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 She doesn’t know that I feel protective of my husband and kids, even if I am justifiably annoyed at the outdated record-keeping.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.

IMG_5216

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.

iPhone Irony

My ______________ (fill-in-the blank, husband/child/friend) seems depressed. What should I do?

This question terrifies me. Obviously, I wasn’t able to save Sam. It baffles me how many times in the last eight years people have asked me for advice on this issue, because every time there’s a part of me that thinks, Why would you ask me? Don’t you realize I failed? Ask a professional!

By putting the question out there, however, they are already a step ahead of where I was in the process. I didn’t know the depths in which Sam was struggling. I saw the clues in retrospect, of course. Loss of appetite, insomnia, job stress. All pointing toward depression. But a cursory internet search will also yield that the opposite signs of increased appetite, exhaustion and inability to focus may signify depression. Or pregnancy. If you had asked me before his death whether Sam would have been more likely to commit suicide or to become pregnant, I would have chosen the pregnant option. I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

There’s a lot of misinformation, stigma and confusion surrounding the suicide scenario. It’s not as straightforward as an “easy” way out. It’s not necessarily manipulative or vindictive. How much is attributable to mental illness and how much is a matter of individual responsibility remains a valid question. It is unspeakably ugly.

If Sam had had a diagnosed anything – cancer, heart disease, mental illness – we would have rallied to his side. We would have wanted to do something to empower him in the face of suffering. Instead, he struggled alone. Picking up the phone must not be easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the ones you love most in the world are better off without you.

Sam was not what you might call a computer wizard. He was rarely interested in keeping on the cutting edge of technology. He relied on his computer-savvy cousin for technical expertise, who during law school was, conveniently, also his roommate. Convenient for Sam, that is, when he ran into a technological glitch while preparing for a moot court competition at 3:00am, but not exactly endearing for his cousin.

But in the summer of 2007 Sam was enchanted by the new iPhone. The very first release. It’s already hard to imagine our world before smart phones, not quite 9 years since the iPhone initially came out. In fact, when Sam purchased that first iPhone, he didn’t use it as a phone; the iPhone was a cheaper, more powerful alternative to a small laptop. He kept his cell phone for making actual calls, and he used the iPhone to access the internet, research stock information and send emails.

After Sam’s death, I had three cell phones (mine, his and the iPhone), which in 2016 doesn’t seem like overkill, but was at the time. Eight-year olds didn’t have their own cell phones and tablets in 2007. We still primarily used our home phone. It seems logical now, but at the time I had to decide which cell phone to keep, and the iPhone was extravagant and expensive. In the process of consolidating the phones, I noticed that Sam did not have a single contact saved on his iPhone. He had a grand total of ten contacts saved in his cell phone: “1Charlotte”, his mother, his assistant, a friend and two cousins. Also, the Apple Store, Baja Fresh, California Pizza Kitchen and Supercuts. Of those contacts, only six were people, four family members, one friend.

His whole world seemed condensed and small in that moment. He must have felt so alone. It made me sad that so few of us comprised his entire universe.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the one he should have called but didn’t. Should he have asked for help? Definitely. Should I have paid closer attention? Probably. It has been easier to forgive him. It has been harder to forgive myself.

Did he truly not realize how many people cared? I could have readily named 30 more. The exotic, stoic girl at the dry-cleaner with the thick black eyeliner burst into tears talking about Sam, years after his death. A little kindness touches people more significantly than we realize. I do not know how he could have marginalized himself. I do not understand how he became so disconnected from his faith – in himself, in life, in others. I can only caution my children (and everybody else) to ask for help before they reach that point, if – God forbid – they ever find themselves drawn toward that dark, dark place.

Any one of us on his contact list would have helped. Even the person answering the phone at the Apple Store (live people answered the phone back then) could have looked up the telephone number for a suicide hotline (still answered live).

One of his favorite clients routinely called Sam himself – not exclusively for financial advice – but for reassurance. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he often counseled and encouraged her.

But when he was the one suffering, he didn’t reach out. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask.

He entered that dark tunnel where he somehow genuinely believed that we would be better off without him. He took his own life and left us with a paradox: Either we would founder and fall apart and fail, because we couldn’t survive without him, thus proving him wrong; or, we would find a way to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and build new dreams, demonstrating that we did not need him and therefore proving him right. It is crazy-making logic at its worst.

We choose to believe that we honor Sam’s life best by living our own with integrity, love, joy and hope. We live with the paradox.

So, if you want to know how to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened, I do know a thing or two about that. It starts with a single day, a time devoted to healing and radical self-care. A sacred space designated for intentional breathing, contemplation and snacks. It starts with Tuesday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And Tuesday’s peace.

What (Not) to Say

I choose to believe that most of the time, people are well-intended when they say things out loud. They don’t necessarily mean to say something stupid and hurtful. People (myself included) just don’t know what to say in the wake of death, sorrow and loss. Naturally, people feel this urge to say something over saying nothing. So they open wide, and in what is an attempt to inspire me to feel better after my husband’s death, out comes something like this: “You can never replace a parent or a child, but people routinely replace a spouse.”

As if I should just run to Costco, pick out another ready made husband right off the shelf, and wash my hands of this ugly grieving business.

While legalistically true, the statement remains oversimplified and emotionally wrong. Maybe it was intended as a variation on the “there’s always somebody who has bigger problems that you do” theme. Perhaps it was meant to encourage me to smooth over my loss of a husband with the latest and greatest model, like the pretty new sweater I purchased after I accidentally shrunk my favorite wool one in the wash. The fact of the matter is that nobody can be replaced. It’s not so simple as checking a box, submitting the fee and moving on. This real life is messy and complicated and somehow beautiful in a way that’s nearly impossible to explain, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I hadn’t intended to replace my spouse. I kind of liked Sam and wanted him to stick around. We were family by choice, not by accident of birth, but does that make our relationship less valuable, less worthy of grieving? Spouses are supposed to stay together for life (life, meaning well into old age, and old age looking like that sweet couple shuffling slowly down the sidewalk holding hands). We were partners, lovers, confidantes, everything. We promised.

And then he died.

Everything we had built together now rested on my narrow shoulders. I was left holding the babies, who were by far the two best reasons for me to get up in the morning. So I did.

As a mother to grieving children, I cannot completely separate their suffering from my own. It’s true that I don’t know personally a loss of a parent, but my sons’ loss of a parent grieves me with each stage and graduation their deceased father misses. My heart aches for my step-sons as they grow and progress without their mom, even as my same heart swells with gratitude for these young men and pride in their accomplishments. If I do my job right, and the children do theirs, my boys will leave me and create lives of their own, maybe even with a partner he chooses (and who chooses him), if they are so blessed.

As a daughter-in-law, my in-laws’ loss of a child is never far from my heart, especially when we plan holiday celebrations. Again, it is not my loss, but there’s a tenderness and awareness for that particular ache. I hold an insider’s seat watching my father-in-law go from desperately losing his own will to live to embracing the life and family and love that is present for him. He teases my husband Tim (his son-in-law-in-law?) if we do not have his favorite beer at family gatherings, and my Tim drives across town to pick up my in-laws to bring them to brunch. No, it doesn’t replace the father-son relationship, but it is something special. There’s love enough for both.

My son once explained to me that the adage “blood is thicker than water” actually derives from the military context, in which the soldiers (blood brothers) who fight together form a closer bond even than twins who share the same womb (water brothers). I am grateful that he appreciates the varied forms that love presents to us. Because in the end, does it really matter? Whether the family we choose or our family of origin, we are bonded together with love.

The comparative loss paradigm is a subtle snare that diverts us from a healing path. Nobody wins the competitive suffering competition. It doesn’t make sense to me that the loss of a 5 year marriage is by definition less meaningful than the loss of a 50 year marriage, any more than it makes sense to tell a mother that the death of her 5 year-old child should be less excruciating than the death of her 50 year-old child. We could let the individual nature of our losses divide us, or we could instead let love unite us. In the words of Francis Weller, “We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

And so, we hold other’s hands, we meet for coffee or a walk, we laugh and cry.

I appreciate that people want to say something, something that will be helpful and kind, something inspirational, something that might reduce the pain. I get that the silence is heavy and scary and painful. I understand that our culture is incredibly uncomfortable with grieving and sadness. And that the future is frustratingly opaque. I wish – way back then – that I had known to say something like this, Here’s the deal. You try this: You do not have to say anything; it’s okay to sit with me silently. Please don’t try to talk me out of how agonizing grief is; let my pain be; just sit with it, with me. And I’ll try this: I will forgive you if you say something hurtful in an attempt to be helpful; I will listen to your heart when you cannot tolerate my tears or silence any longer, and I will ignore your words in an effort to hear what your heart is saying: I love you, I’m here, and I don’t know what to say.

***

In a way, my friend was right, in the sense that she hoped I would find love and joy again. Eight years later, in fact, I am happily married.

It might seem incongruous that I am still talking about grief and loss and healing and hope and light. I guess that’s just how big love is. It’s not defined by time or space, or what it looks like on the surface, and the whole crazy mess is an integral part of who I am and how I got here. It’s not as though you can simply delete the past, even if you want to. Just yesterday, I received a letter for Sam from the County Assessor’s Office. Evidently, they are lagging behind in their record-keeping. Nearly every day, I drive home from the office via the intersection where Sam jumped to his death. And yes, I think of him. Every time. Sometimes, it is with joy and gratitude, occasionally with anger or sadness, often with a smile and prayers for peace – for Sam, for our family, for those in the human family struggling with depression and despair. It’s just part of my route, my routine.

None of this negates how crazy head-over-heels in love I am with my Tim.

I did not replace Sam with Tim, and he did not replace Debbie with me. We have our own relationship, and we do not love each other less for the journey. The resurrected life expands to hold the whole of love and loss and pain and joy. On the one hand, I will always love Sam and never quite get over the heartbreak of his suicide, and on the other hand, my Tim is a gift and a light in my life that I adore. As Kate Braestrup says, “I can’t make those two realities – what I’ve lost and what I’ve found – fit together in some tidy pattern of divine causality. I just have to hold them on the one hand and on the other, just like that.” Which is exactly what it’s like.

The other day, Tim and I were sitting at lunch, and something about us caught the attention of the woman at an adjacent table. She kept looking over at us. Eventually, she leans toward me and says, “You look like somebody.” Julie Christie? I offer. (When I was waiting tables in college, one of the regulars called me Julie because he thought the resemblance was so strong.) “No.” Pause. Then she says, “You look so happy together. There’s a light about a woman whose husband truly loves her. How long have you been married?” Five years, I say.

I often feel compelled to explain that the two of us were widowed, because “five years” doesn’t come close to containing our relationship. Maybe because we look our age, complete with wrinkles and more than a few gray hairs. Maybe because our children are much older than the years of our marriage. So I told her the short story of Charlotte and Tim: we were both widowed, with two sons each, and then we met, fell in love, married and blended our family. Margaret smiles. “Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve made my day. You are a beautiful love story.”

Which might also be why I keep talking about love and loss and life and hope. Because love is a beautiful story.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And silence. And love stories.

***

Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (2015).

Kate Braestrup, Here if You Need Me (2007).