Dear Son

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

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Faith Note”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give her the baby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom

Faith Muscle

Powerlessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surrender to win!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle

The Cost of Love

November 19, 2021. It was a day like no other.

Every day since November 19, 2019, the day we lost our beloved 26-year-old son, brother and godson, marking time takes on a whole new significance after our loss.

By day’s end after posting the letter to my departed son, the outpouring of support and encouragement that I received from this blogging community was beyond what I could imagine. Your support, along with the support of a handful of family and friends in my life, has sparked an unanticipated strength that has helped me survive the sudden eclipse of my soul. Through this grief journey, you have given me faith that the sun, even though appearing dark, still shines light into our eyes. In science, this is a fact. In my pieced-together heart, this is a fact too. When the dreaded Friday arrived, I was hurt that a few family members, not to mention a number of “friends,” have disassociated with me. Nonetheless, I focused on the positive.

It was an auspicious morning. I rifled through my closet for something to wear and coincidentally pulled out the t-shirt pictured above.

“Faith does not make things easy

it makes them possible”

Later on, my daughter, my children’s godmother and I enjoyed a quiet late lunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. Afterwards, we shopped for socks, but ended up purchasing a few additional food and practical items as if symbolizing the various forms of sustainment during our grief walk.

At day’s end, I was glad only our little trio gathered at the cemetery. Our unconditional love that we share made us comfortable and genuine. Standing at my son’s grave, out loud we effortlessly spoke our hearts. Our words of love, discontent, sadness, regret, guilt and the joyful opportunity of knowing him in our personal ways transformed into a meaningful elegy, resembling in many ways how our lives themselves have been molded in these last two years. It is incredulous to us still how so many irregular, broken pieces of our shattered lives have managed to create an artful mosaic.

Through streaming tears I realized, if I had skated through life unscathed as I always desired, I would not have been forced to live a life with wide open arms. In this life you take it all in. You feel deeply without numbing or canceling out the pain or heightening the joy. This, too, is the same life where you are lucky enough to own a cloak of love and support weaved by those to whom you matter.

That early evening at my son’s gravesite, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words resonated with me: “It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

My son lived a short life, but he was so much more than the demons in his head. He was compassionate and loyal. He was full of depth, insight and a sharp wit. He lived for purpose and passion and not for possessions. I only wish more people were fortunate enough to have met him — they missed out on knowing a superior human being.

“It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

When we three parted from him, we felt grief’s depth, the painful stretch of our marathon-trained souls. In life’s irony, we were like winners who had crossed the finish line.

Yesterday, on our daily walk, the neighbors’ dog raced across his yard to greet us. Our neighbor informed us that her dog isn’t friendly to strangers. “You must have a special aura,” she explained.

Among the many definitions, “aura” means, “a subtly pervasive quality or atmosphere seen as emanating from a person, place, or thing.”

Love is our aura. Loss has taught us the extent of love’s reach. It stretches to a point of excruciating hurt, ready to break but, defying logical odds, it digs in, roots firm.

If love is truly our aura, I cannot exclude loving the people who have abandoned us. Coincidentally, I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s national best seller, Wild. She writes that some people “scatter in their grief.” This concept pulls me away from feeling angry to coming to an understanding of the ones that we have lost along the way as a result of our loss. It is too much pain for them to endure.

Afterall, the price of love will shatter the femur of our hearts. The femur, BTW, is the only bone in the thigh and is the longest and strongest of all the bones in the body. The price is high. Our little tribe pays the cost. Like expert appraisers, no one can undermine what we have come to know as true value and we willingly pay the price.

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This Thanksgiving, although we will have an empty seat at our dinner table, it will not diminish my thankful and grateful heart and mind, thanks to all of you.

Faith Muscle

Dear Son *

I’m still here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you took your life. You took mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you took your life. You took mine.

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

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

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

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

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

*I’ll love you forever,

I’ll like you for always,

As long as I’m living

my baby you’ll be.

Faith Muscle

Hoarding 🍬Candy

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

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

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

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

Ding Dong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Muscle

Color 🎨 Outside the Lines

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“November 2”

The date repeatedly magnified in front of my face on the oversized black- and-white 2010 calendar, the only wall décor in the attorney’s office where I sat for three and a half hours (no, she didn’t tell me she was charging per hour!) rehashing a month-long account of what had propelled me to file divorce proceedings against my then husband.

Trying to grasp the end of my 19-year marriage, my stressed brain couldn’t differentiate between November 1st and November 2nd, and which one commemorated All Saint’s Day and which one was All Souls’ Day.  

If you are not familiar with the dates, the internet definitions are below:

All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian solemnity celebrated on November 1 in honor of all the saints of the church, whether they are known or unknown.

All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead, is a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died, which is observed by Latin Catholics and other Christian denominations annually on November 2.

I finally realized that November 2nd was indeed “the Day of the Dead.” From that bleak day forward, the day slapped a bookmark into the pages of my life and paused a full spool of memories made prominent with lace-up-the sneakers, leaf-peeping adventures. From that autumn on, it took eight years to refill the fall time colors into my black-and-white, gray-hued calendar world. Finally, the afternoon arrived when I drove through the neighborhood, and the sudden sight of crimson, golden leaves inspired me to recite poetry out loud in the car.

A year after color poured back into the lines of my life, little did I realize that the bottom of my world would completely unhinge, and I would be left fluttering around in a pool of profound grief that became my permanent autumn shadow.

Recalling the eight years of robbed autumn color, I appreciate the reawakened awareness of the hues. Consequently, they will never represent the same brazen fire irons they once did. Long lost are the years when the children were young, and we sipped fresh steaming apple cider that wafted through our sunny kitchen with an aroma that was a recipe to create optimistic dreams that seemed as real as finding the perfect fit in a new pair of lace-up sneakers.  

Of course, some memories can be like leaves running their final course and dropping silently like dribbles of rain, composting and disappearing into the good earth. Clearly, in the cycle of life, there are new seeds to sow, harvest and grow.

Time takes time. There are no magic seeds that bloom instantly. From November 2nd, 59 days remain until the end of the year when the earth is frigid and stubborn. From there, all we can do is mull around in the new year and wait until spring softens the ground. Live a day at a time. Drink steaming hot cocoa to compensate for winter’s barren wasteland and warm us with the faith of knowing we have passed another day of life’s test, and we are in the process of learning an important lesson: patience. Colors may fade, strip and vanish, but year after year, cycle after cycle, the master painter’s palette is infinite.

Faith Muscle

No Going Back

Photo by gerald fredrik on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart squeezes again.

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

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

Faith Muscle

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

One more day

An appreciated note from one of my dearest friends that she dropped off recently with a bouquet of flowers. I keep it under plexiglass on my nightstand as an important reminder: ONE MORE DAY

One more day: I muster up blind faith and a guileless swagger. I am determined that my heartbreak won’t leak through the metal armor. The mission is to not allow a sobbing storm to leak through anyone’s rooftop and ruin his or her day, which, of course, doesn’t always work. I appreciate the super slim portion of the population that can actually affirm grief and heartbreak and unpredictability and let it be. I also appreciate the people who can look at life squarely without washing over any of it.

One more day: The morning’s first vitamin goes down easily as I swallow a small pint of water from a recycled jelly jar. The ritual started about 10 years ago when each and every day outran me, waking up in the morning with a duplicate to-do list in my hand from the day before. In those days, I was obsessed about crow’s feet around my eyes. My face was turning into a vase cracking from frequent use, decade after decade. Now, I ignore the lines, wrinkles and my face breaking as the days sit on me like topsoil.

A few weeks ago, I “kissed a ceiling fan” clueless to the oscillating fan since I was cleaning and intent on getting rid of dust bunnies. That night in the hospital’s emergency room, I ended up with nine stitches on my upper eyelid. Later, over the next course of days, I laid in bed at home alone weeping privately.

Afterwards, my therapist Louis got it right when he said, “The trauma exasperated the trauma.”

In fact, the painful accident felt like a contradiction. I finally looked outside the way I felt inside, and it felt like a relief. I didn’t have to hide anymore. It takes up so much energy to hide behind a smiley emoji.

How are you? People ask me in passing.

Fine.

What would happen if I revealed the raw truth instead of participating in small talk? “Most days, I really don’t want to go on.”

Fine. I’m absolutely fine.

Today is going to be a great day!

In 1984, I began my journey as a mind warrior picking positive thoughts and affirmations along the way. By the time I became a mom, I was determined to raise little mind warriors who grew up into big mind warriors. I can remember my son’s seven-year-old face reflected in my bedroom’s mirror, reciting affirmations that I taught him: I am smart. I deserve to be happy. No matter how hard it is, I can do it.

When times were tough, I convinced my ex-husband, We can do it. He, on the other hand, affirmed, We’ll make it. Year after year, times became tougher. We can do it.

In our end years before I filed for a divorce, I reminded him, We can do it.

It’s a lie. We are failing. I hate my job. I hate the rat race. I hate this town. I hate this state. We are losing the house. We are behind the eight ball. Affirming something that isn’t true is a lie.

I heard what my ex-husband said, but I did not or could not make myself believe it. It was going to be okay. Of course, it wasn’t okay. Our marriage not only tanked, but life became like sitting on the edge of a hardwood chair with no flooring underneath. I felt like most of my affirmations and positive thoughts ended up as fulfilling as sweat on the heal of the hand.

As my son’s young world took shape into adulthood, instead of reciting affirmations, he sarcastically started to announce each day with, “Another day in paradise.”

I shuttered when I heard his description, but I, too, denied that I intuitively knew it was a dark foreshadowing of the future.

In the past, the autumn days represented red, gold and tangerine colors, and new to-do lists that involved purging closets. Now, I manage the autumn in slow motion, holding on stubbornly to the dead summer. After all, the fall marks the autumn of my son’s life. He did not make it to the winter solstice and the return of more sunlight.

We’ll make it. Sometimes my ex-husband’s voice bellows in all its youth and springtime vigor in my mind, and for a fleeting second, I see the four of us all young again, wearing forever smiles. And, I recall my long-ago affirmations: I am abundant; God cannot give me a desire without it already being mine.

Then my three fingers pinpoint my heartbreak in the middle of my chest, safely tucked away beneath the metal of armor.

Next weekend, we have a party we are invited to, and I am buffing my armor, getting ready. One of the guys who is attending and whom I ran into recently exclaimed, “Get your dancing shoes on.”

I am amazed at his unawareness. How clueless he is to assume that I live life in the same manner I used to when I had free rein of closets overstuffed with dancing shoes. Some might call my place in life prolonged grief, conveniently paint over it and make it pretty so it’s easily friended by millions of strangers. Others erase grief as they once erased my son because of his taciturn manner. Others direct me to move on and lament over how I am stuck in the past. Then there are a select few who know that grief is something you can’t lift, like age, and it isn’t something to fill and fix like Botox on crow’s feet.

It’s there always, like the inner peace I was gifted with nearly 37 years ago. Now, I’m learning how to shuffle everything within me to make space for the grief. For me, the process is like inching around in a new pair of stiff shoes.

One more day: I alone can do it without anyone’s bird’s eye view of my world, because I learned in these nearly two years that bird’s eye views are dangerously limited.

One more day: It’s a different day, yet it kicks in with the same vitamin and joint supplement regime that stays with me along with drinking it all down in a repurposed glass that I savor, because I am acutely aware of how repurposing is an end-of-life strategy that doesn’t always hold water and no positive thought or affirmation will ever make it any different.

Faith Muscle

Life Stages and Curtain Times

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

As a follow up to last week’s blog post, a few days after I spoke to my neighbor, Felicity’s dad, who is wrestling with his remorse over her departure to a college some four hours away, I spotted him alone, slouched on a log behind an overgrown maple tree. He reminded me of Elmer J. Fudd, the cartoon character in Bugs Bunny, being thwarted by the “wabbit.” In my neighbor’s case, he couldn’t capture Father Time, and his little girl grew up in the blink of an eye.

Less than 300 feet separated us, but I did not impinge on his solitude as he processed the fact that the past is printed on a calendar of unrecyclable paper. Instead, I attended to depositing the trash into the garbage can, and the grief, heavy in its now permanently designated space, in my own heart. How I wished Hollywood movies, where friendship, family, justice and love always win in the end, were real. In my mind, I imagined the heroine/hero voice exclaim, “I have returned. I will stay and be your child forever and ever until you die. Witness a metamorphose from a cocoon into a butterfly, keep me close, a treasure in a jar, and be spared from an unspeakable hurt.”

The next day, less than a week after Felicity’s departure, my friend informed me that while she took her daily walk, she noticed that Felicity’s boyfriend and her parents commiserated in solidarity over dinner in the dining room. When my friend explained the details, I understood why she emphasized the location. Dining rooms are where family and friends gather to make formal toasts and share milestones. Dining rooms are where grievers congregate and leave an empty seat and, sometimes, a place setting, at the table during special meals to commemorate those who have departed. In essence, my neighbors held a “farewell dinner.”

“You can never have enough love!” I exclaimed, acknowledging the depth of affection that surrounds Felicity.

The neighbors’ planned farewell dinner reminded me of one unplanned farewell dinner we held in our dining room shortly after my ex-husband underwent a mental breakdown and, in the process, abandoned his family. It was at the end of 2010 and the lavish meal at the table belied his sudden disappearance. We ate our food with intent, forcing ourselves to believe in the possibilities of the future, taking comfort in how the meat and meatless entries, along with the potatoes, carrots, peas and other trimmings on our plates symbolically melded together and fit into some kind of balanced ensemble. And, as we swirled our forks around our plates and clanged our glasses against the china, we wondered what would be revealed next on the big movie screen of life. I remember how suddenly my brother Paul blurted out, “Who will walk Alexandra down the aisle when she gets married?”

“Marshall!” we all exclaimed, gazing into our identical crystal balls, happy illusions in our minds as my son turned scarlet red, forced a grin, but remained silent.

I would venture to say that our unplanned farewell meal and my neighbors’ planned farewell meal shared many of the same feelings and emotions:  fear, hope and faith.

The fear element, during both dinners, likely stewed along with a slew of desperate questions: “How, how do I get through this trench without knowing where my boots are? How do I move forward?”

These are the same questions that haunt me every day for over 22 months after the sudden loss of my son to suicide. His is now the greatest loss that has led me numerous times to our dining room where dishes brim with the greens of life and morsels to satisfy the palate as I poke and stab, but feel emptier by the moment as every memory digs into me, teases me, because the reality is that I sit in an unfamiliar seating arrangement. In my neighbors’ case, I thought while her family and boyfriend dined and attempted to figure out how to sing a new tune without her, Felicity found her voice in her dorm room with her new roomie, perhaps, chatting, getting acquainted, making plans to go shopping on the weekend and tour the city close by.

I have a coin I carry with me everywhere. It says: “Behind you, all your memories. Before you, all your dreams. Around you, all who love you. Within you, all you need.”

Felicity’s journey to adulthood has naturally been a rough transition on her family and boyfriend. As the years unravel, I am quite sure, though, that they will reckon with life’s growing and going pains and come to recognize the continual goodbye that strings the moments together until the final goodbye. They, too, will recognize the wave of the hand, year after year, as life marches on until, if they are lucky enough, they witness that the string of days behind them is much longer than those that are in front of them. It is all this as well as all those recurrent memories beaded together into a bespoke treasure to which words do not do justice.

Occasionally, I have faith that life is a Hollywood movie, because no matter how sad the plot is, the reality is that the more phenomenal the cast of characters, the more love wins in the end. In other words, even though the curtain is drawn and the show ends for my son, I know I once had the honor to share a stage with one of the most captivating, humorous and brilliant headliners one can ever imagine.

I also have faith and a full heart knowing that the curtain is still open next door, and I can’t wait to see Felicity when she returns for the Thanksgiving holiday. I think I’ll give that young starlet a coffee card token just to let her know how much I appreciate the opportunity to take a seat backstage as her character arc develops and unfolds and takes us all on the next grand adventure.

Faith Muscle

Blessed 🎂Birthday

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.”

Blessed? What?

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.”

Faith Muscle