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.

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).

Recalcitrance

A new day, a new beginning, a new year …

I’d like to say that I’m looking forward to all that 2016 will bring, but to be completely honest, what I’m feeling is more like trepidation and less like excitement. I would say that I’m looking forward to the blessings that 2016 will bring, but only if I could stipulate that those blessings should be ones I recognize as such, like happy and healthy children, peace and prosperity. No blessings in disguise, if You don’t mind. I would like to open my arms and heart wide to welcome the New Year, but I’m reluctant, more like a bouncer, arms crossed and scowling at the riffraff. Except that I’m too slight to intimidate any riffraff.

It could be that I’m still up to my eyeballs in Christmas crap. Decorating for the holidays can feel so festive, but dismantling all those Santas and snowflakes is a chore, even if also a relief. Maybe I’m just recovering from all the recent quality time with family. Or suffering from the self-imposed post-holiday Betty Ford rinse cycle.

I’m acutely aware of the range that a year can bring – incredible joy and unspeakable pain – and I’m bracing myself. I don’t get to choose my favorites, like I do with the assorted box of See’s candies, carefully selecting the marzipan or dark almonds and avoiding toffee, Bordeaux or anything covered in milk chocolate. I’d like to open the door to the New Year just a sliver, enough to make sure I like what I see in my future with time to slam the door closed if I don’t.

Too bad life doesn’t work that way.

Then again, I’m on a path I most definitely would not have chosen, and here I am, living a life full of joy, faith and passion. Along with a few oddball pets and a mountain of stinky athletic socks.

It’s a little nutty, this life.

I try my standard places for inspiration: I read, I run, I bake, I text my girlfriends. I treat myself to sushi for lunch. Nope. Still not feeling ready to face the day, let alone the year.

I go to church, hand in hand with the love of my life. We sit. We pray. We listen. The priest is talking about the Holy Family and making the point that what makes the family holy is not its perfection, because even the Holy Family isn’t perfect. Which is a huge relief, in light of the fact that this particular imperfect mother has left her imperfect children home to sleep while she and her imperfect husband sneak off to an imperfect church for a few moments of relative peace (without the relatives). Even the Holy Family suffered their share of disappointments, disapproval and one especially cold but memorable night in a barn.

No, the priest continues, what makes a family holy is the willingness to respond to God’s call. To say yes when He asks. Which seems easy enough in theory, but He rarely seems to ask for anything simple. He usually dishes out something new, or complicated, or non-traditional. It’s hardly ever popular. He has this way of setting us on a path that we didn’t expect and maybe don’t want. Even if Joseph didn’t audibly express any doubt about where this unexpected pregnancy would lead, I imagine he must have at least raised an eyebrow when the angel wasn’t looking. I’m just saying. That kind of yes is a big ask.

Sometimes we don’t get much of a choice.

Tim and I were both widowed in 2007 (Debbie from cancer / Sam by suicide), and each of us vowed never to live through that again. I did not want to open my heart – or my children’s hearts – to that vulnerable place, love. Tim and I met the following year, introduced by a mutual friend. Naturally, we fell in love. Humble pie is one of God’s favorite entrees.

We married and blended our family of four sons, two rotten cats and a little black dog. Then we added an “ours” puppy. We have all eight of our parents and in-laws. In our years together, we’ve celebrated two 50th wedding anniversaries for our collective parents (with plans for one more in June and a 60th wedding anniversary in the spring), three 8th grade promotions, two high school graduations and one college degree. We’ve held each other’s hands at several family funerals, suffered through the range of illnesses from garden variety flus to pneumonia to a significant concussion, and only one broken bone (but multiple x-rays and considerable experience with the local urgent care facilities). We are down to two teenagers, a defective hunting dog and one cat with a sock fetish at home. It’s not perfect or without struggles, but we are weathering life’s sunshine and storms together. We chose to respond to God’s invitation to love, and that yes makes our own little family holy.

In this season of resolutions, renewal and motivation, I am mindful that God will not love me more if I keep my weight down or get my salary up or pursue another degree. Or even if I say yes when He calls, but you have to know that I will be thinking about Jonah and that whale. In the interest of expedience, I will try to take a deep breath, bite the no that sits so naturally on the tip of my tongue, and say yes.

God doesn’t ask for perfection. He extends due dates and allows for do-overs. He appreciates laughter. He takes a little willingness and runs with it.

Sometimes the challenge is recognizing the ask when it happens. I’d like to think I’d say yes more readily to a winged messenger, bathed in light and accompanied by an angelic chorus. So far that hasn’t happened. The best I get is an atta girl after I’ve taken a few tentative steps in the right direction.

I spoke at a gathering of bereaved families over the holidays. This is the kind of activity that causes my husband and children to snicker and call me names like Grief Girl. I might not recommend that you depend on your immediate family for the confirmation that you’ve found your calling in life. As the event grew closer, I found myself becoming less enthusiastic about my participation. I was starting to regret my yes, but I really like the woman in charge of the program. So I took a deep breath, forced pen to paper, postponed a few holiday preparations, steadied myself with a prayer and a cup of coffee, wrapped myself in a favorite sweater and set off to the auditorium.

The program consists of music, candles, two speakers (including yours truly), a “Sharing of Names” and a video. And snacks, of course. I only know a handful of people in the room. Those in attendance range from young to old, inexperienced to credentialed, and none of that matters, because we are all heart-broken. It’s that simple. The Sharing of Names is a ritual where each person in attendance speaks the name of a loved one whose death they are grieving. Some speak through tears, some in shock from a recent death, some still reeling from a death decades ago. Cancer, murder, accident, suicide, old age, youth. These deaths are not anonymous, our loved ones have names and stories. We are a community of hearts who know love and its twin sister, loss. Grief is a powerful bond in its universality, and we find comfort in this safe space. I feel honored to be a part of this beautiful ceremony. But that’s not why I’m here.

As the participants continue sharing the names, I hear a name that I recognize, a unique name, a name I remember from a baby announcement about the same time I was sending out baby announcements myself. I do not want it to be true, but I cannot dare to believe that I misheard. It is, as I said, a distinctive name, belonging to the child of a dear friend whom I had lost connection with. That’s why I’m here. Thank goodness I said yes. My little yes covered a lot of territory in that hour.

Sometimes my inclination to say no is reinforced by my propensity to seek approval, because yes, the validation matters to me even though I know it shouldn’t.

The first time I met Debbie’s extended family was at a party celebrating an aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was no small affair; the uncle is one of thirteen children. Two of Debbie’s favorite uncles greeted me eagerly. One retired military and the other a former union leader, they were both big, intimidating men. They loved their niece, and even though they were broken-hearted over her death, they welcomed me with open hearts. They didn’t blame me or punish me. I didn’t ask to be widowed, and neither did Tim. The uncles were well aware of life’s mercurial nature. They had experienced enough of life’s unpredictability to know that fairness or fault did not necessarily factor into the system. They knew that family can be the most ardent proponent and the harshest critic. They knew that the best you can do is to live with integrity and love, because you won’t please everybody. They pushed Tim to the side, flanked me, and prepared to introduce me to the many siblings and cousins. One of the uncles leans down to me and growls into my ear, “Darlin’, some of the family won’t like it, but that’s tough shit.” And so we proceeded into the ballroom.

I think about those protective men, and I cannot help but grin. I start to believe that I could greet the New Year with a tiny, little, apprehensive yes, fortified by my guardian uncles and their tough shit attitude.

I leash up my trusty walking companion, and we open the door. I cannot accomplish the whole year at once, but I can get there one breath at a time, with Faith at one shoulder and Love at the other, and Joy waiting expectantly at my feet.

All right, 2016. I’m ready now. Let’s go.

***

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