There is a tall and svelte woman Peggy that regularly jogs in my neighborhood. She works as an accountant at a startup company where her husband is the chief executive officer.
She spends more on keratin hair straightening treatments than most people spend on their monthly grocery bills. Temperatures and humidity could be soaring, and Peggy won’t break a sweat.
While I listened to the news on my car radio about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, that left 19 children and two adults dead, adding to an alarming series of mass killings in America, she rolled past my view like a smooth, scarlet-colored ribbon.
I was headed to Trader Joe’s for a bag of reduced fat cheese puffs. It was my usual justified, self-trickery. Predictably, I would return with two bags of additional snacks and ice cream.
During my shopping trip, in my mind, I pictured the families of the deceased as well as the families of the perpetrator. Faces seized by shock’s fire. Raging in sorrow, grief. Confiscated homes that were once smooth and sound and as predictable as compiling a grocery list. Lives similar to normal plane mirrors, a mirror with a flat (planar) reflective surface. Sure, you wipe them off. Remove the smudges and streaks. In turn, they work for you. Not so.
Men, women and children now trapped in a not-funny fun house of distorted mirrors where every turn from here on means smacking into another jarring convex and concave section. Where to go? How to go? Direction is lost in a maze of thick grief, ground sodded and planted with inescapable emotional booby traps.
My mind’s photos create a juxtaposition between scenes from the recent Texas tragedy and Peggy’s face, smooth with a ladybug complexion. I picture her scouring the pages on Amazon’s website, searching for blankets, sheets and pillows, helping her son get ready for his first year at an Ivy league school …. Gearing up for her jog the next morning.
During the rest of the week, the Texas tragedy unfolds on the news. I see the victims’ faces. Each one represents a wrinkle- and scar-free youth. I see the families’ faces. Each one, muscle lost, thin skin, ten-thousand tomorrows lived in a moment.
I repeatedly spot Peggy jogging out on the road. Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s “stunning” Italian wedding plaster the other news sections on my computer screen. By the time last weekend arrives, Platinum Jubilee celebrations of England’s queen steals the limelight as she hails “a renewed sense of togetherness.”
Maybe because it is my brain of COVID-19 (I was recently diagnosed), but I feel like I’ve lost my bearings, and I am out of touch, caught in unfamiliar terrain. I ponder, why can’t we all live a royal life of jubilation? Wander around, spending our days in a fun house where we can laugh at distortion, because it’s not real.
Why is it that some adults and children never seem to get a lucky break? Have they broken mirrors and it resulted in bad luck that exceeds its seven-year limit? Or is it that infants are born already swaddled in bad luck? Always by-passed. Never chosen to play on a sports team, while others seem to live life enjoying a daily picnic spread with plenty of no-calorie desserts?
Whether you consider yourself one of the lucky ones or not, the real question is, how do you find faith when there’s so much disparity? I don’t have the answer. I do know when I stay off the national news and social media and do something more productive like water ivy houseplants, I feel less anxious, less sad, less mad. I float on my sea of grief, cease the mean fight against the waves. It puts me back in my own shoes, and I can forge the walk-the-walk trek in life that I was taught 37 years ago. Pick up the discarded empty cigarette packs along the roadside in my teeny-tiny landscape. Pick up extra snacks at the store and give half away. Choose listening over talking. Stop thinking so hard and just be, because I am most precious to myself and others when I am humble, brave and free of distracting airwaves.
I wish my dear friend Patricia a happy birthday today. She is an incredible woman, a living icon and my children’s godmother, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many decades. I can’t believe it was only three years ago when we threw her a surprise 85th birthday party in her honor. The day of the celebration was four months after our family tragedy, and a few days before the world shut down from the global pandemic. Her party serves as an emotional bookmark and significant pause in my life.
As far as the Stand With Ukraine rally that took place this past weekend goes, hundreds of people turned out, but from the enthusiasm, it felt more like a thousand. The mood was solemn, yet hopeful and optimistic. Best of all, I’ve connected with a group of superior human beings whom I am quite certain will become life-long friends. Our common thread is that we have made it our duty to catapult off our couches and soldier forth with a vision to change the world for the better, even if it amounts to getting a war warrior and/or Ukrainian refugee a pair of new socks. A pair of socks may not penetrate the bleeding hearts of the Ukrainian people at the given moment during this time of continued war atrocities and future uncertainties, but someone nearly 5,000 miles away will at least have warm feet to help him or her inch forward.
War rips people apart and also brings them together. That is the common theme that I’ve been living this past week. Days before I started working on the rally, my dear friend and fellow journalist Kathy called to inquire if I needed any help. Once we decided to start a rally, I took her request seriously and she’s been there every step of the way. Now we have been led to work on a very exciting story about a hero of mine and hers, and I hope in the next few days as we draft and sculpt this story to its fruition, he will become a hero and an inspiring figure to many others.
In addition, I worked side-by-side with Brother Paul (he’s a water sign, I’m a fire sign and even if you don’t believe in astrology, it paints the picture) as well as his wife, my sister-in-law Diane, this past week. In the eye of what matters and counts in life, unconditional love has a way of squeezing into the cracks of broken hearts. With resolve of so many, our team effort paid off. The rally raised over $5,400 donations that will provide humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Ukraine.
Post rally, I also reunited with a childhood friend, another first-generation Ukrainian American woman, whom I haven’t seen in at least a decade. She reminded me of shared memories and her act of love helped me root myself deeper into my outreach efforts.
Birthdays, rallies, reunions. Faith is pretty plain sometimes like walking into a cobweb. You can’t see it, but when it wraps around you, man, it feels almost impossible to untangle.
My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.
On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.
From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.
“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.
Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.
Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.
My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.
Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.
At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.
“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”
I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”
“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.
In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.
“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”
There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.
“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.
Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.
Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me. My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.
After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.
A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”
Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.
Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”
Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:
…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:
“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”
In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:
Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.
After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.
The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”
My mother sullenly responded anytime I invited her to join me in a fun activity or special event. As I’ve previously mentioned, she was not only a World War II survivor, but trauma and pain shadowed her for most of her life.
A flat out “No” from her was unnecessary since the sharp tone of refusal was unmistakable. However, I discerned the truth. Her baby-like face, twinkling, daring eyes and partially upturned pink lips forcing down what would be a natural upturned smile, revealed the opposite of her initial response: “Sure, I’d love to go to … “
In fact, until she grew much older and frail, in spite of her protests, she willingly accompanied me on outings, whether they were to the local library, a tag sale, diner lunches or most of the extracurricular activities my kids were involved with when they were young.
After she died in 2015, I missed her company, but forgot about her fussing that preempted our outings. That is, until after our family tragedy and the aftermath of trauma in 2019. Suddenly, whenever I received an invitation or gift of any kind, my mom’s familiar words entered into my mind, “That’s for happy people.”
Survivor’s guilt can do a number on you. To say it feels like you’re “carrying a heavy burden” is pushing it. It feels more like you are stuck in a life that has become a hunk of hardened glue.
This brings me to the generosity of my dear friend Michelle who, at the end of last year, gave me a gift card for a massage. What do you think my response was? Thank you! Thank you! On the other hand, my contradictory mind, though, lamented: “That’s for happy people.”
Sadly, my last massage experience took place about one month before I lost my beloved son. I laid on the table incredibly relaxed and melting to pieces, but my mind battered me. I felt tremendously guilty, pampering myself while my son led a miserable dark, depressed life. Flashbacks of this dreadful time, of course, made me even more reluctant to schedule another massage.
Before Marshall’s birthday rolled around, I knew to “sit around” like a magnet attracting more darkness to the severity of the painful situation would not be wise. I found, however, to sequester and seek solace helps my pain management the most. So why not, I reasoned, take advantage of a massage — in a quiet space under a pair of healing hands?
The day before his birthday, I made an agreement with myself. “If I am able to schedule a last-minute appointment at the place then, so be it. It is meant to be.”
It was meant to be because wouldn’t you know it, there was an opening. The massage therapist’s name was Dawn. I also interpreted the double meaning in her name, the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise, as a sign.
I put my full faith into Dawn, a random woman I never set my eyes on, but who could either break the rest of my broken pieces or help me try and not shatter any more of the messy debris.
Needless to say, I was a wreck when I arrived on a brisk early afternoon, January 18, 2022. It boiled down to, I really, really needed a good massage.
When the woman who greeted me asked, “So, what brings you in?”
I swear I was so close to replying, “My dead son.”
Instead, I said, “A gift card.”
Ironically, Dawn turned out to be a nondescript woman who wore a mask that covered more of her face than necessary in a facility that requires everyone to wear face protection during these pandemic times.
Later, undressed and comfortable on the massage table, every time my mind started to scatter and squirm like an army of ants without my consent, I did my darnest to focus on what was. Be in the now. Humorously, her freezing cold hands won most of my focus. Then suddenly out of the blue, I recognized: “This is my life now.”
I was inspired from the publisher’s description of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir; a quote I could easily apply to myself now. “There is a frank acknowledgment of the widow’s desperation—only gradually yielding to the recognition that ‘this is my life now. ‘”
A few moments later, I heard my son’s voice in my mind shout, “Don’t touch me!”
Perhaps because of his shaky early years in the hospital, but my son, in the way some people don’t like to be around cats or dogs, was uncomfortable with physical touch and didn’t like a lot of human interaction.
The realization flew at me like a boat’s paddle: That was his life then and this is my life now.
My faith in Dawn paid off. At the end, I felt fluid. And it felt good physically. Mentally, my gift of peace was still intact.
On what would have been my son’s 29th birthday, after allowing Dawn’s icy hands to kneed and stroke me, I signed up for a year’s worth of massages.
This is my life now — if all goes per plan, I am now booked for a year of massages to take me through to his thirtieth in 2023.
This is my life now. Some, like Michelle and Camille, have stayed with me. Others have disappeared — to many of them I represent the fragility of our existence. In contrast, I honor my grief and the voices, oh, the unmistakable, unbelievable magnitude of voices that spin inside me and are part of all that I am and all that I will ever be, planted forever in the soul of now and every tomorrow, rising above the physical plane of temporary to the dawn of permanence and eternity.
Every time I see a lawn sign: “Love Lives Here,” I think of Geraldine. She was decades older than I was and has since relocated to another state, but was my support group mentor for two years when I was in my 20s. Geraldine was a budding artist married to a world renowned architect. The couple lived by the sound in an area known as the Gold Coast, an affluent part of western Connecticut.
We spent a good amount of time driving around the area, deep in conversation about the messy sides of love and life. Every now and then, I espied a particularly luxurious house and the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head, leading me to ask with a sneer, “Why can’t I live in a house like that?”
Geraldine’s response was always the same. “Don’t make assumptions. Facades are built to impress. We forget they are not real. The people inside are real. We do not know them. They can be poor in spirit. Sick with cancer. The facade you are looking at right now could be a cover up for domestic violence or child abuse.”
Geraldine taught me not to accept things on face value, examine beneath the surface of what appears to be real and discern the truth. It only makes sense that whenever I drive by a lawn sign, “Love Lives Here” (or any of those other saccharine signs), I immediately wonder if the sign merely conceals what is really going on inside — disease, death, destruction, dread and despair — suburban hunger and poverty.
So, this brings me to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. We were fortunate to spend another Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Anna and her family. The family consists of mostly well-educated, affluent medical doctors. They had invited their neighbor’s caretaker, Jose, to join us. He lives in the basement of his employers’ mega mansion. The family he works for were away for the holiday, and he was alone. In fact, this was the case last Thanksgiving when Anna and her husband also invited him to join them, taking proper precautions since it was during the pandemic’s mandatory quarantine.
It just goes to show, Anna doesn’t need to display signs of love on her lawn. You will find all the love you can imagine behind closed doors.
I had never met Jose before, but I knew he feared returning to the political and civil upheaval in his Latin country. When he arrived at the door, he wore a polyester beige top, chocolate-colored, loose-fitting trousers, with his head lowered. He grasped a burgundy wool knit hat. The skin on his hands resembled the surface of a cracked asphalt driveway. His indigo hair was sleek, straight as a piece of construction paper and held that just-brushed appearance. I would estimate he was around 50, but, maybe, the life lines covering his hardened face masked his true youth.
Realize, too, Jose does not speak a lick of English. Fortunately, Anna’s husband is fluent in Spanish, and he translated our conversations. Before our meal, Anna asked Jose to recite the prayers that he grew up with in Mexico. He willingly obliged. The words came easy like a well-worn, comfortable melody, softened with grace and elegance. I did not have a clue as to what he was saying, but I understood every word, because the language of love is universal. It tears down walls and barriers and connects us in all things good, pure and holy.
Rising above my own grief and sorrow, Jose’s eyes revealed secrets of his own sorrow as he prayed. Our connection of despair actually made me smile. We were unicorns that felt solidarity built upon a foundation of truth and faith. I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I didn’t need a billboard to figure out that the meaning of Thanksgiving stretches to every day of the year when it is engineered with the grand and noble emotions of the human heart.
When my children were young, the big yellow school buses crisscrossing the neighborhood streets were my official timekeepers. Weekdays revolved around the sound of their diesel engines. The first bus of the morning carried middle school- and high school-aged students. I remember the days when I never could imagine that my grammar school children in front of my eyes, wearing Pokémon socks and innocent smiles, would ever pull off the trick of growing big enough to travel on the early morning bus. The future felt as far away as the high school, which is at least a good half-hour ride to the adjacent town.
About forty-five minutes after the first bus, the next bus, carrying grammar school students, roared down the road parallel to us. That meant that breakfast dishes were tossed into the sink, backpacks flung over shoulders and the three of us dodged out the front door, down our cul-de-sac, past the next door ranch-style house. By the time we made it to the stop sign (we always did!), breaks squealing, the bus halted completely in front of us. Eli, the bus driver, swung the door open, ppssss.
The vocal magnitude of the two words ballooned big and booming, and made you feel as if you were on the other side of a bear hug. Eli’s broad beaming face erased any clouds as well as the discomfort of cold, hot, rainy days. His vigorous body language, combined with his waving hands, hailed in each new day as if it were a greater victory than the one before.
My children climbed up the metal stairs. Once they were safely inside, perched on their seats, Eli accelerated, spewing diesel exhaust fumes along the way. In those days, I was clueless about the toxicity of diesel fumes. Those were the days when I poured over parenting books, sure they would continue to navigate me and my family on the road map to happiness. Certainly those were not the days that reading books like the New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours provided me with therapeutic relief. The historical novel by Lisa Wingate is based on Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From 1924 to 1950, Tann got away with stealing and selling an estimated 5,000 children. It is also estimated that behind the organization’s closed doors, around 500 kids died at the hands of Tann, not to mention the countless children who were mentally, physically and sexually abused. In a morbid way, after I was dealt my unspeakably painful playing cards in the game of life, the book left me feeling as if I were the lucky one. I had the lucky hand.
Anyway, during the childrearing years, life went at a fast pace, but I moved in a slow enough pace to appreciate my bubble home. Weekdays, I performed household chores and tackled freelance writing assignments while keeping my ears open, listening for the big yellow school buses. Their daily routes helped to increase my productivity. “I have to hurry up before the kids’ bus gets in” outlined my day better than a day planner and kept me feeling safe and secure.
Years went on and before I knew it, magically, my kids graduated to the big-kid yellow school bus. Then in a flash of an eye, my grown children went to live on their own.
Before as well as after our family tragedy, apart from my Spotify background music in the kitchen, I blanked out most outside interference and noise, and fell into the routine of my days. On occasion, vaguely, I would hear the release of the squeaky air brakes on the school buses. Then suddenly, the world was completely floored by the Covid-19 pandemic and the neighborhood was emptied out and quiet. It were as if everyone of all ages were playing hide and seek, but none of the players got beyond the “hide” stage. Sometimes out of the blue when my blue moods would lift a tad, I had a sensation to roam outside and patrol the neighborhood, shouting “Olly olly oxen free!” and cry for life to wake up.
I’m not sure what the mask mandate is, but a few weeks ago, I am sure the town children started school again. I was driving down the road, and the cheery man bus driver with thick, white Santa Claus hair slowed down the big yellow school bus and waved at me. In the last few years of my children’s high school education, he replaced Eli’s job after Eli retired. I wrestled with my emotions and inspected the empty school bus. Suddenly, I gazed through the sight wearing my pair of rose-colored glasses and called out in my mind, “Olly, olly oxen free!”
I looked up and down the bus, but it remained empty. My imagination would not escort me beyond the reality in front of my eyes. The bus pulled away.
Hours later, running errands, I walked outside the drugstore in a strip mall. I heard a big yellow school bus barreling down the main road. I glanced up and spotted the sweetest looking ginger-colored boy I could imagine. He looked like he was around eight years old and wore the identical glasses my son did at that age. The loneliness in his face was as familiar as my arm hairs. The aura of isolation around him was overwhelming as if the big yellow school bus, completely empty, swallowed him whole. Sadly, the look on his face told me that he had learned early in life to accept his fickle finger of fate as if it were change returned from a vending machine. The bus, carrying the boy, moved past me and disappeared.
I wanted to wave the bus down. Wind the clock backwards. Instead, I stood like a prism. Pain passed though on every side until I became numb, my usual state these days. Like the boy on the bus, I accepted my state of isolation and managed to drive home and survive the day. The next morning, at the sound of the diesel engine, I move outside on the back balcony and observe the bus pick up the grammar school-age children. As I watch above ground, I think: this is my universe. It’s interesting to think how the shapes of galaxies are influenced by their neighbors, and I recall how many tragedies our little universe has endured: the spouses that have died before their prime, and the parents that have lost young adult children due to a number of different causes. I can clearly see the young mom who joined us at our school bus stop, later dying from cancer before her children ever graduated high school. I also visualize one child, older than my children, holding a saxophone case who also shared our bus stop for a few years, only to later die at 28 years old from what is rumored was a drug overdoes.
I think of how my neighbors and I have suffered alone and in solidarity with others. I picture how we have grieved inside our houses as the world spun on, as the big yellow school buses met their mapped out routes, crisscrossing the neighborhood as if invisibly connecting every single person who lives here, and who once lived here through the generations. My isolation lifts, realizing that gravity holds us all together like hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy. We are all the lucky ones on the same path to the same final destination, I say out loud as I watch the big yellow school bus muscle its way into the distance and realize how very little I see from this spot. Concurrently, I am filled with a child-like excitement of taking the very first school bus trip, having faith there is plenty of room inside and the big fat seat in the big yellow bus is designed for comfort, intuitively knowing that everything will be alright, because the route is planned. In the sheer scale of things, it is larger than our own milky way galaxy and defies imagination.
While checking into the Hilton in Long Island, New York, this past weekend with my daughter to attend her former college roommate’s wedding celebration, across the lobby, we witnessed a platonic embrace between a man and a woman that stopped us in our tracks and, for a few seconds, so did our world.
Nineteen years ago, shortly after my brother Mike died suddenly from a stroke, someone gave me a wallet-sized, inspirational card with an illustration of a beaming Jesus hugging a young woman. On the card it said, “Entering the Gates of Heaven.”
Whether you are a Christian or not, the image represents the essence of universal love. In real life, if you are fortunate to experience the magnitude of this type of love, it would equate to living a thousand lifetimes onboard a peace train of which the grandest theme is acceptance and harmony so powerful, it reaches and washes out your deepest, darkest, ugliest, most shameful crevices and allows the sunshine to warm, caress and heal every wound, scar and trauma.
Watching this young couple across the way at the hotel, I saw the young man’s face in the face of Jesus pictured on the prayer card, along with the woman’s windblown hair whose silhouette also resembled the image on it.
The woman could barely catch a breath in between her tearful cries, because of the emotional exhilaration, and it felt like the hotel walls would pop open from the joy. For a moment, superimposed on the man was my now deceased son and on the woman was my daughter. Obviously, I don’t know what my daughter’s take on the sight was, but what I saw was a reunion between the living and the dead unfold on a white marble floor of a Hilton hotel.
After the dramatic embrace, it turned out that my daughter knew both of the people, and, in fact, they were all part of the bridal party. The man had just flown in from Los Angeles, California, and the woman had flown in from Richmond, Virginia. The two people, who had embraced, once shared a semester abroad, along with the bride, in Germany. The reunion between them was a telltale sign of how a connection grows through the passage of time and memories shared, painted in easy, carefree, lofty and heavy highlights.
This is how the wedding weekend began. It was a postponed wedding due to COVID-19. A wedding I dreaded attending, knowing the pain points it would touch. Fortunately, I was prepared; warned by a dear friend about the “Mother and the Groom” wedding song. My defense tool was advice from another dear friend Michelle: In essence, I was there to be happier for the bride and groom than sadder for myself. The advice worked! (Thank you, Michelle!)
The wedding began with love between friends reuniting and then moved to a couple sealing their vow of love. One of the readings at the church was from Corinthians 13, 4-7, a favorite among ceremonies and, in fact, one of the readings at my wedding over 30 years ago, a now dissolved marriage. The famous last line states, Love Never Fails.
The way I interpret the passage is that love failed in our family, because many falsehoods prevented it from forming a pure, genuine love and, ultimately, our unit failed. I’m okay with that for today, because if I do not work in truth, there is no hope for love.
Anyway, the wedding crowd was composed mostly of young, brilliant adults who are changing the world in positive ways. During the reception, I never dreamed I would dance without guilt, but I did! I saw it as long overdue exercise, and it worked. I was, however, overpowered by some flashbacks sitting at the table during the reception, remembering how at the last wedding I attended in 2018, my son kept me glued to my cellphone for a good part of the wedding, despairing about his agonizing love life. The last wedding he ever attended was when he was seven. Deep in my pained gut, I knew he would never have an opportunity as an adult to attend a wedding function, which included his own. By the end of that night, half the male bridal party was commiserating with him outside on the patio on my cell phone. I laughed at the situation, feeling we were all working in the solution mode and on that night, it was true.
At this past weekend’s wedding as the night rolled on, when the traditional wedding songs began, I darted into the restroom until they ended. I can participate in life, but also allow for human limitations by guarding myself.
Looking back, the weekend moved along smoothly, a few hiccups, but no hacking or fevers. I’m left meditating and pondering upon genuine, unconditional love and different types of love. When I first married my husband, in my heart of hearts I believed it would last forever. I believed we would retire, rent an RV and take a year to drive to Alaska, adopting as many old, unwanted shelter poodles as we could along the way. In his own words, he wanted the same ending, but midway through the book, I turned the page, and he disappeared. Though he verbalized what he thought I wanted to hear, he failed to verbalize the truth and allow me to accept it and risk my not responding with unconditional love. In this manner, love failed. Fake love always fails.
From that point, the three of us that were left behind tried to survive best as we could. I will always harbor a tremendous amount of guilt today knowing and realizing the mistakes I made as a mother. One thing I always put my faith into, though, was the greatest thing that mattered to me: seeing both my children grow up as happy, thriving adults. I had faith with fabrication. My son held back nothing from me. Incapable of meeting him on his level, because I believed that the solution that worked for me would work for him, I spoke to him as if he were my twin. It was only a matter of time, when everything backfired and my dream shattered in half, with only one-half remaining, my daughter. I never thought I could be more grateful to have her. She is brilliant and compassionate, much like my son was and also gregarious, positive and confident – in that respect, a total opposite of my son. I am over-the-top grateful these days for her existence.
Now, for damn sure there won’t be any earth-stopping reunions in this life between my daughter and her brother or me and my son. I might dance for the sake of exercise, but not for the sake of pure joy. Those days are done and useless to think about like disposed tattered socks.
Fortunately, I have the mental capacity to still love a little and feel a big happy heart for others while throwing off the pitiful feelings for myself. In this way, I did receive a surprise bonus during our wedding weekend. The groom – quiet, introverted, kind, a good listener, considerate and compassionate – reminded me so much of my son. His image comforted me to the point of giving me such a sense of fulfillment that it felt like a spiritual reunion akin to a group hug teeming with lace, glitter and a gown’s trail long enough to almost reach heaven.
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 aboutmy 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, 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.
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 topersevere 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.
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.
I was in the process of writing a blog post on humility, of all topics, and I was bombarded by emails from the Connecticut Press Club about their awards banquet, emceed by award-winning journalist and TV personality Mercedes Velgot, which happens to be tonight, my least favorite day of the week.
I am a member of the Connecticut Press Club that is an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) and includes both male and female members. Every year, the club sponsors a Communications Contest. The last CPC award I won was for an article I wrote in 1997. The article garnered a first place award for travel writing.
Earlier in the year, since I’ve been pouring so much blood, sweat and tears – lots and lots of tears – into my blog posts, I decided to submit one of my blog posts for CPC’s 2020 contest, Am I in the Right Room?
To provide some of my blogging background, I started WTF (Where’s the Faith) in 2013 as a personal blog when I was working in the corporate realm. The blog uses the tagline, “A blog of comfort during unpredictable times.” WTF draws on both secular and spiritual principles to support, encourage, inspire and sustain readers while they face challenging situations.
Although I started WTF in 2013, I rarely updated it on a regular basis. In 2019 after my personal family tragedy, I terminated my personal writing projects, including a novel that I’d been working on since 1996, and sunk inward. Four months after the tragedy in March of 2020, my fellow writer and longtime friend, Laurie Stone, who recently won a National Society of Newspaper Columnists award, encouraged me to return to blogging and suggested that I simply write posts about how my “Faith-O-Meter” (as I now refer to it) is on empty.
I followed Laurie’s advice and began to post on a weekly basis. With the exception of one post that was accidentally scheduled, my posting schedule remains the same: Every Tuesday at 1:51 p.m. This is the timepoint when the Russellville, Kentucky, coroner notified me of my 26-year-old son’s death by suicide.
Some grieving parents build organizations, charities and foundations for their departed children. I now forge a bridge of faith, in honor of my son Marshall, out of word bricks, hoping that my pain will help heal the world.
Anyway, as I undertook completing the award entry submission, in the back of my mind, I thought, “With my luck, I’ll win.”
Of course, in my prior life, my normal life, the goal of entering a contest was to win and receive an award. Ah, duh! During the 1997 CPC awards presentation that I attended, I remember flicking around the spotlight like a giddy moth.
Nowadays in my life, I am worn down dodging abundant minefields rigged with booby traps. The most innocuous people, places or things – questions like “How many children do you have?” – can trigger emotional pain that further shatters every broken part of me like a massive electrical explosion.
Personally, at this time, I am safest, and achieve my desired equilibrium when I keep my presence to a minimum in the outside world. Even if this pandemic fully disappears, I will likely continue to spend as much of my time as possible in a quarantine mode.
Knowing all this, I took a risk, hit the submit contest entry button and dove into my daily work schedule. When I received the spring notice and realized that I did not win first prize, I breathed a great sigh of relief and happily returned to tackling my overloaded work schedule.
Fast forward mid-summer, Thursday to be exact, and, as I mentioned, I’m bombarded by CPC emails. Suddenly, last Thursday, the salutation caught my eyes: “Dear Contest Winners …”
Wait A Minute!
Immediately, I download the list, scan like a crazed sleuth-houndand find the improbable that is now A reality: I won SECOND PRIZE for my blog post.
My mind switches to an instant projector mode and in front of me is a panoramic view of my son. A stage. An award that I won for my attendance in a work-related program. The year is 2016. Last minute, my son accompanies me as he sits in the passenger seat while I drive to the awards presentation. It is a big step for him since he is withdrawn by nature and crowds trigger him. He is a 23-year-old bundle of nerves. Halfway there, his fury and rage forces me to veer to the side of the road and halt. He does not want to attend and makes it known, shouting: Why do you force me into these things? Why did you “make” me go? Why do YOU control ME?
I’m an adult, he repeats.
Instantly, I scream back in attack. I’ll take you home right now. Turn around. You ruined my whole day. My special day. My award. Why do you do this?
We are parked in front of a massive Queen Anne-style house, and his brawny physique, suddenly, seems to shrink in size. I catch his eyes and realize that an uncontrollable sense of fear has shut the shade on the actual reality of the situation. Somehow by some miracle, I refrain from lashing out. Actually, it isn’t a miracle. My 30+ years of 12-step life kicks in. Pause. Instead of working off his rage, my empathy takes me on a brief tour, into the pit of his fear, sadness and black hole, lost in an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.
It will be okay. You always go through this. Once you’re there, everything will be fine — that’s what always happens. We will make it together. My tone softens.
We both grow silent, his favorite state of being, and we drive to the awards banquet, not another word exchanged. As per his usual modus operandi, after we arrive, he was all smiles, refined, quiet, looking dapper, but covered with a light sheen from sweat under his blood-red shirt.
I envision Marshall as he perches over the balcony, beaming as bright as the spotlight in his typical seat-for-one seating arrangement at a small, round table. I feel his glow as I receive my award. Later, in the night, I pry him from out of the background like a fly on a tape trap and prompt him to join me and other celebrants. Still all smiles, he is amicable. Everyone likes him.
On the car ride home, he talks about the pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence, which was one of the presented topics at the awards ceremony. As I listen to his discussion laced with lofty facts, I have a burning sensation of looming dread in the pit of my stomach sensing a cryptic future lays ahead for us both.
Recalling my premonition switches the instant projector mode into a high, out-of-control gear in my mind. As difficult as it is, I refocus on my winners list inspection. It’s my name, maiden name and one-time married name. My children’s last name. The one Marshall took so much pride in.
I won SECOND PRIZE for my blog post.
I think back to the first award I won was in 1994 from Northwestern University for a parenting magazine article that I wrote for parents and how they can prepare their child for hospitalization. I wove my son’s story, who underwent open heart surgery in his first year of life, into the article.
My first award-winning story was about my infant son’s recovery. Now, this “award-winning” story is written as a result of his out-of-order, young demise. I wrote it with his blood. This is how I won an award? A “losing” topic for me?
I am now crying, bawling in my office alone, because this turn of events should not have happened. My son should be here and not perched on a random star in another galaxy as my best friend so succinctly contrived in an attempt to lighten one of my meltdowns not that long ago.
He should have won the award for his AI speech that he presented me with after the last award I won in 2016. Or, he should have won the award for the extraordinary metal parts he engineered and created shortly before his death with his gifted hands. And, I am bawling harder, knowing that his first-grade kindergarten teacher should receive the dunce award for stressing our family out because she failed in properly assessing him and said he lacked “fine motor skills.”
So, here’s the point. As most, if not all, award recipients promenade into the banquet located in no-less Greenwich, CT, primped, proper and ready, I know that I will be dodging these kinds of 3-D thoughts and visual minefields and booby traps. I will be the one working overtime to shut down my out-of-control images, triggered by PTSD, and silence the thought pattern that questions the why behind the award and toiling even harder when the what if tries to force its way in. I will now have a firsthand take on how my son felt in crowds.
For all these reasons, and more, I did not intend to attend the awards banquet. That is until my spitfire daughter, who happens to be visiting with kitty for about three weeks, kicked into her battle cry that is preempted with “Life is for the living.”
Needless to say, last Thursday night, I put lipstick on my drained and depressed self and joined my 26-year-old cheerleader daughter for dinner. Afterwards, we stepped into to a nearby store. I never shop for jewelry, but a long, dazzling, silvery turquoise necklace caught my eyes. I knew the piece was made for the black pantsuit I discussed possibly wearing to the banquet earlier that night during dinner with my daughter.
It goes without saying, first thing on Friday, I ordered three tickets: one for me, my daughter and her godmother, my best friend for the awards banquet.
So, here it is: SHOWTIME! Dear blogging friends and community, please think of us tonight. Actually, as I think about it, let me humbly prepare myself to think of all of you as my 12-step program teaches me.
These posts since March 2020 have turned out to be a means of catharsis, one of the only places where I feel safe to express fully my sadness, grief and, yes, hope and faith. The reason behind this sense of security is that I feel heard and supported by many of your comments, “likes” and personal communications. For the first time in my life, I am learning about different cultures, an area of fascination for my son that I never had the opportunity to share with him.
Obviously, I will not have an opportunity to share this moment with him either. What gives me solace, the faith to step into the minefield and booby traps of the banquet hall, is the visual that he is nesting inside a star somewhere in another galaxy. This time, fear, far removed, is replaced by a celestial glow in his eyes that, I hope, will also cast a spotlight on our souls tonight.
You can do it, Mom. Like you used to tell me, “Whether you win or lose is not the point. You’re a winner for showing up.”
You can do it. You have to take the first step into the field before you can locate and deactivate a mine.
Eleven years ago, my ex-husband suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his family. Last Father’s Day, my then 25-year-old daughter, Alexandra, had weathered the holiday storm well, especially considering that she was in isolation as a result of the worldwide pandemic, and it was the first Father’s Day she was grieving the loss of her 21-month older, only sibling.
A few people over the years have offered unsolicited advice, saying that my role was to be a father as well as a mother. I told them that’s pure nonsense. I can only be a mother, because that’s my role. My role is not a father role. My role as a mother has changed, but during those times when a situation baffled me, my 12-Step foundation kicked in and the answer never failed: unconditional love.
I knew it was a sad holiday for her and on the wings of faith (and Mama Sandra) this past Sunday, I did what I really was scared to death to do, but did anyway, and that was to drive into New York City from our little green town about an hour and a half away for a visit with Alexandra. After 30 minutes, I regretted my decision since it seemed everyone on the road was vying to size up for the Indy 500. In comparison, I felt as if I were Grandma Moses hitting the highway, taking a folk art painting break for the day.
When I finally arrived, Alexandra and I went to a nearby movie theater to see In the Heights. My daughter, a former Washington Heights resident, had been raving about the movie since its premiere. I suppose most people attend movies in the same manner they brush their teeth – without overthinking it. For me now, I live in the screenshot of life, but, in actuality, I am also knee deep in a subplot that changes, but what doesn’t change is the reoccurring theme of pain.
This was the first movie I saw since the passing of my best bud, brilliant 26-year-old son, Marshall. As we walked inside, down the movie theater’s hallway, my PTSD from losing a child kicked off. Here’s a little snapshot of the subplot that played in my mind:
What was the last movie he ever saw? Oh, that’s right. It was about two years before he died alone in the bedroom closet of a house he rented in Kentucky, a death later sealed with a clean toxicology report, the site of two previous suicides. I have no clue what movie he saw, but it was shortly before the landlord wouldn’t allow him to break the lease of the house he despised. He went with a woman he had recently met online. I was overjoyed at the idea that he met her and did not have to be alone on the weekends. As it turned out, for about a month in Kentucky, she finagled every dime she could from my son to provide complimentary entertainment and dumped him after Marshall started realizing that she was taking advantage of his resources.
What was the last movie I saw with my son? I believe it was Avatar in 2009. When we were still a family unit, the four of us sat engrossed as we watched the movie. Silly me, I lavished in those moments, not because of the movie, but because I was sitting next to the three most important people in my life. During that time my gratitude could fill the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and that was just to start with, because it overflowed. Silly me.
In essence, since the 2019 tragedy, I have trained myself to black out my mind’s screen. Inhale. Exhale. Real world.
I chanted my mantra: Keep the faith. You will make it through.
However, ten minutes into the movie’s preview section, I took a nosedive into the dark abyss. I felt like a flea that was swallowed up by a bad, bloody case of hemorrhoids as overblown as the theater. This time faith was futile. No mantra would work.
You see, two separate movie trailers involved two young men who died of suicide. Both of the clips hit deathly close to home. I braced, tried not to fall too far into the bloody swamp. I heard my daughter ask, “Do you need to go into the lobby?”
No lobby. Just a lobotomy I need. That was what I wanted to say but froze and somehow my sick humor helped to pull me up, and I returned into my skin as the hemorrhoidal monster shrunk.
Keep the faith. You will make it through.
By some miracle, I was able to focus on the movie. You do not have to be Hispanic or a first-generation American or immigrant to relate to the musical that is filled with a sense of hopefulness in the eye of the hopeless and voices in a climate of the voiceless.
“We are all one.”
That’s what I thought as I saw Alexandra’s tears flow. It was then that I realized living life in America is not always about achieving the so-called American Dream: Life, Liberty and Justice for All. It is also about lifting each other up as a community when we fall into the subplots of life that do not appear as if they were written for us in mind. Those times when we feel forced to wear costumes in which there is barely room to move, because they are not suited for us, yet we manage to stuff ourselves down to our “soles” and walk the line of courage with fake faith and hope.
Examining the movie closer, my daughter saw her grandmother, my mother, who died in 2015, in the character of Abuela Claudia, matriarch and surrogate grandmother of the barrio. She keeps her culture alive and never loses the true definition of value. Abuela is the perfect example of how we, as a society, should not measure people by their titles, but on the ground they stand on because, in the final analysis, it is how they make it sacred – turn it into a better place than it was before they stepped on it, even if that means undertaking a tiny action like making their bed in the morning.
Abuela’s ground is sacred because she views everything as sacred, even a bread crumb. Powerless to her meager circumstances, she finds willpower to forge on in life by stringing herself along on the small details that skip others by, details like hand embroidered towels. Likewise, even though the world beat my mom to the ground, she survived by seeking leverage from little things like robins and sparrows. No matter how insignificant to others, she reveled in the details, a perspective the movie brings to light.
I, in fact, remember my mom making the sign of the cross three times and kissing a piece of bread before reverently putting it in her hand to eat. I can also recall my mom flattening wrapping paper in her soft hands and putting it in a drawer that smelled like a lilac garden. The drawer was full of crumbled wrapping paper from gifts she or our family had received over the years. To her, it was not just her appreciation, but the value of the giver who put the effort behind presenting the gift. It was as if she took the love that was given and continued its acknowledgment into infinity.
Thankful for every little crumb of substance, like Abuela, my mom, as limited as she was, did not limit her generosity and was truly delighted to bestow gifts of her own. For years, when I was growing up, she knitted poodle dogs around whiskey bottles for many of the neighbors. Sometimes I was saddened because she wrapped things that were already in the house and gave them to me on my birthday or Christmas as presents. Today, I realize it wasn’t that we didn’t have the money or she was being vicious, it was that everything to her was a gift. Like Christians who spread the word of the gospel, she spread love through re-gifting, because nothing in her eyes lost its value even if it loitered around for years and years.
In fact, when my mom gave my daughter or son something of hers like a butterfly pin, it wasn’t just a piece of jewelry. It was a part of her and she gave it with her heart and soul. That was why Alexandra wept, because each and every little token her beloved baba presented, no strings attached, to both her grandchildren, is the spirit that weaves through her and brightens my daughter’s sad and cloudy life. Hopefully, one day the good memories shared with her brother and maybe, by some miracle, her father, will also lighten the load she carries.
My soul, too, is a tapestry of unconditional love, gifts I have received over the years. It patches me up when I am down lower than dirt so I can stand my ground and maybe be strong enough to give pieces of it away. This is the faith I walk. Giving others unconditional love is my duty to carry on the legacy.
Alexandra summed up the movie as we hit the hot air outside the theater: “It’s all about community!”
I remembered when she was younger and said DNA did not make a family. Love did. If this is the case, my daughter and I have a huge family bulging at the sides! It is our little barrio full of people like the children’s godmother and my partner and his family and my friends Michelle, Camille, Anna and Anne and the handful of people who walked March 2020 on Marshall’s behalf to raise awareness that we are all vulnerable, regardless of how we act, what we do or what we say; and so many others, who drive the extra mile to visit. It is the people who do not understand our pain, but will ask us about it because they are ready to listen without judgment. It is the people who are brave enough to mention my MARSHALL’s name and share a beautiful memory about him.
In the movie, the community of Washington Heights experiences a blackout, but at their lowest point they prevail because of the one lone voice that tickles the imagination to believe in Santa Claus proportions. Eventually, the electrical power comes back and lights up the Heights. In the end (spoiler alert) Abuela dies, but the director successfully presents the process of dying as walking into a bright light.
That’s our non-DNA family: a bright light that if we can’t find it, it will find us, and we have a steel-like faith that we will travel through those Indy 500 days even if it knocks the wind out of us because in the end, the only thing of lasting value is love.