Some 20 years ago, my then husband and I attended a Dwight Yoakam concert in New York City. We were in our 40s, and our lives brimmed with the hallmark of blessings: an amicable marriage, a stable home, two young, healthy children and a future showing nothing less than promise.
Dwight was one of my favorite musicians, and my ex-husband went out of his way to not only secure the concert tickets, but also backstage passes to meet the singer. After the foot-stomping concert, which was worth the one-hour tardiness of the singer, the audience milled around. Waiting to be admitted to the private backstage party, we encountered a married couple in their 20s and started conversing. We learned that the couple traveled from England, I kid you not, to attend the concert. They didn’t have a sad story but were just starting out. I detected our one-time vulnerabilities, our long-ago future uncertainties in them that all seemed to have worked out for us. We were blessed.
I glanced at my then husband, who was on the same wavelength. He looked at me approvingly because he sensed what I was about to do. I gifted the couple our backstage tickets. I did have a condition.
“Please drop us a letter (this was pre-internet times) and let us know how it was meeting Dwight and the other band members. We would appreciate that,” I explained as I gave them our address.
They were more than happy to oblige and promised us that they would send us a follow-up letter.
Though my ex-husband and I never mentioned the promised letter again, with my rose-colored glasses cemented on the brim of my nose, I anticipated that the letter would materialize.
My ex’s motto was, “Don’t expect anything, and you won’t be disappointed.”
After about three months passed, it was only then that I knew the couple had “moved on” with their lives and didn’t take the time to write the letter.
Frankly, if I had been in the woman’s shoes, I would have fulfilled the promise. My father raised me, repeatedly saying, “Promise low. Deliver high.”
For the last 37 plus years, I also have followed a program for living that is based on vigorous honesty.
Plus, I am a writer by trade. Writing a letter would have been easy for me. In the couple’s defense, everyone has different talents, interests and priorities. I mean, maybe the couple sat down and experienced a debilitating case of writer’s block and quit. Who knows what could have happened? Maybe a tragedy occurred. Maybe …
I will never know the reasons behind their broken promise. For me, one broken promise can be like a domino effect, and I begin to ruminate about so many other broken promises made to me. In fact, if the broken promises that I’ve received in my life were shattered pieces of quartz and feldspar, I could construct a granite counter that stretches the length of a football field.
Over these many years, I’m learning to put my faith into real rock — myself — and not depend on rocky humans. My life story may amount to a backlash of unmet promises, yet I do not have to contribute to the scrap pile. I, in fact, can raise above the scrap pile.
Coincidentally, my friend sent me a quote that said: “Don’t treat people as bad as they are, treat them as good as you are.”
I have learned the hard way that life is inherently unmanageable, and I’m powerless over people, places and things. The only power I possess is over my own behavior. So, do I feel bad about giving that young couple our backstage tickets? Rarely, if ever now. If given another opportunity, I would guilelessly do it again, again and again. Let the couple have their backstage views. I have the best seat in a house built on gratitude, humility, compassion, authenticity and a wealth of other gifts that I can bank on without disappointment.
My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.
On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.
From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.
“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.
Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.
Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.
My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.
Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.
At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.
“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”
I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”
“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.
In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.
“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”
There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.
“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.
Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.
Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me. My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.
After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.
A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”
Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.
Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”
Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:
…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:
“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”
In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:
Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.
After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.
The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”
Through the media, I have witnessed community resilience, response and recovery efforts during the dire situation this past weekend. For instance, one of the tornados ripped through and destroyed the Mayfield (KY) First United Methodist Church property. The pastor, Reverend Joey Reed and his wife, took shelter in the church basement and survived the catastrophic event.
During a TV broadcast interview, his gratitude for the safety of his wife and children prevailed. He said that things are replaceable; people are not.
In fact, the reverend further explained that the topic of “joy” was the theme he had planned for last Sunday’s sermon. Fortunately, he was still able to present the sermon during a service at another local church that the tornado bypassed. Interestingly, the only bulletin from Reverend Reed’s church that survived the calamity includes a synopsis of his sermon.
The sermon defines joy as something that is internal and thereby it is a permanent fixture for as long as we live. Happiness, on the other hand, is external and is fleeting.
“Joy is often mistaken for happiness, but happiness can change by a turn of events. Joy is something that abides. That’s what we’re holding onto,” Reverend Reed said.
In the same spirit of joy, although the parish has lost the sanctuary, he also stated, “That building was the repository of our memories. We have to remember that those memories still belong to us. They cannot be taken from us even by something as devastating as this tornado.”
I only hope that Clayton Cope’s parents, whose son would have turned 30 at the end of December, and all the other parents who lost young adult children at the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, and children of all ages throughout the six effected states will manage to cherish their “repository of memories” as they now undertake the most unbearable journeys imaginable.
To these bereaved parents and to all the other survivors who are swallowed by grief in so many forms from this tragedy, I stand with you. I salute your bravery as you endure your faith walk. Always remember, the power of faith lies in the acceptance of our powerlessness.
This year on Mother’s Day instead of focusing on my personal grief journey, I centered my thoughts around my mom. As a child into my young adulthood, I was so unlike her. I thought she had adopted me. I could barely share the same room with her. The word hate is too strong to describe my early feelings toward her, but I spent most of my time dodging her abrasive, nasty, many times cruel remarks, and dealing with the mental anguish that resulted. Believe me, she knew how to push my buttons, because she was a master installer.
Typically, particularly toward strangers, she was taciturn and morose. On the other hand, I was over-excitable, over-sensitive and talkative. Touch, too, was off-limits to her and our family. She was like a splintering telephone pole to avoid. It wasn’t until I was 27 that fellow Brian A. taught me how to offer a cordial embrace. I was an excellent student and, in turn, I became a huggy, touchy-feely person.
Along with learning healthy touch, I implemented a solid self-care program into my daily life, and to my shock, slowly, very slowly, my mom became softer. She switched out her destructive masculine qualities for sweeter, gentler feminine ones. By the time my own children were born, we spoke at least an hour a day on the telephone and, in between our hour-long talks, she called our house in endless succession to the point of irritating the entire household. Our conversations revolved around my son and daughter. She, too, never failed to throw in the latest sensational news headlines before we hung up.
Tuesdays and Fridays were scheduled for her day-long babysitting services, and she’d pinch hit on other days too. Any failings she had as a mother, she made up tenfold as a grandmother. The love between my children and their grandmother was knitted together in 14-karat yarn that could never be damaged, broken or severed. By the time I reached my late 40s, she, shockingly out of character, very matter-of-factly announced that she loved me and, of course, I reciprocated.
My mom had lost a son, my brother, too. He suffered a fatal stroke in 2002, 16 months after losing her husband, my dad, to emphysema. From that point on, I rallied around her and never failed to fudge and compliment her fine mothering skills. I wouldn’t award her any Best Mom trophies in the Hallmark Card sense, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she loved me and my brothers in the best manner she could. For so long society has painted women as natural caretakers, but this role was not a favorite of mom’s. Her fervid desire was to be a certified public accountant, working in a shiny, clean and sterile office setting, churning numbers, calculating hard-and fast-solutions. Instead, she settled in an unsettled family environment of obscure emotional demands at a loss for an exact formula.
In 2015, the year she turned 90, her final year with us, as she withered to illness, she constantly pleaded with me and Brother Paul, “Forgive me.”
To this day, I admire her for taking a personal life inventory and having the courage to complete her amends. As the years pass, her influence has become like a bone fused with my skeleton.
I constantly hear her broken English commands and her practical advice, like, “Clean up! Right away when make mess.”
She had tons of wise sayings too, for instance, “Where people, problems.” “You make plan. God crosses out.”
My mother was a petite woman who led a modest lifestyle in every regard, but she was huge on gratitude. You could give her a sunflower seed and she would dance with it in her hands until she eagerly planted it in her outdoor garden, profusely thanking you until you couldn’t stand to hear her thanksgiving any longer.
Instead of obsessing about myself this Mother’s Day, I am thankful to have had my mom for as long as I did. I also thought about other moms, the moms who did not get to see their children due to the pandemic and for other reasons. I, too, remembered the bereaved moms. The imprisoned moms. The estranged moms. The moms who sat in the same room as their children on the holiday but did not see them for who they were and only saw them for what they wanted them to be.
Moms. Moms. Moms. Inclusion is the buzzword these days, but society still disregards the moms that are so difficult to love, because many of them are simply hurting. It’s been said before: “Hurt people hurt.” Many times, the ones who really need a hug are those who appear they don’t deserve a hug. Monster moms, if you will.
“After one of her mother’s beatings, Ivy could, at least, count on being left alone for a few days. If the beating was particularly vicious, Nan might even cook Ivy’s favorite dishes and allow her to watch television before starting her homework. Nan neither justified nor apologized.”
The excerpt above is from a book, White Ivy by Susie Yang that I recently read. In a bizarre way, it makes me chuckle, because when we think about Mother’s Day and all-things-mom, the antagonistic moms in the novel of life are wiped clean, removed. There is no seat for them at the mom’s table. We close our eyes and, thus, do not deal with their existence. We hide their sickness. They hide too, getting sicker sometimes. At least in my case, I had a lot of assistance in learning how to love myself and then my mom reaped the benefits of my radiated transformation. She basked in it. The benefit of the warmth helped her begin her healing process.
I know one person who never forgave her mom for being verbally abusive. As far as she was concerned, her mother was dead. In turn, the woman grew into one of the most bitter, non-empathetic and punitive people whom I’ve ever met. Her persona exhibits a kind of cancer that eats her whole, and everyone that comes close to her. Ironically, a closer look reveals that she has become her monster mom.
On the other hand, I’ve known dozens of “adult children,” including myself, who survived a gamut of abuse, both mental and physical from their mothers (fathers too, but right now the focus is on moms!). Whether through therapy, divine intervention or some other form leading to positive transformation, the survivors not only survived, but thrived and arrived at a true forgiveness stronghold, and they stopped perpetuating the destructive pattern that was once modeled to them and those around them. Some of them reconnected with their moms and others did not. However, all of them are the kind of compassionate people whom you want to be around, because they make this world a better place.
I think sometimes moms are put on earth for the sole purpose of teaching their children to learn to forgive, which, of course, does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior.
As children, we naturally put our faith in our caregivers. When they disappoint us, we are like abandoned orphans, desperate for love, working overtime for the sole purpose of pleasing others. Truth is, growing up means uncovering the inner fragments, including the broken ones that make us who we are and teach us how to stand tall and be proud. This independence is important because sometimes we have to fill the boots and play the part of our of our own heroes and have the faith that we can fake flying with or without a cape even if we have aviophobia — a fear of flying. First, though, we have to lighten the luggage, compartment by compartment, until we can leap to freedom and parachute to a stable ground that feels like the gentle arms of a mother holding her newborn.
I hope that my blogging community of mothers, godmothers, fur moms and all other caregivers of the universe had a joyous holiday, and I give you all one big, virtual hug.
But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Luke 15:32
It brings me great strength and joy to know you are in the loving arms of Jesus. Down here on earth, your arms were in the shackles of a disease that you did not want. I was four years old when I first tried to help you, but I was at a loss, wanting to contain your Niagara Falls amount of throw-up in a tiny pink cup.
From that day forward, I felt like I trailed behind you through life, big brother, with a tiny pink plastic cup that could never contain the monster-sized remnants inside.
I won’t deny, that when you were alive, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about a replacement brother. The kind of big brother that takes you places above ground and not underground. The kind of brother who views life is lived on a rich, varied and textured terrain generous in rose-smelling opportunities. Like I told you a gazillion times, I never cared about your version of life lived in a flat-line region where the point of it all is survival.
No doubt about it. We spent a lot of time in the mud hole: bickering, arguing and sometimes having a knock-down, drag-out fight. We landed in plenty of fox holes, too, where our prayers were “God Help!” Succinct ones, but as fervent as the long, formal prayers.
Seventeen years later, and I darn well know that if given the chance for a replacement brother or you, there is no doubt to the one I would choose. I attribute my choice to you. Underneath your disease. Underneath the monster. Buried under a mountain of hurt, you were one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. Not because you were handsome, strong, generous, compassionate, highly intuitive and intelligent and a war hero to boot, but because you knew that everything, no matter how utterly defective, stained, sinned or doomed, could root, grow and live under one condition: that it is planted in a bedrock of unconditional love.
Thank you for leaving me this bedrock of a legacy. To allow myself to be vulnerable, trust and carry the message tirelessly to those who suffer and those who need strength. Most of all, thanks for being my Angel Michael, right next to Archangel Michael, as I trudge this road of happy destiny.
Dear Big Brother in heaven, I can’t wait to see you in heaven someday. Feel your arms around me again, and see the sober twinkle in your eyes, when you radiate His love and gently whisper, “Peace.”
Stay tuned!…until next time…walk by faith not by sight!
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth. Psalm 34:1
During this past season’s midnight Mass, I found Christmas, but it wasn’t solely in the Mass. I found Christmas in a young father who sat in the pew in front of us. His eyes glowed in adoration of his special needs toddler. Despite the fact that the child squirmed, gurgled and occasionally jolted, for over two hours, the father cradled her with undivided attention and devotion. In the face of challenge, his face exuded peace, contentment and joy. His one-word response to his child: Christmas!
This upcoming New Year, when I am faced with challenges, I hope to respond in the same spirit of Christmas, no matter if it is in the dead of winter or heat of summer. In other words, no matter how my faith is tested, I have memorized my response that is so apparent in the father’s life that I encountered at church. “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth.” (Psalm 34:1)
Funny, how my relationship with God is sometimes one-sided, and I think He should ONLY bless me. Blessing the Lord at all times and praising him always is like laying a foundation of brick-like faith while the Lord spreads his love in the form of mortar.
Stay tuned!…until next time…walk by faith not by sight!
Never mind New Year’s resolutions. Wrap your mind around January reflections: A question a day every day for the next 30 days to deepen your faith.
29. Shaky faith?
Even Mother Teresa had times when she didn’t feel God’s presence. (And let’s face it, most of us are not Mother Teresa.) Don’t bury your doubts and frustrations. Find a friend who’ll listen respectfully. Keep the faith. While you’re trying to figure it out, God’s got you covered.Stay tuned!…until next time…walk by faith not by sight!