Maybe it’s the melancholy pieces of classical music that stream in my office, or the frosty end-of-March days accented in snow sprinkles, or maybe it’s that my bones are achy as I close in on the final chapter of my life and my bookshelf topples over with a bibliophile’s grand list of “Books to read before you die”; likely though, it is the combination of these things that has motivated me to take a little breather from my weekly introspective blog posts that I’ve been writing for two years this month.
You see, for the last 37 years I’ve lived under deadlines and commitments and as the days roll in, I want to roll out of bed, shake the aging bones and walk for miles aimlessly at the seashore as I once did as a child and allow the salt air to fix everything that hurts.
The years ahead are far fewer than the years behind. I am like a ramshackle house that requires a laundry list of self-care.
That being said, beginning next week, I will be posting faith-related “Quotes” for the next few months, before I make a final decision about the direction I want to take with WTF, Where’s the Faith.
Above all, I thank you all for your faith in me. It helps fan my faith-o-meter and propels me forward.
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.
Today marks six months since my 26-year-old passed away. I am learning to break down each 24-hour interval into manageable milliseconds. There is no turnoff switch for me to prevent explosive emotions from erupting. However, when I feel I will fizzle into smithereens, I have discovered that people’s kind words and gestures become like a pressure relief safety valve.
Most recently, my safety valve was a friend and mentor. Betsy choked up as she spoke about her 28-year-old son, who took his own life 11 years ago. She shared about how more than usual she felt his presence that day. Listening to her, I not only felt great empathy, but my degree of sorrow for her matched my sorrow, if, perhaps, was greater than my own sorrow. And for that turn-of-the-pressure-relief-safety-valve moment, I exhaled, gifted with pain relief.
But wait, there’s more. As Betsy, generally a proud and really, really humorous fortress of a woman, continued to share, she spoke about how her son’s death only magnifies the beauty around her and gives her faith. That’s a tough order for me right now. Every beautiful pink-blushed apple blossom, magnolia flower and springtime landscape framed in natural beauty reminds me of my son, and I long in anguish for him even more. I cannot fathom the beauty through Betsy’s personal window. That is until I realize deep grief stems from deep love, and what is more beautiful than love? Now, I’m in the process of flexing my faith muscle so I can open up my window just a tad wider and let the sun spread it healing rays.
When I lost my 26-year-old son, I wondered how I could ever don my leopard shoes again and live in full-color. My father in his older years, about the age I am now, used to say to me,
“My life is ending. Yours is just beginning.”
As I grow older, I appreciate the saying. It meant he (and now it pertains to me) was at the point in his life to carry a dwindling bucket list. Young people, like my son, typically amass pretty impressive bucket lists. A few examples on my son’s list include visiting the desert and touring the country on Amtrak (he loved trains!). For me: been there, done that.
Never in a million years did I dream I would be left holding his to-do list. Dumbfounded, shocked and weighed down with PTSD that coincides with survivor’s guilt; luckily, most people spare me their assurances of things like he won a first-class ticket to heaven where leopard pales next to angel sparkle. For me, being an earthling is all I can handle right now. Overthinking, and analyzing leads to stress.
From the beginning, my daughter and I kept it low key. In those early days, during the holidays, we anesthetized our senses with caramel popcorn washed down with swigs of diet coke and a marathon run of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. After I stored the Christmas wreath, our sole holiday decoration, and my daughter went back to her city living, in the days Corona was only associated with a brand name on the beer market, I tumbled aplenty, but managed to find some footing on swamp-of-the-soul terrain.
Once Covid-19 days slammed the brakes on the world, moment-to-moment breaking headlines fuel my days. Sickness. Death. Upheaval. I am grateful for the diversion. I take solace in the fact that if I pull my mask high up, no one can see the mark of age that tears leave behind.
In essence, honestly, sadness of the shockingly horrific state of affairs is coupled with relief. I am not the only one whose house has experienced an abdominal invasion that has overthrown a simple, relevant life plan. In addition, as much heartbreak as I have over burying my own child, I am able to stop my sorrow and introspection and think of others: people who don’t have the opportunity for proper good-byes, burials, funerals and closure.
After each sheltering in place day passes, I grow more grateful. I don’t have to suit up, paste on a happy face and greet the world. I exchange my boots for house slippers. I ride grief’s ride. I cry. I ache. I eat caramel popcorn mindlessly. Some days, like living through my first Mother’s Day without hearing his voice, the shark jaws of memory and regret are sword sharp. My distress is private and mercifully unnoticed inside this very unnoticeable, but safe cocoon home.
Was I blessed with this pandemic? It feels like it when I am able to snap on my big girl underwear and lick my wounds and heal best I can and fully somehow wrap my mind around what chronic pain feels like and understand chronic pain doesn’t disappear like a season, and it doesn’t shed like a winter coat.
It’s been a pull-my-skin-off-slowly time. Good grief, does it hurt. On the other hand, as bad as it feels, it’s been good grief, because it’s real. I haven’t fully made a decision to live life quite yet. I have fully made a decision to get through this hour, because right now I can only manage faith in small doses. I can slice a sliver of hope. And if I can’t cut it, I reach out to my tribe. I find strength. They send me photos, cartoons and chicken soup. I lean in and know they have faith in me, and that’s a lot of obligation on my part.
Ironically, I pass my leopard shoes every day and feel great relief to watch them gather dust. In the old days, I’d say, “What a blessing.”
Now, I shelter in place and feel a lot of room to move around in my comfortable house slippers. A few lines from Albert Huffstickler’s The Cure are apropos.
When the pain of my grief becomes unmanageable, I read the The Cure by Albert Huffstickler. I especially refer to it when the clueless around me spew quick-fix mouth service like “Let it go!” “It will get better.” “He’s in a better place,” and all the sentences that begin with proper nouns like Jesus, God and Buddha.
This poem gives me faith that someday I will have “the faith that it will fit in.” One day I hope to frame the poem and display it prominently on the wall. I also think a framed copy would make a great gift for grief-stricken individuals. In the interim, I frame my painful heart with these words, and the poem holds the fragments together like a vase.
THE CURE We think we get over things.
We don’t get over things. Or say, we get over the measles, But not a broken heart.
We need to make that distinction.
The things that become part of our experience
Never become less a part of our experience.
How can I say it?
The way to “get over” a life is to die.
Short of that, you move with it,
let the pain be pain,
not in the hope that it will vanish
But in the faith that it will fit in,
find its place in the shape of things
and be then not any less pain but true to form.
Because anything natural has an inherent shape and will flow towards it.
And a life is as natural as a leaf.
That’s what we’re looking for: not the end of a thing but the shape of it.
Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life without obliterating (getting over) a single instant of it.
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!
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!