Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.
This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.
The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?
If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”
Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”
After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.
So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton PresbyterianChurch could plummet me to the depths of despair.
Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”
He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”
Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.
It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.
(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)
In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.
I am because you are.
From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.
“Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019
My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.
My dear friend, Bob, has been a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. He is now in his 70s. I’ve known Bob for nearly 38 years, and he is one of the influential “zen men” in my life. We met up last week, and we exchanged our usual dialogue.
“How are you, Bob?”
“How’s everything going, Bob?”
His enthusiasm nearly knocks me over each and every time. It’s as if his every living breath is channeled into his exclamation, and it never fails to wake me up in my own life. Bob is like my buzzing alarm clock awakening me to my stagnant state, to my captivity in my own head’s prison built on fear, falsehoods and frailties that feed me at the given moment.
It never fails. Bob signals me to realize that I’ve been stuck in my head. I’ve missed the day gone by, including the entire car ride that brought me to visit with Bob in the first place. I’ve missed the trees outside. The front door I just swung opened, and the fluorescent lights in dim room. The minute I notice the rosy patches of Bob’s cheeks that glow and resemble the human heart, I almost feel as if I’ve exhaled for the first time in a long time.
At the end of our zen-centric conversation when I am about ready to leave, we always say, “I love you,” and embrace gently, as we have for 38 years.
I move toward the door. The hardwood taps under the rubber soles of my ankle boots. As I swing open the door, my hand feels the glossy coat on the freshly painted wood that is flecked with grains of lint in its texture, reminding me of the imperfection in perfection. My insights give me the faith to keep up the journey as I recall the miniscule part I play in the “GREAT!” scheme of life, because I have escaped my tiny mind long enough to inspect the vast universe directly under my nose.
Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.
She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.
Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.
And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.
For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.
Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.
Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.
For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.
In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.
Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.
When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.
“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.
Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.
I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”
The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”
And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)
The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!
But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.
Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.
Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.
“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”
“Because happiness always brings sadness.”
Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.
All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!
Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.
Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.
Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!
By the time August and the official days of summer winded down, cultivator and trowel in hand, I ambled into the garden. Suddenly, I froze. A small, three-inch corpse laid on the pathway. I wasn’t about to cry over a nameless bug, was I? Months prior, I tried to research and identify the insect, but I couldn’t find it’s name. Some things are meant to be mysteries.
One thing certain, as I moved my eyes from the bug, as static as the stone it laid atop, to the dried, dead tomato leaves; death was inescapable. The transition from summer to fall was a reminder.
I’m okay with that today. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown in faith the most by accepting the natural order of things. Life to death. Summer to fall, and from this natural order, out of all the massiveness, I etched a teeny-weeny place to call my own.
I scooped the dead bug, black body, gossamer wings, little head, up in the trowel and gracefully glided across the yard in wide fairy motions until I reached our family pet plot where our dear Blossom’s kittens are buried. I laid the insect gently down on a sliver of fresh dirt and peered at it in silence. I would miss the little bugger frolicking and dancing around me. All summer long, the Beach Lady kept me company as she twirled on my left, and the nameless bug floated on my right. For months, the two of them tricked me into believing I would never be alone and forever a part of moving, living things. Now, the time has come to admit, yet again, my powerlessness over another chapter’s end.
Weeks later, there are still a few, mostly green tomatoes to pick over in the cool, empty air. The end of the harvest. I pull stalks of dried, limp leaves out of the garden. As much as I expect it, the first frost will arrive and take me by surprise.
I recall one of my favorite poems, Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The day I discovered the dead, nameless bug, day rolled into evening. The sun, with its heart of gold, had set, turning a bloody tone of purplish red until it melted into the darkened horizon.
A stir in the wind reminded me that everything is in flux, as my own breath was at that very moment. I looked around the dark yard, wondering where the last hummingbird that frequented and roamed our premises in the day and was yet to fly south, slept.
Change is in air. Yet it is always there, nothing can stay, everything is gold. One of my Buddhist friends, Bob, constantly reminds me of the impermanence of life. All troubles, he says, stem from trying to fight and conquer the inevitable: death; instead of living and appreciating life for what it is: Gold.
Butterfly season is winding down. When I go outside to pick tomatoes in the garden, even on the high-temperature days, I feel a lack of warmth in the air, and it’s not only because we are headed into autumn. I search around the perimeter of the yard as if I am a grammar school kid waiting for my neighborhood buddy to meet up and play.
In my case, I await the “Painted Lady,” but she has disappeared. I suppose she already migrated south to Mexico, although I wish she stayed around just a little longer. I had become accustomed to my daily garden visitor. I’ve never really paid much attention to butterflies until I met this one. She was fearless. A few times when she orbited near my face, she startled me. Each time I went outside, I began to long for her peaceful presence. Her delicious tangerine-colored body made me yearn for a ripe summer fruit. The white spots and black markings on her wings drew me in further. It was as if I were stalled from my daily routine and, instead, standing inside an art gallery, meditating on a painting’s technique and imagery. Her appearance awakened my senses as if they were young and keen again.
One day in mid-July, I had a sudden feeling of recognition at the sight of her. “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Could the Painted Lady possibly be a reincarnation of the Beach Lady, an extraordinary woman I met in the early 2000s during my travel writing days?
You see, I was working on a story about Amelia Island in Florida and was introduced to MaVynee Betsch. In the same year she was born, 1935, her great-grandfather, A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Lewis, one of the seven co-founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first Black millionaire, bought the American Beach property on Amelia Island.
As racial segregation and oppression escalated across the United States, A.L. purchased what, thanks predominately to Mavynee’s influence, today is designated as a Florida Heritage Landmark. His vision was to create a beach resort to benefit his company’s executives and also use as a sales incentive for his employees. What’s more, he opened up American Beach to the Black population. In essence, it was a safe haven for the marginalized population to experience sun, respite and fun.
I only spent a weekend with A.L.’s great-granddaughter, but the environmental activist reinforced my views of the preservation of our natural resources. She, too, inspired me to believe that positive outcomes were possible. After all, she had spent a core of her life fighting to preserve and protect a historically African-American beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. She additionally provided me with enough food for thought to help fill my insatiable appetite for American history.
When I first met the Beach Lady, as she was lovingly called, she lived predominately in a trailer on the property where she was as much a fixture as the land she loved, a diamond by the sea. The most unique diamond that I can imagine. Actually, she preferred to wear shell and beach stone-themed jewelry, and when she walked, she rattled.
Whenever I picture her crease-less face with her hair packed on the top of her head like a solid soup tureen and free falling dreadlocks down past her ankles, I first remember her sandy, bare feet. Her dark toes were full of the contrasting light-colored American Beach sand. The little shells wrapped around her ankles were as distinct as the bold orangy colors that draped her body. Her statement was loud and clear in the many button pins, including political and pro-vegetarianism, attached to her hair and clothing. Her ageless-aging process was an example that builds me up as I now watch liver spots form near the palms of my hands. When, for example, I dare to go against convention and wear my rose tinted, lizard-patterned boots that shout “totally inappropriate for my age,” the Beach Lady’s legacy fuels every step in my soles.
Her six-foot height along with her over foot-long nails curling from her fingers on one hand matched her big, beautiful personality. Everything about her was as natural as the sun, sea and sky. For over 20 years, she allowed her hair to grow without touching up the grays or cutting any of it. Some of her tresses, in fact, measured over seven-feet long. Her stretched-to-the sky fingernails proved the point that things could have natural, healthy growth without any meat protein.
“All I want is to be reincarnated into a butterfly,” she announced to me on numerous occasions.
A few years later, I learned that the Beach Lady died from cancer at the age of 70 in 2005. She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama in the same year.
So nearly twenty years after meeting her in person, I suddenly see a bright and beautiful butterfly greeting me at every turn. Is it possibly her in a new form front and center in my backyard? Did she get her wish? If anyone should have been granted everything she wished for, it was MaVynee Betsch.
All summer long, every time I spotted the butterfly, I couldn’t help but inquire out load, “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Whether it really was the Beach Lady reincarnated into a butterfly or my pure imagination or not, the Painted Lady gave me a little faith to realize that when we are beaten down to soil level proportions, sometimes all we need is a flutter of hope to defy gravity.
The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers
I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.
I met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.
The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.
I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.
When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.
“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”
Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately,Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.
When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.
He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.
He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.
As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.
When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.
I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.
Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.
“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”
“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”
Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.
From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.
No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.
Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.
That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.
“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”
Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?
“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”
Where am I?
After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.
Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.
Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”
Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.
Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.
Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.
Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.
As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.
Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”
Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.
From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.
Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.
At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.
As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.
We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.
After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.
I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.
Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.
I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.
“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.
What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.
Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.
“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” –Sogyal Rinpoche
Building on the blog post I wrote on August 16, when it comes to growth and allowing the process of life (and death) to happen organically both in the garden and in the daily human arena, I pondered the faith lessons that our tomato plants have taught me over these past three years.
As I mentioned in the post, historically, my brown thumb has sat me on the sidelines, safely away from any kind of gardening endeavors. My roomie, Pat, is a master gardener and about three summers ago planted on the side of the house a few starter heirloom tomato plants that Brother Paul, another master gardener, gifted to us.
Shortly after, on one of our walks, we arrived home loaded down with additional starter pots of tomato plants that one of the neighbors generously left on the curb in front of her house and marked “FREE.” Pat added them to the garden and spent the beginning of the summer watering and weeding the starter plants. I played the role of interested bystander. My distance was due to my paranoia about causing any harm to the harvest.
By August, even though my brown thumb was not guilty of the results, the harvest was sparse and the fruits of Pat’s labor were on the sour side. Maybe, I stated to Pat, the soil is bad. I mean, “it’s never given life to anything but weeds before you moved in.”
The following summer found us both on a tomato-growing craze. Pat planted another row of tomato plants from my brother in the same spot as she had done the prior summer. I focused my loyalties indoors and grew cherry tomato plants in my AeroGarden. I’ve used the hydroponic system for nearly a decade. It is a simple and nearly brainless gardening experience, invented for brown thumbs like me.
My military green-colored leaves and stems grew like burly soldiers, but did not produce more than a couple cherry tomatoes. I decided to take the risk and transplanted the cherry tomatoes on the side of the house along with Pat’s Early Girl, Big Beef and Roma tomato varieties.
Heeding to my brother’s advice, I also purchased a set of three self-watering tomato planters, complete with burlap and other thingamajigs. The planters are intended to set you free from “weeding, creating a watering schedule or figuring out the right soil composition.”
At summer’s end, my brother may have had terrific success with them over the years, but for us, the venture turned out to be a dud. In fact, I gladly got rid of them, putting the self-watering tomato planters smack center into Brother Paul’s green-thumbed hands. The rest of the harvest in the garden was, unfortunately, mediocre and the tomatoes tasted sour again.
I was stumped. I couldn’t figure out why the rest of the world seemed to grow super sweet, healthy tomatoes, and ours failed. I think Pat felt the same way. This summer, she only planted three small tomato plants, compliments of my brother, and, apart from watering, we basically turned our backs on the rocky patch of soil.
As the summer rolled on, out of the blue, I noticed what I first thought were weeds poking out of the garden. Incredulously, I took a closer look only to see about a dozen additional tomato plants sprouting. How? I suddenly realized that they were growing on their own from seeds unintentionally left from last year’s tomatoes.
For the last three years, we caressed, cared, toiled and fought hard with the earth, but it did not provide us with the rewards we deserved from the efficacy in our efforts. This year, we threw in the hoe, and our little military-green leafed soldiers stand tall and proud. Everyday when I pick the generous harvest, I drop a cherry tomato into my mouth. The warm burst of flavor transports me back to my youth. I spent summers wandering gardens that looked as if they were straight out of award-winning, artistically rendered fairy tales. Standing on the dirt, I’d sample my dad’s winning loot, sweet like cotton candy and as juicy as watermelon dripping down my mouth.
The faith lessons that I have learned from my homegrown tomatoes are that faith is a gift and a fruit that can grow abundantly even in the rockiest terrain. The secret is not to give up on hope. All you need, too, is a smidgen of it. The size of a mustard seed will do.
I had visions of spending my birthday yesterday dug deep in the latest book I am reading by one of my favorite authors. Snacking on reduced-fat cheese doodles, listening to the yelping contest between the two tiny mutts that live in the big colonial behind us.
As a prologue of things to unwrap, three days before the “Big Day,” my dear blogger friend Alec had remembered about my upcoming birthday and sent sweet greetings.
“Alec,” I wanted to reply, “thanks for remembering, but I’m trying to forget.”
It’s not that I did not appreciate his reaching out. It’s that I’ve always experienced conflicting feelings about my birthdays. When I was young, the date emphasized my state of detached reality. “Ungraceful aging” became the theme as time marched on. Nearly three years ago, of course, my birthday signaled hot rods of pain, loss and the idea of “unhappy endings” trumping “happily ever after.” It was the time that I temporarily deactivated my Facebook page because the “Fakebook” well-wishers only exasperated the grief.
What’s remained consistent is the two twins I recalled every year that were in my grammar school, Terry and Jerry. Out of 32 kids in our classroom, our trio was excluded from birthday celebrations during the school year. My birthday was August 22 and their birthday was August 23. As luck would have it, all the other students’ birthdays fell within, or close enough, to the school year to celebrate. Each month we watched sad-eyed on the sidelines as a classmate celebrated a birthday during a particular week and delighted in song, praise and the biggest slice of cake out of the class, topped off with a spanking brand-new pencil to bring home.
These last few years, in fact, as my birthday approaches, it feels like the alarm goes off when my mind remembers Terry and Jerry’s longing eyes. The image kicks me into an impending feeling of despair. It helps, though, when I bring to mind one of my dearest friends, Michelle, a relatively young, quite recent widow, who always made it a point to say that the “big dates” that grievers anticipate on the calendar end up to be much more manageable and right-sized once the actual day unfolds.
The Saturday before the big day, my memory became ripe with regrets and remorse. Early in the week, Brother Paul insisted he and my sister-in-law, Diane, take me and my daughter out for dinner on Sunday and, even though I told him countless times that I wanted to “keep a low profile,” I acquiesced to their invitation.
“I’m reading a wonderful book. I really don’t have the time.” I didn’t think my excuse would fly and did not try and renege on the date.
Sunday afternoon rolled around and we gathered at a privately owned Italian restaurant. Three hours later, we peeled ourselves from our seats. In other words, I can’t remember a better time I’ve shared in an awful long time. I don’t think it was anything in particular about the conversation. It was more about being in sync and in the present moment. It was a bite into a slice of zen, a delightful, full-bodied flavor. It was the kind of meal that left you full, satisfied and met your needs beyond your belly.
Yesterday, wouldn’t you know it, my daughter took the entire day off from work. If I had known, I would have stopped her. To backtrack, my birthday morning started with my gastroenterologist’s (the word rolls off your tongue as part of the aging process) office calling to change my October appointment.
After a few seconds on the phone, the doctor’s administrator announced, “There’s a picture of a birthday cake in front of your name in the chart. Happy birthday!”
“Thank you,” I murmured.
“Happy birthday!” the woman said louder.
“Thank you!” I replied, mirroring her sharp ding.
Then I received an IM birthday greeting from a random woman I barely know who always signs up for get-rich-schemes and tries to get me on board (without avail). I was amazed she reached out without trying to sell me something. The next IM birthday greetings came from relatives in Ukraine.
When I checked my email, I was flooded with free computer screen downloads from the Pillsbury Doughboy who sent them to me as a birthday gift. I also received a flood of birthday coupons from retail stores and fast food chains. Too bad the Boston Market near us recently went out of business.
My friend, Camille, dropped by with fresh yellow roses and a beautiful card. My roomie gifted me a lovely blouse and another sentimental card that was added to the other make-you-cry-happy tears collection from my brother, daughter, niece and her husband. I also received a string of text messages from my fiance and the rest of the fam in Jersey.
Last night, I sat in my fave restaurant with my daughter and roomie and the minute I whispered, “I just really wanted to keep a low profile,” the waiter and the restaurant staff appeared with a blazing sparkler that was so fierce, it scared me, and I almost slipped off my chair. Afterwards, we dug into homemade cake and desserts.
Four hours we nested at the restaurant, together doing another helping of zen and life and digging into the moment, because that’s all we had in front of us. The best part about the experience was that it was uncurated. Instead, it flowed natural, unrefined without GMOs, in the purest form, and if this isn’t the recipe for faith, then I don’t know what is. After all, the plate in front of me carried the clear signature of a Great Chef.
For years, I was bent on orchid ownership. Week after week, I wandered around as a distant observer in the floral aisle at our local Trader Joe’s. Once my intimidation dissipated, I’d move in closer to examine one of the deep-green leafed plants displaying round faces of velvety violet, white and beige-colored tones. The minute the icy cold surface of the ceramic white container penetrated the palms of my hands, the exotic orchid went right back to its proper position on the display shelf lightly sprinkled with dirt.
I hid my brown-thumbed hands deep in my pockets, and my skittishness left me darting in a straight-as-an-arrow direction toward the dairy aisle as if I had a sudden hankering for a 5.3 ounce tub of non-fat Greek Yogurt. I picked up my yogurt, moved swiftly to the checkout aisle and made my escape out of the store.
Having limited faith in my orchid care abilities, I was determined to build up my confidence. There seems to exist an association for nearly everything under the sun and, sure enough, on the internet I discovered the American Orchid Society.
If you sign up, you are gifted with a free orchid magazine, Orchid.
“In print since 1932, this magazine is treasured by tens of thousands of readers around the world.”
I knew I had come to the right place when I found a section earmarked for “beginning orchid growers.” It said, “If you are anxious to get going with orchids, check our quickstart guide to orchid culture, ORCHIDS 101. This article will give you an understanding of what is required for growing these marvelous plants!”
Pushing beyond my anxiousness, I learned everything I could about the sweet-faced anomaly until I felt empowered enough to take on the challenge of adopting one. About two weeks after Google brought me to the orchid society’s web page, I picked up an inexpensive flowering white orchid from Trader Joe’s and brought it home.
In the first two years, I received a gamut of advice from an assortment of orchid experts.
“Don’t wet the leaves! It’s fatal!”
“Don’t over-water! It’s fatal!”
“Put an ice cube on the top of the pot’s soil. Don’t touch the leaves. Don’t water it directly. It’s fatal!”
“Don’t keep it in direct sunlight. It’s fatal!”
Over the orchid’s last four-year life cycle, I am the first to admit that someone else should have taken custody of my orchid from the moment it came home with me. I confess that plenty of times, I’ve over-watered it. More than once, I’ve left it outside on the deck and forgotten about it until it ended up drenched in rainstorms. Other times, I’ve forgotten about it on the deck, and it was left in direct sunlight for so long that if it were human, it would have been hospitalized for severe sunburn. Other times, weeks passed before I remembered to water it.
Would you believe, four years later, it’s still alive? In fact, every year around the cooler, darker months, it never fails to gift me with a surprise of blossoms.
Through our trials and tribulations, I’ve grown attached enough to the orchid that I’ve determined her to be a female and have named her “O.” As in, “OH! She’s still alive.”
O’s life cycle brings credence to some of my mom’s favorite adages:
In this case, “You can do it all wrong, and it ends up all right.” (On the other side of the token she would say, “You can do it all right, and it ends up all wrong.”)
Recently, one of my fellow bloggers was discussing the idea of “what is for us cannot miss us.”
I had never heard that phrase before. In regards to my orchid, it was meant to stay alive and no one, not even a brown-thumbed mama was going to change the course of its life span.
Now, that I’ve said that, it has taken a bad turn and it may be dying! Seriously. In the last two weeks, its leaves are falling off, and it has taken on a skeletal appearance. In fact, if it were a human, I think we’d be headed to the nearest ER for some oxygen therapy.
Time, of course, will tell. Orchid magazine and the society can no longer help me in this rescue attempt.
I do know that my O reminds me of an important life lesson in faith. Life will happen sometimes in the weirdest, most shocking and unfair and sometimes unrelated ways to our plans as possible. In other words, when we think we have it all figured out, we are thrown into a dunk tank of life.
This crazy O of mine through the years seems to whisper to me to “Leave it alone. Let things play out. Allow things to happen naturally, organically. Step outside on the deck and breathe. Green thumb, brown thumb or no thumb, have faith that the outcome is ultimately not in your hands.”
Last week, I wrote a blog about my big brother Mike. On his death anniversary, March 18, I was searching for a file and, wouldn’t you know it, I came across a journal entry I wrote on his 17th year death anniversary. It still bears truth today and tickles my faith fancy.
Below is an excerpt:
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 who takes you places above ground and not underground. The kind of brother who views life as more than mere survival on desert terrain and, instead, unrolls an oversized blanket on a rich, varied and textured terrain generous with rose-smelling opportunities.
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. 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, I hope I see you someday. Feel your arms around me again and see the twinkle in your eyes when you gently whisper, “Peace.”