Notes to Myself

Faith Muscle

Ghost of Kyiv UNCOVERED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weapon for Success

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallmark’s Hallmark?

Photo by Michelle Leman on Pexels.com

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

Since 1986, I’ve harbored a secret resentment against Hallmark Cards. In that year, in my 20s, I though it was a slam dunk to apply for a job opening at the company that I saw advertised and was all psyched to move from New England to their Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters.

Growing up pre-internet days, while some kids played baseball, bowled and participated in other leisure activities, I bicycled to the drugstore downtown and browsed through greeting cards that I later personalized, writing about my life’s rather mundane updates. Just like an evening ritual glass of milk before bed, I had my trip to the mailbox at the end of the street where I would deposit a handful of Hallmark Cards addressed to friends and family.

Understandably, I had one hundred percent, unshakable faith that I would land the Hallmark Card writing job. Plus, I possessed the required education and background and enough creativity to grow old with the company. For a solid week after my day job, skipping dinner, I typed my application into the late-night hours, which included brainstorming and writing a variety of sample greeting card sentiments. Upon completion, I packaged the bundle and mailed the application. Afterwards, I even mentioned to a number of people my impending Kansas City move. I spent weeks elevated behind my rose-colored glasses, visualizing a future made for a sappy greeting card.

I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come.

That was my theme song that I sang to myself as the days rolled into weeks. By week six, I received a form rejection letter from the company that floored me. Like all form rejection letters, it basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

After receiving the bad news, I felt utterly dejected for weeks. My dreams of becoming a greeting card writer were strip cut and made undistinguishable as if they were forced through a paper shredder. Deep inside, decades later, I still feel a tad resentful over the missed opportunity that when I least expect it, kicks in the “What if’s.”

My failed career experience, however, did not stop me from being a loyal Hallmark customer. I still purchase Hallmark cards along, of course, with other brands, to send to family and friends. Though I’ve cut the volume down immensely, thanks to the internet, sending a few cards for special and “Just Because” occasions is still like a secret mission of mine that I like to keep up on.

Needless to say, I am part of the Hallmark Gold Crown rewards program, which means I receive monthly promotional coupons.

Here’s the dicey part. After our family tragedy, I felt like an out-of-control mechanical bull was bucking and spinning in my belly when I realized that every Hallmark Card coupon code started with four letters: “SUIC.”

Granted, to 99.9% of the population, those letters are an innocuous, random combination. To “survivors” such as myself, the manual control joystick on that mechanical rodeo bull in my belly malfunctions, gets stuck in “10,” the highest speed, and cannot be disabled.

Each and every time I wanted to reach out to the company, but between my PTSD and my age, I don’t stray too far from my safe bubble. So, month after month, I “let it go” and turned a blind eye to the coupon code.

Recently, I opened my Hallmark Gold Crown rewards email, and the bull straddled my belly, kicked and spun so hard that, without a second thought, I immediately sent Hallmark customer service a note. Part of it stated: “….As a loyal customer, every time I receive a Hallmark Gold Crown rewards certificate, I am distressed to see the following promo code at the beginning of all promo codes: ‘SUIC.'”

To me, I always fill in the rest of the blanks SUICide. Aren’t there any other letters you can start your promo codes with? Is it in anyway possible to change this letter combination considering the sensitive nature of suicide loss survivors?”

I hit the “Submit” button and didn’t expect much. This time, 24 hours later, Hallmark sent me much more than I expected. It might have been partially a form letter, but not completely.

“We are deeply sorry to know about your loss and appreciate the time you have taken to let us know your thoughts about the initial name of the promo codes. We understand your concern because we strive for great customer service. We hope you will accept our apologies for this inconvenience. As with all of our incidents, this will be sent up to our feedback department so it can be reviewed by them in their next discussion and take into consideration. We can assure you that your feedback will be heard, but we can not guarantee a change will occur.”

Rose-colored glasses removed, cynical me, I figured, “I’ll never hear from them again.” Surprise! Surprise!

So a few hours after the letter, I receive a new coupon in the mail:

$2 Reward

2021 August | EXPIRES: 10/31/2021

Use this PROMO CODE online: SUIA459890056

Notice the SUIA instead of SUIC

I don’t know if this is a result of my feedback, but, man, that helps gives me faith. Perhaps, during one of those rare moments in my life, I’ve been heard and influenced a tiny smidgen of life. My long-ago resentment is wiped clean, the mechanical rodeo bull disabled, and I’m taking my newest coupon to the Hallmark store to stock up. I’m fired up to restart my spreading-good-cheer mission initiative. Who knows, maybe while on a high note, writing notes, I’ll revisit my resume, research what greeting card writer opportunities are out there these days.

UPDATE:

So much for helping me keep the faith. I received a new code coupon with the SUIC code again. Bummer. I think I’ll write an old-fashioned letter to the corporate office. 😞 (I will keep my blogging community updated!)

Winning the🏆Real Prize🏆

Connecticut Press Club Award Banquet, July, 27, 2021

In all my days, I’ve arrived late, on time, but never early for a function. When my daughter, her godmother, who is my best friend, and I arrived for the Connecticut Press Club (CPC) awards banquet, we had 20 minutes to burn before the banquet started.

Last week, I wrote about my surprise when I realized I won the 2020 CPC second place for my blog post. After some arm-twisting from my daughter, I agreed to attend the awards banquet. What sealed the deal, as I also previously mentioned, was when I auspiciously discovered an inexpensive but beautiful turquoise necklace at a local store that seemed custom made for my black pantsuit that I planned to wear for the event.

Turquoise Necklace

“Turquoise, focus on turquoise.”

I know this is a nontraditional mantra, but repeating these four words helped me release most of my anxiety and PTSD symptoms on the day of the event. In my mind, all the negative, black thoughts were switched out. In their place rolled out a mellow turquoise the color of a New Mexico sky, moments after sunrise, very much akin to many of the photos that my friend sister Anne shoots.

What I am now aware of, that I was unaware of before, is that individuals suffering from mental health challenges cannot employ a mantra to slay their demon minds. Their demon minds slay them. For my son, this meant, outside of his workweek, total isolation.

I remember shortly before our family tragedy, I tried to help a close friend who was undergoing a tremendous amount of anxiety. I advised her to incorporate self-talk into her daily routine. Frustrated, she replied, yelling, “Self-talk doesn’t work for me.”

It was the first time that I started to comprehend the extent of individual variations of mental illness. Still, slaying my private demons decades ago, I fell into the group of positive psychology proponents. I believed that if you incorporate strategies like self-talk, mantras, positive affirmations and the like, it can help turn on a fluorescent light inside a darkened mindset. “Attitude adjustment” was the core belief. Now I know, you have to deal with mental illness before dealing with the attitude. In other words, if your mind is programmed differently as my son’s was, void of windows that allow the healing light to flow, there is no magic mantra to pull from a magician’s hat.

So, lucky me, last Tuesday evening, I possessed the mental clearance to leave the safe confines of my home. Upon arrival, wearing my turquoise necklace and saying my turquoise mantra, I can’t get enough of the turquoise sky crowning the Greenwich Water Club in Cos Cob, CT, a neighborhood in the town of Greenwich. The establishment is a private dinner/recreational club with an emphasis on water-related sports and boating activities for members, I gather, who never have and never will have to poke their rubber gloved hand into the cool water of a ceramic goddess and wash her majesty, a toilet.

Greenwich Water Club, Cos Cob, CT

As we make our way through the nearly full parking lot, the dust and sand from the spew of pebbles seems to undermine the club’s reputation. The clubhouse building ahead is impressive, but not imposing, perched on the Mianus River. The grounds are overrun by children and adolescents rather than adults. Members eat, swim at the built-in pool and, most obvious, relax, wane with the waning summer’s day that has turned into early evening. It is a Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week, but the sound of the children’s light laughter feels like a massage targeting just the right pressure points on my brain.

Inside a reserved space upstairs from the main restaurant, we are greeted with friendly CPC members who dispense name tags and apparently have no qualms about our early arrival. I scan the other name tags on the table, spotting one familiar one, Amy Oestreicher. It is a young woman and, although I haven’t been on Facebook for a number of months, a Facebook friend and fellow writer, not to mention artist and actress.  If given an opportunity, I make a mental note to approach her after she arrives.

Our trio nests in three leather, oversized chairs. I am stationed like a cut-down tree stump. I am there, but not really. My daughter prods me, “Go network.” Fortunately, it is the crowd I’ve grown up with: writers, journalist, PR professionals and all creative types that evenly pump my blood flow. I can do this. I rise and converse with a man who turns out to be the contest director. He informs me that the blogging category was fiercely competitive. Boo-yah! Ego found after being lost through 20 months of grief, isolation and sheer trepidation.

Later, in my seat, CPC officials, along with the evening’s emcee, award-winning journalist and TV personality, Mercedes Velgot, graciously greet us.

Before the presentation, though, I catch the eye of a woman directly across the way, who is with a dapper-looking gentleman. I smile and quietly admire the bright colors she wears.

“Do you know her?”

“No,” I reply to my daughter.

The presentation begins as Mercedes takes her place behind the podium, svelte and towering in a little black dress that elevates the word “perfect” to a higher level.

I’ve attended a vast array of awards presentations through the years and, overall, they are boring, not due to monotone speeches, but because the ego inflation makes my gut heavy, like it’s a soda can depository.

In total contrast, Mercedes’ opening remarks are succinct but packed with the kind of compassion, empathy, and honesty that makes you feel like you are listening to a dear friend’s counsel in your living room. The theme, of all things, is how every cloud has a silver lining, and how we need to learn to discover it.

She goes on to elucidate the many COVID-19 challenges of the prior year and how our world suffered in the eye of death, illness and separation. She also explains how her nine-year, award-winning travel show was canceled. Amazingly, too, she speaks about her voluntarism in different capacities during the height of COVID-19 as a front line worker, including training as vaccination assistant.

“This year has really taught us to be resilient. It’s taught us how to pivot. It’s taught us how to be grateful for each and every day. “

In addition, she credits prayer and “spiritual strength to persevere through all of life’s challenges.”

And adds, “Here’s to all of you … your talents in finding beauty in the human spirit through your pens. Keep writing and keep looking for your silver linings.”

I am blown over by her loving kindness and if the mind demons kidnapped me, instead of sitting in this lovely room with an extraordinary group of people, I would be alone in my bedroom faced with a three-D movie screen in the maniac projection room of my mind in morbid reflection of things best forgotten.

As if listening to the awesome speaker and watching other award recipients claim prizes wasn’t enough, when the award is announced for Amy Oestreicher, Mercedes informs the crowd that the recipient’s parents are present to accept the posthumous award for their daughter.

Posthumous award? How can Amy be dead? She was so young, talented – intent on living.

Question your thinking. I remember one of Mercedes suggestions during her opening remarks. Question your thinking. Self-centered was I to think I would be the one and only griever among the group. The one and only pain-ridden person.
Immediately, after the ceremony, I offer my condolences to Amy’s parents whose daughter died at the age of 34 from medical complications only four months prior. The grieving dad, it is obvious, is the mom’s anchor. Mom is a ball of fire. In spite of living through out-of-order death, the mom is an optimist. Her mission is to spend her life honoring Amy’s memory. The mom’s positivity is contagious and my faith-o-meter brims over.

My brilliant daughter advises me that I should mirror the grieving mom’s optimism. She winks her eye when she asks, confidently, “What are the odds of you meeting her and her husband on the same night you win an award?”

I nod my head. Is it coincidence or fate?

Looking back, the entire evening is lifted high in my memory by a faith muscle, fueled by the encouragement and support of my blogging community (thank you all!) and my close friends and, of course, propelled by my spitfire daughter.

ME
Connecticut Press Club Award Banquet, July, 27, 2021

To sum it up, I recall a well-known mantra that is intended to help anxiety: “Soham,” meaning “I am that” or “I am the universe.”

The idea reinforces the knowledge that I am one tiny brush stroke in a massive piece of artwork, a mixed-media, collage of life. The awards banquet last Tuesday is significant in my life because it reminds me of my insignificance. It reminds me how I can comfortably take a seat in the arena of life because whether we are in Cos Cob, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio, or south of the Congo River, there is a designated space for everyone of us if we are wired properly to see it.

I am reminded, too, that no matter how stationary I am at any given moment, time is fleeting. Nothing remains the same. Everything is temporary. One day we are there, sitting. The next day “Poof!” we disappear. Paradoxically, as if on a magnificent piece of artwork, all parts, seen and unseen, make a whole, a never-ending composition of triumph.

It is all there is and ever will be. Right now as my own life fleets by, I can’t stop time, but I don’t have to wait until it is too late to say and claim it: I am that.

Faith Muscle

Time Frames and Life Frames

Photo by Cole Keister on Pexels.com

In the late 1990s, I attended a seminar in which a woman discussed her recently published book about her experience of working with dying AIDS patients in New York City. Most of her talk centered around the taboo topic of death in today’s world. One of the biggest mistakes we make as a society, she said, is to presume that when a loved one leaves the premises, he or she will return.

My former self would never have fathomed how the author’s profound statement would one day relate to my own life. Two years ago this past Memorial Day weekend, my son left his childhood home and went back to his home, never to return again. My memory frames his tall, broad-shouldered, 26-year-old portrait standing inside our front door. The flashback triggers feelings of sadness and loss, wet and heavy like a low pile rug drenched in pain. I cannot wring out the emotions nor erase the calm look and smile on his ginger-bearded face in those shared final moments. When he was younger, he was the spitting image of his father. Now, his uncanny resemblance to me was unmistakable. Like a baby blanket hand washed hundreds of times, he was familiar to me. Ironically, at the time I was grateful that, in many ways, my job as a mom was a proud accomplishment. He had grown up into a successful young man. Best of all, I thought, I instilled a sense of independence in him and despite a string of setbacks, he had flown the nest.

The airport shuttle bus driver, who was waiting in the driveway to transport him to the airport, beeped the horn. I followed my son outside. I paid little attention to what I took for granted as just another gifted moment. As he sat in the mini bus, I do remember feeling as if he were a young boy again and leaving on the school bus. I waved goodbye as the vehicle disappeared. A part of my former, practical self kicked in and I became focused on my engine red to-do list that was on fire in my mind because there were endless chores, obligations and responsibilities to check off. Yet, another part of me yearned for him to stay one more day and watch the town’s Memorial Day parade, the one he once loved to participate in when he was growing up where there was always a place for him. Just one more day.

I was confident in our Gorilla Heavy Duty Adhesive bond and was tricked to believe no human hands, certainly not our own, could sever it. I returned to the house alone, walked into the entranceway where my mind’s eye captured a snapshot of him towered high, emphasized by the door’s frame. Saying his final goodbye, he had stood in front of the main door with his back to where the sun sets and not far from where our road intersects with another road named Sunset Drive. The same route the driver traveled to take my son home to where he lived on Sunset Road in Kentucky, about 600 miles away. Six months later, the unimaginable happened and my life as I had known it went poof like the blank shells fired during Memorial Day parades.

How could this have happened in my miracle-filled, storied life that began thirty-five years prior when I stood at a crossroads? At that time, I was given a second chance in my life and slowly developed a life of faith. It started when, angry at religion and filled with notions of a punishing God, the 12-step program I later ascribed to taught me to believe in something other than myself. This “something” was called a higher power, and I learned that the higher power could be as random as a doorknob, but the key was, as long as it wasn’t me, it seeded a belief, and the idea of giving up my reign of control on outside circumstances helped me discover something I never experienced – inner peace.

During those years, after a rough ego-shedding start, I was grateful for my new life. My thank-you notes were action steps. Whether someone needed a car ride or a supportive phone call, I helped. I also volunteered at the local hospital’s mental health unit. I watched resilient people overcome insurmountable obstacles. Living a life of witnessing miracles, how could I not envision a bright, promising future for my one and only son? However, the string of happy tomorrows was ripped from me like perfectly healthy layers of skin. The tragedy happened 21 days after a 35-year milestone of my practicing the 12-step principles. It was a time of celebration. On that tragic day, however, I stepped on the landmine I had built out of my sugarcoated optimism, fantasies and misconceptions, and it detonated; my former self left behind in the explosion.

When I saw my son for the last time, framed in the soft cushion of his metal coffin, my new self released into his lifeless palms crowned with his slim fingers and bruised hands, my former self’s 35-year coin, a hallmark of recovery that I carried proudly for over three decades in my wallet like a medal of honor.

Now, nearly 19 months later, the minefields are cleared. I do not trip over booby-traps of overexaggerated optimism, and there are no milestone victory coins any longer in my possession. Don’t get me wrong. I am indebted to the people who helped me achieve those thirty-five years. I have not lost my inner peace. Now, though, I exist within a heavy metal grief framework. I head into my 37th year of recovery with feet flat, accepting life on life’s terms, allowing the raw reality to bite hard, but without chewing me to a pulp. I put my faith into believing that one day the barren, flat ground underneath me will be the perfect level to witness a sunrise; a luminescent horizon, a photo worth framing that makes you believe in an endless loop of miracles that make a surprise grand entrance at your front door.

Faith Muscle

Monster Moms and other Musings

This year on Mother’s Day instead of focusing on my personal grief journey, I centered my thoughts around my mom. As a child into my young adulthood, I was so unlike her. I thought she had adopted me. I could barely share the same room with her. The word hate is too strong to describe my early feelings toward her, but I spent most of my time dodging her abrasive, nasty, many times cruel remarks, and dealing with the mental anguish that resulted. Believe me, she knew how to push my buttons, because she was a master installer.

Typically, particularly toward strangers, she was taciturn and morose. On the other hand, I was over-excitable, over-sensitive and talkative. Touch, too, was off-limits to her and our family. She was like a splintering telephone pole to avoid. It wasn’t until I was 27 that fellow Brian A. taught me how to offer a cordial embrace. I was an excellent student and, in turn, I became a huggy, touchy-feely person.

Along with learning healthy touch, I implemented a solid self-care program into my daily life, and to my shock, slowly, very slowly, my mom became softer. She switched out her destructive masculine qualities for sweeter, gentler feminine ones. By the time my own children were born, we spoke at least an hour a day on the telephone and, in between our hour-long talks, she called our house in endless succession to the point of irritating the entire household. Our conversations revolved around my son and daughter. She, too, never failed to throw in the latest sensational news headlines before we hung up.

Tuesdays and Fridays were scheduled for her day-long babysitting services, and she’d pinch hit on other days too. Any failings she had as a mother, she made up tenfold as a grandmother. The love between my children and their grandmother was knitted together in 14-karat yarn that could never be damaged, broken or severed. By the time I reached my late 40s, she, shockingly out of character, very matter-of-factly announced that she loved me and, of course, I reciprocated.

My mom had lost a son, my brother, too. He suffered a fatal stroke in 2002, 16 months after losing her husband, my dad, to emphysema. From that point on, I rallied around her and never failed to fudge and compliment her fine mothering skills. I wouldn’t award her any Best Mom trophies in the Hallmark Card sense, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she loved me and my brothers in the best manner she could. For so long society has painted women as natural caretakers, but this role was not a favorite of mom’s. Her fervid desire was to be a certified public accountant, working in a shiny, clean and sterile office setting, churning numbers, calculating hard-and fast-solutions. Instead, she settled in an unsettled family environment of obscure emotional demands at a loss for an exact formula.

In 2015, the year she turned 90, her final year with us, as she withered to illness, she constantly pleaded with me and Brother Paul, “Forgive me.”

To this day, I admire her for taking a personal life inventory and having the courage to complete her amends. As the years pass, her influence has become like a bone fused with my skeleton.

I constantly hear her broken English commands and her practical advice, like, “Clean up! Right away when make mess.”

She had tons of wise sayings too, for instance, “Where people, problems.” “You make plan. God crosses out.”

My mother was a petite woman who led a modest lifestyle in every regard, but she was huge on gratitude. You could give her a sunflower seed and she would dance with it in her hands until she eagerly planted it in her outdoor garden, profusely thanking you until you couldn’t stand to hear her thanksgiving any longer.

Instead of obsessing about myself this Mother’s Day, I am thankful to have had my mom for as long as I did. I also thought about other moms, the moms who did not get to see their children due to the pandemic and for other reasons. I, too, remembered the bereaved moms. The imprisoned moms. The estranged moms. The moms who sat in the same room as their children on the holiday but did not see them for who they were and only saw them for what they wanted them to be.

Moms. Moms. Moms. Inclusion is the buzzword these days, but society still disregards the moms that are so difficult to love, because many of them are simply hurting. It’s been said before: “Hurt people hurt.” Many times, the ones who really need a hug are those who appear they don’t deserve a hug. Monster moms, if you will.

“After one of her mother’s beatings, Ivy could, at least, count on being left alone for a few days. If the beating was particularly vicious, Nan might even cook Ivy’s favorite dishes and allow her to watch television before starting her homework. Nan neither justified nor apologized.”

The excerpt above is from a book, White Ivy by Susie Yang that I recently read. In a bizarre way, it makes me chuckle, because when we think about Mother’s Day and all-things-mom, the antagonistic moms in the novel of life are wiped clean, removed. There is no seat for them at the mom’s table. We close our eyes and, thus, do not deal with their existence. We hide their sickness. They hide too, getting sicker sometimes. At least in my case, I had a lot of assistance in learning how to love myself and then my mom reaped the benefits of my radiated transformation. She basked in it. The benefit of the warmth helped her begin her healing process.

I know one person who never forgave her mom for being verbally abusive. As far as she was concerned, her mother was dead. In turn, the woman grew into one of the most bitter, non-empathetic and punitive people whom I’ve ever met. Her persona exhibits a kind of cancer that eats her whole, and everyone that comes close to her. Ironically, a closer look reveals that she has become her monster mom.

On the other hand, I’ve known dozens of “adult children,” including myself, who survived a gamut of abuse, both mental and physical from their mothers (fathers too, but right now the focus is on moms!). Whether through therapy, divine intervention or some other form leading to positive transformation, the survivors not only survived, but thrived and arrived at a true forgiveness stronghold, and they stopped perpetuating the destructive pattern that was once modeled to them and those around them. Some of them reconnected with their moms and others did not. However, all of them are the kind of compassionate people whom you want to be around, because they make this world a better place.

I think sometimes moms are put on earth for the sole purpose of teaching their children to learn to forgive, which, of course, does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior.

As children, we naturally put our faith in our caregivers. When they disappoint us, we are like abandoned orphans, desperate for love, working overtime for the sole purpose of pleasing others. Truth is, growing up means uncovering the inner fragments, including the broken ones that make us who we are and teach us how to stand tall and be proud. This independence is important because sometimes we have to fill the boots and play the part of our of our own heroes and have the faith that we can fake flying with or without a cape even if we have aviophobia — a fear of flying. First, though, we have to lighten the luggage, compartment by compartment, until we can leap to freedom and parachute to a stable ground that feels like the gentle arms of a mother holding her newborn.

I hope that my blogging community of mothers, godmothers, fur moms and all other caregivers of the universe had a joyous holiday, and I give you all one big, virtual hug.

Faith Muscle

Cootie Super Spreader

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Shortly after losing my son, my friend, and confidant, Betsy, who lost a son about ten years ago, chuckled when she said that I would imprint my brain with a list of the people who attended my son’s funeral. “And, reprint a resentment list of those who didn’t!”

Her sarcasm proved to be true. It might sound petty, but small things like showing up for a young man’s, out-of-order death, is a big deal for bereaved moms, at least for this momma. I won’t belabor the number of MIAs on the list, but more than dredging up feelings of resentment, their unavailability leaves me baffled and, of course, hurt.

Take for example a woman I accidentally saw a few weeks ago. She works part-time at one of the churches in my town. Her son went to kindergarten and first grade with my son until our children attended separate schools after we moved to another town.

Before our relocation, my son and her son were best friends. I connected equally with her. In fact, I was there for some of the lowest, most vulnerable points of her life.

Over these last twenty years, she was “blessed” and things did work out for her. To the best of my knowledge, her mortgage is paid off. Her marriage is solid. Most importantly, her children are alive. Some fifteen months ago, when we had the funeral for my son, I expected her, like a number of others to be there. In addition, I expected her son’s attendance. I had faith in them. They were churchgoers. They were educated and well-versed in the golden rule. She worked at the local church and someone even bought a Mass there for my son. So, I’m positive the tragic news didn’t skip her or her family.

I not only expected her to be there, I needed her to be there. I hate to admit it, but there were two reasons I poured my heart out in my son’s obituary, which, now, I regret. Anyway, the first reason was to end the stigma of depression and suicide. The second was that behind the raw reality I painted in the obit, there was a vulnerable cry for help. As a former cub scout leader, long-ago loyal volunteer, I needed my long-ago tribe. I needed the familiarity of the people I once loved unconditionally. The people I staked my faith on.

In the end, there were two surprises I am grateful for. Michael G. One of the former wrestlers on my son’s team. I hadn’t seen him in a good 10 years. He showed up. Many of the teachers from my son’s high school also didn’t forget us.

After the nightmarish time of physically letting go of my son, when I am particularly feeling vulnerable, my mental list reprints inside my head. The list certainly kicked off when I saw the mom, parked and texting in her car with an unmistakably happy, snappy little aura spinning around her tidy little orbit of a world.

For a moment, I wanted to approach her. “Why? Please help me make sense of life and explain why you couldn’t spare thirty minutes of your Sunday afternoon or Monday morning to say good-bye? Or send a ninety-nine cent sympathy card. Why? Tell me how you contribute to global charities, but can’t give of yourself close to home? Why? Do I have cooties? Do you think you can catch someone’s bad luck? Do I symbolize a super spreader to you?”

Instead of cornering her and taking the risk of making her feel embarrassed, I “let it go.” I haven’t earned much in my career these last 36 years, but I’ve learned much from my 12-step recovery community. I do not have to harbor resentments. I can erase them. Start afresh. Let bygones be bygones, and allow her to drive off to her happy-ending home and obsess about the evening’s dinner choices. Me, I’ll take my crappy little bad luck “blessed” life. All of the hardships, abuse and downright cruelties. Like a young cadet, I have endured the boot camp of life. I know how to lift my head up, shine my heels, and look spiffy and coiffed. Cornelia, one of my beloved mentors, who passed away, and others, taught me so long ago. In other words, allow grace to soldier me forward. I may fall, stagger and sometimes think I do not have the strength to get up from the field of weeds, but I guarantee you, I’ll keep up with my manicures.

Faith Muscle

Faith-scape

Happy Valentine’s week to my blogging community. There is a space in my heart for every one of you!

Faith Muscle

Need Seed

My New Year’s wish list:

  • Hope for the hopeless
  • Voices for the voiceless
  • A sense of purpose, whether it is cleaning the sink or operating a business, for the bored and lost
  • Disconnection from social media and connection to real-life humans, see below
  • Inclusion for all, see above
  • The experience of one sunrise in the upcoming year that abashes the soul in its chorus of silence
  • Infinite Seeds of Hope packets to plant and create perennial gardens of aster, dahlia, goldenrod, mum, sedum and other vibrant and showy flowers that will illuminate the most pitch black soil

In fact, I think we can all be inspired by “Stars of Hope,” an art installation by Jane Ingram Allen at 620 4th Street, Santa Rosa, California, that was installed on November 25, 2020. The website states:

“In this time of a pandemic and an economic downturn, these stars of colorful handmade paper with seeds for wildflowers in them express hope for a brighter future in 2021. After the installation comes down in early 2021, these stars will be given out to residents to plant in their own yard or keep as a remembrance of this time and our hopes for a better world.”

  • Most of all, on the wish list is my hope for a better world. Always remember, even one positive change, albeit small as a mustard seed, can be the spark that inspires a “flowering” inferno one day.

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!