Wintering

Suicide is the storm that knocked out our power, 
plunged us into darkness, 
blue-penciled our future. 
An impossible interruption
delivered by an unwelcome uniform. 

Friends and family arrive, 
and their light accentuates the devastation. 
Words fall like rain, 
streaming into the gutter and gushing down the storm drain,
too loud to make sense of.
Lightning flashes anger.
Questions snuff out candles of hope.

Well past blankets and hot cocoa,
we sit together in the stinging cold,
silently alarmed at the landscape of this life,
daring still to breathe
for who knows how long.

Some day we will pick up words like fallen branches,
carefully
shaving away the splinters
wondering what we might use to build
something.
But not today.

Today’s work is
to feel the black ache,
the powerlessness
the unrelenting fear
the seeming insignificance of love against such tumult
and to gather ourselves
gently
present anyway.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Especially during the storms.

There is help if you need it: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Ringtones

Most times when I call, the phone just rings and rings. There are no phones in the patients’ rooms on the memory ward. The line rings at the nurses’ station, and if they have time – between distributing meals and administering medications and the myriad other life-affirming tasks they do – an angel might pick up the phone and then walk it into my father-in-law’s room. I’m often on hold for 10 or 15 minutes before I hang up and try calling again. I might finish my morning coffee while I wait. 

On a good day, I speak to the operator only twice before I get through. Some days, after several conversations with the main switchboard, she gently suggests that I call back later. He’s on the East coast; he already has a three-hour head start, and as the day progresses, my father-in-law becomes increasingly disoriented. For him, time itself seems to take on an otherworldly quality, where present, past and future blur together. It’s better to talk to him in the morning. I hang up the phone and sigh.

On his 92nd birthday, I sat at the dining room table with the morning light filtering through the South-facing windows and my heart thumping anachronistically. It wasn’t so much that I was nervous to talk to him as it was that I worried that when I did get through, he would be more confused, less himself. I was afraid of losing him. He has been fathering me for 30 years – since I was 23 – and he’s the only dad I have left. 

Even if he didn’t know what day it was, I did. The nurse answered pleasantly, and there was a scratching sound and a muted voice as she handed him the receiver. I heard his breath against the receiver, like a young child waiting for the phone to speak, and I said hello.

“Charlotte!” he said. He sounded so happy to hear from me. 

I was relieved that he recognized my voice, that he still knew my name. “Happy Birthday!” I said.

He paused before asking, “What day is it?”

I told him.

“It’s my birthday!” he said, sounding as delighted as a child announcing the fact in a first-grade classroom. And we laughed together.

His spirits sounded good, even when he told me he didn’t know why he was in the hospital. “I feel fine, but they tell me I’m sick!” I could picture the way he turned his head and raised a bony shoulder into the shape of the question, wondering whether the entire hospital staff was one taco short of a combination plate.

We didn’t talk long. We never do. When my mother-in-law was alive, he often handed her the phone within moments of my calling, seemingly happy enough to know that I had called and yielding the rest of the time to his wife of over 60 years. 

He seemed to remember all of my children, his grandchildren, including the stepsons I added to the mix when I remarried 10 years ago, although he was having trouble keeping track of the girlfriend, the fiancée and the wife. When I told him he was going to be a great-grandfather, it didn’t quite compute. I never ask if he remembers Sam. His only son has been gone nearly 14 years, and while I know that love never forgets, I do not know how dementia might torment my father-in-law’s heart, how fresh the loss might feel, how utterly lost he might become. If there is any kindness in dementia, I hope that it softens the edges of my father-in-law’s grief. 

These days, he often reverts to the language of his young years, and I sometimes struggle to understand as he segues into Spanish. But mostly our conversations cover the same territory, so it doesn’t really matter which language we speak. He almost always tells me that my sister-in-law is coming to take him home that afternoon; his optimism is unflagging. It’s so sweet. And heartbreaking. It reminds me of another grandfather who, though blind, bedridden and wearing a flimsy cotton hospital gown at the time, leaned over to my then 15-year-old and asked him to “bust me out of this joint.” I almost wished I could hand them the car keys and see them off for one more adventure together.

Today might have been my 29th wedding anniversary, if Sam were still alive and all the other planets had aligned, and my kid who for years refused to say the words “dead” or “dad” now decides that he wants to go to the cemetery. The last time he visited was probably five years ago, and it was related to a school assignment; today it’s for reasons all his own. It’s hot and sunny, so I grab a broad-brimmed hat and off we go. When we arrive, he remarks that the grassy lawn that once appeared steep and expansive now seems a gentle green slope. I don’t think it’s only a matter of his physical growth; it looks smaller to me, too, and easily navigable.

We spend some time at Sam’s gravesite, and on the way home, we call Sam’s father from the car. Must be the luck of the grandchild, because we get through on the first try, and though his voice is soft and distant, my father-in-law sounds happy. He still knows who we are, and I am grateful. “Mi vida,” he calls my kid. My life. Which from a couple thousand miles away feels like a warm hug. 

Because I’m not quite ready for this weirdly magical anniversary afternoon to end, I suggest we get ice cream. And instead of tasting several different options like I usually do, I choose vanilla, just like Sam would have done. We sit on a bench in the shade with our cones, and my kid turns to me with blue eyes sparkling. I’m expecting another insightful comment, another display of his progress along grief’s path, but instead he grins and says, “You have ice cream on your hat.”

There have been times over the last 14 years when the black pain of loss felt hard and heavy. Days when no amount of sunshine or sugar lifted our spirits. But today is not one of those days. Today, love feels lighter than laughter.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And ice cream!

Movement

When the professor for my freshman English class took roll on the first day, she noticed two Robinsons, both from Pasadena, California, on her list. She peered at us over the podium and asked, in her charming southern drawl, “Brother and sister?”

Michael and I looked at each other for the first time. He was tall and handsome, dark skinned, intelligent brown eyes, and a wide bright smile that instantly made me like him. I, by contrast, could not be whiter, blonde, freckled, blue-eyed. As if by tacit agreement, we two smiled at each other and looked back at her. “Yes,” we said simultaneously.

For the next four years, Michael and I occasionally introduced each other as brother or sister with genuine affection. I wish that our siblinghood were closer to true, and I deeply regret that it has taken me too long to acknowledge how wide that societal divide is and how much work I am bound to do to address it. I am guilty of being silent too often, and I have not done enough. I have work to do. 

I haven’t posted much during this pandemic, partly because of overwhelm and overload, but also because I sense keenly my privilege at this moment. I cannot justify my grievances while there is real suffering in our country. I’ve got problems, but they pale in comparison. Pun intended.

At this moment, my country is asking me, “Brother and sister?” And my answer is an emphatic YES.

I will assuredly make more mistakes as I stumble forward in the terrain of racial justice, but I will move forward. I am committed to learning more, listening more, and doing more. My brother’s life depends on it.

***

If you are looking for information, context and perspective on this issue, here are a few resources to start with:

Listen

These podcasts are particularly instructive:

1619

White Lies

Code Switch

Read

Here are some quality nonfiction and fiction titles that are well worth the time:

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams

Anything and everything by Maya Angelou

Watch

There are many films worth watching, including: 

13th

If Beale Street Could Talk

Follow

There are a lot of people doing compelling work. Here are a few:

Valerie Jarrett

Austin Channing Brown

Brené Brown

Donate and Vote

Please and thank you.

Light and Strength

Hello Tuesday People ~

I’m feeling like I should say something, but I’m not entirely sure what to say…

Like all of us, I’m trying to keep my wits about me in the ways that suit me. I’m taking the dog for a lot of long walks and I’m sitting down for quiet sits. Online yoga in my living room, or weather permitting, outside in the sunshine. I’m limiting my time on news and social media sites, and spending much of my time writing…. Writing grocery lists, writing love notes and mostly writing my manuscript.

What I want you to know is that I am deeply grateful for you, my Tuesday community, and that I am holding you in my heart. Know this, even if you don’t see much activity on my blog, that I am sending love and giant hugs your direction.

Here are some of the resources in which I am finding comfort in these crazy coronavirus days. Please feel free to share:

Staying Present: Elizabeth Gilbert’s 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique: You sit and notice 5 things you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 you can feel, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste. This practice brings you right into the moment. It’s especially yummy if you can do this lying on the grass in the sunshine. Dog optional, but recommended.

https://www.instagram.com/elizabeth_gilbert_writer/channel/

Meditation:

Tara Brach’s talks and guided meditations are terrific. She has several resources on her website, and you can subscribe to her podcast on iTunes or wherever you access your podcasts.

https://www.tarabrach.com

Good News:

If you haven’t already discovered Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, I recommend it. “The Sunday Paper is a free modern digital newsletter to inspire your heart and mind.” It does. Enjoy.

https://mariashriver.com/sundaypaper/

Poetry:

Of course, poetry! A salve for the head, the heart, the soul…

“Go to the Limits of Your Longing”  by Ranier Maria Rilke

(Book of Hours, I 59)

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

***

Light and strength to you all.
Love,love,love,

Charlotte

One Team

Sunday was a beautiful day for the Los Angeles Marathon. Perfect running weather: cool and breezy, partly cloudy, no chance of rain.

I watched the elite runners on the televised coverage. The twenty-year-old who pulled away in the last half mile to win the men’s race was a picture of lungs and legs and power. Pure and breathtaking. The human spirit in motion.

What you might not see in that moment is the 20-mile training runs. In the dark, in the heat, in pain. But you know they’re there. You don’t cross the finish line without them.

Once the elite runners completed their races, I got out of my jammies and headed to Santa Monica to cheer my runner on for the last mile. I found my place along the route near a grandmother and her grandson, also looking for their runner. The grandma cheers especially for the women. I assume she’s acknowledging International Women’s Day, but maybe it is just heartfelt encouragement from one woman to another. The path is not easy as a woman. Living while female is not for the faint of heart.

They say if you have lost your faith in humanity, run a marathon. The good news is that you don’t actually have to run. Just watch. Choose a spot anywhere along the route, but if you can, find a vantage point somewhere past mile 20. There are people of every age and ability, bodies of every size, shape and color. I see those who appear to be lifelong friends racing the last mile together, smiling. Complete strangers limp forward together. Everybody cheers for everyone else. People run for all kinds of reasons, and many of those reasons are displayed in brightly colored shirts bearing slogans and acronyms. Even though I don’t know a single spectator along the route, and really only a few running the course, I am inspired. It displays our essential interconnectedness and our shared humanity. A reminder that everyone you see is running for the same team.

Eventually, the man that grandma and grandson have been waiting for runs toward us. “Run, Daddy!” the little boy shouts. His father answers, “I love you, buddy!” I am taken aback, because his voice and intonation sound uncannily like Sam’s. It reminds me of how Sam used to greet our little boys. I can hear the echoes of Sam saying the same thing to my boys — now young men — I love you, buddy!  I wish they could hear him now.

“I love you, Daddy!” the chirpy young voice replies.

“I love you, buddy!” He stops running long enough to lift his little one into the air with a celebratory hug, even though there’s another mile to go.

This is the moment I notice that the charity displayed on the man’s shirt is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I’m grateful for sunglasses that hide tears. I ran my one and only half-marathon as a fundraiser for AFSP in honor of Sam. I wonder who this man might be running to honor… his own father? A dear friend? The little boy’s mother?

“I love you, buddy!” he says again as he lowers his boy gently and heads toward the finish line.

I turn my attention back toward the runners, still in the race, moving forward, one foot and then the next, at all paces, toward a common destination, until I see my runner. The love of my life greets me with a smile, stops for a hug and a kiss and then continues toward his goal. I turn down the block and race up a sidestreet to meet him at the finish line.

Most weekday afternoons, I see a young man walking together with his caregiver. He appears to be in his teens, tall and gawky, like many teens are. The young man wears a fluorescent yellow vest with black lettering: AUTISTIC. PLEASE BE KIND. I sometimes imagine all of us wearing the same team jersey with one message: LIFE IS HARD. PLEASE BE KIND.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And please, be kind.

Birthday 2020

Maybe I’m used to missing Sam on his birthday. I’ve been missing him for the last thirteen years. But I’m not used to missing his mother. For eleven of those years, I talked to Sam’s mother on his birthday, and it is not the same without her. Today, I miss her.

This is what my grief looks like. It’s the pang of not being able to call my mother-in-law, not hearing her laugh, not repeating myself – loudly and slowly – in as much Spanish as I can bludgeon with my American accent. It’s the pain of not hearing her tell me how proud she is of me and all four of my sons, how proud Sammy would be. It’s the silence of not hearing her say – in English and in Spanish – that she loves me.

I believe that the work of therapy – and make no mistake, it is work – is to become an expert in my own grief, to notice the places where it hurts, to change what doesn’t serve me, to honor the beautiful, tender, vulnerable places in my heart. To honor the glitchy grouchy wounded places, too. To put some distance between me and the habits that are not in my best interests. To let go of the things – and regrettably, there are entirely too many – that I cannot control. And then to let go of the resentment surrounding the fact that I would make a much better plan than Whoever-Is-In-Control-Of-Planning (or whoever is asleep at the wheel) or whatever. To nurture, with kindness and courage, the budding new skills and perspective. To be patient with the fact that some days demand chips and salsa for dinner. Or ice cream. I go straight to the freezer; I do not stop at the farmer’s market. I will eat kale another day.

Today requires dark chocolate and a glass of something red and bold. Any greens will be in the form of mint or pistachio ice cream. Or possibly guacamole to go with the salsa.

I will draw my grief a hot bath, or take her for a long walk, or put her to bed early. Or all of the above. We will settle into our cadence of grief: inhale, exhale, repeat. I will remind myself that grief is the price we pay for loving wholeheartedly, and just because I pay the price willingly does not mean it doesn’t hurt. It does.

I will bring out a favorite picture, a portrait in black and white, from when my mother-in-law was newly engaged to my father-in-law. She’s a beauty.

I will think about the times she introduced me as her daughter, “the blondie,” even though I’m more gray than blonde these days. I will remember the day the family sat around the table chatting after brunch and the ensuing nipple-piercing conversation with abuela that sent all the men reeling and running from the room. Abuela and the rest of us girls dissolved into laughter, the kind of laughter that echoes through the house and sends tears rolling down our cheeks even years later.

The grief comes and goes in waves, and the love remains. It takes a winding way, but I find my way home to the love. Always, the love.

***

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