Sticks and Stones

An Ode to Angry

A couple of weeks ago, I had noted in my blog that I was struggling with a certain, shall we say, unpleasant situation. Within a few days, I received an anonymous Dammit Doll in the mail. If you are not familiar, as I wasn’t, the Dammit Doll (looking vaguely voodoo-ish), bears this little poem: Whenever things don’t go so well, and you want to hit the wall and yell, here’s a little Dammit Doll, that you can’t do without. Just grasp it firmly by the legs and find a place to slam it. And as you whack the stuffing out, yell “Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” Yes, I laughed, I so need this. But who sent it?

The return address was amazon.com, and initially I didn’t find even a packing slip. Here are my top five guesses as to which of my girlfriends was most likely to have sent me the Dammit Doll:

  1. The minister.
  2. The atheist.
  3. The seminary student.
  4. The PTA president.
  5. The preacher’s wife.

It tickles me that my most spiritually attuned friends are also the most likely to appreciate my need to slam the stuffing out of an unsuspecting doll. And yes, I include the atheist in the spiritual category, because she is one whose heart has been so wounded by life that she finds it impossible to believe in a loving and all-powerful One. And the PTA president, because she is engaged with both teenagers and administrators, and if that combination doesn’t bring you to your knees in prayer, I don’t know what will.

One of my best friends used to struggle with anger, the kind that wells up and wrenches the insides, fueled by powerlessness in the face of heartbreak and unfairness, threatening to spill out in ugly and hurtful ways. He had learned, over the years, that a “mad stick” proved an enormously helpful conduit to funnel the angry out. Picture a walking stick found along the side of a hiking path – that’s the ideal branch for use as a mad stick. He would whack the mad stick against a tree or fence or cement wall that could withstand the force of his outrage. He had found a relatively safe way to let the mad go. The stick itself did not usually survive the experience intact, but my friend did.

My emotional equivalent of the mad stick is pounding the pavement. I return from a mad run physically exhausted, both fueled by anger and wrought out by the emotion. It’s a cathartic experience.

Frankly, I don’t understand people who don’t have anger issues. If you are engaged with life, if you have friends and family and dogs you love, if you think the world could be improved in both small and significant ways, then you also know that life is desperately unfair. That people disappoint (even the ones you call “dad” or “baby”). That there is evil in the world and in boardrooms and locker rooms and sacred spaces. And if you are connected with life at any level and participate with both your heart and mind, then unfairness, evil, and poverty are sufficient to make you angry enough to beat the stuffing out of a dozen Dammit Dolls. And that’s before a single interaction with the DMV.

In the Jewish tradition, mourners will often place a stone on the gravesite as a sign of respect. The rock itself represents enduring love. The boys would sometimes write notes or draw pictures on their rocks before going to their father’s gravesite. Sometimes these were love notes; other times they were more like hate mail. One day, one of my sons had carefully chosen rocks to bring with him, including one that was broken in half. He chose it specifically because it looked like a broken heart. On the center broken part, he had written “I love you.” He placed his broken-heart rock gently on his father’s tablet. And then he carefully searched for more rocks. After he had collected a few, he paused, took a step back… and, winding up like a pitcher, hurled them at the tablet. The stones crashed and collided with the grave marker. He stomped and he cried.

As painful as it was for me to see my little boy in so much agony, I stayed with him, allowing him to experience the intensity of his young wrath. I was not afraid that his launching of those rocks would somehow nullify the affection he had for his father. It was the perfect expression of little boy grief – “I love you. I miss you. I don’t understand why you would rather die than go to my soccer game.” Eventually, worn out by his emotion, he ran out of rocks. Finally, he knelt close to the marker, touched his father’s name gently with his hand, placed a kiss on the tablet, and whispered, “I miss you, Daddy. I really miss you.”

Even now, when we drive by the cemetery, sometimes the boys are silent, sometimes they say “Hi Dad,” sometimes they wave or blow a kiss, and sometimes they give Dad the one-finger salute. Depends on the day and the kid.

I honor my sons’ needs to stomp their feet and throw rocks. I had done the same myself the first time I visited the gravesite after Sam’s suicide. It’s not a bad place to start the mourning process. The important lesson is to start. Healing can happen from that first movement forward, even if that step is to stomp on the gravesite of the man you love most in the world.

I have learned to honor my own mad. Maybe the mad is enough to get me off the sofa. Or into therapy. Or to speak to a group of social workers about what it’s like to parent children in the throes of grief. Mad does its best work when I know its place. My mad is generally more productive on a long run, or on a written page, where the aggravated steam rises and ultimately dissipates, yielding to softer language, gentler steps, before meeting other eyes or ears. Angry does not make quality decisions, but it can spark an initiative for change. Indignation can provide a boost in momentum to get through difficult, unfair, challenging spaces. Angry does not stand by idly – or worse, silently – while injustice or cruelty wield their terrible blows.

Yes, mad most definitely has a place, but mad does not get the last word. When angry gets stuck it settles into bitterness or resentment and loses its purpose. But when angry has an outlet, that space surrenders to a different emotion and renewed power. That open place invigorates and builds. It strengthens resolve. It emboldens change. It inspires hope. It transforms.

Mad, at its finest, can be an invitation toward growth. Which is exactly what the preacher’s wife was counting on when she sent me the Dammit Doll.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And just enough anger to propel you toward hope.

One Plot or Two?

A Few Thoughts on Mourning and Morning Rituals

There are some questions I did not expect to answer at 39 years old. I am all in favor of planning ahead, but Sam and I had just barely started the squirreling-savings-into-college-accounts-for-the-kids stage. And here I was, talking to a complete stranger about a very small, expensive piece of real estate that I had no interest in purchasing, well, ever actually.

The extremely kind cemetery representative spoke as comfortably as if she was talking about shots of espresso for my morning latte — “Would you like a single plot or a double plot?”

I hesitated, not wanting to answer the question at all. It’s not as if it’s fun real estate to purchase, not like I imagine a vacation home would be. Sort of like a permanent home, without a real mailing address. I found it impossibly hard to believe, actually, that I was sitting here at the cemetery, within days of my husband’s death, waiting for the coroner to release his body so we could … what? Plan a funeral and burial, host a luncheon for hundreds, wear black, and resume the pattern of homework and playdates and billable hours? There were many watershed moments, especially in the first days and weeks after Sam’s death, most of which I recognized only in retrospect. But as for a single or double plot, I knew that moment was significant. My decision would determine the course of my healing path and form my perspective along the way.

I remember being surrounded by cousins, most of whom intended to be helpful, many of whom had certificates, licenses or graduate degrees, some of whom simply wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything “wrong” (my being the sole gentile in the room). In a room full of grieving family who desperately loved both Sam and me, I felt profoundly alone. Maybe because each of them had a partner, leaving me the odd woman out. In so many ways. I recall one of the family was laughing about the fact that she couldn’t find her grandmother (buried in this same cemetery) because Abuela had been married so many times she couldn’t remember the last name of the latest late husband. In retrospect, the family member was probably terribly nervous, but at the time her laughter felt heartless and cruel.

Notwithstanding all the credentials in the room, nobody else noticed the typo in the paperwork. I did not know a lot of things that day, but I did know my husband’s date of death. How could they miss it? Nobody else’s life changed to the same extent mine did on that day. I would have to do my own proofreading. And decision-making. At the end of the day, each one of us must choose her own healing path. Ultimately, each one walks that path alone.

I did not want to live the rest of my life thinking of this place — as beautiful as it is — as my final destination, or as a place I was moving back toward. I did not want to be that grieving widow who lived the rest of her life longing to be reunited with her late husband. I didn’t want to see an empty plaque with space for my name on it every time I visited Sam at the cemetery. (And I really didn’t want my sons to be haunted by that image.) I desperately wanted my children to live their lives fully, freely, without being defined or arrested by their father’s untimely death, even though the loss of him would impact them always. I wanted — eventually — to live my life again, maybe even dare to love my life. Somehow I knew instinctively that my mourning process would not end where it began.

I chose a single plot.

I did not choose the plot located on a steep slope near the street and the horse trail. That one was loud and reeked of car exhaust and horseshit, and Sam would never have treated me that way. I chose a quiet, peaceful spot, on a gentle slope with a view of the valley, off the beaten path, but with wheelchair access. It is his final earthly resting spot, or so they say, and as these things go, it’s quite nice, but it will not be mine.

I did not get to choose Sam’s death. I was left to choose my life.

Besides, he left me first. Sam’s suicide might have left me with tiny abandonment issues, and it is entirely possible that my choice was influenced ever-so-slightly by anger and a teeny touch of bitterness. In any event, this decision contained a seed of letting go, the possibility of my life after his death.

My morning ritual underwent a similar transformation.

Sam didn’t care for coffee, which made him an anachronism among his Cuban family. And he held the opinion that my drinking coffee rendered me high-strung and a wee bit crabby. I prefer to think of myself as animated in my caffeinated state, if just a little extra snarky. Our happy medium was that I began my mornings with one cup of black tea, and this compromise suited both of us for many years. I enjoyed the ritual of preparing my favorite tea in the early dark and quiet, warming both hands around the sides of my favorite mug. Usually after Sam had left for the office and before the boys were awake. A still, meditative, cozy moment to sit, breathing in the steam and welcoming a new day.

After Sam’s death, however, my morning tea was no longer, well, my cup of tea. It felt empty and wrong. I was alone. It wasn’t cozy; it was lonely. Nothing about my cup of tea lifted my spirits. Often it sat, untouched, and grew cold while I stared out the window, uncomprehending the path before me. I remember in those early mornings after Sam’s death feeling intensely resentful of the rising of the sun. Even though the nights were dark and very long, each successive sunrise offended me. It seemed impossibly wrong that the world could continue spinning even after my life had ended so abruptly. Of course, it wasn’t my life that had ended. It was forever changed, but it was still mine to live. But I didn’t grasp that yet.

The boys and I spent a week with family in the month after Sam’s death. We had gathered to celebrate a nephew’s bar mitzvah. During the time we stayed in my cousin’s home, she sheltered us and comforted us, fed us, laughed with us and cried with us. We called Sam all kinds of names, some more flattering than others. Our larger family surrounded my little family of three, and held us firmly in Love’s embrace. I was lonely, but I did not feel quite so alone. Desperately sad, but not so utterly bereft. Every morning, she brought me a cuban cafe con leche, a ritual I continued after we returned home, gradually restoring a warm, safe feeling to the beginning of each day.

With each sunrise came hope, the opportunity of a new day. A new life. Eventually, miraculously, I would find solace in the fact that the sun does, reliably, rise each day, no matter how dark the night is. That I could — once more — welcome the consistent morning sun was no small achievement. And one morning, with a coffee cup in hand, I would start to reach for that promise.

L’Chaim.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And morning’s promise.

Love Notes, Lists and Leaps of Faith

I’m thinking about getting organized and cleaning out my files. Maybe this is the year I’ll even be ahead of the income tax game. Not likely, but I am an optimist. There is, unfortunately, a significant risk of being sabotaged in this process, and not just by a blown budget or an approaching deadline. By a handwritten note, a photograph, even a receipt can derail me from my organizational goals. It doesn’t usually send me into a tailspin the way it used to, when I came across a love note from Sam, for example, or the old-fashioned bank books from the kiddie accounts he set up for the boys years ago. The only remaining value of those old accounts is the handwritten name of each child on the bank books themselves. The boys have so few things with their father’s handwriting, evidencing his presence, his touch and his care.

There is one note that stops me in my tracks even still. Sam’s last note – not the love note I would have wanted – but “nice” as suicide notes go. At least that’s what the police officer told me, and I’m sure he’s right. There are a lot of terribly vindictive, painful parting words out there. Dear Charlotte… In his very-nice-suicide-note, Sam told the boys and me for the last time that he loved us. I love you. Tell the boys I love them. He apologized for what he knew he was about to do, unable to anticipate just how much pain his death would cause. I’m so sorry. Sam expressed his confidence in me and my ability to raise our sons, and his loss of faith in himself. They need you …. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a commission. I didn’t get to say, “No I can’t!” Or “Don’t you dare!” I didn’t get to tell him, “Get back here! I’m not done talking!”

I had signed up for ‘till death do us part, but not yet.

People often ask me if I saw Sam’s suicide coming, and mostly the answer is no. He wasn’t diagnosed bipolar or depressed or medicated. In retrospect, of course, I cannot help but to see things differently. Sam suffered chronic back pain from the time he was 13 years old, and he had already had two back surgeries for herniated discs. He feared that a third surgery might be in his near future. He suffered from job stress, but everyone I know who has a job has job stress. It’s worse when you don’t have a job. I had just started back to work part-time, as a trusts and estates attorney, and our discussions of the future involved whether I would want to open my own office, whether we should consider moving to a place not subject to the steep Southern California weather tax, and whether we should have another baby. We weren’t contemplating the life of one of us after the death of the other of us. At least, I wasn’t.

The night before he died, I noticed our Wills out on the kitchen counter, and I mentioned I was glad he had brought them out because I had intended to update our estate planning documents, now that I was working again. He said “mm…hhmm.” Among other things, I wanted to make sure that both kids were included by name. I was a trusts and estates attorney, so the “Last Will and Testament” didn’t make me cringe in the slightest. Only later did I realize that he was reading them for a different purpose altogether. That butthead was making sure the I’s were dotted and T’s crossed so that he could go die with some small measure of peace, knowing the kids and I were covered. Maybe if I had been a civil rights lawyer, I would have known enough to be alarmed.

Meanwhile, across town, a couple I didn’t know were having a very straightforward conversation about her imminent death. She had stage four colon cancer. They were high school sweethearts and had been together for 25 years. She was 40 and he was 42. She told him that he should find love again. He said “Not a chance.” She told him not to be an idiot. He said he had every intention of sitting on the porch, playing guitar and drinking scotch until his own death. She continued. He was young, and she wanted him to live his life. She did ask that Tim find somebody who already had children, because she thought a woman who was a mother would make a better step-mother to her sons. With one caveat. She gave him three names of women she did not want him to date, all of them bitter and angry girls. This grouping of single ladies comprises what we now refer to as the “Do Not Date List.” One night, while Debbie was still alive, a woman arrived at the front door with a “dish” for Tim. The casserole lady is #4 on the Do Not Date List.

I admire the woman who writes the Do Not Date List for her husband on her own deathbed. She loved him with all of her heart, and when it was her time to go, she not only gave him permission to live his life but encouraged him to do so. I am in awe of that kind of love. She trusted Tim’s ability to love again long before he did. I am so grateful that she said it out loud.

I did not feel quite so appreciative of Sam’s trust in me. I resented him deeply for his particular leap of faith. I didn’t want to raise our sons by myself. Would he have stayed if he had less confidence in my capacity? I had no intention of being supermom, and resolved absolutely never to fall in love again. Ever. But I found myself in this untenable situation where, even though I wished Sam was wrong, I wanted to be the woman my husband believed in. I did not want to wear the widow chip on my shoulder forever. Little by little, I began to put the pieces of our broken lives back together again, inching our way toward wholeness, finding gratitude, joy and, yes, even love.

It is no small miracle that Tim likewise allowed himself to fall in love again. Then again, Debbie knew he would. It is a strange and wonderful blessing that Sam’s love and Debbie’s love brought Tim and me to where we are now, sitting together on our back porch, surrounded by kids, cats and dogs. Life and love in abundance. Tim sometimes even plays guitar, and we share the scotch.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a splash of Balvenie Doublewood.

Dear Reader

(on our first anniversary)

The concept for SushiTuesdays the blog was initiated exactly one year ago, on what would have been Sam’s 48th birthday. Those milestone days often include a wide range of feelings — pain, fear, anger, love, joy, strength. I was running, of course, my preferred method of experiencing the emotional panoply and finding quiet and clarity in their midst. My therapist and more than a few friends had urged me to “write the book,” which seemed a good idea, a worthwhile endeavor and yet, an overwhelming task.

But maybe, I start to think as I’m running with my beloved and defective hunting dog, I could start smaller. One little step at a time.

I have often thought that the big mistake Sam made in the course of fighting his depression and pain was that he didn’t talk to anybody. He suffered alone and in silence. I will never know what he would have said about it. He never said one word. I do not know what terrible weight or fear or stigma kept him from speaking. But I do know his heart. He listened to and counseled more than one friend who was struggling with depression himself or herself. He was kind, caring and helpful. He had a beautiful perspective on life. Even his own. Except at the end.

It’s all a little crazy-making to try to sift through, but in the middle of all the things I do not know, one thing I do know is that he would have wanted his life to be a blessing to others. Even though he was not able to find his voice toward the end, I believe that he would have wanted me to speak up. To chip away at the stumbling blocks of stigma and break through to a place of healing.

I talked to my husband Tim about the blog idea. To which he responded, “It’s about frigging time,” or words to that effect. We decided that if by writing this blog I could bring hope and light to just one person, then it would be worth it. I was excited and terrified.

I emailed one of my best friends and early proponents of the book idea. I told her that she wouldn’t believe that her tech-unsavvy friend was about to jump into the web-wide-world of blogging, and by the way could she maybe point me in the right direction. To which she responded, “It’s about frigging time,” or words to that effect. Within two hours, she launched the SushiTuesdays website and hit “publish” on my first post. My adrenaline soared, my stomach sank, and I was off on a new adventure.

In session the next day and with a combination of trepidation and pride, I confessed to my therapist what I had done. To which she responded, “It’s about frigging time,” but in more genteel words.

Three days later, I received an email from a woman I did not know, who had just lost a sibling to suicide. She thanked me for sharing my story and bringing her hope. She used the word “hope.” She was my one.

There have since been many more “ones,” and each one is thrilling and gratifying. And heartbreaking. I hope that you draw comfort — as I do — from the fact that we are in this leaky boat together. Presence is a powerful healing agent.

I have no idea what Sam would have said about the SushiTuesdays blog, inspired by his life and death. I suspect that a piece of him would be appalled and horrified. On the other hand, he would probably grin and say “It’s about frigging time.”

***

Thank you — one and all — for bringing me light and strength on my writing path. And hope!