Frog Days

Somewhere there is a picture of my boy’s small, soft hands holding the tiny frog he caught at the edge of a pond. “Take a picture, Mommy,” the enraptured boy said, “so we can show Daddy.” I dutifully snapped the photo on my phone, since I didn’t have my camera with us. The boys and I had gone on an afternoon hike in the local mountains with the dog. Daddy had stayed home to take a nap. At least, that’s what he said he would do.

We navigated the path to a small waterfall, home to a number of very little frogs and a convenient destination for our afternoon journey. The boys and the dog had short legs and a limited endurance for hiking back then. I wish I could find the photograph, but I didn’t print it out. I’m not sure that I ever even transferred it to a computer or a flash drive. That day was so long ago, the picture might now only exist in my memory.

Daddy never did see the frog. By the time we returned from the hike, his car was missing, and a police car sat parked in front of our home instead, lights flashing silently, waiting for our arrival in order to deliver the news of his suicide. During the time we were hiking, Daddy had been rushed to the local trauma center and pronounced dead. When I picture my boy’s young, tender hands reaching toward me, gently holding the brown spotted frog, I imagine also an ambulance driver’s hands on the wheel, rushing to the emergency room with my husband on board, the nurses’ urgent hands moving efficiently through their life-saving efforts, and later, the doctor’s hands with nothing left for her to do but sign the paperwork, then the technician’s strong hands carefully transferring the broken body to the hospital morgue. None of this appears in the frog photograph, of course, but the two scenes are inextricably mixed in my mind so that I cannot think about one without the other.

I used to be more organized about taking photographs and putting together scrapbooks, but after Sam’s death it just seemed a futile attempt to hold on to a life that would ultimately slip through my hands. For a while it took a concentrated effort even to take a picture. Gradually, I began to snap a few. At first, I relied mostly on the official school photographers and the generosity of other parents who forwarded pictures of my children. Over the years, I have gotten better at capturing these moments on camera myself, but I have also developed more capacity to appreciate the precious moment in time, without the need to document each and every event. I know my memory will fade and forget; even so, I just let the present overtake me.

My son once drew a picture of the day his father died. On one side of the landscape page was a gorgeous fall day, blue sky, green grass, bright sun, cheerful flowers and a frog. He drew a line down the center of the page and scribbled black over the other half the page. What strikes me about that drawing is that the one side does not negate the other; he did not scribble black over top of the landscape. Both the beauty and the darkness exist side by side.

I can’t find that picture either, no doubt a casualty of both the chaotic state of my garage and the whirlwind pace of a life full of kids and cat and dog. I do hope I find it. But for now, I keep it in a special place in my heart, a reminder that our bleakest days do not eliminate the light in our lives. We hold the full range, including unimaginably dark and painful days alongside gorgeous fall afternoons, full of song and puppies and other miracles. Breathtaking moments like a brown, spotted frog in the chubby hands of a little boy. Moments that carry us through the dark days, with the promise and warmth of sunshine.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And the promise of sunshine.

Warrior VI: The Surrender

 

Today I just want to pull on yoga pants and eat cookies.

I don’t feel particularly strong or faithful or inspired. I don’t want to walk or meditate or drink beet juice. My inner Warrior surrendered and crawled into a cave, leaving me at my desk with a tepid cup of coffee, a growing task list and a small but eerily still lizard on the hardwood floor. His eyes are open, but he doesn’t flinch when the dog gallops over his head.

Some days are like this.

I inhale and exhale and let my vision go blurry. I accept the fact that I’m not going to accomplish a single item on the dreaded list until I give permission to nurture my downcast little girl self. I leave the mess, and I curl up in an oversized chair with a book I have no intention of reading in my lap. I wrap a soft, brown blanket around my shoulders, I let my eyelids close, and I just sit.

I sit for a while, enjoying sitting. When I get up, I hunt around the pantry for cookies. I eat one or two. Or ten. Then I notice the lizard has gone. I am relieved that there is no evidence to suggest that either the dog or the cat is implicated is his disappearance.

I return to my list. I add “Eat cookies” to my list and check it off. That might be all I accomplish today. Or maybe, like the lizard, I will find my way to the next thing. You never know.

***

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

Celebrations

I.

I haven’t seen her in a few weeks, and my friend Linda greets me with a hug and this question: “What party are you planning now?” The irony of this question amuses me. It’s not as if I’m a professional party planner. On the contrary, I am well versed in a specific form of sucking all the fun out of a room, which is to say that my formal training is as a lawyer. At heart, I’m just a girl who likes to celebrate the good stuff in life.

I don’t ignore the bad stuff. I believe that facing into those dark moments of loneliness, terror and sorrow prepares the heart to recognize love, joy and hope when they walk through the door. As a family, we observe fatherless Father’s Days, birthdays even after the death of the honoree, and deathaversaries (our home-spun term for the anniversary of a loved one’s death, because “anniversary” doesn’t convey the appropriate gravitas). We attend funerals with abandon.

But I do love to throw a party. It’s almost as good as finding the perfect gift.

With four sons and as many mothers and mothers-in-law, we are constantly coordinating birthday parties, graduations, holidays and anniversaries. We hosted a 60th wedding anniversary last weekend, a 50th birthday in March, and I’m in the midst of planning the menu for a 50th wedding anniversary for next month. We don’t have any graduations this year, but we had two last year (the so-called little one from 8th grade and our first college graduate!). If all goes according to plan, we will have at least one high school or college graduation for five out of the next seven years. We honor a lot of milestones.

II.

There’s so much to celebrate in this life, even if it means getting older, although I appreciate that not everyone shares this perspective. Years ago, I had called a high school friend to wish her a happy 39th birthday, and she was lamenting our impending “old age.” As I recall, I responded with something like, “Are you kidding? My life just keeps getting better. My twenties were way better than my teens, I got married in my twenties. My thirties were even better than my twenties, because I had my kids in my thirties. I cannot wait to be forty!” I was widowed a month later. Sam’s death left a black cloud on the landscape of my thirties, and then, truly, I was ready for a new decade.

Little did I know that I had yet to be introduced to the love of my life.

When the spring came, I threw myself a 40th birthday party. In all fairness, it was less about embracing a new decade than it was about bidding a not-so-fond farewell to thirty-nine and its corresponding widowhood. I was not unhappy to see my thirties in my rearview mirror. Partly celebration, partly a thank you to a handful of my closest friends, the nearest and dearest who held my hand during some very dark days after Sam’s suicide, it was an evening of pomegranate martinis and laughter, a reminder that my life wasn’t over.

There are worse things than getting older. Like not.

My 40’s have, in fact, brought me great joy. I fell in love. I gained two more wonderful children. We got an “ours” puppy. We are grateful and precious and blessed.

III.

I recently attended a wedding celebration for a dear friend and fellow widow, one of the charter members of our local Club-You-Don’t-Want-To-Be-In. As we gathered together to share in the bride’s joy, I was struck by the incredible beauty and resilience of the women present, glasses in hand, tears in eyes, smiles on faces. These women have loved, lost and loved some more. They are living proof that if you keep living and loving, your life will be resurrected over and over again.

There are no specific requirements for membership in our Club. Other than having been widowed. Or divorced. Or never married. Oh nevermind, we are not exclusive; we invite married women to join us, too. We welcome all who have suffered losses and still find moments to embrace and appreciate in this life.

We do not host regular meetings or collect dues. We laugh. We have joy and love and struggles in abundance. We put one foot in front of the other, some days more slowly than others. We dare to live our lives fully. And again.

We are fiercely protective of our children, especially the atheists and suicidal ones. Well, also the ones who are distracted and dyslexic, who suffer from severe illness or chronic pain. Oh hell, we are fiercely protective of all of them. We would defend the perfect children if we had any. We kneel in tears at the foot of the cross holding a beloved child, asking for help, praying for healing, begging for another day.

Some of us have nursed a husband through cancer and dared to love him again, knowing all too well the pain that will ensue if – God forbid – the cancer returns. After all, every so-called successful marriage ends in death. We have lived that, too. And still had the audacity to find love after death.

We dare to be seen – in public, in yoga pants, without mascara. We take communion. Some of us pray. All of us swear. We say the names of our beloved dead out loud. We dare to love teenagers we didn’t birth, which is like handing your surgeon a pizza cutter for your open-heart surgery.

These unflagging women are my people. We are legion. We honor the past and we celebrate our present. It’s the Club-I-Want-To-Be-In, these scandalous women who continue to find love and strength and hope in this life. There is incredible joy in the power of the phoenix. We raise our champagne glasses, and we dance.

There are, truth be told, some who liked us better when we were grieving and miserable and victimized by life. A select few remain who continue to take offense at our joy. They don’t have to join the festivities if they don’t want to.

But the rest of us are going to have a party.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the camaraderie of scandalous women.

Deathaversary Reprise

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week

 

It has been almost nine years since my first husband died by suicide. We acknowledge the day every year, but the word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” Instead, we made up our own word to mark this particular occasion: “deathaversary,” a word that balances both the gravity and the accomplishment of the day.

The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not necessarily cause for celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and play and find joy, well then, we will celebrate. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry, or shout or smash big rocks into little rocks. Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

Our family has, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and dark chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk opening up sad feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (even risking failure!) to help.

More often than not, I just have to say stuff out loud – whether I am noting an unfairness, sharing an insight or seeking a clarification. I cannot help myself. My therapist calls me a truth-teller, but there are those who have a less flattering view on this trait of mine. It is both my Achilles heel and my superpower. In the arena of mental health issues and suicide awareness, however, speaking out loud is strength. I believe that these honest, difficult conversations can bring light and healing, maybe even save a life.

We can reduce the incidence of suicides by speaking out loud, by having the hard conversations, especially with young people and teenagers. We can let them know how desperately they are loved, how worthwhile their lives are, how many internal and external resources are available to them. There is hope. Many people have suffered the death of a friend or family member by suicide; not so many talk about it. Thankfully, that silence is changing.

Our town – like all towns – has been home to several suicides over the last few years. Every time, I respond in the way most natural to me. I run. I talk. I write. After a local suicide, I wrote an article for the town newspaper. In support of National Suicide Prevention Week, I’d like to share that letter again. Unfortunately, it is still relevant, and we have much work to do, so here it is… Please share it with someone you love.

The Speech 

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk. My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10-minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help. When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married over five years ago.

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. And open conversations about mental health.