This is the light of faith … remember, some of the moths you attract are butterflies in disguise.
This week’s post is dedicated to all those who have lost loved ones and pets, homes, businesses and other possessions after “powerful tornadoes left paths of destruction in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.”
Through the media, I have witnessed community resilience, response and recovery efforts during the dire situation this past weekend. For instance, one of the tornados ripped through and destroyed the Mayfield (KY) First United Methodist Church property. The pastor, Reverend Joey Reed and his wife, took shelter in the church basement and survived the catastrophic event.
During a TV broadcast interview, his gratitude for the safety of his wife and children prevailed. He said that things are replaceable; people are not.
In fact, the reverend further explained that the topic of “joy” was the theme he had planned for last Sunday’s sermon. Fortunately, he was still able to present the sermon during a service at another local church that the tornado bypassed. Interestingly, the only bulletin from Reverend Reed’s church that survived the calamity includes a synopsis of his sermon.
The sermon defines joy as something that is internal and thereby it is a permanent fixture for as long as we live. Happiness, on the other hand, is external and is fleeting.
“Joy is often mistaken for happiness, but happiness can change by a turn of events. Joy is something that abides. That’s what we’re holding onto,” Reverend Reed said.
In the same spirit of joy, although the parish has lost the sanctuary, he also stated, “That building was the repository of our memories. We have to remember that those memories still belong to us. They cannot be taken from us even by something as devastating as this tornado.”
I only hope that Clayton Cope’s parents, whose son would have turned 30 at the end of December, and all the other parents who lost young adult children at the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, and children of all ages throughout the six effected states will manage to cherish their “repository of memories” as they now undertake the most unbearable journeys imaginable.
To these bereaved parents and to all the other survivors who are swallowed by grief in so many forms from this tragedy, I stand with you. I salute your bravery as you endure your faith walk. Always remember, the power of faith lies in the acceptance of our powerlessness.
Every time I see a lawn sign: “Love Lives Here,” I think of Geraldine. She was decades older than I was and has since relocated to another state, but was my support group mentor for two years when I was in my 20s. Geraldine was a budding artist married to a world renowned architect. The couple lived by the sound in an area known as the Gold Coast, an affluent part of western Connecticut.
We spent a good amount of time driving around the area, deep in conversation about the messy sides of love and life. Every now and then, I espied a particularly luxurious house and the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head, leading me to ask with a sneer, “Why can’t I live in a house like that?”
Geraldine’s response was always the same. “Don’t make assumptions. Facades are built to impress. We forget they are not real. The people inside are real. We do not know them. They can be poor in spirit. Sick with cancer. The facade you are looking at right now could be a cover up for domestic violence or child abuse.”
Geraldine taught me not to accept things on face value, examine beneath the surface of what appears to be real and discern the truth. It only makes sense that whenever I drive by a lawn sign, “Love Lives Here” (or any of those other saccharine signs), I immediately wonder if the sign merely conceals what is really going on inside — disease, death, destruction, dread and despair — suburban hunger and poverty.
So, this brings me to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. We were fortunate to spend another Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Anna and her family. The family consists of mostly well-educated, affluent medical doctors. They had invited their neighbor’s caretaker, Jose, to join us. He lives in the basement of his employers’ mega mansion. The family he works for were away for the holiday, and he was alone. In fact, this was the case last Thanksgiving when Anna and her husband also invited him to join them, taking proper precautions since it was during the pandemic’s mandatory quarantine.
It just goes to show, Anna doesn’t need to display signs of love on her lawn. You will find all the love you can imagine behind closed doors.
I had never met Jose before, but I knew he feared returning to the political and civil upheaval in his Latin country. When he arrived at the door, he wore a polyester beige top, chocolate-colored, loose-fitting trousers, with his head lowered. He grasped a burgundy wool knit hat. The skin on his hands resembled the surface of a cracked asphalt driveway. His indigo hair was sleek, straight as a piece of construction paper and held that just-brushed appearance. I would estimate he was around 50, but, maybe, the life lines covering his hardened face masked his true youth.
Realize, too, Jose does not speak a lick of English. Fortunately, Anna’s husband is fluent in Spanish, and he translated our conversations. Before our meal, Anna asked Jose to recite the prayers that he grew up with in Mexico. He willingly obliged. The words came easy like a well-worn, comfortable melody, softened with grace and elegance. I did not have a clue as to what he was saying, but I understood every word, because the language of love is universal. It tears down walls and barriers and connects us in all things good, pure and holy.
Rising above my own grief and sorrow, Jose’s eyes revealed secrets of his own sorrow as he prayed. Our connection of despair actually made me smile. We were unicorns that felt solidarity built upon a foundation of truth and faith. I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I didn’t need a billboard to figure out that the meaning of Thanksgiving stretches to every day of the year when it is engineered with the grand and noble emotions of the human heart.
(The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.)
Since 1986, I’ve harbored a secret resentment against Hallmark Cards. In that year, in my 20s, I though it was a slam dunk to apply for a job opening at the company that I saw advertised and was all psyched to move from New England to their Kansas City, Missouri, headquarters.
Growing up pre-internet days, while some kids played baseball, bowled and participated in other leisure activities, I bicycled to the drugstore downtown and browsed through greeting cards that I later personalized, writing about my life’s rather mundane updates. Just like an evening ritual glass of milk before bed, I had my trip to the mailbox at the end of the street where I would deposit a handful of Hallmark Cards addressed to friends and family.
Understandably, I had one hundred percent, unshakable faith that I would land the Hallmark Card writing job. Plus, I possessed the required education and background and enough creativity to grow old with the company. For a solid week after my day job, skipping dinner, I typed my application into the late-night hours, which included brainstorming and writing a variety of sample greeting card sentiments. Upon completion, I packaged the bundle and mailed the application. Afterwards, I even mentioned to a number of people my impending Kansas City move. I spent weeks elevated behind my rose-colored glasses, visualizing a future made for a sappy greeting card.
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come
I’m going to Kansas City
Kansas City, here I come.
That was my theme song that I sang to myself as the days rolled into weeks. By week six, I received a form rejection letter from the company that floored me. Like all form rejection letters, it basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
After receiving the bad news, I felt utterly dejected for weeks. My dreams of becoming a greeting card writer were strip cut and made undistinguishable as if they were forced through a paper shredder. Deep inside, decades later, I still feel a tad resentful over the missed opportunity that when I least expect it, kicks in the “What if’s.”
My failed career experience, however, did not stop me from being a loyal Hallmark customer. I still purchase Hallmark cards along, of course, with other brands, to send to family and friends. Though I’ve cut the volume down immensely, thanks to the internet, sending a few cards for special and “Just Because” occasions is still like a secret mission of mine that I like to keep up on.
Needless to say, I am part of the Hallmark Gold Crown rewards program, which means I receive monthly promotional coupons.
Here’s the dicey part. After our family tragedy, I felt like an out-of-control mechanical bull was bucking and spinning in my belly when I realized that every Hallmark Card coupon code started with four letters: “SUIC.”
Granted, to 99.9% of the population, those letters are an innocuous, random combination. To “survivors” such as myself, the manual control joystick on that mechanical rodeo bull in my belly malfunctions, gets stuck in “10,” the highest speed, and cannot be disabled.
Each and every time I wanted to reach out to the company, but between my PTSD and my age, I don’t stray too far from my safe bubble. So, month after month, I “let it go” and turned a blind eye to the coupon code.
Recently, I opened my Hallmark Gold Crown rewards email, and the bull straddled my belly, kicked and spun so hard that, without a second thought, I immediately sent Hallmark customer service a note. Part of it stated: “….As a loyal customer, every time I receive a Hallmark Gold Crown rewards certificate, I am distressed to see the following promo code at the beginning of all promo codes: ‘SUIC.'”
To me, I always fill in the rest of the blanks SUICide. Aren’t there any other letters you can start your promo codes with? Is it in anyway possible to change this letter combination considering the sensitive nature of suicide loss survivors?”
I hit the “Submit” button and didn’t expect much. This time, 24 hours later, Hallmark sent me much more than I expected. It might have been partially a form letter, but not completely.
“We are deeply sorry to know about your loss and appreciate the time you have taken to let us know your thoughts about the initial name of the promo codes. We understand your concern because we strive for great customer service. We hope you will accept our apologies for this inconvenience. As with all of our incidents, this will be sent up to our feedback department so it can be reviewed by them in their next discussion and take into consideration. We can assure you that your feedback will be heard, but we can not guarantee a change will occur.”
Rose-colored glasses removed, cynical me, I figured, “I’ll never hear from them again.” Surprise! Surprise!
So a few hours after the letter, I receive a new coupon in the mail:
2021 August | EXPIRES: 10/31/2021
Use this PROMO CODE online: SUIA459890056
Notice the SUIA instead of SUIC
I don’t know if this is a result of my feedback, but, man, that helps gives me faith. Perhaps, during one of those rare moments in my life, I’ve been heard and influenced a tiny smidgen of life. My long-ago resentment is wiped clean, the mechanical rodeo bull disabled, and I’m taking my newest coupon to the Hallmark store to stock up. I’m fired up to restart my spreading-good-cheer mission initiative. Who knows, maybe while on a high note, writing notes, I’ll revisit my resume, research what greeting card writer opportunities are out there these days.
So much for helping me keep the faith. I received a new code coupon with the SUIC code again. Bummer. I think I’ll write an old-fashioned letter to the corporate office. 😞 (I will keep my blogging community updated!)
Hurricane warnings canceled my birthday “celebration” plans this past Sunday. Honestly, I was happy as a clam, relieved that I didn’t have to venture too far. Although I didn’t hide under a clam shell as I wrote about in my last blog post, I did hide under a rain hat and enjoyed a light, enjoyable brunch at a restaurant in close proximity to our house.
The morning kicked off with flower deliveries, as well as thoughtful wishes from my blogging community, and I want to thank those who remembered, Alec, Prema, Judy and Kathy specifically! In fact, shortly before I turned on my computer that day, I thought of my “Karmic Sister” Prema. She not only provides assistance to me through this grief journey, but is instrumental in helping me keep the faith and not lose my footing. And wouldn’t you know it, as part of her birthday greeting, Prema wrote: “Let us show our faith in the divine by being cheerful, surrendering to Cosmic will. We are blessed as pain has a purifying effect on us.”
After surviving some harsh realities over three decades ago, in comparison to my old life, it was easy to count my blessings. Every moment was an abundance of gratitude. After our family tragedy 21 months ago, I certainly did not feel blessed and removed the word from my vocabulary since I no longer had a clue to its meaning. Now, thanks to Prema, I am beginning to comprehend that “blessings” are not necessarily people, places and/or things to tick off my personal agenda list.
One example that puts the word “blessed” back into my vocabulary is calling to mind the people like Prema who have been brought into my life. They are the brave ones who do not shy away from mortality and pain, but are less self-centered and, thus, confident and courageous enough to accept their own human vulnerabilities. Call them the chosen ones, or the lucky ones who walk into the dressing room of life with ease and without a desperate need to cram themselves into too-tight, ill-fitting “attire.” Instead, they accept what is appropriated to them and walk with their heads held high.
These are the people I am blessed to be around. They are the people who value me instead of judging me, because they manage to accept “what is” and not “what isn’t” and this peaceful state enables a channel of love to radiate and multiply. These are the people who are the ones that blaze a path for me to follow.
Transparency is natural above normal with them. As a matter of fact, I found myself this past week sharing secrets of the harrowing, graphic details involving my tragedy with another grief-stricken friend. After I took the risk of baring my soul, I looked into my friend’s eyes and knew I had reached a plateau of holiness; a sacred space where I no longer had to suffer in silence, but where I was heard and appreciated and allowed to cry out and feel that I really matter in the big world where it is so easy to get lost and flushed away. I mean, how many people are blessed to experience this type of intimacy that goes beyond reason?
Another blessing I thought of, thanks to Prema, is how the pain and suffering I have endured have washed away murky and meaningless priorities and people in my life. I now understand that phoniness carries no meaning. With meaning comes courage to speak personal truth.
I am finally heeding to 12-step advice I learned so long ago. “Say what you mean, but don’t be mean.”
As far as I am concerned, the art of true living is honesty. l am working hard on telling people how I really feel and, in turn, I hope they are comfortable enough with me to reciprocate. One recent test that I scored an “A” in was for confronting a neighbor about a charity pledge she promised, but did not deliver. Unfortunately, after our conversation, she skirted the entire issue. I did not get the intended result, but I did gain a new confidence in myself. In essence, I feel purer because I did not compromise myself by putting her needs above mine. In addition, I did not enable her to make a promise to me she did not intend to keep. No, we cannot control someone’s behavior, but we can control our words and behavior. Ultimately, if I am in the full spin cycle of purification in my life, one of the things that doesn’t serve me any longer is being nice for the sake of being nice and not hurting someone’s feelings, especially when he or she has wronged me.
I looked up the word “purification.” Among other things, it means, “the removal of contaminants from something.”
At this point of my life, I do not want to carry the burden and weight of heavy contaminants. I am overweight enough. So I’m purging. I’m uncluttering. I’m simplifying. I’m seeing truth for what it is and sharing my feelings. Feelings, after all, are not right or wrong, they are simply a part of what makes us who we are. If, however, they fester, build up inside me, they will eat me or explode in an inappropriate way and cause an unnecessary pain, a false representation of who I am.
What I am finding in the process is that most things like the political or religious affiliations that we carry really don’t matter. For the most part, our words and how they are carried out by our actions define us.
Carrying the grief, finding a sacred space for it, is among my many accumulated treasures in my long journey. It weaves a silver lining ribbon through this final chapter of my life in which the working title is “Blessed.”
In the dictionary I discovered that one of the definitions for the noun “natural” is “a creamy beige color.”
I like creamy beige and do not, like some people, see it as a dull hue. On life’s color wheel, the color coordinates with almost everything. It’s a mellow, tame color. Creamy beige’s calming, soothing effect befits painting it on the walls of a psychiatric unit.
When I am in a natural state of being, I am calm. The state involves ego deflation, a process I started to learn over 36 years ago through consistent 12-step work. Now, in my new normal, I sign-off conversations, saying, “be calm.” In my past life, I used to say, “Hang in there.” After my trauma, the H-word kicks off a dangerous association that feels like it’s on a repeating loop that belts me into a sinkhole of anxiety.
Anyway, when I try to be “normal” and fit into norm, the tension compounds in the back of my neck and my heart feels like a tomato dried and shriveled.
Back in my late 20s, a Catholic priest, with whom I spent 12 years on an annual Women’s Lenten Retreat, reinforced the relevance of living “natural” and not “normal”. The priest, also a certified psychoanalysis, prompted me to substitute the word “natural” for “normal.”
One recent example of living in the natural realm was when my friend and I strolled along Long Island Sound. On our way, we stopped and conversed with an older woman who was scrubbing individual rocks from a pile of rocks until she reached a white smooth surface. Despite the fact that I found Geology 101 to be a daunting college course that I barely completed, I have a penchant for rocks. My son and I shared the same fascination. The last time I visited Kentucky when he was alive in 2018, we took a rock exploration road trip. I was raised on rock and roll, but I’ll take a natural rock formation over rock music any day. There’s a psychology behind it. Rocks give me solidity and help me feel balanced — metaphorically speaking, standing on solid ground.
So, I inquired what the woman on the beach was planning to do with her 50 some spic-and-span rocks. First, she explained that she only sourced one rock a day at her hometown beach about ten miles away. In contrast, she came to farm this area because of the booty: dozens of rocks in a day. It was interesting information. I never knew different beaches produce different rock harvests.
Second, answering my question, she said she gathered the rocks to lay on top of her father’s grave to prevent the grass from overgrowing. After conversing a tad longer, we bid the woman goodbye and continued our walk. On the way back, the woman was gone, but I noticed that she had left behind about three dozen rocks, all the color and texture of toothpaste.
“I’m going to get some rocks to bring home!” I exclaimed.
“You don’t need rocks,” my friend replied.
I ignored her advice that I knew was well meaning since, who really “needs” rocks? I mean, to most people rocks are not a normal household acquisition. Fortunately, my “natural” inclination won out. I grabbed three rocks, and I brought them home without any specific purpose in mind.
Arriving home, I plopped the rocks on a table in the hallway and went about my household chores. I looked at the rocks all day and then, out of the blue, I realized the rocks’ purpose.
I grabbed a fat black marker and inscribed the rocks with my son’s name, “Mom” and “E,” our family’s, especially her brother’s, nickname for my daughter. Writing the names, I obsessed over the word “permanent” on the marker’s container. It was my son’s marker and it had outlived him. So far, it appeared that there really was one permanent item in the world of temporary things.
Afterwards, I made the dreaded trip to the cemetery and placed the rocks in front of my son’s plaque. (The plaque that the funeral director left marks his spot since I cannot bare to order a foot stone.) In turn, the rocks accomplished what they always do, they brought me a sense of balance and comfort.
When my daughter visited for the weekend, she accompanied me to the cemetery and saw the rocks. The site energized her and as she took photos, she announced, “It’s the most beautiful plot in the cemetery.”
As sad as the circumstances of a child’s death, the memory of that moment at my son’s grave with his light-footed sister is framed in a creamy beige, the color of our rock trio that fits naturally into the landscape and gives you the faith that some designs are divinely inspired.
In my inner circle, sometimes the curmudgeons criticize others when they share about their feelings of pain, as well as sadness, and other emotions involving certain situations that they feel are trivial. For instance, if someone cries, saying, “I met someone who I thought was a keeper, and he | she stood me up after the first date.”
One of the curmudgeons’ favorite replies to a statement like this is, “Don’t cry over broken shoelaces.”
On the other hand, my usual response is, “If those broken shoelaces hurt that person, let him or her cry!”
I could never understand why we assign quantitative, numerical values on a person’s personal feelings and emotions. Feelings and emotions are as individual as a person’s fingerprints. Recently, I read that if fingerprints are burned off, duplicate ones grow back. This is like a metaphor for pain and/or emotions and if we alter them to fit another person’s morphsuit they don’t lessen. Instead, if you’ve read any of the research about blocked emotions, you know they cause a negative impact on mental and physical health.
I don’t need research. During my adolescent years until my mid-twenties, I battled insomnia and suffered from a gamut of gastrointestinal issues. Every remedy I tried, lied. What worked was to identify and learn how to get comfortable with the uncomfortable emotions like fear, sadness and anger without inflicting self-harm or harming others.
Pain and emotions are universal, but their intensity is different for everyone and, as such, shouldn’t be judged. To put it in context, a couple of weeks ago, I saw my neighbors constructing a handful of tents, about eight feet wide and high, in their backyard. I figured it was for a party, likely for their daughter.
Sure enough, the father surprised me at my front door when he handed me his cell number. He explained that they were hosting a prom night sleepover for his daughter and a group of her friends. He told me he wanted to be a respectful neighbor and that if the kids turned rowdy, not to hesitate to call him at any hour.
“Let them party!” I replied and meant it.
My response created a comfort zone for my neighbor. He removed his guard and revealed that it was a tough time for him and his wife with their only daughter moving on to “the next stage of life.”
Suddenly, as he unsuccessfully fought the tears, he said his daughter’s relocation to an out-of-state university was heartbreaking. There I stood, like a strong, sturdy pair of steel pliers while inside I crumbled. I realized the grief spilled over his situation could be dismissed as a “broken shoelace” emotion, especially in the eyes of a grieving mom who lost her handsome, brilliant 26-year-old son to suicide. Knowing each other only in passing, obviously he was not privy to our family’s tragedy.
The one and only time he encountered my son was in 2010 after my now ex-husband abandoned his family responsibilities and our neighbor and his daughter, who had recently moved in next door, were in our yard. We mistakenly thought they were helping themselves to our fireplace wood.
My son, daughter and I scooted out on the second floor deck. My son played the role of family protector and in his deep, distinct voice instructed our neighbor, “If you wanted wood, you could have just asked.”
In response, my neighbor laughed and explained they did not need wood, only their ball and thanked us before leaving the premises.
The man now in front of me believed my son, a genuinely good, sensitive and quiet guy, was alive and thriving, living away from home. I looked into his eyes and sometimes a familiar face transports me back to my old self in the days when I took faith for granted, when it was common and as plentiful as mosquitos in the summertime, when I was steadfast in believing only good prevailed.
Then and there, I knew that I had a choice with my grieving neighbor, this broken man in front of me. Stab him with the raw reality. Tell him to stop being a cry baby over a pair of broken shoelaces, especially in light of my tragedy. In this way, I would not only shut him up, but feel as if I’d won in the pain department and, likely, ruin his whole weekend as he would probably feel guilty over his broken shoelace grief.
The man, in fact, reminded me of my similar state of distress when I left my son behind in the classroom on his first day at preschool. I walked like a zombie to the car and immediately after I sat inside, I bawled uncontrollably because the feeling of letting go of my son was devastating, like having every single cell in my body forcefully removed with a sharp pair of tweezers.
“You know how it is. You’ve been through it,” my neighbor muttered through his tear-stained face.
Another scenario occurred to me. Nine years prior after her godmother and I dropped my daughter off for her first semester at college, I bawled during the entire six-hour ride home. Fortunately, my daughter’s godmother didn’t squelch my emotions and because I processed my grief over the separation, I felt better by the time we arrived home.
I nodded at my neighbor like one of my mentors, Cornelia, who, in fact, lost two sons had taught me through her example so long ago.
“It will be okay. Really,” I assured the grief-stricken man before he made a beeline home.
Afterwards, I forced myself to keep the painted smile on my face and conduct the motions of life, but, wow, I was drowning in my children’s bittersweet high school memories at the time when their father abandoned them. Through it all, somehow I managed to keep my head above water. Cornelia, who is now deceased, would have been proud.
Grief, like sadness, I reiterate, is not an emotion to assign a quantitative value to. My natural emotional state of being now encompasses grief. I lug my griefcase wherever I go, and somedays it is heavier than others. Louis, my therapist, who lost a child of his own, promises that the emotions and feelings will lessen in intensity. Of course, we both agree they will not go “poof” and disappear. I live as an amputee who not only has to get used to the new normal, but also learn how to manage the pain.
One of my friends attends a group for grieving parents who have lost children to death. She told me that one of the sessions revolved around the idea that, “There is nothing worse than losing a child.”
In light of this statement, the group members minimized all other types of grief, whether it resulted from losing a spouse or parent or friend and so on. And I told my friend that kind of group would not be a proper fit for me. I don’t want to wash out someone’s grief with my own. The man at my door is entitled to feel his grief from “losing his daughter” as much as I am entitled to my grief at losing a son to suicide.
K.L. Hale, a beautiful member of this blogging community, wrote a heartfelt comment to me after last week’s post. She said, “after 2 1/2 years of not seeing my sons (only because of their Air Force duties) I would think of you. Your loss put things into perspective for me. Your words leave me with tears running down my face. The beauty that you’re able to give us all is faith indeed. I’m so proud of all you have overcome to find that inner peace.”
My reply was: “Thanks to people like you, I am able to hold my head up, carry my griefcase bravely and keep the faith. What has helped me most is the hope that my pain will somehow help heal the world. You have brought this hope of mine to fruition, and I am deeply moved. So moved in fact that you’ve inspired my post’s topic for next week!”
What I also want to say to this beautiful, faith-filled woman is: “We walk these roads of sadness together, never alone as we think of one another and feel our human connection. Allow my loss to help you through this difficult time, but also validate your loss and embrace it. Your feelings of sadness are real and important, and they matter because you matter and through the process, if you have not yet found your inner peace, it will find you. Whether you choose to call it the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Goodness, it is deep within you. I promise, because I was fortunate to discover it so many years ago, and I have lived there ever since.”
Everyone is entitled to feel what they feel and experience their emotions when they want to and for however long they need to. In fact, if I can find my way out of my pain and sit with another person’s pain, more times than not, I feel better. The bottom line is, it alleviates my suffering to focus on yours and sometimes it gives me the reprieve I need. Life is hard but we’re in it together, at least for today. Tomorrow some of us that are here right at this moment will be missing, I guarantee it. So let’s hold on tight, keep the faith and allow ourselves to feel our vulnerabilities that are part of our humanness. In fact, if we practice at it, it should become as natural as tying a pair of shoelaces.
In the late 1990s, I attended a seminar in which a woman discussed her recently published book about her experience of working with dying AIDS patients in New York City. Most of her talk centered around the taboo topic of death in today’s world. One of the biggest mistakes we make as a society, she said, is to presume that when a loved one leaves the premises, he or she will return.
My former self would never have fathomed how the author’s profound statement would one day relate to my own life. Two years ago this past Memorial Day weekend, my son left his childhood home and went back to his home, never to return again. My memory frames his tall, broad-shouldered, 26-year-old portrait standing inside our front door. The flashback triggers feelings of sadness and loss, wet and heavy like a low pile rug drenched in pain. I cannot wring out the emotions nor erase the calm look and smile on his ginger-bearded face in those shared final moments. When he was younger, he was the spitting image of his father. Now, his uncanny resemblance to me was unmistakable. Like a baby blanket hand washed hundreds of times, he was familiar to me. Ironically, at the time I was grateful that, in many ways, my job as a mom was a proud accomplishment. He had grown up into a successful young man. Best of all, I thought, I instilled a sense of independence in him and despite a string of setbacks, he had flown the nest.
The airport shuttle bus driver, who was waiting in the driveway to transport him to the airport, beeped the horn. I followed my son outside. I paid little attention to what I took for granted as just another gifted moment. As he sat in the mini bus, I do remember feeling as if he were a young boy again and leaving on the school bus. I waved goodbye as the vehicle disappeared. A part of my former, practical self kicked in and I became focused on my engine red to-do list that was on fire in my mind because there were endless chores, obligations and responsibilities to check off. Yet, another part of me yearned for him to stay one more day and watch the town’s Memorial Day parade, the one he once loved to participate in when he was growing up where there was always a place for him. Just one more day.
I was confident in our Gorilla Heavy Duty Adhesive bond and was tricked to believe no human hands, certainly not our own, could sever it. I returned to the house alone, walked into the entranceway where my mind’s eye captured a snapshot of him towered high, emphasized by the door’s frame. Saying his final goodbye, he had stood in front of the main door with his back to where the sun sets and not far from where our road intersects with another road named Sunset Drive. The same route the driver traveled to take my son home to where he lived on Sunset Road in Kentucky, about 600 miles away. Six months later, the unimaginable happened and my life as I had known it went poof like the blank shells fired during Memorial Day parades.
How could this have happened in my miracle-filled, storied life that began thirty-five years prior when I stood at a crossroads? At that time, I was given a second chance in my life and slowly developed a life of faith. It started when, angry at religion and filled with notions of a punishing God, the 12-step program I later ascribed to taught me to believe in something other than myself. This “something” was called a higher power, and I learned that the higher power could be as random as a doorknob, but the key was, as long as it wasn’t me, it seeded a belief, and the idea of giving up my reign of control on outside circumstances helped me discover something I never experienced – inner peace.
During those years, after a rough ego-shedding start, I was grateful for my new life. My thank-you notes were action steps. Whether someone needed a car ride or a supportive phone call, I helped. I also volunteered at the local hospital’s mental health unit. I watched resilient people overcome insurmountable obstacles. Living a life of witnessing miracles, how could I not envision a bright, promising future for my one and only son? However, the string of happy tomorrows was ripped from me like perfectly healthy layers of skin. The tragedy happened 21 days after a 35-year milestone of my practicing the 12-step principles. It was a time of celebration. On that tragic day, however, I stepped on the landmine I had built out of my sugarcoated optimism, fantasies and misconceptions, and it detonated; my former self left behind in the explosion.
When I saw my son for the last time, framed in the soft cushion of his metal coffin, my new self released into his lifeless palms crowned with his slim fingers and bruised hands, my former self’s 35-year coin, a hallmark of recovery that I carried proudly for over three decades in my wallet like a medal of honor.
Now, nearly 19 months later, the minefields are cleared. I do not trip over booby-traps of overexaggerated optimism, and there are no milestone victory coins any longer in my possession. Don’t get me wrong. I am indebted to the people who helped me achieve those thirty-five years. I have not lost my inner peace. Now, though, I exist within a heavy metal grief framework. I head into my 37th year of recovery with feet flat, accepting life on life’s terms, allowing the raw reality to bite hard, but without chewing me to a pulp. I put my faith into believing that one day the barren, flat ground underneath me will be the perfect level to witness a sunrise; a luminescent horizon, a photo worth framing that makes you believe in an endless loop of miracles that make a surprise grand entrance at your front door.
Today is May 25th. Every year for as long as she lived, my mom marked this date on the calendar as her death date.
Nothing, not anyone, intercepted her schedule and agenda, her oxygen sources. A total control freak, it was as if she grasped a snow globe world in her hands. Whenever she shook it, a blizzard erupted. Additionally, her ultimate weapons of control were superstition and religion.
In Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra? when the author describes Mama Sandra’s sense of control, he conjures up my mother’s exact image. He writes, “Suddenly she gasped—the realization hitting her that she’d forgotten to pray before her plane had taken off. If they had exploded in mid-air, thought Mama Sandra in horror, if hundreds of someones’ someones had died that day, it would have been all her fault.”
My mom created a cause-and-effect world and whether something good or bad happened, there was always a hard and fast reason. Some of her legacy she passed on to me. Long after my mom’s death, I still avoid stepping on a sidewalk’s cracks .…“Step on the crack, break your mother’s back” .… What daughter in her right mind would willingly do that to her mom, alive or dead?
Most of my mom’s control issues stemmed from being a World War II survivor. She placed her full faith into a built-in life script. Editing it was an impossible task.
One of my mom’s many idiosyncrasies was her desire to die in the month of May. May 25th to be exact. She longed to share the death date with her father, my grandfather. Though he had died long before I was born, my mom insisted that God loved him so much that apparently when he died, he was gifted with the nicest, sunniest day of the year. The sky was as clear as a wavelength of light from a prism, and you could see for miles without having to squint. My mom also said that my grandfather was a well-loved man in the community and hundreds of people attended his funeral and celebrated his life. That said, in her eyes, a May 25th death was not sad or solemn but happy. Plus, perhaps it was also part of the Byelorussian culture she was raised in, but my mom prayed for her specific death date as if she were praying for a future, festive wedding celebration. Year after year, she kneeled in front of her Jesus and Mother Mary statues in her bedroom and, along with her death date prayer request, she also prayed for a peaceful death in her own bed at home. At the very least, if the 25th was inconvenient, she implored God, to grant her a springtime death date.
I had faith that if there existed a compassionate God, he would grant my mother’s wish. Of course, God, my Christian friends remind me, is NOT a magical genie.
When the day arrived, a little more than two months after she celebrated her 90th birthday, instead of May 25th or during springtime, my mother died on December 29th in 2015 on a dark frigid winter’s day. My daughter and I were in another state, about two hours away, when we heard the news and could not immediately return home, because we were trapped in an ice storm. Additionally, my mom did not die, per her request, at home and in her bed. My mom died in a nursing facility, because she had suffered a stroke and required medical support. So, all her years of prayers amounted to nothing.
There’s a silver lining to this story though. First, my mother actually did die as she wanted, peacefully. Second, shortly before she died, I asked her, while she laid in the hospital bed, where she thought she was.
“Home,” she replied.
After her response, I remember that all that came to me was how God was just. If my mom realized the raw reality of the situation and that she would not die in her bed at home as she had always prayed, she would have been devastated. Obviously, too, she was not aware of the season at the time, so that fact also seemed just, but here’s the clincher. The first spring after her death, I found beautiful photos of my mom shot about a year prior on our back deck. There was no special occasion, but our dear family friend, Anne, was visiting from New Mexico, and we held an impromptu gathering. Although my daughter was away working as a camp counselor in upstate New York, my son attended and other family members and close friends. At the gathering, laughter filled the air, and it was the kind of gathering where you might forget eating and drinking altogether because of the abundance of delicious conversation. The sun was aglow, cupped inside a cloudless sky. You could see for miles without a telescope. Out of a lifetime of gatherings, it hit the top ten list.
Anyway, as I examined the pictures, I spotted the date: MAY 25th. In retrospect, I realize IT WAS the last time my mom was alive, at least in the way we knew her. It was the last time she was one hundred percent lucid and pain-free and, in fact, resonated with youth and life. After that day, she took a turn and, in almost every sense of the word, she died. In my mind, I always reflect on that date as symbolizing her last good day on earth until she gave into her symbolized death that night of May 25th. In addition, I see that wondrous May 25th day as the best “Goodbye Party” I’ve ever attended. I couldn’t have prayed for a better outcome.
I, of all people, know that as much as we would like to think we are in control of our destinies, we are utterly powerless. It’s a consequence of being human. But I also know that when things whirl out of control, I need to place my two feet into a composite of faith, trust, hope. At the moment, however, as I carry my griefcase, I only have quicksand to trudge in. Interestingly, I read that you can only sink as far as your waist into quicksand unless you dive head first or face first. Given this information, I keep my faith and allow myself to sink without drowning. Head up, I can’t miss the spring air, and I soak up the warmth and, without orchestrating a thing, allow the process of the natural healing powers to amaze me, especially in the darkest of days that feel like they are buried in a non-breathable acrylic shroud.
This year on Mother’s Day instead of focusing on my personal grief journey, I centered my thoughts around my mom. As a child into my young adulthood, I was so unlike her. I thought she had adopted me. I could barely share the same room with her. The word hate is too strong to describe my early feelings toward her, but I spent most of my time dodging her abrasive, nasty, many times cruel remarks, and dealing with the mental anguish that resulted. Believe me, she knew how to push my buttons, because she was a master installer.
Typically, particularly toward strangers, she was taciturn and morose. On the other hand, I was over-excitable, over-sensitive and talkative. Touch, too, was off-limits to her and our family. She was like a splintering telephone pole to avoid. It wasn’t until I was 27 that fellow Brian A. taught me how to offer a cordial embrace. I was an excellent student and, in turn, I became a huggy, touchy-feely person.
Along with learning healthy touch, I implemented a solid self-care program into my daily life, and to my shock, slowly, very slowly, my mom became softer. She switched out her destructive masculine qualities for sweeter, gentler feminine ones. By the time my own children were born, we spoke at least an hour a day on the telephone and, in between our hour-long talks, she called our house in endless succession to the point of irritating the entire household. Our conversations revolved around my son and daughter. She, too, never failed to throw in the latest sensational news headlines before we hung up.
Tuesdays and Fridays were scheduled for her day-long babysitting services, and she’d pinch hit on other days too. Any failings she had as a mother, she made up tenfold as a grandmother. The love between my children and their grandmother was knitted together in 14-karat yarn that could never be damaged, broken or severed. By the time I reached my late 40s, she, shockingly out of character, very matter-of-factly announced that she loved me and, of course, I reciprocated.
My mom had lost a son, my brother, too. He suffered a fatal stroke in 2002, 16 months after losing her husband, my dad, to emphysema. From that point on, I rallied around her and never failed to fudge and compliment her fine mothering skills. I wouldn’t award her any Best Mom trophies in the Hallmark Card sense, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she loved me and my brothers in the best manner she could. For so long society has painted women as natural caretakers, but this role was not a favorite of mom’s. Her fervid desire was to be a certified public accountant, working in a shiny, clean and sterile office setting, churning numbers, calculating hard-and fast-solutions. Instead, she settled in an unsettled family environment of obscure emotional demands at a loss for an exact formula.
In 2015, the year she turned 90, her final year with us, as she withered to illness, she constantly pleaded with me and Brother Paul, “Forgive me.”
To this day, I admire her for taking a personal life inventory and having the courage to complete her amends. As the years pass, her influence has become like a bone fused with my skeleton.
I constantly hear her broken English commands and her practical advice, like, “Clean up! Right away when make mess.”
She had tons of wise sayings too, for instance, “Where people, problems.” “You make plan. God crosses out.”
My mother was a petite woman who led a modest lifestyle in every regard, but she was huge on gratitude. You could give her a sunflower seed and she would dance with it in her hands until she eagerly planted it in her outdoor garden, profusely thanking you until you couldn’t stand to hear her thanksgiving any longer.
Instead of obsessing about myself this Mother’s Day, I am thankful to have had my mom for as long as I did. I also thought about other moms, the moms who did not get to see their children due to the pandemic and for other reasons. I, too, remembered the bereaved moms. The imprisoned moms. The estranged moms. The moms who sat in the same room as their children on the holiday but did not see them for who they were and only saw them for what they wanted them to be.
Moms. Moms. Moms. Inclusion is the buzzword these days, but society still disregards the moms that are so difficult to love, because many of them are simply hurting. It’s been said before: “Hurt people hurt.” Many times, the ones who really need a hug are those who appear they don’t deserve a hug. Monster moms, if you will.
“After one of her mother’s beatings, Ivy could, at least, count on being left alone for a few days. If the beating was particularly vicious, Nan might even cook Ivy’s favorite dishes and allow her to watch television before starting her homework. Nan neither justified nor apologized.”
The excerpt above is from a book, White Ivy by Susie Yang that I recently read. In a bizarre way, it makes me chuckle, because when we think about Mother’s Day and all-things-mom, the antagonistic moms in the novel of life are wiped clean, removed. There is no seat for them at the mom’s table. We close our eyes and, thus, do not deal with their existence. We hide their sickness. They hide too, getting sicker sometimes. At least in my case, I had a lot of assistance in learning how to love myself and then my mom reaped the benefits of my radiated transformation. She basked in it. The benefit of the warmth helped her begin her healing process.
I know one person who never forgave her mom for being verbally abusive. As far as she was concerned, her mother was dead. In turn, the woman grew into one of the most bitter, non-empathetic and punitive people whom I’ve ever met. Her persona exhibits a kind of cancer that eats her whole, and everyone that comes close to her. Ironically, a closer look reveals that she has become her monster mom.
On the other hand, I’ve known dozens of “adult children,” including myself, who survived a gamut of abuse, both mental and physical from their mothers (fathers too, but right now the focus is on moms!). Whether through therapy, divine intervention or some other form leading to positive transformation, the survivors not only survived, but thrived and arrived at a true forgiveness stronghold, and they stopped perpetuating the destructive pattern that was once modeled to them and those around them. Some of them reconnected with their moms and others did not. However, all of them are the kind of compassionate people whom you want to be around, because they make this world a better place.
I think sometimes moms are put on earth for the sole purpose of teaching their children to learn to forgive, which, of course, does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior.
As children, we naturally put our faith in our caregivers. When they disappoint us, we are like abandoned orphans, desperate for love, working overtime for the sole purpose of pleasing others. Truth is, growing up means uncovering the inner fragments, including the broken ones that make us who we are and teach us how to stand tall and be proud. This independence is important because sometimes we have to fill the boots and play the part of our of our own heroes and have the faith that we can fake flying with or without a cape even if we have aviophobia — a fear of flying. First, though, we have to lighten the luggage, compartment by compartment, until we can leap to freedom and parachute to a stable ground that feels like the gentle arms of a mother holding her newborn.
I hope that my blogging community of mothers, godmothers, fur moms and all other caregivers of the universe had a joyous holiday, and I give you all one big, virtual hug.