His, Hers, Mine

My husband thinks this week’s Sushi Tuesdays post should be lighter fare, but we went to a funeral on Easter Sunday. Seriously. And it’s giving me pause for thought.

For as long as any of our boys can remember, we’ve spent Easter afternoon at an aunt’s house with about fifty extended family members feasting on all manner of traditional Easter fare and an inordinate amount of sugar. The three older boys have each had turns donning the Easter Bunny costume and handing out candy and eggs to the little cousins. One of the joys of a large family is these traditions, especially with little ones scurrying all over the front lawn looking for eggs in a display of tenacity that my bird dog would approve of. This year also features that particular delight of all family gatherings —a brand new baby. Which didn’t exactly balance out the fact that it was Tim’s and my first Easter without our oldest “baby” (away at college), but does remind us how much joy life brings. And how quickly those baby chicks grow up.

The fact that the boys consider this Easter tradition their own is one of my more significant accomplishments as a parent. The truth of the matter is that seven years ago we didn’t know any of these people. They were part of the package when Tim and I got married, and now we are all family. Blending families requires courage, patience and flexibility. A sense of humor. The occasional stiff drink. And the willingness to bite one’s own tongue.

So the funeral. My cousin’s father died the week prior to Easter. I call her “my”cousin, but technically she is the cousin of my first husband. Sam’s family is Jewish, and one of the gifts of an interfaith marriage is that the only major holiday he and I had to share was Thanksgiving. We spent Christmas with my family and Hannukah with his. Easter with mine; Passover with his. It worked well for us, and the only real challenge was negotiating the occasional Mother’s Day conflict.

Among the choices that were mine after Sam’s death was the matter of redefining our nuclear family. I found myself using the possessive pronoun —with its powers of inclusion and exclusion — intentionally. Partially as a means to come to terms with my new role as a single mother, but also in a display of defiance, I started referring to our children as “mine.” (Unless, however, the boys were doing something offensive or inappropriate, in which case I called them “his.”)

I think I had underestimated the power of the possessive pronoun (his, hers, mine, ours) in the healing process. I attended a small, quirky university in Texas, which earned its reputation in science and engineering and branched out to include the liberal arts. Similarly, I began my college career as an engineer, but then the literary arts captured my interest. I didn’t veer entirely off the geeky engineer path; I continue to take delight in details such as which Major League Baseball player has two consecutive possessive personal pronouns in his name. Literature seems a soft pursuit, but I believe in the power of words. Even little ones.

Those possessive pronouns, while subtle, indicated a clear direction for our relationships. It was important to me to preserve my boys’ connection to their extended family; when the family lost Sam, I didn’t want them to lose his sons as well. Partially as a means to simplify but also in an effort to be inclusive, I started to referring to Sam’s cousins as “mine.” In order for the boys to feel a meaningful connection, I needed a close relationship, not as the shiksa to “his” family, but as a member of the family myself. Consequently, I commandeered “his” family as my own.

But this funeral. There’s never a convenient time, but I was kind of thinking Good Friday would have made a logical choice. Once again, nobody consulted me. At least it wasn’t on Tuesday of Holy Week. Or any other week for that matter. You know how I feel about my Tuesdays. Logistics being what they are, the funeral was set for Easter Sunday, early afternoon, and we would be there.

It doesn’t always work out. Several years ago we had an unresolvable conflict: my nephew’s bar mitzvah was at the exact time as my son’s confirmation. Predictably, the temple and the church were at opposite ends of Los Angeles county; even with no traffic and a reserved parking space, there was no way to attend both events. For years, I was afraid I wouldn’t be forgiven.

As for the funeral, it never occurred to me not to go. We will have our customary Easter next year. I would have enjoyed holding the baby and also a glass of the traditional Bellini at the family Easter lunch. If Sam were here, he would have attended the funeral for his uncle and to support his cousin, and we would have been with him. Seven years later we are not just going in “his” place. We are going because it is our place. “We”being myself, my husband Tim, and our collective sons. Our nuclear family expanded. Our extended family expansive.

We attend an early Easter mass and grab breakfast before getting suited up for the funeral. My husband and sons trade the sign of the cross for yarmulkes in support of our family. It is one of the lovely paradoxes of funerals that life’s challenges bring us together. We are, particularly in our sadness, grateful to have each other. I recently heard someone say that “grief” is just another word for “love,” and indeed love for my uncle has brought us to this moment. At the end of the day, what slips through our fingers we hold on to with our hearts.

As usual, my cousin the “drama mama” is eloquent and hilarious, just as she was in her eulogy at Sam’s funeral, using endearing terms and just a few of Uncle Jose’s colorful words (in Spanish). The rabbi points out that the Mourner’s Kaddish does not contain any actual mourning language. A prayer of praise, it includes words like majesty, life, blessing, comfort, harmony and peace. It occurs to me that this language is not so different from the words the priest used that morning in celebration of Easter. We have, after all, gathered together to celebrate a life.

To which we all say Amen.

In some ways these events are predictable — aunties and grandmas leaving lipstick-prints all over our sons’cheeks while remarking on their height and resemblance to uncles and grandfathers. Whether gathering to grieve or to celebrate, family is comforting in its consistency. Next year, our youngest son may well get his turn as the Easter Bunny, and our baby niece will likely be walking.

Not just Mine. Not only His. All Ours.

And in case you were still wondering, it’s Orel Hershiser. Hers-His.

Ours. Amen.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. And inclusive possessive pronouns.

Awesome

A friend of mine – whose own father had taken his life when my friend was not much older than my kids – told me “Grief is like a heavy sandbag at your feet. And if you don’t pick it up, it will trip you, for the rest of your life. But when you do pick it up, you will notice there’s a little tiny hole… That’s where the grains of sand start to fall out.”

I love this description of grief. It is, in fact, so heavy. It is hard to explain the constant weight… Not just Father’s Day and Thanksgiving, but the every days. I remember the first field trip permission slip that came home from the elementary school after Sam’s death. I was mostly composed, until I reached the bottom of the page, where the directions read “Both parents must sign unless single parent has sole legal custody.” Sole legal custody. Those were some heavy words I hadn’t thought about yet. Accurate, but painful. Single parent. More heavy words I couldn’t ignore but wasn’t quite ready to accept.

And yet, sometimes the best way to take the sting out of those words is to own them. One of the boys came home from school one day, upset because a child at school was taunting him by calling him “dead father guy.” Dead father guy? True. Hurtful. But not even remotely clever.

We cried, we talked. I intentionally and with considerable restraint did not ask the child’s name so that my sons wouldn’t have to visit their sole surviving parent in the penitentiary. We crafted our own factually correct but insolent phrase: dead dad dude, as in “That would be dead dad dude to you.” I don’t know that he ever actually used it, but he was prepared just in case.

Like many parents of young children, Sam and I were very careful about the words we used, especially when the boys were around. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of Sam’s death the children heard a lot of words that were previously unfamiliar to them. Some that the boys thought sounded offensive and insulting, like “beloved.” And several expletives, which we now refer to as “Uncle Jose’s Colorful Words.”

As a family we have subsequently been much more lax about the use of certain words. I explained to the boys what the words meant and how such words were used. We have clear parameters for at-home use – no brother-bashing with four letter words, but sometimes we use strong words for strong feelings. That having been said, even God Himself cannot save you from the principal if you drop an F-bomb at school. “Mommy,” my son said one day after using an expletive to describe his father’s shortcomings, “You are right. Sometimes those little words really come in handy.”

So one day, my then 7 year old is in a particularly foul mood, and he goes outside to break big rocks into little rocks. I check on him from time to time, but he keeps telling me to go away. Eventually, he flings open the door. “Mommy, what’s for fucking dinner?” And he stands there defiantly, glaring at me.

So I look him straight in the eye, take a deep breath and let him have it: “fucking mac and cheese.”

In that moment I knew I’d be on the short list for Mother of the Year.

Sometimes those little words are nothing more than effective attention-getters. My boy needed me to see how much pain he was in. My cat does a similar thing when he’s in pain – he pees on the furniture. That gets our attention, especially when he is aiming for the children sitting on the sofa, and gives us another opportunity to employ one of Uncle Jose’s colorful words.

The boys went to a weekend retreat for grieving children about a year after their father died. It is a healing experience in many ways, to be with other children who have lost either a parent or a sibling, and to be able to talk about all of it. Or none of it. They see that they are not alone, as each struggles with the weight of his own sandbag. They play games. They eat lots of snacks.

When the boys came home, one of them had a lot of questions about the details of his father’s death. Where did he jump from? Was there blood there? Is it still there? How do you know? Have you been there? Can I go there?

The next morning we went to daddy’s “jumping spot” in Pasadena. It strikes me that Sam jumped at the intersection of two one-way streets. I have been here myself. It is not an easy thing to do. At first I avoided this intersection entirely, and then I circled it like a shark. Eventually, I drove through the intersection and was grateful that the light was green. The next time the light was red. A time or two after that, I actually parked and got out of the car.

So my little boy arrives in this same place. He looked up to the top of the structure, and looked down at the sidewalk. It is a long way to fall. He walked up to the corner of the building and kicked it.

We talked briefly to a woman at the shop on the ground floor, and it happens that she was there on the day Sam died. She was kind enough to point out exactly where Sam landed. She gave us permission to write on the sidewalk.

We had brought sidewalk chalk so my son could write his father a note. He squats down to write and suddenly I panic. My little darling is crouched down to write with his orange chalk, and I realize that I don’t know what he’s about to write here on the sidewalk for God and everyone to see. He starts writing…

“Dad is a…”

Sweetie Pie, you know you cannot use any of Uncle Jose’s colorful words, right?”

“I know, Mom.”

 

IMG_0110

This is my son writing his father a note. It says, “DAD is AWESOME.”

A bunch of grains fell out of the sandbag that day.

My friend was right about that sandbag. Two things happened when we picked up the weight of our grief – little by little, the sandbag started to get lighter, and day by day we grew stronger. Wise advice, some heavy lifting, a little hole, a good variety of words.

From his vantage point of experience, my friend predicted, “You will be amazed at what you and your boys can accomplish.” He was right about that too.

***

Wishing you light and strength. And a few powerful words.

Stigma

I never wanted Sam’s death to define me or his children or to define Sam himself. This is sort of a challenge because the last impression he left us with was rather a shock. Believe me, suicide is not the way you want to become your town’s local sensation.

While we as a culture have made significant inroads in the area of mental health, death by suicide continues to carry with it a significant stigma. From the outside, suicide looks more like a choice than an illness. It is very hard to reconcile the matter of Sam’s death with the manner of his life.

As I was preparing the eulogy for Sam’s funeral, my youngest son said, “Mommy, it would take a whole year to say all the good things about Daddy.” Indeed. It would take much longer for us to accept the fact of his suicide as a part of the package.

I married Sam because he saw me truly as I am and loved me anyway – warts and all, as they say. I was safe with him, and I grew into myself in the shelter of his love. This was his gift to me for almost 17 years. It was inconceivable that he was dead at age 41, let alone by his own hand. Sometimes I wondered whether I had really known him at all.

As usual, I turn to my dogs for inspiration, levity and acceptance. We have a little dog, a black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, with a pedigree a page long. He has a small white patch on his chin and another patch of white on his chest. It looks like he has spilled milk down his front, and he is too cute for words. Unfortunately for his breeding career, according to “breed standards,” these white patches, along with a nose that is just a tad too long, disqualify him from competition. The breeder dubbed him “pet quality,” which has since become my favorite euphemism for a doggy stigma.

He is, in fact, the ideal family pet. His little tail wags from the moment he wakes up until the moment he wiggles under the covers down at my feet. He is always happy to see us, and he is a complete joy. We call him “love in a dog shape.” His faults have not rendered him less lovable.

Our local catholic church has started hosting a weekly adoration. On Tuesdays. Not that anybody asked me, but adoration is most definitely a Sushi-Tuesday sanctioned activity. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, here are the essentials: a priest places the sacramental bread on the altar, and people sit around reverently. That’s all. Anyone can participate. You don’t have to lose ten pounds or get a job. You don’t have to dress up or wear mascara, or take a shower. You don’t even have to be catholic. You just have to show up. Slowing down helps. Adoration is simply about presence. It is as if Jesus says, “Just be here and sit with me.”

My Lenten practice this year has been to spend an hour in adoration each Tuesday. As I have mentioned, sitting still is not generally my strong suit, but I have managed to keep my weekly vigil nonetheless. Not surprisingly, I have found great joy in committing the time to silence, contemplation and community. And something else has happened in the process. Each week, as I sit still for a while adoring the gentle presence, I start to get the impression that Jesus might be adoring me too. Completely as I am. There is no flaw so egregious as to disqualify us from being loved by the divine.

The experience reminds me of Sam. This man with a gentle spirit was a kind father and husband, a T-ball coach, a concerned community member. Only a few weeks before his death, while walking his sons to elementary school, he noticed a van making an illegal U-turn. The driver was unaware that he was perilously close to hitting two eleven-year-olds on their bicycles in the crosswalk, also en route to school. Unaware, that is, until Sam stepped into the crosswalk between the kids and the van, shouting at the driver. Many times we wished that he had died that way – a hero’s death – instead of by his own design. These moments make his death that much harder to understand.

Our gift to him has been – through the course of our healing work – to see him as he was, the good, the bad, the ridiculous, and even the manner of his death, and to love and honor him still. How important for his children – and in fact, all of us – to be exceptional and unique and flawed. And loved through all of it. Adored, even.

None of which is to condone suicide. On the contrary, it is the biggest mistake of Sam’s life. Time and again, we have longed to delete that last little line of his biography. But over time, we have accepted that one word in particular. Suicide. And in the process we have learned that this last word does not invalidate any of the goodness, integrity and vitality that filled the preceding 41 years of his life. The boys and I have found our way to love Sam completely for who he was, even including how he died.

As I write, my “pet quality” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is in his usual spot, asleep at my feet. The breed is known for their sweet temperament. They are affectionate, playful and gentle. All true. This companion dog is my black and tan shadow. He is the best fetcher I have ever had, and if he is awake, his tail is wagging.

As with most purebreds, the Cavaliers suffer from a specific health challenge; most will die from heart failure. Also true for mine. I knew when we got this dog that he had a relatively short life expectancy, about 8 to 10 years. He’s 8 years old now and has a significant heart murmur. He is on three different heart medications, and the combination seems to give him the most terrible gas. It’s not always sweetness and light being the dog’s favorite, as I sit here typing in the gas cloud. It makes me so sad that the dog who is all heart may very well die from heart failure. It seems completely unfair.

Sometimes I think of Sam’s suicide as a kind of heart failure. If I had suspected he might have died prematurely from a valve failure I would have married him anyway. If you had told me he was going to kill himself, I wouldn’t have believed you. And while “suicide” is harder to say out loud than “heart attack,” I don’t have any regrets. At the end of it all, there is no easy way.

In the meantime, the best we can do is to live with joy and love and laughter, which is why I chose this ridiculously adorable dog to begin with. The heartbreak and tears will come as well. My Cavalier coughs and wheezes and wags. His favorite exercise is to jump on the table searching for scraps the second that we get up from dinner. I imagine someday he will have his doggy heart attack while gorging himself on a forbidden treat. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

And we will love him still.

***

Wishing you light and strength. And an adorable “pet quality” dog.

Courage

Being a runner means constantly sporting an injury in some form or another, but it also means learning a great many strategies for healing. My current injury – a sprained ankle – has introduced me to kinesiology tape, which bears an alarming similarity to fixing everything with duct tape, and it just might be my new favorite healing remedy. I recommend it highly. This tape comes in all kinds of colors and patterns, and I almost wish I had had a version that applies directly to broken hearts.

If only broken hearts could be taped back together.

But healing our broken hearts required a different approach altogether, a confrontation with the dragon that broke our hearts in the first place. While I do appreciate the impulse to ignore a problem in the hopes that it will solve itself, I do not think that time – by itself – heals anything. Regrettably, very few of my problems have resolved when I ran screaming from the room. I was going to have to look this dragon in the eye and stare it down.

But here’s the thing: dragon breath.

I believe that goodness ultimately wins, that love will prevail over hate, that life is more powerful than death. But evil puts on a good show. The dragon of our reality was grief, abandonment, fear, darkness, doubt. Coming to terms with our reality required the use of many words that were hard to say out loud: dead, suicide, despair, widow, was.

Ain’t no way around it. Dragon breath stinks.

But I am a formidable opponent. Legions of friends and family rallied to my side, and they armed me with love and lasagne. I gathered my children and mustered up a little gratitude. Dragons hate love and gratitude. I relied on my education, a good therapist, a dash of anger-inspired confidence and a dark sense of humor. Plus a kick-ass pair of cowgirl boots, because I did get my degree in Texas, and sometimes you have to use the pointy end of those boots.

Sam and I used to play a game with the kids at our dinner table that we called “best and worst,” where each person shared both the best and the worst parts of his day. The conversation often segues into other subjects, which can be entertaining or insightful, but we wanted to teach the kids to incorporate the range of the day’s experience. It might be more pleasant to focus exclusively on the “good” stuff, but that’s not where the growth happens. To ignore the “bad” stuff is not only unrealistic, but it doesn’t teach the kids how to deal with adversity. Or brussel sprouts.

My father has his PhD in nuclear physics – he is the sharpest knife in the drawer – and he does all those things that faithful people do. He prays, he volunteers in prisons, he seems genuinely to love teenagers. Honestly, he is a light in the world, and a beacon in mine. He also suffers from a chronic disorder which we refer to as “unconditional joy.” He consistently finds the good in everything. It’s a little annoying.

A few nights after Sam’s death, we were sitting around the dining room table, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, both boys and myself. I have no appetite, so I start the conversation, “Let’s play best and worst.” One of the boys goes first, “Well, my worst was that daddy died.” Yup. That’s going to be his worst for a long time, but I’m grateful because he is not afraid to name the dragon. “And my best was playing at my friend’s house today.” He is, after all, only 8.

The rocket scientist goes next, “My best was meeting a lot of Charlotte’s friends…, and my worst, … Well… [pause], but they were tears of joy.”

Ding dong!

By which I mean that the doorbell rang right at that moment, sabotaging our family dinner, but saving my father’s life. I left the table to answer the door. There were two people on my doorstep – the financial guy with papers to sign and the doctor friend with Xanax in hand. Between the two of them it would be the first night I got any sleep at all since Sam’s death.

And then I went back into the house to face my father, and the dragon lady cut loose with some venom and flames of her own… “Tears of joy?!? Are you INSANE? Dad, those are tears of PAIN! Are you KIDDING ME? We are SUFFERING! I am a 39 year old widow and my little boys have LOST THEIR FATHER!”

Evidently grief is harder than rocket science.

After Sam died we observed many of the Jewish mourning traditions, including the unveiling of the grave marker 11 months following his death. There is wisdom in a defined grieving period because it ends. It is, in fact, supposed to end and welcome color back into the world. But it doesn’t end if it never began. It has to begin too. And that may be the most redemptive aspect of dragon breath. It is almost impossible to ignore. And so, we turned toward the dragon.

Life has a way of rubbing up against those old wounds. That’s why the healing work is so important. Some of the times that life will irritate the wounds are predictable, like birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. Some take my breath when I’m not expecting it, like the day I recognized a doctor’s name on the plaque adjacent to my dermatologist’s office. I couldn’t place the name, but it was so familiar. An hour later, I remembered where I had seen the internist’s name. I have never met her. I only know her signature. It’s at the bottom of a page I’ve stared at over and over again, uncomprehending. She signed Sam’s death certificate.

Dragon breath.

There is no way to avoid all reminders of our loss, but if we incorporate the loss into the fabric of our lives, we accomplish an emotional alchemy. And the dragon breath turns into a warm breeze, unpleasant maybe, but no longer toxic and arresting.

I did not muster the courage to walk into her office right then and thank her personally. Maybe someday. I did, however, whisper a prayer of gratitude for the hands that cared for my husband on the day he died, and I blew Sam a kiss.

Dragons hate that.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the courage to stare down the dragon.

Patience

I have given up running for Lent, and I am not happy about it. I twisted my ankle and fell on a run a couple weeks ago, spraining one ankle and both wrists, and I have been advised not to run for another month. It’s driving me crazy.

I might have preferred to give up teenagers. I currently live with three of them, and they seem to have outpaced my patience. Nothing makes me happier than having all four of our sons together with us at mass, but not today. Cell phones in church, pinching each other in the pews, I swear Jesus is still stuck between their teeth when the bickering resumes.

I could really use a short run, but instead I’m resigned to a long sit. I am not an excellent sitter. I am terrified of inertia.

On the day of Sam’s funeral, one of his clients – a woman I had never met – brought me a little bird in a wicker cage. With some urgency, she explained to me that when I got home, I was to release this bird, and as the bird flew off, he would take with him my troubles. Sparrow. Sorrow. Got it. It seemed a meaningful tradition, and I was touched that this woman (whose name I still don’t know) thought enough of Sam to share it with me.

And so, the little bird accompanied me in the limousine from the gravesite to the reception. I’m pretty sure that somebody took him to a safe place for the afternoon. I can’t remember. There’s a lot I don’t remember from that day. It was warm. I remember that. Lots of people wanted to help, so I’m certain somebody must have been delegated bird duty, because the bird came home with me later. I really was looking forward to this magic bird taking flight with all my worries, which seemed to be mounting by the minute. It was, however, only a very small bird.

The boys wanted to keep the bird. Not a chance. I had burdens enough already and this sorrow sparrow was here to lighten my load. We sat together on the front porch, expectantly – dare I say, optimistic, for the first time in a week – and reverently said our thank you’s and farewells. We opened the cage door.

The last time we participated in a bird release, the boys had been given a pair of homing pigeons during a week of summer science camp, and those pigeons darted out of their cage and took off so quickly we could barely snap a picture. If we had thought to bring out the camera on this occasion, we could have taken photographs and developed the film ourselves before the someday sparrow even stretched his wings. I mean, that fucking bird did not budge.

At first I thought maybe he was dead too. He blinked. I was flooded with relief that I hadn’t killed him. He blinked again. Now I was getting irritated. He had work to do, and if he didn’t start flapping I would have to end his little life myself. But my boys were still watching, so we sat. All four of us – two little boys, a disheartened mom, and a flightless bird. The boys soon lost interest and went into the house. The still bird sat there, torturing me with his misguided hope.

I put some water out. It was the least I could do for him since he was about to fly off into the sunset with the weight of my world on his avian shoulders. After a long while he hopped out of the cage and onto the grass. Eventually he opened his wings, and flew up, up, up … right into my crape myrtle, about 8 feet from my front door. Not the progress I anticipated. He perched there for an hour, the sun began to set, and I was getting cold. This business about flying off with my problems was slow going. I went inside. I imagine the little bird spent the night in my yard gathering his strength for our mourning.

Come daylight, the little bird was gone, and while he didn’t exactly fly off with all my troubles in tow as I had hoped, he did leave me with a lesson. I might just need to sit with my cares for a while. They will take flight eventually, if I am willing to let them go. A very small bird brought hope into my very dark world, after all.

And so I attempt to sit with my sprained ankle propped and iced. It occurs to me that I spent the first 40 years of my life not running; the 40-day hiatus will pass, and I will hit the trails again. I notice that all of the following are within arm’s reach: my calendar, a laptop, two novels, a neuropsychologist’s latest book on the teenage brain, three writing projects, a lesson I’ve prepared for a Junior Great Books session at our local elementary school, a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, a stack of folded laundry, a summer school application, a daily prayer book and my cell phone. I do not know why I’m so afraid. By all appearances, I am constitutionally incapable of inertia.

Every now and again my husband and I will sneak out to church early on a Sunday morning, and leave our boys sleeping at home. They love these mornings. With all their growing and studying and extra-curriculars, they need the rest. And without all their kinetic energy, we appreciate the quiet, peaceful mornings too. Sometimes, we just need to sit.

Maybe what I need for this healing is stillness, a little patience with the process, a dash of faith in my own ability to heal. And so, leaving the noise and accoutrements behind, I head for the bath and sit. Just soaking up warmth and silence and trust. Inhale, exhale, repeat. And I remember the promise of the someday sparrow.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And patience. And a hopeful little bird.