Deathaversary VII

We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself

the means of inspiration and survival.”

~ Winston Churchill

It’s Sunday afternoon, almost dinner time, and we have finally finished cleaning up from our family brunch. Tim and I are exhausted. The house is quiet, dishwasher humming. The boys are settling in with homework (homework seeming the lesser evil than laundry), the dogs are down for a nap (like overtired toddlers after an afternoon with grandma), the cats are contentedly crunching, and I’m curling up with a cup of tea and a book. I’m having a hard time concentrating, however, because tomorrow marks the seventh year since Sam’s suicide.

Our brunch included all eight of the boys’ grandparents: Sam’s parents, my parents, Tim’s parents and his first wife’s parents. Add our nuclear family of six, and that’s a lot of bagels. To be fair, two of our boys are away at college, but my sister and brother-in-law volunteered to bring strawberries to our grandparent gathering, and I certainly wasn’t going to decline their offer.

We don’t have a table big enough for everybody to sit comfortably, but we do have nice weather and patio furniture and the kind of family who is willing to scooch up a chair, eat in his own lap, risk spilling on her neighbor’s lap and laugh out loud. We share stories, coffee and the better part of the day. The logistics are rarely simple in our family gatherings, but I am grateful. My house and my heart are full. So is the dishwasher.

On her way out, Sam’s mother pulls me aside. Although she speaks more comfortably in Spanish, she addresses me in English, as a courtesy. She tells me that she is so proud of all four of my sons, and (like the self-respecting jewish mother-in-law that she is) she also frets over each one of them. She is going to go to the cemetery tomorrow, and she is going to tell “Sammy” how well his sons are doing and that his wife has created a beautiful little family. She tells me that she knows Sammy will be happy and very proud.

And I know he will be. And while Sam’s approval is gratifying, it is his mother’s approval that moves me to tears. I have a friend who refers to her daughter-in-law as her daughter-in-love. My mother-in-law has similarly treated me as her own. Years ago, as she was walking with me on one side and her own daughter on the other, she laughed and said “I have two daughters — one blonde and one brunette.”

She shuffles toward her car with her cane in her left hand and my arm in the right. She explains to me that she does her physical therapy exercises consistently, and I know this to be true. In fact, she even turns on music and “dances” her exercises across the length of her apartment. She’s in her 80’s. My father-in-law shakes his head and smiles. He has been smitten with her for nearly 60 years, and it’s easy to see why.

I cannot imagine what she has suffered in the loss of her son. And yet, she makes it a practice to dance across her living room every day. It is very hard to understand how her son lost his way, but I believe with all my heart that he is, indeed, proud not only of his wife and children but also of his mother. It is no coincidence that, despite the heartbreak and challenges that life has brought, her children and grandchildren find their way with joy and tenacity.

She dances every single day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And inspiration.

Mexican Food and Other Exercises in Faith: In Peter I Trust

At one of our favorite Mexican restaurants (as Southern California natives, we have several), the owner greets us by name: “Tim,” “Gorgeous” and the “Kiddos.” Before we even order, Peter hands my husband a Tecate and me a margarita — rocks, salt, just the way I like it. It’s lovely to be known and cared for.

My husband always orders the same dinner: a cheese enchilada with the verde sauce and a carne asada taco. I always get the same thing too: whatever Peter brings me. In our family with four sons, I spend a lot of time planning meals, grocery shopping and cooking, and while there is something deeply satisfying about feeding my family, there is also something wonderfully relaxing about letting somebody else feed me. I highly recommend it. Along with the margarita.

A while back, some friends joined us for an evening at Peter’s, and my friend later remarked that she would never have the guts to let someone else order whatever he felt like bringing for dinner. As I recall, she used the words “control” and “risk.” The intensity of her reaction surprised me because I feel very little anxiety in letting Peter choose what to bring me for dinner. On the contrary, I enjoy not having to think or plan or open the menu. Besides, the food is excellent, Peter wants me to be happy, and he knows what’s especially good. Plus, I have a safety net. Worst case, if I don’t like what he chooses for me, I can swing through In ’n Out Burger (another So Cal staple) on the way home. It’s only dinner. It’s not as if it were my whole life, for Christ’s sake.

Which makes me think of the experience in an entirely different light.

I wonder what it would be like to trust Life the way I trust Peter?

Peter welcomes me with open arms, a smile and a favorite beverage. He prepares a spicy appetizer or a cup of hot soup on a cold evening. He surprises me with a new mole recipe. He feeds me and cleans up after my children.

After an evening in a corner booth, Peter starts to sound like the Shepherd honored in one of King David’s Psalms. My cup runneth over.

It would certainly appear that Life Divine knows the most sacred desires of my heart and has given them to me. I am blessed with the love of my life and four healthy children. As if that weren’t enough, there’s an abundance of icing (and in-laws) on that family cake, a lovely home, more pets than I deserve, a few steadfast friends and a gentle breeze. Surely goodness and mercy are following me these days.

But there was a fair amount of suffering and fear on the way here. Or more accurately an unfair amount. And that’s the part I don’t understand.

Seven years ago this month I found myself widowed suddenly, leaving my sons without their father. And while 7 years may be long enough to earn a PhD in some specialties, it has not quite been long enough for us truly to understand this whole suicide business, although each of us has developed a certain expertise in his/her own grief. Which even now lands us in a space where we wrestle with the Why?

For months, my sons insisted that dad must have fallen victim to a Dementor, a creature from the world of Harry Potter, who sucks the joy and hope and soul out of its prey. We still think that might be true. It seems more credible than what really happened.

Mental illness just doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical or rational. It cannot be reasoned or organized. And for a girl who likes logic and reason and order, sorting through this mess has been more than a little infuriating. Sam must have suffered some type of mental illness or depression (even though we didn’t know that at the time), which was just as fatal as a sudden heart attack or undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside. Actually, it must have looked pretty ugly from the inside. Like a Dementor.

Whatever voices had been clamoring for his attention drowned out the loving voices of his family and friends. I do not know what demons whispered in his ear. I do not know what he saw in his life that he feared would swallow him whole. I believe with all my heart that if he had been able to think for himself, if he had been able to find a realistic perspective, if he had been able to muster even a little faith or a few hours of sleep, that he might not have jumped to his death. The darkness must have been so overwhelming and so terrifying that he could not see a way out.

I have heard that when the devil really wants to sabotage somebody, he does not say “You can’t.” Instead, he sits down quietly, leans over gently and whispers “I can’t.”

The mental image I carry of Sam was like Moses at the edge of the Red Sea. His family and loved ones count on him, trusting him, and the Egyptians were hot on his heels. How hard it must have been for Moses to trust Life’s promise with Pharaoh breathing down his neck, a storm brewing, and his friends and family squawking. I will never know what demons were chasing Sam, what utterances voiced doubt in his ability, what darkness drowned his faith in Life. I picture Sam in this moment at the edge of the Red Sea, hearing the hooves beating and feeling the wind picking up, seeing the tired children of Israel in tears, and praying like mad for a boat.

After all, a boat would be the logical solution. And when his “boat” didn’t come, he jumped.

The unfairness of the whole thing — especially to Sam and our sons — makes my head spin. Sam would not have wanted to hurt anybody. Not his colleagues, his friends, the kids on the T-ball team he coached, and certainly not his parents or his cousins. I know that Sam would not have left me, but even if he did, he would not have abandoned his children. Never. If he could have known even a little bit of the pain his death would cause, he would never have killed himself. I drive myself crazy trying to figure it out, and all my mental gymnastics land me back in the same place: he was not in his right mind. He couldn’t have been.

But what I know to be true and what I understand are two different things.

Maybe the challenge is to become comfortable with what little I do know. To have a little faith right where I am. I cannot know all the answers, but I can cultivate trust even in the midst of the not knowing. I sift through the clamoring voices with awareness, discerning which messages bring me peace and stillness and which ones generate churning, mental anguish.

Sometimes I find comfort in scripture and sometimes in children’s fiction, and some of my friends would argue that these are one and the same. In either case, the answer lies in friendship, faith and love. I do not believe that Life sends bad stuff in our direction with an agenda to promote personal growth. But I do believe that Life brings us one another: a gentle voice that comforts through the long, dark night; a steady hand to grasp over slippery steps; a protective arm guiding through dangerous territory. After all, the promise is not that bad stuff won’t happen. The promise is that His presence will go with us, even through the dark, cold, isolated places.

After 7 years, I still don’t understand Sam’s death, but I will try to cultivate trust in Life. I will try to recognize that there is a bigger picture, to believe that the divine has my best interests at heart, to have faith that all will be well. And in the meantime, I will let Peter bring me dinner. Whatever he chooses.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And just a little faith.

Cleaning the Closet and Related Hazards

I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon cleaning out my closet, and much to my dismay the closet still appears full. Better organized, but not exactly the progress I had hoped for. My girlfriend told me she gets rid of everything that she hasn’t worn in two years. I’m not that disciplined. In part, my friend is trying to motivate me because her daughters are collecting items for a huge charity yard sale, and I did manage to fill several bags worthy of donation for the event. In the process, I also stumbled upon several violations of her two-year rule, including a festive Nicole Miller silk vest. I know precisely the last time I wore it: December 13, 1997.

I have a cousin who remembers pretty much everything she’s ever worn, not just for significant events, but the mundane as well. The crazy part is that she remembers everything everybody else wore too. My mind doesn’t work that way. But I do remember when I wore this particular item of clothing because that day topped my short list of bad days back then. It was a traumatic day, it would require months and years to recover physically and emotionally, but in retrospect it wasn’t an altogether bad day, because that was the day Sam lived.

It was a Friday, and my firm’s Christmas party was scheduled for the afternoon. Thus the festive vest. Sam left the house about 20 minutes before I did, as his commute was a bit longer than mine. When I got in my car, I popped in a favorite CD, Mi Tierra by Gloria Estefan. My Cuban husband was bilingual, but I was not. This CD was as close as I could get. Sam and I as a pair were a little like Ricky and Lucy, except that Sam couldn’t sing. Anyway, Gloria was singing Con Los Anos Que Me Quedan, and even if (like Lucy and me) you don’t e-speak e-Spanish, it’s a beautiful love song. The chorus translates approximately: “With however many years I have left to live, I am going to show you how much I love you.”

Our life wasn’t perfect, but it was a good day. Sam and I were happy, Gloria and I were singing, and I was looking forward to an abbreviated work day and a holiday party to kick-start the weekend. But I never made it to the party.

I was just barely up to speed on the freeway when the traffic slowed back down, which was unusual at that hour. Traffic is always an issue in Los Angeles, of course, but we left the house early because in those days we didn’t have children, only a mismatched pair of rescued cats.

I have never had the stomach for rubber-necking at car wrecks, but I felt something pulling me closer to the flashing lights ahead. It was odd. As I approached what I could now see was a car accident, I saw a line of flares, several police cars, a firetruck, a red suburban and a pale blue late model sedan, the entire front of which was crumpled. The hood appeared to have flown open on impact, shattering the windshield. The back was also open, revealing a spotless trunk. I knew only one person with a car that shade of blue who kept the trunk of his car perfectly clean, probably because we didn’t have kids yet. I tried frantically to remember Sam’s license plate, but I couldn’t. My cousin remembers fashion. I remember license plates. It’s really not fair. At that moment I could not think of a single letter or number, but I knew it was his car. He was gone.

I was 29 years old and I was a widow. I heard Gloria singing, ”con los anos que me quedan,” and I thought I don’t have any years left. Shaking uncontrollably from head to toe, tears streaming down my face, I pulled my car in between the flares and stopped. A firefighter approached me, and I rolled down the window, but before he could direct me to move, I blurted out “Is that Sam’s car?” I’m not really sure why I asked that question. I already knew the answer. I suppose I simply could not have articulated the words, “Is he still alive?”

I didn’t need the answer to that question either. I had seen the car.

The firefighter instructed me to wait a minute, and he walked away. That minute lasted forever. When he came back to my car, he told me what I already knew. It was Sam’s car. And then he told me what I hardly dared believe. “Your husband is alive. He told us you would be driving by. He hoped we would have all this cleaned up before you saw the mess.” It would have been typical of Sam to protect me. There’s a scene in Reservoir Dogs that I’ve never seen because he fast-forwarded through it when we watched the movie.

I remember walking through the hospital corridors, lost and feeling completely out of place in my party attire. I imagine this is common in the ER — shocked, unprepared people dressed inappropriately. I found the emergency room and walked through the double doors. My husband was covered in blood, mostly from the gash above his eye, his right hand was swollen to about the size of a grapefruit, his right knee to the size of a large cantaloupe, but he was breathing and he smiled when he saw me. And at that moment, he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Based on the wreckage left on the highway, I could not believe he was still alive. Neither could any of the doctors who saw him that day. But he was. Tears of relief erased any mascara I might have had left.

He later told me that as the ambulance tech was cutting off his shirt en route to the hospital, Sam said “Oh man, that was my lucky shirt!” To which the tech replied, “Well, it looks like it worked.” Friday the thirteenth turned out not to be so unlucky after all.

Even in the midst of everything that was broken, and so much was, we were grateful. For seat belts, for each other, for another day.

It took reconstructive knee surgery, hours of physical therapy and six months for Sam to drive again. It took longer for me to recover from the trauma of witnessing the scene; for years, the sight of ER vehicles on the freeway would make me shake and cry. It took even longer for us to forgive the woman who left her suburban in the middle of the freeway. After that car accident we reevaluated our career paths and made some changes. We continued to be grateful for what didn’t happen that day.

Ten years later, he would be pronounced dead in this same ER, having died suddenly, violently, intentionally. Strangely, one of the few thoughts that gave me comfort after Sam’s suicide was thinking about that car accident in 1997. I had thought I was widowed that day, but I wasn’t. I got ten more years and two wonderful children.

That car accident taught me a lot. I learned that the road to healing is hard work and includes wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches of all kinds. Healing may require surgeries and often involves setbacks. The days are long, and the nights are very dark. Tears and laughter are essential. Forgiveness is key to the process. It is sometimes harder to witness the healing of a loved one than to be the one healing. Healing may include physical therapy, talk therapy and retail therapy (which might explain a few of those donations). Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing does take time, often more than we would think or hope. For years, I would remove little shards of glass from Sam’s hands. In fact, just three weeks before his death, I had pulled one from one of his knuckles, a tangible reminder of survival and healing.

Perhaps the most important lesson from that day and the months that followed was to fall in love again. To learn to live and to love whole-heartedly despite my fear of loss and death. I almost didn’t want to love Sam again after his not-death. And I certainly didn’t want to love again after his actual death. I had no intention of risking that kind of heartbreak.

And then I met a wonderful man, one whose heart had also been broken by life. It takes courage to fall in love in the face of death. Tim and I fell in love anyway. That having been said, the only thing Tim and I argue about consistently is who gets to die first next time. Well, that and which one of us gets to run our defective hunting dog. We do not know how many years we will have together, but we have been blessed with today. So I will love and laugh and hold Tim’s hand.

I think about these lessons as I hold the vest. It reminds me that we do heal after the traumatic and unexpected. It reminds me that scars need not be a sign of weakness, but instead the evidence of resilience, strength and tenacity. It reminds me to buckle up.

I place it carefully back in the closet.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And reminders — a vest, a scar, a little glass splinter— of your own resilience.

No Contest

I was in traffic court a Tuesday or two ago. A serious violation of my sacred Tuesday rule. Because I live in Los Angeles, parking was so scarce that I was afraid I would get a parking ticket while defending myself against the garbage traffic ticket. Nightmare.

So I sit reading my book on a hard, squeaky bench and wait for the courtroom to open, feeling resentful and just a little persecuted. One by one, my fellow civilians arrive, then a few attorneys, and a little later a collection of officers, each prepared to present his perspective on our failings as drivers. The uniforms are armed and intimidating, with beautiful posture. One huge guy sports a flak jacket. I’m feeling very small. Partly I’m offended by this whole situation because I am that girl who defends police officers. I remind my children to do what the uniform says, because those men and women put their lives on the line every time they get dressed. Truly, I am grateful. But that’s also why I’m annoyed, because I don’t think that this particular suburban housewife is a marked threat to humanity, and don’t they have something better to do than pick on me? Not to mention that I myself am a Nag First Class to my sons about all manner of safe driving habits, and frankly I’m more than a little embarrassed.

Eventually, the bailiff comes out, directs the uniforms into the courtroom and ushers the rest of us into the hallway for an orientation. His message is clear: “You may have your day in court if you wish, but you will almost certainly lose.” Innocent until proven guilty does not apply in this venue. If “your officer” (as if I want to have anything to do with that guy) fails to appear, it is your lucky day, and your case will be dismissed. Obviously it’s not my lucky day, because I’m here on a Tuesday. Oh, and my officer is here too. The bailiff urges everybody to plead “no contest” and take the traffic school option if it’s offered, because if you go to trial and lose (which, he reminds us, is the likely result), traffic school is no longer an option. One woman — so desperately wanting to be heard — presents her case in the hallway, pulling out photographs of the intersection in question. The bailiff remains unswayed.

He ushers us into the courtroom. I choose a seat in the back. And while the clerk begins speaking, I hear the voice of a pastor from a recent sermon: “Do you really want what you deserve?”

The readings that week included the parable of the vineyard, a story of an estate owner who goes to the marketplace early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. Those workers negotiate a fair wage with the estate owner, and off they go. Hi ho! Hi ho! As the day goes on, the vintner returns to the marketplace to recruit more workers — at 9:00am, noon, early afternoon and even late afternoon — and at the end of the day the workers line up to collect their wages. The vintner starts with the latecomers, and he pays them a full day’s wage. The early birds start to get really excited about this, until they realize that the owner is paying each and every worker a full day’s wage, which now doesn’t seem fair at all.

In a world full of injustices, this description of the kingdom of heaven is not entirely comforting, especially for those of us who are really trying to do the right thing. We get up early, work hard all day, and then the lazybones and lollygaggers end up with the same pay? It’s just not fair.

I think most people prefer to think of themselves as the hard workers who negotiated a fair wage and then got down to business. I do. But what if I am more appropriately associated with the slackers who spent the morning sleeping off a hangover? Or took a long lunch? Or spent an hour shopping on the internet? If I am completely honest about it, have I put in the entire day’s work, giving my best effort from sunrise to sundown? Really?

And the people who come late to the party? There may be more to their story than a malfunctioning alarm clock. Maybe one is a convicted felon without a high school diploma but with two children to feed who cannot find gainful employment anywhere until she finally stumbles upon this crazy vintner who doesn’t check her credentials. Or maybe it’s a gay man who, afraid of rejection — again — resists going to the marketplace until he is so hungry that the risk of rejection is less painful than the nagging hunger pangs. Or an addict who, exhausted and suffering, is willing to work in an attempt to find purpose and relief — even if only for an hour. Because it is a place to start. Or maybe it’s just a regular Joe who tries and falls short and makes the occasional mistake, because that’s what people do.

God’s justice isn’t justice at all. It’s grace.

Shortly after the clerk begins his roll call, a well-heeled gentleman walks in confidently. It appears that he has heard the bailiff’s orientation speech a time or two, as well as the judge’s frequently-repeated guilty verdict. He’s not an officer or an attorney. He’s an experienced visitor to this particular department. The traffic ticket muse sits in the back row, echoing the opinion that everyone should take traffic school if possible. He even advises the woman next to me that she should raise her hand and tell the clerk she has changed her mind. Only one chooses traffic school. It’s an interesting aspect of human nature that we so desperately want to tell our stories — and be heard by a judge and treated fairly — that most everybody risked a guilty verdict (earning a “point” on his record) instead of spending a day in traffic school (avoiding the “point”).

Not a single person in this courtroom wants what he deserves. That’s why we’re all here to object, to be heard, to plead our cases. It reminds me of Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, when he says of his fellow convicted criminals, “I’m the only guilty person in the whole place.” I look around me and smile. I may not like to think so, but these are my people.

In my thirty years of driving I’ve only been pulled over twice, and this was the first time I’d actually been issued a citation. The other time I was driving 29 in a 25 (honestly) en route between the elementary school and the grocery store in order to purchase quarters for the book fair. With the kids’ lunch hour approaching, they would soon be inundating the book fair, and we needed change. We had a certain officer in town with a reputation for being completely inflexible. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t pulled over at some point by “Officer Jones” during his tenure in town. He was even mentioned by name in the Driver’s Education course at the high school, so the fact that Officer Jones let me continue on my way without issuing a ticket was no small miracle. That was my lucky day.

The clerk calls my name. He informs me that traffic school is not an option because whatever the officer thinks he saw (which I still disagree with) was not so bad as to warrant a “point” on my driving record. If I plea “no contest,” I pay the fee and then go free. Or I could spend the morning waiting to argue about it and then lose. Nothing against the traffic court judge — I never even set eyes on the guy — but I’m glad he’s not going to judge me because I don’t think I would have enjoyed the process or the outcome.

As much as I’d like to think that I’ve been a perfect driver for 30 years, there is undoubtedly something in my driving history that I should have been ticketed for. And so, no, I don’t want what I deserve. I’m not going to argue about my innocence or my culpability. Instead, I’m going to move on with my day and let my officer do the same. I’ve been fretting about the unfairness of this particular citation for three months, and now I’m going to let the whole thing go.

The traffic court guru in the back row nods his approval.

The court clerk issues my ticket to freedom, out of the courtroom and on to salvage my morning by walking the dog. Along my route, I think some more about that parable of the vineyard. I’m grateful that God doesn’t employ a point system. How blessed is that worker who, from the moment he wakes in the morning, feels a sense of purpose and place. Who has the health and capacity to work a full day. Who feels confident enough to negotiate with his boss for a fair wage. It is a gift he loses sight of when he focuses on the wages other workers receive.

Given the choice between justice and grace, I choose grace.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little grace.