I wish my dear friend Patricia a happy birthday today. She is an incredible woman, a living icon and my children’s godmother, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many decades. I can’t believe it was only three years ago when we threw her a surprise 85th birthday party in her honor. The day of the celebration was four months after our family tragedy, and a few days before the world shut down from the global pandemic. Her party serves as an emotional bookmark and significant pause in my life.
As far as the Stand With Ukraine rally that took place this past weekend goes, hundreds of people turned out, but from the enthusiasm, it felt more like a thousand. The mood was solemn, yet hopeful and optimistic. Best of all, I’ve connected with a group of superior human beings whom I am quite certain will become life-long friends. Our common thread is that we have made it our duty to catapult off our couches and soldier forth with a vision to change the world for the better, even if it amounts to getting a war warrior and/or Ukrainian refugee a pair of new socks. A pair of socks may not penetrate the bleeding hearts of the Ukrainian people at the given moment during this time of continued war atrocities and future uncertainties, but someone nearly 5,000 miles away will at least have warm feet to help him or her inch forward.
War rips people apart and also brings them together. That is the common theme that I’ve been living this past week. Days before I started working on the rally, my dear friend and fellow journalist Kathy called to inquire if I needed any help. Once we decided to start a rally, I took her request seriously and she’s been there every step of the way. Now we have been led to work on a very exciting story about a hero of mine and hers, and I hope in the next few days as we draft and sculpt this story to its fruition, he will become a hero and an inspiring figure to many others.
In addition, I worked side-by-side with Brother Paul (he’s a water sign, I’m a fire sign and even if you don’t believe in astrology, it paints the picture) as well as his wife, my sister-in-law Diane, this past week. In the eye of what matters and counts in life, unconditional love has a way of squeezing into the cracks of broken hearts. With resolve of so many, our team effort paid off. The rally raised over $5,400 donations that will provide humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Ukraine.
Post rally, I also reunited with a childhood friend, another first-generation Ukrainian American woman, whom I haven’t seen in at least a decade. She reminded me of shared memories and her act of love helped me root myself deeper into my outreach efforts.
Birthdays, rallies, reunions. Faith is pretty plain sometimes like walking into a cobweb. You can’t see it, but when it wraps around you, man, it feels almost impossible to untangle.
My mother sullenly responded anytime I invited her to join me in a fun activity or special event. As I’ve previously mentioned, she was not only a World War II survivor, but trauma and pain shadowed her for most of her life.
A flat out “No” from her was unnecessary since the sharp tone of refusal was unmistakable. However, I discerned the truth. Her baby-like face, twinkling, daring eyes and partially upturned pink lips forcing down what would be a natural upturned smile, revealed the opposite of her initial response: “Sure, I’d love to go to … “
In fact, until she grew much older and frail, in spite of her protests, she willingly accompanied me on outings, whether they were to the local library, a tag sale, diner lunches or most of the extracurricular activities my kids were involved with when they were young.
After she died in 2015, I missed her company, but forgot about her fussing that preempted our outings. That is, until after our family tragedy and the aftermath of trauma in 2019. Suddenly, whenever I received an invitation or gift of any kind, my mom’s familiar words entered into my mind, “That’s for happy people.”
Survivor’s guilt can do a number on you. To say it feels like you’re “carrying a heavy burden” is pushing it. It feels more like you are stuck in a life that has become a hunk of hardened glue.
This brings me to the generosity of my dear friend Michelle who, at the end of last year, gave me a gift card for a massage. What do you think my response was? Thank you! Thank you! On the other hand, my contradictory mind, though, lamented: “That’s for happy people.”
Sadly, my last massage experience took place about one month before I lost my beloved son. I laid on the table incredibly relaxed and melting to pieces, but my mind battered me. I felt tremendously guilty, pampering myself while my son led a miserable dark, depressed life. Flashbacks of this dreadful time, of course, made me even more reluctant to schedule another massage.
Before Marshall’s birthday rolled around, I knew to “sit around” like a magnet attracting more darkness to the severity of the painful situation would not be wise. I found, however, to sequester and seek solace helps my pain management the most. So why not, I reasoned, take advantage of a massage — in a quiet space under a pair of healing hands?
The day before his birthday, I made an agreement with myself. “If I am able to schedule a last-minute appointment at the place then, so be it. It is meant to be.”
It was meant to be because wouldn’t you know it, there was an opening. The massage therapist’s name was Dawn. I also interpreted the double meaning in her name, the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise, as a sign.
I put my full faith into Dawn, a random woman I never set my eyes on, but who could either break the rest of my broken pieces or help me try and not shatter any more of the messy debris.
Needless to say, I was a wreck when I arrived on a brisk early afternoon, January 18, 2022. It boiled down to, I really, really needed a good massage.
When the woman who greeted me asked, “So, what brings you in?”
I swear I was so close to replying, “My dead son.”
Instead, I said, “A gift card.”
Ironically, Dawn turned out to be a nondescript woman who wore a mask that covered more of her face than necessary in a facility that requires everyone to wear face protection during these pandemic times.
Later, undressed and comfortable on the massage table, every time my mind started to scatter and squirm like an army of ants without my consent, I did my darnest to focus on what was. Be in the now. Humorously, her freezing cold hands won most of my focus. Then suddenly out of the blue, I recognized: “This is my life now.”
I was inspired from the publisher’s description of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir; a quote I could easily apply to myself now. “There is a frank acknowledgment of the widow’s desperation—only gradually yielding to the recognition that ‘this is my life now. ‘”
A few moments later, I heard my son’s voice in my mind shout, “Don’t touch me!”
Perhaps because of his shaky early years in the hospital, but my son, in the way some people don’t like to be around cats or dogs, was uncomfortable with physical touch and didn’t like a lot of human interaction.
The realization flew at me like a boat’s paddle: That was his life then and this is my life now.
My faith in Dawn paid off. At the end, I felt fluid. And it felt good physically. Mentally, my gift of peace was still intact.
On what would have been my son’s 29th birthday, after allowing Dawn’s icy hands to kneed and stroke me, I signed up for a year’s worth of massages.
This is my life now — if all goes per plan, I am now booked for a year of massages to take me through to his thirtieth in 2023.
This is my life now. Some, like Michelle and Camille, have stayed with me. Others have disappeared — to many of them I represent the fragility of our existence. In contrast, I honor my grief and the voices, oh, the unmistakable, unbelievable magnitude of voices that spin inside me and are part of all that I am and all that I will ever be, planted forever in the soul of now and every tomorrow, rising above the physical plane of temporary to the dawn of permanence and eternity.
Every time I see a lawn sign: “Love Lives Here,” I think of Geraldine. She was decades older than I was and has since relocated to another state, but was my support group mentor for two years when I was in my 20s. Geraldine was a budding artist married to a world renowned architect. The couple lived by the sound in an area known as the Gold Coast, an affluent part of western Connecticut.
We spent a good amount of time driving around the area, deep in conversation about the messy sides of love and life. Every now and then, I espied a particularly luxurious house and the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head, leading me to ask with a sneer, “Why can’t I live in a house like that?”
Geraldine’s response was always the same. “Don’t make assumptions. Facades are built to impress. We forget they are not real. The people inside are real. We do not know them. They can be poor in spirit. Sick with cancer. The facade you are looking at right now could be a cover up for domestic violence or child abuse.”
Geraldine taught me not to accept things on face value, examine beneath the surface of what appears to be real and discern the truth. It only makes sense that whenever I drive by a lawn sign, “Love Lives Here” (or any of those other saccharine signs), I immediately wonder if the sign merely conceals what is really going on inside — disease, death, destruction, dread and despair — suburban hunger and poverty.
So, this brings me to last week’s Thanksgiving holiday. We were fortunate to spend another Thanksgiving Day with my dear friend Anna and her family. The family consists of mostly well-educated, affluent medical doctors. They had invited their neighbor’s caretaker, Jose, to join us. He lives in the basement of his employers’ mega mansion. The family he works for were away for the holiday, and he was alone. In fact, this was the case last Thanksgiving when Anna and her husband also invited him to join them, taking proper precautions since it was during the pandemic’s mandatory quarantine.
It just goes to show, Anna doesn’t need to display signs of love on her lawn. You will find all the love you can imagine behind closed doors.
I had never met Jose before, but I knew he feared returning to the political and civil upheaval in his Latin country. When he arrived at the door, he wore a polyester beige top, chocolate-colored, loose-fitting trousers, with his head lowered. He grasped a burgundy wool knit hat. The skin on his hands resembled the surface of a cracked asphalt driveway. His indigo hair was sleek, straight as a piece of construction paper and held that just-brushed appearance. I would estimate he was around 50, but, maybe, the life lines covering his hardened face masked his true youth.
Realize, too, Jose does not speak a lick of English. Fortunately, Anna’s husband is fluent in Spanish, and he translated our conversations. Before our meal, Anna asked Jose to recite the prayers that he grew up with in Mexico. He willingly obliged. The words came easy like a well-worn, comfortable melody, softened with grace and elegance. I did not have a clue as to what he was saying, but I understood every word, because the language of love is universal. It tears down walls and barriers and connects us in all things good, pure and holy.
Rising above my own grief and sorrow, Jose’s eyes revealed secrets of his own sorrow as he prayed. Our connection of despair actually made me smile. We were unicorns that felt solidarity built upon a foundation of truth and faith. I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I didn’t need a billboard to figure out that the meaning of Thanksgiving stretches to every day of the year when it is engineered with the grand and noble emotions of the human heart.
In all my days, I’ve arrived late, on time, but never early for a function. When my daughter, her godmother, who is my best friend, and I arrived for the Connecticut Press Club (CPC) awards banquet, we had 20 minutes to burn before the banquet started.
Last week, I wrote aboutmy surprise when I realized I won the 2020 CPC second place for my blog post. After some arm-twisting from my daughter, I agreed to attend the awards banquet. What sealed the deal, as I also previously mentioned, was when I auspiciously discovered an inexpensive but beautiful turquoise necklace at a local store that seemed custom made for my black pantsuit that I planned to wear for the event.
“Turquoise, focus on turquoise.”
I know this is a nontraditional mantra, but repeating these four words helped me release most of my anxiety and PTSD symptoms on the day of the event. In my mind, all the negative, black thoughts were switched out. In their place rolled out a mellow turquoise the color of a New Mexico sky, moments after sunrise, very much akin to many of the photos that my friend sister Anne shoots.
What I am now aware of, that I was unaware of before, is that individuals suffering from mental health challenges cannot employ a mantra to slay their demon minds. Their demon minds slay them. For my son, this meant, outside of his workweek, total isolation.
I remember shortly before our family tragedy, I tried to help a close friend who was undergoing a tremendous amount of anxiety. I advised her to incorporate self-talk into her daily routine. Frustrated, she replied, yelling, “Self-talk doesn’t work for me.”
It was the first time that I started to comprehend the extent of individual variations of mental illness. Still, slaying my private demons decades ago, I fell into the group of positive psychology proponents. I believed that if you incorporate strategies like self-talk, mantras, positive affirmations and the like, it can help turn on a fluorescent light inside a darkened mindset. “Attitude adjustment” was the core belief. Now I know, you have to deal with mental illness before dealing with the attitude. In other words, if your mind is programmed differently as my son’s was, void of windows that allow the healing light to flow, there is no magic mantra to pull from a magician’s hat.
So, lucky me, last Tuesday evening, I possessed the mental clearance to leave the safe confines of my home. Upon arrival, wearing my turquoise necklace and saying my turquoise mantra, I can’t get enough of the turquoise sky crowning the Greenwich Water Club in Cos Cob, CT, a neighborhood in the town of Greenwich. The establishment is a private dinner/recreational club with an emphasis on water-related sports and boating activities for members, I gather, who never have and never will have to poke their rubber gloved hand into the cool water of a ceramic goddess and wash her majesty, a toilet.
As we make our way through the nearly full parking lot, the dust and sand from the spew of pebbles seems to undermine the club’s reputation. The clubhouse building ahead is impressive, but not imposing, perched on the Mianus River. The grounds are overrun by children and adolescents rather than adults. Members eat, swim at the built-in pool and, most obvious, relax, wane with the waning summer’s day that has turned into early evening. It is a Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week, but the sound of the children’s light laughter feels like a massage targeting just the right pressure points on my brain.
Inside a reserved space upstairs from the main restaurant, we are greeted with friendly CPC members who dispense name tags and apparently have no qualms about our early arrival. I scan the other name tags on the table, spotting one familiar one, Amy Oestreicher. It is a young woman and, although I haven’t been on Facebook for a number of months, a Facebook friend and fellow writer, not to mention artist and actress. If given an opportunity, I make a mental note to approach her after she arrives.
Our trio nests in three leather, oversized chairs. I am stationed like a cut-down tree stump. I am there, but not really. My daughter prods me, “Go network.” Fortunately, it is the crowd I’ve grown up with: writers, journalist, PR professionals and all creative types that evenly pump my blood flow. I can do this. I rise and converse with a man who turns out to be the contest director. He informs me that the blogging category was fiercely competitive. Boo-yah! Ego found after being lost through 20 months of grief, isolation and sheer trepidation.
Later, in my seat, CPC officials, along with the evening’s emcee, award-winning journalist and TV personality, Mercedes Velgot, graciously greet us.
Before the presentation, though, I catch the eye of a woman directly across the way, who is with a dapper-looking gentleman. I smile and quietly admire the bright colors she wears.
“Do you know her?”
“No,” I reply to my daughter.
The presentation begins as Mercedes takes her place behind the podium, svelte and towering in a little black dress that elevates the word “perfect” to a higher level.
I’ve attended a vast array of awards presentations through the years and, overall, they are boring, not due to monotone speeches, but because the ego inflation makes my gut heavy, like it’s a soda can depository.
In total contrast, Mercedes’ opening remarks are succinct but packed with the kind of compassion, empathy, and honesty that makes you feel like you are listening to a dear friend’s counsel in your living room. The theme, of all things, is how every cloud has a silver lining, and how we need to learn to discover it.
She goes on to elucidate the many COVID-19 challenges of the prior year and how our world suffered in the eye of death, illness and separation. She also explains how her nine-year, award-winning travel show was canceled. Amazingly, too, she speaks about her voluntarism in different capacities during the height of COVID-19 as a front line worker, including training as vaccination assistant.
“This year has really taught us to be resilient. It’s taught us how to pivot. It’s taught us how to be grateful for each and every day. “
In addition, she credits prayer and “spiritual strength topersevere through all of life’s challenges.”
And adds, “Here’s to all of you … your talents in finding beauty in the human spirit through your pens. Keep writing and keep looking for your silver linings.”
I am blown over by her loving kindness and if the mind demons kidnapped me, instead of sitting in this lovely room with an extraordinary group of people, I would be alone in my bedroom faced with a three-D movie screen in the maniac projection room of my mind in morbid reflection of things best forgotten.
As if listening to the awesome speaker and watching other award recipients claim prizes wasn’t enough, when the award is announced for Amy Oestreicher, Mercedes informs the crowd that the recipient’s parents are present to accept the posthumous award for their daughter.
Posthumous award? How can Amy be dead? She was so young, talented – intent on living.
Question your thinking. I remember one of Mercedes suggestions during her opening remarks. Question your thinking. Self-centered was I to think I would be the one and only griever among the group. The one and only pain-ridden person. Immediately, after the ceremony, I offer my condolences to Amy’s parents whose daughter died at the age of 34 from medical complications only four months prior. The grieving dad, it is obvious, is the mom’s anchor. Mom is a ball of fire. In spite of living through out-of-order death, the mom is an optimist. Her mission is to spend her life honoring Amy’s memory. The mom’s positivity is contagious and my faith-o-meter brims over.
My brilliant daughter advises me that I should mirror the grieving mom’s optimism. She winks her eye when she asks, confidently, “What are the odds of you meeting her and her husband on the same night you win an award?”
I nod my head. Is it coincidence or fate?
Looking back, the entire evening is lifted high in my memory by a faith muscle, fueled by the encouragement and support of my blogging community (thank you all!) and my close friends and, of course, propelled by my spitfire daughter.
To sum it up, I recall a well-known mantra that is intended to help anxiety: “Soham,” meaning “I am that” or “I am the universe.”
The idea reinforces the knowledge that I am one tiny brush stroke in a massive piece of artwork, a mixed-media, collage of life. The awards banquet last Tuesday is significant in my life because it reminds me of my insignificance. It reminds me how I can comfortably take a seat in the arena of life because whether we are in Cos Cob, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio, or south of the Congo River, there is a designated space for everyone of us if we are wired properly to see it.
I am reminded, too, that no matter how stationary I am at any given moment, time is fleeting. Nothing remains the same. Everything is temporary. One day we are there, sitting. The next day “Poof!” we disappear. Paradoxically, as if on a magnificent piece of artwork, all parts, seen and unseen, make a whole, a never-ending composition of triumph.
It is all there is and ever will be. Right now as my own life fleets by, I can’t stop time, but I don’t have to wait until it is too late to say and claim it: I am that.
Eleven years ago, my ex-husband suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his family. Last Father’s Day, my then 25-year-old daughter, Alexandra, had weathered the holiday storm well, especially considering that she was in isolation as a result of the worldwide pandemic, and it was the first Father’s Day she was grieving the loss of her 21-month older, only sibling.
A few people over the years have offered unsolicited advice, saying that my role was to be a father as well as a mother. I told them that’s pure nonsense. I can only be a mother, because that’s my role. My role is not a father role. My role as a mother has changed, but during those times when a situation baffled me, my 12-Step foundation kicked in and the answer never failed: unconditional love.
I knew it was a sad holiday for her and on the wings of faith (and Mama Sandra) this past Sunday, I did what I really was scared to death to do, but did anyway, and that was to drive into New York City from our little green town about an hour and a half away for a visit with Alexandra. After 30 minutes, I regretted my decision since it seemed everyone on the road was vying to size up for the Indy 500. In comparison, I felt as if I were Grandma Moses hitting the highway, taking a folk art painting break for the day.
When I finally arrived, Alexandra and I went to a nearby movie theater to see In the Heights. My daughter, a former Washington Heights resident, had been raving about the movie since its premiere. I suppose most people attend movies in the same manner they brush their teeth – without overthinking it. For me now, I live in the screenshot of life, but, in actuality, I am also knee deep in a subplot that changes, but what doesn’t change is the reoccurring theme of pain.
This was the first movie I saw since the passing of my best bud, brilliant 26-year-old son, Marshall. As we walked inside, down the movie theater’s hallway, my PTSD from losing a child kicked off. Here’s a little snapshot of the subplot that played in my mind:
What was the last movie he ever saw? Oh, that’s right. It was about two years before he died alone in the bedroom closet of a house he rented in Kentucky, a death later sealed with a clean toxicology report, the site of two previous suicides. I have no clue what movie he saw, but it was shortly before the landlord wouldn’t allow him to break the lease of the house he despised. He went with a woman he had recently met online. I was overjoyed at the idea that he met her and did not have to be alone on the weekends. As it turned out, for about a month in Kentucky, she finagled every dime she could from my son to provide complimentary entertainment and dumped him after Marshall started realizing that she was taking advantage of his resources.
What was the last movie I saw with my son? I believe it was Avatar in 2009. When we were still a family unit, the four of us sat engrossed as we watched the movie. Silly me, I lavished in those moments, not because of the movie, but because I was sitting next to the three most important people in my life. During that time my gratitude could fill the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and that was just to start with, because it overflowed. Silly me.
In essence, since the 2019 tragedy, I have trained myself to black out my mind’s screen. Inhale. Exhale. Real world.
I chanted my mantra: Keep the faith. You will make it through.
However, ten minutes into the movie’s preview section, I took a nosedive into the dark abyss. I felt like a flea that was swallowed up by a bad, bloody case of hemorrhoids as overblown as the theater. This time faith was futile. No mantra would work.
You see, two separate movie trailers involved two young men who died of suicide. Both of the clips hit deathly close to home. I braced, tried not to fall too far into the bloody swamp. I heard my daughter ask, “Do you need to go into the lobby?”
No lobby. Just a lobotomy I need. That was what I wanted to say but froze and somehow my sick humor helped to pull me up, and I returned into my skin as the hemorrhoidal monster shrunk.
Keep the faith. You will make it through.
By some miracle, I was able to focus on the movie. You do not have to be Hispanic or a first-generation American or immigrant to relate to the musical that is filled with a sense of hopefulness in the eye of the hopeless and voices in a climate of the voiceless.
“We are all one.”
That’s what I thought as I saw Alexandra’s tears flow. It was then that I realized living life in America is not always about achieving the so-called American Dream: Life, Liberty and Justice for All. It is also about lifting each other up as a community when we fall into the subplots of life that do not appear as if they were written for us in mind. Those times when we feel forced to wear costumes in which there is barely room to move, because they are not suited for us, yet we manage to stuff ourselves down to our “soles” and walk the line of courage with fake faith and hope.
Examining the movie closer, my daughter saw her grandmother, my mother, who died in 2015, in the character of Abuela Claudia, matriarch and surrogate grandmother of the barrio. She keeps her culture alive and never loses the true definition of value. Abuela is the perfect example of how we, as a society, should not measure people by their titles, but on the ground they stand on because, in the final analysis, it is how they make it sacred – turn it into a better place than it was before they stepped on it, even if that means undertaking a tiny action like making their bed in the morning.
Abuela’s ground is sacred because she views everything as sacred, even a bread crumb. Powerless to her meager circumstances, she finds willpower to forge on in life by stringing herself along on the small details that skip others by, details like hand embroidered towels. Likewise, even though the world beat my mom to the ground, she survived by seeking leverage from little things like robins and sparrows. No matter how insignificant to others, she reveled in the details, a perspective the movie brings to light.
I, in fact, remember my mom making the sign of the cross three times and kissing a piece of bread before reverently putting it in her hand to eat. I can also recall my mom flattening wrapping paper in her soft hands and putting it in a drawer that smelled like a lilac garden. The drawer was full of crumbled wrapping paper from gifts she or our family had received over the years. To her, it was not just her appreciation, but the value of the giver who put the effort behind presenting the gift. It was as if she took the love that was given and continued its acknowledgment into infinity.
Thankful for every little crumb of substance, like Abuela, my mom, as limited as she was, did not limit her generosity and was truly delighted to bestow gifts of her own. For years, when I was growing up, she knitted poodle dogs around whiskey bottles for many of the neighbors. Sometimes I was saddened because she wrapped things that were already in the house and gave them to me on my birthday or Christmas as presents. Today, I realize it wasn’t that we didn’t have the money or she was being vicious, it was that everything to her was a gift. Like Christians who spread the word of the gospel, she spread love through re-gifting, because nothing in her eyes lost its value even if it loitered around for years and years.
In fact, when my mom gave my daughter or son something of hers like a butterfly pin, it wasn’t just a piece of jewelry. It was a part of her and she gave it with her heart and soul. That was why Alexandra wept, because each and every little token her beloved baba presented, no strings attached, to both her grandchildren, is the spirit that weaves through her and brightens my daughter’s sad and cloudy life. Hopefully, one day the good memories shared with her brother and maybe, by some miracle, her father, will also lighten the load she carries.
My soul, too, is a tapestry of unconditional love, gifts I have received over the years. It patches me up when I am down lower than dirt so I can stand my ground and maybe be strong enough to give pieces of it away. This is the faith I walk. Giving others unconditional love is my duty to carry on the legacy.
Alexandra summed up the movie as we hit the hot air outside the theater: “It’s all about community!”
I remembered when she was younger and said DNA did not make a family. Love did. If this is the case, my daughter and I have a huge family bulging at the sides! It is our little barrio full of people like the children’s godmother and my partner and his family and my friends Michelle, Camille, Anna and Anne and the handful of people who walked March 2020 on Marshall’s behalf to raise awareness that we are all vulnerable, regardless of how we act, what we do or what we say; and so many others, who drive the extra mile to visit. It is the people who do not understand our pain, but will ask us about it because they are ready to listen without judgment. It is the people who are brave enough to mention my MARSHALL’s name and share a beautiful memory about him.
In the movie, the community of Washington Heights experiences a blackout, but at their lowest point they prevail because of the one lone voice that tickles the imagination to believe in Santa Claus proportions. Eventually, the electrical power comes back and lights up the Heights. In the end (spoiler alert) Abuela dies, but the director successfully presents the process of dying as walking into a bright light.
That’s our non-DNA family: a bright light that if we can’t find it, it will find us, and we have a steel-like faith that we will travel through those Indy 500 days even if it knocks the wind out of us because in the end, the only thing of lasting value is love.
One year ago yesterday we had a surprise birthday party for my dear friend Pat on her 85th birthday. In essence, it also symbolized a good-bye party. Little did any of the celebrants know that our world was about to change BIG TIME. I mean, I don’t think there was one single person at that party that could pronounce the word “Covid,” never mind define it.
Over this past year, I remember the party and feel it symbolized a halcyon day of rebellion. We happily huddled together. Shared endless trays of food. Who would have ever dreamed of covering our over-stretched smiles with a mask? No way.
Wow, we were fortunate to get in one last hurrah, before the world turned around like a load of laundry in the dryer, and you never knew what would tumble out at you first when the drying cycle finished.
To this day, none of us at that party, as far as I know, ever caught COVID-19. Of course, others in the world were not as fortunate as we were. This past year, though, most of us have faced a range of pandemic-related challenges and stresses like lost jobs and a rise in mental health illnesses.
No doubt, over this past year, faith tests were generously distributed. I know I nearly flunked a few, but mostly achieved some pretty impressive scores. How was this possible? Because as I’ve written about before, the pandemic was a good time for me to regroup. Grieve peacefully. Grieve fully. Do you know how much fire-ball energy I realized I saved by not having to put on a fake face forward?
For me, it’s been a recovery period in which I could truly just back up from the world and lean into what matters–an intimate circle of friends and family.
Pat, for instance, is part of that group. Never mind that she is, in my eyes, one of the few highly religious people that I’ve known who is not a hypocrite. As we say in the 12-step program, “she walks the walk.” Never mind that her faith, even in the eye of total injustice, never fails to see the goodness of love.
If I could ever choose anyone at anytime to be in my foxhole, it would be her. In fact, she was the one who peeled me off the hardwood floor after learning the tragic news about my son who died by suicide 16 months ago. And, in the days and months that followed, I felt like a marionette who dropped off the stage of life. Pat was the one who lifted the strings, gently, consistently until I could accomplish a bit of light lifting on my own.
Guaranteed, her score on her faith tests over this past year were straight As. When I was a child and struggled in school, my mom used to say, “Sit next to the smartest kid in class and see what they are doing.”
Yes, Pat has been my guide, inspiration and “study buddy,” especially these last 16 months since the tragedy and the pandemic and when the world started to whirl like an out-of-control dryer full of clothes. Let me tell you, I would have been a no-show for the first faith test presented, never persevering and enduring the series that followed.
When it comes to faith, she has made Mensa in her life. Maybe it takes 85 years to reach that status. Me, I have a ways to go!
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.
Five months, two days ago, I COULDN’T WAIT to rip into the day, regardless of life’s circumstances. I leaped out of bed like a child who had no patience to discover what was inside the gift box under the Christmas tree. It sounds corny, but everyday was Christmas. Twenty-four hour segments flew by, and I darted behind each day as if I was trying to catch up to an Olympian runner.
Now, five months, two days later, I feel like I’ve been dumped into one of life’s empty waiting rooms without a clock on the wall. So, I wait. What do I wait for? The day I reunite with my son?
My mom used to say, “Day after day after day, ‘til the last day.”
Has that aphorism become my epic battle song that I sing now during the darkest chapter of my life until I arrive at the end of the book? Then what? I close the book, and a trumpet thunders and signals my long aWAITed reunion with my son.
“You’ve arrived!” In my imagination, I hear Alexa’s voice as an angel proclaiming the news.
Or, do I just wait for my son’s toothy white grin to be on the other side of the front door’s window? I expect to catch a glimpse of his eager face ready to enter what was once his home. I grow more impatient than ever since that youthful, solid and towering presence once crowned my world like the North Star and kept me from getting lost.
When my mom lost her oldest son she told me she always thought he was outside sitting on his favorite chair on the front porch. Numerous times, she found herself calling out to him. Of course, the front porch remained quiet and empty.
Admittedly, when no one is home I beckon in a familiar tone, “Marshall! Marshall!”
I wait and wait. In the deafening silence, I catch the familiarity of the maple tree’s drooping branches outside the exterior door’s window. Like the maple, everything has changed, but I remain standing.
As others await the end of this pandemic so they can return to their ordinary lives and do things like reset goals and “arrive” at new careers and new milestones in life, I have arrived in the waiting room of life before and during the pandemic. Going forward, I believe, this is my last stop. Fortunately, the space is not noisy and crowded. It’s not stressful. I am not afraid. I crave nothing.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s profound words frame the room, “This is it.”
So, that’s it. Waiting. The question is, does faith live here?
Maybe the answer lies deeper in the same grieving mom’s additional comments on my post:
I am not going to say anything, about how beautiful your son is, and his mother. Love to both of you.
Speechless, there is no response to those words because they are the words of hope, and their beauty cannot be contained under gift wrap. Subsequently, without faith, there can be no hope. Sometimes in the crux of waiting is the crux of our search. This is it.
The following post contains images that may be disturbing to some readers.
In 2019, I recommitted myself to WW and sliced an itty-bitty time sliver out of every Tuesday to dedicate to weigh-ins and meetings. My new schedule coincided with a new season in my life. After nearly nine years of healing from messy divorce consequences, I finally exhaled: gray days ahead, but a glimmer of hope. Or so I thought.
“Everything that seemed so important days ago is now as worthless as a pebble.” ~ Orhan’s Inheritance, Aline Ohanesian
Busy beaver, I rushed through every Tuesday with purposeful work and at day’s end a resolve to weigh, record and jubilate over shredded ounces or, optimally, pounds. I kicked up my heels, tap danced on a golden wellness stage even when the scale tipped in the opposite direction, because achieving goals require a certain degree of disappointment.
It was a dull, lifeless, cloudy Tuesday like today. It was November 19, 2019 in the early afternoon. Ironically, I spent the week prior researching ligature frames for a client’s artwork for a psychiatric hospital. Now, I was working remotely, feeling particularly charged and satisfied, and then….The call. The words, the seething mass of flames that inflict every pain center in your * brain, body and crevice of your being without sense or mercy.
“Everything that seemed so important days ago is now as worthless as a pebble.” ~ Orhan’s Inheritance, Aline Ohanesian
There is no smooth transition in writing or in life that can bridge a reader and/or life traveler to the sudden, traumatic moment of raw reality that sparks when you* receive a call from a coroner, named Mary, with a Southern twang in a state some 600 miles away who asks you if you are the mother of a 26-year-old son named Marshall. Once you reply, she asks you if you are driving and, if you are, instructs you to pull over to the side of the road.
There is no transition, even if choppy, to prepare you for Mary’s flamed words that leap through the phone’s gas chamber, crackle and hiss and spare no part of your heart, soul or any body part.
“Your son’s co-workers found him dead hanging in a closet. They tried to resuscitate him, but couldn’t.”
Sounding so matter-of-fact and cold like a refrigerated morgue, the woman, you surmise, lies. Your socks, printed with colored pictures of Michael the Archangel, reassure you that moms wearing angel socks are spared fires-of-hell words from coroners that shock you, only to later interrogate you.
“Why didn’t you call 911?” “Did you know your son was sleeping on a bare floor without a mattress?”
After the demon hangs up, you wail and roll on the hard wooden floor where your only son had once walked, trotted and ran as a boy, adolescent and young man. All you desire is to open the floor up like a gas chamber and willingly take the plunge, but there is no escape.
It has been four months, 12 days since I found out the news that my beloved son, my best bud, my past, present and future, took his own life. In those early days, I wondered about so many things, including how I could ever return to writing blog posts about faith.
My close writer friend, Laurie, advised me a couple months after we buried my son, to write about how I have NO faith. How I question faith. How each and every moment is the dark night of the soul.
In fact, when people ask how I feel facing the pandemic and turbulent state of the nation, I honestly reply, “Fine.”
Not to minimize the toll that the pandemic has taken on numerous lives in so many different ways, but I do believe most people will survive and there will be solutions that include new coping strategies and breakthrough medicines. For me, it’s final. I will never see my son’s fluffy eyelashes bat wildly when he’s talking and excited. The same eyelashes I loved to brush against on my face when he was an infant. I will never feel safe and protected and, oh, so proud, standing next to him as he towered over me like a straight arrow. I will never relish hearing his deep voice or his silly laugh that mimicked mine. Or marvel in how much he looked like his younger sister. At every turn of my life, he is there in a Marshall memory. I will spend the rest of my life feeling as helpless as I did once when I ran down every aisle in a department store searching for him when he was a toddler. This time, I will not find him seconds later. This time is permanent.
My fate, right now, is final. I can’t feel nor can I comprehend the afterlife at this given moment, so please spare me.
Frankly, I just carry grief and feel numb, and I wait. What do I wait for? I don’t particularly know. I just wait. Someone said when you lose a loved one; imagine him or her as being in the next room. So, maybe my life right now is securing the most comfortable seat in a waiting room, because I have to be gentle on my body of hurt.
“Everything that seemed so important days ago is now as worthless as a pebble.” ~ Orhan’s Inheritance, Aline Ohanesian
So what became of WW? Let’s just say that the paperwork from the last meeting I attended is deposited inside a basket where I left it four months, 12 days ago. The WW literature is tucked out of sight just like my angel socks. I will wait until I revisit these things, and so many, hidden grenade pain points of my life. None of it, like rolls of toilet paper, is really that important in the scheme of a life.
*Switches to third person to shield me from further unnecessary pain