and sweet snacks that my dear childhood friend Anna supplied, we insulated ourselves, cranked up the heat indoors as the temperatures dipped to below freezing outdoors. Alexandra’s soft, furry slippers with funny smiling sloth faces, the ones that arrived a month prior in a condolence gift box from her former college roommate, Suzanna, felt like they were out of sync with the preceding extreme 36 days, oozing with despair, agony, regret, remorse and anger. We symbolized the walking wounded. Drained and hollow as if we were toilet plungers.
Who would believe that only a year prior, we were in New York City’s West Side in a beautiful church singing Christmas carols as if we were Carnegie Hall performers? Three hundred and sixty-five days later, half eaten tubs of white paper take-out food containers brimming with Chinese dumplings, noodles, fried rice and legions of lo mein lined the coffee table, our designated sanctuary, the view outside obstructed by the drapes drawn closed.
My daughter and I spent about twenty minutes scanning for TV channels to watch, searching for something to numb the pain. I finally surrendered to Alexandra’s request to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, especially since she had never seen it before. Before the tragedy, I was The-Marvelous-Mrs.-Maisel loyalistsince its premiere in 2017. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it opens in 1958 and ends in the early 1960s and centers around Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Although her role that begins as a happily married woman with two children changes, chasing her stand-up comedy dreams and adhering to her affluent New York City lifestyle remain constant.
After the tragedy, I was reluctant to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because I felt it was something that aligned with a “happy-people’s” existence. Not only did we end up watching the episodes of the new third season that Christmas, but we watched the previous two seasons as well!
There are so many things in the show that resonate with me. For starters, a lot of the show is filmed in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a hotbed of stand-up comedy. “The epicenter of the city’s 1960s counterculture movement” is by far my favorite place in the world. Even now, whenever I go there, the young heartbeat I feel in the village lifts my old, worn-out spirits. To me, this is the epitome of America, for the most part, at its best. The village is more than a melting pot. It is a pot of gold, laden with people from all walks of life. The important thing is that the village really is a village because it encourages free expression. If you are bullied anywhere else in the world for any reason, the best therapy is to spend a little time here. Although you may appear outwardly very different from others around you, the sense of belonging is inherent; there tends to be a feeling of recognition in the air. In fact, the village is where I enrolled and participated in stand-up comedy workshops in the 1980s and experienced my own marvelous, albeit short-lived, show biz stint.
Anyway, watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, f-bombs and all, saved our souls that fragile holiday season of 2020 and gave me faith knowing that although my laugh had lost a lot of its carefree boom, its flame had not faded.
So, this brings me to a very important date, February 18, 2022: season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. From the minute I heard about the new upcoming season,I was eager for its long-awaited arrival, like a kid getting his or her braces removed after walking around for two years with the metal invasion in their mouths.
As is, the new, season four, series rolls out two one-hour long episodes at a time. I planned to watch one hour of the show on Friday and the other hour on Saturday. Initially, I was timid to hit “play” because the minute I saw the old, familiar characters, my heart tumbled as I recalled the unbearable swords of circumstances that transpired in November 2019 and how the show helped me cope. Nonetheless, I hit the forward button, and one hour led to two. I was hooked from the beginning to the end of both episodes.
If you can get past the f-bombs and a few select scenes that some viewers may find inappropriate (nudity, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking, adult themes), the first two episodes are one big ode to the meaning of opposites. Free expression and individual voice versus repression and suppression. The importance of a financial framework versus the desire to pursue art as your true calling in life. And so many other things that call to mind the breadth of Greenwich Village, and its ability to tug hard at your heart strings and awaken your soul that was likely lost about the time your identity was wiped out when you understood and accepted the untruth behind the social conditioning of, “Big girls or big boys (especially) don’t cry.”
The first two episodes of season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel touched upon nearly every tenet of existentialism and so much more. Miriam, the main character, is ballsy and brash and bold and is going to be heard, damn it, no matter what, and turn over convention. Subsequently, though, she’s not about to part with her hoity-toity upper west side New York City tastes either. All the while, she’s trying to rise up again from a rubble of failures and secure her share of the American Dream.
What’s happening in the show at its core, synonymous with the Greenwich Village vibe, is that so much that is not talked about and kept taboo unhinges and revolts. It can no longer shut up. It cannot be shutdown. It needs to be spoken, heard, not judged or erased.
It needs the human seal of “I see you” approval that we are all desperate for. My once alive son was a good example of wanting to be seen, heard, appreciated, in spite of how his differences made him feel separate from the rest of the world.
It’s as simple as that.
What fits in with this overall “fitting in” theme is a book that I’ve just finished reading Wintering, the power of rest and retreat in difficult times by Katherine May (2020).
The author writes about her mental breakdown at 17-years-old and, after the experience, she talked about it and talked and talked. She continues the story as she writes:
“I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times when we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely normal process and have thereby given those who endure a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of ordinary life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.“
Okay, so what I’ve realized about myself now is that, as opposed to Miriam, I became a “good girl” and discarded the rebel status that I initially strived toward. This outcome, I found out 35 years later, can be a consequence of living a so-called sober, so-called adult life. It’s not a bad thing that I’m no longer the firecracker Miriam is and, quite simply, the fight in me now is, for the most part, exhausted.
But the thing about grief is that it has forced me to make a place for it. It is locked in me, next to my memories and my hopes and dreams. In the process, grief has peeled me to the core. So now I am left with my core and me. I don’t have the strength nor burning desire to be a rebel anymore, but my inner voice says that I don’t want to keep hiding anymore either. I’m done with listening to all the blood-hungry critics in the world that managed to seize my brain and ferment it. I keep hearing the song, “Kill the voices” on the radio.
My son had lost his ability to “kill” those voices that erased him. So he did it the best way he knew how, impulsively and brutally, leaving us spewed like squashed roaches in the aftermath.
All the more reason that I’m not keen on too many opinions and certainly those that come from pulpits, real and imagined. I’m not keen too much on my own opinions either, because I found out the hard way, how many times I am more wrong than right.
One thing that I am keen on is hearing Midge’s voice, f-bombs and all. At the end of the day, the story really is about an outspoken woman who knows her worth. And it is clear in the show that women have to work twice as hard to succeed. In turn, if others give her a chance to tell her truth, maybe it will spread beyond places like the village where she performs stand-up comedy. Maybe, too, we can all start learning the impossible art of listening for the sake of hearing, not changing, ignoring or stifling; for the sake of an “I see you” universal nod.
So, after watching the first two episodes of season four last Friday night, I laid down in my bed in a flood of tears that was as surprising as a drain that bursts in the bathroom in the middle of the night. I realized how Mrs. Maisel lends her voice to me right now, because I’ve fallen so far inside myself, I don’t know if I can muscle my way out unscathed. I don’t know if I have the courage. I don’t know if I can kill the voices, or if they have killed me, metaphorically instead.
In the interim, I am trudging through this week, waiting for Friday to hear the voices and the antics that not only give me comic relief and, if I am lucky, grief relief, but also a channel where I imagine I am in my twenties again. It was during a time when I orchestrated my world so easily in a leopard top and black rimmed glasses, my voice booming into the microphone loud and clear, laughter rolling through like a seamless tide rolling in to cleanse the sediment on the crusty shoreline.
My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.
On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.
From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.
“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.
Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.
Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.
My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.
Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.
At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.
“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”
I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”
“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.
In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.
“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”
There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.
“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.
Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.
Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me. My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.
After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.
A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”
Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.
Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”
Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:
…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:
“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”
In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:
Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.
After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.
The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”