Tapestry

“Each new day is a path of wonder, a different invitation.

Days are where our lives gradually become visible.” — John O’Donohue 

Sam liked sports, but he loved baseball. He was that guy who could answer the trivia questions between innings on DodgerVision, no matter how esoteric. He studied baseball, scoured the box scores, read scouting reports and almanacs, and his favorite hobby was a baseball rotisserie league. The one phone call Sam made during our honeymoon was not to the office. He had to call the rotisserie league commissioner because one of “his” players was injured, and he needed to put that player on the DL (disabled list) and substitute in another player.

Annoying, but amusing.

I would not consider myself a true baseball fan. I am more of a fair weather fan, in the sense of the actual weather. I enjoy the game, especially with a Dodger dog, a cold beer and a handful of roasted peanuts, and I will happily sit through 9, 10 innings, or even more, as long as it’s not too hot, cold or rainy. I was a fan of Sam’s, and his passion for baseball was contagious. And now I cannot ever think about baseball without being reminded of Sam.

In the early days after Sam’s death, there were certain things I avoided like the plague because they were so intertwined with the memory of him and altogether too painful to confront. Curiously, baseball was not among them. Nothing enchants me more than seeing small boys in little league uniforms, not even ballerinas in pink tutus. Maybe it’s because I’m a mother of sons, but personally I believe that’s why God brought me boys. He must have known how delighted I would be to watch those little guys wearing red Angel caps, wiping their Cheetos-covered fingers on their white pants and sliding around in the dirt.

That’s a good day.

We happened to be at a Dodger game last week. Another good day. Yes, the night Clayton Kershaw pitched a no-hitter. I thoroughly enjoyed the game (including the aforementioned snacks), and I cannot help but wonder whether Sam had ever seen a no-hitter in person. I wonder, too, if he knew the name Clayton Kershaw. As it turns out, he must have; Kershaw was pitching in the minor leagues the summer before Sam died. (I looked it up.) When I find myself drawn to the morning newspaper column analyzing Kershaw’s no-hitter pitch by pitch, I recognize Sam’s continuing influence.

I imagine that the day will come when all the baseball players Sam would have known will have retired from the game, and still, there will be a part of me that enjoys the game on his behalf.

I have heard that the Amish deliberately sew mistakes into their quilts as a reminder of our human imperfections, the so-called “humility square.” Evidently, there is some debate over whether this is true, but the fact remains that a handmade quilt will include imperfections, whether intentional or not. Even that perspective, however, misses the larger picture. Hand-crafting a life requires moving beyond the language of judgment, perfection and flaws, to a place of wholeness where we are held completely. Wrapped in a warm, familiar quilt, we are – like the quilt itself – well-loved, softened, even frayed and mended by a careful hand.

One of my dear friends was pregnant with the youngest of her children when I was pregnant with the first of mine, and in fact both babies were born on the same day. “Rose” arrived in the morning and my son later in the evening. We called them the twins.

They were supposed to go to kindergarten together. And junior high. And the prom. But little Rose drowned in a family pool when she was two. I think of her every day, but with a particularly achy sadness when my son achieves a landmark she didn’t get the chance to reach, a graduation, a significant first, another birthday. Their lives are intertwined for me in a way that keeps Rose close to my heart.

The last time I saw her, Rose was leaving the park where we had shared a picnic and a song. She was skipping and holding her mother’s hand. In her square on the quilt of my life, Rose appears in profile, little arms stretched out, her pink and green dress lifting as she spins, dancing.

It is no small evidence of immortality that the people I love and who have loved me continue to weave vibrant textures into the fabric of my life, even after they are gone. 

***

Wishing you light and strength. And the threads of love that hold us together.

Visionary

One night within just a few days of his father’s death, my son – in his rage and confusion – took a Lego spaceship that he had carefully crafted and began smashing it. Originally created from one of those Lego Star Wars kits with a 17-page instruction manual, the spaceship had seemingly taken days to complete. He then further modified it to suit his imagination, investing his time, creativity and heart. In the throes of anger, he hurled the entire ship against the hardwood floor, grabbed chunks and threw again, thoroughly dismantling any remaining clusters of bricks. Seven hundred pieces went flying all over the floor, and he shouted at me through his tears “Mommy you have to FIX IT!”

Indeed.

Lego Therapy Lesson #1: There are times when it’s ok to smash things into little pieces. (In fact, it can be cathartic.)

The shrapnel from the Lego spaceship bore an alarming similarity to the state of our lives, sharp, little pieces rendering each step dangerous and painful. A daunting task to put the fragments together again. No obvious beginning point or organizing principle. Chaotic. Loud. Shattered.

He sat at the edge of the sofa, watching me defiantly, tears brimming in his eyes.

One of the challenges as a grieving parent is to recognize my needs and my sons’ needs, which are not only distinct from each other, but also different from my own. My initial desire had been to stop him, to preserve the work of his diligence and imagination, but at that moment what he needed most was a safe place for his mad. I went through my mental checklist: He wasn’t hurting himself, his brother or me, and the spaceship could be replaced. The best I could offer him was my presence as the tsunami of emotional turmoil washed over him, leaving a detritus of Lego bricks in its wake.

It was late, of course, past bedtime – again. One of the many aspects of our lives that had fallen apart was a regular bedtime. It was dark. It seemed like it was always dark. We were exhausted; that, at least, was consistent.

I retrieved a large Tupperware container from the kitchen and got on my hands and knees to collect the remains of his devastated ship. We both had tears running down our faces, and I told him, “These pieces are like the broken pieces of our lives, and they are broken. But we will gather all the pieces, and we will build our life again, and we will do it together. It will take time. But we will do it together.”

Lego Therapy Lesson #2: Things that have been smashed to smithereens are never exactly the same again. (The Humpty Dumpty effect.)

Evidently the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme is used to illustrate the second law of thermodynamics, which I would translate approximately as this: “Things that fall apart into more and more little pieces are less and less likely to go back together.” While this might be true in physics, I didn’t want my life to be governed by a principle where disorder prevails. And yes, I did ask my physicist father to review this statement before I hit publish. He gets all happy when I ask science questions. That little conversation was this year’s Father’s Day gift, and he was delighted.

But when dad segues into “entropy” and “heat transfer,” my eyes glaze over … I ran across my father’s PhD thesis in a box in the garage once, and the only thing I understood was the byline on the cover page. Fortunately, it was all I needed to know.

In the midst of the devastation, all I knew for sure was that the boys and I were not done writing the story of our lives. And I would not believe that our lives were beyond repair.

The next morning, my son asked for the Tupperware of his Legos, and he sat on the floor to rebuild his ship. I asked him if he wanted any help, but he said No. He started building, and I started a load of laundry. I checked on him, “How are you doing buddy?” He barely looked up from his construction project. “I’m good, Mom.” He focused on his project, and I fed the dog. I asked him again, “Need any help?” “No, thanks. I’m okay.”

After a while, he comes to me with his repaired spaceship, and he holds it out toward me in his soft little hands. He’s pretty excited. He shows me all the features – the laser blasters, the rocket boosters and the escape pod, and he says “Look Mommy, it’s better than it was before!”

Sometimes a child — unencumbered by rules and reality — can point the way to a higher Truth. He is a veritable phoenix, my boy.

Lego Therapy Lesson #3: It can happen, that when we put the pieces back together with courage and love, the result is powerful and inspirational beyond what we could have imagined. (All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men are not the king.)

On this our seventh year after Sam’s suicide, here is what our Father’s Day looked like: No tantrums; Nothing broken; Not even an F-bomb. Tears (mostly mine) on Friday morning and quite a few more on Sunday. Like wringing out a wet cloth there remains always a sadness. Several toasts to daddy, still incredulous that he is gone.

The weekend also featured family time and laughter, a barbeque with all eight grandparents and a cast of characters. Some of us spent more time with the crowd than others; each walks his own path.

The boys are blessed with a step-father who loves all our sons as his very own. He wakes them and drives them to 6AM practice, he ties their Windsor knots, attends teacher conferences and music performances. He lectures them, gives them the proverbial kick in the tail, and hands them lunch money on their way out the door. He coaches and cajoles and makes them laugh. Together, they go golfing, camping and fly-fishing. We are beyond blessed.

Recently the phoenix boy, frustrated by a conversation with his brothers (who were firmly entrenched in rules and reality), blurted out, “Facts suck, you imagination slayers!” The boy remains undeterred.

When the facts suck, because sometimes they do, let the visionary lead the charge.

With each other, and in collaboration with the Divine, we continue to write the story of our lives. We live with integrity, a little faith, a dark sense of humor, and a lot of love. We experience genuine joy, lifting our hearts like a child’s rocketship soaring toward the sky. Their joyous lives are the best gift these boys could give their fathers – on the third Sunday in June, or any other day for that matter.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the vision to see beyond the brokenness.

Tradition

My father thinks I’m perfect, so it was only as an adult that I started to come to terms with the fact that I don’t do everything well. Life has humbled me a great deal. And if not Life itself then I can rely on my sons to do the job effectively. But the first Father’s Day after Sam’s death I did do well.

Being a single mother in the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There’s no break. Ever. It’s the Mommy Channel 24-7, and believe me, the children are not the only ones tired of hearing my nagging voice. Being the mom and the dad is its own circus act, and I was not looking forward to carrying the weight of his golf clubs, donning the tie from his alma mater, wielding the barbeque tongs and the television remote, all while sporting high heels and balancing on a pink pilates ball.

Even so, I resented when people told me that my sons needed a father in their life. My parents raised my sister and me to believe that girls could do everything that boys could do, and they were so effective in conveying this message that I remained confident in my ability to mother and to father my children. I had absolutely no intention of getting married again (that turned out to be another piece of humble pie on the platter of my life), and certainly not for the express purpose of providing my children with a father.

Shortly after Sam’s death, one of my sons desperately wanted a step-father, because he was “too little to be the man of the house,” but a couple years later when I was falling in love with the man who would become his step-father, he wanted none of it. I recall saying to him, “That’s so interesting. Right after daddy died you wanted me to get married again but now you don’t. I wonder what has changed for you?” (Obviously I’ve had a lot of therapy.)

His answer: “Mom, right after daddy died, I didn’t know that you could take care of us. And now I know you can.” (Worth every penny I’ve paid my therapist. And his.)

When the first June without Sam was looming on our horizon, I knew I had to grab that Father’s Day bull by the horns. Every school project honoring fathers was painful. Sometimes the boys substituted in their grandfathers, or an uncle, or me. Other times, they opted not to participate at all, the loss of their father still raw and overwhelming.

Meanwhile, one of my closest girlfriends was in the midst of a divorce, and Father’s Day that year also happened to fall on the anniversary of her own father’s death. A Father’s Day trifecta. Emphasis on the fect, if you know what I mean.

We needed a new tradition.

We decided that “F-Day” was going to suck wherever we were, so it might as well suck poolside and with room service. Every now and again a girl needs a day to fall apart and let somebody else pick up the pieces.

We checked in early, and ordered drinks with umbrellas. We toasted the good fathers in our lives and roasted the bad ones. Some of these were the same men. We played in the pool and the sun, and the boys watched movies on demand for as long as they could keep their eyes open. We talked, laughed, and cried. Sunday morning, we skipped church and ordered room service. The afternoon might have included a few more umbrellas, by which I mean the large ones adjacent to the pool. Also the fancy little paper ones.

It wasn’t nearly as bad as we feared. In fact, we kind of liked it.

We’ve been celebrating F-Day ever since. Even looking forward to it.

Sometimes the girl hits a home run.

When tradition ceased to serve our best interest, we created our own Father’s Day observance. As with other aspects of life, we have more choices than we might acknowledge. This is not necessarily an easy path, particularly when the extended family have their own agenda for our day. I knew myself and my children well enough to see what we needed as a nuclear family, and I was forthright enough to say so. And so it was done.

As the years progress, we have revised our Father’s Day observances as we see fit. I try to be mindful of the fact that I do not know the loss of a parent, and I tailor the weekend to accommodate my sons’ changing needs. Some years, the boys felt comfort in the company of uncles and grandfathers; other times, they found more solace in seclusion.

After Tim and I were married, the boys wanted to spend the official Father’s Day with him, so my girlfriend and I moved our F-day tradition to a different Sunday in June, which had the excellent effect of opening it up for her little one to join us. The weekend includes joyous moments and solemn ones, splashes and tears, and when we spill, in whatever ways this means, we have help mopping up the mess. In the process of celebrating all the fathers in our life, even the ones who are gone, we honor ourselves and our own F-Day needs.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a tradition that suits you.

Lessons on Letting Go

Tim and I often quip that if we do our job right, our sons will leave us. Thing #2 graduated from high school last weekend and is heading to a university in Texas in August. Congratulations. And ugh. Senior year of high school, in case you might have forgotten, is an emotional roller coaster. Grouchy, surly, hormonal, college applications and deadlines, acceptances and rejections, excited about the future, anxious at the same time, looking forward to making new friends, frustrated with family, constantly on the verge of tears… and that was just me. My husband was a complete wreck.

I do not pray or journal or file paperwork nearly so regularly as I would like. I stack papers and notes on and around my desk in an attempt to keep track of ideas, receipts, projects, party invitations, but these items invariably get lost or neglected underneath more recent or urgent mail, bills, thank you cards and unsigned permission slips. When I do sit to pray or write, hungry creatures interrupt me. But one of the few things I do consistently – in addition to flossing, of course – is my morning and evening bowl meditation.

I read about this practice in the book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, in which the author describes a ritual she learned from a Tibetan nun. I have adopted this meditation practice for myself (with minor modifications). She fills a bowl from a running stream (or kitchen faucet) and places it on a sort of altar in a prominent location in her home so she can see it all day long. My “meditation bowl,” chipped in two places, sits adjacent to the kitchen sink. I have four kids, two cats and two dogs, all of them male. My cup runneth over. But the clean-up is easier if it runneth near the sink. At the end of her day, she empties the bowl pouring its contents back into the earth. I “dump mommy’s worries down the drain.”

Here’s the idea: “As the bowl fills, you receive your life openheartedly and unconditionally as your portion.” The bowl I use is large enough for me to spread one hand around each side of the bowl to hold its weight comfortably. It takes about a minute to fill my bowl to the brim, maybe less if I turn the faucet on stronger in my rush to get the kids to school. For me, there is a significant component of gratitude in this process. I’m really good at being grateful for the pleasant aspects of my life. I am less gifted at being grateful for the mess. It is counterintuitive for me to embrace, shall we say… Life’s continual unfolding. I would prefer to make my own selections off of Life’s menu. But grace grants me what I need, which is not necessarily the same as what I want.

Or maybe it is?

I thought giving birth to a 9-pound baby was painful, but the delivery of a 5-foot tall, 100-pound sad and angry pre-teen brings a whole new level of anguish. If you have been blessed with teenage step-children, you know what I’m talking about. I really could have used an epidural. When this boy was a freshman in high school I was in tears daily because I feared the child might never leave home. By his senior year I find myself in tears frequently because this young man is good and ready to go. He is going to leave a gaping hole in my heart when he does, as well as an empty bedroom which I intend to convert into a lovely, quiet study.

Accepting the invitation to use Life’s offerings – both good and bad – in the course of my day has demanded patience, compassion and trust. The ultimate goal is to move beyond categorizing life’s offerings as either “good” or “bad” and reach a place that transcends judgment. Obviously, I am not there yet. Hence the term “practice.”

The purpose of pouring the water back into the earth at the end of the day is to let it go and to rest. This process is not exactly my strong suit either. Sometimes I stand in front of the sink, holding my bowl with both hands, still fuming at an unkind word or other unfairness. I replay toxic conversations in my head, wishing I could rewind and take the opportunity to issue a vindictive or witty response that I hadn’t thought of earlier in the day, hoping for some kind of recompense or retribution, holding tightly to my own self-righteousness. Sometimes – with closed eyes and the brimming bowl cupped in both hands – I stand paralyzed by a frightening diagnosis, gripping the fullness of my fears. I yearn for control which is not mine, unwilling to yield. I know that my release will be in letting go but am still reluctant to do so. I make the conscious effort to relinquish power to Life itself, hoping that the Divine will not blink on His watch. Finally, with a long exhale, in a display of exhaustion and surrender, I tip the bowl toward the drain, close my eyes and spill its contents into the sink.

I have found this practice of acceptance and letting go profoundly healing in my own life, yielding some unexpected results. From early childhood, I suffered from nightmares. I had one particular recurring nightmare, usually once or twice a week, as well as fresh and terrifying ones, all of which left me breathless, heart hammering, and panicky in the dead of night. Once I started this meditation practice with the bowl, the nightmares stopped. Overnight. The few times I’ve experienced nightmares since were when I neglected to empty my bowl at the day’s close.

My daily practice – all of the little lettings go – has strengthened my capacity for the bigger letting go. Admittedly, this process is eased by the fact that we have two more sons at home and by the time the youngest heads off to college our oldest son may well be living at home again. Ironically, the letting go of the high school grad would not be nearly so painful had I not welcomed him in to begin with.

Our sons’ high school has a tradition at the Baccalaureate Mass where each of the boys brings his mother a rose, a gesture of gratitude for the sacrifices that mothers make for their sons. The church is packed – standing room only – and although my husband and I have spotted our boy among his senior class, he has not yet located us in the crowd. One by one the mothers around me are receiving roses and hugs from their sons, but mine has not arrived. We are sitting in our usual pew in the church, but he has not found us. My heart sinks. Maybe this rose ritual is too hard on him, in light of the fact that his mother died when he was eleven. The music continues, as do the mother-son embraces, and the seniors begin to take their seats again. Still, I do not see my boy, and my own heart beats faster and aches, and I try not to cry. Where is that boy? My husband is wide-eyed. Our son has searched the entire circumference of the church, and finally he finds me. Ours has not been an easy path. It has not been traditional. It has taken a long time to find each other. We arrive at this moment with a red rose, a pipe-organ crescendo and a mother-son relationship. I love him with my whole heart, and now it is time to let him go.

We moms are not known for our prowess at letting go, but children come equipped with strategies of their own. The last week or so of each of my pregnancies, when it was impossible to catch a full breath, and, like my lungs, my other organs were displaced and bruised, I reached a point where I thought “There is only enough room in this body for one us. Baby, you are going to have to go.” Launching a teenager has elements of this same discomfort. They take up so much space, making their presence felt in every room of the house, their volume extending to every corner. I have a palpable urge to reclaim the entire place for my own, to renovate their bedroom, put up a few bookshelves, neatly populated by quiet, orderly books.

There were many mornings during the course of this boy’s high school career when I stood at the sink, with my heart in my hands, open to receiving whatever the boy would bring me that day. His pain and grief have transformed me into a more patient and compassionate mother. Some days his raw emotions reduced me to a raging lunatic, and other days his gentleness and contagious joy softened my own sharp edges. We have practiced acceptance and forgiveness and found our way to bridge the distance between us.

As I stand on the threshold of my today and fill my bowl, it is my favorite kind of morning, cool and foggy “May gray,” the perfect weather for a run. Inhale. This kind of morning opens up into a clear blue afternoon. Hopeful inhale. I am recovering from a month’s struggle with bronchitis. Grateful inhale. Final exams week for the younger boys. Anxious inhale. It has been a week since graduation and I’ve reached my limit of sitting around, belching, grunting and Xboxing before the summer internship begins. Sharp inhale. My husband assures me that we will miss the litter of puppies some day. Not today. Inhale anyway. Sigh … Grocery list, laundry, powerpoint and prayer, the significant, the unremarkable, the productive, the transcendent. Inhale. My share of Life’s portion is rich and varied, sturdy and fragile.

As for the library (formerly known as his bedroom), my plans include a nice, quiet shrine to the graduates, where I will smile and cry and proudly display their photos, certificates and art projects. Meanwhile, the cat just snagged a new blouse, and I might be willing to let him go away to college too.

I hold the brimming bowl over the sink, breathe in hopes and disappointments, fears and frustrations, joys and accomplishments. I inhale, hold on, tip the bowl and let go. The slow exhale marks the end of my day.

Tomorrow, I will begin again. I will embrace a chipped bowl, breathe in the spirit of that moment, and recite a blessing from an Irish poet:

May you stand sure on your ground

And know that every grace you need

Will unfold before you

Like all the mornings of your life.

(John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us)

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And grace for today.