Her Name is Yvette

Her name is Yvette. My cancer-fighting, morning-walk-smiling friend whom I haven’t seen for weeks now. I worry about her when I don’t see her regularly, which I haven’t now for several weeks, and it takes me a second to register that it is Yvette, because when we cross paths she’s usually on a certain side of the street. Today, she’s on the opposite side of the street from where I expect to find her, and I’m so happy to see her that I dart across the street where she offers a giant hug. She tells me that she has what her doctors call “chronic cancer,” and that her current regimen of chemotherapy keeps it in check but doesn’t cure it. She laughs and nods with her knitted-cap-covered head, “I don’t think my hair will ever grow again,” and abruptly changes course, “but really, I’ve been worried about you!”

Her generosity moves me. Yvette might not know what I am carrying in my heart or on my daily walk, but she knows that in this life, all of us are handed losses. We lose – often more than we win – but the trick is to stay in the game. And if you find a friend along the way, win or lose, it’s a good day. My heart is lifted by her presence, by the knowledge that she is looking out for me, just as I am looking out for her.

***

Next I see Kathy. I don’t really know her either, but what I do know is this: her beautiful black standard poodle is a rescue whose history includes abuse. His previous owners called him Diablo. Whenever we see each other out with our respective dogs, which is about once or twice a week, one of us crosses to the opposite side of the street to give the dog-formerly-known-as-Diablo his space. We wave and smile and keep moving.

But I almost don’t recognize her with the black lab. It’s her son’s dog, she explains. Then she tells me that just a few days prior she had had to euthanize her beloved black poodle. Totally unexpected. Completely heartbreaking. Within a few hours after that she received more news: her daughter-in-law was going into labor, and by morning she had delivered a healthy baby boy. Overwhelming joy. Devastating loss and utter bliss in the space of a few hours. The one has nothing to do with the other; both have everything to do with the human capacity for love.

***

On the final hill, I spot a lucky penny. It is scratched and dented and bent and rough. It has been through the penny wringer. Probably twice. The sorriest looking talisman I’ve seen in a long time. Even so, it makes me smile, reminding me that inspiration comes from the unexpected and unlikely. I pick the penny up and tuck it safely into a pocket.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends to keep you going.

Intentional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m excited and intimidated.

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

***

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

I Want You to Know

Here’s what I want you to know about my husband’s suicide:

I didn’t see it coming. In retrospect, I can read some of the signs differently, but at the time I did not know he was so close to the edge.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his parents’ fault, or his kids’ fault, or his cousins’, or his sister’s or his friends’ fault. It wasn’t his doctor’s fault, or his boss’s fault or any of his colleagues’ or clients’. It wasn’t entirely Sam’s fault. It just was, and I cannot explain the why of it any more than anyone can explain why some people develop cancer or multiple sclerosis and others don’t.

It wasn’t for lack of love. His death is not a reflection on our capacity to love him. Or his capacity to love us.

Sam was not bi-polar. He was not diagnosed with any mental illness. He was not in any sort of treatment or taking any medications. He had a prescription for Vicodin for his back pain after multiple surgeries, but he refused to take it.

I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived. Whether our marriage would have remained intact, whether he would have been hit by the proverbial bus or an actual one, whether he would have survived another back surgery, whether we would have gone to family camp for another twenty years, whether we would have moved to Colorado or Canada, whether circumstances might have pushed the boundaries of our patience in ways we hadn’t yet been tested, or whether we would have lived happily ever after until death did us part when we were in our 90’s surrounded by our children and grandchildren. Or whether that last scenario might just be a story I read once upon a time.

I will never know exactly what happened and every why detail. The not-knowing is part of the deal. I know this now.

 

Here’s what I want his children to know about their father’s suicide:

You were the greatest gift of your father’s life. You were his joy, his light, his inspiration. This does not mean it was your job to save him. Your role then – as it is now – is to be yourself. Be your funny, spirited, smart, wonderful, glitchy, imperfect self. His death cannot take you away from you.

Your father loved you with all of his heart. His death is not the end his love for you.

He would never have left you willingly. Not in a million years. I know it looks like he chose to leave, but I promise you with every ounce of my being that if he was in his right mind, he would not have left you. No way. The only way I can reconcile the fact that he took his own life with how much he adored you is that he must have been gravely ill. Somehow in the warped operation of his mind, he was convinced that you were better off without him. This makes no logical sense. I hope that, as you navigate the course of your own life, you will be able to come to terms with this paradox.

You are not destined to repeat your father’s path. Be alert. Suicide and depression run in families, but they do not own you. Know yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Trust that you have resources and agency.

You didn’t deserve for your father to die. Life is not about what we deserve. Do your best to let go of life’s injustices and to hold on to moments of grace.

On the night your father died, I sat with each of you tucked under my arms. You were small enough then that the three of us fit in one armchair. I told you something that is as true now as it was then: Your father’s love for you will always be with you. Always. Forever.

 

Here’s what I want Sam to know about his suicide:

Your death caused us more pain than you could possibly have imagined. We forgive you and love you anyway.

To be unnervingly honest, I do have several friends who have no intention of forgiving you. I’ll just say that when they get to heaven, you’d better get ready to run.

You must have been experiencing more pain that we could possibly have imagined. We hope you forgive us and love us still.

The little baseball team you coached was devastated at your death – not because of your academic or professional accomplishments, not because you were the greatest baseball player or coach, not because you were somebody’s daddy, but simply because you were a kind man who cared enough to spend time with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every Saturday afternoon. I want you to know that your goodness is what we hold on to.

We are creating lives that would make you proud. We live with joy and passion and faith and integrity. We laugh and sing and run and play. We shout and swear and sweat. We have traveled to places you never got to go, and I’ve let the kids go places you might not have wanted them to visit. For the record, they loved it. We had your favorite comfort food for dinner last night, turkey meatloaf with garlic green beans and spaetzle with parmesan. We raise a glass to you on your birthday, your deathaversary, on holidays and random days. Sometimes it really irritates me that you believed that we could live full lives without you, but more often I am grateful.

I fell in love. I didn’t think I would ever do that again. He is handsome and kind and funny. He loves me, and he loves our sons as his own. Tim was also widowed, and he has two sons whom I love with my whole heart. We have created a family together, and I cannot find the words to explain how beautiful this life is.

I want you to know that we are happy.

***

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

Psalms For Us

Sometimes I start my prayers for my children by looking toward the heavens (or their now-deceased mother and father, which, I believe, is the same general direction) and shouting, “Don’t blame me, they’re your children!” I think this approach is based in sound theology, an awareness that the boys are children of the universe, beloved, intended, gifted. As both a child and a parent myself, I find this perspective inordinately comforting, that is, when I’m not infuriated by the fact that I am not in charge. Honestly, there are a lot of things that I would do differently in this half-baked, overcharged world, but I cannot swaddle my children in bubble-wrap and keep them securely on the sofa. No doubt my sons are grateful for this fact, but when I am powerless to keep them safe from, nuclear holocaust, weather, dread illness or their own misguided decision-making, the only thing that helps me keep a semblance of sanity is to trust them to a higher divinity.

I realize this approach sounds bonkers.

I accomplish excessively nothing with my ranting, my research and my own resilience. I might as well just sit down. So I do. Which, as it turns out, helps a great deal. Breathing slowly and intentionally, I quiet my inner crazy.

It’s not entirely unorthodox. King David appears to have prayed the same way. First, a raging storm, the desperate fear, the raised fist, the crippling arrogance. Then, the folded hands, and the receptive, grateful heart.

 

Selections from Psalm 139

[As rendered and annotated by an Ordinary Mom]

Oh Lord, You have searched [my son] and You know [him].

Dude! I cannot figure this kid out – what inspires him, what he’s about, why on earth he does the things he does – but you know him inside and out. The child makes no sense to me, but it gives me great comfort to know that You understand him. You don’t have to explain him to me. Anyway, it’s probably best that I don’t know. But if You could just make sure he knows that You understand him, I would be grateful. Make sure he has a place where he fits, that he feels loved, seen, held and safe, that he has a home in the world. Give him the confidence that comes from knowing he belongs.

You know when [he sits] and when [he stands]; You understand [his] thoughts from afar.

It’s definitely best that I not know.

[His] journey and [his] rest You scrutinize; with all [his] ways You are familiar.

Look out for the boy. He’s setting out on his own path. Thank goodness You are with him, especially now that he has left home, but I sure miss him something crazy. I worry about him constantly, even though I’m not peppering him with questions and text messages. I hope he knows where he’s going. I hope he gets enough rest. I hope he eats well. Throw some vegetables in his path for me, please. I hope You’re whispering in his ear.

He can leave and go away from home, but he is never away from Love, Yours and mine. Walk beside him on his day. You know who he is and the young man his is becoming.

Even before a word is on [his] tongue, behold O Lord, you know the whole of it.

The things he says – OMG – I realize he doesn’t intend to say anything irretrievably mean, or worse, unabashedly stupid, but help him to explain his ideas fully. Show him context. Teach him to be a good listener; maybe he could learn to swallow the wayward word on his tongue before it escapes. Or at least teach him to pause.

Teach me, too.

Behind [him] and before, You hem [him] in, and rest Your hand upon [him]. Such knowledge is too wonderful for [him]; too lofty for [him] to attain.

You advocate for him. You pay attention to his needs. You listen. Your presence is a guiding constant in his life. He doesn’t know how wonderful it is that you protect him on every side – emotionally, physically, mentally – but I do. Thank you.

For it was You who formed [his] inward parts, You knit [him] together in [his] mother’s womb.

When he was so small, a baby, still in utero, I could wrap my arms around him and almost believe that I could keep him safe, that I could create a healthier baby by eating well, and breathing clean air and reading to him, singing him to sleep, rocking him gently. But this child was never really about me and my procreative prowess. I am grateful for the privilege of mothering him, but he belongs to You. He was always Yours. He still is.

I am, too.

[He praises] You, for [he is] fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works; that [he knows] very well.

His life is a testament to You. His goodness and kindness in all their forms, as class clown, athlete, confidante, show Your dedication to his well-being. When he smiles, You smile. He knows his self worth as Your child, beloved, intended and gifted.

I do, too.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And peace in your heart.

Hey SushiTuesdays Lovers

It has come to my attention that every now and again, some of you might have a question or a comment that you’d like to send my way without posting it in front of the entire (virtual) world. I hear you. Feel free to send such notes to charlotte@sushituesdays.com, and I will get the message.

Here’s another something new: As heard on KCBS, this spotlight aired a few weeks ago featuring yours truly. I am grateful to Jeff Bell and the Adversity2Advocacy Alliance for making this happen.

And a final word. My English major friends and I used to be amused by “Dear Reader” notes from the author. Truth be told, we mocked them mercilessly. That’s what we found amusing. We were too young to know how startling and humbling it is to have a readership. So here I am, writing one myself. To you, dear reader: Please know that I am grateful for you, for your thoughtfulness, your engagement, your generous hearts, your broken hearts, your healing hearts, your listening hearts. From my heart, thank you!

Love & Light,

Charlotte

Family Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

 

We Who Live

“Suicide survivor” is such a dumb term, but I haven’t thought of a better one yet. “Suicide survivor” sounds to me like someone who tried (and failed) to complete a suicide, but that’s not what it means. The term suicide-attempt survivor applies to the scenario of someone who survives his or her own attempted suicide. By contrast, I am a suicide survivor, meaning that I have survived my husband’s suicide.

I’m not sure one ever reaches a point where she has “survived” her husband’s suicide. Done. Check. Finished. Love doesn’t work that way. Loss doesn’t work that way. It’s not over. It evolves with me. I will not get over it. I incorporate it. I integrate it. I still – yes, ten years after the fact – talk about Sam and his suicide. I learn to live with it, but it’s not that I simply subsist in a state of melancholy. I find meaning and love and joy. I live my life with passion and integrity and gratitude and laughter and intention and momentum and a full home and an even fuller heart. None of which cancels out Sam’s death. None of which precludes the sporadic incidence of crippling fear and heart-stopping anxiety. Loss and love and joy exist together. A big, beautiful mess of a life. That’s what it’s like.

Let me be clear on the issue of being widowed: All the ways to widow suck. There is no better or worse here. There is only bad. Period.

I still receive mail and even the occasional phone call for Sam, usually telemarketers, but also our local frozen yogurt joint letting Sam know that his favorite peanut butter fudge will be featured this week. Some days this irritates me; some days it amuses me; some days it reduces me to tears. His photographs are in albums, in frames on the piano and displayed prominently on the family room wall. His handwriting appears on a random post-it note, an old anniversary card and inside the front cover of a book. I introduce Sam’s cousins as mine, not only because it is easier than explaining the relationship, but after all we’ve been through together, I’ve simply commandeered them as my own. “Cousin,” for the record, is a word that I love. There’s no confusion about cousins. Everybody knows that a “cousin” might be a blood relative or might be that person (regardless of relation) who shows up at all the critical moments with a glass of champagne or a hug or both. The one who knows exactly what to say or when to sit silently. The one you count on. Now I even call Sam’s mother and father mine, because they have been parenting me for twenty-seven years. Some days this annoys me; some days it makes me laugh; some days their constant love humbles me to the point of tears.

I think about Sam every day – in phrases I hear that he would have said or that he would have found amusing, in restaurants he enjoyed, in experiences we shared, when I happen into a classmate of ours at lunch on Lake Avenue, in moments I wish he could see for himself, especially when I look into the eyes of his sons, or watch them graduate, or laugh at the hilarious things they say, or hold them tight when they crash and when life has disappointed them again. His children are suicide survivors, too.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But then it was.

Somehow this man I had known and loved for seventeen years lost his way. Somehow he left me, his children, his mind and a note behind on that clear, fall Saturday afternoon, in an effort to end whatever emotional and physical pain he had been enduring. It was impossible to believe, but somehow it was true. The psychologists call this step in the process “radical acceptance,” meaning that you don’t have to condone the event, but you do have to accept it, which sounds abundantly reasonable and straightforward in theory. In practice, my first thoughts every morning for months were, This is not my life. This cannot be my life. This was not supposed to be my life.

I did not want Sam’s suicide to define our lives, but like the lightening bolt scar on Harry Potter’s forehead, Sam’s suicide has marked us in significant, permanent ways. Suicide is a complicated death; the ensuing recovery is likewise marked with an array of feelings, stigma and setbacks. In the balance somewhere between the crushing punches of abandonment, betrayal and death and the light-filled promises of presence, love and joy, we press our way forward. We aren’t done yet. We carry Sam’s legacy with us – his laughter, his intelligence, his warmth, as well as his fears, his flaws, his death. We carry him in his wholeness, as a husband, son and father, as a competent professional and as a man who struggled with crippling back pain and depression. We continue to heal. We persevere, we laugh, we thrive. We are a family who lives with joy and disappointment, and laughter and tears; we remember, we pray, we hope.

If “suicide survivor” means that Sam’s suicide didn’t kill me, then I guess the term is accurate, but I bristle at the limits set within the words themselves. I don’t want to be identified by the ways in which I’ve suffered (or the ways he did). It is true that his suicide was unimaginably hard to recover from, but “suicide survivor” puts too much emphasis on my widowhood and not enough opportunity for my post-widow-life. I do not want to be merely a survivor, I want to thrive. I want to be a warrior princess, an emissary for hope. I want to be named after an ancient goddess. I want a superpower and a cute outfit, but “Wonder Widow” gives an altogether wrong impression. I do not mean to understate the gravity of Sam’s death. I do not want to imply that his death was somehow a gift. His life was the gift. Life and death are intertwined, of course, but suicide is unbearably confusing. If Sam had somehow accidentally fallen off the parking structure, or perhaps suffered a fatal heart attack from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect while he was picking up trash at the park after the kid’s soccer game, or died in a fatal car accident en route downtown to volunteer to feed the homeless, we might have experienced less shame, but the loss would still have been unfathomably painful. Somehow he thought we could live without him, and I resented his confidence. Somehow, we did, and I drew strength from his faith in us. That he could leave us both infuriated and comforted was one of the conundrums we have learned to live with.

“Suicide survivor” does not begin to speak to the full range of my experience. Then again, neither does the more familiar word “widow.”

When Pandora came to earth as a mortal, she was given a jar, but she was not told its contents. When she opened the lid, as any self-respecting, curious, intelligent woman would do, a tumult of evils – death, pain, selfishness, neglect, illiteracy, perimenopause, exclusivity, narcissism, cancer, gossip, fear, poverty, pride, insanity – quickly flies out to afflict mankind, each wielding its own unique brand of ugly, but a single blessing remains in the jar: hope. Her name is Elpis.

Too bad “Princess Elpis” sounds like a total drip.

Hope seems so small a power against everything evil, her small, pale, yellow self sitting humbly at the bottom of the jar, too slow to fly off with all the nasties on their worldwide adventures, her gossamer wings still folded neatly at her sides. She speaks softly but confidently, I’m here. I’m with you. I will not leave your side.

She seems a singularly unremarkable force against so formidable a foe.

When Sam completed his death, he unleashed all manner of horribles. Doubt, shame, shock, blame, fear, abandonment, suffering, sorrow, listlessness, confusion, loss, guilt, rage, regret, isolation, swirled around me and my sons and our extended family and friends with a fervor that left us breathless. Hope seemed fanciful and ineffectual in the face of so much pain, a total myth. And yet… she was relentless with her loving presence.

Despite the overwhelming darkness, light did shine.

Friends showed up on my doorstep with tears in their eyes and gallons of ice cream in their hands. Telephone calls, note cards, emails all arrived with messages of love, love for me, love for my children, love for Sam. Even on my darkest days, I had something to be grateful for. I had two reasons to get up and going every morning. I survived. I was determined that my sons would go on to have lives filled with love and joy and faith, but this would require that I likewise continue to build a life with more love and more joy and more faith. I moved from breath to breath. Within the terrifying silence, I began to hear a soft heartbeat and a voice I recognized: I am here. I am strong. This is my life.

If you had told me ten years ago that Sam would end his life on a clear blue October afternoon, leaving me and our two young sons, I would have told you that you should really stop smoking whatever you were smoking. If you had continued predicting my future, insisting that I would later fall in love with a handsome widower and open my heart to his two teenage sons, that we would get married, blend together a family with our four sons, two cats and a dog, and add an “ours” puppy to the mix, I would have told you that you should really share whatever you were smoking.

That was never going to happen. But then it did.

Finding my way after Sam’s suicide was not something I ever anticipated having to do. It was harder than I could have imagined, but my life is also more blessed and meaningful than I could have dared to dream. I am not merely surviving; I am living a full and beautiful life.

There is, I should note, one aspect of the term “suicide survivor” that appeals to me. There is a whole community of beloved souls who call themselves suicide survivors: parents, children, spouses, siblings, friends and partners who have lost a loved one in this terrible way and who continue to find light in their lives. The loss might have introduced us to each other, but it is the love that unites us, a shared faith that death cannot extinguish the light of those we love, a mutual hope another’s suicide will not overshadow our own lives. This community embodies the untold possibilities for those who continue to live whole-heartedly.

I haven’t yet come up with a better term than “suicide survivor”, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, I will say this: I am a suicide survivor.

***

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

Love’s Impulse

Sometimes I think my dog’s approach to stress-inducing situations – loose Samoyeds, renegade lizards sunning themselves on the front porch, live broadcasts – is the only reasonable response to the crazy in this world. He stands there, shaking and drooling, refusing either to engage or to ignore.

In recent weeks, I have felt increasingly like Steve Martin in the opening sequence of the movie Roxanne. He’s jauntily walking down the street, eager to begin his morning. He reaches into his pocket to pull out a quarter to put into the newspaper vending machine. He pulls out one copy of the paper and continues his cheerful gait for about six steps. As the morning edition’s headline starts to sink in, he slows. He stops. Panicking, he flails his way back to the vending machine, playing a version of hot potato with the Times, reaches into his pocket for another quarter, stuffs the newspaper back into the vending machine and quickly closes the lid. Deep breath. Then he resumes his cheerful journey down the sidewalk. This scene resonates with me now more than ever. I cannot tolerate the front page of the paper. Or much of what’s on the inside. Not that I often get past Page One. Every day it seems to takes less time for me to rush the paper to the recycling bin.

I want to be informed. I really do. I want to be open-minded. I really do. I cannot stand the level of hateful, inflammatory, vindictive conduct and the divisive commentary. I just can’t. I wonder if I’m better off not knowing.

But then the truly horrifying events happen, discrimination in its ugliest forms, rapidly increasing climate change, political abuses of power that leave families stranded and hungry, an explosion aimed at children. It’s too much. The images leave us paralyzed. Fear’s intent is to immobilize us. What could we possibly do in the face of so much evil? The drooling and shaking begin.

The sorrowful night is solitary and cold.

Chaos swirls, and the overwhelming dark of evil and confusion takes over. It’s almost impossible to breathe. I wait. I sit. I cry and tremble. In the midst of paralyzing fear and frustration, there comes – briefly – a moment of stillness. Stillness, which is an altogether different experience than paralysis.

Sitting in the dark, the light slowly, confidently, begins to show its presence. I feel Love’s impulse. A moment of inspiration. A smile. A full breath. Fear loosens its grasp on my attention, and I notice that good is happening. People are moving together with one beating heart. I hear Love’s message to Her people: You are enough. Peace begins small, quiet and soft in safe, secluded places and grows in strength. Fear no longer stops me in my tracks, even if it forces a cosmic pause, and I continue forward with joy and purpose. Hope lights up a single cloud in the blue early morning sky, and it is enough to propel me into the morning.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. You are enough.