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.
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.
My dear friend, Bob, has been a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. He is now in his 70s. I’ve known Bob for nearly 38 years, and he is one of the influential “zen men” in my life. We met up last week, and we exchanged our usual dialogue.
“How are you, Bob?”
“How’s everything going, Bob?”
His enthusiasm nearly knocks me over each and every time. It’s as if his every living breath is channeled into his exclamation, and it never fails to wake me up in my own life. Bob is like my buzzing alarm clock awakening me to my stagnant state, to my captivity in my own head’s prison built on fear, falsehoods and frailties that feed me at the given moment.
It never fails. Bob signals me to realize that I’ve been stuck in my head. I’ve missed the day gone by, including the entire car ride that brought me to visit with Bob in the first place. I’ve missed the trees outside. The front door I just swung opened, and the fluorescent lights in dim room. The minute I notice the rosy patches of Bob’s cheeks that glow and resemble the human heart, I almost feel as if I’ve exhaled for the first time in a long time.
At the end of our zen-centric conversation when I am about ready to leave, we always say, “I love you,” and embrace gently, as we have for 38 years.
I move toward the door. The hardwood taps under the rubber soles of my ankle boots. As I swing open the door, my hand feels the glossy coat on the freshly painted wood that is flecked with grains of lint in its texture, reminding me of the imperfection in perfection. My insights give me the faith to keep up the journey as I recall the miniscule part I play in the “GREAT!” scheme of life, because I have escaped my tiny mind long enough to inspect the vast universe directly under my nose.
Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.
She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.
Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.
And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.
For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.
Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.
Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.
For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.
In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.
Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.
When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.
“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.
Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.
I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”
The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”
And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)
The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!
But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.
Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.
Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.
“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”
“Because happiness always brings sadness.”
Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.
All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!
Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.
Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.
Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!
If you didn’t read Sam’s story from last week’s blog, click here
Otherwise, the blog post below is a continuation from last week:
Once Pat’s neighbor decided to sue Pat for $2,000 regarding the cat bite she endured from Sam, we were all stressed to say the least. Then suddenly, serendipity arrived in the form of a phone call from the courtroom clerk. Out of all the pending law suits, a handful of them, including hers, was chosen by the staff of Judge Judy to appear before the arbitration-based reality court show. Pat had an opportunity to take Sam’s case on the show. Whether she won or lost, the TV show producers would entirely compensate the plaintiff. If Pat, as well as the plaintiff, who at that point was working in California, made a TV appearance on the show, she would not only not owe a dime to the nurse, but get the chance to travel on an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, AND she’d receive a $250 stipend, even if she lost the court case. Of course, Pat agreed.
Fast forward, and there she was live on TV: an 80-year-old spry woman whom I was able to watch during my lunch hour in the dining area at work. Of course, I couldn’t eat a thing, only listened to my heart beating as the episode in which Pat appeared unfolded. I wanted to throw my apple at the TV the minute Judge Judy ruled against Pat and Sam. (The moral of the story is: make sure your cat always wears a collar with his or her metal rabies tag that proves the pet is up to date on his or her shots!)
Neither Pat, nor Sam really didn’t lose because the small claims court fees were paid and everyone was happy. In fact, the nurse appeared pleased that Pat didn’t owe the $2,000 claim. Actually, she had said, that was her reason for going on the Judge Judy show in the first place.
Nearly two years later after her reality show moment, Pat had decided to downsize and move in with us. Our household was down to two cats. Fran-Fran, Pat’s cat had passed away from old age, and I agreed to open the door to her two dogs, but I was reluctant to take in Sam, especially with Chervony, my own Alpha male at home. We were in a pickle, such a pickle, in fact, Pat reached out in desperation to Sam’s previous owner to take him and left him a voice message. Fortunately, he never responded. I’m quite sure, though, she wouldn’t have given him back to that man once she regained her senses. We also uploaded photos of Sam on Facebook to see if anyone could provide him with a good home. Nothing panned out, and one day Pat arrived, standing on my front porch with Riley, Teacup and Sam.
Riley and Teacup acclimated from the get-go into the two-cat household. Sam fell head over heals with Blossom, our female calico. Chervony? Wow, that was another story. Fur flew everywhere, even though we did do a decent job of keeping them both separated. Before you knew it, Sam, who was by no means an indoor cat, took off for most of the day. (We never did find out where he went!) Chervony was ruthless and would wait for him for hours at the top of the long flight of stairs that led to the upstairs deck. I could still see him, waiting patiently as if he had forever to wait, because, in essence, he didn’t have too many priorities on the list any longer in his advanced age.
The first year or two were the hardest, but the the two Alpha males adjusted and “Sam I am” seemed to have lost a lot of his muscle. Whenever Pat and I walked the dogs, the three cats followed behind, far apart, but still in the mix.
The last summer in 2020 only Sam was left to follow us when we walked. Blossom and Riley and then Chervony had passed.
In fact, we had to sneak out of the house since Sam would be on our heels meowing as if he were losing his mind.
“He’s scared we are going to abandon him,” I told Pat.
The following year, Sam stopped grooming himself. That’s when we found out he, like Chervony, had a bad thyroid, and the vet prescribed meds.
Most nights, I’d ask Pat, “Did you give Sam his meds?”
By then I had not only warmed up to Sam, but was like his second mom. I searched for him in his favorite spot on the sunny side of the kitchen. Fed him and loved to give him his favorite tuna-flavored treats. I even tried to teach him tricks that I had taught my other cats, but Sam was not about to be a trickster. He had to hold onto some of his Alpha, after all. He loved it especially when I gave the top of his nose a firm rub. Other than treats, he lived for nose rubs.
Shortly after my birthday at the end of August, Sam started fading. I sensed the closing in of the sunset of his life. He ate less. Slept more. Had difficulty walking. His trademark strut and powerfulness that helped get him to be a reality show celebrity, the I Am SAM, vanished.
“Let’s take him to the vet,” Pat said on Sunday, September 11.
“How can we? He’s still drinking. Eating, a little, right?” I broke down and delayed the inevitable outcome.
Come Monday, the 12th, there was no doubt in our minds that it was time. Boy, how many times had I gone through this with all my other pets? Usually the I AM SAM put up a fierce fight before being secured in the carrier. Not this time. He was ready, peaceful, pain-free. He lived in this house so happily, especially after Chervony passed. We are surrounded by trees and nature and, as it turned out, he really didn’t like the traffic-filled, noisy neighborhoods. He liked the tranquility, the hum and predominantly noiseless existence.
I waved good-bye to Pat and Sam behind a river of tears. Remembering, how many lives we lost through the years, but how much we gained in return. For instance, if you live with someone like I Am SAM, you truly realize just how powerless you are in his (or her) presence. You realize though, the only real powers that can penetrate the hardest exterior are love, kindness and empathy. It is what gives you the faith to carry on long enough to learn that unconditional love not only melts steel, but ceases the roar of an engine and transforms it into a purr. In this way, the road ahead into the sunset is smooth and gentle, but harbors a few memorable bumps to keep things interesting.
My roomie’s beloved 19-year-old black cat, Sam, who passed away last Monday on September 12, taught me a lot about faith. He also taught me two additional lessons:
1. Underneath an alpha male exterior can be a camouflaged scaredy-cat 2. Love can take your heart by surprise
Sam had a thyroid problem on top of his advanced years. During this past summer, I’d gaze nostalgically at the cat lounging on the outside deck and think, “This could be his last summer. I might never see him again next summer.”
Then I would pacify myself, saying, “He could make it to 20. Maybe even 21.”
These days, with the enormous amount of advancements in veterinary medicine available, some cats live until they’re 21 – and beyond. Sam I noticed, though, along with the butterfly season and summer, was winding down. His bite was gone, as if it had never happened. And what I realized was that what I had been most anxious of, I now missed.
“Love can melt steel.” This was one of my mom’s favorite sayings, and my roomie, Pat, is the epitome of what the expression means; she inspires us all to look beyond the flaws and imperfections of a person or pet and discover the beauty. In this case, it was Sam.
I first met Sam in 2009, when he was six years old, rolling around in the debris underneath a dumpster in a parking lot close to my ex-husband’s workplace. The cat found refuge there, far enough away from the house where he lived, as we learned much later. The minute my ex-husband introduced us, his little face meowed while his sleek, black skeleton of a body fussed over me. My ex, as it turned out, had spotted what he first believed was an abandoned cat. He was feeding him on a daily basis.
We both agreed that Sam, the name my ex had given him, needed better living arrangements, especially with the cooler months approaching. The question was: Where could he go?
We weren’t about to acclimate him into our three-cat, one poodle household at the time. Then a brainstorm of an idea conceptualized. Dear Pat? Our children’s widowed Godmother. Why not? She lived alone in a large colonial with one dog, sweet and friendly Nala, a border collie mix, and a gentle cat named Francine. So we showed up with Sam inside a pet carrier, and the imminent living arrangement was as natural as figuring out where to position a throw-down, furry rug in a living room.
Soon enough, although Pat lived in a busy neighborhood, notorious for fast-moving vehicles, Sam pranced around outside, brazen and bold. We surmised that his new surroundings felt comfortable to him because they resembled the action-packed area where he was found. Before we knew it, he exhibited a “Mayor of the Street” swagger, flexing his muscles to make it known to those in pawing distance: “I am SAM.”
No one messed with Sam. The local cats found that out soon enough. Sam would lurk behind Pat’s garage or under her deck until a target appeared. Prepared to leap, his tail raised slightly, he would inch forward and suddenly lunge at the intruding cat. Inside the fighting ring of hissing and screeching flew a lot of fur. Needless to say, Sam never lost a fight and soon it seemed as if some hungry creature had eaten all the other cats in the neighborhood (the birds were thinning out too!). The only one left was Sam. His presence screamed loud and clear, “I am SAM.”
Pat pretty much gave into Sam’s desires and demands. She said she didn’t mind. If he wanted a treat, or anything else for that matter, Sam was appeased with instant gratification. Sometimes, though, she endured a few minor bites and scratches, which she laughed off. The last thing she wanted was to bring even minor discomfort to a cat whose original owner was an alcoholic with unpredictable mood swings. How did she know that?
Well, one month after Sam was living with her, she discovered in the “Lost and Found” section of the local newspaper an ad that described Sam and the area where he had lived. She called the number listed and spoke with the man who answered. She decided that Sam was possibly his missing cat, and he would come to her house around six that evening.
Pat immediately called me and after consulting with my ex, we both drove to her house to be there when the possible owner arrived.
In short order, yes, it turned out that Sam was his owner, but because the man reeked of scotch, my ex and I managed to convince him that he wasn’t able to maintain Sam as he deserved, and that he could visit Sam whenever he liked, but that in Sam’s best interest, the cat should stay where he was. Reluctantly, Sam’s owner agreed. To his credit, he did visit Sam many times over the years while appearing satisfied with the arrangement.
As the years went by, my family rescued animals, and Pat rescued many of our rescues. At one point, after Nala had died, she had Sam, two rescued chihuahuas that were from us and Francine, renamed Fran-Fran by my daughter, a small black cat that was abandoned at Pat’s sister’s condo complex in a nearby city.
To the amusement of her neighbors, this is how it worked when Pat walked her pets down the sidewalk: Riley, the nine-pound chihuahua, forged a few feet ahead, straining his leash to its limit while Teacup, a three-pound chihuahua that we still own, lagged behind. Sam, unleashed, strolled behind Teacup and Fran-Fran straggled at the end of the line.
“Come look at this!” Pat heard through some of the screen doors neighbors exclaim to another person inside their houses. Many stepped outside to enjoy the parade from their porches.
Slowly, very slowly, it was obvious that I am SAM, the alpha male, was growing softer, which was a result of Pat’s unconditional love.
My superstitious mother referred to Sam, as she did to all other black cats, as “Bad Luck.” In fact, I nicknamed him “Sam, the Bad Luck Cat,” just for the fun of it. The name never did stick because Pat made sure we all knew how much “Good Luck” he brought into her life. However, this concept did not hold water when, in 2016, her neighbor from across the street, rang her doorbell to ask her if she owned a black cat. She was searching for its owner because two days ago a black cat had banged at her screen door, trying to enter her apartment. When she opened the door and swung her foot out to shoo him away, he bit the top of her foot, which was bare since she was wearing sandals. The intruder ran away.
The neighbor called the town’s animal control and because she had observed that the cat wasn’t wearing a collar with a tag proving it had its rabies shots up to date, she was advised to go to a local emergency room, which she did and where she received a rabies shot at the cost of $6,000. Her medical insurance covered all but $2,000 of the bill. In addition, because she lost a day’s work, she added $500 to the bill. After Sam was identified as the culprit, Pat paid the $500, but refused to pay the $2,000, especially since Sam was current on his shots.
The woman declared: “I’ll see you in court!”
Read how SAM becomes, “I AM SAM, the REALITY STAR on court TV!”
Butterfly season is winding down. When I go outside to pick tomatoes in the garden, even on the high-temperature days, I feel a lack of warmth in the air, and it’s not only because we are headed into autumn. I search around the perimeter of the yard as if I am a grammar school kid waiting for my neighborhood buddy to meet up and play.
In my case, I await the “Painted Lady,” but she has disappeared. I suppose she already migrated south to Mexico, although I wish she stayed around just a little longer. I had become accustomed to my daily garden visitor. I’ve never really paid much attention to butterflies until I met this one. She was fearless. A few times when she orbited near my face, she startled me. Each time I went outside, I began to long for her peaceful presence. Her delicious tangerine-colored body made me yearn for a ripe summer fruit. The white spots and black markings on her wings drew me in further. It was as if I were stalled from my daily routine and, instead, standing inside an art gallery, meditating on a painting’s technique and imagery. Her appearance awakened my senses as if they were young and keen again.
One day in mid-July, I had a sudden feeling of recognition at the sight of her. “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Could the Painted Lady possibly be a reincarnation of the Beach Lady, an extraordinary woman I met in the early 2000s during my travel writing days?
You see, I was working on a story about Amelia Island in Florida and was introduced to MaVynee Betsch. In the same year she was born, 1935, her great-grandfather, A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Lewis, one of the seven co-founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first Black millionaire, bought the American Beach property on Amelia Island.
As racial segregation and oppression escalated across the United States, A.L. purchased what, thanks predominately to Mavynee’s influence, today is designated as a Florida Heritage Landmark. His vision was to create a beach resort to benefit his company’s executives and also use as a sales incentive for his employees. What’s more, he opened up American Beach to the Black population. In essence, it was a safe haven for the marginalized population to experience sun, respite and fun.
I only spent a weekend with A.L.’s great-granddaughter, but the environmental activist reinforced my views of the preservation of our natural resources. She, too, inspired me to believe that positive outcomes were possible. After all, she had spent a core of her life fighting to preserve and protect a historically African-American beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. She additionally provided me with enough food for thought to help fill my insatiable appetite for American history.
When I first met the Beach Lady, as she was lovingly called, she lived predominately in a trailer on the property where she was as much a fixture as the land she loved, a diamond by the sea. The most unique diamond that I can imagine. Actually, she preferred to wear shell and beach stone-themed jewelry, and when she walked, she rattled.
Whenever I picture her crease-less face with her hair packed on the top of her head like a solid soup tureen and free falling dreadlocks down past her ankles, I first remember her sandy, bare feet. Her dark toes were full of the contrasting light-colored American Beach sand. The little shells wrapped around her ankles were as distinct as the bold orangy colors that draped her body. Her statement was loud and clear in the many button pins, including political and pro-vegetarianism, attached to her hair and clothing. Her ageless-aging process was an example that builds me up as I now watch liver spots form near the palms of my hands. When, for example, I dare to go against convention and wear my rose tinted, lizard-patterned boots that shout “totally inappropriate for my age,” the Beach Lady’s legacy fuels every step in my soles.
Her six-foot height along with her over foot-long nails curling from her fingers on one hand matched her big, beautiful personality. Everything about her was as natural as the sun, sea and sky. For over 20 years, she allowed her hair to grow without touching up the grays or cutting any of it. Some of her tresses, in fact, measured over seven-feet long. Her stretched-to-the sky fingernails proved the point that things could have natural, healthy growth without any meat protein.
“All I want is to be reincarnated into a butterfly,” she announced to me on numerous occasions.
A few years later, I learned that the Beach Lady died from cancer at the age of 70 in 2005. She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama in the same year.
So nearly twenty years after meeting her in person, I suddenly see a bright and beautiful butterfly greeting me at every turn. Is it possibly her in a new form front and center in my backyard? Did she get her wish? If anyone should have been granted everything she wished for, it was MaVynee Betsch.
All summer long, every time I spotted the butterfly, I couldn’t help but inquire out load, “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Whether it really was the Beach Lady reincarnated into a butterfly or my pure imagination or not, the Painted Lady gave me a little faith to realize that when we are beaten down to soil level proportions, sometimes all we need is a flutter of hope to defy gravity.
The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers
I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.
I met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.
The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.
I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.
When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.
“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”
Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately,Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.
When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.
He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.
He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.
As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.
When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.
I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.
Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.
“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”
“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”
Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.
From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.
No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.
Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.
That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.
“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”
Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?
“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”
Where am I?
After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.
Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.
Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”
Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.
Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.
Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.
Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.
As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.
Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”
Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.
From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.
Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.
At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.
As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.
We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.
After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.
I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.
Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.
I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.
“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.
What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.
Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.
“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” –Sogyal Rinpoche