I AM SAM (Part 2 – the Court TV Reality⭐Star!)

Sam Grassi, Sunrise: 06-12-2003 | Sunset 09-12-2022, written in collaboration with J. Patricia Grassi

If you didn’t read Sam’s story from last week’s blog, click here

Otherwise, the blog post below is a continuation from last week:

Once Pat’s neighbor decided to sue Pat for $2,000 regarding the cat bite she endured from Sam, we were all stressed to say the least. Then suddenly, serendipity arrived in the form of a phone call from the courtroom clerk. Out of all the pending law suits, a handful of them, including hers, was chosen by the staff of Judge Judy to appear before the arbitration-based reality court show. Pat had an opportunity to take Sam’s case on the show. Whether she won or lost, the TV show producers would entirely compensate the plaintiff. If Pat, as well as the plaintiff, who at that point was working in California, made a TV appearance on the show, she would not only not owe a dime to the nurse, but get the chance to travel on an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, AND she’d receive a $250 stipend, even if she lost the court case. Of course, Pat agreed.

Fast forward, and there she was live on TV: an 80-year-old spry woman whom I was able to watch during my lunch hour in the dining area at work. Of course, I couldn’t eat a thing, only listened to my heart beating as the episode in which Pat appeared unfolded. I wanted to throw my apple at the TV the minute Judge Judy ruled against Pat and Sam. (The moral of the story is: make sure your cat always wears a collar with his or her metal rabies tag that proves the pet is up to date on his or her shots!)

Neither Pat, nor Sam really didn’t lose because the small claims court fees were paid and everyone was happy. In fact, the nurse appeared pleased that Pat didn’t owe the $2,000 claim. Actually, she had said, that was her reason for going on the Judge Judy show in the first place.

Nearly two years later after her reality show moment, Pat had decided to downsize and move in with us. Our household was down to two cats. Fran-Fran, Pat’s cat had passed away from old age, and I agreed to open the door to her two dogs, but I was reluctant to take in Sam, especially with Chervony, my own Alpha male at home. We were in a pickle, such a pickle, in fact, Pat reached out in desperation to Sam’s previous owner to take him and left him a voice message. Fortunately, he never responded. I’m quite sure, though, she wouldn’t have given him back to that man once she regained her senses. We also uploaded photos of Sam on Facebook to see if anyone could provide him with a good home. Nothing panned out, and one day Pat arrived, standing on my front porch with Riley, Teacup and Sam.

Riley and Teacup acclimated from the get-go into the two-cat household. Sam fell head over heals with Blossom, our female calico. Chervony? Wow, that was another story. Fur flew everywhere, even though we did do a decent job of keeping them both separated. Before you knew it, Sam, who was by no means an indoor cat, took off for most of the day. (We never did find out where he went!) Chervony was ruthless and would wait for him for hours at the top of the long flight of stairs that led to the upstairs deck. I could still see him, waiting patiently as if he had forever to wait, because, in essence, he didn’t have too many priorities on the list any longer in his advanced age.

The first year or two were the hardest, but the the two Alpha males adjusted and “Sam I am” seemed to have lost a lot of his muscle. Whenever Pat and I walked the dogs, the three cats followed behind, far apart, but still in the mix.

The last summer in 2020 only Sam was left to follow us when we walked. Blossom and Riley and then Chervony had passed.

In fact, we had to sneak out of the house since Sam would be on our heels meowing as if he were losing his mind.

“He’s scared we are going to abandon him,” I told Pat.

The following year, Sam stopped grooming himself. That’s when we found out he, like Chervony, had a bad thyroid, and the vet prescribed meds.

Most nights, I’d ask Pat, “Did you give Sam his meds?”

By then I had not only warmed up to Sam, but was like his second mom. I searched for him in his favorite spot on the sunny side of the kitchen. Fed him and loved to give him his favorite tuna-flavored treats. I even tried to teach him tricks that I had taught my other cats, but Sam was not about to be a trickster. He had to hold onto some of his Alpha, after all. He loved it especially when I gave the top of his nose a firm rub. Other than treats, he lived for nose rubs.

Shortly after my birthday at the end of August, Sam started fading. I sensed the closing in of the sunset of his life. He ate less. Slept more. Had difficulty walking. His trademark strut and powerfulness that helped get him to be a reality show celebrity, the I Am SAM, vanished.

“Let’s take him to the vet,” Pat said on Sunday, September 11.

“How can we? He’s still drinking. Eating, a little, right?” I broke down and delayed the inevitable outcome.

Come Monday, the 12th, there was no doubt in our minds that it was time. Boy, how many times had I gone through this with all my other pets? Usually the I AM SAM put up a fierce fight before being secured in the carrier. Not this time. He was ready, peaceful, pain-free. He lived in this house so happily, especially after Chervony passed. We are surrounded by trees and nature and, as it turned out, he really didn’t like the traffic-filled, noisy neighborhoods. He liked the tranquility, the hum and predominantly noiseless existence.

I broke down at the front door. I couldn’t take one more pet death. No more death. Fall is my grief season.

I waved good-bye to Pat and Sam behind a river of tears. Remembering, how many lives we lost through the years, but how much we gained in return. For instance, if you live with someone like I Am SAM, you truly realize just how powerless you are in his (or her) presence. You realize though, the only real powers that can penetrate the hardest exterior are love, kindness and empathy. It is what gives you the faith to carry on long enough to learn that unconditional love not only melts steel, but ceases the  roar of an engine and transforms it into a purr. In this way, the road ahead into the sunset is smooth and gentle, but harbors a few memorable bumps to keep things interesting.

Faith Muscle

I AM SAM (Part 1)

Sam Grassi, Sunrise: 06-12-2003 | Sunset 09-12-2022, written in collaboration with J. Patricia Grassi

My roomie’s beloved 19-year-old black cat, Sam, who passed away last Monday on September 12, taught me a lot about faith. He also taught me two additional lessons:

1. Underneath an alpha male exterior can be a camouflaged scaredy-cat
2. Love can take your heart by surprise

Sam had a thyroid problem on top of his advanced years. During this past summer, I’d gaze nostalgically at the cat lounging on the outside deck and think, “This could be his last summer. I might never see him again next summer.”

Then I would pacify myself, saying, “He could make it to 20. Maybe even 21.”

These days, with the enormous amount of advancements in veterinary medicine available, some cats live until they’re 21 – and beyond. Sam I noticed, though, along with the butterfly season and summer, was winding down. His bite was gone, as if it had never happened. And what I realized was that what I had been most anxious of, I now missed.

“Love can melt steel.” This was one of my mom’s favorite sayings, and my roomie, Pat, is the epitome of what the expression means; she inspires us all to look beyond the flaws and imperfections of a person or pet and discover the beauty. In this case, it was Sam.

I first met Sam in 2009, when he was six years old, rolling around in the debris underneath a dumpster in a parking lot close to my ex-husband’s workplace. The cat found refuge there, far enough away from the house where he lived, as we learned much later. The minute my ex-husband introduced us, his little face meowed while his sleek, black skeleton of a body fussed over me. My ex, as it turned out, had spotted what he first believed was an abandoned cat. He was feeding him on a daily basis.

We both agreed that Sam, the name my ex had given him, needed better living arrangements, especially with the cooler months approaching. The question was: Where could he go?

We weren’t about to acclimate him into our three-cat, one poodle household at the time. Then a brainstorm of an idea conceptualized. Dear Pat? Our children’s widowed Godmother. Why not? She lived alone in a large colonial with one dog, sweet and friendly Nala, a border collie mix, and a gentle cat named Francine. So we showed up with Sam inside a pet carrier, and the imminent living arrangement was as natural as figuring out where to position a throw-down, furry rug in a living room.

Soon enough, although Pat lived in a busy neighborhood, notorious for fast-moving vehicles, Sam pranced around outside, brazen and bold. We surmised that his new surroundings felt comfortable to him because they resembled the action-packed area where he was found. Before we knew it, he exhibited a “Mayor of the Street” swagger, flexing his muscles to make it known to those in pawing distance: “I am SAM.”

No one messed with Sam. The local cats found that out soon enough. Sam would lurk behind Pat’s garage or under her deck until a target appeared. Prepared to leap, his tail raised slightly, he would inch forward and suddenly lunge at the intruding cat. Inside the fighting ring of hissing and screeching flew a lot of fur. Needless to say, Sam never lost a fight and soon it seemed as if some hungry creature had eaten all the other cats in the neighborhood (the birds were thinning out too!). The only one left was Sam. His presence screamed loud and clear, “I am SAM.”

Pat pretty much gave into Sam’s desires and demands. She said she didn’t mind. If he wanted a treat, or anything else for that matter, Sam was appeased with instant gratification. Sometimes, though, she endured a few minor bites and scratches, which she laughed off. The last thing she wanted was to bring even minor discomfort to a cat whose original owner was an alcoholic with unpredictable mood swings. How did she know that?

Well, one month after Sam was living with her, she discovered in the “Lost and Found” section of the local newspaper an ad that described Sam and the area where he had lived. She called the number listed and spoke with the man who answered. She decided that Sam was possibly his missing cat, and he would come to her house around six that evening.

Pat immediately called me and after consulting with my ex, we both drove to her house to be there when the possible owner arrived.

In short order, yes, it turned out that Sam was his owner, but because the man reeked of scotch, my ex and I managed to convince him that he wasn’t able to maintain Sam as he deserved, and that he could visit Sam whenever he liked, but that in Sam’s best interest, the cat should stay where he was. Reluctantly, Sam’s owner agreed. To his credit, he did visit Sam many times over the years while appearing satisfied with the arrangement.

As the years went by, my family rescued animals, and Pat rescued many of our rescues. At one point, after Nala had died, she had Sam, two rescued chihuahuas that were from us and Francine, renamed Fran-Fran by my daughter, a small black cat that was abandoned at Pat’s sister’s condo complex in a nearby city.

To the amusement of her neighbors, this is how it worked when Pat walked her pets down the sidewalk: Riley, the nine-pound chihuahua, forged a few feet ahead, straining his leash to its limit while Teacup, a three-pound chihuahua that we still own, lagged behind. Sam, unleashed, strolled behind Teacup and Fran-Fran straggled at the end of the line.

“Come look at this!” Pat heard through some of the screen doors neighbors exclaim to another person inside their houses. Many stepped outside to enjoy the parade from their porches.

Slowly, very slowly, it was obvious that I am SAM, the alpha male, was growing softer, which was a result of Pat’s unconditional love.

My superstitious mother referred to Sam, as she did to all other black cats, as “Bad Luck.” In fact, I nicknamed him “Sam, the Bad Luck Cat,” just for the fun of it. The name never did stick because Pat made sure we all knew how much “Good Luck” he brought into her life. However, this concept did not hold water when, in 2016, her neighbor from across the street, rang her doorbell to ask her if she owned a black cat. She was searching for its owner because two days ago a black cat had banged at her screen door, trying to enter her apartment. When she opened the door and swung her foot out to shoo him away, he bit the top of her foot, which was bare since she was wearing sandals. The intruder ran away.

The neighbor called the town’s animal control and because she had observed that the cat wasn’t wearing a collar with a tag proving it had its rabies shots up to date, she was advised to go to a local emergency room, which she did and where she received a rabies shot at the cost of $6,000. Her medical insurance covered all but $2,000 of the bill. In addition, because she lost a day’s work, she added $500 to the bill. After Sam was identified as the culprit, Pat paid the $500, but refused to pay the $2,000, especially since Sam was current on his shots.

The woman declared: “I’ll see you in court!”

Read how SAM becomes, “I AM SAM, the REALITY STAR on court TV!”

…. TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK!!!!

Faith Muscle

Calm Waters

Photo by Ben Mack on Pexels.com

Naomi Judd, American Country Singer, January 11, 1946 – April 30, 2022

Sometimes you cannot sing without strain. Fortunately, music is not infinite, but has a finite number of possibilities. In a similar vein, sing a new song filled with faith and hope that calm waters will carry you to the safety of home.

Faith Muscle

Big Brother Musings

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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.”

Faith Muscle

Mundane Mondays

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Twenty years ago on March 8th, the towering rustic pine did not diminish my brother’s six-foot tallness underneath it. Alongside Mike, the sunshine glistened on the natural cork color of his Labrador mix, KO. The initials stood for “knockout.” In boxing, “a knockout (KO) is when a boxer stays down for a count to 10 from the referee, at which point the boxer loses the match to his opponent.” My brother borrowed the initials to name his dog, but they stood for a different kind of “knockout” — extremely attractive, striking, beautiful.

The tree on my property that framed KO and my brother together for the last time before my brother was gone did not weather the harsh winters and was beyond repair. I delayed the inevitable yard work for five years. Last spring, I finally hired tree removal professionals. I avoided watching the process and sought refuge in the kitchen on the other side of the house.

“Crack! Thump!” The fierce sounds cut through my iPod’s blaring music. After the tree fell and pounded its finale into the good earth, I stopped the music and soaked in the silence. In the sunlight’s stream of dancing dust particles, stillness, sadness, the mundane morning movement of the kitchen intermingled with the refrigerator’s hum. The digital clock’s glow. The overhead light’s buzzing whisper.

Two decades earlier on that ordinary Friday, March 8th, I walked into my kitchen. KO greeted me with an electrified wagging tale and slobbering mouth. Mike, bent in the corner, tinkered with the electrical socket. It was my brother’s modus operandi to drop by and randomly “fix” things. Many of the things he fixed, in fact, didn’t need fixing. A natural-born engineer, he loved to repair, rewire and rework household gadgets.

This time, like a kid opening a bag of early Easter chocolate eggs, rainbow-colored jellybeans and marshmallow Peeps, he beamed when he revealed a handful of brand-new gadgets.

“Wireless phone jacks! They go right into the power outlets. You just plug them in and you can have phones in every room now!” he explained.

Mike sounded as if he had just discovered a new cluster of stars in the galaxy, and I did not have the heart to tell him we didn’t need phones in every room nor did we have the money to purchase them.

As the afternoon waned, we roamed through the rooms testing the wireless jacks one final time. He promised me he would return with additional ones. I followed him and KO outdoors.  

We were both raised Catholic. We never discussed religion, but for some strange reason I asked him if he had gone to confession during lent. Catholics are required to receive the sacrament of reconciliation or confession once a year and lent is “an especially penitential season.”

“No,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone as if he were reminding me that it was just another Friday afternoon. Suddenly, I realized he had not been a practicing Catholic for decades. He had escaped our Catholic upbringing without the slightest indication of guilt, remorse, regret or fret. He was who he was, an independent person who was not influenced by anyone or anything. I admired him for that, and that is when the pine tree framed him and KO permanently in my mind.

Two days later in my kitchen, poring over my Market Day order that I picked up at the children’s elementary school, Brother Paul called from my mother’s house. I heard her cries in the background. He broke the news calmly, “Mike’s in the hospital. He had a stroke.”

“Stroke? No way.”

We were about to enjoy a microwaved casserole with vegetables, a seamless dinner without guesswork or prep time that night. Counters clean. Floor washed. How could I have received this shocking news? Day after day, week after week, year after year, I made it a point to fold my family into the safety of complete calm of mundane Mondays.

I got off the phone while my emotions melted like the frozen dinner left on the spotless counter. In the children’s bathroom, I retrieved the TUMS bottle that Mike had left behind on his last visit. My brother suffered from acid reflux all his life and always carried TUMS.

“He’ll be back. He needs his TUMS.” I pep talked myself until March 18 in 2002, when I learned of his death at the veteran’s hospital. Sixteen months after losing our dad to emphysema, I intercepted my brother and mom at the hospital’s elevator, forced to break the unbearable news.

Since 2000, after my dad died, my family’s fate is a permanent eclipse season.

TUMS, phone jacks, easy-to-prepare frozen dinners, no matter how tidy things are, even on spring’s cusp, I cannot shake death’s dirt off my heels. The images of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine brings the reality front and center, an attempt to dissimilate mundane Monday’s electrical circuit.

Fortunately, it isn’t a total solar eclipse. In the remaining light, faith illuminates our path. We reckon with our fate, one that is without a clear sense of control or direction. We muster enough strength to limp along on unsteady feet, consume the quiet circumfluent air, dependable light bulbs overhead.

Faith Muscle

MIRACULOUS MRS. MAISEL

“Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” season 4 poster | Amazon Prime Video

Some experts say that occasionally it’s necessary to “take a break” from grief. I learned this firsthand during a frigid December 2020 Christmas day, 36 days after I lost my beloved 26-year-old son who died by suicide. My then 24-year-old daughter, Alexandra, returned home during this time, and we mourned together. Lounging in the living room in shabby sweatpants and tops, noshing on a conveyor-belt assortment of Trader Joe’s chips and other salty and sweet snacks that my dear childhood friend Anna supplied, we insulated ourselves, cranked up the heat indoors as the temperatures dipped to below freezing outdoors. Alexandra’s soft, furry slippers with funny smiling sloth faces, the ones that arrived a month prior in a condolence gift box from her former college roommate, Suzanna, felt like they were out of sync with the preceding extreme 36 days, oozing with despair, agony, regret, remorse and anger. We symbolized the walking wounded. Drained and hollow as if we were toilet plungers.

Who would believe that only a year prior, we were in New York City’s West Side in a beautiful church singing Christmas carols as if we were Carnegie Hall performers? Three hundred and sixty-five days later, half eaten tubs of white paper take-out food containers brimming with Chinese dumplings, noodles, fried rice and legions of lo mein lined the coffee table, our designated sanctuary, the view outside obstructed by the drapes drawn closed.

My daughter and I spent about twenty minutes scanning for TV channels to watch, searching for something to numb the pain. I finally surrendered to Alexandra’s request to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, especially since she had never seen it before. Before the tragedy, I was The-Marvelous-Mrs.-Maisel loyalist since its premiere in 2017. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it opens in 1958 and ends in the early 1960s and centers around Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Although her role that begins as a happily married woman with two children changes, chasing her stand-up comedy dreams and adhering to her affluent New York City lifestyle remain constant.

After the tragedy, I was reluctant to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because I felt it was something that aligned with a “happy-people’s” existence. Not only did we end up watching the episodes of the new third season that Christmas, but we watched the previous two seasons as well!

There are so many things in the show that resonate with me. For starters, a lot of the show is filmed in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a hotbed of stand-up comedy. “The epicenter of the city’s 1960s counterculture movement” is by far my favorite place in the world. Even now, whenever I go there, the young heartbeat I feel in the village lifts my old, worn-out spirits. To me, this is the epitome of America, for the most part, at its best. The village is more than a melting pot. It is a pot of gold, laden with people from all walks of life. The important thing is that the village really is a village because it encourages free expression. If you are bullied anywhere else in the world for any reason, the best therapy is to spend a little time here. Although you may appear outwardly very different from others around you, the sense of belonging is inherent; there tends to be a feeling of recognition in the air. In fact, the village is where I enrolled and participated in stand-up comedy workshops in the 1980s and experienced my own marvelous, albeit short-lived, show biz stint.

Anyway, watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, f-bombs and all, saved our souls that fragile holiday season of 2020 and gave me faith knowing that although my laugh had lost a lot of its carefree boom, its flame had not faded.

So, this brings me to a very important date, February 18, 2022: season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. From the minute I heard about the new upcoming season, I was eager for its long-awaited arrival, like a kid getting his or her braces removed after walking around for two years with the metal invasion in their mouths.

At last! Friday night and I sat back, full throttle ahead, no one or nothing was going to vie for my time. My fellow blogger, Alec, would surely be pleased since quite ironically, he reminded me last week about the importance of fun.

As is, the new, season four, series rolls out two one-hour long episodes at a time. I planned to watch one hour of the show on Friday and the other hour on Saturday. Initially, I was timid to hit “play” because the minute I saw the old, familiar characters, my heart tumbled as I recalled the unbearable swords of circumstances that transpired in November 2019 and how the show helped me cope. Nonetheless, I hit the forward button, and one hour led to two. I was hooked from the beginning to the end of both episodes.

If you can get past the f-bombs and a few select scenes that some viewers may find inappropriate (nudity, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking, adult themes), the first two episodes are one big ode to the meaning of opposites. Free expression and individual voice versus repression and suppression. The importance of a financial framework versus the desire to pursue art as your true calling in life. And so many other things that call to mind the breadth of Greenwich Village, and its ability to tug hard at your heart strings and awaken your soul that was likely lost about the time your identity was wiped out when you understood and accepted the untruth behind the social conditioning of, “Big girls or big boys (especially) don’t cry.”

The first two episodes of season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel touched upon nearly every tenet of existentialism and so much more. Miriam, the main character, is ballsy and brash and bold and is going to be heard, damn it, no matter what, and turn over convention. Subsequently, though, she’s not about to part with her hoity-toity upper west side New York City tastes either. All the while, she’s trying to rise up again from a rubble of failures and secure her share of the American Dream.

What’s happening in the show at its core, synonymous with the Greenwich Village vibe, is that so much that is not talked about and kept taboo unhinges and revolts. It can no longer shut up. It cannot be shutdown. It needs to be spoken, heard, not judged or erased.

It needs the human seal of “I see you” approval that we are all desperate for. My once alive son was a good example of wanting to be seen, heard, appreciated, in spite of how his differences made him feel separate from the rest of the world.

It’s as simple as that.

What fits in with this overall “fitting in” theme is a book that I’ve just finished reading Wintering, the power of rest and retreat in difficult times by Katherine May (2020).

The author writes about her mental breakdown at 17-years-old and, after the experience, she talked about it and talked and talked. She continues the story as she writes:

I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times when we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely normal process and have thereby given those who endure a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of ordinary life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.

Okay, so what I’ve realized about myself now is that, as opposed to Miriam, I became a “good girl” and discarded the rebel status that I initially strived toward. This outcome, I found out 35 years later, can be a consequence of living a so-called sober, so-called adult life. It’s not a bad thing that I’m no longer the firecracker Miriam is and, quite simply, the fight in me now is, for the most part, exhausted.

But the thing about grief is that it has forced me to make a place for it. It is locked in me, next to my memories and my hopes and dreams. In the process, grief has peeled me to the core. So now I am left with my core and me. I don’t have the strength nor burning desire to be a rebel anymore, but my inner voice says that I don’t want to keep hiding anymore either. I’m done with listening to all the blood-hungry critics in the world that managed to seize my brain and ferment it. I keep hearing the song, “Kill the voices” on the radio.

My son had lost his ability to “kill” those voices that erased him. So he did it the best way he knew how, impulsively and brutally, leaving us spewed like squashed roaches in the aftermath.

All the more reason that I’m not keen on too many opinions and certainly those that come from pulpits, real and imagined. I’m not keen too much on my own opinions either, because I found out the hard way, how many times I am more wrong than right.

One thing that I am keen on is hearing Midge’s voice, f-bombs and all. At the end of the day, the story really is about an outspoken woman who knows her worth. And it is clear in the show that women have to work twice as hard to succeed. In turn, if others give her a chance to tell her truth, maybe it will spread beyond places like the village where she performs stand-up comedy. Maybe, too, we can all start learning the impossible art of listening for the sake of hearing, not changing, ignoring or stifling; for the sake of an “I see you” universal nod.

So, after watching the first two episodes of season four last Friday night, I laid down in my bed in a flood of tears that was as surprising as a drain that bursts in the bathroom in the middle of the night. I realized how Mrs. Maisel lends her voice to me right now, because I’ve fallen so far inside myself, I don’t know if I can muscle my way out unscathed. I don’t know if I have the courage. I don’t know if I can kill the voices, or if they have killed me, metaphorically instead.

In the interim, I am trudging through this week, waiting for Friday to hear the voices and the antics that not only give me comic relief and, if I am lucky, grief relief, but also a channel where I imagine I am in my twenties again. It was during a time when I orchestrated my world so easily in a leopard top and black rimmed glasses, my voice booming into the microphone loud and clear, laughter rolling through like a seamless tide rolling in to cleanse the sediment on the crusty shoreline.

Faith Muscle

It will be

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Sometimes it seems as if certain people are granted an easier road to travel in life. My mother, though, always reminded me not to judge because, “You never know someone’s ending.”

What she meant by this lesson is that everyone has to face his or her final hour on earth, and we never know when, how or what the extent of that suffering will entail. The point of what my mother meant was not let it be but it will be.

After my personal tragedy, I fully appreciated my mom’s lesson in mortality. Take for example my former college roommate Susan, just a few years older than I. A recent retiree, she had led an extremely successful career in education. Susan brisked through a fairy tale life, with endless chapters of characters derived from a large, loving family and also a small, tight-knit community where she grew up.  I can tell you firsthand that she loved her roots. No matter where her life’s travels brought her, she toted her treasured family and small town pride everywhere.

One month before my tragedy, the doctors diagnosed 64-year-old Susan with cancer. I do not recall the exact kind of cancer that it was,  but it was the type that you have no doubt you will beat. After 18 months of surgeries and treatments, while she and others prayed dozens of prayers and never lost faith, it beat her down to a skeleton, and she died in the middle of savoring her ripe American Dream lifestyle. Bam! Just like that she disappeared right before the eyes of her loving, doting husband of 40 years, not to mention her healthy, successful children and their adorable offspring.

Sometimes even before our family tragedy, my eyes, bulging green with envy, inspected her Facebook pages full of the knitted scarfs, hats and mittens that she crafted for each of her grandchildren. I observed, too, how she toiled away on her month’s long project of converting her childhood Barbie and Ken playhouse into a revamped vintage toy dream house for her grandchildren.

When you have “it all,” or close to it, it’s so easy to believe life here on earth is eternal. In this way, the end is always a nasty surprise or, perhaps, a complete shock. There is no way around it.  Years ago, I watched a freaky movie. In it, a young boy could foresee the death of people that were alive in front of him. So often, this is the foresight I now have, carrying my mom’s interpretation of life. No one, not even people like Queen Elizabeth and Kim Kardashian, can escape our human fragility.  We can fool ourselves to think differently, but it will be.

I remind myself of it will be and, in the interim, let it be. Accept it. Embrace it. Just be. There’s a dark alternative and some choose that path of finality, but I’m not here to analyze, preach or judge. I’m here to hear my pain, your pain, the world’s pain and face the raw reality and, maybe, just maybe if we have a little faith in the universal language of human vulnerability, we can surrender our search for happiness, because we have made peace with ourselves.

And, when I am not in my own sorrow and mourning my own son and the consequences of his final act and what it means to us left behind, I can lift my thoughts to Susan and her family and the others she has left behind. I can remember my friend Mary. And I can think about how some of the pain people suffer behind the walls of their million dollar mansions is to the same degree as those of our homeless brothers and sisters in New York City. In this muck of feelings, failings and fallings, I can pull through a divine thread that is naked to the human eyes, but felt by the human hearts of those who surrender to the vision of how it will be and allow it to be because that’s how it is. 

Faith Muscle

Missing Tooth Fairy

Photo by Tu00fa Nguyu1ec5n on Pexels.com

My mind raced. I accelerated my car, a pair of Suicide Awareness ribbon magnets on the rear. My son bought the car and owned it for only a month before he passed away. I sped like a champion racehorse determined to arrive at the dental surgeon’s office on time. I was scheduled for dental work on one side of my mouth. Now, suddenly, another tooth on the opposite side of my mouth flared up. I reasoned, after the dentist examined it, he would prescribe an antibiotic before any further work could be done. The visit would amount to a thirty-minute span, maybe less.

On my usual route, I whipped past a strip mall, then Armory Road and St. John’s Cemetery, one of the preferred burying grounds of many deceased parishioners at the Ukrainian church where I grew up, and which I still occasionally attend.

From the roster of people who were buried there, without fail since my grief journey, I pictured dear, sweet Anne Marie. About fifteen years younger than I, she died very suddenly about ten years ago from a heart ailment. I saw her over-sized body, weightless and free, float like dandelion fluff carried by the wind as she drifted above St. John’s knoll that shoots to the sky like an ethereal rocket eager to launch.

“You’re free, Ann Marie. Free!” I sang in my mind, at the same time imagined her airy body breaking into somersaults as I zipped past.

Two blocks away from the cemetery is a tidy brick schoolhouse that you’d see pictured in a 1950s children’s book, a good book to curl up with. The first time I encountered it was a year into my grief journey on the way to the same oral surgeon’s office. Tears streamed down my face like dozens of icicles melted in a flash when I recalled how we gathered sometime in 2008 for a high school wrestling tournament there. My then 14-year-old son resembled a mustard-covered pretzel on the mat, competing against his opponent. The sheen of my son’s white teeth still apparent behind his mouth guard in sharp contrast to his moist, crimson, overly ripe tomato-toned face. He vocalized his final groan of defeat, a pulverized pancake pinned to the mat.

Over the last year, when I pass by now, I typically save my tears for other hours in the day but cannot escape hearing his groan that pierces me like one meat hook caught between my two ears. No reprieve in sight, this is my grief journey long after I came upon the stark realization that I had mistaken the elementary school for the high school where I thought the match had once been held.

My arrival at the oral surgeon’s office was marked with my mind’s general grief and trauma-related brouhaha, so much so that this time I nearly fell back when the woman at the receptionist’s desk took my temperature to ensure I did not carry any virus. Fortunately, she was multitasking, and she would not have noticed if I had collapsed, deep in conversation on the phone, apparently reassuring a patient while scheduling his or her wisdom tooth extraction.

Overhearing the conversation, I visualized the buried body of my 26-year-old son, his skeleton, his teeth, wisdom teeth intact. My final trip I made to see him in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when he was alive, was to accompany him to an oral surgeon to extract his wisdom teeth. He bailed out the last minute. It was my last trip with him in that state. We planned to visit some kangaroo sanctuary the next time. Before I left, I had to force him to accept the clothes I purchased for him at Target, because he did not want me to spend my money and also prided himself on his minimalist lifestyle.

At this point, the dentist’s assistant greeted me.

“I am pleased to meet you. My name is Kerwina.”

I tried to shake the dandelion dust out of my head, acting as if it were just a normal day in a normal life. “How’s your day so far?”

“It’s a grateful day,” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkled above her mask.

In my former life, my tone of voice would have spooled noisily, magnified her optimism. Chattered and affirmed life’s joys without restraint, back in the day when I worked a program for a straight 35 years, a program that helped pioneer the topic of gratitude into universal conversation. Now, I mirrored my son and fell silent. I was desperate to obtain my prescription and call it a day.

“Which tooth?” my dentist asked after he was brought up to speed on my latest dental dilemma. “Left or right?”

There was a fat pause. I pointed to the right. I pointed to the left. My mind contorted beyond pretzel proportions.

“I think someone has to go back to second grade,” he rudely blurted out.

Fortunate for him how, unlike my internalized son, he could slap out his feelings at will on non-threatening bystanders, so his insides didn’t boil up inside him, expand in him like a decaying cavity in a tooth. Without rebuttal, I managed to get my left and right sides straight. After he examined my left side, I was nearly shocked to discover I would lose my tooth then and there. After discussing the matter, I knew there was no other way to escape it, and his assistant prepped me for the inevitable.

Kerwina’s compassionate nature reminded me of Ann Marie, who had spent an honorable run working as a registered nurse prior to her death. When the dentist injected me with Novocain, Kerwina held my hand tightly, her face above her mask soft and fluffy like a dandelion. Once the dentist started working on my anesthetized mouth, I felt the pliers around the culprit tooth. This would be the third tooth I would lose in a six-year span. Suddenly when he pulled, I wanted to swipe the instruments out from his powder-blue gloved hands. Stop! My mind shouted in horror. I don’t want to lose my tooth. I have to hold onto what I have. Don’t you understand? So much has been pried from me. I’m barely holding onto faith. I have to keep everything around me.  My son needed his wisdom teeth pulled out, but I need the rest of the teeth I have to stay in. Please stop. I closed my eyes tightly until they hurt. I pictured myself wrestling with the dentist, engaging in a tug of war over my tooth, holding back tears in the process.  

After it was done, I yearned for Kerwina to hurry and clean me up, so I could request to take my tooth home. Where did they put it? Did it go into a designated disposal along with other fallen teeth? I thought of my son’s umbilical cord, the one I swiped out of the hospital shortly after I delivered him, and how I let it go after 26 years, allowed it to return to its rightful owner in his coffin, along with a collection of other forked-over mementos. Then I visualized the tooth, flushed down an imaginary toilet.

A few minutes later, that gentle-natured dental assistant helped me rise until I achieved my balance. I felt my swollen mouth along with my swollen heart. I could not utter a word. Kerwina hugged me in an uncannily knowing way. Her compassion almost forced the words out of me: “It was a grateful day for me too.”

Instead, I murmured a good-bye, afraid to face the mirror and the vast space in my bloody gum and empty heart and drifted slowly to my car in the parking lot.

Quite coincidentally, that night, reckoning with the powerlessness of lost teeth, as well as a lost grip on life, I read a book review on the NPR Public Radio website written by Kristen Martin about Kathryn Schulz’s recently published memoir “Lost & Found.”

Suddenly, after I finished reading, I understood that I was angry at existence, at her tricky kleptomaniac, sticky fingers. Taking what she felt was rightfully hers, as I bowed down to her, my how-dare-you phrases spitting in retaliation to no avail. I share the gutting loss that Ms. Martin explains in the review:

…. Schulz unravels universal truths about why loss guts us, and how it forces us to grapple with our place in the world and its workings. When we cannot locate what we have lost — whether it be a sweater in a small apartment, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, or a dead loved one on this plane of existence — we often react with “a powerful feeling of disbelief” because it seems that “the world is not obeying its customary rules.” Surely it cannot be possible that these losses are irretrievable. In fact, Schulz reminds us, the rules of our world dictate that we will lose our belongings and lose our lives:

“To lose something…forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish. Over and over, loss calls us to reckon with this universal impermanence — with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, gone.”

In the same manner, too, like my tooth, my grief journey has plunged me into an abysmal burrow. In this place, there is nothing sacred, because I am too afraid to hold onto anything, seeing it for what it is: passing vapor. Ms. Martin writes:

Here, Schulz forces us to sit with that which we ignore in our quotidian lives, so that we may go on living them — the impermanence of everything we love. The death of someone you’ve shared your life with is paralyzing, because it plunges you into stark awareness of that impermanence. And yet if we want to keep living, we must make peace with the knowledge that nothing in this world is forever.

After rereading Ms. Martin’s review, I hankered down under my bedcovers to protect myself from the sudden chill. My gum aching, medicine worn off, pain awakened. For years, I did not relinquish faith and tried to save the tooth that amounted to a failed root canal. Despite all my efforts, it was gone, pulled, discarded, gone.

The wind howled as I pictured all the dead matter, cells, atoms, tooth chips purged out of the earth and landfills of brokenness, making room for the new, whole flower buds in the spring about 90 days away. I could see Ann Marie swaying around, wearing a crown of dandelions, whispering as smoothly as a silky velvet ribbon: “It was a grateful day. Now, a grateful night. There is nothing to cement it with, only stuff it into the cavity of memory, there will you find permanence, a level floor on which to dance peacefully.”

Faith Muscle

This is my life now

My dear friend Camille surprised me with this card on what would have been my son’s 29th birthday

“That’s for happy people.”

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.

Interior of my dear friend Camille’s card

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.

Faith Muscle

Dear Son

Coincidentally, this month I discovered a concept known as Blue Monday. It gained popularity in 2005, after a British travel company played up psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall’s theory that the third Monday is the most depressing day of the year. He backed his findings with such measurements as weather factors.

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

Other companies followed suit and used the day to sell products to help elevate the Blue Monday mood. Naturally, there was a lot of backlashes in this approach since it minimized the enormity of what it meant to live daily with depression, as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which, you knew all too well, is a form of depression that may manifest in certain seasons.

Anyway, Blue Monday is the kind of interesting concept you would have uncovered and brought to my attention. I can only imagine how we might have dove into an esoterically free exchange of ideas about it. I’m not writing to debate Blue Monday. I wanted you to know I took the research one step further in the same manner you would have done. Turns out, on January 18, 1993, you were born on, yes, the third Monday of the month, Blue Monday. Before I conducted the extra search, I already knew the results.

After informing you of this discovery, I pictured your perfect head tilting right and then left, your over-sized eyelashes cast over your eyes as you whispered in defeat, “Figures.”

Anyway, I also wanted to tell you that fresh on the heels of your birthday, one of my dreams of you was that you were a young boy, maybe six. You kept jiggling two of your loose bottom teeth, and with every movement, I felt pins and needles jabbing my body as if I were enduring a full-body tattoo all at once.

I kept pleading, “Marshall, stop doing that. Stop!”

You listened to teachers, friends and the bullies that led you to the grave, but from the moment you were a toddler, I don’t ever remember when you listened to my directives. How I argued with you to come inside for dinner. Leave the house for school or anywhere else. Put on your shoes. Take off your shoes. You name it, whatever my request, you didn’t oblige. As you grew older, it got to a comical point.

On the other hand, you listened for hours when we dove into the most random topics of discussions over the years. In fact, your sister, who happened to be eavesdropping, wrote a note about one such discussion. You were probably around seven, and, ironically, we discussed the “grim reaper.” At the end, Alexandra wrote, “Mom talks him straight.”

“Faith Note”

The note mysteriously turned up shortly after the tragedy. I preserved it in plastic under plexiglass on the nightstand in my bedroom. You wouldn’t think the topic of the grim reaper could warm my soul and help my faith walk, but it does because it gives me a sense of peace: I talked you straight. Do you know how relieved I am to think I managed to do that although it only amounted to a one-time deal?

Looking back, my purpose in life was to be the best mother I could be to you and your sister. I failed forward many times. I’d say I succeeded many times too. It warmed my heart the many times you told me you had “a wonderful childhood.” I hope you knew that I loved parenting both of you. Your sister, for the most part, stayed on the beam. I did keep a close eye on her though, because some of her falls were pretty rough. You, on the other hand, well, it was more like “Where IS the beam?” Man, I felt like I was chasing after a flyaway balloon sometimes. Hell or high water, I resolved to set that balloon “straight” in my hand and never let it go. Thinking about it still energizes me.

Of course, no matter how it seemed that I “talked you straight,” I was never in control of your destiny. In fact, even those big brains at Yale couldn’t get your birthday “straight.” I wonder if you weren’t born on Blue Monday and, instead, in mid-April, maybe then you wouldn’t have been so down.

Anyway, I never told you about the details of the day you were scheduled for open heart surgery at ten months old. Frankly, I didn’t give it one thought before the tragedy. I will tell you now about that day and how your father and I paced slowly down a Yale New Haven Hospital hallway that was marked by a sudden dip in temperature. You felt like fresh-turned butter waddled in the hospital’s plaid checkered blanket in my arms. On route to the operating room, I noticed a heavy-gauge stainless steel gurney. I developed a wild, sudden inclination to secure you on it and wheel you in the opposite direction.

Without incident, we reached our final destination, a large area that reminded me of a hangar for planes. Instead of a turbojet, a nurse, dressed in scrubs with cartoon characters that seemed sickeningly overdone with smiles, appeared. I cannot remember her words, but I remember her reaching out for you to take you into the OR. Instead of handing you to her, my hands became tighter. I froze, resembling the twin sister to the heavy-gauge stainless steel gurney.

“Give her the baby,” your dad said, an unmistakable irritability in his tone. “Give her the baby.”

Instead of complying, I stepped back. The nurse, like a purse snatcher, moved in closer and attempted to pull your angel-like body out of my grasp.

“Give her the baby.”

My stainless-steel hands melted as the authoritative nurse retrieved your sweet, quiet body and disappeared in a huff. I was left behind, feeling as if she had amputated my arms.

Since last week, I’ve been replaying that moment over and over. Letting you go, over and over.

So, as it turns out, yesterday was the third Monday of January, Blue Monday and Martin Luther King’s birthday too. Today, you, our “miracle baby,” would have turned 29. If someone gave me a choice between being a famous billionaire or watching you grow into the incredible man you had become, the choice would be a no-brainer.

Marshall’s 24th and FINAL, birthday celebration together. Last week, I came across this photo, only to realize that the shirt Marshall would be buried in was the one my partner, Mark, wore that evening in 2017. In 2019, four days after our tragedy, I frantically looked for the “right” shirt for Marshall to wear in his coffin. I came across this blue striped shirt and mistakenly thought it was Marshall’s, and he was laid to rest in it.

What I don’t think you also never knew was that after they successfully repaired your heart, I felt as if I had won the biggest lotto sweepstakes of all time. Actually, thinking back, I did. There was no room for Blue Mondays back then, the odds were in our favor — until they weren’t.

Now, the remembrance of our winner’s circle is in full view in a little note of faith waddled in plastic under plexiglass.

Blow out the candles, sweet, quiet son …. I love you with every bit of my broken heart and grief-scarred soul.

Mom

Faith Muscle