Family Funeral

We arrive more or less in black,
Hats on sunny days,
Umbrellas in the rain.
This part is always the same: We smile and cry and embrace,
Reunited,
Genuinely happy to see each other.

We knew today would come,
She was nearly 90.
Sad,
But not tragic.
We miss her already,
Especially her laughter.
She was thoughtful,
Diligent,
Educated,
Opinionated,
A gift to her many students.
She was a loving wife and mother,
Generous,
Fiercely protective,
Turned a blind eye to her children’s glitches,
Like most moms I know.
Like me.

My son serves as a pallbearer,
A role his father would have fulfilled,
If he had lived so long.

The young man would stand shoulder to shoulder
With his dad,
Maybe even taller now.
The abuelas whisper to each other
loud enough
for all to hear,
“So handsome!”
“Those eyes! He looks like his father.”

The tias smile
With tears sparkling.
They glance at each other knowingly.

The boy doesn’t remember the tias and abuelas,
who have been there for him,
Since before he was born.
They attend bridal showers and weddings,
Baby showers and baptisms and birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
And funerals.
Always funerals.
His own father’s funeral.
He was too little to be a pallbearer then.

The tias and abuelas fretted and fawned.
They hoped and prayed.
They were there.
They always are.

They share joy and laughter and pour champagne,
They bear sorrow and grief
and prepare the condolence meal.
They lift spirits and hold hearts with steady hands.
They show up
donning Chanel and pearls,
or jeans and tennies.
Love takes many shapes.
They remember,
Even if he does not.

On those very dark days,
When Life disappoints
And it is hard to believe,
May he yet have faith in the aunties.
May he feel God’s bewildering love for him,
In the kiss prints of so many tias and abuelas
All over his cheeks.

Sacred Steps

There are so many things I love about running, not the least of which is that anyone who has known me for longer than a decade will believe that the real Charlotte has been abducted by aliens based on the appearance of the words “love” and “run” together in one sentence. I did not willingly run until I was 40 and then only because I needed to do something with all the mad that was torqueing me after Sam’s suicide. Running turned out to be an effective method to pound away a lot of anger. It was, for me, my own version of the fast and the furious.

Nearly nine years later, I am still running. I’m far from furious (and I never was fast), so there must be another hook. It’s the companionship of my defective hunting dog. It’s the joy of being outside, the connection to nature and fresh air. It’s the simplicity: I don’t need a court reservation, a bicycle pump or a team, just a good pair of shoes. It’s definitely a sense of accomplishment, and it’s an excellent excuse to go shopping for running clothes, which is cheaper and more fun than therapy.

But mostly, I run for the metaphors.

Every step counts.

I’ve put in a lot of distance since I took up this awful sport. I’m physically stronger, more emotionally balanced, and I have a drawer full of running tights and tanks. Running is hard. So is grief. But there’s an alchemy in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Running away doesn’t solve problems but running as a means of facing into the pain of loss is empowering. The steps need not be quick; a plodding, methodical gait just as surely brings me closer to healing as a blistering pace. In fact, the slow, deliberate steps are themselves the very evidence healing, because they demonstrate that I am not stuck. Inertia is not holding me back. I shift my energy from hurt and anger toward peace. Movement is success.

And there’s more good news. As my physicist father says, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So off I go.

It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up.

Every time I lace up my shoes, leash up the dog and head out the door is a victory. It doesn’t matter whether I go around the block or the Rose Bowl, how fast I run, or how long I spend on the trail. Life has a way of dishing out stops and stalls in myriad forms – injuries, inclement weather, doubt, fear, family issues and stray white dogs. There are a million reasons not to go, but when I do, I feel better for the effort.

Getting back on the trail again is not necessarily easy, but it is an option. Not unlike dragging myself out of bed in those early days of suffocating grief. A running habit is a practice in resilience. I rarely regret making the choice to get out and run, because it means that I have not been defeated, not today.

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

I never believed it possible to find enjoyment in the process of running. Honestly, do runners appear to enjoy the process? After many miles under my belt, I can say with a straight face that I have become an enthusiastic, if untalented, runner. Getting out and moving is joy incarnate. It’s a meditative time, a space for reflection and place to stretch. Maybe I’ve just become serotonin and endorphin addict. Maybe I’ll reward myself with a new pair of running shoes. There are worse things.

There are also the vistas and wildlife. I live in the foothills above Los Angeles, and I never tire of the way the morning light falls on the mountain terrain. The sunrise brings possibility. An early run is a great way to connect with the energy of a new day.

For the most part, our local wildlife consists of deer, song birds, harmless lizards and small rodents. I have, however, seen more coyotes than I care to count and had a few unfortunate encounters with leashless dogs. Mercifully, I have only seen our local bobcat safely through the kitchen window or posted on FaceBook. Not counting the suit in the Audi, the least civilized animals I engage on my run are my own native jealousy, resentment and endless chatter, and those beasts get quiet and calm in the course of a long run.

Life is a series of ups and downs.

True enough. There are no flat routes around here, unless you’re inclined to run around the high school track ad nauseum. Which I’m not. I’d rather sport neon orange and head for the hills. Which is to say, I’d rather fall in love and run the risk of loss and heartache.

Life’s road trip brings incredible joy and great sorrow, torrential rain and sunny days. Some miles are faster, some slower. Some hills are steep and slippery, some a long, gradual climb. You can call them opportunities, challenges or butt-kickers. Which makes it all the more satisfying when I stand at the top, inhale and smile. It’s not without its hazards, notably the shiny, black Audi careening past at breakneck speed, but I’m not bitter.

It gets easier.

It doesn’t, actually. The first mile always hurts. Every single run. But the second mile is easier than the first. Usually. Sometimes it’s worse. Runs can go that way.

It will get easier and it will also get harder, but somewhere along the road I get stronger. In any event, my story has not ended yet. My favorite variation of the It will get better/All will be well/Don’t give up encouraging theme is “Hang on little tomato.” The image of a little red tomato holding persistently to a green leafy vine, waiting for the clear blue afternoon amuses me no end. I can almost smell the sunshine on the vine from my childhood vegetable garden. The sunny someday is a hopeful path. True, I enjoy the days when the running is easier, but I keep running even though the course is challenging. I am hanging on.

We are all connected.

Years ago, I started running with a group of intrepid ladies who hit the trails together in the early hours of the day. With kids and work and other of life’s interventions, our schedules rarely align these days, but even when I go by myself, I don’t feel alone. It is nearly impossible to get out into the day without running into somebody I know in my stomping grounds. My community of runners is omnipresent, including friends, strangers and bloggers. We run down dreams and renegade children. We wave at each other and our rescued canines. Even if we don’t know each other’s names, we are companions on the journey.

I often have fortuitous meetings with people I know along my path. An impromptu conversation with a neighbor, a smile and a wave at a generous friend on her way to drop off kids, sometimes my dear husband Tim on his way. He stops to give me a kiss, and I am blessed beyond measure. More often than not, I return home from a run filled with gratitude and surrender. Sometimes even forgiveness.

Keep breathing.

Breathing is key to the whole process. My life mantra applies equally well to a run: “Inhale, exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Running as meditation is my favorite form of the sport. Sometimes I think when I run, which proves to be a great source of inspiration. Sometimes I reach that place where I stop thinking altogether and the mind escapes its hamster wheel. These moments when stillness and movement connect might be the most beautiful experience of all. In this space, I am rhythm and motion and power. I just am.

I wasn’t motivated to hit the pavement in order to gain fitness, achieve a personal goal, raise awareness or find community, although running has provided all of those. I was yearning for peace of mind, which, much to my surprise, I found on a run. The journey continues, and every step toward wholeness is sacred. That is why I still run.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And sacred steps.

Thoughts for My Grieving Son On Father’s Day

You were little.
A boy is not supposed to lose
his daddy so young.

I wish I could have protected you both.
Instead, I was left
holding the fragments of your broken heart
waiting
for you
to piece them back together.

And you have,
With love
Patience and diligence
Kindness and joy and faith
Intelligence and goodness and humility and character and humor and hope.

Shards remain.
Value them.
Notice
when anger inspires you to face injustice.
Let incredulity guide
initiative
and increase understanding.
Let hatred provoke
your actions toward peace.
Respect the resentment
that fuels your desire to change.
Just enough.
No more.

Listen to the voices in your heart
to sustain you,
heal you,
form you
hold you together.
You will recognize your father’s love
incorporated in you.
His presence
in your life,
strength,
stillness,
a gentle confidence,
resembling his hand on your shoulder.

Your tears stop,
not because you no longer care;
You simply no longer cry.
Your wholeness
intact
safe.

The tears return,
and when they do, do not be discouraged.
It does not mean that you have not healed,
they point
simply
to the depth of the loss
and the remarkable capacity of your broken heart.

Steadfast

My father isn’t perfect, but he thinks I am. Which occasionally produces incredible frustration and angst and is also a source of great comfort. Sometimes I feel as though my own father doesn’t see the whole of me, that he refuses to see the parts of me that are self-righteous, petty, disappointed or jealous. When I’m angry and wounded because of a real or perceived injustice, I want him to acknowledge how hostile and unfair the world is – or at least how I feel in that moment – but he simply doesn’t view life (or me) that way. He sees the glory and the victory. He’s positive and grateful. He’s generous and kind. It’s super annoying.

When work or life or parenting makes me feel small and inadequate, when challenges threaten to bring out my worst version of myself, I channel my inner teenager, stammering and stomping defiantly in front of him, daring him not to notice how enraged, afraid or venomous I am. He doesn’t. Look at my little girl, he smiles, isn’t she just so wonderful? It’s infuriating.

His approach leaves me with an untenable choice: dig in my heels and prove my own limitations, or rise above the trial and up to his expectations of me. I want to wallow in the mud and maybe even sling a little, but it won’t work. Trust me. The man is relentless with his love and approval.

The other night my husband is out of town, and I’m home alone with three of my sons, none of whom particularly want my attention. I am hoping to take at least one of them to dinner and a movie, but they all have other plans. Truth be told, only one of them has actual plans. The other two prefer no plans at all to an evening out with me, because of course no self-respecting teenager wants to be seen at Panera or Deadpool with his mother on a Friday night. They don’t want to order pizza and rent a movie either. Even the dog has abandoned me in favor of curling up with the stinky teenagers, and I am left with an aging and ill-tempered cat. Regrettably, the cat and I have more in common than I care to admit.

I decide to make a salad and pour a glass of wine and curl up with a book, which would normally make me happy, but I’m still in a funk and feeling sorry for myself. A black widow has taken up residence in our wine rack, and although my husband has seen her several times, she manages to scuttle away before he can exterminate her. She is a deft one. Absorbed as I am in self-pity, I start to imagine that if the murderous spider bites me, I could justify going to the hospital where at least somebody will care whether I live or die.

Instead, I call my dad. He drives me crazy with his optimism, and what I need more than anything right now to counteract my foul mood is a dose of my father’s rose-colored glasses. He does not disappoint. I tell him about the black widow. I despair of my parenting shortcomings. We joke about the fact that my children would readily acknowledge my flaws, perhaps even offer a dissertation on the subject. Our conversation covers the range from the inconsequential to catastrophic, which is to say that mostly we talked about the weather. He is the ideal antidote to my peevishness, spares me a costly trip to the hospital and restores peace to my evening. We laugh, and he suggests that I could use the material for my blog. Smiling, I hang up the phone and settle in with my book and my glass of wine. He may not love me perfectly, but my father loves me consistently.

By the end of the evening, one of the boys is in a state himself. His plans, or lack of plans, did not turn out as he had planned. He searches the house and finds me in my favorite chair, contentedly absorbed in my book, which I readily set aside to tend to his bruised and aching heart. We do not discuss the weather.

This parenting bit is not so easy. I cannot help but feel grateful for the reliability of this man who has loved me from before he met me. He demonstrates that love need not be flawless to be dependable. Our relationship survives despite our glitches and quirks. (I can hear him already: What glitches?) We manage to find a balance together.

My dad so rarely comments on the Su-shit that I don’t know whether or not he reads my blog regularly. I think I’ll print this one out and send it to him for Father’s Day with a handwritten note: Thanks, Dad. You’re wonderful.

***

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

Mind, Body, Heart

I had always approached pretty much most of life’s challenges from an intellectual perspective. If there was a book (or several books!) or a TED talk, seminar or course that I could read, watch or attend, I was reasonably confident that I would be equipped for the task at hand.

But then there was grief.

Grief does not lend itself to a tidy outline or a lecture. Grief is a physiological journey, as much as an emotional and spiritual one. Grief is a corporeal takeover – the insomnia, the bone-crushing exhaustion, the tears and mood swings, the cravings and the loss of appetite, the panic attacks, the gastrointestinal distress, the inability to focus, the difficulty breathing. It throws every function out of whack. Grief, like pregnancy, is a total body experience, but without the party games, the cute baby clothes or a due date.

The jagged edges of my broken heart pierced all the other biological systems. I should not have been so surprised; everything is connected. For weeks, my therapist focused on whether I was eating, sleeping and breathing. No healing was going to happen until those body basics were covered. She knows that I’m more at home in my rational mind than my emotional one, but grief was a problem I could not think my way through. I would have to let my feelings guide me through this scary, uncomfortable territory, feelings that have a home in the body.

We begin with the simple human needs: eat, sleep, breathe. A child who is well-rested, nourished and cared for will naturally progress through the stages of sitting, crawling, and walking. So too, the grieving heart finds comfort and hope within an anatomy embraced with tender care.

Eat. It’s hard enough to eat healthy, and there are more than enough nutritional theories to go around, which I will not debate here. Bottom line: Even with a refrigerator full of comfort food, I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in the first three months after Sam’s death, and nobody would argue that this approach was particularly beneficial. I had to find my way back toward nurturing the body that takes me around in this life. Mercifully, the body is a marvelous teacher, if I am willing to be attentive. I find my balance with food. Sometimes that looks like kale salad or beet juice. Often that means dark chocolate and Pinot noir. Always gratitude.

Sleep. There’s plenty of research to support the idea that a good night’s sleep is key to mental and physical health. I didn’t need to read any of it to know that after a few sleepless nights, my capacity deteriorated on every front. I had never before experienced that combination of exhaustion and insomnia. It seemed like anyone I knew who was even remotely qualified to do so offered to write me a prescription for something to induce sleep. I initially resisted, but soon I began to appreciate that a full night’s shut-eye would go a long way toward recovery. Sometimes, I just had to tuck myself into bed and let that little girl fall asleep.

Breathe. My mantra, then and now, remains: “Inhale, exhale, repeat as necessary.” Breathing might mean a long walk, a short run, a steep hike or a pedicure. This breathing might present in the form of a long sit, a guided meditation or a silent prayer. It almost always looks like yoga, whether cat, cow, tree, warrior or child’s pose. Even corpse pose is a great place to breathe; flat on the ground, held and supported by the earth, I remember that I am not a corpse yet. I have the gift of this moment, this life, this miraculous body, both broken and blessed.

When life goes sideways and my heart needs tending, I turn toward this holy trinity of healing: eat, sleep, breathe. The body holds incredible wisdom and remarkable healing powers. When I can incorporate my losses with tangible gentleness, I bring peace to my suffering heart and engage the human capacity for hope and light.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. Along with snacks, a walk and a nap.