Competitive Suffering

I love to cozy up in my favorite chair with a good book more than almost anything else in the world. This morning there are several books within arm’s reach, one on parenting teenagers, Anne Lamott’s latest and my kindle. I could cocoon here happily for several hours. That’s not going to happen, but the idea that I wish it could makes me smile. It took me several years to get back to my bookwormish self, but I did.

After Sam’s death, I lost my interest in reading. I barely had the attention span for the caption under a photograph in the morning paper, let alone an entire magazine article. A novel was out of the question. Apparently this inability to focus is common among those who have recently suffered a significant loss. One dear and well-intentioned friend brought me a legal treatise on retirement plans and spousal rollovers. Seriously. Even without the grief-induced brain trauma, my eyes roll up in the face of phrases like “defined contribution plan” and “minimum required distributions.” I would need a more compelling reason to curl up with the Internal Revenue Code. Needless to say, I never finished reading the Great American IRA Debate. I barely even got past the title. Nonetheless, I was grateful (astonished, really) that my friend had faith in my capacity to focus and read, and I left it at that.

Several friends (knowing that I am an avid reader) recommended the book A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which chronicles the year following her husband’s fatal heart attack. She was sitting down to dinner with her husband one evening and the next moment he was dead. As I recall (and I could be wrong about this — in addition to inattention, I suffered from grief-induced amnesia), it was the only book I actually finished in that first year following Sam’s suicide.

You might think her story would resonate with me, that I would appreciate the perspective of a fellow traveler grappling with the fact that her entire world turned upside down overnight. But I didn’t. I thoroughly resented it. Throughout the entire book, I kept thinking The man had a pacemaker,  for crying out loud. How surprised could you have been? My husband wasn’t diagnosed, medicated or even in therapy. Your daughter had graduated from college when her father died. My youngest son just finished kindergarten!

I couldn’t take her whining. I had way too much whining of my own to do.

Around that same time, the boys had some friends over to play. One of the kids was pretending to host a game show he called “What’s Your Tragedy?” He was standing on the stage (the bed), talking into the microphone (his curled fist): “Helllloooo Cincinnati, you’re on live with widows and orphans. Tell us (as he extends the microphone to the contestant), What’s your tragedy?”

Whatever you say in response to his outstretched fist will be pathetic. To play the game is to lose.

I wish I could say I didn’t get sucked into playing my own version of What’s Your Tragedy. I did. At least for a while. Honestly, marinating in the misery of a painful loss can be a vital part of the healing process. It can be helpful to visit that place, but I didn’t want to take up permanent residence there. It’s the competitive practice of suffering that is counterproductive. I didn’t like the way I felt when I was trying to convince myself (or worse, somebody else) how much worse my own life was. Or my sons’ lives. Because they were young, or because I was. Or wasn’t. Or whatever.

I did not want to become one of those people who engage in competitive suffering. There is no room for gratitude in that space. I didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of Sam’s death, even though suicide is messy. I didn’t want to identify myself primarily or exclusively as a widow, even though I have been widowed.

Ultimately, it’s neither accurate nor productive to compare death by cancer, suicide, heart failure, accident or homicide, to pit divorce against death in a misguided abandonment contest. This path does not lead to the Sweet Sixteen, only madness. I know more than one friend for whom the loss of a faithful pet would create more significant grieving than the death of an absentee or alcoholic or abusive parent. I cannot even contemplate how painful the death of a child must be. There is no path toward meaning in the What’s Your Tragedy paradigm. No two people suffer the same. It all just hurts.

At the end of the day I became an expert on my own grief. Like the well-drawn antagonist in a novel, my grief has forced my own character growth. I don’t know that this was strictly necessary —  I was already a character. Some days my grief took my legs out from under me, grabbing an ankle like an imp, laughing when I fell to the ground flat on my face. That little beast needs attention. Some days my grief spewed its toxic, fiery dragon breath in my face, and I learned to stand patiently, calmly, while the brute exhausted its venom, eventually curling up like a sleepy kitten. Some days it sat like a weight on my shoulders or in the pit of my stomach. Gradually, I grew less afraid of its heft and more tolerant of its presence. Some days grief whispered its discouraging messages. Sit here. You can’t do this. Just stop. Eventually, I recognized its voice. I have come to know the facets of my own grief, not exactly as a friend, but almost like a trusted mentor. And my heart softened toward the phases of my grief, creating an inner strength and the capacity to extend compassion toward another’s suffering.

The crux of healing is to find a way to incorporate the fact of the loss — not to ignore it or to become overwhelmed by the loss — and still to keep moving. I learned to reach a caring arm, first to myself, and then toward others suffering their own unique losses, without the need to compare and contrast my own travails. Their grief is not about mine.

I had found my way out the What’s Your Tragedy gameshow and back toward living a life. With love, with joy, with compassion. And even with a renewed attention span for reading.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the inspiration to get out of the game.

Soundtrack

You mustn’t be frightened
if a sadness
rises in front of you
larger than any you have ever seen;
if an anxiety,
like light and cloud-shadows,
moves over your hands and over
everything you do.
You must realize that something is
happening to you,
that life has not forgotten you
that it holds you in its hand
and will not let you fall.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke

I love listening to Pandora radio when I run. It’s the perfect balance of control (I create my own “station”) and surrender (the algorithm takes it from there). It is surprising to me just how often the soundtrack along the way matches the theme of my day. On Sam’s deathaversary, there were songs about sadness, goodbyes, resilience, stamina and even suicide. On Tim’s and my wedding anniversary, the soundtrack featured an unusually high proportion of love songs. Maybe I’m just in tune with the songs that suit my mood, but I am starting to think it’s more than that. I don’t think it’s coincidence. It’s almost enough to believe the Psalm’s promise, that Life might actually hold me in the palm of His hand.

On the last morning of my little black dog’s life, I was out on a run with the defective hunting dog. Every, single song featured death or goodbyes. Each and every one. Death. Goodbye. Nary a hostile Indigo Girl or Dixie Chick in the bunch. After “The Day the Music Died,” I noticed the consistent themes. By the time Natalie Merchant was singing “My Beloved Wife” (about a man grieving his wife’s death after 50 years of marriage), I started to worry. In truth, I was already worried. Tim and I had been up early with the little black dog. By “early” I mean the middle of the night. He was having trouble catching his breath, but he perked up when he saw me trudging sleepily up the stairs. At one point during his ordeal he dashed – and I mean like a young pup – down the stairs to steal cat food. He also climbed up on my – I mean his – favorite chair. It was as though he was snatching of few of his life’s little pleasures just one more time. He eventually settled down for a nap.

By then the sun had risen, and it was time to wake our sons and get them off to school. I called the vet to get an appointment for the little black dog, thinking that the good Dr. Doolittle would simply adjust the heart medications to solve everything. I had enough time to run the pup before the vet’s office opened, so I put on my headphones and out the door we ran.

By the time Paul and John were crooning in my ear, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…” I let out an involuntary gasp. The uphill grade might have contributed to the gasping. “… whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” Tears started to well in my eyes, and I thought, Not today. Please, not today.

It is always too soon.

Several death and goodbye songs later (I’m not making this up), I return to my front door, with Phillip Phillips singing, Gone, Gone, Gone. “I’ll love you long after you’re gone” (key turns in door), “gone” (door alarm), “gone” (look over left shoulder to dog’s usual waiting-for-her-to-come-back-home place). He’s perfectly still. Gone. Like the soundtrack in a movie, uncannily coordinating the music, lyrics and action.

I’ll just say right now that I would like Helen Hunt to play the role of Charlotte in the movie of my life. She looks beautiful even when she’s crying. The real me, however, did not appear nearly so attractive, crumpled next to my beautiful, pet-quality, Cavalier, sobbing no, no, no. Sweat, tears and snot dripping together into that whole grief-stricken mess. It is not a pretty picture.

Or maybe Ellen DeGeneres. Because I love her. And she makes me laugh no matter how sweaty, teary and snotty I am.

Because even though I have crumbled down to the floor, even though nobody knows that my sweet dog is gone – not a neighbor, not my husband, not my kids – the synchronized soundtrack makes me feel that I am not alone. While it is somewhat unnerving, it is oddly comforting to hear the perfect song.

My son asked me recently if I hear God’s voice audibly. Not yet. But I often “hear” what I think of as angel messages, sometimes in song, often in the voice of the people I love most in the world, and occasionally as an idea that pops into my own head. It can be enough to make me think that somehow the universe still holds my little black dog. And me. In the palm of His hand.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the perfect song to go with you.

Stigma

The Lenten journey begins with ashes
And the urge to wipe that smudge off.
Perfection, clarity, beauty
Lie beneath the stain.
I don’t want to see that death.
Living corpses all.
No.
I cannot look in the mirror.

My son turns away, embarrassed, like a teenager,
Mortified by his mother’s mere existence.

Eyes drawn to my forehead
As if I’m messy
Or crazy
Dead woman walking.

I am more
Than the smear accentuating
The crease in my furrowed brow.

It seems we should
Each one of us
Keep her scars hidden.
They are easier (for others) to tolerate unseen.

But He does not look at wounds that way.

He lifts my chin
Brings my eyes to His.
Love
Wipes the tears.
Tenderly, as a mother
Kissing the forehead of her feverish baby.

Don’t you understand what the mark means?

You are mine,
Chosen,
Beloved.

Grace wipes the ashen stain
With baptismal waters.

You have always been my own child
And will ever be
Mine.

Of Bears & Sleepless Nights

After Sam died, I had no intention of getting married again. Ever. Initially, I was too wounded, too angry, too afraid of being vulnerable enough to risk the heartbreak again. And just plain too tired.

Gradually I realized I was truly grateful for having experienced a loving marriage. Mine ended too soon, but I had known what it was to be loved for who I am. Some people spend their whole lives without knowing that kind of love. Still, I did not want to experience that kind of heartbreak again, and I didn’t need someone to take care of me or my sons. In fact, one of my cousins told me I was a better parent by myself than he and his wife were together. I’m not sure that’s true, although nice to hear, and it strengthened my resolve to run the single parent race.

The mother bear and her cubs were going to be just fine, thank you very much. Even if it meant camping.

I had accompanied my sons on more than a few camping trips. Even for those moms who are actively involved in the scouting experience, many choose not to participate in the actual overnight camping if they can instead pawn the wilderness expedition off on a spouse. Since dad was no longer an option, I made these trips myself. My son loves to tell of a particular overnight when his mother set up our tent in a flat, protected spot, while all the dads set up tents directly downwind from the campfire. My Eagle Scout father was proud, too.

On another adventure in the Angeles Forest, we had sighted a brown bear earlier in the day across the lake. Late that night, in the cold and dark, my son woke up and scooched his sleeping bag closer to me. He whispered urgently, “Mommy, I hear a bear.” I nestled him close, because the bear-like gruntings and growlings had, in fact, kept me awake most of the night myself, but not because they were particularly threatening. “Don’t worry, sweetie. That’s just Mr. Reyes snoring. And Mr. Smith. And Mr. Jefferson.” They were quite the trio.

We giggled and snuggled, and he settled back to sleep. His breathing relaxed into a soft, rhythmic pattern, and for the first time since my husband’s death, I felt sorry for those poor women, happily married to these kind, but extremely loud, men. I began to gravitate contentedly toward being single.

I’m not quite sure how I found my way to where I am now. A lot of sleepless nights, a prescription for Xanax, many a tear-filled coffee with a friend, a good therapist, a dash of faith and one handsome man later, I am happily married with four sons. A friend asked me recently if there was a difference the second marriage around, and I think the answer has to be yes. I cannot quite remember who or how I was before Sam’s suicide. My experience of his death has changed me forever, mostly in good ways, if you don’t count the slight neuroses.

In any event, I don’t know how patient or peevish I might have been if Sam snored. I do know that I have a renewed appreciation for how precious life is and how everything can change overnight. My Tim snores like crazy, but the noise rarely disturbs me. It’s true that I’m a fairly sound sleeper. But on the occasions when his snoring wakes me, I am not bothered. I am comforted. When I hear him snoring, I also hear, “He’s here. He’s breathing. He’s with me. We are together. I’m not alone.” I am genuinely grateful.

And he takes the boys camping. I love that about Tim.

This year when they returned from their annual summer camping weekend in the Sierras, the first thing our youngest son said was “Mom, I don’t know how you sleep next to him. He snores so loud!”

I smile, I snuggle close, and I settle back to sleep.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a restful night.

Heart Murmur

My little black shadow is following me silently today.

His toenails are not clicking on the hardwood floor, paws shuffling after me. He is not scratching at the door to be let out. Or in. Again. He is not barking for a cookie. He is not coughing, struggling to catch a breath, his little heart working increasingly harder but accomplishing less.

I hear clearly what I desperately miss – the thump, thump, thump of his wagging tail against the side of his crate every morning, always excited to see me. If he was awake, that tail was wagging. Sometimes even before the rest of him was awake. When that tail got going it wagged the entire little black dog, from tail to hips to shoulders. Even his feet got happy.

I can hardly focus at all in the midst of all the noise the little black dog is not making.

He spent most of his days by my feet or at my heels. I’m not an excellent sitter. It’s one of my challenges as a writer, keeping my own tail in the chair. I pop up when the washing machine goes silent. I pace. I heat up my coffee or grab a snack. But when I do sit, my little black dog sleeps at my feet. A closed door separating him and me distressed him so much that he put long, desperate scratches in the bedroom door. And the kitchen door. And especially the front door. In recent weeks, he moved noticeably more slowly, so I waited for him, holding the door open a few moments longer to allow my constant companion time to join me.

He was everything the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is reputed to be – affectionate, playful, loyal, gentle, and prone to overeating. When the kids started kindergarten and elementary school and their confidence increased, along with their time away from mom, the little black dog stayed home with me. When Sam died, the little black dog, with his therapeutic spaniel ears, comforted us through long, dark nights. We called him “Love in a dog shape.”

He also suffered from the heart murmur that commonly afflicts his breed. His little heart worked overtime his whole life; in the last year, he started three different heart medications. Yet his tail still wagged. I didn’t look to his head for confirmation that he was well, I looked to his tail. Between his declining health and hearing, his ears did not always respond to the first noise of my homecoming. But his tail always did.

Until yesterday. When I walked in after my morning run, no part of him wiggled or wagged at all. Not at the beeping of the house alarm, not when I called his name, not when I knelt to touch his head. The worst part was not the silent tail or the still heart or the unmoving ears or even the blue tongue, evidencing his heart failure. It wasn’t his final piddle on the floor. The worst part was the long, teary day, waiting for my boys to come home from school. Their first puppy. A faithful friend. Always up for a game of fetch. Or a cozy nap. Or sharing a snack. That little dog with his soft ears and gentle heart carried their sorrow and lifted their spirits when they were sad. They had that little black dog in their lives longer than they had their own father. My heart aches.

When I do tell them, I worry that I will not hold up under the weight of their grief. We sit together silently, tears running down our faces. We stroke the cold spaniel ears for the last time. We hold his hushed tail. His furry little body is so cold, the first dead body that the boys have touched. It is not creepy or morbid, it’s just sad. There is a sense that the little black dog simply got up and walked away while we weren’t looking, leaving his body behind to let us know that he had gone. We have learned so much about how to love and how to live from the little black dog whose heart was marked with a congenital defect.

Ours may not be a culture comfortable with death and grieving, but ours is a home where broken hearts are seen, and heard and nurtured. None of us ever saw Sam after he died. It is a question that, not surprisingly, the boys bring up now, as they face death once again. The boys were so angry with me when I did not allow them to see their cold, dead father. There is research that supports the idea that children who have seen the body have an easier time coming to terms with the death of a loved one. I cannot now remember where I read that theory, but it does make sense to me. For many, many months, one of the boys wanted to believe that his dad was on an extended business trip. On the other hand, Sam’s body was so terribly disfigured by the trauma of his death that I feared this visual was likely to do more harm than good. I remember asking the police officer whether I could see the body myself, and he looked at me with great sympathy. The words that came out of his mouth were, “You can,” but as he held my eyes with his, willing me to understand, he began to shake his head slowly back and forth. I had never told my sons this story, and it gives us an opportunity – once again – to talk about their dad.

These are not necessarily easy judgment calls to make, and there is no one right answer. For me, I decided that I did not want that grisly picture of Sam to be imprinted on the boys as their last memory of dad. They were so little, and their father was so much more than that one terrible day. In this regard, the little black dog has given us his final gift – a gentle, tender death. The end of his life was not tragic or traumatic. It was just his time to go.

We are, of course, heartbroken.

It is hard to believe that the little dog who was all heart could have died of heart failure. We sit next to him, tenderly stroking his cold hears, but he is gone. His heart no longer fails him, and his love does not fail us. The little black dog is no longer love in a dog shape. He is, simply, love. But we do miss his wiggly waggly self.

I had forgotten how distracting an absence can be. My favorite reading chair has a permanent divot across the top. No amount of fluffing or patting will reinstate its original shape. It was his favorite chair, too. He rested his chin on my shoulder while I read, his tail flopped over my other shoulder. Now I sit with a book open in my lap, staring out the window. The clouds are gathering, growing darker, sunlight dimming and hidden, branches are bending and bowing to the approaching storm.

The raindrops fall gently. I hear his heart murmuring still, mimicked by the thump, thump, thump of his beautiful black tail.

***

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