Three Important Lessons

For surviving a trip to the DMV, and maybe for Life

Lesson Number 1. Things take time. Nothing moves quickly at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not lines, not people, and especially not cars. We almost arrived on time for our 1:45 appointment, not that anybody was checking, armed with the child’s passport, his birth certificate, and his father’s death certificate, which it turns out we don’t need, even though all the instructions warn that both parents’ signatures are required for the permit. It’s a bit unnerving to carry Sam’s death certificate around, but it doesn’t take our breath away like it used to. The boy doesn’t’ want to see it, which is fine by me, I’ve stared at it long enough for all of us.

We’ve also got the certification from the drivers’ education school, a printed confirmation of our appointment time, and my physical checkbook, which I had to make a special trip for, because who carries her checkbook with her anymore? In the DMV time warp, however, they do not accept credit cards. We do get the so-called red carpet treatment because we have an appointment, which means that we wait our turn on the dingy red carpet inside the air-conditioned building. For this, we are most grateful, because the other line goes out the door and around the building, almost the length of a block. Even so, we’ve been at the DMV for over an hour.

All of humanity is here, which is part of what my husband and I love about living in Los Angeles. We have everybody – all ages, cultures, genders and orientations, every color, bodies in various shapes decorated by pearls and tattoos – each of us united through stretching the limits of our patience in the labyrinth of the DMV. I hear snippets of conversations in English, Spanish, Chinese and what I’m pretty sure is Armenian. There’s a woman with her teeny tiny baby in a stroller, and I can only imagine the urgency of the matter that brought her to the DMV with her newborn and her aging mother in tow. I’m dying to tell her that she’s not going to believe that before she knows it she will be sitting next to her child, who then will be taller than she is, getting ready to take his permit exam, but I don’t, because I don’t want to be that crazy old lady at the DMV who tells you that before you know it you will be sitting next to your child, who will then be taller than you are, getting ready to take his permit exam. But I am thinking it.

There’s a man who looks to be in his 60’s, accompanied by a woman who could be his daughter. She is reading the application for renewing a driver’s license to him and noting his responses on the form. I wonder why he is not reading it himself. I don’t think he’s blind, because otherwise he wouldn’t qualify for a license at all, and I remember that my own father was here 8 months ago, cataracts and all, memorizing the eye charts so he could renew his own license. He had given up driving, but he wasn’t ready to give up his actual license. The man is telling his daughter “Yes, I’m a citizen. Yes, I’m a veteran. And No, I don’t want to register to vote. I served in the military for fourteen years, I’ve been a citizen for my entire life, and I have never once voted in any election.” Again, I say nothing. But believe me, I am thinking it.

My first-born child was several weeks old by the time I realized that my driver’s license had expired on my birthday while I was up all night nursing a newborn. In my sleep-deprived and somewhat brain-damaged state, I had completely neglected to complete the paperwork required to renew my license. I had neglected a lot of things, but not the baby. For many years, the photograph on my driver’s license showed the straps of the Baby Bjorn carrier (but not the marsupial himself who was sleeping contentedly within). I’m confident, thinking back now, that some lady was sitting with her teenager on the cusp of driving himself, watching me with some nostalgia.

The baby’s mother hands her child to the woman I presume is grandma, who looks at me and smiles. Two blinks later, her child has a child. And so it goes. Time moves slowly at the DMV, but if you are paying attention to the snapshot, you will see life zipping by.

Lesson Number 2. They change the rules while you’re not looking. The first representative we talk to informs us that they added proof of residency requirements in July. Nowhere, mind you, is this information published in a medium that might be available to the general permit-seeking public. In fact, the sole evidence of the changes seems to be found on a worn photocopy they keep behind the counter, the upshot of which is that I need to provide two more pieces of documentation demonstrating both my last name and our home address. For the record, a DMV issued driver’s license does not count.

Under normal circumstances, it might not be a huge hairy deal, but I did not change my last name when I married Tim. One of the challenges of a blending family is the matter of the name change. It was easy enough to change my name the first time I got married; I was 24, with a short credit history and a shorter resumé. I wanted to share the same surname as my husband and my future children, so the traditional decision was straightforward. But after I was widowed and remarried, everything was more complicated. I chose to keep my already-changed-once name, which happens to be the same as two of the children. On the other hand, having a different name than my now husband can often create confusion and a frustrating absence of supporting evidentiary instruments. These are the times I despair of ever having all my affairs in order before I get hit by the proverbial bus, as my children might never forgive the former trusts and estates attorney the mess she left in her wake. Another reminder to look both ways and proceed cautiously.

I imagine the traffic building at this hour between this governmental office and my files, and I do not believe I could get there and back with the additional documentation in time for my son to begin his written test by the 4:30 deadline. We call for help. Mercifully, the child has this amazing stepfather who’s willing to bring the appropriate documentation to us; he scares up a Form 1099 showing about $16.00 worth of interest for the year, a Member Fees statement from the State Bar of CA, so I guess that JD is worth something after all, and a health insurance bill. We are given the green light, which means that we are sitting again, now waiting for our number to be called.

Of course, this whole scenario strikes me as amusing in its predictability. The boy, however, does not find this experience humorous. I text my nearest and dearest: “We’ve been at the DMV for over an hour, and the boy has learned: 1. Nothing moves quickly here and 2. They changed the rules in July.” The boy does not find my commentary even remotely entertaining. “Mom,” he lectures me, “Think about how boring this is for us. Now think about how boring it’s going to be for her to read about this.” Which makes me laugh even more. They can change the rules, but they can’t take my sense of humor.

Lesson Number 3: Objects in mirror appear worse than they actually are. I provide the documentation and pay the fee, the boy gets photographed and fingerprinted, and then he goes to the exam room to take the written test. Meanwhile, I sit. As I look around at the many faces navigating the system, I imagine the hundreds of stories contained in this one room, the many hours people spend waiting for loved ones and the results of exams. I think that about the fact that this is another milestone that Sam has missed, I think about how lucky I was to take one of Debbie’s sons to the DMV for his behind-the-wheel exam, and I think about how amazing it is that Tim is present for the so-called baby. Eventually, I am woken from my reverie by the presence of a handsome young man hovering silently above me.

His face bears an unusually glum expression, and my stomach sinks. He was so confident that he would pass the written exam, but instead it looks like we’ll have to come back to spend another afternoon in the bureaucratic maze. I hesitate to respond, trying to read the disappointment in his eyes. His chocolate brown eyes start to twinkle, and he grins at my fallen expression. “I passed.” He shows me the paperwork, authorizing him to get behind the wheel, and then his smile fades, as he turns to the last page, the one with the driver’s photograph. “Mom! What is with this picture? Does the DMV try to make you look ugly? Seriously, do I look this bad to you?!” Luckily for him, none of his brothers are within earshot of that question. I inform him that it’s the DMV equivalent of a snapchat filter, making everybody look uniformly ridiculous, but without any fun.

It’s not as bad as it seems. In another stroke of blind luck, he will have the opportunity take a replacement photo in about fifteen years, maybe about the time he has his first child.

***

Today, the so-called little one has his first behind-the-wheel instruction, and as he pulls decisively away, I realize he is about three blinks from his driver’s license, the SAT exam and the prom. Four blinks from taking his own kid to the DMV for a driver’s permit. Panicky, I turn toward the defective hunting dog for comfort. He is always happy to see me, and he never speaks. Not one sarcastic word. Most importantly, he will never leave me to go away to kindergarten or to college, and he will never drive off, leaving me standing at the curb, thinking two things: 1. We do not have enough crunchy snacks in this house to last for the entire two-hour driving lesson, and 2. I wonder whether it might not be the worst time to get another puppy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And extra dark-chocolate-covered-pretzels.

 

 

 

 

On Disappointments & Brotherhood

Parenting is a never-ending exercise in humility. And if the firstborn did not humble you, then the second child surely will.

I remember being in the produce section, Fuji apple in hand, with a brand new baby number two strapped to me kangaroo-style, when a grandmotherly type congratulated me and asked whether this was my first child. I responded from my blissful but sleep-deprived haze that he was my second, and she said, “Oh, then you know all about babies.” To which I replied, “Well, I know all about the first one. And now I’m learning about this one.”

Each boy is so different. Just like brothers should be.

We have four sons now, the youngest a teenager, and in many ways I am still learning who they are. They are, too. Which is all kinds of fun, when it’s not terrifying. And yes, I’m referring to the premiums for their auto insurance. These young men are growing up, finding their way, spreading their wings and eating through an impressive amount of groceries. I’m a little proud.

Thing #3 is graduating from high school, and we are once again riding the roller coaster that is senior year. Achievements and awards, leadership roles, defining moments and bittersweet lasts…. Last homecoming, last music performance, and last playoff game. Looming over the entire last year of high school, of course, is the dreaded college admissions process and the omnipresent question, What are you going to do next year? It is a year full of accomplishments, anticipation and anxiety. It’s hard on the kids, too.

We’ve traveled this path before with our older sons, but it is different every time. All of our sons are smart, funny and devastatingly handsome. Just like every mother’s son in the history of ever. And each in his own way. I have long been a proponent of the theory that there is no perfect school, you just have to find the right fit for your kid. But it’s not necessarily a straightforward undertaking. Sometimes the school finds the kid.

If you’re familiar with the fateful admissions process, then you know that March is the month when many colleges release their decisions. The trepidation surrounding the Ides of March is very much alive and well in the lives of high school seniors all over the country. My husband advises me that if I were a better mother then I would know our son’s password so we could hack in to his portal and access his admissions status ourselves. Instead, we have to wait until he gets out of class for the day. The minutes drag by slowly. He sends a text message with the note “not rejected” and a photograph of the letter from his first choice of schools … waitlisted.

I send a note to my husband and the boys, all of whom are anticipating good news: sad face emoji.

It is a huge disappointment, and the fact that the school is so selective that even a waitlist opportunity is coveted brings no comfort. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that he has already received acceptances and scholarship offers from other schools, because the one he thought he wanted most said Maybe instead of Yes. The boy has no appetite that evening, which would usually be alarming for a teenager, but is appropriate under the circumstances.

His brothers rally their support immediately:

Thing #1 says, “We hate those guys!”

Thing #2 sends a text message, “Screw them!”

We gather around the dinner table, and Thing #4 says, “Hey Mom, you know what sucks?” I’m almost afraid to ask, given his recent impressions of certain inappropriate comedians, many of whom seem to comprise the student body at his all-boys parochial school, but I take the bait anyway. What is it, darling? “[Insert name of offending institution here]!” He glances at his brother, who reluctantly begins to smile.

He has successfully navigated bigger disappointments than this. All the boys have. They’ve each suffered the loss of a parent and endured the blending of a family, including a step-parent and step-brothers. Not one of them would have chosen this path. But we do not always get to choose. Sometimes the universe takes the decision out of our control and points us in a completely different direction. God’s guiding hand can be a real pain in the butt. And sometimes on the unexpected journey, we find love and joy, and brotherhood.

One of the more dismal aspects of being a parent is seeing your child suffer, and we ourselves spend a sleepless night over the discouraging news. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. But with the new day arrives a new letter… My son and I both hear the familiar squeak of the mail truck on the street, and after weeks of greeting the mail carrier and rushing to the mailbox, neither one of us flinches. My husband, the optimist, rushes up a flight of stairs, and asks “Did I hear the mail arrive?” He returns with a fat envelope, Plan B starts to take shape, and we are all getting excited.

At the end of the day, there will be disappointments. Some minor and others staggering, but if you have brothers – biological or otherwise – then there will also be peace, progress, decadent snacks and a healthy dose of irreverent humor.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And brotherhood to support you through life’s disappointments.

Birthday Developments

It’s Sam’s birthday again, and what dawns on me is that this fact does not take our breath away today as it has in years past. It’s like this: The boys went to practice and school as usual, and I’m home addressing a little plumbing issue. I don’t mean to minimize the problem, the “backup” is definitely the most urgent and offensive matter I will resolve today. I wonder aloud whether Canadian homes are on sewers or septic, because the answer to this question might inform my next decision. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the emotional significance of the day is not weighing us down.

And then there’s this: I’m standing in the garage while the rooter works on the obstructed pipe, and I start cleaning out a box we had stuffed into the garage years ago. We crammed quite a lot into boxes and tucked them away because we just couldn’t deal at the time, and then we got distracted with life and kids and lots of good stuff, and the boxes seemed to multiply while we weren’t looking, and now, much to my chagrin, there is a veritable mountain of crap in the garage, most of which needs to be shredded or donated or trashed. It’s not a particularly enjoyable project, so we often avoid it, but the task is more appealing at the moment than my plumbing problem, so I take a deep breath and remove the lid from the box.

I find some costume jewelry that I had forgotten about, an old photograph of one of the boys with Santa, and the check register from the weeks shortly following Sam’s death. Some of the entries are exactly the same as my current on-line bill pay records: telephone, water, gas, electricity, the pediatrician. Others are much less routine: one for the mortuary, and another for the emergency room doctor who signed Sam’s death certificate. These two entries are in my mother’s distinctive cursive, her protective hand evidenced in this careful detail. Friends, too, leave their supportive marks in my check register. For example, one check reimburses a friend for the groceries she bought and put away in my kitchen, and another check reimburses a college friend for gifts she had purchased on my behalf. What is not evident from the face of the check, but what I know, is that she had spent an entire week with us before Christmas, cooking for us, shopping for us, wrapping gifts and decorating, leaving her own very young sons in order to care for mine, and for me. She has recently won a national science award for her work in mechanical engineering, but in our house we know her for the egg noodle soup she made when we were under the weather. We still make the soup that we call by her name when illness strikes. I put the check register back in the box. It suddenly seems too precious to shred.

Meanwhile, the plumber finishes his work, and I am released to resume my normal programming. I stuff the entire box back in the garage for later.

But there’s also this: My husband Tim has taken each of our four sons on a college visit for their 16th birthdays as part of our family undergraduate motivational plan, and now it’s the baby’s turn. Each of the older boys remembers his college tour with dad fondly, and so far the plan seems to be working. Our oldest is now a college graduate and living on his own, putting him squarely in the lead for favorite son. The diploma and the independence also make him the envy of his younger brothers. All part of our plan.

So today, on Sam’s birthday, Tim is picking up the so-called “little one” immediately after school and heading straight to LAX to catch a plane for the weekend. It is undoubtedly the best gift we could offer to Sam.

The boys are living with joy, determination and love. They are looking forward much more than they are looking back. They do not forget Sam, and in fact, they often think about his academic path and which parts they would like to imitate (as well as which parts I would prefer that they didn’t). They wonder what he might think or what he might find amusing, but none of this hinders their progress. Our boys move onward.

While Tim and one son are en route to the mid-West, I am at home with another of our sons. We raise a glass to Sam and eat one of his favorite meals.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And birthday celebrations.

Day One

I’m embracing New Year’s more enthusiastically than usual, and not only because 2016 featured several stunning disappointments, but that might have statistical significance. We ended the year by gathering our little family together, and my heart is full.

I resolve to spend the first day of the year sitting in front of the fire that my husband started until I finish reading the book in my lap. Granted, it’s a quick read – 150 small pages, big print, little words – but still. I’m not going to wait for a nasty virus to put me down. I’m going to put my tail in this chair and let the Christmas decorations linger in the living room beyond their expiration date. I’m going to choose stillness.

I’m not especially gifted at stillness. The hum of the washing machine and the dryer betray the fact that I must have gotten up at some point to switch out the laundry. When the washing machine stops the next time, however, I do not budge from my spot in front of the fire. I read for a few more minutes, I gaze at the flames, I watch the cat curled up contentedly in his own chair. Then I finish the book. And when I’m done, I sit a little longer.

I practice more intentional stillness. I’ve been cooking nonstop since Thanksgiving, and while I’ve got the ingredients for a lovely dinner tonight, the kids all have other plans, so I decide not to prepare any of it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I make my husband’s favorite part, the apple pie, and whip up actual whipping cream, and we eat that for dinner together on this hearth.

And then I stare at the blank white pages of my 2017 calendar – not electronic pages, actual paper pages that I can write on with the ink pen in my hand. I love the promise of a new calendar. I stare at those white pages with my heart wide open and dream. I’ve got plans for one graduation in May and one July wedding, but as for the rest of the year…? I wonder what this next trip around the sun will bring. For today, I sit still and soak up the energy and possibility of a new day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And peace.

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.

 

Stretch Marks

My kids call me a crazy church lady, because I actually enjoy attending Sunday services. I need the fresh inspiration, the sense of community, the weekly reboot. I love the music and the liturgy and communion. I am delighted on those increasingly rare days when we have all four boys with us in church, and I am deeply grateful to sit side by side with my husband, in silence, in prayer, in song.

But we don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.

I cannot abide another insipid sermon admonishing a child to admire his mother, citing the pain she endured in childbirth as an obligation for such reverence. I resent the implication that it’s somehow the baby’s fault for all that pain and now – through guilt and other misguided motivation – the baby owes the mom and must make amends. It makes me tense when the minister excludes or discounts step-mothers, foster-mothers, adoptive-mothers, friends, aunts, sisters, grandmothers and many who happen to be female who “mother” children that they didn’t give birth to. I cringe when I recall the ache of women who long to be mothers but aren’t yet, and might never be. Or the weighty grief of mothers who have lost children and pregnancies. I bristle at this inadequate definition of motherhood on behalf of children whose mothers have neglected, abused or abandoned them. And my heart breaks for children whose mothers have died and who feel the loss of her keenly on a certain Sunday in May. I am thinking of two children, in particular.

I love these boys, I support them the best I can, but I do not believe for a minute that I “replace” their mother. There are days when I so wish I had known the boys as babies and toddlers and little kids, and moments when I desperately wish that their mother could see the young men they have become. Believe me, I am extremely grateful that Debbie gave birth to these two children-who-are-no-longer-children, and I’m especially grateful that she did the laboring for the 10-pound bundle of boy. I call them my sons, not because I gave birth to them, but because we have our own relationship.

Yes, childbirth is painful, but the pain of not giving birth can be excruciating. Yes, motherhood is beautiful and amazing, and even so, moms make lots of mistakes. Sleepless nights will have that effect. As do mental illness, addiction, poverty and selfishness. Or simple ignorance. The fact of giving birth to a child does not necessarily engender respect.

The most excruciating physical pain I’ve endured was not when I gave birth but when I had a tubal pregnancy. The most searing emotional pain was the several years following that life-saving surgery with its resulting reduction in my fertility, along with two more miscarriages. The pain of losing of these pregnancies and the fear that I might never have children branded some very dark years. The pain of actual childbirth paled in comparison. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the anesthesiologist looked like Denzel Washington. When that doctor walked into the room, I looked at my husband and said “You got me into this trouble, but he’s going to get me out.”

I’ll tell you what else is painful – showing up and sticking around. Pain is watching your child suffer. Pain is lying awake, panicked about the results of a blood test, or an aptitude test, or an MRI or a biopsy. Pain is knowing your child didn’t get the nod, the invitation, a spot on the team, an acceptance letter. It is beyond agonizing to watch your son’s spirit breaking, knowing the only thing you can do is to be here for him, which seems unbelievably small and insignificant in the face of so much heartache. It is the look on my sweet mother’s face – lined with anxiety – watching me make a decision she disagrees with. Pain, not just from biting her tongue (although she is expert at that, one of the qualities I admire about my own mom), but fear for me and whatever consequences I might rain down on my own head.

Yet these are not the only aspects that expand a mother’s heart (and her hips). There is unprecedented joy and gratitude. Delight with a child’s successes and steps toward independence. A passion, a graduation, a healing. The privilege of a front row seat to his achievements. The child is a gift. I call him my son, not because he was created in my womb or made in my image and likeness, but because we journey together. Although we do find it amusing when people think he looks like me, because in fact, he looks like his mother.

Several years ago now, my son and I were sitting together in the pediatrician’s office, chatting and laughing. I look wistfully at the young mom with her infant and toddler, also in the waiting room. She looks exhausted and harried, but also blissfully in love with her young sons. I’m sure I look wrinkled and gray, and relatively short next to the young man whom I call my son. She smiles at us and says, “I hope my sons and I have what you two have when they’re teenagers.”

My boy and I look at each other and smile, both thinking the same thing. But we don’t say that out loud. Instead, we grin conspiratorially, and I say, “Teenagers are a lot of fun.” Which they are much of the time, notwithstanding their reputation.

Once we are safely in the car and out of earshot, we look at each other and laugh, finally saying our mutual thought out loud: “We are only here because somebody died.” Neither of us had the heart to tell the young mom our specific parent-child history. But she is right; my son and I do share something special.

Our relationship has not always been not an easy one. The poor boy desperately wanted his mother back, and I wasn’t her. It was that simple. The fact of my existence caused him excruciating pain, and all I could do was to dedicate myself to the relationship. Sometimes I looked toward the heavens, tired and teary, and prayed for the strength to love these little beasts. It is not always easy to love teenagers up close and personal. They do not smell like heaven any more. We spent several harrowing years in the Teenagers-are-the-bane-of-my-existence/Charlotte-is-proof-that-the-devil-is-alive-and-well-and-torturing-me stage of our mother-son relationship. With patience, humor and commitment, we have grown genuinely to love and admire each other. But it did not come about because I gave birth to him. Thank God, because by the time he came into my life, he was nearly 5 feet tall and weighed much more than his 8 pound birthweight. Not even Dr. Denzel could administer an epidural for that.

Motherhood is more than biology; it’s a connection, a presence, a shared journey.

Which is why we will not be going to church on Father’s Day either. I cannot abide another unimaginative sermon on death as the ultimate sacrifice a father can make for his child. This oversimplified interpretation of fatherhood misses the unconditional quality of paternal love. Death may be the ultimate sacrifice, but presence is a sacrifice with an altogether different depth. There is real power in sticking around.

On those days when hearts are particularly tender and vulnerable, we let the children guide our day. We fill them with the messages that we want them to hear, that we will be by their side, that we love them. Our celebrations usually include bunches of grandparents, which is a blessing. I suppose if they really wanted to go to church, we would go with them.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a gentle Mother’s Day.

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.

Intersection

“I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

 

We calculate the age of our grief – like the life of an infant – first in hours, and then days. The days add up to a week, then two. Eventually a month. Slowly, unbelievably, the days and weeks continue. We number the months, but the “and a half” still seems relevant. Baby steps. The first year passes. It seems to take much longer than one year.

For a long time, the dark moments monopolize our attention. Our world has been upended, and we are angry, sad and confused. We move slowly through the sludge, day after day. Sleeplessness and exhaustion provide the soundtrack. Grief is a heavy traveling companion.

Almost imperceptibly, moments of grace accumulate: a peaceful night’s rest, an unguarded laugh, a full breath. Spontaneous gratitude. Peace. We notice a brilliant pink sunrise. Healing starts to happen. Not because the time passes. Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing takes time. And healing time is sacred.

Several years pass, and in that time we begin to rebuild our life. We find joy and love, and the dark, heavy, pain-filled moments are fewer. We do not forget, we incorporate both death and life. Balance. We remember without the painful longing. We loosen our grasp on what we lost and open our hearts to the love that is now. We create new relationships and family traditions, and we find joy.

And then one day, when he is in high school, the boy who would not say the “D” words – “dead” and “dad” – for two years following his father’s suicide is given a project in his theology class. The assignment is to make a cross, relevant to a personal, historical or current event. He chooses to make a personal cross, honoring both his father and the first wife of his step-father. He has an idea.

The vertical line of the cross will feature a photograph of the structure where his father committed suicide. He drives together with his mother to the intersection to take the photos himself. He hasn’t been to this location in four or five years. They pause on the sidewalk and look up to the top of the building. It is a long way to fall. The boy seems to shrink. The mother feels nauseous. But they have arrived with a purpose, so with their task in mind, they take pictures of “dad’s jumping place” from each of the four corners. Click. They look at the intersection with their artists’ eyes, and no longer from the tear-filled eyes of the newly grieving. Click. Click. Click. They pause again. There are times – even years afterward – that dad’s suicide seems impossible to believe, and yet here they stand. It is no small measure of grace.

The horizontal line of the cross will include two photos — one family of four on the left side, and another family of four on the right. A wide, blue ribbon encircles the picture on the right, because blue ribbon is the symbol for colon cancer. The boy assembles the cross with help from his step-father and affixes the ribbon with help from his mother. 

In his written description of the cross, the boy cites a quote from the Gospel: “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.” The boy goes on to say that he believes that not only God’s love, but the love of everyone we have ever lost stays with us for our lives. Always with us in our hearts and memories. He explains that these two deaths brought the six of us together — a complete family, loving and joyful. Even with Trojans and Bruins living under the same roof.

Death and resurrection in a school project.

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There is no specific timeline. The first year is hard, and the second seems worse. But the thing is progress. Little steps in a positive direction, toward wholeness. Grief loosens its grip. Progress can be almost impossible to discern in the moment, but when we look back at the preceding years, we see in those moments the evidence of healing. Of grace. Of gratitude. Of light and love and laughter and life. All with one of those UCLA/USC “House Divided” garden flags on our front porch.

***

Along my route when I take the dog for a run, there’s a certain section where I hear the echo of my own steps. I’ve traveled this part of road many times over the last few years, and even though I know it’s the sound of my own footsteps, I cannot resist looking behind me to check if somebody is following in tandem. Nobody ever is. It’s the acoustics on this little stretch of road. But every time I glance over my shoulder I imagine Sam smiling. I can almost hear him say, “I knew you could do this.”

The boy is right. Even after our loved ones are gone, their love remains.

***

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