With Gratitude

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I was all set to write about gratitude because I believe in its power. Plus there’s the whole November bit, what with Thanksgiving and all, which is honestly, truly my very favorite holiday. I love Thanksgiving because it’s about what it’s supposed to be about — family and friends, food, football and gratitude.

But I’m not feeling excessively grateful at the moment.

Well, that’s partially true. I am feeling distinctly grateful, but also overwhelmed, powerless, afraid, and exhausted. Maybe a tiny bit resentful. Underpaid. My inner perfectionist control freak is having an absolute panic attack because in the last three weeks she thinks I should have written more, cleaned out another closet, organized a file drawer in the office or paid the property tax bill on time, and purchased a few more Christmas gifts. As in, all of them. Or at least one. Instead, I’ve spent every day at home ministering to a child who suffered a head injury and is under orders not to do any exercise or schoolwork, not even to go to school, not to watch television, play video games or interact with screens of any kind, not even to read a book, which pretty much leaves me as entertainment. Unfortunately for the kid, I’m not that entertaining.

As for me, the less he is allowed to do, the less I seem to accomplish. Healing has become not only our primary, but almost exclusive, focus. As the schoolwork accumulates, the pantry empties and the to-do list lengthens, the two of us sit together. We discover that I can read to him without exacerbating the headache. Of course, we eat a lot of snacks. After a few days, we can even play simple board games. Emphasis on the bored. And we eat more snacks. It has been three weeks now since his concussion, and although he has not yet been cleared to return to school, he is making progress. For which I am extremely grateful.

What is weighing on my heart today is that my friend and her son are about to face their first Thanksgiving without dad. And I think it’s insensitive and trite to declare that family and food and football necessarily create a happy holiday, negating life’s tragedies with a golden crust on the apple pie and glossing over heartbreak with a red and silver ribbon. Because the fact of the matter is that day sucks.

Grief brings its own form of brain trauma. In fact, as I peruse the symptoms on the concussion evaluation form, many are the same: headaches, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, feeling mentally foggy, problems concentrating, irritability, sadness, feeling more emotional, anxiety, sleeping more or less than usual, trouble falling asleep. I experienced most of these when I was pregnant as well, but with a “due date” to mark an end to the time frame. Grief does not progress with a specific deadline; healing happens in its own time.

I could barely breathe my way through that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, to weather the surreptitious glances and worried looks, to look into the teary eyes on the tilted heads of well-meaning family members who asked how the boys were. Several were aching to ask but didn’t muster the courage. I can’t blame them. It was all I could do not to bite off the heads of those who did with a “How the hell do you think we are doing?!” I might have, actually, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, if we had been doing well, wouldn’t that have been more alarming than the fact that we were falling apart?

Somehow in the midst of my emotional turmoil, I genuinely felt gratitude. Even on my darkest days, I had two good reasons to get up and going every morning. I was grateful for my education, the kids’ education, a roof over our heads and food on the table, often prepared by the hands of a caring friend. I was grateful that Sam hadn’t killed himself at home. I was grateful that I wasn’t the one who found him. And that the boys never saw him. I was grateful that Sam wrote me a note; not the love note I wanted, obviously, but it was better than silence. I was grateful that he had enough Vicodin in his system to dull the physical pain. I was grateful for 17 years together, even though it wasn’t long enough.

A conversation with the newly-widow is not for the faint of heart. It might be easier to turn on the football game.

I happen to believe that it’s entirely possible — even healthy — to feel both filled with gratitude and utterly bereft, all at the same time. Not only because the darkness makes me appreciate the little pinpricks of light, although that’s certainly true. But because the full range is richer and more accurate. Occasionally, I vacillate between gratitude and bitterness, swinging hard to the resentful side of the pendulum, but even then feeling the pull toward grace. Yet I find my stability when I can sit quietly, comfortably uncomfortable with all the pain and sorrow on the one hand, and all the blessings on the other. Tears and a smile together. Gratitude in the midst of the mess. Which is, I think, the real power of gratitude — not that it eradicates the darkness, but that it provides a toehold in the overwhelming darkness.

And if not, there’s always football.

I’m not the biggest football fan, but I do love the Bruins. Between Sam and me we had three degrees from UCLA, and yes, I am wearing blue and gold as I type. But there’s a Trojan “Fight On” sign prominently displayed in my kitchen. Tim’s first wife earned her degree from USC, and (much as my Bruin self is loathe to admit this out loud) “Fight On” is one of the great university slogans. It could even be a good personal mission statement. And an accurate synopsis of many a treatise on healing hearts.

Even when “fighting on” looks like this:  Sitting quietly, healing. Which is, my husband reminds me, the most important work I have to do right now.

Thanksgiving is coming, whether we are looking forward to it to or not. When I was nine months pregnant, I remember going to bed each night thinking, “If I wake up in the morning and I’m still pregnant, I just have to make it through the day.” The first grieving Thanksgiving is a little bit like that. Whether the turkey is dried out and cold, or catered. When the little girls twirl into the kitchen, knocking over appetizers, and the big boys throw a football across the lawn. Or the dining room table. When grandma says dad’s Mo-vember mustache makes him look like a 1970’s porn star. When we suffer through a holiday for the first time after daddy’s death, keenly feeling his presence in absentia. Breathe in. Exhale out. The day will pass, with its sadness and yes, even a little joy.

Now it’s Tuesday, and the Bruins will have won or lost and, in either case, will already be preparing for the next game. Because that’s what we do. We fight on.

By Tuesday evening, my house and my heart will again be full with my college boys home for the holiday, and I will be baking apple pies and all manner of Thanksgiving fare and favorite comfort foods. Because, after sitting quietly, crying, laughing, and eating my way through several years worth of family dinners, Thanksgiving has regained status as my very, most favorite holiday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Fight On.

Only Four Reasons

IMG_2099bwA few weeks ago, I participated in a survey conducted by young psychologist who asked me, “While you and your husband were still dating, what was the biggest impediment to your relationship?” I laughed, thinking about that time, because Tim and I had a standard caveat for when we made plans. “There are only four reasons why I might not make it.”

At the time, our impediments were 7, 9, 12 and 15 years old. Dating is a whole different game for a single, widowed woman in her 40’s with two young kids seeing a single, widowed man in his 40’s with two kids. Needless to say, the logistics were complicated. Between homework, school fairs, parent teacher conferences, sports, scouts, music lessons, social engagements and doctor appointments, the boys’ schedules were packed. It was a challenge even to find a date and time for dinner that didn’t conflict with any of the four boys’ activities.

For the first few months, we did not tell the boys about each other. The children were all grieving the death of a parent, and while Tim and I were taking the risk that our own hearts might break again, neither one of us was willing to subject our sons to this potential. For a while it looked like mom had unusually frequent book group dinners and dad attended a surprising number of booster club meetings.

Once we did let the boys know we were dating, only one of the children was actually in favor of this idea. And even he changed his mind from time to time. At any given moment, our relationship had somewhere between a 0%—25% approval rating from the kids.

At one point, one of the older boys told his father, “Dad, it just looks wrong.” I appreciated his comment, because it was kind and accurate. It wasn’t personal. It’s just that I’m not his mom. Because I’m not. It must have looked wrong: I’m tall, blonde and blue-eyed; his mother was a petite brunette with brown eyes. Furthermore, it is wrong for moms to die when their kids are in elementary school, or high school. Moms are not supposed to die even when the kids are in college or graduate school for that matter. There’s really no good time.

One of my favorite wedding photographs is me whispering into one of my step-son’s ears. In the picture, he is leaning toward me, and I remember promising him that I would never try to take the place of his mother. But I also said that I did hope that someday he and I would have our own thing.

Tim and I celebrated our fourth anniversary last week, which makes us sound a little like newlyweds and I suppose we are. Kind of. But in the same way that dating is a whole different game with four children to consider, the honeymoon with four teenagers and pre-teens isn’t typical newlywed fare. And while we certainly considered the children’s feelings as we were approaching the marriage decision, we did not let the children’s opinions dictate our marital status. Several people assumed that we decided to get married after all four children agreed that it was a good idea. Let’s just say, we’d still be waiting to choose a caterer if we had granted the children the power of the veto.

Actually, the caterer is probably the one thing that all the boys were happy about.

Once Tim and I got engaged, all four boys relaxed just a little. We had six good reasons, really, to get married, but only two of us were permitted to vote. They might not have approved of the situation, but they knew what “till death do us part” looks like, and they trusted it. We told the boys that we loved each other and we loved each of them and we thought that we were stronger together for all four of them.

Our approval rating still hovered around 25%.

We started planning our wedding. In the category of “Things I Never Expected my Life to Include,” planning a second wedding turned out to be one of the items that was loads of fun. My perspective was different planning a wedding at 43 than at 23, and yes, we went over budget, and yes, the coordinator made a huge gaffe, and yes, there were guests who I was really hoping to see that didn’t show, but at the end of the day — whether it rained, or the caterer goofed, or the band was late, or even if a family member said something small and mean — at the end of the day I would be married to this wonderful man. That’s a good day. On the actual day, it did not rain (not during the reception, at any rate), and we had a rocking band, and the bartender was fantastic, and the flowers were beautiful and the kids loved the caterer, even though we didn’t have a cake.

But the matter of the guest list was tricky. Family alone adds up to about 80 people. We essentially had two choices: elope with a friend or two or three (including Elvis), or plan a huge party (including children). We were blessed with so many stalwart friends who picked us up and dusted us off when life was hard, who brought us casseroles and took us to coffee, who walked with us in every possible way that it just didn’t feel good to exclude them from our celebration when life was happy. Ultimately, the decision was easy, but the logistics were complicated. Now we were talking about 500 adults and kids, and that’s a lot of rubber chicken.

Expensive rubber chicken.

Expensive rubber chicken that kids won’t eat.

As for the ceremony itself, we wanted to include our own children, but we didn’t want to put pressure on them. We anticipated that they would each experience a range of feelings, and we wanted them to feel safe to do so. We knew that they would be under the spotlight enough as it was without adding the role of best man to the groom or walking the bride down the aisle. The standard we set was that the boys were required to wear tuxedos and attend the wedding, but they could sit with whomever they wanted. They were not, however, required to smile. As children will do, they pressed the envelope. One of the boys insisted — even on the morning of the wedding — that he would wear the tuxedo but he would not go to the church.

I reminded him what we were serving at the reception.

He decided to sit with his best friend.

While the church seats 500 comfortably (well, our four sons were uncomfortable, but that had nothing to do with church capacity), the matter of a reception venue was a challenge. Of the guests, nearly 200 were 18 or younger. One of the gifts of being a family with lots of children is that many of our friends are families with children. And while children are often excluded from wedding ceremonies (with good reason), our particular circumstances allowed us to blend the traditional with the unexpected. What we most wanted was a celebration of love — our love for each other, but also an acknowledgement of the love that brought us to this place, and our children are an expression of that love.

We had our traditional church wedding, featuring several priests, a best man, a best woman, a flower girl, a long silk dress, a tuxedo, and a unity candle, followed by a celebration at the local park, surrounded by several hundred friends and family, and including a seven-piece band, kids in collared shirts and party dresses, a boy straight from a football game still wearing his grass-stained uniform, a bounce house, an ice cream truck and the In ’n Out Burger truck. Another of my favorite photos from the wedding is one of the boys, tuxedo shirt untucked and stained by chocolate ice cream and a spontaneous nose bleed, holding a cheeseburger in his hand and sporting a huge grin.

I would never have imagined selecting cheeseburgers for my wedding menu. In fact, my initial reaction to the idea was, well… an emphatic NO. But I changed my mind. And I’m glad. Everybody loved it. Especially the dads. Our approval ratings from the kids have steadily climbed (mostly) since that day.

And speaking of changing minds, I recently had a conversation with one of the impediments about that wedding day and he recalled the cheeseburgers in the park with a smile. Then he added, “You know, Charlotte, I am really glad you married my father.”

I am, too.

On the day of our anniversary, Tim and I were sitting down to a romantic lunch. Even with two sons away at college, we still struggle to find time for just the two of us. We both have busy schedules for the afternoon, and we briefly debate whether we should order a celebratory glass of wine with lunch. Just after we select a sauvignon blanc, I get a text message that sewage is backing up into the boys’ shower. We decide to ignore this particular issue until after our lunch. Clogged pipes are not one of our four reasons.

The wine arrives, and we relax. Within a few moments the phone lights up again. This time it is our 13-year-old, the one who suffered a concussion earlier this week. His head is aching, and he is ready to come home. Tim smiles at me, “Go get our son. I’ll meet you at home.”

Half an hour later, the three of us are sitting outside in the shade eating our take-out lunch, waiting for the rooter guy to clear out the main pipe. Not exactly the lunch we had planned, but not bad either, with both dogs wagging hopefully at our sides. I know what a bad day looks like, and it’s certainly not this. At the end of the day, for better or for plumbing backups, with headaches and in health, I face whatever comes my way with this kind, funny, lovable man at my side. Together.

And that’s a good day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And reasons to celebrate.

!Yo Puedo!

I grew up in a devoutly religious home. We went to church services twice a week. Religiously, as it were. When I was a little girl, I used to write Bible verses on a slip of paper and keep them in my pocket. Usually a verse from a favorite Psalm or Bible story, almost always including a promise of presence and power. Often these messages began with the angel’s command, “Fear not.” Even if I didn’t pull it out to read, the folded verse reminded me of divine presence, like tucking an angel in my back pocket.

Shortly after Sam’s death, we flew across the country for a family bar mitzvah. Sam was a Cuban Jew, and I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but just trust me on this point. One of my cousins used to have a stand-up comedy routine she entitled “Jewbans.” Anyway, we flew to Little Havana (Miami) to join the celebration.

My cousin’s sister “Alexa” is a cancer survivor, a stunningly beautiful woman with the most amazing, gentle green eyes. Graced with strength, fortified by family, blessed with intellect and heart and humor, she is a princess warrior. She is one of those women whose power and gentleness emanate in equal parts. I had never met her before, and I found my place next to her, soaking up her energy and warmth. She didn’t speak much English, and I only speak a poquito de Spanish. But pain is a universal language, and suffering levels the playing field.

Several of us cousins stayed up late one night, folding programs, preparing party favors and name cards and centerpieces. We laughed and chattered — in a mix of Spanish and English — and eventually our work was done, but we kept up the conversation, softer voices, still hands. I didn’t sleep much in those days, and I was grateful for the female companionship in the late hours.

Alexa looked at me with her beautiful green cat eyes, and she saw me. She saw the confused and wounded little girl, tucked tight in a ball. She saw the grizzly bear mother, rising to her full height, roaring, claws outstretched, prepared to eviscerate any threat to her cubs. She saw the young mother bird, gently folding a chick under each wing and singing her little ones to sleep. And she saw my own inner princess warrior, a prayer in one hand and a sword in the other. Without judgement, and with recognition, she saw all of me. I curled up in her arms and wept.

It is one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other — a place to be known and safe, a place where the frightened child and the fearsome warrior both reside.

Throughout the week, Alexa would offer me words of encouragement, mostly in Spanish. At the end of the week, she presented me with a single white 3×5 card: Yo puedo! No tengo miedo! Soy fuerte! Salgo adelante! Yo si puedo! SI! And on the opposite side, like the answer to a vocabulary flash card, in English: “Don’t forget: “I can!” 

From the early stages of my process, I was determined not to get stuck in my grief. I still keep Alexa’s card in my wallet, not unlike the Bible verses I carried with me as a child, so that I will see her words and think of her eyes and remember: I can!

This morning I’m planning the route for my run. I am tired and busy and I don’t really want to run at all, not even with my trusty side-kick, the defective hunting dog. But my girlfriend has talked me into another half-marathon (um, yeah… more on that later), and according to the training schedule, I need five miles. I do not even want to go that far today.

I lace up my running shoes and head out anyway. I aim low. I might walk a few miles, but only to take the edge off the dog. After the first mile, I start to wonder whether I could hit the three-mile mark and yet avoid the construction that seems to be afflicting the local streets this week. All this makes me think about how Life’s construction zones sometimes block my intended path and send me in another direction. I have several friends for whom Life has recently thrown up a big DETOUR sign, which has forced them to stop, gather their strength and start again in a different direction. Several are facing really big things: cancer, career changes, marital issues, the death of a sibling, financial challenges, parents in declining health and crises of faith. And, of course, the adage is true: a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. Fathers too. My own least happy child is decidedly downcast, and I spend the first part of my run on the verge of tears.

I think of my friends, many of whom picked me up and dusted me off when Life threw me a curveball, knocking me to the dirt. The least I can do is to keep running, like a prayer in motion. I decide to run by one girlfriend’s house in particular, not necessarily to stop (although I would if she wanted me to), but more like an intentional prayer loop, holding her tangibly in my thoughts and heart. It will add an extra mile to my route, but that’s what friends do. And as an incentive, I intend to let myself walk the last mile home.

I don’t stop and knock at my friend’s door because I don’t want to interrupt. (Not to mention that I suspect she would prefer a “virtual hug” from her panting, sweaty friend.) But I do hesitate for a moment — even though I’m afraid I might not get moving again — in an expression of solidarity. Like the song says, “When you’ve got troubles, I’ve got troubles, too.” I hold her in my heart and inhale. I exhale encouraging thoughts in her direction.

Inhale, exhale, repeat. Another of my favorite mantras.

Yo puedo! (I can!)

I begin to move again, first walking, then running, mentally pushing myself with the same thoughts I directed toward my friend. As I approach the home stretch, I am still thinking about several friends and the challenges ahead.

No tengo miedo! (I am not afraid!)

I remember their strength, their faith, their capacity for love, forgiveness and humor. I am winded. I’ve now achieved the prescribed 5 miles and can completely justify walking the last hill. My legs are heavy.

Soy fuerte! (I am strong!)

But as I contemplate the pain, anger and fear facing some of my friends, I press on. These women and men propelled me along my own healing journey with their strength and positive energy, and they inspire me still. I aim to encourage them and offer support along theirs.

Salgo adelante! (I’m moving forward!)

It is not until the steep hill home that my own tears spill over, but this is the place real strength lies, where the wounded little girl and the princess warrior make their way. Because the fact of the matter is that vulnerability and humility often require more fortitude than climbing up a hill. The tears and the sweat run together in one salty mess. Which is why I recommend wearing sunglasses on a run.

Yo si puedo! SI! (Yes, I can! YES!)

I reach the top and smile.

Whether you call it prayer, intention or desire, I believe that there is power in the positive thoughts that we radiate toward our loved ones. In fact, I know this to be true because I have experienced time and again the lift that comes when friends hold me in their hearts.

That extra hill was for you, my friend.

!Si, yo puedo!”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And words of encouragement.