Intentional

Alas, I can really only do one thing at a time – and sometimes not even that.

I despise the fact that I cannot accomplish every single thing that I want to do, check off all the items on my to-do list, answer every piece of correspondence, listen to each and every podcast in my queue, read all the novels stacked by my bedside and downloaded on my Kindle, and sort through the ever-growing mounds of keepsakes and god-knows-what-else accumulating in my garage. I resent that I have to pick and choose. I cannot tolerate letting others – and myself – down, but disappointment seems to be the direction I’m heading. I keep running up against the limits of time, endurance, focus, and those boundaries do not yield. I love the decisive, emphatic “yes”! I am not the biggest fan of the word “no,” but I suspect that this very small word might be my greatest advocate at the moment. “No” might hold the key to my sanity, and perhaps I should befriend it.

I feel like I have learned this lesson before. But I seem to have forgotten it somewhere. Evidently, it’s time to learn again.

I am confident that I am not the only one whose inner Wonder Woman struggles with this issue from time to time, fighting the urge to surrender. I wonder whether this resistance is serving my best interests or simply feeding my ego with a nutrition-poor diet of caffeine and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds.

I love caffeine and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds.

After Sam’s death, I was left to juggle all the life-logistics-parenting balls by myself. There were so many to keep in the air: paying the mortgage, showing up on time or at all, washing my hair, feeding the dog, all in addition to the paramount goal of nurturing the health, well-being and grief of my sons and me. The big one was eight years old, and the little one was six. We were devastated. Chores along the lines of getting my car washed never even entered the juggling ring. It was all we could do to get out of bed in the mornings. It didn’t occur to me to write a book. I could not even keep a journal. I could barely answer emails, and when I did, it was during a bout of insomnia, the time stamp on my note betraying my disinclination for sleep. I remember a friend asking me, How do you keep all the balls in the air? The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. On a good day, I got to choose which ones fell to the ground and bounced into the gutter. On a really good day, I tossed a ball to a friend. I focused on the most important things – healing, breathing, moving forward one baby step after another.

We have come so far. It will be ten years in October.

We have cried and laughed and read the entire Harry Potter series multiple times. We have run and prayed and cursed, usually in the same breath. I’ve baked scores of chocolate chip cookies for dozens of teams, groups and guilds. I’ve eaten a truckload of dark-chocolate covered almonds. The boys – not surprisingly – have eaten pretty much everything within arm’s reach. They have become young men. Now I am the little one.

Shortly after Sam’s suicide, a friend of mine who had lost his own father to suicide when he was a similar age to my sons, offered these words: “You will be amazed at what you and your boys will do.” I was encouraged; his was the voice of experience. He and his brother, along with their mother, had traversed this very path – or one similarly formidable – and they had moved forward in their lives with intelligence, joy and a weirdly dark sense of humor. All qualities I admire. He is a smart man and a reliable friend. He was also right. I am amazed. And grateful.

As I start to see the empty-nest phase ahead in my not-so-distant distance, I feel a pressing need to be intentional about my yeses and my nos. To think about why I do what I do. I drop everything whenever any of my four sons needs an assist, but they all seem to be alarmingly self-sufficient these days, so I am thinking about my empty-next phase.

I started writing the blog SushiTuesdays to bring light to others, to share what has helped me, to be a voice for hope for those who struggle with loss, faith and blending families. I write out loud because I think it’s the most effective way to take the stigma out of suicide and mental illness, and because it creates a community. Selfishly, I write to remind myself how far we have all come. I’m so proud of all my boys I can hardly stand it. I write because I think it helps to know that there are others in the same leaky boat. I write because I like to, even though it’s hard, even though I have a ton of shitty first drafts that never see daylight, even though it takes forever – maybe longer – to wrestle those slippery thoughts to the page.

I have shared bits and pieces of my healing journey through presentations, speaking engagements, coffee with friends and on this blog. I am often urged to “write the book.” Those who have been with me from the beginning know that I started the blog sushituesdays.com as a manageable step toward writing “the book.” It has, however, become increasingly clear that the book goal will be more demanding than I had anticipated. So, as the kids are heading back to school, I, too, am turning toward the manuscript more intentionally. It terrifies me to say this out loud. If I push “publish” on this post, it will be no small miracle. But it’s time. From the beginning, I have believed that the blog would help me achieve the goal of writing the book. The weekly discipline, the readers who have found inspiration in my sharing, the positive feedback and encouragement, have all increased my desire to complete the project and my confidence that the book will find an audience. All of which is to say, please forgive me if (when!) I miss my weekly posting goal here on SushiTuesdays.

I’m excited and intimidated.

I’ll be here. We will run into each other online and around town, at the market (after all, I have one teenager still stalking the refrigerator with his irrepressible appetite and his equally ravenous friends). I’ll see you in our favorite local Mexican restaurant and on the trails with my defective hunting dog. I will continue to sprinkle love and light in this space, but it might be on random days of the week. Just saying.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And caffeine and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds.

Family Time

I’m holding on to summer for just a few more days, notwithstanding the compelling evidence that it’s going, going, gone – the college bound bags, packed and tripping distance from the front door, the carton of fresh, bright highlighters and newly-sharpened pencils, the neat stack of textbooks on the dining room table. We are rested and inspired and pretty much ready to embark on the next adventure. And by “we” I mean, not me.

Our oldest son starts law school today, which constitutes clear and convincing evidence that I have been derelict in my maternal duties to talk him out of it. Thing #2 starts his senior year in college today, which seems to indicate that I may have blinked, but that he definitely hasn’t. The so-called little one starts his junior year of high school today, which must be an administrative glitch, because just about three yesterdays ago, he was not much bigger than an overstuffed burrito. I have already snapped (but not posted, as requested) the obligatory first day of school picture. and I’m trying not to think about the fact that he’s the last man standing on our porch now that all his brothers are off to college and beyond. It doesn’t seem possible that next year will be his last first-day-of-school-photograph-by-the-front-door, even though he’s well over six feet tall, because, like a recalcitrant toddler, today he is carrying his shoes in his hands instead of wearing them on his feet. It appears that my son, like me, steps reluctantly into the school year and scheduled life.

We’ve had a full summer, capped by two weeks of travel together with all four of our sons, an extraordinary achievement of organizational prowess and sheer blind luck. In a way, our trip already feels as ephemeral as a pleasant dream; we’ve tossed the luggage tags and boarding passes, posted a few photos and plunged headlong into the next phase, the boys speeding off in four different directions. On the other hand, the sturdiness of our shared experience will hold us for a long time. We thoroughly enjoyed our family togetherness, the planes, trains and even one trifling car-related mishap hardly worth mentioning but that dad will likely hear about for the rest of his days. We explored castles and cathedrals and quiet chapels, toured old cities and initiated a new friendship, spent long evenings featuring Bananagrams and brothers, all punctuated with laughter, local ales and champagne.

I feel the need to point out that we started out as a blended family, but now we are simply a family. The fact that two of our boys have the same exact name occasionally creates some confusion, which my husband and I feel the need to explain. The kids chalk it up to maternal brain damage and keep moving.

If you were counting sons, you might have noticed that I neglected to mention Thing #3. He is flying under the radar, hoping that I haven’t remembered that he finished his summer internship but has another week before heading across the country to his freshman orientation. The truth is that it is not getting any easier to let these kids take that step into college to create their own lives, even though it’s everything he has worked for (and we have encouraged). I’m bracing myself for my mommy meltdown. It has happened twice before already, so I know it’s coming. It might happen when I check the weather in the Midwest, or visit the Patagonia website, scrolling through various styles of sweaters and jackets, wondering which one best keeps the boy warm and dry. It could happen when he tells me about his roommate assignment. Or when I book the one-way plane ticket from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. It might be when I pay the fall term tuition. My husband and I are doling out last minute lectures and advice faster than the boy himself can drive to In ‘n Out for just one more double-double before leaving California. In any case, I have already warned the so-called baby that I am going to cling to his ankles like nobody’s business.

But what if I’m not meltdown-bound? Maybe I’m actually ready this time around? Third time’s a charm? It is entirely possible that I am exemplary at sticking my head in the sand, or that I’m feeling confident because the boy is still in bed at noon, in a bed under my own roof with my own dog at his feet, and not far away in a dorm room with a roommate I cannot threaten or bribe into kindness. It is altogether likely that upon the actual college drop-off, my husband and I will – for the third time running – retreat quickly to the nearest chapel, followed by a lengthy visit to the closest bar.

I guess I won’t know until it happens, so I will just trust that he and I are both ready for the approaching season. All I can do is enjoy where I am.

I take advantage of summer’s light, and I take a leisurely afternoon stroll with the dog, followed by a glass of sauvignon blanc on the porch. I have a book nearby, which I think about reading but don’t actually open. Instead, the dog and I simply watch the sunlight shifting on the mountains, thinking our butterfly thoughts, until it starts to feel too chilly outside, at which point our thoughts turn toward dinner, and we head inside for warmth and rest.

***

Wishing you light and strength on summer’s path. And gentle transitions.

 

The Telemarketer’s Regret …and Mine

You might think that 10 years after her death, Debbie no longer gets phone calls. But she does.

We still have a telephone line at the house. I’m not entirely sure why. The only time we use the number is when we call our local pizza joint for delivery. They have our address and usual order saved under the home phone number. We hardly ever answer when the home phone rings, we only have one telephone with a cord plugged into an actual jack, we rarely remember to check the voicemail and when we do, most of the messages are a combination of clicks and static. Any family or friends trying to reach us will call the office or our cell phones. It seems like the last few times I bothered answering the phone, the “voice” on the other end was recorded or on delay, so I hung up.

I answered the phone again the other day. I’m not entirely sure why. I might not have been in the best, kindest, calmest, most level-headed frame of mind, having just scrolled through a variety of inflammatory political Facebook rants. I took a deep breath and committed my first subversive act of the morning: I got out of bed. And then I blew it. I happened to be right next to the house phone when it rang, so I picked it up. The voice on the other end asked to speak with Deborah.

I did not subject the unsuspecting telemarketer to my own partisan and incendiary thoughts du jour, although she might have preferred that conversation. Instead I said, “I am so sorry. Deborah died in 2007.” Those words might not appear terribly acerbic sitting there in black and white on the page, but they were delivered with some bite. I said two-thousand-seven so slowly and emphatically that year remained suspended in the ensuing silence, like a tangible speech bubble hanging in the air between us. There was a long pause. And then a click. She didn’t call back.

I usually deliver the news of Deborah’s death to the unwitting representative on the other end of the line with a little more gentleness, and the caller often apologizes and promises to update their records. It’s likely that I am giving this brief interaction too much thought, but I don’t feel good about it. The fact of the matter is that you never know what somebody else has going on, and I don’t know a single detail about the woman other than that she called my house. She doesn’t know that I feel protective of my husband and kids, even if I am justifiably annoyed at the outdated record-keeping. Life has its way of forcing strangers to bump into each other, and these exchanges do ripple around the world. I like to think how we interact makes a difference and that I could initiate a happy little wave. In light of the fact that I still receive both mail and phone calls for Debbie, it would be reasonable for me to expect that I will continue to get correspondence pretty much from here on out.

My mother reports that when she gets such calls for my father, she tells them he’s out at sea. Maybe I’ll try that next time.

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received recently from friends who are facing significant crises: being widowed or divorced, the death of a child, the illness of a parent, or the illness of a child and the death of a parent, a career change, a move, crippling fear, the questioning of faith, lack of direction, an empty nest, a sense of powerlessness. These crossroads are not inconsequential. Maybe it’s the perimenopausal plague. But these issues of life and death, these questions of whether we are spending our time doing the things that are most important in the time we have left seems to be pressing on several of the hearts of women I count among my closest friends. I’m a lot better at fielding these calls.

One friend in particular is struggling to find her way, and I do my best to encourage her. She feels like an overqualified underachiever, a sentiment I am altogether too familiar with. There is a temptation to look at my life and to wonder whether I’ve really accomplished anything. I’m not sure how, precisely, one would measure the value and the impact of a life. We just have to show up and do our best. As Anne Lamott says, we get our work done, one inadequate sentence at a time.

The prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” is as much about living in the moment as it is about grace. The phrase could just as easily read, “Give us this day our daily work,” because having purpose and meaning is essential. Or “Give us this day our daily invitation,” because sometimes we need a little guidance. Or “Give us this day our daily hug,” because every day requires moments of love, encouragement and gratitude. Ten years from now I might look back and see my efforts taking a defined shape, but for today I need only accomplish this day’s task.

It’s not exactly glamorous.

I’m sitting at the dining room table with my cup of tea and my laptop, and my fantasy of working while the boys do their homework in my general vicinity remains unrealized. I left the office early to pick up one child from school, and the cup of tea he asked for is quickly becoming tepid on the kitchen counter. He sat down for a minute and fell sound asleep. The life of a teenage student athlete. I’m contemplating drinking his tea. Or giving up on my project altogether and doing something even more pointless, like matching athletic socks. The high school senior is awake and has surrounded himself with all the tools of engagement – his iPad, binder, mechanical pencil and a textbook. But then I hear a burst of laughter from the next room, and I suspect that he is not, in fact, working on his economics assignment.

I remind myself that it’s not my job to do all the work. I only have to do mine.

The next call comes on my cell phone from a number I recognize. A familiar and much-loved voice says, “Hey! Guess what?” I cannot help but smile. The boy and I have come a long way. Ten years ago, we were strangers. Today we are family. Together, one day, one conversation, one invitation at a time, we have created our own mother-son relationship. Which is a beautiful thing in this world. And no small accomplishment.

I’ve done some things well and failed at others. I am a work in progress, but the telephone will undoubtedly ring again, and I will get another chance to create a kinder, gentler ripple.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And telephone calls that make you smile.

Signposts

(Or, How to Read Rejection Letters)

 

We did it!

And by “we” I mean, he. The boy did all the work, making the grades, preparing for the tests, writing the essays, navigating the Common App, asking teachers for recommendation letters, and submitting the applications. My role in this process has been limited to Chief Financial Officer. I handed over my credit card for the application fees and (mostly) kept my fretting to myself. It’s not my first time at the rodeo, you know.

Of course, each child is different, and his process has likewise been unique to him. The boy really wanted to know what his options were (that’s my kid!), so he chose not to put all his eggs in an early decision basket but to cast a wide net and see what he draws forth. He has thought about schools from his home in California, across several Midwestern states and including a school or two on the east coast. Plus one in Texas, just for shits and giggles, as they say. He has a confidence about his having a place and seems perfectly content to spend the next three months just enjoying his senior year in high school without obsessing over where exactly his post-graduation steps will take place. He has submitted his final application, completing this part of the whole process, and he is delighted now to do nothing. I’m not sure whose child he could be.

Now the thing to do is to wait for envelopes big and small, email notifications and updated portals. Here’s the challenge: waiting is nothing at all like doing. The kid seems to be fine with it, but it’s making me a little crazy. Or to be fair, crazier than usual.

It is his journey, however, so my role is to sit quietly, which I do, and here’s my epiphany: acceptance and rejection letters are only signposts pointing toward the next step. They are not a judgment on performance or character, they are not a prediction of future success, they should not form the basis for self-worth. Especially parental self-worth. They are simply red or green arrows for today. Oh, this is much easier said before those puny, pathetic letters arrive, lurking in the mailbox like a noxious cloud, released into an unsuspecting hand. But if it is possible to settle into the knowledge – even before the applications are sent toward a committee of admissions personnel – that each one of us has a place already reserved in the human journey, then we can sit confidently and await the next set of directions.

Sometimes – when that small envelope arrives unexpectedly, dashing dreams the way only two dismissive sentences can do – the only answer is chocolate. Don’t bother trying to find a substitute. There are simply not enough French fries in the world to overcome the deficit. Chocolate is the only way. Personally, I go for a simple, solid dark variety, although occasionally a rich chocolate cake is the ticket. And then, with a little antioxidant lift, you can read the single page missive and think of it simply as a road sign. It might say Yield, or Do Not Enter, possibly Detour. Maybe it’s a full Stop. It’s likely too soon to tell. Or maybe, it’s a green light in a direction you didn’t anticipate going, on a road you might never have traveled otherwise, but that you actually enjoy. You never know. Those letters – big and small – are simply possibilities. They are what you decide to make of them. It’s still up to you.

The boy doesn’t seem to need my advice. He is at ease finding his own path. Which is as it should be. As I look ahead to another high school graduation, perhaps I am not wondering so much about what the boy’s next step will be, but about mine. I have traveled together with him for eighteen years, and I suspect my own steps will falter without him far more than his do without me.

But I take comfort in my own advice. As the boy progresses forward in his young life, I, too, will find more than one little green arrow pointing me toward new possibilities.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your forward path. And extra chocolate, just in case.

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.

Intention

Morning’s sun rises, undeterred and formidable.
A warm smile
A gentle hug
A kindness
A moment of calm
A creative thought
A grateful heart
A compassionate shoulder
In song
In word
In a steaming mug or a chilled glass
In a full breath,
The first miraculous, squalling breath of a newborn.

The essential mandate:
Let there be light,
And there was.

Find it.
Hold on.

The pinpoint seems a small comfort,
Powerless
Insignificant
In the face of extraordinary darkness,
But that little light means everything.

A Future With Hope

If you had told me ten years ago that my life today would be full of joy and love, I would have happily, but not surprisingly, believed you. If you had told me then that I would now have four sons, a so-called hunting dog that I run with several days a week, and that I would have given up my designer kitchen (which I could really use as a mother to four sons), I would have thought you were touched in the head. If you had told me that Sam would die by suicide when our little boys were still little, that I would later fall head over heels for a handsome, kind and slightly irreverent widower, and that I would be happy to have three mothers-in-law, I would have advised you to put down the glass in your hand. I might have suggested that the blood of Christ, or whatever other concoction you were drinking, had gone straight to your head, and you should consider a conversion. And become a vegan. I would have backed slowly away from you. As soon as I was safely out of your earshot, I would have called my nearest and dearest friend to mock your hare-brained idea of God’s plan. She would have said, “I can see it – the picture of you and your new husband and kids will be on the mantle, right next to your Olympic Gold Medal.” “Oh sure,” I would have said, “And you could vacation with me at my new home in the Swiss Alps that I purchased with the proceeds from my Genius Grant.” “Obviously,” she’d reply, “because you will need a quiet place to write your memoir.” “You know what I’m looking forward to most in all of this?” I would have told her, “My interview with Ellen.”

We really would have had a lot of fun at your expense.

But then in my real life, Sam did die. By his own hand. Our boys were so little. And a Genius Grant seemed slightly more likely than my ability to get through a single day without crying the mascara right off my face and onto my sleeve. Which is about the time that a faith-filled, hope-full, fear-less friend gave me a stone bearing this verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to give you a future with hope. ~ Jeremiah 29:11.”

A future with hope?

It was absurd. It was infuriating. It was offensive. I wanted to throw that rock through a window. I had a pretty clear idea of what my future would look like, and Sam’s suicide was decidedly not part of what I envisioned. I stuffed the rock in the back of the drawer.

The thing is, though, that verse does not read, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to give you the future you hoped for,” which is, I confess, often where my prayers start. When things are going well, or as predicted and desired, then a bright future is not hopeful, it’s logical. Hope is really only meaningful when things look bleak. When it’s dark and cold and impossibly sad. Hope sounds ridiculous in the midst of gripping despair and overwhelming fear.

Hope showed up in the darkness, even if I didn’t recognize her at the time. It is not so much that I found hope as it is that hope reached out for me in all her many ways. She is tenacious like that.

Hope whispers, “I’m here.” She sends a note via email in the dark hours while the rest of the world sleeps, and she offers to share her milk and cookies because she cannot sleep either.

Hope shows up unannounced, happens to be in the right place at the right time. She walks toward me along the sidewalk, as if we had planned to meet at Talbots Kids to help my sons choose ties for their father’s funeral, while I silently weep grateful tears in the corner of the store.

Hope is contrarian. She utters the word “forgiveness” while everyone around is threatening hatred and retribution, and I hear echoes of her voice in quiet moments alone.

Hope is not afraid of my ridicule. She hands me a book, even though I don’t have the focus or the time or the inclination to read. She waits patiently.

Hope is not smug. She never says, “I told you so.” She often says, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Hope is confident. She waters the dry ground long before the tiny shoots of a new life sprout up through the dirt, turning their tender leaves toward the sun.

Hope is inflammatory. She hands me a rock with her message, and she is not afraid of my despair and rage. Hope inundates me with her relentless love.

Perhaps hope’s greatest gift rests in her message that the story isn’t over. Life is yet unfolding love, joy, compassion, gratitude, strength, connection, not exactly in the form that I expected, but wholly present nonetheless.

I keep the stone in my makeup drawer, right next to my lipstick. I gave up on wearing mascara after Sam died, but I never gave up lipstick. So I see the reminder daily: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to give you a future with hope.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a future with hope.

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.

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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Options

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

~ Maya Angelou

 

Some people are offended by joy. This is not my problem.

I believe that healing is always a choice, and that joy is a possibility. It’s not necessarily easy or simple. It does not always arrive quickly. Healing is not a one time, check-the-box and you’re done kind of a thing. It’s a daily choice.

The choices might seem small or significant, whether to go for a walk or crawl back into bed, whether to sell Sam’s car or keep his name. How long to wear black, whether to wear mascara, or whether to wear the necklace Sam gave me on a recent anniversary.

To be honest, I didn’t anticipate finding quite so much joy. I was just hoping to make it through a day without wasting perfectly good mascara. For weeks, maybe months (I can’t remember), I stopped wearing make-up altogether. The day I chose to apply mascara was a public display of hope. My friend Susan (the one who later introduced me to Tim) remembers the day clearly and with fondness. I think that was the day that she breathed a sigh, trusting that I would be okay.

Those little, daily choices start to add up to something meaningful.

It helps to choose role models carefully. I didn’t want to be that bitter crabapple who never recovered after her husband’s suicide. We all know an old grouch – like Oscar, but without the charm, or the trash can. I was running an errand this afternoon and ran into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in years. We chatted for a minute, and when I told her things were going well, she simply paused and said, “I hate you.” Seriously. Apparently, she liked me a lot better in the days when I had given up on mascara completely. At least Oscar has friends and a sense of humor. And when he loses his sense of humor, his friends put his lid on him.

I can choose to be defined by what has happened, or I can choose to define my life for myself. I do not intend to minimize the tragedy. It is hideous and real. I do not mean to ignore the past or pretend it didn’t happen. On the contrary, I look at what has happened. I stand with my mouth gaping open at the horror of it, because people are suffering. But I choose to believe that the tragedy is not the end of the story.

Genuine healing usually means letting go of the way things used to be and opening the door to something new. I chose to embrace a new life, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It helps that my preternatural fear of inertia is greater than my fear of change and the unknown.

Sam and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary two months before he died, and he surprised me with a pretty diamond heart necklace. He chose the little heart specifically because its asymmetrical design appealed to him. I loved it. But a week or so later, he confided that he was concerned about our budget. It was sweet that he had bought the necklace, wanting something special to commemorate our anniversary, even though finances were tight. In the course of our conversations, we made a couple decisions, including that I would go back to work part-time and he would return the necklace. I thought I was being practical and helpful, but later I wondered whether he felt this resolution as a rejection or his own failure.

I found the heart necklace in a drawer a few weeks after Sam’s death, still in its black velvet box along with the original receipt. I was sick to my stomach. He had never returned it. Seeing the necklace in its jewelry box made me realize how difficult this task must have been for him. I felt confident that we would have many more anniversaries to celebrate, but maybe he suspected we wouldn’t. I didn’t have the heart to return the gift. But I felt too much sorrow and regret to wear it.

I mentioned my dilemma to a friend, and she offered to take the necklace back to the jeweler. The shop owner was very kind, and he remembered Sam. He was surprised and dismayed to learn of Sam’s death. He offered to give a store credit, but not a refund. I put the necklace back in the drawer, where it remained for several more months.

In the meantime, I thought about other decisions, such as what color nail polish I should choose for my pedicure and whether to sell the house.

My friend suggested that if I wasn’t going to wear the heart necklace I should donate it to the school auction. But that option didn’t really feel like a good fit. I wondered – with uncharacteristic superstition – whether the heaviness and shame might follow the necklace. Back into the drawer it went.

I thought about the little diamond heart necklace from time to time. I might look at it occasionally, but it filled me with sadness and remorse. I didn’t know what to do.

I continued to make choices. I went back to work part-time. I started drinking coffee. And Pinot Noir. I decided to join the extended family for Thanksgiving dinner and to avoid any New Year’s celebrations. With the help of a few close friends, I planned my own 40th birthday party. I started running. Not every step represented progress, but there were enough to create some momentum, bringing me toward a new life.

But I never wore the necklace. It wasn’t that I didn’t wear anything that Sam had given me. I continued to wear my wedding ring for a while. Even now, I wear the watch Sam gave me, as well as a favorite pair of earrings. Just not the necklace. Not exactly.

A year and a half after Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends asked me to be her daughter’s godmother. I was honored, of course, but I wasn’t Episcopalian and I was only recently on speaking terms with God again. It didn’t seem to me that I was necessarily the ideal choice for spiritual guidance, but my friend insisted. I suspect she saw something about my relationship with God that I didn’t really notice until she called my attention to it. I had not actually stopped talking to God, but I certainly didn’t have anything nice to say. And I definitely wasn’t listening. But God waited me out, in Her annoyingly patient manner, while I threw my temper tantrum. So that later, I found my friend’s request drawing me closer into a relationship, not only with her daughter, but also with Jesus. I began to think about being baptized.

This time I went to the jeweler myself, wondering if the shop owner would remember Sam. He did. He also remembered the heart necklace. I told him I was thinking about replacing the heart with a cross. Almost immediately, I noticed a small, diamond cross, one that the jeweler had designed himself (as he had also designed the heart). I felt a flutter of joy – in part because it is very pretty, and in part due to the slightly heretical thought that my late Jewish husband had just given me a cross.

I wear it all the time.

Healing is always an option. There is so much good news in this perspective. The door to healing is always unlocked, I just had to decide to open it. I did not, however, have to fling the door open wide. I started by inching it open. Just a sliver. Enough to let a little light through. Little decisions. Small choices, that led up to the more significant ones and into a new life.

As it turns out, Joy is on the other side of that door, looking for me.

***

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