Infatuation

The last night of Sam’s life was one of the strangest of mine. I knew about his chronic back pain, but I didn’t know about the crippling despair. I knew about the job stress, but not the intensity of his shame. The pieces only made sense in retrospect. And by the time I put them together, of course, it was too late.

The night before Sam died, I found our Wills and Trust sitting out on the counter. It didn’t strike me as odd because I was a practicing trusts and estates attorney, and I had been thinking about revising our estate plan. We had had a second child since we originally executed those documents, and I wanted to update our Wills and Trust to include both boys by name (as opposed to “our son Michael and any other children we might have”). So when I noticed the binder of documents on the counter, I said to my husband “Oh good. I’ve been meaning to get those out so I can revise them.” He said not a word. After the fact, I realized that butthead had been reading our Trust to make sure that the boys and I would be covered even if he left our estate plan alone.

Out of the blue, he said, “Jim Wilson was a smart guy.” I can picture exactly where I was standing in the kitchen at the island when I threw up my hands and replied emphatically, “Jim was an idiot! He left a wife and two kids.” Jim was in our law school class, and he was, in fact, a very smart guy. Before attending law school, he had graduated from medical school, so he consistently ruined the curve. We would have hated him, if he had not also been such a nice guy. But somehow he lost his way. Several years after we all graduated, Jim committed suicide by jumping off the parking structure at his office, leaving his wife and two young children. Only later did I realize that what Sam meant was that Jim knew how to get the job done. More women attempt suicide, but more men die from it. Sam had his heart set on it.

That same night, Sam said, “I’m so sorry I failed you.” Again, I heard his words, but I didn’t understand his intention. I responded unequivocally, “Failed me?! What are you talking about? What part of this was failure? We have each other, we have two gorgeous kids, we even have a ridiculously cute little black dog and a white picket fence!” But Sam didn’t hear me either. As I replayed that conversation in the hours and days immediately following his death, I realized he hadn’t heard my answer because he wasn’t trying to apologize. He was trying to say goodbye.

Our conversation seemed so peculiar. We spoke in that shorthand that couples use when they’ve been married a long time, but we weren’t understanding each other. He was preoccupied and distant. I intuited that something was wrong, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what it might be. I began to fear that maybe he was having an affair. It was the worst thing I could think of. I didn’t know he was flirting with his own mortality. Late that evening, I looked him in the eye and asked the question that terrified me, “Are you sure you’re not having an affair?” It didn’t occur to me that he might be suicidal. “Oh Charlotte,” he said, looking at me with tenderness and shaking his head. “No. I would never.”

He wasn’t so much tugging on a lifeline as he was pulling a ripcord.

Sam never came to bed that night. I have often wondered whether if he had slept – even just a few hours – things would have looked brighter in the morning. The sun rose on a new day, but he had already checked out, seduced by the promise of a better place.

In retrospect, it appears obvious. At the time, I missed the signs completely. We couldn’t connect because we were operating from two different levels.

When the boys and I left the house the next morning to go to the little one’s soccer game, Sam stayed home to take a nap. I learned later that he literally raced out of the driveway and down the street, uncharacteristically erratic behavior for a man who was protective of pedestrians and the local children. He was a man consumed by a passion.

I don’t know if I could have stopped him, or if he even would have slowed down long enough to take a nap or take a breath. The attraction was too strong. He had completely disengaged, inspired by the hope that Death would take him.

I believe that the allure of suicide came upon him suddenly and beguiled him with a promise to end his pain, both physical and emotional. I believe that he acted quickly in order to keep me from stopping him.

I returned home later that day, anxious because I hadn’t been able to reach Sam. I arrived to find a police car in front of my house, lights flashing silently. Two uniformed police and a priest waited for me in my driveway. Sam’s silence and his words clicked into place: I’m so sorry I failed you. Jim was a smart guy. Oh Charlotte, No. Suddenly, the pieces fit together in a way that I didn’t want to believe.

I have certainly berated myself plenty for having missed the clues. And I’ve beaten Sam up, too, for dropping hints and then leaving me, for betraying our trust and abandoning our children. I have – over years filled with therapy, long walks, reflection, Pinot Noir and dark chocolate – come to terms with the limits of my own power to save anyone other than myself. Although sometimes I fail her, too.

I will confess that it was a comfort to know that Sam was enchanted by a mistress whose name was Death, instead of, say, Dahlia. I do not know that I would have handled that well. After all, Death will have the last dance with each of us in this life. I hope She has been kind to Sam.

***

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

Options

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

~ Maya Angelou

 

Some people are offended by joy. This is not my problem.

I believe that healing is always a choice, and that joy is a possibility. It’s not necessarily easy or simple. It does not always arrive quickly. Healing is not a one time, check-the-box and you’re done kind of a thing. It’s a daily choice.

The choices might seem small or significant, whether to go for a walk or crawl back into bed, whether to sell Sam’s car or keep his name. How long to wear black, whether to wear mascara, or whether to wear the necklace Sam gave me on a recent anniversary.

To be honest, I didn’t anticipate finding quite so much joy. I was just hoping to make it through a day without wasting perfectly good mascara. For weeks, maybe months (I can’t remember), I stopped wearing make-up altogether. The day I chose to apply mascara was a public display of hope. My friend Susan (the one who later introduced me to Tim) remembers the day clearly and with fondness. I think that was the day that she breathed a sigh, trusting that I would be okay.

Those little, daily choices start to add up to something meaningful.

It helps to choose role models carefully. I didn’t want to be that bitter crabapple who never recovered after her husband’s suicide. We all know an old grouch – like Oscar, but without the charm, or the trash can. I was running an errand this afternoon and ran into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in years. We chatted for a minute, and when I told her things were going well, she simply paused and said, “I hate you.” Seriously. Apparently, she liked me a lot better in the days when I had given up on mascara completely. At least Oscar has friends and a sense of humor. And when he loses his sense of humor, his friends put his lid on him.

I can choose to be defined by what has happened, or I can choose to define my life for myself. I do not intend to minimize the tragedy. It is hideous and real. I do not mean to ignore the past or pretend it didn’t happen. On the contrary, I look at what has happened. I stand with my mouth gaping open at the horror of it, because people are suffering. But I choose to believe that the tragedy is not the end of the story.

Genuine healing usually means letting go of the way things used to be and opening the door to something new. I chose to embrace a new life, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It helps that my preternatural fear of inertia is greater than my fear of change and the unknown.

Sam and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary two months before he died, and he surprised me with a pretty diamond heart necklace. He chose the little heart specifically because its asymmetrical design appealed to him. I loved it. But a week or so later, he confided that he was concerned about our budget. It was sweet that he had bought the necklace, wanting something special to commemorate our anniversary, even though finances were tight. In the course of our conversations, we made a couple decisions, including that I would go back to work part-time and he would return the necklace. I thought I was being practical and helpful, but later I wondered whether he felt this resolution as a rejection or his own failure.

I found the heart necklace in a drawer a few weeks after Sam’s death, still in its black velvet box along with the original receipt. I was sick to my stomach. He had never returned it. Seeing the necklace in its jewelry box made me realize how difficult this task must have been for him. I felt confident that we would have many more anniversaries to celebrate, but maybe he suspected we wouldn’t. I didn’t have the heart to return the gift. But I felt too much sorrow and regret to wear it.

I mentioned my dilemma to a friend, and she offered to take the necklace back to the jeweler. The shop owner was very kind, and he remembered Sam. He was surprised and dismayed to learn of Sam’s death. He offered to give a store credit, but not a refund. I put the necklace back in the drawer, where it remained for several more months.

In the meantime, I thought about other decisions, such as what color nail polish I should choose for my pedicure and whether to sell the house.

My friend suggested that if I wasn’t going to wear the heart necklace I should donate it to the school auction. But that option didn’t really feel like a good fit. I wondered – with uncharacteristic superstition – whether the heaviness and shame might follow the necklace. Back into the drawer it went.

I thought about the little diamond heart necklace from time to time. I might look at it occasionally, but it filled me with sadness and remorse. I didn’t know what to do.

I continued to make choices. I went back to work part-time. I started drinking coffee. And Pinot Noir. I decided to join the extended family for Thanksgiving dinner and to avoid any New Year’s celebrations. With the help of a few close friends, I planned my own 40th birthday party. I started running. Not every step represented progress, but there were enough to create some momentum, bringing me toward a new life.

But I never wore the necklace. It wasn’t that I didn’t wear anything that Sam had given me. I continued to wear my wedding ring for a while. Even now, I wear the watch Sam gave me, as well as a favorite pair of earrings. Just not the necklace. Not exactly.

A year and a half after Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends asked me to be her daughter’s godmother. I was honored, of course, but I wasn’t Episcopalian and I was only recently on speaking terms with God again. It didn’t seem to me that I was necessarily the ideal choice for spiritual guidance, but my friend insisted. I suspect she saw something about my relationship with God that I didn’t really notice until she called my attention to it. I had not actually stopped talking to God, but I certainly didn’t have anything nice to say. And I definitely wasn’t listening. But God waited me out, in Her annoyingly patient manner, while I threw my temper tantrum. So that later, I found my friend’s request drawing me closer into a relationship, not only with her daughter, but also with Jesus. I began to think about being baptized.

This time I went to the jeweler myself, wondering if the shop owner would remember Sam. He did. He also remembered the heart necklace. I told him I was thinking about replacing the heart with a cross. Almost immediately, I noticed a small, diamond cross, one that the jeweler had designed himself (as he had also designed the heart). I felt a flutter of joy – in part because it is very pretty, and in part due to the slightly heretical thought that my late Jewish husband had just given me a cross.

I wear it all the time.

Healing is always an option. There is so much good news in this perspective. The door to healing is always unlocked, I just had to decide to open it. I did not, however, have to fling the door open wide. I started by inching it open. Just a sliver. Enough to let a little light through. Little decisions. Small choices, that led up to the more significant ones and into a new life.

As it turns out, Joy is on the other side of that door, looking for me.

***

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

The Short History of Tim & Charlotte

We tell the story often.

It’s a beautiful story, if a little awkward.

On the surface, we look like a pretty traditional family: mom, dad, four sons, a dog and a cat. We go to church most Sundays, and we make the boys mow the lawn and take out the trash. We genuinely like each other, and we laugh a lot.

It comes up when people ask where we met or how long we’ve been married. It comes up when a guest at a party notices that my wedding ring looks more like an old-fashioned cocktail ring, instead of the traditional diamond solitaire. It comes up in the pediatrician’s office when there is a question about family history of illness or allergies. It comes up when we attempt to explain our complicated Mothers’ Day plans or why the tall blonde Christian girl is welcomed so warmly at the Cuban Jewish funeral. Or why the boys attended different elementary schools. It comes up in the context of grandparents and how a girl could possibly have so many mothers-in-law.

It comes up most frequently because two of our sons share the same name. The boys’ favorite explanation is to whisper: “maternal brain damage.” And then look at me sympathetically.

Sometimes, the kids don’t even bother explaining. They are amused by the quizzical looks that ensure when they introduce each other with, “These are my brothers, Michael and Michael.” Or, “Hi, I’m Michael, and this is my brother Michael.”

I don’t always offer an explanation either. Just this afternoon, for example, I received a phone call from a freshman at the university where my son attends. She and I talk about whether my son is happy at the university, what his major is and whether he participates in Greek life. She asks whether anyone else in the family participated in a fraternity or sorority, and I pause. The truth is that his mother was in a sorority (but I can’t remember which one) and I was not (my college didn’t have any), but the young woman on the phone thinks that I am his mother. In the interest of simplicity, I say No, which is true enough for purposes of that particular conversation. These seemingly straightforward questions often raise the issue.

So here is the short history of Tim and Charlotte: We were both widowed in 2007 (cancer and suicide), each with two young sons (ages 6, 8, 11 and 15). We met each other in 2008, fell in love and were married in 2010.

Most of the time, people don’t know whether to say I’m sorry, or Congratulations.

No, we did not wait until all four boys were in favor of our marriage, and yes, now they get along like brothers. Everybody’s picture is on the walls and the piano, and yes, that includes Debbie and Sam. Yes, there was a time when we had his, his, his, his, his, hers and ours therapists. No, we did not meet at grief counseling, and yes, we really did have our wedding reception at a local park with the In ‘n Out truck.

We feel blessed and lucky. Neither one of us expected to find love again, and here we are. I can’t explain it, but I am grateful. One of my own (and by “my own” I actually mean Sam’s) cousins says she thinks Tim and I were made for each other. Unbelievable. The road here was steep and rocky, to be sure, but absolutely worthwhile. There is certainly truth to the idea that once you have experienced sorrow, you appreciate joy. But if I told you I sometimes race the dog to the front door to greet Tim when he comes home at the end of the day, that would just sound stupid. We laugh at the terribly irreverent, and we joke that the widow and the widower never miss a funeral (even though that’s mostly true). I could never have imagined being so happy, but there you have it. We are together, and that is evidence of grace.

In the last several months, Tim and I have attended four funerals (see what I mean?) and a wedding. He was the best man, and here’s a picture:

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So yes, it sounds silly. But more often than not, I win the race to the front door.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And love,love,love.