Chicken salad with grapes and pecans. Classic macaroni salad. Picnic egg salad with capers. Smoked salmon platter. Tuna, cucumber and tomato tea sandwiches. Three-layer cranberry jello mold with raspberries, mango and pineapple. Grand finale: showstopping cheesecake, strawberry shortcake and homemade brownies.
This was a mere sampling of the Thursday community lunch menu that Sadie meticulously planned out during our volunteer commitment that I described in last week’s blog, ensuring that everyone had something delicious to enjoy. Most memorable, though, was Sadie’s Sensational Sponge Cake. Yep, three simple ingredients – eggs, flour, and sugar – and it may be hard to believe that someone with a flair for the dramatic and a wardrobe full of rainbow colors and spike heels would select a signature dessert as plain as sponge cake. Even though Sadie had a panoramic colorful background and personality to match, she also enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.
Her attention to detail and passion for bringing people together also made the weekly lunches an experience that was akin to a holy one. Basically, for me this meant I filled the backstage roles that included bringing the paper goods, preparing the coffee, helping set up and clean up afterwards.
Incredibly, by year two of our commitment, Sadie’s friends, whom I also elaborated on in last week’s blog, ended up pitching in! (There was only one man in the group who was the exception. Unless he was noshing or drinking, he was asleep in the corner of the room.) Overall, though, it was an inspiring example of how collective action can make a difference and create lasting change. After a year of working with Sadie, my outlook on life had changed significantly. I looked at the world with newfound appreciation, understanding and faith. Prior to meeting Sadie, I had experienced spells of depression that left me feeling isolated and helpless. However, her influence in my life helped to lift the dark veil that had been looming over me for so long. With her kind words and unwavering support, she gave me the courage to face my struggles and find a way out of the darkness.
Then one fateful Thursday, darkness descended on us in a new way. I arrived at the commitment earlier than Sadie, which was unusual. As I was setting up, Sadie ran past her group of friends that accompanied her in her clown car and charged into the church hall with the energy of a frenzied bat, desperate to avoid the harsh light of day.
“Look! Look! I just saw this this morning.”
As she slowly lifted her pitch-black long hair, a sight of horror was revealed. Running down her neck were large lumps, but smaller than golf balls, that had been hidden beneath her locks. It was a shocking discovery that made it difficult to comprehend what could have caused them to appear. A feeling of dread suddenly came over me.
Somehow I discerned I was the only one she had, at least thus far, confided in about her discovery and before her friends and the lunchtime crowd arrived, I shrieked, “You have to go to the doctor. TODAY!”
Without any resistance, she nodded her head in agreement, and we performed our duties quieter than usual. Little did she know that the doctor would examine her that day and send her to an oncologist just a few hours later. I was devastated when I found out that my close friend had been diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, two weeks later, the news we received was heartbreaking — she had cancer in her lymph nodes and it wasn’t good. It was particularly sad because she not only had three adult daughters from her first marriage, but her youngest daughter, from her third marriage, was only eight years old, being too young to comprehend the extent of the illness.
By then, two other volunteers replaced us at the Thursday luncheons. I focused on work as well as preparations for my upcoming May wedding. It was ironic that after sharing all my sad stories about being single with Sadie, I had quickly met a nice man (so I thought at the time) and we were engaged shortly after. While Sadie underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she only wanted to hear about two things: my plans for my wedding a year from that time and all the people who beat the odds against cancer.
Although life had thrown her many injustices, she never once complained. Instead, she was grateful for the second chance to make a new life for herself, despite being pulled back down by another set of very different circumstances that were about to demolish her dreams for a second time.
Sadie and I never talked about her being healthy enough to attend my wedding. Deep inside, we knew it was not in the cards. The last time I saw her in the hospital was in April of the following year, one month before my wedding, and a day before she died.
When I walked into her room, I found her weak and pale, yet sitting up in her bed. Her signature mane of hair now gone; a stark contrast to the woman everyone had come to know and love. She wore a powder blue cap that made her look twenty years older than her forty-something years. She smiled warmly and greeted me with a whisper, “Hey! How ya doing? The beautiful bride to be.”
Holding back the tears, I could only let out a soft, “Hello.”
As I sat by her bedside, I sensed a cloud of warm air enveloping us as we held hands. She expressed her usual eagerness to hear about the wedding plans, and couldn’t wait to find out every detail – from the church to the reception, but most of all, she wanted to know what food would be served in the evening.
“We are having a beautiful array of food. Served to perfection. Nothing, though, compared to your lunches, Sadie. They were a true work of art. They were Holy.”
She flinched because it hurt to laugh. “We didn’t meet every Thursday to eat lunch. We came together to share something more important – love. Nothing’s more Holier than that.”
I stopped pushing the tears away and as I looked into Sadie’s eyes, I realized that no amount of words could ever express the depth of my gratitude for her presence in my life. “I love you, Sadie.”
After I exited her room and slowly moved down the hallway with my head full of memories and my stomach in knots from the pain, my mind suddenly filled with the craziest thought imaginable. In a split second, I made an abrupt three hundred and sixty degree turn and rushed back to her room.
“Sadie! I’m sorry to bother you.”
“It’s okay,” she barely murmured.
“Can I have your recipe for Sadie’s Sensational Sponge Cake?”
“Yeah. Sure. But come back tomorrow. I’ll give it to you then and you can write it down,” Sadie whispered before she drifted off to sleep.
The next day, as I already mentioned, Sadie died, a month before my wedding. Obviously, she never gave me her recipe for Sadie’s Sensational Sponge Cake. The consolation was that I received something far sweeter and more valuable than temporary bodily sustenance: her recipe for life.
Sadie, who was the spitting image of iconic Elvira except she donned a white streak running down her charcoal colored hair, and I volunteered to coordinate weekly Thursday community lunches at a church hall back in the late 80s. Dressed in casual work attire, I’d leave my day job, located a few minutes away, during my lunch hour, which typically turned out to be more like an hour and a half. Sadie’s small, “clown car,” that her boyfriend purchased for her, usually pulled up instantaneously when my Subaru did. I’d recognize her six-foot-long stature crunched behind the steering wheel. All four doors would fling open and, along with Sadie, about a half dozen characters of an eclectic combination flew out. Each one, it appeared, she picked up at different spots throughout the region – starting at a drag show and ending at the homeless shelter.
“Hey! How ya doing?” she’d shout. Everyone within earshot heard her thick, Bronx accent. Additionally, when she asked the question, it appeared that she actually cared to know about you.
In fact, over the next two years of our volunteer commitment, I tested her sincerity and, likely, dumped way too many issues, mostly about living the single life, on her. Even though we came from two completely different worlds, she never judged or flinched, only listened and validated my feelings. About twenty years older than I, I not only appreciated Sadie’s listening skills, but also her sharp tongue that she attributed to tending a bar in the South Bronx, New York, for most of her life. In addition, she had an acid wit and an uncanny ability to make people laugh in spite of themselves.
Unlike most everyone else who fit into society’s norm, Sadie despised the norm. She was an outsider from her very beginning and, thus, found it difficult to connect with others, even though she tried to conform to the norm in her younger years by marrying her high school sweetheart at 21 years old. You see, she was raised in a traditional household at a time when women did not work outside the home. The only roles available to them were being wives and mothers. Shortly after Sadie’s marriage, she birthed her first daughter. By the time she had her third daughter, she had sunk into alcohol during her unhappy marriage. She eventually ended up divorced and married two more times afterwards. During her third marriage, when she heard about an opening for a barmaid at the local bar, she applied for it because it seemed like an interesting job that would allow her to use her skill set and allow her to earn her own money. As soon as Sadie found success as a barmaid, she divorced her husband, with whom she shared a daughter, her fourth. He was not supportive of her working outside the home, and she was not about to stop. A few months after her third and final divorce, she hitched up with a new boyfriend. With a burning desire to quit alcohol and turn her life around, what she would soon learn as she sought therapy and dealt with her insecurities and struggles was that she bought society’s “faulty bag of goods” early on and, by doing so, never acquired the faith in herself to believe she was good enough as a woman to survive on her own without a man meeting her needs instead of her.
Long story short and a trail of boyfriends later, Sadie managed to kick off alcohol and live sober and, in the interim, quit her job at the bar. Her current boyfriend supported her, and she was not afraid to admit it. In fact, she was proud of it because she accepted her human fragility and was the first one to laugh at her foibles.
I met her at a wonderful crossroads in her life. She was in the process of meeting two of her personal goals. One, she was saving money in order to enroll in a nursing program at a university. Two, she was trying out for community theater auditions to quench her thirst for theatrical endeavors.
After peeling off all the damage from the wrong influences, she finally became true to herself. She wasn’t afraid to be different and she refused to conform to societal standards. In other words, she wove all her many painful moments in her life into a one-of-a-kind tapestry.
Sadie believed she was given a second chance and wanted others also to feel connected and loved and not shunned like a misfit. Guided by her new vision of self-acceptance, she befriended the friendless. Through their relationships, she discovered that they had a wealth of knowledge and experience that she could draw upon in her own life.
Anyway, I wasn’t as accepting. For instance, while we prepared the Thursday luncheons, none of her so-called friends lifted a finger to help. One of them, likely in his mid-twenties, who wore brown sandals with thick blood red socks in every season, sporadically stormed in and out of the building. His fury made you think he was a doctor headed to save someone’s life. Most of her other friends literally slept where they were seated. It was easy to figure out they were on some heavy duty meds. The one who really annoyed me was Jenn, but sometimes called Jim. Jenn, as I’ll refer to her now to keep it simple, was not a fan of mine. She shadowed me unbearably close wherever I went except, thankfully, to the restroom. Sometimes, I felt Jenn’s sour breath on my neck directly below my ear and, on occasion, I’d hear murmured grunts.
“Sadie!” I commanded nearly every week, “You just can’t bring these people here! They are not in their right minds. I’m waiting for the Thursday that Jenn just punches me. I mean, I don’t feel safe.”
“Safe?” Sadie asked with a cackle. “Safe? And, who would you say is safe in this world? Do you think my friends are safe? Jenn follows you around because she likes you. Is that so bad? If she were dangerous, do you really think I’d expose her to you or anyone else? I will ask her to step farther away from you, but my friends deserve the same sort of respect you do. Don’t we all have a right to be here? Can’t we all breathe the same air even though we are different? Is this YOUR world alone?”
“Well … “
“Are you saying they are different from you? That they don’t belong here with us?” she roared. During the pregnant pause that followed, all her friends, even the ones asleep, woke up and edged closer to us, forming a circle around us.
“Well. Umm. No,” I reluctantly admitted.
“Okay then, we’ll see you next Thursday.”
Thursday after Thursdays, I grew to know Sadie and her EXTREMELY interesting friends. In the same manner as Sadie, through their relationships, I was able to learn more about myself and grow in ways I never thought possible. You see, the common theme among Sadie’s group of friends that supplies faith to me to this day is how to overcome a series of unfortunate events and sad circumstances.
The story, though, doesn’t end here. I’ll share the rest in next week’s blog. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will divulge that it is sad, but one that leaves you thinking about faith and hope and how we can still find purpose and a deeper meaning during some of our darkest moments — if we can decipher and are willing to wear the right corrective lenses.
1.) Bitter and resentful. These are the people who have a need to be right and view the world as a place of injustice, where they are unfairly treated.
2.) Faithful and grateful. These folks need to feel connected to something bigger than themselves, whether it be God or nature.
Few people, if any, who survive tragedies, Kelly emphasized, end up with a lukewarm or neutral attitude towards life.
I agree that tragedy typically shakes you up in one direction — or another. Bernice is a woman who is a example of this belief. In fact, she exhibits the polar opposite traits of Kelly’s.
Bernice’s then 21-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the 1980s. Eleven months after her diagnosis she died, leaving Bernice and her husband to grieve for their only child.
The loss of a child is one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies that can occur in a person’s life. Whereas few, if any, parents can “move on” from this type of grief they can “move with it” and, typically, learn to find a place for it inside themselves, as if it is a massive piece of permanent furniture. In the process, they can fall into one of the two aforementioned categories.
In Bernice’s case, while grieving her daughter, she ended up fitting category #1. Not to minimize her horrible set of circumstances, but, to this day, it’s easy to spot Bernice anywhere she goes; she’s the one with the sour, lemon-face expression. She’s also quick to lash out and blame others when something, anything, goes askew.
Actually, after her daughter died, she blamed the doctors and medical staff as well as her then husband. Needless to say, her marriage dissolved and she and her husband divorced within a year’s time. Luckily for her, the divorcee met another divorcee, Ernie, a few years later. He was calm, patient and understanding of Bernice’s struggles. Bernice felt he understood her better than anyone else, and she felt calmer around him.
The problem, though, stemmed from her being a bossy, nasty stepmother to his three daughters, who were adolescents at the time. Opposite of their own birth mother, who was understanding and balanced in her parental approach, Bernice was strict and demanded perfection. She forbid them from dating boys or going out with friends, because she felt the only way they would succeed in life was to be focused on school. Ernie did not interfere with his second wife’s method of running the household. In this way, he could focus on his high-profile copywriter position for a large marketing agency.
On the other hand, Bernice’s ability to find a work-personal life balance was easier since she worked full-time in a far-less stressful environment then he did. Plus, Ernie willingly accepted his wife’s “parenting skills” of always telling his daughters what to do and how to do it, because he felt her motive aligned with his: helping his children grow up into good, responsible adults.
The sisters started to rebel against the rules of their stepmother, which led to a chaotic and difficult situation for Ernie. His daughters likely sensed what Ernie did not. Bernice had no control over herself and her tragic past. Unable to find peace in herself, she was an egotistical, unruly stepmother who created her own personal war in her husband’s family. The tactic was a great distraction for what mattered the most — sitting in her pain and taking responsibility for herself.
Basically, Bernice’s approach was the EXACT opposite of Kelly’s step-mother approach. I wrote about the positive building blocks that Kelly achieved in her relationship with her step kids in my previous blog post, but what do you think happened to Bernice’s stepfamily? Yep. It fell apart. It got to the point where Bernice gave Ernie an ultimatum: “It’s either me or your daughters!” Needless to say, although his daughters were heartbroken, Ernie abandoned them and instead, choose to be with Bernice. From there, for decades, the couple fell off the radar of family and friends.
Fast-forward to over thirty years later. The revelation of losing his own daughters caused Ernie to experience feelings of guilt and loss and he wondered if this was his wife’s desired intent. It made sense since, in this way, he could feel sad and grief-stricken in the same way she did. The more he thought about it, the clearer things became. He escaped his resentments and own guilty feelings by having extramarital affairs. Bernice, on the other hand, coped with the turbulent marriage by numbing her feelings with alcohol. Not long after, their marriage ended in a bitter, costly, miserable divorce.
Bernice has always been angry, but now she has reached her limit. She lives in her own small apartment rental and, apart from her kind-hearted brother who checks in on her every so often, she is left to fend for herself. Her only friend, at least as far as she is concerned, is alcohol.
Ernie is still playing the field, but slowly, very slowly trying to mend bridges with his daughters who carry their own load of anger, resentment and hurt toward their father.
Bernice and Ernie remind us that we all want to believe that there are things we can count on to make us happy, but life is not like that and neither is love.
Loss can be devastating and leave people feeling helpless in its wake. It can feel like a tornado has swept away everything familiar and left nothing intact. The question is:
1.) Do we shut ourselves off from all love if we fear the cruel twister of loss? In some cases, yes. (In the manner that Bernice did and, in a different way, how Ernie did.)
2.) Do we dare travel the open road with courage and an accepting heart while navigating uncertainty? (In the manner Kelly did.)
Do you choose, #1 or #2?
Don’t let anyone kid you, love is always a choice. All it takes is a little faith — or none at all. It’s in your pocket. Dig deep within you to release the strength you will need to walk your unique path and keep your eyes forward to meet the twists, turns and obstacles head on; remembering always, the best lesson in courage is not a lesson. It’s how you take life in stride.
because you take your life in stride
because you take your life in stride Because you take your life in stride (instead of scheming how to beat the noblest game a man can proudly lose, or playing dead and hoping death himself will do the same)
because you aren’t afraid to kiss the dirt (and consequently dare to climb the sky) because a mind no other mind should try to fool has always failed to fool your heart
but most (without the smallest doubt) because no best is quite so good you don’t conceive a better, and because no evil is so worse than worst you fall in hate with love -human one mortally immortal i can turn immense all time’s because to why
As I watched the performance, it reminded me of how love transcends all boundaries and brings people together in ways that nothing else can, which, full circle, was what I intended initially to elaborate on. You see, when I was in my mid-twenties, I met a mentor, Kelly, who taught me this vital lesson.
Kelly married later in life for the first time to a divorcee. Her primary focus was on her husband, who was a big-hearted guy, and the couple’s goal was to embrace this new chapter of their lives with confidence and joy. However, as a stepmother, it is not easy to win the hearts of all your stepchildren. In the case of this particular woman, most of her then adolescent and young adult stepchildren immediately accepted her with open arms. Nonetheless, the youngest child, Maggie, was not so welcoming and, conversely, threw verbal pointed darts. Whenever Kelly was in her presence, Maggie constantly talked about her mother’s beauty and intelligence. It was an obvious manipulative tactic to pit Kelly against Maggie’s own mother to make Kelly feel inferior.
Kelly managed to not take anything about how “perfect” Maggie’s mother was to heart. Eventually, Kelly was able to put herself in Maggie’s shoes and realized that her stepdaughter wanted her dad to remain married to her birth mom. Kelly understood her motive, but rather than trying to force Maggie to accept her presence, she chose a different approach. She decided to listen and understand Maggie’s feelings in order to work towards helping her adjust to the new family dynamic. Subsequently, when it came to Maggie’s mother, Kelly made sure to be extra careful with her words. The most important thing to Kelly was that she be keenly aware not to put down Maggie’s mother in any way, shape or form.
(I should note that Kelly WAS NOT a pushover. If Maggie had verbally attacked or hurt her directly, Maggie would have drawn a healthy boundary so as not to subject herself to her stepdaughter’s abuse.)
Ironically, Maggie was an atheist and Kelly was a devout Catholic. Kelly never tried to convert her, (although would have liked to!). Because she allowed Maggie to be who she was without judgment, she found out soon enough, you don’t need a particular belief to have faith. In fact, Kelly found out that Maggie had a lot of love in her heart, which, to Kelly, was all that mattered.
This attitude allowed Maggie to feel heard and understood. By allowing Maggie to be who she was, warts and all, Kelly managed to build an understanding relationship with Maggie and eventually helped her accept the fact that she had another mother in her life.
But the story doesn’t end there. About ten years after Kelly married Maggie’s father, Maggie was diagnosed with a rare blood disease. Her odds of survival were next to nil. Who do you think she wanted by her side as she went through the terrible medical ordeal that followed? You got it! Kelly! Although she loved them both, it was the second mom who happened to be the most instrumental, because Kelly was a physician’s assistant. With her extensive knowledge of medical terminology and her ability to explain complex concepts in a simple way, Kelly was able to help everyone understand the medical lingo.
Despite the fact that her doctors gave Maggie less than a year to live, she ended up living for 10 more years with her illness. Ten! In the process, her parents, all three of them, were with her every step of the way, and, after a brave battle, she died peacefully at 43 years old last year, in the presence of those who loved her, including her two moms and dad.
It is easy to preach, but to teach by example is what counts. Kelly’s story helps me make difficult decisions in my life and gives me the faith that no matter how hard things appear, I can push through with the right attitude and determination. Her influence is not just something that I carry with me in my life, it has become a strong source of guidance and comfort and a force I turn to, like the power of light, which helps guide me through the darkest of times.
Despite my reservations, I decided to attend “The Judds: The Final Tour” concert last Saturday. I had a variety of concerns about the event that were causing me to hesitate, none of which I’ll elaborate on, but in the end, I decided to take the plunge and go with my dear friend, Camille, who secured the tickets. As it turned out, my worries were unfounded.
Wynonna Judd has been a household name since the early 90s when she rose to fame as a country music star. Her success was meteoric, and she quickly became one of the most popular country singers of all time. However, despite her fame and success, although I liked and sang along to her hits on the radio, I was never a huge fan. Since Lucille Ball died in 1989, I did not conform with the masses and follow any other entertainers, singers or celebrities.
Before our family tragedy, I had been an avid fan of country/western music. Now, I no longer feel the same connection to this genre. I was curious, however, to see how Wynonna would bring her style of music to life on the stage. I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, I had never seen her perform before. But when she took the stage and started playing her country music, I was blown away by her talent and energy that had me – and the rest of the audience – captivated from start to finish.
The Judd family has been in the public eye for many years, and during that time, many rumors and conflicts have come to light. It is no secret that the Judds have also faced a great deal of mental health challenges, ranging from depression to addiction. The matriarch, Naomi, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 30, 2022, the day before she and Wynonna were scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The concert we went to was initially intended to be part of Naomi and Wynonna’s tour, the first one in nearly a decade that the singers announced on April 11, nine days before the tragedy happened.
Strongly influenced by her husband, Cactus, after her mom’s death, Wynonna decided to perform the tour solo. Her decision has led her to be a symbol of hope and faith for many people, myself among them. The singer’s strength lies in her ability to perform while grieving her recent loss, especially when you consider the scope of the monster. Labeling grief as an emotion or feeling is only looking at it in a very limited way. Grief is more like a giant sponge that absorbs and affects us on all levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. For Wynonna, there is no running away from the pain. Instead, she takes it head-on with her fearless attitude.
Grief is also a universal emotion, yet it is often associated with shame and taboo. On stage, one woman has chosen to counter this stigma by sharing her story of loss and grief in an open and honest way. Through Wynonna’s tears, she communicates to others that it is okay to cry, to feel pain, and freely express emotions and, thereby, encourages others to confront their own uncomfortable feelings. Furthermore, she demonstrates resilience by continuing to live a different version of life after grief’s transformative effect.
As I looked around the room during the concert, I was taken aback by the sight of numerous rows of empty seats. It was a stark contrast to the energy and enthusiasm that Wynonna spread throughout the arena. Instead of ignoring the empty seats, she addressed them directly, revealing her difficulty in coming to terms with empty seats when she was a young performer. She told the audience that she now at 58 years old understands that quality is more important than quantity. She has experienced the highs and lows of life and decided that living meaningfully is what truly matters. On the night of the concert, it was definitely quality and not quantity that counted. The atmosphere was electric. As Wyonna put it, it felt as if there were 10,000 people in the audience cheering and singing along to every song. She confided that, as it turned out, we had been her BEST audience during that particular week.
The performer shared during an interview that the goal of her performances on this tour was to heal. The stage, in fact, was filled with love, a powerful emotion that has the ability to bring people together and heal broken hearts. It was a sight to behold, as people of all ages and backgrounds were united in love. Last week, I wrote about the topic of love and actually planned to write about it this week with a totally different story angle until I attended the concert.
Interestingly, when I watched Wynonna and Cactus, an amazing drummer, singing and gazing into each other’s eyes, I, too, was moved by their deep connection, a positive element of their relationship that she has also publicly discussed. It was a reminder that true love is not always about grand gestures, but more about being present to the moment and appreciating what you have.
Wynonna’s performance became further enhanced by her nostalgic mix of photos and videos that served as a reminder of the many impactful memories Wynonna’s mom created in her lifetime. At the end of the concert, it was particularly heartwarming to hear Wynonna singing along with a synced video image of her mom singing too.
The music of a vulnerable human being is something that goes beyond just sound. It is an expression of deep emotion and experience that can touch the heart and soul of listeners. When such a person sings, it is as if they are presenting themselves in a poignant song, inviting us to feel their pain and joy in every note. I was drawn to Wynonna’s music and able to reflect and introspect in a way in which I connected with the artist on a deeper level than I could ever have imagined. Her music moved me emotionally, helped me process my own grief I was feeling at the time. Even though country/western music is no longer the genre that defines me as it once did, Wynonna helped me understand that it still holds a special place in my heart. I cannot erase the part it played, along with my memories, in my own unique narrative and journey. Who would have dreamed that in about an hour and a half of her performance, though I knew the power of love could heal a broken heart, what I didn’t fully grasp was the importance of understanding how the bridge of love had already been built inside me over a long course of time. I can look at both sides, inward and outward, and find solace despite the pain and hurt, see a broken heart and take comfort in the fact that its quality as a vessel of love remains.
The tip of my head to the bottom of my toenails hurt and every part in between. Last Wednesday, January 18th, on what would have been my son’s 30th birthday, I needed a lot of love. More than usual. The stillness of the day exemplified how the world has moved on, and I’m still stuck in the quicksand of November 2019.
The people I thought would at very least “check in” must have “checked out,” because I did not hear a word from any of them, and I found myself focusing on the disappointment rather than on the joy I felt from those who DID show up with kind-hearted words, text messages and emails.
My dear friend, Camille, in fact, surprised me with a lovely sunflower bouquet and beautiful greeting card.
In addition, during the last year, I’ve been honored to assist in writing a widow’s grief memoir. The relatively young widow, Michelle, happens to be a dear friend of mine. The book is partly composed of letters she writes to her deceased husband who passed away tragically three months prior to our family’s tragic loss. Last Wednesday, feeling weighed down with grief, I happened to reread one of her letters in which she elaborates on her mother-in-law’s grief of losing a son.
“I know she is as grief-stricken, but she is stronger than I am and loves more because she doesn’t want any of us to be sad for her. She knows we all have our own grief, and she doesn’t want to add to it.”
Miraculously, through the day I channeled this incredible woman, Rita, whom I know only through writing about her, and found myself feeding on her reservoir of love.
“I don’t want anyone to be sad for me.” I repeated, breaking the pronounced silence of the day.
A repeated lesson that I seem to have to relearn constantly is that love is the most powerful emotion in this world. It can change everything ALWAYS. It’s like a ray of sun beaming through the grayest of days. It is a life force; an energy; a mega dose of Vitamin C.
The day ended on a bittersweet note. I hadn’t heard from my 28-year-old daughter all day on Wednesday. I thought she needed the space and privacy, and the solitude to put one foot in front of the other and inch forward.
At around six p.m. that evening, she called, out of breath. I could barely understand her words. “The cemetery is so dark.”
“What?” You got in your car directly after work, jumped into the height of traffic, and you sat on the highway for an hour, just so you could visit your brother in the dark cemetery, even though I do believe it’s supposed to close at sunset? That all sounds kind of risky to me.
I refrained from saying how crazy I felt her actions were, especially since her character is usually driven by pure logic. Though I will say that they were incredibly similar to what I would have done at her age in her situation, working purely from an emotional realm.
Our conversation was filled with love and honesty, and it reaffirmed my faith in the power of love. This is what love looks like when it’s real — when there are tears and laughter and sadness all mixed together in one moment in time. In the end, all that matters is not a perfect public facade that masks our private despair, but the intimate moments of our imperfect hearts.
I’m learning that grief is my price to pay for love. Paradoxically, living through grief has helped me to push, stretch until it feels unbearable, love in an insurmountable way.
After hearing the news about Lisa Marie, my sadness seemed unrelenting, because I had followed every segment of her grief story. Each time she shared a bloody slice of her grief to the world, I grew short of breath. All that came to my mind was the figure of Atlas in Greek mythology. He was a Titan condemned to hold up the world for eternity.
Man, when I visualize Atlas, I can’t stand his back-breaking pose; and, alas, I imagined Lisa Marie’s face instead of his. It was like looking into a metaphorical mirror and seeing my own reflection.
Five months prior to her death, in honor of National Grief Awareness Day, “Lisa Marie Presley penned an emotional essay” about her journey and the lessons she learned after her son died.
In the essay, she writes: “Death is part of life whether we like it or not — and so is grieving. There is so much to learn and understand on the subject, but here’s what I know so far: One is that grief does not stop or go away in any sense, a year, or years after the loss. Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not “get over it,” you do not “move on,” period.”
Coincidentally, my niece sent my daughter and me a text, “This made me think of you both…” and a copy of the same essay that appeared in People magazine with the headline, “Lisa Marie Presley Said She Was ‘Destroyed’ by Son Benjamin’s Death.”
At the time my niece sent it to me, I couldn’t bear to look at it until days later.
In the same essay she wrote the excerpt below:
” … grief is incredibly lonely. Despite people coming in the heat of the moment to be there for you right after the loss takes place, they soon disappear and go on with their own lives and they kind of expect for you to do the same, especially after some time has passed. This includes “family” as well. If you’re incredibly lucky, less than a handful will remain in contact with you after the first month or so. Unfortunately, that is a cold hard truth for most. So, if you know someone who lost a loved one, regardless of how long it’s been, please call them to see how they are doing. Go visit them. They will really really appreciate it, more than you know ….”
Lisa Marie was on point. Loss can feel like a whirlwind, leaving nothing behind but destruction. It can be difficult to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding, especially when you are doing it alone, ditched by the rest of the world.
Her final, personal lesson is below.
” … particularly if the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense. You can feel stigmatized and perhaps judged in some way as to why the tragic loss took place. This becomes magnetized by a million if you are the parent of a child who passed. No matter how old they were. No matter the circumstances.”
Again, everything she concludes is absolutely true and not an understatement. Frankly, while processing the news of her demise from a “broken heart,” I also felt relief for Lisa Marie. Atlas’ weight was, at last, removed. I shared with my niece how completely saddened I was by her loss.
In response, she wrote,”Nothing wrong with finding a kindred spirit, no matter how it manifests.”
Today, I regret not contacting Lisa Marie back in 2020 after she had lost her son by suicide. I simply did not make the time. (Saying, “I didn’t have the time,” is incorrect since I am one hundred percent responsible for ME and MY actions.)
During last week, I spent a good deal of time reflecting on her death, pacing around my office where I have two calendars, one on the wall and one on the desk. Both of them have stick-it notes on them, smack center, covering up the January 17th block, the day I was so freaking sure my son would be born and covering up the 18th block, his actual birthday. Sometimes, with the world on your back, doing everything you possibly can to press forward, “blackouts” are the best weapon to tackle the challenge.
For this week’s blog post, every single piece of me is on fire with guilt, regret, pain and remorse, and my son’s voice from long-ago, stating, “I won’t make it to 30.” I really didn’t want to sit my inflamed body down to hurt it more and think of the unthinkable, but I was so moved by what Lisa Maria and her family endured.
Now, my heart goes out to the survivors of Lisa Marie, and I honor and acknowledge the grief of her family. In return, I am afforded the strength to honor and acknowledge my own grief.
The way I look at it is if we take a leap of faith and open ourselves up to love, we open ourselves up to the risk of experiencing grief. It begins with love and ends with love. If life surpasses death, then love is what will guide us through the infinite journey.
For Lisa Marie, Benjamin, and Marshall, I hope they are now liberated from their back-breaking duties on Earth. Whether it involves physical burdens or mental obstacles, I also hope they are no longer crushed by the weight of life and, instead, free to catapult and soar to new heights.
Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.
This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.
The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?
If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”
Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”
After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.
So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton PresbyterianChurch could plummet me to the depths of despair.
Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”
He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”
Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.
It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.
(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)
In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.
I am because you are.
From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.
“Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019
My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.
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
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.