It’s Like This

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My computer is under the cat somewhere, but the furry tyrant is not in the mood to negotiate. He’s hungry. He’s loud. He’s lost any measure of patience he might once have had. He could not care less about bills or emails or deadlines. He especially does not care about the dog. He could maybe tolerate one of the children, as long as he had their undivided attention, but they – in an act of premeditated and unadulterated selfishness – have left for school. The second best option to the lap is the warm laptop. He will not be deterred. And he will not be ignored.

So I turn my attention to the crabby kitty, and that is how today will go. On days like this, I do my best to surrender, to dredge up a modicum of patience and kindness, to experience a sense of accomplishment in some place other than my go-to to-do list, to trust, to find a flow within the unanticipated course, to be attentive to what joys the unexpected path might bring, to honor the intrusive feline moment.

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Wishing you light and strength, even on days like this.

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.

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

Pets & Peeves

I can’t stand it when people say “He’s in a better place.”

When I hear the “better place” platitude, I hear echoes of my then young son trying to make sense of his father’s recent suicide, “If daddy is in a better place now, then shouldn’t we go there, too?” It’s preeminently logical: If dead daddy is in a better place, then his suicide is not only positive, but commendable; it follows that we should go and do likewise, so we will be in that better dead place, too. Hopefully, with him.

It’s a nightmare construct for the newly single mom trying to make sense of the unthinkable. Suicide makes for a tidy Shakespearean ending, but no part of it is romantic for the real life widow trying to move forward with her young children. That phrase makes me tense and crazy.

Maybe it’s supposed to make us feel better about him and where he is, but he’s dead. We, on the other hand, are not. We’re here and need to find a way to feel better about being here, living without him. Our journey continues here; his journey begins elsewhere. Selfishly, we don’t want him in that place, we want him here in this place. With us. Now. Always. We don’t want to reach across the distance with our hearts, we want to reach him with our arms. Healing bridges that gap between what we wish and what is, and that becomes a place of joy. But it doesn’t start with joy, it starts with sadness, pain and fear. It starts with goodbye.

Goodbye gives us access to express our sorrow and experience the absence, but it’s painful. Death rips the fabric of our connection, a gash that we cannot mend by pretending it did not tear. The Japanese art of Kintsugi highlights with gold the repaired places of broken pottery. The brokenness is not ignored or forgotten, and the pottery with the golden seams becomes a piece of great beauty and strength. As our hearts break open, we say goodbye, which is itself an invitation for healing.

But it’s hard to say goodbye, even when it’s a small, see-you-soon, aloha goodbye.

Years ago, when our oldest son was heading back to college after the holidays, our youngest burst into tears before the car had even left the driveway en route to the airport. I tried to comfort him by letting him know his brother would be home soon – if not for spring break, then definitely for summer. The little one looked up at me, trying to conceal the tears, “I am not crying because he’s leaving, Mommy. I’m just jealous that he gets to get away from you two!”

Totally understandable. And remarkably effective at diverting attention from how miserable the goodbye is to how subpar my parenting is.

In any event, I remind him to do his homework, because not only is it a valuable constructive avoidance technique, but it will be his ticket to getting into college and away from us. Otherwise, you’d better believe that I’m going to cling to the ankles of our youngest like nobody’s business. Because these goodbyes are not getting any easier with each successive child.

A few days ago, once again after the family car heads to LAX with one of our loved sons on board, this same boy – now taller than I am – walks into the kitchen. He looks at the chef’s knife in my hand and the pile of veggies I’ve accumulated on the cutting board in front of me, and he asks if I’m okay. “I’m fine,” I say. “I’m just crying because of the onions.”

He looks again. “Mom,” the boy says gently, putting his arm around me, “those are carrots.”

No, it’s not easy to say the little goodbyes, let alone the big goodbye.

It’s even hard to say goodbye to cats, and I don’t like cats. I rarely read the email messages my own mother sends with “cat-lovers” in the subject line. Ages ago, I had an orange and white tabby I adored, mostly because he was so much like a dog. Yet somehow I have become that crazy cat lady.

We have two handsome indoor cats. Brothers, because that’s how our family rolls. In my defense, I will explain that I “inherited” these cats. They came with my husband. Who, by the way, is allergic to the cats. As are three of our children. And yet, the cats stay.

They remain indoors because there is too much cat-loving wildlife endemic to the area to let them outside safely. The cats have all their claws, as evidenced by the shreds and snags on their sofa. One of the cats suffers from kidney stones. He eats a prescription diet, but sometimes he pees on the sofa to get our attention. Occasionally, he pees on the children, and that really gets our attention. The cats have commandeered the family room by marking the sectional sofa for themselves, rendering the space uninhabitable for the rest of us. Notwithstanding any of the marketing slogans, nothing miraculously removes the cat urine. Trust me. We’ve tried everything. At some point the smell overwhelms all sensibility, and the only reasonable solution is to replace the furniture. Those cats are on their fourth sofa. The kids remain protective of the little beasts, especially when they hear some of the local cat-lovers howling in the canyon. I am tempted to leave the back door open and call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” but those sweet boys won’t let me.

All of which is to say that it’s a dog’s life for the rotten cats. They have a new sofa, specialty cat food and a variety of warm laps on which to curl up and sleep (or pee) – laps playing xBox, watching Netflix or NBA games, sometimes reading a book. Life here is a pretty darn good place for those cats. I cannot imagine a so-called “better place” for them. They already get the VIP treatment.

I don’t like those cats. I swear I don’t. But my sons do. And the kids, I like.

Which makes it that much harder to tell the boys when it’s time to say goodbye to their cat. His kidneys are failing him, and he hasn’t touched his food in days. He lets me hold him for his final hours, and then we decide that the kindest approach will be to take him to the vet, where we say our final goodbye.

Reluctantly, we adjust to our here without him. The rotten cat remains in our hearts and our conversation and I’m starting to think that’s about as tangible evidence of his presence as anything else, along with the snags and stains on his sofa. We tell stories, we cry, and I make an appointment with the upholstery cleaners. We laugh, we love, and we celebrate life together. It’s not the same without him, but still, this place is pretty darn good.

To love and then to let go is one of Life’s hardest challenges. Maybe death’s power lies only in its ability to separate us temporarily. We don’t really know the answer to what’s next. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he is in a better place, but for us, for now, in this place, we live with the mystery.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And gentle good-byes.