“AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL”

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

I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.

I  met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.

The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.

I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.

When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.

“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”

Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately, Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.

When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.

He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.

He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.

As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.

When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.

I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.

Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.

“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”

“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”

Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.  

From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.

No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.

Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.

That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.

“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”

Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?

“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”

Where am I?

After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.

Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.

Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”

Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.

Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.

Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.

Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.

As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.

Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”

Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.

From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.

Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.

At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.

As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.

We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.

After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.

I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.

Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.

I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.

“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.

What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.

Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.

“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” – Sogyal Rinpoche

Faith Muscle

Calm Waters

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Naomi Judd, American Country Singer, January 11, 1946 – April 30, 2022

Sometimes you cannot sing without strain. Fortunately, music is not infinite, but has a finite number of possibilities. In a similar vein, sing a new song filled with faith and hope that calm waters will carry you to the safety of home.

Faith Muscle

MIRACULOUS MRS. MAISEL

“Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” season 4 poster | Amazon Prime Video

Some experts say that occasionally it’s necessary to “take a break” from grief. I learned this firsthand during a frigid December 2020 Christmas day, 36 days after I lost my beloved 26-year-old son who died by suicide. My then 24-year-old daughter, Alexandra, returned home during this time, and we mourned together. Lounging in the living room in shabby sweatpants and tops, noshing on a conveyor-belt assortment of Trader Joe’s chips and other salty and sweet snacks that my dear childhood friend Anna supplied, we insulated ourselves, cranked up the heat indoors as the temperatures dipped to below freezing outdoors. Alexandra’s soft, furry slippers with funny smiling sloth faces, the ones that arrived a month prior in a condolence gift box from her former college roommate, Suzanna, felt like they were out of sync with the preceding extreme 36 days, oozing with despair, agony, regret, remorse and anger. We symbolized the walking wounded. Drained and hollow as if we were toilet plungers.

Who would believe that only a year prior, we were in New York City’s West Side in a beautiful church singing Christmas carols as if we were Carnegie Hall performers? Three hundred and sixty-five days later, half eaten tubs of white paper take-out food containers brimming with Chinese dumplings, noodles, fried rice and legions of lo mein lined the coffee table, our designated sanctuary, the view outside obstructed by the drapes drawn closed.

My daughter and I spent about twenty minutes scanning for TV channels to watch, searching for something to numb the pain. I finally surrendered to Alexandra’s request to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, especially since she had never seen it before. Before the tragedy, I was The-Marvelous-Mrs.-Maisel loyalist since its premiere in 2017. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it opens in 1958 and ends in the early 1960s and centers around Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Although her role that begins as a happily married woman with two children changes, chasing her stand-up comedy dreams and adhering to her affluent New York City lifestyle remain constant.

After the tragedy, I was reluctant to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because I felt it was something that aligned with a “happy-people’s” existence. Not only did we end up watching the episodes of the new third season that Christmas, but we watched the previous two seasons as well!

There are so many things in the show that resonate with me. For starters, a lot of the show is filmed in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a hotbed of stand-up comedy. “The epicenter of the city’s 1960s counterculture movement” is by far my favorite place in the world. Even now, whenever I go there, the young heartbeat I feel in the village lifts my old, worn-out spirits. To me, this is the epitome of America, for the most part, at its best. The village is more than a melting pot. It is a pot of gold, laden with people from all walks of life. The important thing is that the village really is a village because it encourages free expression. If you are bullied anywhere else in the world for any reason, the best therapy is to spend a little time here. Although you may appear outwardly very different from others around you, the sense of belonging is inherent; there tends to be a feeling of recognition in the air. In fact, the village is where I enrolled and participated in stand-up comedy workshops in the 1980s and experienced my own marvelous, albeit short-lived, show biz stint.

Anyway, watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, f-bombs and all, saved our souls that fragile holiday season of 2020 and gave me faith knowing that although my laugh had lost a lot of its carefree boom, its flame had not faded.

So, this brings me to a very important date, February 18, 2022: season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. From the minute I heard about the new upcoming season, I was eager for its long-awaited arrival, like a kid getting his or her braces removed after walking around for two years with the metal invasion in their mouths.

At last! Friday night and I sat back, full throttle ahead, no one or nothing was going to vie for my time. My fellow blogger, Alec, would surely be pleased since quite ironically, he reminded me last week about the importance of fun.

As is, the new, season four, series rolls out two one-hour long episodes at a time. I planned to watch one hour of the show on Friday and the other hour on Saturday. Initially, I was timid to hit “play” because the minute I saw the old, familiar characters, my heart tumbled as I recalled the unbearable swords of circumstances that transpired in November 2019 and how the show helped me cope. Nonetheless, I hit the forward button, and one hour led to two. I was hooked from the beginning to the end of both episodes.

If you can get past the f-bombs and a few select scenes that some viewers may find inappropriate (nudity, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking, adult themes), the first two episodes are one big ode to the meaning of opposites. Free expression and individual voice versus repression and suppression. The importance of a financial framework versus the desire to pursue art as your true calling in life. And so many other things that call to mind the breadth of Greenwich Village, and its ability to tug hard at your heart strings and awaken your soul that was likely lost about the time your identity was wiped out when you understood and accepted the untruth behind the social conditioning of, “Big girls or big boys (especially) don’t cry.”

The first two episodes of season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel touched upon nearly every tenet of existentialism and so much more. Miriam, the main character, is ballsy and brash and bold and is going to be heard, damn it, no matter what, and turn over convention. Subsequently, though, she’s not about to part with her hoity-toity upper west side New York City tastes either. All the while, she’s trying to rise up again from a rubble of failures and secure her share of the American Dream.

What’s happening in the show at its core, synonymous with the Greenwich Village vibe, is that so much that is not talked about and kept taboo unhinges and revolts. It can no longer shut up. It cannot be shutdown. It needs to be spoken, heard, not judged or erased.

It needs the human seal of “I see you” approval that we are all desperate for. My once alive son was a good example of wanting to be seen, heard, appreciated, in spite of how his differences made him feel separate from the rest of the world.

It’s as simple as that.

What fits in with this overall “fitting in” theme is a book that I’ve just finished reading Wintering, the power of rest and retreat in difficult times by Katherine May (2020).

The author writes about her mental breakdown at 17-years-old and, after the experience, she talked about it and talked and talked. She continues the story as she writes:

I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times when we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely normal process and have thereby given those who endure a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of ordinary life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.

Okay, so what I’ve realized about myself now is that, as opposed to Miriam, I became a “good girl” and discarded the rebel status that I initially strived toward. This outcome, I found out 35 years later, can be a consequence of living a so-called sober, so-called adult life. It’s not a bad thing that I’m no longer the firecracker Miriam is and, quite simply, the fight in me now is, for the most part, exhausted.

But the thing about grief is that it has forced me to make a place for it. It is locked in me, next to my memories and my hopes and dreams. In the process, grief has peeled me to the core. So now I am left with my core and me. I don’t have the strength nor burning desire to be a rebel anymore, but my inner voice says that I don’t want to keep hiding anymore either. I’m done with listening to all the blood-hungry critics in the world that managed to seize my brain and ferment it. I keep hearing the song, “Kill the voices” on the radio.

My son had lost his ability to “kill” those voices that erased him. So he did it the best way he knew how, impulsively and brutally, leaving us spewed like squashed roaches in the aftermath.

All the more reason that I’m not keen on too many opinions and certainly those that come from pulpits, real and imagined. I’m not keen too much on my own opinions either, because I found out the hard way, how many times I am more wrong than right.

One thing that I am keen on is hearing Midge’s voice, f-bombs and all. At the end of the day, the story really is about an outspoken woman who knows her worth. And it is clear in the show that women have to work twice as hard to succeed. In turn, if others give her a chance to tell her truth, maybe it will spread beyond places like the village where she performs stand-up comedy. Maybe, too, we can all start learning the impossible art of listening for the sake of hearing, not changing, ignoring or stifling; for the sake of an “I see you” universal nod.

So, after watching the first two episodes of season four last Friday night, I laid down in my bed in a flood of tears that was as surprising as a drain that bursts in the bathroom in the middle of the night. I realized how Mrs. Maisel lends her voice to me right now, because I’ve fallen so far inside myself, I don’t know if I can muscle my way out unscathed. I don’t know if I have the courage. I don’t know if I can kill the voices, or if they have killed me, metaphorically instead.

In the interim, I am trudging through this week, waiting for Friday to hear the voices and the antics that not only give me comic relief and, if I am lucky, grief relief, but also a channel where I imagine I am in my twenties again. It was during a time when I orchestrated my world so easily in a leopard top and black rimmed glasses, my voice booming into the microphone loud and clear, laughter rolling through like a seamless tide rolling in to cleanse the sediment on the crusty shoreline.

Faith Muscle

Missing Tooth Fairy

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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.”

Faith Muscle

This is my life now

My dear friend Camille surprised me with this card on what would have been my son’s 29th birthday

“That’s for happy people.”

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.

Interior of my dear friend Camille’s card

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.

Faith Muscle

Dear Son

Coincidentally, this month I discovered a concept known as Blue Monday. It gained popularity in 2005, after a British travel company played up psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall’s theory that the third Monday is the most depressing day of the year. He backed his findings with such measurements as weather factors.

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

Other companies followed suit and used the day to sell products to help elevate the Blue Monday mood. Naturally, there was a lot of backlashes in this approach since it minimized the enormity of what it meant to live daily with depression, as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which, you knew all too well, is a form of depression that may manifest in certain seasons.

Anyway, Blue Monday is the kind of interesting concept you would have uncovered and brought to my attention. I can only imagine how we might have dove into an esoterically free exchange of ideas about it. I’m not writing to debate Blue Monday. I wanted you to know I took the research one step further in the same manner you would have done. Turns out, on January 18, 1993, you were born on, yes, the third Monday of the month, Blue Monday. Before I conducted the extra search, I already knew the results.

After informing you of this discovery, I pictured your perfect head tilting right and then left, your over-sized eyelashes cast over your eyes as you whispered in defeat, “Figures.”

Anyway, I also wanted to tell you that fresh on the heels of your birthday, one of my dreams of you was that you were a young boy, maybe six. You kept jiggling two of your loose bottom teeth, and with every movement, I felt pins and needles jabbing my body as if I were enduring a full-body tattoo all at once.

I kept pleading, “Marshall, stop doing that. Stop!”

You listened to teachers, friends and the bullies that led you to the grave, but from the moment you were a toddler, I don’t ever remember when you listened to my directives. How I argued with you to come inside for dinner. Leave the house for school or anywhere else. Put on your shoes. Take off your shoes. You name it, whatever my request, you didn’t oblige. As you grew older, it got to a comical point.

On the other hand, you listened for hours when we dove into the most random topics of discussions over the years. In fact, your sister, who happened to be eavesdropping, wrote a note about one such discussion. You were probably around seven, and, ironically, we discussed the “grim reaper.” At the end, Alexandra wrote, “Mom talks him straight.”

“Faith Note”

The note mysteriously turned up shortly after the tragedy. I preserved it in plastic under plexiglass on the nightstand in my bedroom. You wouldn’t think the topic of the grim reaper could warm my soul and help my faith walk, but it does because it gives me a sense of peace: I talked you straight. Do you know how relieved I am to think I managed to do that although it only amounted to a one-time deal?

Looking back, my purpose in life was to be the best mother I could be to you and your sister. I failed forward many times. I’d say I succeeded many times too. It warmed my heart the many times you told me you had “a wonderful childhood.” I hope you knew that I loved parenting both of you. Your sister, for the most part, stayed on the beam. I did keep a close eye on her though, because some of her falls were pretty rough. You, on the other hand, well, it was more like “Where IS the beam?” Man, I felt like I was chasing after a flyaway balloon sometimes. Hell or high water, I resolved to set that balloon “straight” in my hand and never let it go. Thinking about it still energizes me.

Of course, no matter how it seemed that I “talked you straight,” I was never in control of your destiny. In fact, even those big brains at Yale couldn’t get your birthday “straight.” I wonder if you weren’t born on Blue Monday and, instead, in mid-April, maybe then you wouldn’t have been so down.

Anyway, I never told you about the details of the day you were scheduled for open heart surgery at ten months old. Frankly, I didn’t give it one thought before the tragedy. I will tell you now about that day and how your father and I paced slowly down a Yale New Haven Hospital hallway that was marked by a sudden dip in temperature. You felt like fresh-turned butter waddled in the hospital’s plaid checkered blanket in my arms. On route to the operating room, I noticed a heavy-gauge stainless steel gurney. I developed a wild, sudden inclination to secure you on it and wheel you in the opposite direction.

Without incident, we reached our final destination, a large area that reminded me of a hangar for planes. Instead of a turbojet, a nurse, dressed in scrubs with cartoon characters that seemed sickeningly overdone with smiles, appeared. I cannot remember her words, but I remember her reaching out for you to take you into the OR. Instead of handing you to her, my hands became tighter. I froze, resembling the twin sister to the heavy-gauge stainless steel gurney.

“Give her the baby,” your dad said, an unmistakable irritability in his tone. “Give her the baby.”

Instead of complying, I stepped back. The nurse, like a purse snatcher, moved in closer and attempted to pull your angel-like body out of my grasp.

“Give her the baby.”

My stainless-steel hands melted as the authoritative nurse retrieved your sweet, quiet body and disappeared in a huff. I was left behind, feeling as if she had amputated my arms.

Since last week, I’ve been replaying that moment over and over. Letting you go, over and over.

So, as it turns out, yesterday was the third Monday of January, Blue Monday and Martin Luther King’s birthday too. Today, you, our “miracle baby,” would have turned 29. If someone gave me a choice between being a famous billionaire or watching you grow into the incredible man you had become, the choice would be a no-brainer.

Marshall’s 24th and FINAL, birthday celebration together. Last week, I came across this photo, only to realize that the shirt Marshall would be buried in was the one my partner, Mark, wore that evening in 2017. In 2019, four days after our tragedy, I frantically looked for the “right” shirt for Marshall to wear in his coffin. I came across this blue striped shirt and mistakenly thought it was Marshall’s, and he was laid to rest in it.

What I don’t think you also never knew was that after they successfully repaired your heart, I felt as if I had won the biggest lotto sweepstakes of all time. Actually, thinking back, I did. There was no room for Blue Mondays back then, the odds were in our favor — until they weren’t.

Now, the remembrance of our winner’s circle is in full view in a little note of faith waddled in plastic under plexiglass.

Blow out the candles, sweet, quiet son …. I love you with every bit of my broken heart and grief-scarred soul.

Mom

Faith Muscle

Powerlessness

Out of the Darkness Campus Walks for Suicide Awareness, sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi.

This past Friday, my partner’s eldest daughter called to extend her condolences to me and my daughter for Marshall’s death. Of course, she previously had offered her condolences to us over two years ago when our family tragedy occurred. In fact, she was here every step of the way. When I mean “here,” Laura and her husband were “here” in our kitchen. They cooked, cleaned, enabling me to tend to other matters. I will be indebted to them forever.

Anyway, it took another tragedy for her to obtain a closer, bird’s eye perspective of our painful journey and the extent of what it means to be powerless.

During the telephone call, Laura explained that her dearest friend’s 14-year-old son died by suicide on December 1st. He was star athlete, well-liked at his high school and did not have any substance abuse issues or outward signs of mental health challenges or depression.

“One day you see them and then you don’t.”

I remember these words uttered by a young man and how he elucidated in a somber manner the death of his high school football teammate who had died by suicide. I met him in Norwalk, Connecticut in March 2020 while participating in one of the Out of the Darkness Campus Walks for Suicide Awareness, sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi.

The man I met at the walk explained that he last saw his teammate cheerfully perched on the high school’s bleachers.

“One day you see them and then you don’t.”

As I spoke to Laura over the phone, I steered clear of the background details. Right now, though, as I write this blog post, the young man is brain-dead and his mom has spent every waking hour by his side at the hospital, squeezing the time-limited moments like membranes of an orange in a drought-riddled, barren land. Although I’ve never met them, mom and son have been ironed into my thoughts like starch since I heard the news.

For over 37 years, I have followed a program that teaches me that I am powerless over people, places, things and most situations. This means, although I was able to help many people, I could not help my own son at the end. (I was powerless over the situation — despite my ego reprimanding me repeatedly, shouting, “You could have saved him.”)

So, distraught after hearing Laura’s news, I revealed the situation to a close friend without breaking the 14-year-old’s anonymity. She said, “Well, you have walked in his mom’s shoes. You know how it feels.”

Right then and there, I responded, “No!” (Please note the exclamation point!)

I walk only in my shoes. I can’t fit my big clunkers and a partial bunion into anyone’s shoes no matter how I try. I might fall into the International Shoe Size Chart, but the whorls and ridges are unique in toe prints. Like hand prints, no two footprints are identical and neither are heartbreak, grief and pain. Everyone processes human emotions and feelings differently.

Mattie Jackson Selecman is point on in her new book, Lemons on Friday: Trusting God Through My Greatest Heartbreak, “Everyone’s grief is different. What is true for most grievers: the illusion of control over our lives — the tight, self-preserving grip we thought we held on our person and our plans — is now gone. What we thought was secure has been snatched away.”

The quote helps to elucidate what I believe I have in common with the grieving mom in the ICU. We realize what it means to be powerless — really, badass, fall-down-on-the-ground, kicking and screaming, dust-particles-flying everywhere powerless. In other words, I have no control over people, places, things and most situations. (I only have power over my own behavior.) Dictionary.com defines powerlessness as without ability, influence, or power.

The mom grieving over her brain-dead son and I undeniably understand what it is to be helpless in the face of a situation that is totally unjust, unfair and worse than cruel. There is nothing we can change about what has been thrust upon us. There are no miracles in our human eyes.

“Surrender to win!”

That is a familiar saying among my peers. When all else fails, life support is removed and there is no hope for recovery, we surrender to what is, not what was or could be.

In 2015, Writer Maria Popova wrote an excellent book review for H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. In her review, she poignantly captures the essence of surrender: “And yet somehow, Macdonald unboxes herself as she trains Mabel into control and Mabel trains her into the grace of surrender, of resting into life exactly as it is rather than striving for some continually unsatisfying and anguishing version of how it ought to be. “

My friend Brian A. used to say it best: “Accept everything all the time.”

“It is what it is,” my daughter constantly reminds me.

This also means, we do not seek answers, play the blame game or find cowardly tactics to bolster a lost cause that, in the end, causes us to seep further into despair, anguish and a meritless rabbit hole of a self-made hell. Instead, we stare at the raw reality in terror and plunge deeper into our souls and pan desperately for the gold that is our inner strength.

Yes, it is what it is and so it is.

“One day you see them and then you don’t.”

My own personal tragedy aside, I know almost everyone has experienced some sort of loss and pain. Regardless of the circumstances, I am one of the fortunate ones. I was able to uncover a priceless reserve of peace that I first started panning for — about the same time I began to comprehend the word powerless — over 37 years ago. What this essentially means is that I can extend a listening ear and a safe place of my heart to a fellow sufferer, an empowering space amid the turmoil of the world to which we retreat, surrender our egos, rest into life, press through the hard and hold tight to faith, hope and each other.

Faith Muscle

Dear Son *

I’m still here.

In the two years, this Friday, you’ve been gone, I discovered that anyone can purchase poison on eBay, and there are companies in China that will deliver it in an unmarked package via USPS mail for exorbitant costs.

About three weeks before the unspeakable happened, I heard Britney Spears perform “Lover” for the first time on Saturday Night Live. The song was on the album released in August, ironically, a day after my birthday of that horrible year. (In fact, I believe she debuted “Lover” live on YouTube on my birthday before the album’s actual release date.)

 Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah

So many things, like one of our final nearly two-hour conversations led me to believe we were close. I told you I was preparing to pack my personal belongings and move them to what I thought would be a second home in your home some 600 miles away.

 Can I go where you go … can we always be this close? Forever and ever, ah

That song can push me to steep cliffs where the view is not pretty. If I hear the lyrics in some random store or any other public place that I have no control over, and they start to pierce what little whole surface is left in my Swiss cheese heart that now replaces my healthy heart, like the one you were born with before it was surgically repaired, I put my hands over my ears and let out a shrill scream to cancel the sound. Bystanders simply avoid me. By the looks on their faces, they assume I am on a day’s furlough from a psychiatric special care facility.

Other songs, too, have a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect. Would you believe, thanks to you, I can’t listen to country and western music anymore? To think, you and your sister were raised on what was once my favorite genre of music. I now realize how the lyrics so often involve white, Christian heterosexual alpha male cowboys and helpless soon-to-be dependent wives and, as such, marginalize diverse populations. I feel excluded. In the same way you did, son. Instead of you growing up to be like me, I have grown up to be so much like you.

In actuality, there isn’t much music I can listen to any longer. You’ll likely be happy (or maybe not so much, because it used to irritate you!) that I do still sing dumb songs. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee. Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee, Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy.

I don’t, though, sing my silly songs as often. I sure don’t pray any longer. Instead, I curse in my mind at you all day long. I’m sure people would judge me, but you know how I feel about judgment, especially watching how you deteriorated from the bullies over the years until the end when they won your soul. Let the hypocrites, the judgmental bullies spew their well-meaning sermons on forgiveness. I’ll keep my new cursing habit; thank you very much. It’s has the monotone sound of a daily prayer and is one of the few things that keeps me here.

Marshall D. Maxwell, Antigua,  Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, March 1996

When you took your life. You took mine.

I say this along with the cursing in my mind. I only wish I had conveyed these notions to you out loud and saturated you with guilt in response to the threats you made to me a million times; threats that fell on deaf ears.

I wish I could prove to you how much I have changed, and how well I can listen and engage in conversation. Without the preaching. Without the positive psychology and affirmations. Without the quick-made solutions. Without the holier-than-thou attitude and putting my ego-inflated, false pride into the equation.

I no longer, believe it or not, for the most part, attend support groups. The people in them all sound like they are on fire with miracles that don’t exist for most people in the world. It boils down to false hope and it feels as real to me as “FakeBook,” which, by the way, I’m off and don’t miss at all! Don’t even start me on any kind of religious groups and how I fear them. Thank goodness for Father Ivan. He is still a kind and compassionate man. He’s right up there with the saints. I am sorry, son, though, that he forgot to add your liturgy on the church calendar this Friday. I readily accepted his apology and told him we are human and make mistakes in the same manner you would have done. I, however, declined his offer to add your name to a later date on the church calendar to “celebrate” your life. Take the money, I insisted, and put it toward a new church roof. I don’t need any more remembrances of how marginalized and painful your existence once was.

Can you believe this is me? If anyone ever told me that my major goal for each day is to dodge songs, prayers, social media, people, group gatherings as well as ropes, strings, belts or any kind of cord or suspended pendulum that swings back and forth, I would have reacted to the thought like my old laughing hyena self. Even though we still share that goofy giggle that irritated the heck out of me when I heard it from you, most things do not strike me as funny any longer. I am trying to remove the words “kill” and “hate” from my vocabulary.

I think you would really, really like this new version of me. Once you realized who I am now, you would really, really stay. At least a little longer.

Maybe I should have told you that my greatest aspiration was to see you and E grow up. Motherhood is far greater than any other role. I should have told you the reason that I toiled on pipe dreams was because I was certain they would pay off and make it possible for me to be with you, especially since your sister was always so much more independent and resilient. They did not pay off. In the end, before the unspeakable happened, I was ripped off in trying to get that web business going. Michael B. was the perpetrator’s name. He is your age. I forgave him. Last I heard, he was still alive and living in Florida.

I should have stopped “strategizing” so much and started finding ways to be alongside you. Before you relocated to KY, you asked me to go on a hike with you to Sleepy Giant State Park. It was mid-week, and I was working with Michael.

Love is showing up. Putting down the phone. Walking through hot coals if necessary. Regardless of my intentions (intentions can’t form a hug around anyone), I should have dropped everything and joined you on the hike in Sleepy Giant. I would have appreciated the memory. Who knows, maybe if I joined you instead of being left behind sitting in the home office, I wouldn’t have been duped into the lame website.

These “new normal” days I would dedicate to taking hikes with you even in a hailstorm, because I have brand-new, excellent all-weather gear. On the hike, I would at last speak the words to acknowledge how I reveled in your development and your mind. How I appreciated your accomplishments that were done completely independent from me. How I admired that your character was so much better than mine was at that age. The person I am today would have spent the rest of her life hiking with you, Marshall. Ultimately, the canteens have run dry.

You were always quiet in a noisy world. Subdued and humble in an entitled, egotistic world. With this in mind, few, if any, care to remember you. Even Father Ivan forgot. Steve Irwin gets a day on November 15. I wish I could get a day for you every year on the universe’s calendar, but what matters, really, is how much you matter to me. I would have given my life over a zillion times to spare yours. That was always the way it was. I only wish I had let you in on my secret. Instead, I kept telling you how your brain would clear up at 26 when the “logic” center developed. How I couldn’t wait for that year to come. This was because of some dumb brain documentary that I watched in the auditorium at your genius-only high school. A “top school” that’s tops in creating equality by making perfect products out of all people who enter through the doors. I can still hear myself saying, I can’t wait until you’re 26.

Now, I can’t wait to get through all the days. I’m sure you know that Saturday through Monday are especially painful. We could have saved you in those three days if we were there. Whitney and Bradley tried on that fatal, unbearable fourth day, a Tuesday. It was, obviously, too late. I think you would be pleased to know that Whitney and Bradley have joined our incomplete family, and it doesn’t feel as miniscule in size as it really is. They are the only reason I would return to KY. We still have family graves there, too, son, don’t forget. I have discovered that six hundred miles is not far after all.

When you took your life. You took mine.

I looked outside the window the other day and imagined you jumping in complete abandon on the neighbor’s trampoline. It made me recall one of those rare times when you were the star at the middle school dance, and you let go of all your inhibitions, and you danced as if no one was watching, although the entire eighth grade class gathered around and cheered you on the dance floor. It was all for you, my boy, my son, my first born. All the worldly applause. It was all for you. For you, Marshall, who was named after an American entrepreneur who became a famous multimillionaire. Sadly, from that night forward, you stopped dancing just as you stopped crying, because, marking your adolescence, you proclaimed to me, “Real men don’t cry.”

I wish you had kept dancing. I wish you had kept crying. I wish you had allowed yourself to be comfortable with all the uncomfortable things that made you feel like you didn’t belong to us or anywhere you traveled. Shame, of course, killed you. I’d like to think you are finally at peace. Maybe even dancing or crying or, at very least, just at ease.

In your note that “fell from the sky — you know what I mean” to me and your sister and Pat, you said you hoped the next world was kinder than this one. I hope so. There are no signs. No feelings I can sink my hope into. No muscle of faith that can pull me up and inspire me to sing, “Hallelujah!”

I’m still here. Maybe that is enough of a sign for now.

LOVE YOU ALWAYS AND FOREVER, YOUR HEART-BROKEN, SHATTERED-IN-PIECES MOTHER

*I’ll love you forever,

I’ll like you for always,

As long as I’m living

my baby you’ll be.

Faith Muscle

Hoarding 🍬Candy

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Two weeks ago, Halloween “backup” M&M’s ready, yet our house was dark. I had stopped celebrating Halloween a couple of years before our tragedy. Frankly, the holiday became more of a hassle than something that symbolized nostalgia or fun.

When this Halloween rolled in, I was alone at home, and the sun was beginning to set. Suddenly, Ding Dong!

Oh, gee! I mean, really? Aren’t the kids suppose to wait until nightfall to start trick-or-treating? I thought to myself.

Go away! I commanded in my mind. Halloween reminds me of what no longer is and will never be to the point of cruelty.

Ding Dong!

I recall the phone conversation I had with my 27-year-old daughter an hour earlier when I told her I would not be distributing Halloween candy.

“How can you deprive little kids? Don’t you care?” she grumbled.

“There were only two little kids I cared about,” I retorted.

“Oh, I see you are in a ‘mood.’” No, I want to say to her, but refrain from ruining her evening. Not a mood. I’m in my constant state of agony.

So I decide to bolt down the hall, ready to open the stupid door and give the irritating child some M&M’s, but I espy a dark-haired boy’s back. He’s returning to his parents who wait at the end of the driveway.

I know darn well I can chase after him outside and beckon him to come back, but I freeze. I stand there on the other side of the front door until I suddenly notice the dark house across the street. In 20 years at my residence, my neighbor’s front porch was always lit up and ready for Halloween. I make the stark realization that he’s not giving out candy either. Guilt heightened. I feel like I double-crossed the boy and now play a part in ruining some stranger’s childhood, because not only did I not give him M&M’s, I couldn’t put my sadness aside to at least glance at his costume that he probably waited all month to wear and show off.

What a Halloween scrooge I am. What if when my kids were young they had to deal with miserly people hiding behind dark porch facades. When they were young, in fact, most of the houses in our neighborhood celebrated.

Two years ago it was the last Halloween I would ever talk to my 26-year-old son alive. Since eight grade he had battled depression, and he was at an all-time low.

“We had a few good Halloweens, didn’t we?” I asked him over the telephone in an attempt to raise his spirits.

For a moment, when he replied, “Yeah!” his mood lifted, and I intuitively knew we were both remembering many of our good times together as a happy family. Hearing him two Halloweens ago exclaim a mere four-letter word “Yeah!” made my memory rocket back to one of those funky 70s dances. When those disco balls started turning and twinkling, you danced without restraint and no matter what was happening in your personal life, you hit the lottery on that dance floor.

“Yeah!” I banked on those happy memories to keep him alive, to fuel him. I also learned, too late, the best investments can plummet.

I spend more time with the dead in my mind then with the living. Right there behind the door observing my neighbor’s dark house, I sit, perched. My low spirits sinking lower. I rise, turn and make a beeline down the hallway, seeking solace in my bedroom and do not turn back around when for the second time I hear Ding Dong!

Fortunately for me, after that, the street became quiet. Halloween came to a close. After depriving the boy, and whatever child or children who rang the doorbell after him, I couldn’t bear to eat the M&M’s so I froze them in the fridge. I still visualize the boy’s dark hair. I imagine him who might or might not grow up to be an adult one day. I wonder if he will have a family of his own. Mostly, I wonder if he will grow up to be a person who distributes candy on Halloween.

Extending myself, and helping others were some of the best ways I knew to lift my spirits, and that’s what I spent doing for a good 35-year run. Then the day came when I couldn’t help one of the closest members of my family, and I, for the most part, retired my savior’s role.

I would like to end by saying, Next year I’ll give out candy on Halloween. And, maybe I will. Likely, I won’t. We heal and grieve and live our own way and in our own time. To me, this means giving myself the permission to be true to myself: sadness and dark “mood” included. I’m okay with that for today.

In fact, if someone used a magic wand to make my feelings and emotions associated with profound grief disappear, I would stop them. My destiny is as much a part of my makeup as my hazel blue eyes. I’m paving my way through the best I can, and I have faith that just because I feel the way I feel, I haven’t flunked life. In fact, by acknowledging my private feelings, I’m seeing myself as an honor student of life. I’m nowhere near the point of saying my life is a bag of sweets, but at least I still have a stash of M&M’s in the freezer, and if I see that dark-haired boy, because I do keep an eye out for him, I might just break open the loot to share with him.

Faith Muscle

No Going Back

Photo by gerald fredrik on Pexels.com

When I was pregnant nearly 29 years ago with my first child, I did not appear visibly pregnant. My belly was not pronounced. I never heard any of the following comments: “How many months are you? When’s the due date? How nice!”

Mid-way through my pregnancy with my son, my now ex-husband and I were on a standing-room-only crowded bus in Washington D.C. and no one offered his or her seat to me as I fumed silently, worried if the added exertion would effect my pregnancy.

My son did not take up any space in my womb, and as I now realize, he did not take up much space in the world he was not planning to stay in for too long. The end of his story was symbolized in the total of four pairs of pants that my daughter and I retrieved from his meager belongings when we traveled to his final place of residence in Kentucky.

Who knows if I did suffer the consequences of not receiving any special attention or care while I was pregnant. All I know is that Marshall was born a preemie. Strangely, the doctors never came to an agreement on his actual due date. What we did know was that he was either one, two or three months early.

As I’ve written before, he was not only born a preemie, but also with a congenital heart defect, having to undergo two surgeries, the last one an open heart surgery before his first-year birthday. I won’t go into the details of the birth itself, but I was in the hospital, lying flat on my back for six days before he was born. After the ordeal, somehow one inch of his umbilical cord accompanied me home! I stashed it in my bedroom drawer and through the years I occasionally uncovered it to marvel at life’s divine handiwork.

One more month from today marks my son’s demise two years ago when I returned his umbilical cord as well as gave him the ashes of his beloved cat Cliff. They both were shut tight inside his coffin along with some of his life’s other mementos.

As fall marches along, memories drop like acorns and thump on my head, redirecting me from the day. When I first fell in love with literature at 16, I loved the character of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman because he was old and worn down from an unfulfilled life. It brought me great comfort and relief to know that leaves on a page confined his pain in a closed book. For me, I had uncovered my quest for the American Dream through Mr. Loman who lost faith in his American Dream, because that is when I decided to become a writer like Arthur Miller, sideswiping life’s hardships and, instead, capturing the anguish by using a pen and allowing the pen to dribble its tears. In other words, at 16, my sole objective was to become the master of my own universe.

In writing, this process works. In real life, thinking I have control over my life hurts, especially as it concerns my son. Taking me by surprise from day one as a preemie, my son never stopped surprising me with years of challenges and unexpected events. Through the years, as I worked on feature articles for travel and bridal markets and other feel-good subjects, and in my spare time on fictional stories, I glossed over the raw realities of real life and, instead, I wore my rose-colored glasses and viewed every situation like a cherry-on-top silly Hallmark movie scene. The first inkling of how horribly wrong things could actually be was when I started uncovering layers of a liar’s cake, frosted thick, that my now ex-husband started to create in 2010. I thought I got wise after that, but not wise enough. Nineteen years later on that awful November day at 1:51 p.m. two years ago, one month from now, I received the telephone call that left me bearing unspeakable pain and profound grief.

From that day forward, I realized my life full of dreams and aspirations and faith in good over evil stopped. Nothing I ever wanted would come to fruition, because I had lost one of the main characters, and you cannot fill a blank screen when the projector has died.

Everything I imagined never worked out. Instead of learning about successes, accomplishments, mental wellness and other how-to-control-your-life strategies, and themes that are directly opposite the Willy Loman stories, I wish I learned about the importance of being brave and facing the ugly side of life early on. I wish I learned that The Little Engine That Could sometimes Couldn’t. I wish I had learned and passed the lessons on to my children and helped them understand the cruel, cold realities of life will never disappear, much like the impact of mental health issues. I wish more people in life were brave and could teach us how to do it. I wish so many things.

In the “old days” I found my tribe in support groups. Now, fortunately, I find my tribe in a handful of supportive people in real life and in my blogging community. I have also gone full circle, finding another tribe in the characters I read in literature.

For instance, one of the main characters (Rill Foss/May Weathers Crandall) in Before We Were Yours by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate hits the ball out of the park conveying how I feel about the consequence of expectations through Rill in the scene below that illustrates how the character finally reunites with her long-lost father and life that she has longed for ever since it was stolen from her. Wingate writes:

He gets up and heads for the door, grabbing his empty whiskey bottle on the way. A minute later, I hear him rowing off in the skiff.

I listen until he’s gone, and in the quiet that’s left after, I feel like the world is coming down around me. When I was at Mrs. Murphy’s and then the Seviers’ house, I thought if I could just get back to the Arcadia, that’d fix everything. I thought it’d fix me, but now I see I was fooling myself, just to keep on going, one day to the next.

Truth is, instead of fixing everything, the Arcadia made everything real. Camellia’s gone. Lark and Gabion are far away. Queenie’s buried in a pauper’s grave, and Briny’s heart went there with her. He’s lost his mind to whiskey, and he doesn’t want to come back.

Not even for me. Not even for Fern. We’re not enough.

My heart squeezes again.

Everything I wanted my life to be, it won’t be now. The path that brought me here is flooded over. There’s no going back.

Unlike old roofs, circumstances cannot be fixed no matter how much we are fixated on fixing them. There’s no going back. Going forward for me isn’t an option anymore. Moving along, learning to live my life under the category of pain management, scouting out the brave ones in life, that is the only way of faith I can bank on.

Faith Muscle

PS: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful daughter this week who will turn 27 on the 21st. She is my everything and so much more! ❤️