Since our family tragedy, my mind has a tendency to race when I drive. Let’s put it this way, the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day, but when I’m driving, 15 minutes or more down the road, probably a day’s worth of thoughts burst into my brain that amount to something likened to a hefty slice of the milky way.
I am beyond grateful that my daughter moved closer to home last August. So is she, because at the beginning of the month, as the world heralded in 2023, my daughter and her friends went on a long weekend escape, and I drove over 40-minute stretches one way for four days in a row to spend the day with her two fur baby rescue cats.
In my mind, the coming new year simply reinforced how the world continues to move on. In the revelers’ mental “crystal balls” they foresaw job promotions, reunions, trips, graduations and so many bright future possibilities. Over three years ago, I was part of this group. Now, I lack a crystal ball and determination. All I know is that it amounts to another lost year without my son. Another year in which I will strain a little bit harder to recall his deep voice, his silly smile, the way he glowed and his thick eyelashes fluttered when I assured him of his impending millionaire status by the time he turned 40.
Another year … another year … was my highway song this past New Year’s weekend.
“Did you stay up until midnight?” My daughter asked me in a text on the morning of January 1st.
I didn’t have the heart to inform her that, no, I was unloading laundry from the dryer at around midnight, trying to erase killer thoughts and staying to myself because I didn’t want to hinder anyone’s festive mood.
New Year’s Day evening rolled around, and I came home from the fur babies after a particularly disturbing exchange of “highway talk.” I sulked, sad and silent until I picked up my phone and saw an IM from my cousin in Ukraine, wishing me Happy New Year.
At first, I thought she contacted me for the sole reason of informing me of the arrival of the package. In actuality, she simply sent a wish: Happy New Year, my dear family.
No strings attached to her greeting. She didn’t receive the package, but she still cared enough to take the time out of her war-savaged world to wish me a happy New Year.
Now, I found something else to worry about. The package. Was it lost? Stolen? I mean, there is a war going on after all.
On January 2, I received the following IM:
I received your package today. I can’t express the joy of my children!!! I am very grateful to you for so many things!!! Everything is very good. one jacket was small for my son, and the boots were small for my daughter, everything else fit!!! I sincerely thank you, your friends. this is a very big help for me
Suddenly, 2023 came into full view by examining one sugar cube out of the big, bad bowl of unknowns.
Was I feeling better? Yes and no. I do best when I don’t judge ANY of my feelings, because my feelings remind me that I am a human being, a work in progress. Off or on the highway, it’s important for me to recognize the gravity of a situation and work through my feelings in order to move forward. NOTE: “Move forward” in this case does not mean “let go” of the grief because, as others have noted: we grieve because we love. (How lucky is that? LOL!) Moving forward, in this case, means to step through each day and be true to myself by allowing my feelings — whatever they are and for however long they exist. I consciously worked on this process for nearly 40 years, and what I’ve most definitely learned is that no one feeling will last forever (at least in my case). In addition, each and every time I sit with whatever feeling I am experiencing, I am stronger and more confident. The more I build myself up in this way, the less I have to tear others down. I am at peace in the world.
Feeling good all the time, FOR ME, is toxic positivity. It doesn’t work. I tried it in my early 20s and failed miserably. I remember when at 25 years old, I was out of control and a mess of emotions, because I always stuffed them behind a happy face. I couldn’t differentiate one emotion from another. How could I when I erased all my so-called negative feelings? My first newfound emotion was utter rage. (It makes sense to me now, because how else was I going to feel after having my identity robbed?) The day arrived when a mentor advised, “Embrace it. Embrace the rage.”
At first, I thought she was crazy. Then I decided I would try it. Day after day, I locked myself in the safety of my car and just hollered and screamed. That was my way to embrace the unwelcomed turbulence in my mind and before I knew it, it diminished in size and lost its demonic proportions. In other ways, over many years, I proceeded to deal and integrate other feelings and emotions. I embraced the pain. Embraced the sadness. Embraced the sorrow. Embraced everything else.
Before long, I could breathe normally again, and even learned to embrace the joy and the laughter, which I had felt guilty over. Suddenly I realized I could embrace the newness of a situation. Embrace the familiarity of old sheets, newly washed and calling for my tired body.
Mind you, embracing all this messy stuff wasn’t accomplished in a chronological or logical sense. I remember a lot of laughter while experiencing some of the most challenging, pent up feelings.
I consider myself fortunate in so many ways. Since I was 25, I learned how to embrace my messiness, because “my healers” embraced me during the process. I was never too messy to not be loved.
Maybe during the 1980s, folks were more in tune with their emotions. These days it seems no one wants to hear a sour puss or a sad puss or someone who isn’t happy and a great success through and through. Maybe it started with the inception of Fakebook when we lost our personal intimacy and human humility. Anyway, I’ve lost most of my early “healers” who loved every single bit of “the messy” I presented. I am grateful for their legacy, because it carries me and keeps me in balance.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself as I embrace what feels like but really isn’t the lowest of lowly emotions.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself when I feel I “shouldn’t” feel joy at a given moment, like when my grand fur babies are purring alongside me. “It’s okay,” I tell June, the deaf fur baby who chewed up my slippers. I can empathize with her anxiety. (Later, I found out it was Gemi who did it!)
“It’s okay,” I reiterate. (Before the tragedy I wouldn’t have been so understanding.)
I don’t need a crystal ball to see if it’s going to be another year of trials and tribulations, haunting memories and sorrow. It’s going to be up and down and all around, and with each passing day, I grow a day closer to the raw truth of my death. Even if I could have a crystal ball, I’d resist. Through it all, those wise owls that were once in my life gifted me with the priceless notion of faith. It’s made me into a big, bad mama, and I’ll take the ride flying solo, ‘cause I CAN, damn it. This is what I have learned. It is my proud culture pumping in my blood. In essence, I’m a born coward, yet biting the bullet, closing my eyes, taking baby steps into the landmine of life. I can do it, I can do it.Here I go, watch me.
One of my blogger buddies shared that self-motivation is tough and, obviously, that’s what it takes to blog on a regular basis. It’s even harder when there appears to be a lack of interest in the blog your write and, as a result, no or sparse comments. I can relate to why she feels that way. It can be scary to reveal your thoughts with the world. In return, it’s discouraging to feel like you’re not heard and people don’t listen to what you have to say.
Occasionally, I look at other blogs and marvel (with green eyes) over the thousands of followers and dozens of comments that each post attracts.
This concept is along the same lines as when my son, an adolescent at the time, cried out in defeat, “I’ll never be famous.”
No, he wouldn’t be famous. Not in the same vein as Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers. The reality is most of us are not famous or achieve an influencer status. Most of us just are. A close friend of mine, Father Francis Canavan from Fordham University, who passed in 2000, always taught me that being content with our mundane lives is a tough call for our ego to reconcile with. In our world of constant social media distractions, it is easy to feel we are missing out on the great life that everyone else is “Fakebooking” at the given moment.
We live in a society that celebrates beauty and success and encourages us to chase after it at all costs. Couple this phenomenon with an innate desire to be better, do better, and have more. It makes sense that when you tune into almost any news outlet for five minutes or less, it seems everything publicized is a punch fueled with greed, power and a lot of plastic surgery thrown in.
Don’t get me wrong, if these superficial things are floating someone’s boat, I’m all for it, but if outside impressions affect the silent majority, the “armchair onlooker,” to suffer in an unhealthy “I’m-a-nothing-compared-to-them” way, then the reaction can turn into toxicity and hurt them or, in its extreme, motivate them to turn against others or to resort to self-harm.
Of course, the antidote for ego deflation is to “live in the spiritual.” How? Who knows really what floats someone’s boat?
What provided me with some insight was watching a documentary on Mother Teresa this past Christmas Eve. I learned many things about this incredible woman, but the one that resonates with me is that she lived for 50 years, 50 YEARS feeling abandoned by God.
This state of abandonment is called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” and in Mother Teresa’s case, “The” night stayed with her for a total of 18,250 nights to be exact.
How did she forever change the world in such a profoundly positive way when she herself lived in despair? Certainly she did NOT allow herself to be guided by her dark feelings. She was, however, candid and wrote down her dark feelings and shared them to her own personal God and to a priest, who was also her mentor. Service, of course, was the glue in her life and later exulted her to a sainthood status.
Who, of course, would come close to exemplifying Mother Teresa? Certainly NOT me. After watching that wonderful documentary, I must say, my walk is lighter in my heavy-paired shoes. My faith is stronger and my hope is greater. In essence, I have a deeper understanding of how we really do matter in our own little ways.
And to that end, my son mattered to me. He mattered to Whitney, whom I spoke to on Christmas night. He mattered to a handful of incredible people who really loved him not only for his “worldly” facade (which was incredible!), but for the riches he left in all our hearts: his bright, inquisitive mind; compassionate heart and courage to go on for at least 16 years more than he could bear.
And, the same goes for my little, mundane life that I like so much in its own little way, because what elevates it to greatness is not my recent writing awards (although I am proud of them!), but of the special few people in my life who really, really love me. Who really, really matter to me.
A few of my friends, actually all of us, are aging faster than lightening. There is no other holier, loving gesture to me than looping my arm into a friend’s arm. Recently, for instance, my friend Camille and I were going into a Polish deli and, literally, strolled in arm and arm as if we were children, carefree; FREE AGAIN to just be the way we ARE.
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” — Mother Teresa
Camille did not need pierogies and, actually, doesn’t like them, but insisted that we go to a Polish deli she found on the internet a few days before the holiday, so I could get pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner, because the ones I hold dear to my heart “have to have pierogies for Christmas Eve,” and the Ukrainian church was too busy to make them this year due to the war. Pierogie is a type of food that originated in Eastern Europe and is now popular in the United States. It consists of a dough shell with a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese, onions, and sometimes meat inside.
A few days after my deli visit, on Christmas Eve after church, the next one I strolled arm-in-arm-arm with was my friend Anna from childhood, who is having knee problems these days. She has been struggling with medical issues. It was hard to see her like this, and it felt good to be by her side during this tough time. It was good for both of us. Just for a moment, we were kids again in the same church where we were raised; laughing as we once did, standing on the same floor that has anchored us through these many years.
Now, in this rather fragmented blog post that will probably not attract many comments 🤣, what I’m trying to convey is that, in my opinion, it isn’t the NUMBERS and FAME of my blog so much that counts as it is those few special blog buddies that I’ve developed relationships with — from Preema and Anand in India to Judy in California and Alec in England and Ana and L. Hale and Cindy and Kathy and … wow … with such a tribe, I can go on and on, but I hope you know who you are. You, members of my blogging community, are the ones who truly matter, not thousands of nameless people who deep down really don’t care and wouldn’t go out of their way to buy pierogies for me, if given the chance on Christmas.
And, you see, that’s love. It’s the meaning BEHIND the words and thoughts. The people who love me this year, really, really were there on Christmas (symbolic of Christmases past). First and foremost, I name my daughter who goes to church for me most of all. (And I go mostly to honor my parents and to see Anna, my childhood friend.) The love also spun through the gifts I received: from Anne in New Mexico with her woolly socks that she probably went on a long, pain-in-the-butt peirogi kind of hunt to find, and my friend Michelle with her thoughtful “pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunt” gifts and the same goes for my friend Hope, my daughter and the kid’s godmother and my fiance, who even took the time to wrap his gifts this year, and others who took the time because I matter in their lives. And, they, of course, matter to me and that’s why instead of scoping out something I like to eat, I’d rather go on my pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunts for them.
So, at the end of the pierogi trail, as it turns out, the pierogies from the Polish deli that Camille and I found were not nearly as good as the pierogies from the Ukrainian church, but it’s the thought that counts.
And that’s what I want every single buddy blogger in the community to know: YOU MATTER TO ME. YOUR THOUGHTS COUNT! You fuel my steps throughout each year and get me out of my all mighty, egotistical self so I can manage to think of YOU and some of the things that surround your lives that I see as quite monumental and not at all mundane.
I wish all of you, dear blogger buddies, a wonderful New Year, filled with people who love you enough to take the time to find and buy you pierogies (even if they aren’t the best-tasting ones!) because the love behind the pain-in-the-butt pierogi hunt without fail brings home the prize. The batch may not be the best food you’ve ever tasted, but I promise, the meal will last a lifetime in your memory.
Last week, I promised to share another story this week about “Hope” and faith. My friend Hope, as I previously mentioned, also tops my angel list. She lives in the town next to ours and is a full-time working mother, dedicated wife and mom to three children ranging in ages from five to thirteen, or somewhere in that range. Since they grow up so fast it’s difficult to keep track!
She’s a professional social worker. Her dedication to service goes beyond the bounds of her profession and into her personal life as well. Her name “Hope” suits her. She is one person I know I can count on. Over three years ago, for instance, she, along with her husband and three children, were among a handful of people who participated in the walk my daughter and I organized to raise money for charity in honor of my son. Then at the end of the walk, we were a few hundred dollars short of our goal, and Hope donated the amount that pushed us forward to reach our goal. She showed me how joy could share a seat in a roomful of sorrow.
Anyway, about six weeks ago, I received an IM from my cousin Olya in Ukrainie, which, if you haven’t heard, is fighting a war against Russia, “hello dear Stacey…how are you? sorry for reaching out, but I want to ask if you can help me. I need clothes for the children and for myself. shoes, jackets, something. maybe someone can give some of their children’s clothes, maybe there is any help for Ukrainians in America. I don’t know if it’s expensive for you to send the parcel to Ukraine. but I’m just asking, I’m sorry if something is wrong. it’s very difficult now, it’s all very expensive for me.”
“.… there is not enough money for everything. if it is expensive to send me a parcel. then I will understand .. sorry for bothering you. thank you for the answer, hugs)”
Over these last three years, for no particular reason other than I am a fervent reader and love history, I’ve read a number of books pertaining to World War II. When Olya contacted me, I was reading the award-winning novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The novel, which has been made into a movie, takes place first in 1939 when the Nazis invaded France. Below are a few highlights of the book’s description:
“ In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.“
“… The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France — a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”
At times I found the novel to be utterly intense (especially when it started to hit one o’clock in the morning!), and I forced myself to detach, albeit temporarily, and gave the novel a rest. Of course, the characters kept me company throughout the day, because I couldn’t stop thinking about them and how they were forced to face the atrocities of war.
Even if I wasn’t reading a war-related novel that made me more empathetic than I am, I’ve adhered to a set of practices and principles in my life and one of them states that I am responsible – when ANYONE, ANYWHERE reaches out for help.
Why? Because for well over three decades, I’ve been given examples to follow by some of the most incredible people, all ages and from all walks of life. They do not preach (please spare me!) but teach by example. Like Buddha (meaning awakened one or enlightened one), they are people of honor who are conscious of their actions. I always felt that my Big, Bad THANK YOU to these Big, Bad Buddhas was to fill their unmeasurable shoes and match their qualities as best as I possibly could.
SO, the goal formed, Mission: Pack and Ship Parcel to Ukraine to Sweet Cousin. The first challenge was to find out WHERE do I go to ship a package to Ukraine? It was brought to my attention that the senior center in my town was shipping packages to Ukraine. So that took care of that.
Next step was to figure out sizing, EUR versus U.S. At this point, the kid’s Godmother, Pat, my daughter and fiance were involved and we each turned up contradictory sizing research. Then things started to look clearer when Godmother Pat went to the shoe store and found (how simple!) that the boxes all have both EUR and U.S. sizes printed on them. She also bought a few pairs of shoes while she was there to add to a snowsuit and pants I ordered. How exciting finally to view the makings of a parcel, although we sure had a long way to go! And, I still had different clothes size charts to contend with.
Hope entered the picture when during a fierce rainstorm, she sent me a text message informing me that her electricity went out. I texted her back, “Hope electricity ⚡️ goes on soon. My poor cousin in Ukraine loses a lot too due to war….”
After a text message exchange, I told her about the parcel in the works and she replied,“I’d be happy to buy warm gear for the kids and adults if u have sizes.”
SIZES! Oh, boy! The clothes size dilemma restarted! In addition, I reiterated that she did not have to purchase new clothes because used clothes were perfectly acceptable and, actually, my cousin’s initial request.
Hope wrote, “Of course we want to help! U don’t think she’d want new clothes? I know she’s concerned about cost but we want them to have what they need ….”
In the interim, back to the drawing board, I tried to figure out the correct sizes. I contacted my cousin again, trying to convert sizes with her … we were getting closer to figuring out the right sizes for her family: My cousin; her husband who is working in Poland; her teenage son and her three and a half year old daughter.
Finally, it seemed we deduced the correct sizes, and I felt as if we hit the jackpot!
Hope shot me a text, “Boxes are on the way to ur house … hopefully both within the week.”
I thanked her and she said, “Happy to contribute! I can’t imagine not being able to keep my kids warm and well!”
While I was waiting for Hope’s deliveries, I ordered a few other things on our end, and the parcel was looking good.
Then Hope’s packages arrived and it resembled an early Christmas! I couldn’t believe the quality of the down jackets she ordered; plus, jars of vitamins and socks, socks, socks, not to mention a few toddler toys thrown in.
When I saw all the items, I couldn’t help but hear Whitney and Bradley’s faith-filled voices of affirmation and faith … “We’re already here.” That was the message through and through. I barely had to ask Hope for help and there she was already there, as was her track record.
Does it get more Christmas-y than this?
The story continues!
I ended up packing THREE different packages (I admire people who work in mail rooms) and delivered them to our town’s senior center only to discover that they weren’t sending packages to individual homes. Instead, they send donations to Ukraine as a common relief effort.
From there, I went to the post office, which was conveniently located near the senior center. I could ask, right? Mary, at the post office, weighed one of my three boxes just for the heck of it, and it turned out shipping charges totaled $150. Wow. By the time everything was calculated, I was looking at about $500 — if not more.
Fortunately, come to find out, the Ukrainian church where I’m a parishioner, ships packages every week. I didn’t know this information because I haven’t been actively attending services. Anyway, the people involved are a husband-wife team who volunteer to send packages to anyone residing in Ukraine. The priest gave me the contact information. I called the man, and he instructed me to come to the rectory at noon on the upcoming Sunday, and I followed his instructions.
After I arrived, the man and I decided that in order to save money, he would break up the contents of my three boxes and load them into one huge box that happened to be available in the small room that doubled as a mail room. I watched the man work diligently. He had huge hands, cracked fingernails and rough skin that only a man who works hard labor can claim. He said very little and reminded me so much of my father who passed away in 2000. In fact, he shares the same first name as my dad, Myron.
When the process was completed, the entire package cost what one package would have cost if I had sent it via the U.S. mail. In addition, the package’s expected delivery to my cousin is approximately two weeks.
When I returned home, I informed my cousin that her package was on its way. She responded, “I am sincerely grateful to you, and to everyone who helped you …. I am happy that I have a family, even though it is so far away. Thank you for your support in such a difficult time for us. Peace be with you and God’s blessings.”
I replied, “We are SO HAPPY to have all of you! Love you very much!!!”
In this case, expounding on what I wrote in my last blog post, “Family IS DNA (but still not necessarily just DNA)!”
We can all be a part of one Big, Bag Buddha Bunch, not divided by distance or culture, only united in the small time we have on earth.
As the year draws to a close, it is important to remember that there are only so many Christmases* on the calendar of life. This year, let’s shine forth our best Buddha.
Merry Christmas to all!
щасливого Різдва (Happy Holidays!) as we say in Ukrainian! Or, Христос народився! – Christ is born! In which we respond, Славімо його! (Let us Glorify Him!)
*Hanukkah; Kwanzaa … and whatever holiday you celebrate!
Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.
This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.
The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?
If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”
Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”
After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.
So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton PresbyterianChurch could plummet me to the depths of despair.
Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”
He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”
Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.
It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.
(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)
In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.
I am because you are.
From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.
“Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019
My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.
My dear friend, Bob, has been a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. He is now in his 70s. I’ve known Bob for nearly 38 years, and he is one of the influential “zen men” in my life. We met up last week, and we exchanged our usual dialogue.
“How are you, Bob?”
“How’s everything going, Bob?”
His enthusiasm nearly knocks me over each and every time. It’s as if his every living breath is channeled into his exclamation, and it never fails to wake me up in my own life. Bob is like my buzzing alarm clock awakening me to my stagnant state, to my captivity in my own head’s prison built on fear, falsehoods and frailties that feed me at the given moment.
It never fails. Bob signals me to realize that I’ve been stuck in my head. I’ve missed the day gone by, including the entire car ride that brought me to visit with Bob in the first place. I’ve missed the trees outside. The front door I just swung opened, and the fluorescent lights in dim room. The minute I notice the rosy patches of Bob’s cheeks that glow and resemble the human heart, I almost feel as if I’ve exhaled for the first time in a long time.
At the end of our zen-centric conversation when I am about ready to leave, we always say, “I love you,” and embrace gently, as we have for 38 years.
I move toward the door. The hardwood taps under the rubber soles of my ankle boots. As I swing open the door, my hand feels the glossy coat on the freshly painted wood that is flecked with grains of lint in its texture, reminding me of the imperfection in perfection. My insights give me the faith to keep up the journey as I recall the miniscule part I play in the “GREAT!” scheme of life, because I have escaped my tiny mind long enough to inspect the vast universe directly under my nose.
Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.
She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.
Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.
And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.
For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.
Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.
Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.
For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.
In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.
Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.
When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.
“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.
Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.
I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”
The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”
And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)
The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!
But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.
Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.
Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.
“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”
“Because happiness always brings sadness.”
Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.
All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!
Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.
Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.
Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!
By the time August and the official days of summer winded down, cultivator and trowel in hand, I ambled into the garden. Suddenly, I froze. A small, three-inch corpse laid on the pathway. I wasn’t about to cry over a nameless bug, was I? Months prior, I tried to research and identify the insect, but I couldn’t find it’s name. Some things are meant to be mysteries.
One thing certain, as I moved my eyes from the bug, as static as the stone it laid atop, to the dried, dead tomato leaves; death was inescapable. The transition from summer to fall was a reminder.
I’m okay with that today. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown in faith the most by accepting the natural order of things. Life to death. Summer to fall, and from this natural order, out of all the massiveness, I etched a teeny-weeny place to call my own.
I scooped the dead bug, black body, gossamer wings, little head, up in the trowel and gracefully glided across the yard in wide fairy motions until I reached our family pet plot where our dear Blossom’s kittens are buried. I laid the insect gently down on a sliver of fresh dirt and peered at it in silence. I would miss the little bugger frolicking and dancing around me. All summer long, the Beach Lady kept me company as she twirled on my left, and the nameless bug floated on my right. For months, the two of them tricked me into believing I would never be alone and forever a part of moving, living things. Now, the time has come to admit, yet again, my powerlessness over another chapter’s end.
Weeks later, there are still a few, mostly green tomatoes to pick over in the cool, empty air. The end of the harvest. I pull stalks of dried, limp leaves out of the garden. As much as I expect it, the first frost will arrive and take me by surprise.
I recall one of my favorite poems, Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The day I discovered the dead, nameless bug, day rolled into evening. The sun, with its heart of gold, had set, turning a bloody tone of purplish red until it melted into the darkened horizon.
A stir in the wind reminded me that everything is in flux, as my own breath was at that very moment. I looked around the dark yard, wondering where the last hummingbird that frequented and roamed our premises in the day and was yet to fly south, slept.
Change is in air. Yet it is always there, nothing can stay, everything is gold. One of my Buddhist friends, Bob, constantly reminds me of the impermanence of life. All troubles, he says, stem from trying to fight and conquer the inevitable: death; instead of living and appreciating life for what it is: Gold.
If you didn’t read Sam’s story from last week’s blog, click here
Otherwise, the blog post below is a continuation from last week:
Once Pat’s neighbor decided to sue Pat for $2,000 regarding the cat bite she endured from Sam, we were all stressed to say the least. Then suddenly, serendipity arrived in the form of a phone call from the courtroom clerk. Out of all the pending law suits, a handful of them, including hers, was chosen by the staff of Judge Judy to appear before the arbitration-based reality court show. Pat had an opportunity to take Sam’s case on the show. Whether she won or lost, the TV show producers would entirely compensate the plaintiff. If Pat, as well as the plaintiff, who at that point was working in California, made a TV appearance on the show, she would not only not owe a dime to the nurse, but get the chance to travel on an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, AND she’d receive a $250 stipend, even if she lost the court case. Of course, Pat agreed.
Fast forward, and there she was live on TV: an 80-year-old spry woman whom I was able to watch during my lunch hour in the dining area at work. Of course, I couldn’t eat a thing, only listened to my heart beating as the episode in which Pat appeared unfolded. I wanted to throw my apple at the TV the minute Judge Judy ruled against Pat and Sam. (The moral of the story is: make sure your cat always wears a collar with his or her metal rabies tag that proves the pet is up to date on his or her shots!)
Neither Pat, nor Sam really didn’t lose because the small claims court fees were paid and everyone was happy. In fact, the nurse appeared pleased that Pat didn’t owe the $2,000 claim. Actually, she had said, that was her reason for going on the Judge Judy show in the first place.
Nearly two years later after her reality show moment, Pat had decided to downsize and move in with us. Our household was down to two cats. Fran-Fran, Pat’s cat had passed away from old age, and I agreed to open the door to her two dogs, but I was reluctant to take in Sam, especially with Chervony, my own Alpha male at home. We were in a pickle, such a pickle, in fact, Pat reached out in desperation to Sam’s previous owner to take him and left him a voice message. Fortunately, he never responded. I’m quite sure, though, she wouldn’t have given him back to that man once she regained her senses. We also uploaded photos of Sam on Facebook to see if anyone could provide him with a good home. Nothing panned out, and one day Pat arrived, standing on my front porch with Riley, Teacup and Sam.
Riley and Teacup acclimated from the get-go into the two-cat household. Sam fell head over heals with Blossom, our female calico. Chervony? Wow, that was another story. Fur flew everywhere, even though we did do a decent job of keeping them both separated. Before you knew it, Sam, who was by no means an indoor cat, took off for most of the day. (We never did find out where he went!) Chervony was ruthless and would wait for him for hours at the top of the long flight of stairs that led to the upstairs deck. I could still see him, waiting patiently as if he had forever to wait, because, in essence, he didn’t have too many priorities on the list any longer in his advanced age.
The first year or two were the hardest, but the the two Alpha males adjusted and “Sam I am” seemed to have lost a lot of his muscle. Whenever Pat and I walked the dogs, the three cats followed behind, far apart, but still in the mix.
The last summer in 2020 only Sam was left to follow us when we walked. Blossom and Riley and then Chervony had passed.
In fact, we had to sneak out of the house since Sam would be on our heels meowing as if he were losing his mind.
“He’s scared we are going to abandon him,” I told Pat.
The following year, Sam stopped grooming himself. That’s when we found out he, like Chervony, had a bad thyroid, and the vet prescribed meds.
Most nights, I’d ask Pat, “Did you give Sam his meds?”
By then I had not only warmed up to Sam, but was like his second mom. I searched for him in his favorite spot on the sunny side of the kitchen. Fed him and loved to give him his favorite tuna-flavored treats. I even tried to teach him tricks that I had taught my other cats, but Sam was not about to be a trickster. He had to hold onto some of his Alpha, after all. He loved it especially when I gave the top of his nose a firm rub. Other than treats, he lived for nose rubs.
Shortly after my birthday at the end of August, Sam started fading. I sensed the closing in of the sunset of his life. He ate less. Slept more. Had difficulty walking. His trademark strut and powerfulness that helped get him to be a reality show celebrity, the I Am SAM, vanished.
“Let’s take him to the vet,” Pat said on Sunday, September 11.
“How can we? He’s still drinking. Eating, a little, right?” I broke down and delayed the inevitable outcome.
Come Monday, the 12th, there was no doubt in our minds that it was time. Boy, how many times had I gone through this with all my other pets? Usually the I AM SAM put up a fierce fight before being secured in the carrier. Not this time. He was ready, peaceful, pain-free. He lived in this house so happily, especially after Chervony passed. We are surrounded by trees and nature and, as it turned out, he really didn’t like the traffic-filled, noisy neighborhoods. He liked the tranquility, the hum and predominantly noiseless existence.
I waved good-bye to Pat and Sam behind a river of tears. Remembering, how many lives we lost through the years, but how much we gained in return. For instance, if you live with someone like I Am SAM, you truly realize just how powerless you are in his (or her) presence. You realize though, the only real powers that can penetrate the hardest exterior are love, kindness and empathy. It is what gives you the faith to carry on long enough to learn that unconditional love not only melts steel, but ceases the roar of an engine and transforms it into a purr. In this way, the road ahead into the sunset is smooth and gentle, but harbors a few memorable bumps to keep things interesting.
My roomie’s beloved 19-year-old black cat, Sam, who passed away last Monday on September 12, taught me a lot about faith. He also taught me two additional lessons:
1. Underneath an alpha male exterior can be a camouflaged scaredy-cat 2. Love can take your heart by surprise
Sam had a thyroid problem on top of his advanced years. During this past summer, I’d gaze nostalgically at the cat lounging on the outside deck and think, “This could be his last summer. I might never see him again next summer.”
Then I would pacify myself, saying, “He could make it to 20. Maybe even 21.”
These days, with the enormous amount of advancements in veterinary medicine available, some cats live until they’re 21 – and beyond. Sam I noticed, though, along with the butterfly season and summer, was winding down. His bite was gone, as if it had never happened. And what I realized was that what I had been most anxious of, I now missed.
“Love can melt steel.” This was one of my mom’s favorite sayings, and my roomie, Pat, is the epitome of what the expression means; she inspires us all to look beyond the flaws and imperfections of a person or pet and discover the beauty. In this case, it was Sam.
I first met Sam in 2009, when he was six years old, rolling around in the debris underneath a dumpster in a parking lot close to my ex-husband’s workplace. The cat found refuge there, far enough away from the house where he lived, as we learned much later. The minute my ex-husband introduced us, his little face meowed while his sleek, black skeleton of a body fussed over me. My ex, as it turned out, had spotted what he first believed was an abandoned cat. He was feeding him on a daily basis.
We both agreed that Sam, the name my ex had given him, needed better living arrangements, especially with the cooler months approaching. The question was: Where could he go?
We weren’t about to acclimate him into our three-cat, one poodle household at the time. Then a brainstorm of an idea conceptualized. Dear Pat? Our children’s widowed Godmother. Why not? She lived alone in a large colonial with one dog, sweet and friendly Nala, a border collie mix, and a gentle cat named Francine. So we showed up with Sam inside a pet carrier, and the imminent living arrangement was as natural as figuring out where to position a throw-down, furry rug in a living room.
Soon enough, although Pat lived in a busy neighborhood, notorious for fast-moving vehicles, Sam pranced around outside, brazen and bold. We surmised that his new surroundings felt comfortable to him because they resembled the action-packed area where he was found. Before we knew it, he exhibited a “Mayor of the Street” swagger, flexing his muscles to make it known to those in pawing distance: “I am SAM.”
No one messed with Sam. The local cats found that out soon enough. Sam would lurk behind Pat’s garage or under her deck until a target appeared. Prepared to leap, his tail raised slightly, he would inch forward and suddenly lunge at the intruding cat. Inside the fighting ring of hissing and screeching flew a lot of fur. Needless to say, Sam never lost a fight and soon it seemed as if some hungry creature had eaten all the other cats in the neighborhood (the birds were thinning out too!). The only one left was Sam. His presence screamed loud and clear, “I am SAM.”
Pat pretty much gave into Sam’s desires and demands. She said she didn’t mind. If he wanted a treat, or anything else for that matter, Sam was appeased with instant gratification. Sometimes, though, she endured a few minor bites and scratches, which she laughed off. The last thing she wanted was to bring even minor discomfort to a cat whose original owner was an alcoholic with unpredictable mood swings. How did she know that?
Well, one month after Sam was living with her, she discovered in the “Lost and Found” section of the local newspaper an ad that described Sam and the area where he had lived. She called the number listed and spoke with the man who answered. She decided that Sam was possibly his missing cat, and he would come to her house around six that evening.
Pat immediately called me and after consulting with my ex, we both drove to her house to be there when the possible owner arrived.
In short order, yes, it turned out that Sam was his owner, but because the man reeked of scotch, my ex and I managed to convince him that he wasn’t able to maintain Sam as he deserved, and that he could visit Sam whenever he liked, but that in Sam’s best interest, the cat should stay where he was. Reluctantly, Sam’s owner agreed. To his credit, he did visit Sam many times over the years while appearing satisfied with the arrangement.
As the years went by, my family rescued animals, and Pat rescued many of our rescues. At one point, after Nala had died, she had Sam, two rescued chihuahuas that were from us and Francine, renamed Fran-Fran by my daughter, a small black cat that was abandoned at Pat’s sister’s condo complex in a nearby city.
To the amusement of her neighbors, this is how it worked when Pat walked her pets down the sidewalk: Riley, the nine-pound chihuahua, forged a few feet ahead, straining his leash to its limit while Teacup, a three-pound chihuahua that we still own, lagged behind. Sam, unleashed, strolled behind Teacup and Fran-Fran straggled at the end of the line.
“Come look at this!” Pat heard through some of the screen doors neighbors exclaim to another person inside their houses. Many stepped outside to enjoy the parade from their porches.
Slowly, very slowly, it was obvious that I am SAM, the alpha male, was growing softer, which was a result of Pat’s unconditional love.
My superstitious mother referred to Sam, as she did to all other black cats, as “Bad Luck.” In fact, I nicknamed him “Sam, the Bad Luck Cat,” just for the fun of it. The name never did stick because Pat made sure we all knew how much “Good Luck” he brought into her life. However, this concept did not hold water when, in 2016, her neighbor from across the street, rang her doorbell to ask her if she owned a black cat. She was searching for its owner because two days ago a black cat had banged at her screen door, trying to enter her apartment. When she opened the door and swung her foot out to shoo him away, he bit the top of her foot, which was bare since she was wearing sandals. The intruder ran away.
The neighbor called the town’s animal control and because she had observed that the cat wasn’t wearing a collar with a tag proving it had its rabies shots up to date, she was advised to go to a local emergency room, which she did and where she received a rabies shot at the cost of $6,000. Her medical insurance covered all but $2,000 of the bill. In addition, because she lost a day’s work, she added $500 to the bill. After Sam was identified as the culprit, Pat paid the $500, but refused to pay the $2,000, especially since Sam was current on his shots.
The woman declared: “I’ll see you in court!”
Read how SAM becomes, “I AM SAM, the REALITY STAR on court TV!”