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

Dusty Trails

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Nearly a month ago, my neighbors’ only child, I’ll call her Felicity (one of my favorite names!), about whom I’ve written a previous blog post, relocated to attend a college about four hours away from home. I’ve not seen her mom, but her dad, as I’ve written about prior, is having a difficult time dealing with her departure.

All grief, as far as I am concerned, as I’ve also written about before, is valid. Whether you mourn the lose of a pet turtle or death of a child or grieve a child who has catapulted into the next stage of life, there is an infinite roll-out of feelings and emotions associated with a sense of loss. Grief is a natural response to a painful or traumatic experience that is part of the human condition over which we have no control over. This time, hearing my neighbor share a part of his heartbreak involving his daughter, I was able to step completely outside my personal emotional pain and maneuver my way onto the bridge that connects us humans better than Crazy Glue: empathy.

His tone had an absorbing melancholy when he discussed the slow fade of time. In other words, in retrospect, although you’re going all out, have both feet planted on the pedals, it’s a losing race.

“The house has a different energy about it without her,” he vocalized as his head tilted downward.

Energy. Yes, I thought, life is energy. In this same vein, his daughter’s departure could be a song: Felicity is packed. Ready to go. Boxes and bags, belongings and energy flow. All her belongings, only to leave us longing.

Thinking deeper about this, Felicity disappeared from her house, but not completely. You see,  Biology 101 teaches us that the body’s cells and organs work together to keep the body going, to make it the energy field that it is. As a safeguard, the body is also equipped with many natural defenses to help it stay alive. For instance, in order to fight infections, we humans “lose 200,000,000 skin cells every hour. During a 24-hour period, a person loses almost five thousand million skin cells.” In one year, the total amount of dead skin loss per person is more than eight pounds, that’s about as big as a Labrador puppy.

The process is our human way of shedding. What falls off us collects as dust. All those fast-flying gossamer bunnies you find nesting in the corner of the radiator and on your tables and windowsills are amassed mostly of former bits of yourself, which, in turn, provide a gourmet haven for dust mites!

And, here’s the point I’m getting at. About 20 years ago, I heard a renowned historic preservation architect speak. If you don’t know already, a historic preservation architect helps preserve old buildings that have historical value. Anyway, he said that each time a building is demolished, not only do we witness an inanimate object disappear, but, along with it, is the annihilation of a trail in human history – thousands upon thousands of shredded cells from the lives that once laughed, loved and experienced the many highs and lows of life on the premises. The architect’s somber talk, which kept me on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears, changed my life forever.

In my own house, built in 1980, after hearing the talk, I thought about the “remains” of the two families that lived here prior to us. Even though I am a germophobe, I know that they have left their marks in secret places that are spared from my cleaning habits. Sadly, the boy in the second family died in a horrific accident when he was 13. My children went to school with him and they always felt creeped out to know he lived in our home. His bedroom was where I once housed my office. His shreds of long-ago life filled me with faith and reminds me that he matters.

In essence, Felicity and her energy are gone, but her shredded skin still coats her house like angel dust. And this goes for my departed son, mom (my dad passed away before he ever could see our house), brother and my relocated daughter, our pets, and even ex-husband who lives in a state 600 miles away, not to mention all the many friends, extended family and acquaintances who have crossed my house’s threshold to visit over this 20-year span. Yes, they are all here somewhere in places invisible to the naked eye, but still close, like a whisper in my ear. Their remains peeled off during ebbs and flows in the tide of their lives. They are all part of my household history like my own skin that sheds at this very moment as I stroke my creative muse.  We partner peacefully, drifting, weaving tapestries from everything repurposed, sustainable and with a thread of hope that they will last through the remainder of the century and, if possible, push farther into the next dusty trail that sometimes seems like a riverbend ahead.

Faith Muscle

22 Strong

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Twenty-two is an unlucky number for one of my closest friends. The reason she feels it is jinxed is that her mother died on the 22nd of September. The number, on the other hand, is a favorite one of mine, not necessarily lucky or unlucky, but a good powerful number in my eyes, and it was just happenstance that I was born on the 22nd of August, which happens to be five days away.

Don’t ask me what I’m doing for my birthday; likely, hiding under a clamshell, which is my plan every year that is yet to materialize. I think most suicide survivors have an incredible array of feelings and emotions to contend with when their birthdays roll around, beginning with “Why?” and ending with “Why?” and in the middle, a gossamer-spun dark cloak of shame, guilt, regret, sadness.

I spent my life grappling with depression that skyrocketed at adolescence. A few years after my last suicide attempt at 23, the darkest period of my life, I met an exceptionally trained, intuitively gifted psychiatrist. He presented me with an interesting theory. He said mental health experts were finding a growing body of evidence to suggest that when a mother considers aborting her child, but decides to birth it, the child is more prone to develop suicidal tendencies and thoughts throughout his or her life.

Now, I don’t know if my mom thought about aborting me. But I wouldn’t hold it against her. She had her two sons well over a decade before I crashed the party. I know for sure that it was not a surprise, but a shock for her to get pregnant for the third time. I know my mom was 36 and tired when she birthed me. All in all, I’m uncertain if that theory holds water as far as my mother is concerned, but it’s still an intriguing one.

As fate would have it and as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I started to turn my life around more than 36 years ago, which doesn’t mean I still don’t wrestle with the gang of crazies that drop by uninvited inside my brain every once in a while. They set up a picnic there and start clamoring in dialogue laced with self-hatred and negativity. With the help of others, I’ve trained myself to block out the mental invasion. Some people at retirement age have achieved the level of mastery in their chosen field. I, in contrast, have achieved self-mastery. That accomplishment has brought me here, five days away from another birthday, four decades after my near-fatal 23rd year.

Since our family tragedy 21 months ago, I am flooded with memories of my birthday that involved my son. The last time I celebrated my birthday with him was five years ago. I remember feeling my usual self: in-sync and in harmony whenever I was with him. I don’t fully recall what we did, which was likely an informal dinner at our house, but I believe my son brought me a sweet card as he usually did, always signing it at the end with “Love” and then his first and last name. His custom signature struck me funny each and every time. Like I don’t know who my son is, and he has to sign his last name just to make sure? I always thought to myself after I read his cards.

My son wanted to strike out on his own from the time he hit adolescence. His idea of growing up was relocating to another state. A few years prior to the final birthday I spent with him, he had driven from the New England area with a friend, who was relocating to North Dakota. As it turned out this so-called friend just used him as a driving companion and, after their arrival, at the end of the week when this so-called friend settled in with his family that resided in the state, he fought with my son. Ultimately, in a rage, he drove my son to the airport, kicked him out of the car and threw his luggage and belongings after him before he rode away to his happily-ever life. Fortunately, a homeless man helped my son gather his items spewed all over the airport terminal. Needless to say, I paid a hefty price for his return flight that night, but I was delighted to do it. His life was priceless. I was so relieved when he returned home to us. In fact, I almost fainted from the feeling of euphoria the moment I saw him stroll, safe and whole, into my view at the airport terminal.

My son was always the restless type. He wanted to relocate to so many places all the time. The raw truth is, he wasn’t going to stay HERE on this earth for very long. He possessed a tumbleweed spirit. It’s ironic how often he, too, said he wanted to move to the desert out west one day, where tumbleweed thrives.

Anyway, four years ago I spent a lovely Sunday enjoying barbecue on our outside deck. I bid him goodbye without realizing how short our time together was in so many different ways. He had been living with his godmother, Pat, at the time. The next day, August 14, a Monday, he woke up and took her by surprise. He was packed and ready to go. Out of the blue he announced, “If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.”

I was also clueless to the plan he executed when he moved from our state and drove away in the hopes of creating a better life for himself in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The trajectory, of course, was the beginning of his demise.

He left no trail behind. After I learned the news of his departure four years ago, I was hard hit and felt abandoned and betrayed over his behavior to dash off without notice and without waiting long enough to at least celebrate my birthday together. Mind you, everyone in Bowling Green was a stranger to him. He had no job waiting there for him. He only had his car and a small amount of savings. He was doomed from the start, and I knew it. All I thought about was how I wasn’t able to give him a proper goodbye or proper send-off with a small family gathering or a card or present. It just didn’t feel right from the start.

Miraculously, he pulled it off. After a rough start, he secured successful employment with an incredible company that mandated college classes and on-the-job training. Scoring an 86 in trigonometry, his least favorite subject, he proved to be a solid “A” student all the way. However, he failed when it came to shutting down the demons in his mind for very long. In the end, the raw truth is, they won his soul at 26 as they came so close to winning mine at 23.

Every birthday I celebrated as a mother, all I wanted from my children was their presence. I was grateful from the second I found out they were in my belly. In fact, their godmother and I prayed over my belly for months before both of their births.

No other “stuff” could come close to satisfying me on my birthdays or any other day. In Bowling Green, my son nearly forgot my birthdays when they rolled around. I didn’t care in the least. My present was seeing how well he was doing and feeling so good about his course in life. That’s where I deposited my faith: wellness and success. It sounds corny as heck, but my greatest joy was to watch him and my daughter grow up into strong, capable, healthy adults.

Since the tragedy, grief has beat me down to a pulp of an apricot, but it has not warped my sense of gratitude. This year will be my second birthday living a “new normal” while hiding under a clamshell sounds appealing and homey.

Likely, though, when the 22nd hits, I will shower and change into something I haven’t worn for awhile, and join the kids’ godmother or someone else in my tiny circle and go out for lunch or dinner and mark the occasion in solidarity.

Another day in paradise, I can hear my son remark sarcastically as he so often did in his latter years.

Yes, I say to myself, “Another day in paradise” with a nuance of true meaning in the words. I imagine a sun-kissed, sandy seascape where there exists clam shells galore for the sole purpose of feeling as if you’re grateful to be alive.

Entering the Gates of 🌤️Heaven

While checking into the Hilton in Long Island, New York, this past weekend with my daughter to attend her former college roommate’s wedding celebration, across the lobby, we witnessed a platonic embrace between a man and a woman that stopped us in our tracks and, for a few seconds, so did our world.

Nineteen years ago, shortly after my brother Mike died suddenly from a stroke, someone gave me a wallet-sized, inspirational card with an illustration of a beaming Jesus hugging a young woman. On the card it said, “Entering the Gates of Heaven.”

Whether you are a Christian or not, the image represents the essence of universal love. In real life, if you are fortunate to experience the magnitude of this type of love, it would equate to living a thousand lifetimes onboard a peace train of which the grandest theme is acceptance and harmony so powerful, it reaches and washes out your deepest, darkest, ugliest, most shameful crevices and allows the sunshine to warm, caress and heal every wound, scar and trauma.

Watching this young couple across the way at the hotel, I saw the young man’s face in the face of Jesus pictured on the prayer card, along with the woman’s windblown hair whose silhouette also resembled the image on it.

The woman could barely catch a breath in between her tearful cries, because of the emotional exhilaration, and it felt like the hotel walls would pop open from the joy. For a moment, superimposed on the man was my now deceased son and on the woman was my daughter. Obviously, I don’t know what my daughter’s take on the sight was, but what I saw was a reunion between the living and the dead unfold on a white marble floor of a Hilton hotel.

After the dramatic embrace, it turned out that my daughter knew both of the people, and, in fact, they were all part of the bridal party. The man had just flown in from Los Angeles, California, and the woman had flown in from Richmond, Virginia. The two people, who had embraced, once shared a semester abroad, along with the bride, in Germany. The reunion between them was a telltale sign of how a connection grows through the passage of time and memories shared, painted in easy, carefree, lofty and heavy highlights.

This is how the wedding weekend began. It was a postponed wedding due to COVID-19. A wedding I dreaded attending, knowing the pain points it would touch. Fortunately, I was prepared; warned by a dear friend about the “Mother and the Groom” wedding song. My defense tool was advice from another dear friend Michelle: In essence, I was there to be happier for the bride and groom than sadder for myself. The advice worked! (Thank you, Michelle!)

The wedding began with love between friends reuniting and then moved to a couple sealing their vow of love. One of the readings at the church was from Corinthians 13, 4-7, a favorite among ceremonies and, in fact, one of the readings at my wedding over 30 years ago, a now dissolved marriage. The famous last line states, Love Never Fails.

The way I interpret the passage is that love failed in our family, because many falsehoods prevented it from forming a pure, genuine love and, ultimately, our unit failed. I’m okay with that for today, because if I do not work in truth, there is no hope for love.

Anyway, the wedding crowd was composed mostly of young, brilliant adults who are changing the world in positive ways. During the reception, I never dreamed I would dance without guilt, but I did! I saw it as long overdue exercise, and it worked. I was, however, overpowered by some flashbacks sitting at the table during the reception, remembering how at the last wedding I attended in 2018, my son kept me glued to my cellphone for a good part of the wedding, despairing about his agonizing love life. The last wedding he ever attended was when he was seven. Deep in my pained gut, I knew he would never have an opportunity as an adult to attend a wedding function, which included his own. By the end of that night, half the male bridal party was commiserating with him outside on the patio on my cell phone. I laughed at the situation, feeling we were all working in the solution mode and on that night, it was true.

At this past weekend’s wedding as the night rolled on, when the traditional wedding songs began, I darted into the restroom until they ended. I can participate in life, but also allow for human limitations by guarding myself.

Looking back, the weekend moved along smoothly, a few hiccups, but no hacking or fevers. I’m left meditating and pondering upon genuine, unconditional love and different types of love. When I first married my husband, in my heart of hearts I believed it would last forever. I believed we would retire, rent an RV and take a year to drive to Alaska, adopting as many old, unwanted shelter poodles as we could along the way. In his own words, he wanted the same ending, but midway through the book, I turned the page, and he disappeared. Though he verbalized what he thought I wanted to hear, he failed to verbalize the truth and allow me to accept it and risk my not responding with unconditional love. In this manner, love failed. Fake love always fails.

From that point, the three of us that were left behind tried to survive best as we could. I will always harbor a tremendous amount of guilt today knowing and realizing the mistakes I made as a mother. One thing I always put my faith into, though, was the greatest thing that mattered to me: seeing both my children grow up as happy, thriving adults. I had faith with fabrication. My son held back nothing from me. Incapable of meeting him on his level, because I believed that the solution that worked for me would work for him, I spoke to him as if he were my twin. It was only a matter of time, when everything backfired and my dream shattered in half, with only one-half remaining, my daughter. I never thought I could be more grateful to have her. She is brilliant and compassionate, much like my son was and also gregarious, positive and confident – in that respect, a total opposite of my son. I am over-the-top grateful these days for her existence.

Now, for damn sure there won’t be any earth-stopping reunions in this life between my daughter and her brother or me and my son. I might dance for the sake of exercise, but not for the sake of pure joy. Those days are done and useless to think about like disposed tattered socks.

Fortunately, I have the mental capacity to still love a little and feel a big happy heart for others while throwing off the pitiful feelings for myself. In this way, I did receive a surprise bonus during our wedding weekend. The groom – quiet, introverted, kind, a good listener, considerate and compassionate – reminded me so much of my son. His image comforted me to the point of giving me such a sense of fulfillment that it felt like a spiritual reunion akin to a group hug teeming with lace, glitter and a gown’s trail long enough to almost reach heaven.

Faith Muscle

Maze Craze

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This past weekend, I was cleaning out the car in my driveway and caught sight of the young woman next door. All smiles, she exited her car with a white gown slung over her shoulders and walked into her house. I deduced that the gown was for her high school graduation. For a moment I was transported back to being a naive 17-year-old when I saw the world as a linear, simple place where scheduled events like graduations were made up of happiness, love, sunshine and uplifting greeting card sentiments.

Her smiling face also kicked off a grown-up memory in my maze of life full of twists and turns that happened 10 years ago when my son graduated from high school. About a month beforehand, my son wrote his father, who had relocated some 600 miles away, a request: please do not come. Although I kept my opinions to myself, the last person I wanted to see was the man I was in divorce proceedings with. Secretly, I sensed the act of barring him from my son’s graduation as punishment for the fallout our family experienced for his bad decisions and, at that time, I felt the punishment was valid.

On the day of my son’s graduation ceremony, as far as I remember, I was there with my daughter, Brother Paul, godmother Pat and my friend Lisa. We were all on guard in case my son’s father showed up. Malaise hid behind our smiles as we entered the auditorium. I was like a hawk searching the room with telescopic eyes, worried that my son’s father, whom his children had not seen for over five months at that point, would make a surprise appearance. Inside I was troubled, totally unable to fathom the outcome of such an encounter.

Concurrently, it was also a solemn occasion. Although a chair was reserved for one of the classmates, Robert, my son’s best friend, it was empty. Eighteen-year-old Robert had been killed five months earlier in a freak off-road vehicle accident during a blizzard.

During the ceremony, the family faced the audience as they sat in a special spot reserved for them at the head of the auditorium. The spotlight of unfairness of it all did not occur to me until this past year when I had a deeper understanding what it meant when the future milestones on the calendar are unwillingly torn off along with your heart. Now, looking back, I am stunned to think about how Robert’s family sat in the unfairness of it all and managed to be present and smile for the sake of the other participants. I equate it as purely a heroic act of self-sacrifice. Caught up in my own selfishness, it took a pair of grieving mom’s eyes to understand that after the crowd dispersed and continued the good celebratory vibe, the grieving family left in the same manner they had arrived: carrying their “griefcases.”

In addition, as it turned out, my children’s father never showed — at least, we never saw him. Years later, he revealed that he accomplished the 11-hour drive to the ceremony, but sans admittance ticket, he stood unnoticed outside behind the crowd. I can’t remember if I told my son that bit of information years later, but it’s doubtful if it would have kept him alive in his later years.

Anyway, after the ceremony, my son, despite the sadness of his best friend’s death and anger and angst of his father’s decision to abandon the family, was all smiles like my neighbor this past weekend. He rarely smiled during his middle and high school years. I remember I was on top of the world because of the picture he presented of rare normality, and it was one of the few times that I saw my son in sync with the world.

At the end of the graduation ceremony, the knowledge deep inside pumped my faith muscles and I knew that everything, as my now ex-husband had assured me in the early days of our break up, “would work out.” Obviously, I was tricked. The maze I was given with an entrance and goal was a scam, the layout, to this day, is too convoluted and ambiguous to ever figure out. There is no start and finish. No solution.

The kiss of promise on my son’s face is only a memory. During his 10-year high school reunion this year, there will be two empty seats for sure. Thinking of my young neighbor’s face, it is some sort of consolation, and I hope and keep the faith that things will work out in her life.

I recall seeing her in the window at midnight studying, working, and she reminded me of me at her age. I deserved a happy future just like she does. In the maze of life that’s not straight thinking, because we all get our own very custom-made mazes. Some are crazier than others. We all, though, at one point or another, get lost. Inch our way through. But then again, maybe finding the way out isn’t the key, maybe it’s how we stay steadfast to our values, keep the faith and remain in the game despite a burning desire to take a shortcut and erase the dizzying lines.

Faith Muscle