World Travelers

It took me a while to choose the artwork for my office. For several months, I stared at the blank, white wall, wondering what might belong in that place. There’s something appealing to me about the freshly painted walls, free from scuff marks, dings and imperfections. The open space invokes excitement and mystery. The wall calls out to be adorned. It is full of potential, but the process is also intimidating. And expensive. Art is risky. The piece should have an appropriate message and be the right colors. I’m going to spend a lot of hours sitting across the desk from this art. What if I don’t like it as much as I thought I would? I can’t just try it on for size, and I will not be allowed to return it. I cannot afford to change it out like fashion, assuming the latest trend in hemlines with each season. It’s a commitment. I dared not rush into this decision impulsively. I spent hours clicking on various paintings and photographs, some original art, some prints, trying to picture the small image on the screen taking up residence over several square feet of wall space. After some time, I found the perfect piece, but then it almost didn’t arrive.

My best friend from college lives in New York City. Louise grew up in Wichita, we met in Houston, and now we live on opposite coasts of the country. Occasionally, I feel the physical distance between the two of us like a vast Midwestern cornfield, but more often than not, I feel close and connected. I know what would make her laugh and what (or who) would irritate her. We occasionally speak live on the phone, but we exchange text messages almost daily. For the entire first year after Sam’s death, she sent me an encouraging email message every morning and every evening. Every single day. For an entire year. She never missed. She was going through a protracted, contentious and expensive divorce at the time, but she remained present with her support and her humor. When she met my Tim for the first time, she took me aside and warned me, That man’s in love with you.

A client mentioned a website that features artists from all over the world and suggested that I might find a suitable piece there. I did. I felt drawn to it almost immediately, an oil painting entitled “Riverside” by an artist from Ghana. It conveys a moment of peace in the midst of what surely must be a difficult journey. I shared the picture with Louise for her blessing, and she loved it, too, as I knew she would. Somewhere between West Africa and the west coast of California, the painting went missing. UPS lost track of it. It vanished. The representative from the art website offered to give me a significant discount on another piece. I clicked and clicked to find a suitable replacement, but nothing fit. The wall stayed blank, no longer inviting but rather disappointed, resigned to waiting for the second-best option.

I ran my first (and so far only) half-marathon with Louise at my side. We trained on opposite coasts, comparing progress and injuries along the way. We shared a training schedule and smoothie recipes, and we encouraged each other when illness, weather and teenaged-boy-related incidentals interrupted our flow. After a few months, race day arrived, Louise flew to the west coast, and I drove up the coast to meet her. Together, we ran the 13.1 miles from the foothills to the beach, all the while motivating each other with anecdotes, insights and ‘atta girls. Every step after the 10-mile marker was a personal best for me. I had never run farther.

“Riverside” is mostly green and yellow, a tangle of trees so thick that the path the two women travel is obscured from the viewer. The river flows in the foreground, including reflections of the women in the moving water. They have come to fetch water, a task that probably takes up the majority of their day. In the painting, they have turned from the river’s banks, and they are heading back home to their village, each balancing a large water container on her head. The women appear tall and strong, almost regal, one with a blue headscarf and the other with red.

I also ran that one-and-only half-marathon with my husband Tim at my side. Flanked by my best friend and the love of my life, I have never been stronger or happier.

“Riverside” arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. The cylindrical package appeared travel-worn at the edges but otherwise intact. There were no unusual markings or labels to indicate where it might have been diverted or delayed along its path between Africa and North America. As I carefully unrolled the painted canvas, a small leaflet fell to the floor with a brief description of the piece, the name of the artist, and the tagline, “Every treasure has a story…”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe travels.

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Beasties and Besties

Let me see if I can explain how great this moment is.

I’m sitting in our family room with my son watching a movie that my friend the soon-to-be-priest asked us to preview for a class she’s teaching. Any time that one of my now-taller-than-me sons will sit with me for pretty much any reason is both notable and joyous. They have social lives of their own, which evidently are much more engaging than hanging around with their mother, unless I am playing Banangrams with a glass of Pinot Noir in my hand, but I’m not at liberty to tell you more about that particular scenario.

We are a blended family, but my husband and I don’t make a distinction between “his” and “hers” as far as the boys are concerned. They’re all mine. All of my boys litter the floor with their athletic socks, borrow each other’s chargers with abandon and genuinely believe that they are the dog’s favorite human being. Not one of them wears his retainer. They refer to each other as “my brother,” even the two who share the same first name, and we all count this development a grand success. They call me “Mom,” “Mama,” “Charlotte,” or simply “She.” Even our dog is male, so if the “B-word-that-rhymes-with-itch” is uttered, it could really only mean one of us, but that doesn’t happen often. Not anymore, that is. Blending a family requires effort, commitment and a vibrant sense of humor.

So this movie. The protagonist is just beginning his senior year of high school and – like most 17-year-olds I know and love and have been and have mothered – finds his mother’s counsel supremely irritating. “My mom,” the lead character explains to the audience, “is basically the LeBron James of nagging,” which makes us both laugh out loud.

Within a few minutes, my boy tells me to check Facebook. You should know that I am fundamentally a Facebook flunky. I’m more of a face-to-face girl. And I can really only do one thing at a time, and sometimes not even that, which, now that I think about it, is probably a compelling reason to play Bananagrams without the wine. In any event, to watch a movie while checking my Facebook is out of my wheelhouse, as well as counterproductive for my later conversation about the film with my priest friend.

But as I may have mentioned before, if any of my teenage/young adult sons wants to engage me, then the answer is yes. At least it should be. So I set aside my misgivings, pick up my cell phone, and open my Facebook to find that my son has posted his status as this: “My mom is basically the LeBron James of nagging.” And then he tagged me.

I can only speak for myself, but my own inner teenager is alive and well and occasionally peevish with her parents, even the dead one. In fact, his death completely annoys me. I mean, her. So even though in this context I am the mom whose most annoying qualities have now been posted for God-and-all-my-friends-plus-their-friends to see, I can’t help myself, I click that laughing-haha-emoji button.

We watch the rest of the film, we laugh some more and cry. Or rather, I cry. We curse cancer, the beast that has taken away grandparents, friends, cousins, my boy’s own mother. We do our best to answer the questions on the study guide even though it’s late and we’re tired. He dictates his answers while I type, and then I add my feedback as well.

The next morning, we start talking about the movie again, which bodes well for the use of this film in the classroom, and he adds a few more comments on loss and love to include in our response. As I’m about to hit “send” with our responses, my soon-to-be-priest friend sends me a text message. The study guide is the least of her concerns. She saw my boy’s Facebook post and, she tells me, “I cried actual tears.” I should explain that we have been friends for a long time. She knows my struggles and my heart, and these are happy tears – happy because she gets it, happy because she adores her own step-father with a passion that transcends biology (even though she herself might have called him a few less-than-complimentary names when he first came into her life), happy because love does win. She knows that the most significant part of my son’s status post is not the phrase, “the LeBron James of nagging.” The most significant part is not my sisters-in-law who rally to defend me and my mothering, although I confess that their supportive comments are gratifying. The most significant part is those first two words: “My mom.”

Sometimes, I just have to take a moment to let those two words sink in.

The so-called little brother says, “She’s more like the Michael Jordan of nagging.” It’s an argument our boys have from time to time, which super star is the super-est star. As brothers will do.

No, blending a family is not so easy, but these moments are awesome.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And awesome relationships.

 

Breathe

I wear a silver bracelet every day. It started off perfectly round, smooth and shiny. After nearly nine years, it remains mostly round, bent and tarnished, but still intact. I take it off my wrist and set it on the desk in order to describe it, and it no longer lies flush against the surface, misshapen by years of daily use, but you might not notice that when it’s on my wrist. It’s a simple design, about 3/8” wide and 1/16” thick, stamped with seven letters in a plain font, all capitals, to form the word: BREATHE.

My friend Jen gave me the bracelet on Christmas Eve the year that my husband committed suicide. His death so stunned me – all of us, really – that it was all I could do to breathe in those early days of grief. Often I held my breath, not realizing that I was doing so. I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in three months. I couldn’t sleep, lying awake, flanked by my young children in the queen-sized bed, comforted by the sound of their rhythmic breathing in the dark. I lived by the mantra, “Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Even now, in times of stress, I will touch the bracelet and take a long inhale.

I took my first meditation class when the boys were little, before their father died. It strikes me as odd to take a class to learn a basic bodily function. Silence and stillness do not come naturally to me, and I had never really given much thought to breathing. I didn’t suffer from asthma or chronic bronchitis as a child, even though I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when we children were routinely instructed to spend our recess time indoors and not to run around. I was perfectly content to curl up with a book in my free time, but my lungs still ached at the end of each day with a deep inhale, so thick was the air with pollution. We didn’t give it much thought, though, that’s just how it was.

I think that children often think that whatever they experience is normal. It’s probably more accurate to say that they don’t think about it, and as a result they might not question it. At least that’s how it was for me. I thought it was normal for breathing to hurt by the end of the day, and it never occurred to me that other students could see the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. I was a shy, quiet, well-behaved elementary school girl with freckles and pony tails. My third grade teacher placed me at the back of the classroom, because she needed the seats in front for several rowdy students, up close where she could keep an eye on them.

One evening the teacher called my mother to inform her that “Charlotte was cheating. She was looking at her neighbor’s paper.” My mother, in her usual kind and unflustered manner, thanked the teacher very much for calling, hung up the phone and looked at my father. “Charlotte is not cheating. She’s too smart. She knows it’s wrong. It must be something else.”

Within the week, she had me at the optometrist’s office. As it turns out, I couldn’t see much past the length of my own arm, the perfect distance to read a book. Or my friend’s paper. I wasn’t intending to cheat. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was cheating. It never occurred to me that anybody else could see as far as the chalk board on the other side of the classroom. I just didn’t know.

I will never forget the car ride home wearing my new glasses. I could read street signs and billboards and see stoplights. I had no idea. Before that night, my world was a haze of indiscriminate colors. With clear vision, the streaks came into focus. The blurs suddenly had meaning. I was seeing this world for the first time.

Both contact lenses and meditation are staples in my life now. I’ve also added reading glasses to the mix, an occupational hazard, according to my optometrist, of approaching the age of 50. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, because I appreciate long distance vision for driving and watching my sons play sports or music or whatever they like to do, and books remain a passion.

This morning, I listened to a guided meditation, the theme of which was creativity. “The world, your world,” the gentle voice reminds me, “is constantly changing. There is newness and creativity in every breath.” When I open my eyes, I am struck by the realization that the world is a different one than the one I closed my eyes to just minutes earlier. Inspiration is simply a breath away. Breathe.

***

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

Euphemism

Only rarely does the actual “s” word appear in an obituary. You might see “suddenly,” or “unexpectedly” or “tragically,” all potentially code. You might even read “accidentally” or “after a brief illness” or simply “at home,” which could be accurate, albeit misleading. Death is harsh enough without the added stigma associated with having been self-inflicted. It’s not surprising, then, that many obituaries avoid the term altogether. “Suicide” is an ugly, loaded word, and the obituary bears a peculiar gravity, as if it is, indeed, the last word on a person’s life.

Suicide sticks to its victim in a way that seems to threaten the rest of his existence. There are, of course, other manners of death that invite judgment – lung cancer, cirrhosis, overdose, AIDS, maybe even heart attack, depending. As if life isn’t harsh enough.

The first line of Sam’s obituary read simply that he died suddenly on an October day near Los Angeles, California. That one sentence was followed by six paragraphs worth of biography, achievements and relationships, but the “suddenly” sits over his whole life in print, like a storm cloud, looming over his accomplishments and redeeming qualities.

If I had the chance for a rewrite, would I use the word “suicide” in Sam’s obituary?

It is, of course, an impossible question to answer, but I’d like to think that I would. I have come to believe that speaking of mental illness, depression and suicide will reduce its stigma and bring light and healing to many who suffer.

Privately, we said the “s” word candidly and frequently. One of the best pieces of advice I received immediately following Sam’s suicide was to be honest with the children about how their father died, even though the boys were only six and eight at the time. The policeman advised me that children who knew the facts generally fared better in the healing process. He encouraged me, “You do not want them to find out the truth from somebody else,” and he was right about that. In the nine years since, they have trusted me to provide honest answers to their most difficult questions.

But publicly? I wanted to protect Sam and his reputation, as well as me and mine. I wondered if his suicide would reflect poorly on the quality of his relationships. Did his wife fail him in some way? Were his friends emotionally distant? What kind of parents have a suicidal kid? How could Sam have done this to his children? I didn’t want anyone to think less of Sam, but then why should I care? Who are “they”? And why did I believe that they would think less of him? Is it possible that they could think more of him instead?

The first time I spoke publicly was about a year and a half after Sam’s death. In many ways, I think Sam would have been appalled. After all, he did not speak a word of his struggles out loud – not to a therapist, not to his friends, not to me. There is so much shame. I was just angry enough, in the wake of his death, to expose that vulnerability. On the other hand, I know Sam’s heart. He would have wanted to help somebody else, to inspire and encourage. In fact, I am aware of at least two of Sam’s friends who struggle with mental illness, and he counseled them with compassion and strength. That’s why I share his truth. He would have wanted his life to be a blessing, and in fact, it is, not only to his immediate family but to people he never even knew.

Frederick Buechner, a theologian whose own father committed suicide when he and his brother were young boys, offers a thought-provoking interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25: 14—30). In the parable, a man is preparing to go on a trip, and before he leaves, he gives a certain number of “talents” (currency with significant value) to three of his servants. To one servant, he gives ten talents, to the next he gives five, and the last servant receives just one talent. The first two worked and invested and doubled their talents, but the third one was so afraid of losing his one talent that he hid it away safely until the man’s later return. The man praises the first two for their industry, and he criticizes the last servant for his caution, even taking that one talent from him. One suggested meaning of parable is that we will be rewarded if we are diligent with whatever “talents” (monetary or otherwise) we have been given. Buechner suggests that we think of the “talents” not as gifts, but as vulnerabilities and weaknesses. By hiding our vulnerability, we create isolation, which is in itself a type of death. When we are open with our weaknesses, we increase connection. In our vulnerability, we find our humanity and create community. We are not alone.

I was terrified that I would be ostracized after Sam’s death. After all, he had abandoned me in a public, humiliating way. Instead, I was surrounded and supported by family and friends. So many rallied to my side that I was overwhelmed by their kindnesses and casseroles.

Acknowledging the dark, scary, painful parts of life allows greater freedom, joy and love. It is a fuller, more expansive life, when it is lived with a whole-hearted acceptance of the range that life brings. It is, in fact, essential to our humanity. To live this life with as much compassion, humility, confidence and grace as possible is a gift to our families, our communities, ourselves. In sharing Sam’s vulnerability, as well as my own, my community increased and the stigma and shame began to dissipate.

Sam’s death was not the end of my story. I have found my way toward wholeness, joy and passion. My family has experienced healing, love and integrity. Perhaps each time I speak honestly on issues of mental illness and suicide, I am rewriting Sam’s obituary, creating for him a legacy of acceptance, education and hope. Because the fact of the matter is that end of his life is not the end of his story either.

Sam committed suicide on a Saturday afternoon in October, 2007, near Los Angeles, California. It was a gorgeous fall day, full of promise, the respect of colleagues, the gratitude of clients, the presence of friends, and the love of his family, his parents, his sister, many aunts, uncles and cousins, his wife and his two little boys. Sam could not feel their love, so clouded was his thinking by clinical depression and chronic back pain. He jumped to his death from the top of a parking structure.

In lieu of flowers, please be kind to one another. Share your struggles and fears and joys, be present and patient in each other’s journeys. And when love seems to fail – because sometimes love is not enough to ward off cancer or heart failure or mental illness – then love more, pray more, talk more, learn more, live more.

Services will be ongoing, in moments of grace, hope, laughter, vulnerability, strength, compassion, acceptance, gratitude, community, forgiveness, joy, healing and inspiration. Notwithstanding his death, let love remain.