Deathaversary

The word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” We couldn’t find the word to mark this particular occasion, so we made up our own: “deathaversary.”

Somehow the word “deathaversary” carries a better balance of the gravity and levity of the day. The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not a celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and find joy, well then, there is reason for celebration. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry – or at least I do – because I (not to be confused with the men in my life) am a sissy crybaby. Personally, I believe the fountain of tears has contributed in no small part to my ability to heal, gentlemen, but I digress…

Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

We have, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk hurting feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt feelings. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (and maybe fail!) to help.

Our town has a deathaversary coming up. It is more than a little painful. Last year, a senior boy committed suicide on campus at our local high school. The year before, a sophomore took his own life at a neighboring high school. Our Number 2 son found out about both events before any of the rest of us because friends were texting him (in school, of course, but don’t tell the Dean of Discipline).

How do we let these kids know how desperately they are loved? How worthwhile their lives are? I don’t know, but I want to try. At the time, I responded in the way most natural to me. I went for a run. I used my words. I talked to my children, and I wrote an article for the local paper. In the interest of grabbing that deathaversary bull by the horns, I’d like to share that letter again, and I apologize because some of you might have already seen it, but I think it’s still relevant, so here it is…

The Speech

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk.  My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10 minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help.  When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married just over a year ago. (Three years now!) 

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

 ***

Wishing our teenagers light and strength. And extra snacks.

Serendipity

Tuesdays are my Charlotte Shabbat. I go to yoga and therapy and maybe take myself out to lunch. I don’t pay bills on Tuesdays or take calls from accountants or attorneys (unless, however, the aforementioned attorney is a fellow alum, member of my book club, or coaches my kid’s basketball team with my husband, in which case I will happily talk to her or him any day of the week). I read, I putter, I take long walks with the dog. Dentist appointments are not on the list of Tuesday-approved-activities. As if I really needed to say that out loud.

Except for the fact that it is Tuesday, and I just got back from an emergency dental appointment to fix a cracked crown. Make no mistake, I’m grateful the dentist fit me into the schedule. I did, however, miss my sacred pilates/yoga class this morning, and I’m feeling a bit put out.

Let me also clarify that I love my dentist and the entire staff of his office, and I’m not just saying that because I sent my regular hygienist the link to my new blog. They are kind, competent, funny, and I would much rather see any one of them at the grocery store or the park. I even ran into one of them in Milwaukee, where we had both flown to visit our college kids. She’s the office manager and probably the only one of the staff who hasn’t personally cleaned my teeth, but honestly I would trust her to. That’s how great they all are. I just don’t want to be in that chair, in part because I can’t talk with the mouth mirror and explorer and suction thingy all in my mouth like too many straws, smudging my lipstick and making a drooley mess.

I’m a girl who actually likes having her teeth cleaned, but even so I make those appointments on Mondays. I know one other person in the world who likes having her teeth cleaned, and it’s my mother. Clearly we share a genetic defect.

Another defect my mother and I have in common is that I’m congenitally missing four teeth, the details of which I will spare you, but the upshot of which is twelve crowns and four implants. Not a single cavity, for the record, but I have financed two college educations worth of oral surgery, orthodontia and dental work. Unfortunately, those college educations were not for any of my sons.

So Sushi Tuesdays has been in a work-in-process for a while, and it wasn’t until after launching and about 450 views that a friend points out to me that – while she loves the name – there is a certain one of Uncle Jose’s Colorful Words right in the middle of sushituesdays! I had no idea… OH SH#T!

Or maybe, she continues, it was intentional?

Actually, that’s pretty funny. Makes me wish I had seen it first.

The boys think it’s hysterical. So do I, until I remember that I’ve also forwarded the link to a good number of Dominican nuns.

I guess some days are like that. Even Tuesdays.

I love taking the dogs for a walk on trash days. Simple things, I know, but it’s so great not having to carry that stink bomb around with me on my run. It’s not the smell that gets me nearly so much as the temperature. One of our friends refuses to get a dog because he doesn’t want to ruin his walk by having to carry around a steaming pile. He makes a good point. Believe me, I am no big fan of the “puppy prize,” but it sort of goes along with the puppy. And a conveniently located trashcan along my route makes me just a little happier than I already was for getting out with the dog.

One of the gifts of time is perspective. I used to refer to myself as the “luckiest unlucky girl” ever, but now I think of myself as just plain lucky.

I do what I can. I run. I eat well (mostly). I brush. I floss (really!). But certain details are simply out of my control. I have this girlfriend I like to work out with, and she kicks my trash around the track. Some people are genuinely annoyed by the mud stains and grass clippings that cover them by the end of the workout. But not us. Our standing line is: “I know what a bad day looks like, and it’s not this.”

Running around the track with my girlfriend in the rain is not even on the bad day radar screen. Turning 40? Nope. Not even a bummer. Choosing the favorite tie for Sam to wear to his own funeral? That’s a bad day. Shopping for suits for my sons to wear to their father’s funeral? Bad. Going to the police station to gather my husband’s personal items and the coroner’s office to pick up the autopsy report? That counts. The day Sam would have turned 42 if he had lived that long? Yep. Six weeks over the summer with no washing machine and four sons? Maybe. But not in the top 10.

It’s got to be a doozy to make my top twenty. And yet… there is a blessing to be retrieved, even on those dark, dark days. It is the confidence that comes from having survived those bad days, especially the ones in the top five. It is the ability to say to my sons, “You made it through that. You can do anything.”

I wish I could say that the “shit” in the middle Sushi Tuesdays was intentional, but once again, I am reminded that I’m not perfect, and I’m not in charge of every detail. It’s probably better that way. I’ll just have to try not to step in it. Again.

I know what a bad day looks like, and it’s not going to the dentist on my Tuesday. That having been said, my followup crown appointment will not conflict with my Tuesday yoga next week.

Wishing you light and strength. And serendipity!

Today’s Epiphany

My favorite word is “epiphany.” I’m not sure I can even articulate why I love this word so much – its quirkiness? its vitality? its hope? I remember my youngest son asking me about this. At the time, he was about 7, and his favorite was “puny,” because “it just sounds funny.” Which it does. Doesn’t it?

He asked me what “epiphany” meant, and I told him. To which he replied, …  (Thoughtful pause) … Inhale! “Oh! … (another pause) … Like that?“

Yes, exactly.

And then he says, “I was epiphanied once.”

I’ve been epiphanied more than once, and often when I’m not expecting it. In the early stages of our grief, there were very few things that made sense. We wrestled with faith, truth and homework. My sons and I had lots of questions and fewer answers. We used a lot of little words. Many four letter ones. Like puny.

And several completely unlike puny.

And every now and again, we found a little light. Just enough to make our way through the darkness. The following is a rant from 2007, just for a little perspective.

Today’s Epiphany

(Two months following Sam’s death)

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My friend describes my faith as having been “challenged.” This is her nice way of saying that I have told God to take Her own flying leap about a dozen times in the last two months. But my friend is too nice to tell her friend what I have said.  Her friend recently lost his wife to cancer.  He has faith, and his faith is getting him through.  [This friend of a friend, by the way, is now my wonderful husband.]

I feel abandoned by God, and clearly God abandoned Sam.  And my sons.  This is part of God’s plan?  To push a loving, devoted father and husband off a building?  To deprive my boys of their favorite baseball coach?  I really don’t need this kind of plan.  Or this kind of God.  I already had enough character.  And that whole load of crap that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle is… well… a load of crap.

My friend (with faith) gave me a book of 365 quotes.  Some of them are truly inspirational, and some are like tomorrow’s: “God can take tragedy and turn it into triumph.  He routinely does this for those who love Him.”  For those who love Him?  What about those of us who are enraged by Him?  Now THAT would be a God I could respect. But this God who conditions His care upon my love for Him first?  This is why I have a dog.

Another friend called today.  She is also religious, but not one of those namby pamby, airy-fairy, God-is-Love type faithful girls.  She’s a thinker, and her faith has been challenged. She doesn’t use the words, “God’s plan.” She doesn’t feed me a line about my being God’s perfect child, or worse, about God being perfect. She talks in terms of completeness, which I get, because completeness includes the good, the bad and the horrifying.  She doesn’t talk long term, she talks today, which is about what I can handle.  Most days.

Last night my son threw a major fit because I wouldn’t let him watch TV before completing his homework.  Why he flew into a rage about this, I’m not entirely sure because the family rule is pretty much Homework first, then TV.

But as I step back and think for minute, I realize I know exactly why he’s mad, but it’s not about the homework – he is hurt and furious because his dad jumped to his death, leaving my son without a loving father, without faith in the strongest man he knew, without a catcher to pitch to, without his personal morning alarm clock.

So I let him rage.  He hit and kicked; he shredded the geometry homework he had worked on for three days; he destroyed the plastic fireman’s hat his brother got from the local fire station the day before; he turned the hose on me; he tried to hurt himself – walked without his crutches, stopped short of pulling the stitches out of his own foot.  I stayed with him as best I could, protecting him, his brother and me, recognizing and understanding his anger, but also terrified of it.  When I called the family therapist in a panic, my son followed me around the house, first like a crazed stalker and eventually like a puppy dog.  By the end of the 30-minute telephone conversation, this boy wrapped his arms around me in a hug.  By the end of the evening, both boys were fed, bathed and books were read.  The homework was even completed; I had called a friend and asked her to read all the geometry vocabulary from her son’s homework; then my boy looked up all the definitions again.  He dictated and I typed.  And it was done.  Finally, I sent an email to his teacher explaining that my son had to do the entire page of geometry definitions all over again because the puppy had shredded the page.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Another reason to have a dog.

But I don’t need a God who is less compassionate than I am.

Now a God who will let me rant and rage…. And still love me.  That is a God I could respect.  Not the one who needs me to love Her first.  But One who understands when I hit, kick, swear and drink.  Could there be such a God?  I just might adore Her.

***

Wishing you light and strength for today. And one little epiphany.

Sushi Tuesdays. The Beginning.

A short biography of Charlotte: I am married with four sons. I have a BA in English and a JD from UCLA. We live in California with two dogs and two cats, and no actual white picket fence, but two very tall pine trees.

And yet life is not so simple as it might appear. I’ve been pregnant 5 times and given birth twice. Two of the boys have the same birthday, but they’re not twins. Two of the boys have the same first name, but different last names, and I have three mothers-in-law. Confused?

I was widowed in 2007. My sons were 6 and 8, the dog was just over two years old, and I was 39. My now husband was widowed the same year; his boys were 11 and 15, and the cats were about 7. We didn’t know each other. Five years later, we are married and blended, and we have an “ours” puppy. I’m not really sure why I thought I needed more crap to pick up around this place, but the puppy is sweet and house-trained and great company on a run. He does not, however, fit on a lap, but he refuses to acknowledge this fact, and as a result, I will blame all of my typographical and grammatical errors on the dog.

Healing does take time, but time by itself just makes me grayer and more wrinkled, which wasn’t quite the progress I had in mind. For genuine healing, I recommend dogs. The dogs are always happy to see me, and they greet me as enthusiastically when I return from a week-long trip as they do when I return from the mailbox, which is less than 10 yards from my front door. I just barely exit their line of vision before I return with the bills.

The cats, like the dogs, are equally happy to see me when I return from Europe or from the front walk, but they are not exactly… effusive.  Occasionally, I believe that they actually notice when I’m gone. Usually when they’re hungry. This is the same time that the children notice my absence.

A dog is just good for a girl’s mental health in general. A pair is better, but in any event you should have at least as many pets as you have mothers-in-law. As I mentioned, I have three mothers-in-law, two dogs and two cats. I’m just barely ahead of the game.

To make some serious healing strides, I also recommend yoga. Long walks. Or just intentional breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.

A pedicure every now and again tips the odds in mental health’s favor.

And just a glass or two of pinot noir – the noirer the better.

My healing began in earnest when I initiated my Tuesday rule: Unless you are in fact on fire AND I gave birth to you, it can wait until Wednesday. Tuesdays became my “Charlotte Shabbat.” On Tuesdays, I went to yoga and therapy. I did not pay bills or do laundry or make appointments. I might cook, but only if I felt like it. While I didn’t schedule lunch with anybody – that was too much pressure for my Tuesdays – I would take myself out to lunch. Nobody else in my family will eat sushi. As a result, I often treated myself to sushi for lunch on my Tuesdays.

I ran across this quote on a Tuesday:  “Watch your way then, as a cautious traveller; and don’t be gazing at that mountain or river in the distance, and saying, ‘How shall I ever get over them?’ but keep to the present little inch that is before you, and accomplish that in the little moment that belongs to it.  The mountain and the river can only be passed in the same way; and, when you come to them, you will come to the light and strength that belong to them.” — M. A. Kelty

As a family, we have traversed a mountain of grief and cried a river of tears, and inch by inch we have found light and strength in the process. I have no formal education or training in theology, psychology, grief or orthopedic surgery, but my M.O.M. designation has taught me far more than my J.D.

About a year and a half after Sam’s death, I gave a presentation to a group of therapists on the subject of children’s grief. The conference happened to fall on a Tuesday. Obviously, they had not consulted with me on this detail. It was the first violation of my Tuesday rule in about … a year and a half. At the time, one of my co-presenters suggested that when I write my book, I should title it “Sushi Tuesdays.” Five years later, I am starting a blog…, Sushi Tuesdays is born.

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Because healing takes more than time. Sometimes you need snacks.