I Want You to Know

Here’s what I want you to know about my husband’s suicide:

I didn’t see it coming. In retrospect, I can read some of the signs differently, but at the time I did not know he was so close to the edge.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his parents’ fault, or his kids’ fault, or his cousins’, or his sister’s or his friends’ fault. It wasn’t his doctor’s fault, or his boss’s fault or any of his colleagues’ or clients’. It wasn’t entirely Sam’s fault. It just was, and I cannot explain the why of it any more than anyone can explain why some people develop cancer or multiple sclerosis and others don’t.

It wasn’t for lack of love. His death is not a reflection on our capacity to love him. Or his capacity to love us.

Sam was not bi-polar. He was not diagnosed with any mental illness. He was not in any sort of treatment or taking any medications. He had a prescription for Vicodin for his back pain after multiple surgeries, but he refused to take it.

I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived. Whether our marriage would have remained intact, whether he would have been hit by the proverbial bus or an actual one, whether he would have survived another back surgery, whether we would have gone to family camp for another twenty years, whether we would have moved to Colorado or Canada, whether circumstances might have pushed the boundaries of our patience in ways we hadn’t yet been tested, or whether we would have lived happily ever after until death did us part when we were in our 90’s surrounded by our children and grandchildren. Or whether that last scenario might just be a story I read once upon a time.

I will never know exactly what happened and every why detail. The not-knowing is part of the deal. I know this now.

 

Here’s what I want his children to know about their father’s suicide:

You were the greatest gift of your father’s life. You were his joy, his light, his inspiration. This does not mean it was your job to save him. Your role then – as it is now – is to be yourself. Be your funny, spirited, smart, wonderful, glitchy, imperfect self. His death cannot take you away from you.

Your father loved you with all of his heart. His death is not the end his love for you.

He would never have left you willingly. Not in a million years. I know it looks like he chose to leave, but I promise you with every ounce of my being that if he was in his right mind, he would not have left you. No way. The only way I can reconcile the fact that he took his own life with how much he adored you is that he must have been gravely ill. Somehow in the warped operation of his mind, he was convinced that you were better off without him. This makes no logical sense. I hope that, as you navigate the course of your own life, you will be able to come to terms with this paradox.

You are not destined to repeat your father’s path. Be alert. Suicide and depression run in families, but they do not own you. Know yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Trust that you have resources and agency.

You didn’t deserve for your father to die. Life is not about what we deserve. Do your best to let go of life’s injustices and to hold on to moments of grace.

On the night your father died, I sat with each of you tucked under my arms. You were small enough then that the three of us fit in one armchair. I told you something that is as true now as it was then: Your father’s love for you will always be with you. Always. Forever.

 

Here’s what I want Sam to know about his suicide:

Your death caused us more pain than you could possibly have imagined. We forgive you and love you anyway.

To be unnervingly honest, I do have several friends who have no intention of forgiving you. I’ll just say that when they get to heaven, you’d better get ready to run.

You must have been experiencing more pain that we could possibly have imagined. We hope you forgive us and love us still.

The little baseball team you coached was devastated at your death – not because of your academic or professional accomplishments, not because you were the greatest baseball player or coach, not because you were somebody’s daddy, but simply because you were a kind man who cared enough to spend time with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every Saturday afternoon. I want you to know that your goodness is what we hold on to.

We are creating lives that would make you proud. We live with joy and passion and faith and integrity. We laugh and sing and run and play. We shout and swear and sweat. We have traveled to places you never got to go, and I’ve let the kids go places you might not have wanted them to visit. For the record, they loved it. We had your favorite comfort food for dinner last night, turkey meatloaf with garlic green beans and spaetzle with parmesan. We raise a glass to you on your birthday, your deathaversary, on holidays and random days. Sometimes it really irritates me that you believed that we could live full lives without you, but more often I am grateful.

I fell in love. I didn’t think I would ever do that again. He is handsome and kind and funny. He loves me, and he loves our sons as his own. Tim was also widowed, and he has two sons whom I love with my whole heart. We have created a family together, and I cannot find the words to explain how beautiful this life is.

I want you to know that we are happy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And perspective.

Psalms For Us

Sometimes I start my prayers for my children by looking toward the heavens (or their now-deceased mother and father, which, I believe, is the same general direction) and shouting, “Don’t blame me, they’re your children!” I think this approach is based in sound theology, an awareness that the boys are children of the universe, beloved, intended, gifted. As both a child and a parent myself, I find this perspective inordinately comforting, that is, when I’m not infuriated by the fact that I am not in charge. Honestly, there are a lot of things that I would do differently in this half-baked, overcharged world, but I cannot swaddle my children in bubble-wrap and keep them securely on the sofa. No doubt my sons are grateful for this fact, but when I am powerless to keep them safe from, nuclear holocaust, weather, dread illness or their own misguided decision-making, the only thing that helps me keep a semblance of sanity is to trust them to a higher divinity.

I realize this approach sounds bonkers.

I accomplish excessively nothing with my ranting, my research and my own resilience. I might as well just sit down. So I do. Which, as it turns out, helps a great deal. Breathing slowly and intentionally, I quiet my inner crazy.

It’s not entirely unorthodox. King David appears to have prayed the same way. First, a raging storm, the desperate fear, the raised fist, the crippling arrogance. Then, the folded hands, and the receptive, grateful heart.

 

Selections from Psalm 139

[As rendered and annotated by an Ordinary Mom]

Oh Lord, You have searched [my son] and You know [him].

Dude! I cannot figure this kid out – what inspires him, what he’s about, why on earth he does the things he does – but you know him inside and out. The child makes no sense to me, but it gives me great comfort to know that You understand him. You don’t have to explain him to me. Anyway, it’s probably best that I don’t know. But if You could just make sure he knows that You understand him, I would be grateful. Make sure he has a place where he fits, that he feels loved, seen, held and safe, that he has a home in the world. Give him the confidence that comes from knowing he belongs.

You know when [he sits] and when [he stands]; You understand [his] thoughts from afar.

It’s definitely best that I not know.

[His] journey and [his] rest You scrutinize; with all [his] ways You are familiar.

Look out for the boy. He’s setting out on his own path. Thank goodness You are with him, especially now that he has left home, but I sure miss him something crazy. I worry about him constantly, even though I’m not peppering him with questions and text messages. I hope he knows where he’s going. I hope he gets enough rest. I hope he eats well. Throw some vegetables in his path for me, please. I hope You’re whispering in his ear.

He can leave and go away from home, but he is never away from Love, Yours and mine. Walk beside him on his day. You know who he is and the young man his is becoming.

Even before a word is on [his] tongue, behold O Lord, you know the whole of it.

The things he says – OMG – I realize he doesn’t intend to say anything irretrievably mean, or worse, unabashedly stupid, but help him to explain his ideas fully. Show him context. Teach him to be a good listener; maybe he could learn to swallow the wayward word on his tongue before it escapes. Or at least teach him to pause.

Teach me, too.

Behind [him] and before, You hem [him] in, and rest Your hand upon [him]. Such knowledge is too wonderful for [him]; too lofty for [him] to attain.

You advocate for him. You pay attention to his needs. You listen. Your presence is a guiding constant in his life. He doesn’t know how wonderful it is that you protect him on every side – emotionally, physically, mentally – but I do. Thank you.

For it was You who formed [his] inward parts, You knit [him] together in [his] mother’s womb.

When he was so small, a baby, still in utero, I could wrap my arms around him and almost believe that I could keep him safe, that I could create a healthier baby by eating well, and breathing clean air and reading to him, singing him to sleep, rocking him gently. But this child was never really about me and my procreative prowess. I am grateful for the privilege of mothering him, but he belongs to You. He was always Yours. He still is.

I am, too.

[He praises] You, for [he is] fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works; that [he knows] very well.

His life is a testament to You. His goodness and kindness in all their forms, as class clown, athlete, confidante, show Your dedication to his well-being. When he smiles, You smile. He knows his self worth as Your child, beloved, intended and gifted.

I do, too.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And peace in your heart.

Hey SushiTuesdays Lovers

It has come to my attention that every now and again, some of you might have a question or a comment that you’d like to send my way without posting it in front of the entire (virtual) world. I hear you. Feel free to send such notes to charlotte@sushituesdays.com, and I will get the message.

Here’s another something new: As heard on KCBS, this spotlight aired a few weeks ago featuring yours truly. I am grateful to Jeff Bell and the Adversity2Advocacy Alliance for making this happen.

And a final word. My English major friends and I used to be amused by “Dear Reader” notes from the author. Truth be told, we mocked them mercilessly. That’s what we found amusing. We were too young to know how startling and humbling it is to have a readership. So here I am, writing one myself. To you, dear reader: Please know that I am grateful for you, for your thoughtfulness, your engagement, your generous hearts, your broken hearts, your healing hearts, your listening hearts. From my heart, thank you!

Love & Light,

Charlotte

Family Time

I’m holding on to summer for just a few more days, notwithstanding the compelling evidence that it’s going, going, gone – the college bound bags, packed and tripping distance from the front door, the carton of fresh, bright highlighters and newly-sharpened pencils, the neat stack of textbooks on the dining room table. We are rested and inspired and pretty much ready to embark on the next adventure. And by “we” I mean, not me.

Our oldest son starts law school today, which constitutes clear and convincing evidence that I have been derelict in my maternal duties to talk him out of it. Thing #2 starts his senior year in college today, which seems to indicate that I may have blinked, but that he definitely hasn’t. The so-called little one starts his junior year of high school today, which must be an administrative glitch, because just about three yesterdays ago, he was not much bigger than an overstuffed burrito. I have already snapped (but not posted, as requested) the obligatory first day of school picture. and I’m trying not to think about the fact that he’s the last man standing on our porch now that all his brothers are off to college and beyond. It doesn’t seem possible that next year will be his last first-day-of-school-photograph-by-the-front-door, even though he’s well over six feet tall, because, like a recalcitrant toddler, today he is carrying his shoes in his hands instead of wearing them on his feet. It appears that my son, like me, steps reluctantly into the school year and scheduled life.

We’ve had a full summer, capped by two weeks of travel together with all four of our sons, an extraordinary achievement of organizational prowess and sheer blind luck. In a way, our trip already feels as ephemeral as a pleasant dream; we’ve tossed the luggage tags and boarding passes, posted a few photos and plunged headlong into the next phase, the boys speeding off in four different directions. On the other hand, the sturdiness of our shared experience will hold us for a long time. We thoroughly enjoyed our family togetherness, the planes, trains and even one trifling car-related mishap hardly worth mentioning but that dad will likely hear about for the rest of his days. We explored castles and cathedrals and quiet chapels, toured old cities and initiated a new friendship, spent long evenings featuring Bananagrams and brothers, all punctuated with laughter, local ales and champagne.

I feel the need to point out that we started out as a blended family, but now we are simply a family. The fact that two of our boys have the same exact name occasionally creates some confusion, which my husband and I feel the need to explain. The kids chalk it up to maternal brain damage and keep moving.

If you were counting sons, you might have noticed that I neglected to mention Thing #3. He is flying under the radar, hoping that I haven’t remembered that he finished his summer internship but has another week before heading across the country to his freshman orientation. The truth is that it is not getting any easier to let these kids take that step into college to create their own lives, even though it’s everything he has worked for (and we have encouraged). I’m bracing myself for my mommy meltdown. It has happened twice before already, so I know it’s coming. It might happen when I check the weather in the Midwest, or visit the Patagonia website, scrolling through various styles of sweaters and jackets, wondering which one best keeps the boy warm and dry. It could happen when he tells me about his roommate assignment. Or when I book the one-way plane ticket from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. It might be when I pay the fall term tuition. My husband and I are doling out last minute lectures and advice faster than the boy himself can drive to In ‘n Out for just one more double-double before leaving California. In any case, I have already warned the so-called baby that I am going to cling to his ankles like nobody’s business.

But what if I’m not meltdown-bound? Maybe I’m actually ready this time around? Third time’s a charm? It is entirely possible that I am exemplary at sticking my head in the sand, or that I’m feeling confident because the boy is still in bed at noon, in a bed under my own roof with my own dog at his feet, and not far away in a dorm room with a roommate I cannot threaten or bribe into kindness. It is altogether likely that upon the actual college drop-off, my husband and I will – for the third time running – retreat quickly to the nearest chapel, followed by a lengthy visit to the closest bar.

I guess I won’t know until it happens, so I will just trust that he and I are both ready for the approaching season. All I can do is enjoy where I am.

I take advantage of summer’s light, and I take a leisurely afternoon stroll with the dog, followed by a glass of sauvignon blanc on the porch. I have a book nearby, which I think about reading but don’t actually open. Instead, the dog and I simply watch the sunlight shifting on the mountains, thinking our butterfly thoughts, until it starts to feel too chilly outside, at which point our thoughts turn toward dinner, and we head inside for warmth and rest.

***

Wishing you light and strength on summer’s path. And gentle transitions.

 

We Who Live

“Suicide survivor” is such a dumb term, but I haven’t thought of a better one yet. “Suicide survivor” sounds to me like someone who tried (and failed) to complete a suicide, but that’s not what it means. The term suicide-attempt survivor applies to the scenario of someone who survives his or her own attempted suicide. By contrast, I am a suicide survivor, meaning that I have survived my husband’s suicide.

I’m not sure one ever reaches a point where she has “survived” her husband’s suicide. Done. Check. Finished. Love doesn’t work that way. Loss doesn’t work that way. It’s not over. It evolves with me. I will not get over it. I incorporate it. I integrate it. I still – yes, ten years after the fact – talk about Sam and his suicide. I learn to live with it, but it’s not that I simply subsist in a state of melancholy. I find meaning and love and joy. I live my life with passion and integrity and gratitude and laughter and intention and momentum and a full home and an even fuller heart. None of which cancels out Sam’s death. None of which precludes the sporadic incidence of crippling fear and heart-stopping anxiety. Loss and love and joy exist together. A big, beautiful mess of a life. That’s what it’s like.

Let me be clear on the issue of being widowed: All the ways to widow suck. There is no better or worse here. There is only bad. Period.

I still receive mail and even the occasional phone call for Sam, usually telemarketers, but also our local frozen yogurt joint letting Sam know that his favorite peanut butter fudge will be featured this week. Some days this irritates me; some days it amuses me; some days it reduces me to tears. His photographs are in albums, in frames on the piano and displayed prominently on the family room wall. His handwriting appears on a random post-it note, an old anniversary card and inside the front cover of a book. I introduce Sam’s cousins as mine, not only because it is easier than explaining the relationship, but after all we’ve been through together, I’ve simply commandeered them as my own. “Cousin,” for the record, is a word that I love. There’s no confusion about cousins. Everybody knows that a “cousin” might be a blood relative or might be that person (regardless of relation) who shows up at all the critical moments with a glass of champagne or a hug or both. The one who knows exactly what to say or when to sit silently. The one you count on. Now I even call Sam’s mother and father mine, because they have been parenting me for twenty-seven years. Some days this annoys me; some days it makes me laugh; some days their constant love humbles me to the point of tears.

I think about Sam every day – in phrases I hear that he would have said or that he would have found amusing, in restaurants he enjoyed, in experiences we shared, when I happen into a classmate of ours at lunch on Lake Avenue, in moments I wish he could see for himself, especially when I look into the eyes of his sons, or watch them graduate, or laugh at the hilarious things they say, or hold them tight when they crash and when life has disappointed them again. His children are suicide survivors, too.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But then it was.

Somehow this man I had known and loved for seventeen years lost his way. Somehow he left me, his children, his mind and a note behind on that clear, fall Saturday afternoon, in an effort to end whatever emotional and physical pain he had been enduring. It was impossible to believe, but somehow it was true. The psychologists call this step in the process “radical acceptance,” meaning that you don’t have to condone the event, but you do have to accept it, which sounds abundantly reasonable and straightforward in theory. In practice, my first thoughts every morning for months were, This is not my life. This cannot be my life. This was not supposed to be my life.

I did not want Sam’s suicide to define our lives, but like the lightening bolt scar on Harry Potter’s forehead, Sam’s suicide has marked us in significant, permanent ways. Suicide is a complicated death; the ensuing recovery is likewise marked with an array of feelings, stigma and setbacks. In the balance somewhere between the crushing punches of abandonment, betrayal and death and the light-filled promises of presence, love and joy, we press our way forward. We aren’t done yet. We carry Sam’s legacy with us – his laughter, his intelligence, his warmth, as well as his fears, his flaws, his death. We carry him in his wholeness, as a husband, son and father, as a competent professional and as a man who struggled with crippling back pain and depression. We continue to heal. We persevere, we laugh, we thrive. We are a family who lives with joy and disappointment, and laughter and tears; we remember, we pray, we hope.

If “suicide survivor” means that Sam’s suicide didn’t kill me, then I guess the term is accurate, but I bristle at the limits set within the words themselves. I don’t want to be identified by the ways in which I’ve suffered (or the ways he did). It is true that his suicide was unimaginably hard to recover from, but “suicide survivor” puts too much emphasis on my widowhood and not enough opportunity for my post-widow-life. I do not want to be merely a survivor, I want to thrive. I want to be a warrior princess, an emissary for hope. I want to be named after an ancient goddess. I want a superpower and a cute outfit, but “Wonder Widow” gives an altogether wrong impression. I do not mean to understate the gravity of Sam’s death. I do not want to imply that his death was somehow a gift. His life was the gift. Life and death are intertwined, of course, but suicide is unbearably confusing. If Sam had somehow accidentally fallen off the parking structure, or perhaps suffered a fatal heart attack from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect while he was picking up trash at the park after the kid’s soccer game, or died in a fatal car accident en route downtown to volunteer to feed the homeless, we might have experienced less shame, but the loss would still have been unfathomably painful. Somehow he thought we could live without him, and I resented his confidence. Somehow, we did, and I drew strength from his faith in us. That he could leave us both infuriated and comforted was one of the conundrums we have learned to live with.

“Suicide survivor” does not begin to speak to the full range of my experience. Then again, neither does the more familiar word “widow.”

When Pandora came to earth as a mortal, she was given a jar, but she was not told its contents. When she opened the lid, as any self-respecting, curious, intelligent woman would do, a tumult of evils – death, pain, selfishness, neglect, illiteracy, perimenopause, exclusivity, narcissism, cancer, gossip, fear, poverty, pride, insanity – quickly flies out to afflict mankind, each wielding its own unique brand of ugly, but a single blessing remains in the jar: hope. Her name is Elpis.

Too bad “Princess Elpis” sounds like a total drip.

Hope seems so small a power against everything evil, her small, pale, yellow self sitting humbly at the bottom of the jar, too slow to fly off with all the nasties on their worldwide adventures, her gossamer wings still folded neatly at her sides. She speaks softly but confidently, I’m here. I’m with you. I will not leave your side.

She seems a singularly unremarkable force against so formidable a foe.

When Sam completed his death, he unleashed all manner of horribles. Doubt, shame, shock, blame, fear, abandonment, suffering, sorrow, listlessness, confusion, loss, guilt, rage, regret, isolation, swirled around me and my sons and our extended family and friends with a fervor that left us breathless. Hope seemed fanciful and ineffectual in the face of so much pain, a total myth. And yet… she was relentless with her loving presence.

Despite the overwhelming darkness, light did shine.

Friends showed up on my doorstep with tears in their eyes and gallons of ice cream in their hands. Telephone calls, note cards, emails all arrived with messages of love, love for me, love for my children, love for Sam. Even on my darkest days, I had something to be grateful for. I had two reasons to get up and going every morning. I survived. I was determined that my sons would go on to have lives filled with love and joy and faith, but this would require that I likewise continue to build a life with more love and more joy and more faith. I moved from breath to breath. Within the terrifying silence, I began to hear a soft heartbeat and a voice I recognized: I am here. I am strong. This is my life.

If you had told me ten years ago that Sam would end his life on a clear blue October afternoon, leaving me and our two young sons, I would have told you that you should really stop smoking whatever you were smoking. If you had continued predicting my future, insisting that I would later fall in love with a handsome widower and open my heart to his two teenage sons, that we would get married, blend together a family with our four sons, two cats and a dog, and add an “ours” puppy to the mix, I would have told you that you should really share whatever you were smoking.

That was never going to happen. But then it did.

Finding my way after Sam’s suicide was not something I ever anticipated having to do. It was harder than I could have imagined, but my life is also more blessed and meaningful than I could have dared to dream. I am not merely surviving; I am living a full and beautiful life.

There is, I should note, one aspect of the term “suicide survivor” that appeals to me. There is a whole community of beloved souls who call themselves suicide survivors: parents, children, spouses, siblings, friends and partners who have lost a loved one in this terrible way and who continue to find light in their lives. The loss might have introduced us to each other, but it is the love that unites us, a shared faith that death cannot extinguish the light of those we love, a mutual hope another’s suicide will not overshadow our own lives. This community embodies the untold possibilities for those who continue to live whole-heartedly.

I haven’t yet come up with a better term than “suicide survivor”, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, I will say this: I am a suicide survivor.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And community.

Three Important Lessons

For surviving a trip to the DMV, and maybe for Life

Lesson Number 1. Things take time. Nothing moves quickly at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not lines, not people, and especially not cars. We almost arrived on time for our 1:45 appointment, not that anybody was checking, armed with the child’s passport, his birth certificate, and his father’s death certificate, which it turns out we don’t need, even though all the instructions warn that both parents’ signatures are required for the permit. It’s a bit unnerving to carry Sam’s death certificate around, but it doesn’t take our breath away like it used to. The boy doesn’t’ want to see it, which is fine by me, I’ve stared at it long enough for all of us.

We’ve also got the certification from the drivers’ education school, a printed confirmation of our appointment time, and my physical checkbook, which I had to make a special trip for, because who carries her checkbook with her anymore? In the DMV time warp, however, they do not accept credit cards. We do get the so-called red carpet treatment because we have an appointment, which means that we wait our turn on the dingy red carpet inside the air-conditioned building. For this, we are most grateful, because the other line goes out the door and around the building, almost the length of a block. Even so, we’ve been at the DMV for over an hour.

All of humanity is here, which is part of what my husband and I love about living in Los Angeles. We have everybody – all ages, cultures, genders and orientations, every color, bodies in various shapes decorated by pearls and tattoos – each of us united through stretching the limits of our patience in the labyrinth of the DMV. I hear snippets of conversations in English, Spanish, Chinese and what I’m pretty sure is Armenian. There’s a woman with her teeny tiny baby in a stroller, and I can only imagine the urgency of the matter that brought her to the DMV with her newborn and her aging mother in tow. I’m dying to tell her that she’s not going to believe that before she knows it she will be sitting next to her child, who then will be taller than she is, getting ready to take his permit exam, but I don’t, because I don’t want to be that crazy old lady at the DMV who tells you that before you know it you will be sitting next to your child, who will then be taller than you are, getting ready to take his permit exam. But I am thinking it.

There’s a man who looks to be in his 60’s, accompanied by a woman who could be his daughter. She is reading the application for renewing a driver’s license to him and noting his responses on the form. I wonder why he is not reading it himself. I don’t think he’s blind, because otherwise he wouldn’t qualify for a license at all, and I remember that my own father was here 8 months ago, cataracts and all, memorizing the eye charts so he could renew his own license. He had given up driving, but he wasn’t ready to give up his actual license. The man is telling his daughter “Yes, I’m a citizen. Yes, I’m a veteran. And No, I don’t want to register to vote. I served in the military for fourteen years, I’ve been a citizen for my entire life, and I have never once voted in any election.” Again, I say nothing. But believe me, I am thinking it.

My first-born child was several weeks old by the time I realized that my driver’s license had expired on my birthday while I was up all night nursing a newborn. In my sleep-deprived and somewhat brain-damaged state, I had completely neglected to complete the paperwork required to renew my license. I had neglected a lot of things, but not the baby. For many years, the photograph on my driver’s license showed the straps of the Baby Bjorn carrier (but not the marsupial himself who was sleeping contentedly within). I’m confident, thinking back now, that some lady was sitting with her teenager on the cusp of driving himself, watching me with some nostalgia.

The baby’s mother hands her child to the woman I presume is grandma, who looks at me and smiles. Two blinks later, her child has a child. And so it goes. Time moves slowly at the DMV, but if you are paying attention to the snapshot, you will see life zipping by.

Lesson Number 2. They change the rules while you’re not looking. The first representative we talk to informs us that they added proof of residency requirements in July. Nowhere, mind you, is this information published in a medium that might be available to the general permit-seeking public. In fact, the sole evidence of the changes seems to be found on a worn photocopy they keep behind the counter, the upshot of which is that I need to provide two more pieces of documentation demonstrating both my last name and our home address. For the record, a DMV issued driver’s license does not count.

Under normal circumstances, it might not be a huge hairy deal, but I did not change my last name when I married Tim. One of the challenges of a blending family is the matter of the name change. It was easy enough to change my name the first time I got married; I was 24, with a short credit history and a shorter resumé. I wanted to share the same surname as my husband and my future children, so the traditional decision was straightforward. But after I was widowed and remarried, everything was more complicated. I chose to keep my already-changed-once name, which happens to be the same as two of the children. On the other hand, having a different name than my now husband can often create confusion and a frustrating absence of supporting evidentiary instruments. These are the times I despair of ever having all my affairs in order before I get hit by the proverbial bus, as my children might never forgive the former trusts and estates attorney the mess she left in her wake. Another reminder to look both ways and proceed cautiously.

I imagine the traffic building at this hour between this governmental office and my files, and I do not believe I could get there and back with the additional documentation in time for my son to begin his written test by the 4:30 deadline. We call for help. Mercifully, the child has this amazing stepfather who’s willing to bring the appropriate documentation to us; he scares up a Form 1099 showing about $16.00 worth of interest for the year, a Member Fees statement from the State Bar of CA, so I guess that JD is worth something after all, and a health insurance bill. We are given the green light, which means that we are sitting again, now waiting for our number to be called.

Of course, this whole scenario strikes me as amusing in its predictability. The boy, however, does not find this experience humorous. I text my nearest and dearest: “We’ve been at the DMV for over an hour, and the boy has learned: 1. Nothing moves quickly here and 2. They changed the rules in July.” The boy does not find my commentary even remotely entertaining. “Mom,” he lectures me, “Think about how boring this is for us. Now think about how boring it’s going to be for her to read about this.” Which makes me laugh even more. They can change the rules, but they can’t take my sense of humor.

Lesson Number 3: Objects in mirror appear worse than they actually are. I provide the documentation and pay the fee, the boy gets photographed and fingerprinted, and then he goes to the exam room to take the written test. Meanwhile, I sit. As I look around at the many faces navigating the system, I imagine the hundreds of stories contained in this one room, the many hours people spend waiting for loved ones and the results of exams. I think that about the fact that this is another milestone that Sam has missed, I think about how lucky I was to take one of Debbie’s sons to the DMV for his behind-the-wheel exam, and I think about how amazing it is that Tim is present for the so-called baby. Eventually, I am woken from my reverie by the presence of a handsome young man hovering silently above me.

His face bears an unusually glum expression, and my stomach sinks. He was so confident that he would pass the written exam, but instead it looks like we’ll have to come back to spend another afternoon in the bureaucratic maze. I hesitate to respond, trying to read the disappointment in his eyes. His chocolate brown eyes start to twinkle, and he grins at my fallen expression. “I passed.” He shows me the paperwork, authorizing him to get behind the wheel, and then his smile fades, as he turns to the last page, the one with the driver’s photograph. “Mom! What is with this picture? Does the DMV try to make you look ugly? Seriously, do I look this bad to you?!” Luckily for him, none of his brothers are within earshot of that question. I inform him that it’s the DMV equivalent of a snapchat filter, making everybody look uniformly ridiculous, but without any fun.

It’s not as bad as it seems. In another stroke of blind luck, he will have the opportunity take a replacement photo in about fifteen years, maybe about the time he has his first child.

***

Today, the so-called little one has his first behind-the-wheel instruction, and as he pulls decisively away, I realize he is about three blinks from his driver’s license, the SAT exam and the prom. Four blinks from taking his own kid to the DMV for a driver’s permit. Panicky, I turn toward the defective hunting dog for comfort. He is always happy to see me, and he never speaks. Not one sarcastic word. Most importantly, he will never leave me to go away to kindergarten or to college, and he will never drive off, leaving me standing at the curb, thinking two things: 1. We do not have enough crunchy snacks in this house to last for the entire two-hour driving lesson, and 2. I wonder whether it might not be the worst time to get another puppy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And extra dark-chocolate-covered-pretzels.

 

 

 

 

Love’s Impulse

Sometimes I think my dog’s approach to stress-inducing situations – loose Samoyeds, renegade lizards sunning themselves on the front porch, live broadcasts – is the only reasonable response to the crazy in this world. He stands there, shaking and drooling, refusing either to engage or to ignore.

In recent weeks, I have felt increasingly like Steve Martin in the opening sequence of the movie Roxanne. He’s jauntily walking down the street, eager to begin his morning. He reaches into his pocket to pull out a quarter to put into the newspaper vending machine. He pulls out one copy of the paper and continues his cheerful gait for about six steps. As the morning edition’s headline starts to sink in, he slows. He stops. Panicking, he flails his way back to the vending machine, playing a version of hot potato with the Times, reaches into his pocket for another quarter, stuffs the newspaper back into the vending machine and quickly closes the lid. Deep breath. Then he resumes his cheerful journey down the sidewalk. This scene resonates with me now more than ever. I cannot tolerate the front page of the paper. Or much of what’s on the inside. Not that I often get past Page One. Every day it seems to takes less time for me to rush the paper to the recycling bin.

I want to be informed. I really do. I want to be open-minded. I really do. I cannot stand the level of hateful, inflammatory, vindictive conduct and the divisive commentary. I just can’t. I wonder if I’m better off not knowing.

But then the truly horrifying events happen, discrimination in its ugliest forms, rapidly increasing climate change, political abuses of power that leave families stranded and hungry, an explosion aimed at children. It’s too much. The images leave us paralyzed. Fear’s intent is to immobilize us. What could we possibly do in the face of so much evil? The drooling and shaking begin.

The sorrowful night is solitary and cold.

Chaos swirls, and the overwhelming dark of evil and confusion takes over. It’s almost impossible to breathe. I wait. I sit. I cry and tremble. In the midst of paralyzing fear and frustration, there comes – briefly – a moment of stillness. Stillness, which is an altogether different experience than paralysis.

Sitting in the dark, the light slowly, confidently, begins to show its presence. I feel Love’s impulse. A moment of inspiration. A smile. A full breath. Fear loosens its grasp on my attention, and I notice that good is happening. People are moving together with one beating heart. I hear Love’s message to Her people: You are enough. Peace begins small, quiet and soft in safe, secluded places and grows in strength. Fear no longer stops me in my tracks, even if it forces a cosmic pause, and I continue forward with joy and purpose. Hope lights up a single cloud in the blue early morning sky, and it is enough to propel me into the morning.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. You are enough.

Variations on a Theme

I have been triggered. You have been warned.

I am generally open to offering perspective or insight. I have not exactly been shy about this path I’m on, as a woman who lost her first husband to suicide, and as a mother to four children who lost a parent at entirely too young an age. I willingly share resources that I have found particularly helpful, books, therapists or organizations, my go-to radical self-care avenues, I share stories of success and failure from my own life. If you think that I personally might be able to help your “friend” (or to help you help your friend) who is struggling because whatever whatever whatever, then I’m in.

If, however, you are calling me to gossip about somebody who “lost her husband in the worst, most tragic way,” then call somebody else. I’m not interested. Do not call me to compare death by heart attack to death by some other attack. Not because I think that my path to widow was worse than anyone else’s. On the contrary, all the ways to widow suck. Period. There is no better or worse in this space. It’s all bad. It sucks in different ways, but every way stinks. I am not going to play this game with you. This is not a competition anybody wins. We are all losers in this race. It sucks whether you’ve been married 5 months, 5 years or 5 decades. It sucks if you’re engaged and don’t even get the “widow” title. It sucks if you’ve been left with young children. Or without them. The sudden heart attack, the drunk driving incident, the terrible accident, the lingering illness. All bad.

If you are calling because you want something you can do so that you will feel better, some task you can accomplish so that you can check the newly-widowed friend off your to-do list, forget that ugly little death business and move on with your day, then I am not your girl. Google the answer yourself. I appreciate that it is incredibly painful to sit with someone you love while she herself is writhing with suffering. I completely understand that this will be inconvenient and time-consuming. If you want to make yourself feel better, pour yourself a glass of wine. Or send the flowers and a note and keep moving. It’s okay. I get that you don’t get it. No hard feelings. Just don’t try to justify to me that you’ve done your part, and now she has to get over herself and figure it out. Her grief is not about you.

If, on the other hand, you genuinely want to help your friend feel better, pull up a chair next to her and buckle up. It’s a long haul, the territory is uncharted, and you’re both in for a bumpy ride. You are welcome to call me along the way. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience, but I will share with you what I have learned.

There will be some dark days ahead. Your friend might lose her appetite and an alarming amount of weight in a short time. She might eat only ice cream for hours on end, and she will let the dog eat Moose Tracks out of the container, even though it sticks to his ears. She will seem barely to function; that’s a good day. She will show up late or on the wrong day altogether. She will hardly ever know what day it is, actually. She will stare into space a lot, especially when you start talking, or even when she is talking. She cannot keep track of her train of thought or the incoming mail. Just when you are starting to doubt whether your friend will ever find light again, she will look up and notice that her designer dog is humping your leg, and she will grab him by his little collar and say, “All right. That’s enough. If I’m not having sex, then nobody else in this house gets to have any sex either!” Then the two of you will laugh until your sides hurt and you are crying again, and in this moment you will trust that your friend is – even now – finding her way.

It is interesting to me that most of the widows I know would not trade their particular journey for somebody else’s. Every path is hellish in unique ways. It’s a lot of suffering no matter how you get there. This is not an exercise in comparing and contrasting. The point is to move forward. The path traveled turns the experience from the unknown into the known, and there is comfort to be found in the familiar. When we transcend the language of better and worse, the seeds of gratitude begin to take root.

These movements forward cannot be rushed or forced, although the loving presence of a friend nurtures them along. Show up. Listen. Cry together. Laugh together. Be together. Even on our darkest days, there are reasons to be grateful and reasons to laugh. Healing starts to happen. She manages to drive herself to the grocery store and come back home with the ingredients for a complete meal, including ice cream, which she puts in the freezer before it pools on the counter. She remembers a cousin’s birthday. She shows up early to help set up for the Back to School picnic. She drives carpool. She will, predictably, dissolve into tears at times you cannot predict, but slowly, tentatively, she begins to rebuild her life. She starts to find joy again. She completes a novel. She plans a vacation. She orchestrates an anniversary celebration. She becomes herself again.

She is not fixed; she is transformed.

If that’s what you want to talk about, count me in.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And transformation.