The tip of my head to the bottom of my toenails hurt and every part in between. Last Wednesday, January 18th, on what would have been my son’s 30th birthday, I needed a lot of love. More than usual. The stillness of the day exemplified how the world has moved on, and I’m still stuck in the quicksand of November 2019.
The people I thought would at very least “check in” must have “checked out,” because I did not hear a word from any of them, and I found myself focusing on the disappointment rather than on the joy I felt from those who DID show up with kind-hearted words, text messages and emails.
My dear friend, Camille, in fact, surprised me with a lovely sunflower bouquet and beautiful greeting card.
In addition, during the last year, I’ve been honored to assist in writing a widow’s grief memoir. The relatively young widow, Michelle, happens to be a dear friend of mine. The book is partly composed of letters she writes to her deceased husband who passed away tragically three months prior to our family’s tragic loss. Last Wednesday, feeling weighed down with grief, I happened to reread one of her letters in which she elaborates on her mother-in-law’s grief of losing a son.
“I know she is as grief-stricken, but she is stronger than I am and loves more because she doesn’t want any of us to be sad for her. She knows we all have our own grief, and she doesn’t want to add to it.”
Miraculously, through the day I channeled this incredible woman, Rita, whom I know only through writing about her, and found myself feeding on her reservoir of love.
“I don’t want anyone to be sad for me.” I repeated, breaking the pronounced silence of the day.
A repeated lesson that I seem to have to relearn constantly is that love is the most powerful emotion in this world. It can change everything ALWAYS. It’s like a ray of sun beaming through the grayest of days. It is a life force; an energy; a mega dose of Vitamin C.
The day ended on a bittersweet note. I hadn’t heard from my 28-year-old daughter all day on Wednesday. I thought she needed the space and privacy, and the solitude to put one foot in front of the other and inch forward.
At around six p.m. that evening, she called, out of breath. I could barely understand her words. “The cemetery is so dark.”
“What?” You got in your car directly after work, jumped into the height of traffic, and you sat on the highway for an hour, just so you could visit your brother in the dark cemetery, even though I do believe it’s supposed to close at sunset? That all sounds kind of risky to me.
I refrained from saying how crazy I felt her actions were, especially since her character is usually driven by pure logic. Though I will say that they were incredibly similar to what I would have done at her age in her situation, working purely from an emotional realm.
Our conversation was filled with love and honesty, and it reaffirmed my faith in the power of love. This is what love looks like when it’s real — when there are tears and laughter and sadness all mixed together in one moment in time. In the end, all that matters is not a perfect public facade that masks our private despair, but the intimate moments of our imperfect hearts.
I’m learning that grief is my price to pay for love. Paradoxically, living through grief has helped me to push, stretch until it feels unbearable, love in an insurmountable way.
After hearing the news about Lisa Marie, my sadness seemed unrelenting, because I had followed every segment of her grief story. Each time she shared a bloody slice of her grief to the world, I grew short of breath. All that came to my mind was the figure of Atlas in Greek mythology. He was a Titan condemned to hold up the world for eternity.
Man, when I visualize Atlas, I can’t stand his back-breaking pose; and, alas, I imagined Lisa Marie’s face instead of his. It was like looking into a metaphorical mirror and seeing my own reflection.
Five months prior to her death, in honor of National Grief Awareness Day, “Lisa Marie Presley penned an emotional essay” about her journey and the lessons she learned after her son died.
In the essay, she writes: “Death is part of life whether we like it or not — and so is grieving. There is so much to learn and understand on the subject, but here’s what I know so far: One is that grief does not stop or go away in any sense, a year, or years after the loss. Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not “get over it,” you do not “move on,” period.”
Coincidentally, my niece sent my daughter and me a text, “This made me think of you both…” and a copy of the same essay that appeared in People magazine with the headline, “Lisa Marie Presley Said She Was ‘Destroyed’ by Son Benjamin’s Death.”
At the time my niece sent it to me, I couldn’t bear to look at it until days later.
In the same essay she wrote the excerpt below:
” … grief is incredibly lonely. Despite people coming in the heat of the moment to be there for you right after the loss takes place, they soon disappear and go on with their own lives and they kind of expect for you to do the same, especially after some time has passed. This includes “family” as well. If you’re incredibly lucky, less than a handful will remain in contact with you after the first month or so. Unfortunately, that is a cold hard truth for most. So, if you know someone who lost a loved one, regardless of how long it’s been, please call them to see how they are doing. Go visit them. They will really really appreciate it, more than you know ….”
Lisa Marie was on point. Loss can feel like a whirlwind, leaving nothing behind but destruction. It can be difficult to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding, especially when you are doing it alone, ditched by the rest of the world.
Her final, personal lesson is below.
” … particularly if the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense. You can feel stigmatized and perhaps judged in some way as to why the tragic loss took place. This becomes magnetized by a million if you are the parent of a child who passed. No matter how old they were. No matter the circumstances.”
Again, everything she concludes is absolutely true and not an understatement. Frankly, while processing the news of her demise from a “broken heart,” I also felt relief for Lisa Marie. Atlas’ weight was, at last, removed. I shared with my niece how completely saddened I was by her loss.
In response, she wrote,”Nothing wrong with finding a kindred spirit, no matter how it manifests.”
Today, I regret not contacting Lisa Marie back in 2020 after she had lost her son by suicide. I simply did not make the time. (Saying, “I didn’t have the time,” is incorrect since I am one hundred percent responsible for ME and MY actions.)
During last week, I spent a good deal of time reflecting on her death, pacing around my office where I have two calendars, one on the wall and one on the desk. Both of them have stick-it notes on them, smack center, covering up the January 17th block, the day I was so freaking sure my son would be born and covering up the 18th block, his actual birthday. Sometimes, with the world on your back, doing everything you possibly can to press forward, “blackouts” are the best weapon to tackle the challenge.
For this week’s blog post, every single piece of me is on fire with guilt, regret, pain and remorse, and my son’s voice from long-ago, stating, “I won’t make it to 30.” I really didn’t want to sit my inflamed body down to hurt it more and think of the unthinkable, but I was so moved by what Lisa Maria and her family endured.
Now, my heart goes out to the survivors of Lisa Marie, and I honor and acknowledge the grief of her family. In return, I am afforded the strength to honor and acknowledge my own grief.
The way I look at it is if we take a leap of faith and open ourselves up to love, we open ourselves up to the risk of experiencing grief. It begins with love and ends with love. If life surpasses death, then love is what will guide us through the infinite journey.
For Lisa Marie, Benjamin, and Marshall, I hope they are now liberated from their back-breaking duties on Earth. Whether it involves physical burdens or mental obstacles, I also hope they are no longer crushed by the weight of life and, instead, free to catapult and soar to new heights.
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 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.
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
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 loyalistsince 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.
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.
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.
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.”