Suadade

(n.) a nostalgic longing to be near again to something or someone

that is distant, or that has been loved and then lost;

“the love that remains”

pronunciation | ‘sau-“da-dE

Portuguese

It didn’t occur to me that I was single after Sam’s death until the boys said it out loud. Sam and I had recently celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, the year before we had thrown a party for his parents’ golden anniversary, and I sort of thought that was the direction we were heading. I longed to turn back time with an intensity that kept me awake at night, desperately willing the hands of the clock backwards, disappointed by each rising sun.

Within a few weeks of his father’s death, my older son started asking me questions like How do you pay the electric bill? And What is a mortgage? Even in my shocked and overwhelmed state, I realized that the questions he was asking weren’t really pointing to the answers he needed. Several family members and friends – well-intended but slightly misguided – had informed him that he was now the “man of the house.” He was 8 years old.

I did not teach him how to sign up for online bill pay or how to calculate mortgage interest. Instead, I signed him up for fall ball, and together we calculated multiplication tables. He was the 8-year-old of the house, and his job was baseball and playdates and third grade. I told him that I would take care of everything else.

He was terrified that our now family of three would founder without his father at the helm. He said, “Mommy, I need you to get married again because I need a step-father because I’m too little to be the man of the house.” He was half right.

Needless to say, his brother had the polar opposite opinion on the subject of a step-father. “Mommy, you are never going to get married again, because nobody will ever be as good as daddy. And if you do, I’m going to kill that guy, and then I’m going to kill his ghost and then I’m going to kill his ghost’s ghost.” The child is emphatic about expressing his feelings. Not hard to imagine where he got that from…

As a parent, my challenge was to navigate my own grief process while simultaneously guiding the boys on theirs. Each one’s path is unique. It hadn’t entered my mind yet that I might partner again with somebody, but the boys had a different perspective on what such a relationship meant for them.

So we had the conversation. I told them I didn’t know what would happen. But I did know that there was a daddy-shaped place in their hearts that would be there forever. Nobody will ever take that place because nobody else fits. But if somebody special came into our lives, then there would be a new place just for him. That’s how love works. The thing about love is that your heart will grow to include both. (Which, as it turns out, is more true and more beautiful than I imagined.)

We talked about their roles and mine. I assured them that I would ask for help if I needed it, asking for help being one of the more important mental health skills that a person can nurture. We talked about life and death and love. I’m open to discuss pretty much any topic with my children that they’re inclined to discuss with me. Now that they are teenagers and young men, our conversations center around their current concerns, like sex and alcohol. Sometimes I wish we could just talk about dead people instead. It is simpler.

I remember one member of the family consciously refusing to let go of his suffering over Sam’s death. He said he was afraid that if he did, he would lose Sam in the process, the pain of Sam’s suicide wrapped like a python tightly around Sam’s very life. Losing and letting go are not the same thing. It requires both intention and surrender to find that balance where the longing to return to our old life releases its hold, while the love from our past continues to hold us up.

At Sam’s funeral, once we were graveside, and the casket had been lowered slowly into the ground, the rabbi handed me a single rose. He instructed me that, as the widow, I was to release the flower into the open grave and this would mark the beginning of my process of letting him go and continuing to live my life. I would have stood at the edge of the gravesite for much longer if there had not been several hundred people watching and waiting. In that moment I understood the urge to jump into the grave and hold on. People do that. It is not easy to come to terms with death’s finality. And yet, there was much wisdom in releasing the rose.

The family therapist once predicted that we would all reinvest one day. I have a vivid recollection of my next thought: “Absolutely, the boys need to do that. But I’m not going to.” Evidently, I still had work to do.

Fast forward a couple years, and somebody special did come into our lives. Tim had also been widowed and also had two sons. By that time, however, my sons had flip-flopped their position on the step-father question. The one who had wanted a step-father was now adamantly opposed. The other one said, “Mommy, I like Tim and I want you to marry him.” Predictable.

The flip-flopping flipped again after Tim and I were engaged. It was past bedtime (of course), and the one in favor of the marriage (I think – it’s hard to keep track at this hour) was irate, and he shouted at me: “You don’t even WISH Daddy was back any more!!”

Which was true.

I had reached that place where it didn’t make sense to spend my time wishing for something I couldn’t have. Because if I did, I would miss out on the love and good and beauty here for me now. The sunrise in my days represented possibility again.

But my boy is the product of two lawyers and not easily dissuaded. He pointed a finger at me and put out his next best argument: “You don’t even MISS Daddy any more!”

Which was not true.

“That,” I said, wagging my finger back at him, “is another question altogether. I will never stop missing your father.” I miss Sam when I hear a story I know would have made him smile; sometimes I can almost hear him laughing. I miss him when I see his facial expression on his sons’ faces. My heart aches every time they do something fabulous, and their father is not there to see them, and each time they falter and he is not there to catch them. That part doesn’t exactly get easier. And yet…

The boys are blessed with a step-father who loves them as his own. Not because we needed a replacement man of the house, although I did fall in love with Tim all over again when he cleaned up the mess resulting from a child’s bout with food poisoning, but because this wonderful, funny, thoughtful man has his own place in our hearts. By accepting death’s finality, we open our hearts to possibility.

I believe that we honor Sam most by living our lives well. With joy and love and open hearts. I know it is what he would have wanted. His love provided a foundation for us.

The love that remains.

A few weeks ago, I took one of the boys to the pediatrician for a followup after a sinus infection. The doctor asked about the family history of allergies, including the boy’s father, not realizing that he had died almost 7 years prior. For a moment the doctor himself started to tear up, but only briefly. His professional face returned, and he issued his diagnosis. As my son and I discussed the appointment afterwards, we noted how we almost feel more sorry for the doctor when these moments arise than we do for ourselves, because we have so thoroughly incorporated our story into our lives. It is all a part of who we are. And then he adds, “Mom, I do miss dad, but if it weren’t for Tim I wouldn’t be where I am now, and I really am happy.”

The one doesn’t replace the other. It is simply how we got here. And love remains.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the love that remains.

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After the Rain: A Word on Hope

I would not have used the word “hopeful” to describe any part of me in those early days after Sam’s death. Not optimistic or positive either. “Determined” might have been the closest to hope I would have dared. I employed quite a few of Uncle Jose’s colorful words, “hope” being a four-letter word not among them.

One of my girlfriends gave me a stone with this inscription on it: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord… to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). I was not even remotely comforted. I was so overwhelmed by my dismal present that I could not see beyond it. I promptly tucked the stone in the back of a drawer because I was afraid that one of the boys would smash it or use it to break something else, rock-breaking constituting one of their frequently employed outlets for grief. To be fair, the sight of it made me so angry that I wanted to hurl it through a window myself.

Sometimes the closest thing to faith I could muster was my incredulity that somebody else had hope for me and what Life still had in store. Turns out that’s enough. Sometimes the best I could do was to mask how annoying I found their optimism. Often I couldn’t. Turns out that‘s okay too.

There is a lot I don’t remember from those early days of grief. I remember an extraordinary number of questions and very few answers. I didn’t sleep much. I hardly ate. I held my breath.

I lost my partner, my best friend and my compass. I lost my appetite and 25 pounds between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. I lost interest in my favorite hobbies: cooking, photography, reading, writing. I lost my ability to focus. I couldn’t hear people talking; I often I wandered out of the room while they still were. The nights were dark and very long.

I cannot imagine what this process looked like to the outside observer, but judging from the caring, stricken faces of my family and friends, the train wreck wasn’t easy to watch.

Recently, a friend asked me how I managed through those initial days and weeks. When everything was gone, I had to bring myself back to basics: eat, sleep, breathe. The holy trinity of healing.

My mantra was, “Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.” I silently and audibly repeated it so often that one girlfriend gave me a silver bracelet with one word inscripted: Breathe. I have worn it nearly every day since she gave it to me, and even now in times of stress you might notice that I reach for it with the opposite hand and inhale.

As it turns out, letting people help can be instrumental in the healing process. I do not believe that line that Life only dishes out what you can handle. Life routinely piles on more than one person can manage alone; but Life also hands us each other. I tried to focus on eating, sleeping and breathing, and I let my girlfriends do pretty much everything else.

They picked me up and dusted me off. They cooked and carpooled. They wrote cards and emails. They took me to lunch and brought me books. They drove me to therapy and to Trader Joe’s. They sat with me, they ran with me, they cried with me. They argued with each other over who would do my laundry. Seriously. When your world goes black and you have friends who – with tears in their eyes – are fighting over your whites and colors on your front lawn, you are a lucky girl.

Through it all, they rallied to my side. When they asked, “What can I do for you?” they honestly wanted to know the answer. Much of the time I was too brain-damaged to I know what I needed. This did not deter them. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other and breathe my way through the day, fueled by the occasional snack. Ultimately there is no fix, but there is great power in presence. And dark chocolate.

My parents moved in with me. My house doesn’t have a guest room, but it didn’t matter. The boys and I slept like puppies in a queen bed for months. With the actual dog, of course. Not that I slept much, but I took great comfort in hearing the boys breathing. And the dog snoring.

What impresses me most as I look back is that my friends – through the lens of their own talents — noticed what I was missing and willingly filled in the gaps. I already told you about the closet. Another of my friends noticed that I was chronically late bringing the boys to school. According to her own self-assessment she has “no social skills”; she’s an engineer. For months, she showed up on my doorstep precisely at 7:45 – with her own children in tow – and got us ready, collecting lunches, socks, shoes, backpacks. Then she marched us up to school, prepared and on time. Do you know ANY moms who can be anywhere at the exact same time five days a week, with or without their children? This is her gift. I didn’t need a dozen moms on my doorstep. I just needed the one. And she was there.

One of my friends whose skills include organization and discretion came over once a week to sort my mail and remind me to pay the bills. I guess I needed a lot of hand-holding. Also a little Xanax.

One of my girlfriends – emotionally close but geographically distant – sent me an email every morning and every night for the entire first year after Sam died, even when her kids were sick or she was travelling. Usually just a few sentences. Sometimes a funny quote from the kids. Occasionally irreverent. Incredibly kind. For once, the time difference played in our favor. She gave me something to look forward to. Every morning. Every night. She was a life-line, and I depended on her.

I told more than one friend that I was not on speaking terms with God. I didn’t have anything nice to say to Her. Or about Him. I took God’s name in vain. Sam’s too. I refused to pray. But … many friends and friends of friends, as well as people I did not even know, prayed on my behalf. I’m pretty sure that most of them did not use Uncle Jose’s colorful words in their prayers. I know for a fact that some of them did.

These amazing, lovely friends found ways to be present with me in my pain. Theirs were the hands cupped around the flickering flame of my hope, keeping it aglow in the midst of the winds of change.

A girlfriend from college, an amateur photographer, created a blog for me, where she posted her work. She entitled this photograph “After the Rain.”

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Something about it resonated with me, resembling my now family of three. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that there might be an “after.” There was simply so much rain. But she did think about my “after,” so when I later heard this quote in my favorite yoga class, I knew it belonged together with the photo: And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (by Anais Nin) Sometimes I just stared at this photo, still tight in the bud myself, wanting to believe that the day would come. My friend had faith in me, trusting that after the rainstorm that was my husband’s death, the three of us – my little boys and me – would bloom again.

She was right, of course, but first I wore a lot of black. The boys wore out their shoes. I swore. We spent a lot of time breaking big rocks into little rocks in those dark and lonely days. We remained tight in the bud – each in his own time – tucked safely in the darkness until we were ready to turn toward the sunshine.

***

Someone is praying for light and strength to filter into your world. Let them.

A Mother’s Day Reminiscence

If you are reading this, I must have survived Mother’s Day.

I love being a mother more than anything, even on the days that I threaten to put all four of my sons in a cardboard box in front of Ralphs with a sign that says “Free Puppies.” That might have worked well for me last Mother’s Day, because the refrigerator broke down the week before, and the replacement came in a box that was actually big enough to hold my puppy pack of boys.

It’s just that the logistics are complicated. We have five mothers to honor among our collective four sets of grandparents and great-grandmother. With all the families involved, our Mother’s Day negotiations begin before St. Patrick’s Day. Predictably, the day also coincides with the breakdown of a major household appliance. This year it’s the washing machine. Think about that a minute. Four sons. Stinky athletic socks.

The emotions are complicated as well. Past the despairing Mother’s Days following lost pregnancies. Gone also the wistful pregnant Mother’s Days, and the simple, sticky toddler Mother’s Days. We are conspicuously missing a mom (the mother of my step-sons), and two of the grandmothers have outlived their own children. We do not dance around the weekend (you know me that well by now), but our Mother’s Day dance requires a great deal of sensitivity and strength and flexibility. A lot of stamina. And a little caffeine.

People often assume that I met my husband Tim in a grief support group. I didn’t. He never went to any groups; he says he’s not “group guy.” I attended a suicide survivors meeting once and never went back; I guess I’m not a group guy either. The short story is that we were set up by a mutual friend. The long version includes a combination of broken hearts, open hearts and boys’ conflicting sports schedules, somehow colliding on Mother’s Day 2008.

In the early months following Sam’s death, I was easily distracted and often reduced to tears. The death of a spouse is omnipresent. More than once as I stepped into our closet, I was sabotaged by his suits, ties and shoes, waiting there expectantly. But hopelessly. I sank to the floor and dissolved into tears, emerging a half an hour later without any recollection of what I had intended to retrieve in the first place.

“Susan” is the kind of friend who took me to coffee, insisted on doing laundry for me, and brought me cozy new pajamas. She also noticed my closet conundrum. With my knowledge and consent, she arranged for another friend to take me to lunch, and while we were out, Susan carefully packed all of Sam’s belongings, labeled the boxes and stacked them neatly in the garage where I could sort through them in my own time. Then she went back to my closet and organized all of my clothes and shoes, spreading them across the racks and shelves, so that there were no obviously empty spaces.

Sometimes she would talk to me about her friend Debbie, who recently died (cancer), and the husband and boys she left behind. She thought Tim and I might appreciate talking to each other. We were, after all, in the same leaky boat.

I told her not to give him my number.

Meanwhile, across town, Susan and Tim were working together to complete the project that she and Debbie had started. Susan mentioned her friend Charlotte, struggling with the loss of her husband. Tim said he would be open to talking to me.

I said “No, thanks.”

The first Mother’s Day after Sam’s death, surprisingly, I had a really good day. My kids and my parents spoiled me rotten. They gave me a Kindle — one of the very first ones — and the boys even used their own money to give me a certificate to “buy” books. I didn’t cry once that day, which was a significant first. Until…I thought about this man I did not know and his two sons on their first Mother’s Day without mom. I burst into tears and cried for half an hour.

I wrote an email to Susan, asking her to let Tim know that I imagined the day sucked (or words to that effect), but that there are people who care. It was primarily a mother’s prayer for broken-hearted boys, motivated by compassion or perhaps just a confused and selfish dread of Father’s Day on my horizon. I must not have been thinking clearly because I also agreed to let her pass my cell phone number along.

The first time Tim called, sometime between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I was standing at the back entrance to the boys’karate studio, watching their closing ritual. I normally would have let the call go to voicemail, but I was curious about the number which I couldn’t quite place. Tim introduced himself and asked if he was calling at a convenient time.

I said “No.”

I asked if he could call back later in the evening, and he said, “No.”

Single, widowed parents with young children don’t have much time or inclination for small talk. But we were honest. He did call again, later in the evening, after his son’s basketball game, post dinner dishes and following bedtime routines, probably with a scotch in his hand. The first question he asked me, “Can you sleep?” No. “Can you focus?” No.

We then proceeded to talk for an hour. Small talk is overrated. We told each other our stories. He and Debbie were high school sweethearts; when she died at age 41 they had been together for 25 years. We fretted about the children. We laughed at the morbid and inappropriate. Susan was right. It was nice to talk to someone in the same leaky boat.

And that’s where we began.

Before her death, Debbie told Tim she wanted him to continue to live his life and to find love and joy. He said “No.” As the story goes, she told him not to be an idiot. She may have actually embellished that thought with one of Uncle Jose’s colorful words. She wanted him to find a woman who was already a mother, because she believed that a woman with children of her own would understand how Debbie felt about her sons. I admire this woman who loved her husband so much that she gave him permission to love again, and I am deeply honored to be the woman who loves him. And his sons.

On Mother’s Day, our sons (the ones who have lost their mother) are our first priority, followed closely by the grandmothers. I buy flowers for everybody, including Debbie, who is like the Elijah at our Mother’s Day table — there is always a place reserved for her presence. We have been known to honor her by going to her favorite restaurant or toasting her with a Diet Coke or taking flowers to her grave site. We usually avoid church. Whatever the boys need. Frequently, we attend breakfast or lunch organized by another family member. We also host a dinner including as many grandmothers as would care to join us. It is a full, exhausting day, physically and emotionally.

And I am grateful. One of the lessons I have kept from those painful, longing years before I had sons to call “mine” is that children are a gift from Life, not a creation of my own. To be the mother in all of my sons’ lives is a privilege. I didn’t know I could fall so head over heels for children I did not give birth to. I try to treat them all equally — once in a while I throw my eyes and arms toward heaven and beg for Sam and Debbie to talk some sense into their sons.

I have my moments. This year it was an unexpected call from our college boy and the fact that Thing 2 tied the Windsor Knot in Thing 4’s tie. But for the most part, my favorite Mother’s Day moments do not necessarily arrive on the second Sunday in May. Last summer, driving to Lake Arrowhead, one of my step-sons said, with the eloquence of a teenager, “You’re not my mom, but …you’re my mom. You know?” I do.

I’m not his mother, that’s true, but all the mothering that happens in our home —that’s me. I make doctor appointments and give advice. I sign permission slips and throw the occasional fit about the socks all over the floor. In fairness to the children, one of the cats has a thing for socks. He stalks them, lures them out of corners and laundry baskets, captures them and then proudly displays them across the living room, much to the puppy’s delight and my own dismay. I make a lot of chicken soup, bake mountains of cookies, and do loads and loads of laundry. I spend so much time marketing that I feel like I should pay rent at Trader Joe’s. I wouldn’t trade it. I feel grateful and satisfied to be physically and emotionally able to do the heavy lifting of motherhood. It will not last nearly long enough — Thing 1 is already in college, and Thing 4 is not that far behind.

Another Mother’s Day moment occurred this morning as Thing 2 and Thing 3 each kissed me goodbye for the morning and walked out the door, shoulder to shoulder, the younger one now a few inches taller. It could be that I’m just looking forward to some quality time with my new quiet washing machine, which arrived Friday, but I think it’s more than that. One boy holds the car keys, the other two lunch bags, both Things teasing each other and admiring each other, bumping into each other. Like puppies. They are doing everything they’re supposed to do, growing into kind, hard-working young men despite Life’s unfairness and difficulties. I look up to them for more reasons than that they are both taller than me. Different fathers, different mothers, brothers just the same.

I could not be more delighted with these boys. I imagine Debbie is pleased as well.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And beautiful mothering moments on random days of the year.

Undefined

“Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, 

without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

We are sitting around the dining room table after dinner last week, and the boys are discussing a math question with my father. Sometimes it does take a rocket scientist, and fortunately, we have one local. The question on the table is whether the fraction zero over zero equals zero? or equals one? Stick with me here – I’m not a math guy either. It could be argued either way, which is when it’s convenient to have a lawyer available, and we happen to have one of those in residence as well.

On the one hand, zero over anything equals zero, which would make the answer zero. On the other hand, when the top and the bottom of the fraction are the same number, that answer equals one. These options are mutually exclusive. The solution? When the number zero is on the bottom of a fraction, the answer is by definition undefined. There isn’t a number to express the answer. Undefined. It cannot quite be explained, but then again… it is not constrained by a definition either.

I was widowed in 2007, and my husband Tim was also widowed the same year. In one of the blessings that is our marriage, we have all eight of our collective parents:

  • my parents,
  • my late husband Sam’s parents (my in-laws),
  • Tim’s parents (also my in-laws),
  • and his first wife’s parents (my in-laws?).

What exactly is the right word to express the relationship between me and the parents of my husband’s first wife? If I refer to them as my husband’s in-laws, doesn’t that mean my own parents?

For the moment, let me refer to the father of my husband’s late wife as “My Undefined Relative.” Or maybe instead I should just call him Jed. The Hebrew meaning of Jed is the Beloved of the Lord. My Undefined Relative will appreciate that. And he will undoubtedly expect special treatment when I see him next.

Jed didn’t know what to call me either, by the way. How exactly does one refer to the new girlfriend of one’s late daughter’s widower? He once introduced me as “my son-in-law’s very…very… very… very special friend.” Even if you like her, it’s awkward.

Jed may not have known how to refer to me, but he was consistently kind to me. He has been inclusive of me and my children from day one. Before Tim and I were married, or even engaged, I accompanied Tim to a Rotary event at which Jed was being honored. Tim’s sons attended the event, along with many of their kin, but we left my sons home with a favorite sitter so as not to overwhelm them with family.

As I was reading Jed’s profile, I noted that program said he had 3 daughters and 8 grandchildren. Eight? Each of his three daughters had two children. That’s six grandchildren. I’m the lawyer, not the physicist, but I can count heads, and there are only six. When I pointed out the typo to Tim, he said, “Jed wanted to make sure that you and your boys were included.” We were not yet related, but he had already embraced us.

We did not know the answers, but we were living the questions.

He is not my father, but Jed is like a father to me. The term “father-in-law” doesn’t quite convey the affection we now share. I don’t dare call him beloved, as he would be insufferable come Father’s Day.

Jed’s wife, my mother-in-law-ish/undefined relative comes from a large family. Beverly has 12 siblings, and as a result she is a woman with an open and flexible heart. I cannot imagine how painful it must be to have lost her daughter, and yet she treats me as one of her own. It is truly “humbling.” Every once in a while she refers to me with her own daughter’s name, and I take it as a compliment. The fact that she has become comfortable enough to throw me in the basket with the rest of her puppies gives me great joy.

Last weekend, Beverly received a lifetime award from Rotary, and the entire family rallied to her side to celebrate. She introduced her family, starting with her husband of 50 years, and then her daughters, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Beverly included all of my boys by name in the litany of her grandchildren. Five years ago, when Jed received this honor, my biological sons had not yet met most of this extended family; this time, they are comfortably flanked by uncles and cousins at a table across the garden, happily planning their next fishing trip.

Beverly has a way of simplifying things, and she did not attempt to describe the series of events that led to my sitting with the guest of honor. She simply introduced me as “my daughter Charlotte.” I would never have imagined feeling so at home with this big, boisterous, vibrant family. Yet here we are. We are living our way into the answers.

On the way home, our youngest boy – who, like Beverly, has a gift for seeing the heart of the matter – says, “Mom, I like the way grandma introduced you as her daughter.”

And I love that he simply calls her grandma.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the patience to live the questions.