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.

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