Oxymoron and Other Insults

As a newly-widow, I had a lot of feelings I didn’t know how to handle – grief, guilt, anger, anxiety, resentment – so I ran with them. Literally. And I cannot believe I just said that. I am not a runner. I was that girl who played in the marching band because I got PE credit for the class. I have always hated running and considered the term “good run” to be an oxymoron.

Much to my parents’ chagrin, I’m afraid, I am a girl who often says what she thinks out loud, and sometimes it’s not pretty. I am not at all like the Bible character Job. If all the crap that rained down on Job’s head showered down on mine, I’d be the first one cursing God. At the top of my lungs. As a matter of fact, only a very small portion of Job’s lot drizzled down on me, and I was already calling God a variety of names that I won’t repeat here.

Jonah, on the other hand, is a character I can relate to. God says, “Go to Ninevah,” and Jonah takes the first ship to the complete opposite end of the earth. For the entire first year after Sam’s death, I refused to darken God’s door. I often said that if God wanted to talk to me, She could come to me, but I was not going to go to Her. She knew where I lived, and She could make a house call. Or send a whale after me, which seemed a safe enough threat because whales are not indigenous to the foothills where I live. More than once I told God to take His own flying leap. I deeply resented the God who could “plan” this tragedy.

I stopped praying. I started running. I was 40, recently widowed and had teenagers on my horizon, all of which is to say I might have been a little overwhelmed. How much harder could running be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out, but running was great for me both physically and emotionally. As I mentioned, I was a little angry, and running was a healthy way to pound out the mad. I got my appetite back. I built up some endurance. Most importantly, running provided a community for me. My group of running girlfriends and I would wake up at o’dark thirty to power through a few miles while the kids were sleeping, so we could be home in time to get them ready for school and ourselves ready for work. [Spoiler alert: If you don’t believe in miracles, let me tell you this – I had teenagers at my house at 5:30 in the morning to boysit so I could run.]

Running is better than therapy. And cheaper. And speaking of anger, anxiety and resentment, no insurance company is involved. My running buddies know everything – it all comes out on the trail. We laugh a lot. Yes, even while we’re running. Reluctantly, I have to say … I am a convert.

Let’s be clear: I’m not out to break any records for distance or speed. I’m not even remotely interested in running an entire marathon, unless I can count the miles in installments over the course of a couple weeks, and Roger Bannister doesn’t exactly have anything to fear from me.

It has taken me years to say these words, “I’m a runner,” but I’m afraid it might be true. Last week I had time enough before a PTA meeting either to shower and get mascara’d or to go for a run. I ran. When I showed up at the meeting, the sweat was still dripping into my eyes. Not pretty. I draw comfort from the fact that these women all have teenage sons, who smell worse than I do before they run. But I think it’s time to admit … I’m an addict.

When Sam’s first deathaversary was on the horizon, one of my dear friends invited me to church. She wanted to do something for me to acknowledge the day. I cannot now recall exactly the words she used, but there was something about her invitation which was so open and genuine and lovely. I trusted that whether I accepted or declined, my friendship with her would be intact. And as soon as she extended the invitation, I knew that church was exactly where I wanted to be that day. A homecoming. I donned the boys in collared shirts, and off we went, not realizing that the whale was about to spit us right back in the direction of Ninevah.

In his sermon, the pastor talked about Jacob wrestling with the angel. Now Jacob is another imperfect character that I can identify with. The pastor was comparing Jacob’s struggle to his own struggle over his young child’s death years prior and how very angry the pastor himself had been with God. And I thought, here is a man who knows how much pain I’m in. He explained that by wrestling with the angel Jacob was keeping his connection with God – staying in relationship with God, and Jacob did not let go until he was blessed.

All those times I was calling God names, all God heard was me calling Him.

As it turns out, running just might be its own type of prayer. God found me on the trails, and He brought me home. All those names I called God, and He only had one for me: daughter.

My current favorite running route is a four mile loop starting and ending at my house. The first three miles are a mix of ups and downs, some rises, a few flat spots, but mostly gentle slopes downhill. The last mile hurts. It occurs to me that the four miles approximate the four decades of my life – the first three not without challenges, but the last mile home is a butt-kicker. Breathtaking. When you live at the top of a hill, you really have to want to come home.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a good runner. I had a good run. There’s a difference.

But I am a runner. That’s good enough.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. And a good run.

In Retrospect

“It’s taken years for me to understand that dying doesn’t end the story; it transforms it.”

–Gail Caldwell (Let’s Take the Long Way Home)

My son once drew a picture of the day his father died. On the left side of the landscape page was a gorgeous fall day, blue sky, green grass, bright sun, flowers and a frog. He then drew a line down the center of the page and scribbled black over the right half the page. This is, in fact, exactly what that day feels like.

One of our boys had a soccer game, but Sam didn’t come with us. He hadn’t been sleeping well, he had excruciating back pain and chronic job stress. He said he was going to stay home to take a nap, so I took both our kids with me. When I kissed my husband goodbye he had tears in his eyes. It was so strange – at that moment I thought it was evidence of just how tired he was. I can count on one hand the times I had seen him cry over the course of 17 years: when he left an uncle’s house, after visiting him for the what would be the last time (his uncle was dying of AIDS); during our first dance at our wedding; on the births of each of our two sons; and on the day he died.

I called Sam from the car on my way to the soccer field. He was my GPS and personal Thomas Guide. I was heading toward Pasadena and wanted to avoid Rose Bowl traffic, but he didn’t know what time the Bruin game was or even whether it was a home game. I should have known then that things were not right in his world. I signed off, as always, “Bye Sweetie. I love you.” I didn’t know it would be our last goodbye. He did.

I will fast forward through the events during the day – soccer, lunch, a hike, a rattlesnake and a frog. The boys and I returned home expecting to see Sam’s car parked in front of the house, as usual. There was a police car instead. Lights flashing, silently.

It’s funny how the mind tries to make sense of things that don’t make sense. Two chairs decorated my front porch; Sam and I would sit there after the boys were settled for the night to enjoy a cup of tea or dessert. It was a welcoming spot. If the policemen belonging to that marked car were waiting for me, certainly they would be sitting right in those chairs. Wouldn’t they? As I drew close enough to see the front porch – and the empty chairs – I had the conscious thought, “Oh thank God, it’s one of the neighbors.” Which is not very charitable, but it was what I thought. I exhaled.

I pulled up into the driveway, and then I saw them: two policeman and a priest standing in front of the gate. I just kept staring at that white clerical collar. It wasn’t one of the neighbors. This was completely wrong. Sam was Jewish.

The female officer said she would watch the boys while her partner talked to me (How did she know I had sons?). The male officer and the priest brought me into the house, and asked me to sit down. (Why was the house already unlocked?) For a brief moment, I resisted, hoping that if I kept standing maybe they would stop talking. I did not want to hear what the clerical collar had to say. Again, please sit down. I sat. The blue uniform told me that my husband had jumped to his death – right about the time that we were at the soccer game – from a parking structure adjacent to his office building. My legs went numb. They told me this was the worst part of their job. I told them it wasn’t much fun from my side either.

Sam had left a note, and they handed me a copy. I could hardly comprehend what I was reading. It said essentially “I love you. Tell the boys I love them. I’m sorry.” I kept shaking my head and saying “No.” They thought it was a really nice note; they often see much worse. I told them it wasn’t quite so much the love note I wanted. I didn’t mean to shoot the messenger, but the message sucked.

They told me that that they would let my boys know that their father had died, but that I would have to tell them how. They recommended that I tell them the truth.

They called a close friend and my parents. They left me with their business cards, a telephone number for the county coroner’s office and an identification number for the police report. And then they left.

In retrospect, I can see that they planted seeds of hope that day. It would take years for some of these seeds to blossom, but there would be many choices to make that would determine the course of our healing path. As I look back, I see that healing is a choice. Those police officers and that priest tried to set my feet at the beginning of a healing path, even as they were delivering the news that ended my life as I knew it.

I’ve been meaning to write this thank you note for a long time. When I was growing up my mother applied a 3-day rule to our written expressions of gratitude. Based on that standard, I’m about 2,370 days overdue. But maybe it’s never too late …

To the Pasadena police officers and Episcopal priest who informed me of my husband’s death:

Each one of you told me this was the worst part of your job and expressed your deep sorrow and regret at the pain of it. Thank you for doing your job anyway.

You knew the news you had to deliver would change my life and my sons’ lives forever. You had already – with my husband’s housekey and under the direction of protocol – inspected my home to confirm that he hadn’t taken our lives before taking his own. It didn’t occur to me until years later how relieved you must have been to see me pull into the driveway safely with both boys and the dog. You must have known that I would not be even remotely relieved to see the three of you waiting for me. 

You knew my legs would give way under the weight of your news, and you sat me down and told me anyway. You looked me in the eye and told me the hard truth. 

You advised me to tell my own children the truth about how their father died. I did. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done. You said, “You do not want them finding out from somebody else.” On a day where I could make sense of very little, that recommendation made sense to me. You were right. When rumors were flying, my sons had confidence that their mother would be honest with them. Even if the truth was ugly, even though our legs buckled under its weight, my sons could count on me for an honest answer to their most difficult questions. 

You showed me that day how to ask for help, calling family and friends before heading back out to your next assignment. You did not leave me alone. 

I apologize because I cannot find your cards or remember your names. I would not recognize you at the grocery store. I would have liked to thank you directly. Instead, I extend my gratitude to all the professionals – clergy, policemen and women, doctors, therapists, social workers – on whom this difficult job falls.

I want you to know that I can now talk to a priest without shaking and bursting into tears, and I can drive past your police station without the sinking pit in my stomach and numbness in my hands. I want you to know that our broken hearts – while scarred forever – are beating strong. I want you to know I’m grateful for your part, as hard as it was for both of us, in setting my little family on a healing path.

You did the worst part of your job well. Thank you. 

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Even if you only recognize it in retrospect.

Driving Lessons

We have – on either side of our fireplace – framed portraits, each of a family of four. On another prominent wall we have a portrait of our family of six. Our goal has not been to replace anybody, but to create our own unique family. With kindness, mutual respect and a lot of humor.

It took us a long time to get here.

This is how I explained it to my sons: There is a daddy-shaped space that will be in your heart forever. Nobody will take his place. Nobody else fits. But here’s the thing about love… If somebody special comes into our lives, your heart will grow. That’s what love does. And there will be a new space just for him. It doesn’t take over the daddy space – it’s its own thing.

Fast forward a couple years, and I shared this same idea with my step-son, but he wasn’t buying it. He had definite ideas about where the wicked step-mother space should be, and let’s just say it wasn’t a prominent place in his heart.

But this is a boy who is pretty much all heart, even if he doesn’t want me to know this, so instead I appointed myself head cheerleader and president of his personal fan club. And it has been amazing what good we have done by putting our little broken hearts together. I made the decision simply to be present in this boy’s life.

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This is not always an easy task, particularly when “being there” means sitting in the shotgun seat while a 16-year old takes the wheel… Nothing brings you closer to the Almighty than teaching a teenager how to drive.

My own mother is a calm, patient, kind woman. She’s not much of a drama queen. I’m the drama queen. The first – and pretty much last – time she tried to teach me to drive turned her into a squawking, raving lunatic. Normally an articulate woman, she was reduced to unintelligible gesturing in a futile attempt to explain to me how to get the stick shift car into motion without stripping first gear completely. I eventually got out of the car and insisted that she drive us back to the house.

Dad met us at home, smiling expectantly, and my mother and I quickly wiped the grin right off his face. Slam! “I’m not driving with her ever again! YOU teach me how to drive!” Slam! “I’m not driving with her ever again! YOU teach her how to drive!”

My father taught me how to drive.

And now my step-son is in the driver’s seat. My husband – already experienced in teaching our oldest how to drive – has generously opted to let me have a turn. I vow to myself that I will not become the shrieking stress case that my mother was in the passenger seat.

My boy is very excited. The ink is still wet where the instructor signed off on his driver’s permit. After an expertly executed 11 point turn, my son extracts the car from the end of the cul-de-sac. We are on our way! As we turn onto the cross street, my neighbor passes on her way into our street. Of course, Mr. Social smiles waves and proceeds to careen dangerously close to the guard rail. Sharp gasp!! The overgrown oleander would have slapped me in the face had the window been open.

I’ve already failed. My inner squawking, raving lunatic is clawing her way right out. I clasp my hands in my lap and clamp my mouth shut. “Sorry sweetie,” I say. “I’m okay. You’re doing great.”

I remember all the times my mother attempted to stop the car while I was driving by pressing her feet through the floorboards on her side of the car. I’m not going to do this to my kid. Inhale. Exhale. I’m curling my toes inside my shoes. We are jerking forward and back. Side to side. I’m really grateful the car is an automatic. It’s not unlike Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. But without the safety features.

I start to pray. Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. What would Mary have done with Jesus behind the wheel? I’m convinced that she’s only a saint because she never had to sit in the passenger seat with her son at the wheel. She doesn’t have a clue! How is she going to help me?! Jesus turned her into a raging lunatic without a car! In his preteen 12 year-old arrogance – he decides to veer off in his own direction on foot and hold court in the temple. She finally finds him and loses her cool “Where the HELL have you been? Your father and I have been looking EVERYWHERE?” To which He replies “Whatever.” Or some similar tail-tweaking response endemic to teenagers.

I try again…Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

I think about my step-son’s mother – where is she now?! I have heard several stories about her driving prowess, none of which bode well for her sons’ driving ability. I sure hope she is donning her angel wings right now and clearing the traffic for miles around. 

Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners …

I have the conscious thought that our auto insurance premiums have been paid; and we have great medical coverage. Pray for us. Pray for us. Pray for us.

… now and at the hour of our death.

Our death? This prayer is not helping. I really hope that hour isn’t imminent. I wonder whether I’ve updated the designated beneficiary on my life insurance. I feel compelled to call our attorney to make sure he’s finalized our estate plan. And to call my mother with an apology.

We arrive safely back home. Amen.

Took my son driving again today. Truth be told, he’s already better today than yesterday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. Especially when a teenager is driving.