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.

We Begin Again

Mom

The so-called little one. I can hear the anguish in his voice a thousand miles away through the one word text message. It’s a terrible thing to lose a hero, especially when they’re so young. Or we are. Or ever, really.

Whether that hero is an icon or a parent, a son or a daughter. We ground our hopes in their vitality and curiosity and tenacity, and through them find our own. But what to do when they are gone?

Kobe died in a helicopter crash.

We feel the loss keenly, the way it reverberates on the heartstrings of our own losses.

Kobe was 41; my husband was 41 when he died.

He died on January 26th; my dear father-in-law died on the same date a few years ago.

His daughter, too; it’s impossibly sad.

I think about a blue-sky day, not long ago. I was out walking my dog when I saw my neighbor walking their dog. A neighbor, and also a friend. Our families have coordinated carpool, celebrated graduations and bar mitzvahs, shared meals and concert tickets.

I cross the street to greet him, and he looks gaunt and pale, almost gray. My stomach clenches, prepared – not prepared, braced – for imminent bad news. I can almost hear the words “I have cancer” before he says them, but what he says is unimaginable. “My son is dead,” and suddenly I understand that this is not a dad with a terminal illness, it is a father in grief, in shock. There are not enough words for this kind of pain. His son was traveling abroad; he was supposed to return home to begin his junior year in college. Catastrophe is not how the story was supposed to go.

There is no way to make sense of this. I have so many questions I do not ask. It won’t make any difference; no answer will bring the boy back.

I have no words. There are no words. Only palpable pain and silence.

I do not want to offer the platitudes I myself had been served. But I probably offer up different ones. Maybe not. I can only hope.

I give him a hug.

“I have no words,” I say.

“There are no words,” he says. And we look at each other for a long moment, until his dog wags her tail and puts her paws up for attention. He smiles wanly, and says “What is there left to do but walk the dog?”

Indeed. There is nothing to say or do, only that I am glad that he told me himself. There is something about the communal breaking of hearts that softens the suffering, if only slightly. And the walking of dogs.

Almost immediately I think of an overcast day a few months earlier, when I met up with a friend whose teenaged son had fallen to his death in a crazy, tragic accident. As I held her she sobbed and said, “How can people walk their dogs?”

Indeed. Normalcy has no place in a world that has been tilted off its axis by so great a loss.

Take care of yourselves, Tuesday people. Walk the dog. Or not.

Inhale, exhale, repeat.

Notice where it hurts.

Shoot baskets until your arms ache.

Shout, cry or talk. Or don’t.

Write. Write a song. Or a poem. Or gibberish. It all counts.

Pray. Or not. Tell God to take Her own flying leap.

Sit and stare vacantly at silent green stems for however long it takes the daffodils to open.

Feed yourself with something good and spicy or sweet and life sustaining. Or both. You are here. You are loved.

Today begins again the healing process. I leash up the dog, who is an enthusiastic partner for the journey, and we spend an hour moving along in companionable silence. We stop to smell the paperwhites, now open, that we’ve been watching for a week. As we are nearing home, I see a woman up ahead on the road. I’ve only seen her once before — two miles ago when our paths met for a short stretch. She smiles broadly as we cross paths again. “Still going!” she says.

I smile in return, “Yes, we are!”

Yes we are. Still going. 

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. You’re still going.

***

Sometimes people ask me what I’m reading these days. Here you go:

Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, by Tembi Locke (If possible, and especially if you aren’t fluent in Italian, I recommend listening to the audio version, read by the author herself.)

 

Imagine

“Just as long as I’m in this world, I’ll be a light of this world.”

~ Joan Osborne

 

We have the opportunity – again, today – to bring this world closer in line with our imagination of how it could be. As we envision a place of equal opportunity, fairness in abundance, and vibrant integrity, we draw those ideals closer to our lived experience.

It is not easy. These dreams do not take root without our participation.

Yesterday I heard an audio clip from a sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. His voice rises and falls with passion and clarity, the telltale static in the background betrays the age of the recording. He speaks of freedom from bondage and discrimination and injustice. He encourages us to “keep on keeping on in order to gain freedom.” He urges persistence and consistency in the pursuit of equality and justice and peace.

The reverend’s voice is not the only one I hear speaking with conviction and purpose. Behind me in the pew sits a child, maybe eight or nine years old, reading along and out loud the printed excerpt of Dr. King’s speech. The young voice is cheerful and confident, an emerging reader describing the world as it could be, a place inhabited by people of purpose and character and led by principled leadership. This little voice is not shushed, and is not discouraged by the sluggishness of progress. As I sit listening, this duet fills me with hope: the voice of experience in synchrony with the voice of optimism. We are already the beloved community, and also, we must create a community where each of us feels our belovedness.

We have work to do.

We start by imagining a more just and peaceful world, and then we take steps – little ones, persistent ones, splashy ones – to bring that world to light.

***

Wishing you light and strength on the path toward your dreams. And the freedom to dream out loud.

Inhale, Exhale, Repeat

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I’ve entered the New Year with a bit more stillness than in years past, which I attribute to the fact that I’ve become more consistent with my meditation practice. Could be the everlasting sticky cold that has planted me on the sofa for days on end.

I suspect it has something to do with the empty nest as well. After decades of raising four boys, the house is oddly quiet now. And the ancient cat, an 18-year-old Siamese mix with his congenitally crooked tail and his sock fetish, is gone. He always had something to say, a morning greeting, opinions about our competence, demands regarding his dining experience, objections to the fact of the dog. The silence of his missing meow practically echoes around here.

The garbage truck beep-beep-beeps down our little cul-de-sac, and I make a mental note to remind the boys to bring in the garbage cans when they come home from school. I look at the clock – it’s almost time for school to release – and I feel the butterfly wings of excitement. I always look forward to the afternoon moment when they walk through the door, strong and vibrant, silly and weird.

And then I remember that they are all now off at school or working or exploring. It’s scary and hard and wonderful and amazing. I am grateful and proud and also just ever so slightly bereft.

The fall was easier to take. One college drop-off, then another. One parent weekend, then another. The honeymoon trip we had delayed for nine years, planned for that exact moment when all the boys were off to the races, and then the holidays arrived.

The winter drought is harder. A slower pace, fewer gatherings to propel the calendar forward. Fewer distractions. More focus on this one moment. Settling into the rhythm of my own life is oddly challenging. But I sit, letting the energy settle and swirl, feeling the opportunity gathering in the quiet moments. It is, if I am completely honest about it, an intriguing time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the defective hunting dog is proving to be an excellent meditation companion. It will be interesting to see where we go next, but for now, we sit.

***

Wishing you light and strength right where you are. And comfort in the silence.

***

If you are looking for some meditation resources, these ones caught my attention recently:

Tara Brach is offering a Radical Compassion Challenge, January 21-30, 2020. “The medicine our world needs is widening circles of compassion. We need to love ourselves – and each other – into healing.”

Sharon Salzberg is offering her Real Happiness Meditation Challenge for the month of February, 2020. “Each week of the Challenge explores a different type of meditation practice to cultivate greater focus, clarity, kindness and resilience.”

Oprah Winfrey & Deepak Chopra are offering their 21-day meditation program, Perfect Health, which begins February 3, 2020. “Discover the healthiest version of yourself.

Thoughts for the New Year

“Yearly reminder: there is no resolution that, if kept, will make you more worthy of love. You, as your actual self and not as some made up ideal, is already worthy.”

~ Nadia Bolz-Weber

 

My actual self, sniffling and sneezing at the moment, is exceedingly grateful that the desiccated tree sits out on the curb and the Christmas CD’s are tucked away in their cases. Or at least stuffed in a drawer. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the holidays, the scent of pine and cedar, of freshly baked bread and ginger and cinnamon, cheerful lights, hugs from cousins we don’t see nearly often enough. Those seasonal treats do fill me with a confidence in the goodness of life and the steadiness of love, which I really appreciate when the holiday blues hit home.

I love finding the perfect gift. It’s my greatest joy. Even better than the thrill of receiving the perfect gift. Although I love that, too.

But sometimes it feels like I’m holding my breath from the time I queue up the Pandora holiday channel until the day I unplug the tree. Finally, the exhale.

Now I can get back to work. And boy do I have work to do. That’s the good news and the bad news.

Today, I am sequestering myself in a little corner of the house, by a window so I can stare into the treetops from whence inspiration might float down to me, a renegade leaf on a breeze. Wrapped in a blanket with a freshly steeped pot of tea and my favorite writing pen. Plus a box of tissues. Strangely, the defective hunting dog is not at my feet. He is miffed that we are not out walking into this morning, and he is consoling himself by crawling back under the covers with the so-called little one, who is home from college for winter break. It’s a dog’s life.

There is a tension between living in the space where we feel our worthiness – right now, just as we are, loved completely, whole – and moving along, taking the next steps, looking forward. What exactly are we looking for if we are already whole? Why move at all? Where might it be possible to to go in order to add to wholeness? Can we live in the pause? Stillness and movement simultaneously in the moment.

The seed already contains the flower, and all that jazz, but it is true that when I stop to feel the fullness of the moment – a complete breath, a grateful heart, a beautiful soul – then grace carries me into the next moment, woefully broken as it may be. When I allow myself to pause, to feel the sadness and fear, the disappointment in songs unsung, this, too, might be exactly the weight required for the next sacred moment. I won’t know until I get there.

I guess I am just trying to encourage you to take your complete and beautiful if ever-so-slightly-glitchy self into the day, with patience and kindness but also with purpose. I’ll do the same.

So, in the spirit honoring the seed in each of us, I offer you this poem:

In Lieu of Flowers by Shawna Lemay

A few years ago I read a friend’s father’s obituary on Facebook. His father had requested in lieu of flowers, please take a friend or loved one out for lunch.

Although I love flowers very much, I won’t see them when I’m gone. So in lieu of flowers:  Buy a book of poetry written by someone still alive, sit outside with a cup of tea, a glass of wine, and read it out loud, by yourself or to someone, or silently.
Spend some time with a single flower. A rose maybe. Smell it, touch the petals.
Really look at it.
Drink a nice bottle of wine with someone you love.
Or, Champagne. And think of what John Maynard Keynes said, “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne.” Or what Dom Perignon said when he first tasted the stuff: “Come quickly! I am tasting stars!”
Take out a paint set and lay down some colours.
Watch birds. Common sparrows are fine. Pigeons, too. Geese are nice. Robins.
In lieu of flowers, walk in the trees and watch the light fall into it. Eat an apple, a really nice big one. I hope it’s crisp.
Have a long soak in the bathtub with candles, maybe some rose petals.
Sit on the front stoop and watch the clouds. Have a dish of strawberry ice cream in my name.
If it’s winter, have a cup of hot chocolate outside for me. If it’s summer, a big glass of ice water.
If it’s autumn, collect some leaves and press them in a book you love. I’d like that.
Sit and look out a window and write down what you see. Write some other things down.
In lieu of flowers,
I would wish for you to flower.
I would wish for you to blossom, to open, to be beautiful.

***

Wishing you light and strength as you blossom into this New Year.

Crosswalk Contemplations

I can’t let it go. I don’t know why it bugs me so much – other than the obvious, that I’ve been a tad skittish in crosswalks ever since my beloved father-in-law was killed in one. I keep thinking about the vitriolic tweet from someone I don’t even follow maligning a woman who stopped to stretch in the middle of the crosswalk while the driver waited (impatiently) so she could proceed to her vitally important meeting/conference/class/I’m not exactly sure. I totally get how annoying it would be to pause for the insouciant stretcher, but I keep wondering… what did it cost the tweeter to wait, really? Twelve seconds? Maybe?

I walk nearly every day. I drive just as often, which is not for the faint of heart in Los Angeles. I, too, might be running late, occasionally through no fault of my own.

The other day I was at a four-way-stop, the faithful and defective hunting dog at my side, and a car stopped in each direction. I was lucky. This particular intersection features a narrow curb, a rarity in a town whose streets don’t often include sidewalks, giving me slight protection. I know all four drivers can see me. I know they all have places to go at 8:00am. So do I. As the pedestrian, I even have the right of way. I also have the most to lose if we collide. So I wait.

The suit in the Audi, the Suburban driving carpool, the Honda with the music, the Kia sporting the bumper sticker, all proceed without even acknowledging me. I don’t see how they didn’t see me – I’m up on the curb with the world’s most handsome dog. Nevertheless, I wait. Next up looks to be a teenager, likely on her way to school. She waves me through, and not for the first time this week, I find hope in today’s youth. But really, how long did I wait? Twelve seconds, maybe?

Let’s just say – on the driving side and on the walking side – this confluence of people moving in conflicting directions happens five times each day, it’s only a sum total of sixty seconds, one minute per day dedicated to other people.

I don’t know. Maybe the self-important driver truly doesn’t have a minute to spare in her day. But I doubt it.

What would happen if I made a conscious effort to spread that 12-seconds around every day, five times a day? What would I do with that minute? Say a prayer? Take a breath? Sit still? Does it matter? I’ve certainly wasted 12 seconds in far lesser pursuits – internet shopping, gossiping, biting my fingernails, scrolling through my Twitter feed….

The truth is that I witness far more examples of momentary warmheartedness in my daily walk (and drive) – a nod, a smile, an offer, a kind word – than toxic crazy.

What if I make it a practice to hold on to these interactions with so much passion that the occasional noxious belch is fleeting, while the kindness endures and empowers? The FedEx guy holds the elevator door for the octogenarian attorney who meanders down the hall, the minivan slows in a construction zone, a young child compliments another’s shoes. I am reminded that many of us are moving in concert.

Strangers extending the conscious effort to honor each other, giving and receiving twelve seconds of kindness. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it makes a difference.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And twelve seconds of kindness.

Belated

Just when I think I’m going to catch my breath, another of life’s waves crashes in, reminding me with aplomb that I am not in charge, not even of the little things like birthdays or carpool or dinner. Or big things, like birthdays and carpool and dinner. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. The ancient cat is hungry again, reminding me in a persistent and peevish wail that I have failed – once again – to tend to what matters most. Thank goodness we have each other.

The holidays have been a scene, people. Mostly good. Really good, actually. Lots of time with our practically grown-up children, who are thoughtful and funny and smart. We’re down to one sole surviving teenager living at home, and he is more than willing to share the focus under the parental microscope with his siblings. But I could have done without the three funerals, unexpected visits to hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, and distressing news about the health of the people I care about most. When the seasons of life overlap with the holiday season, the cognitive dissonance is real.

I don’t know why I still hold on to the naive faith that the holidays should be immune from the touch of ugliness, hostility, or other trauma, as if the whole season could be suspended for a short time, safe from the full range of life’s offerings, and display only its happiest parts sporting fresh hair cuts and ironed shirts. Like how it looks in everybody’s holiday cards, mine included.

You would have known this if I had managed to get cards out sometime before the Epiphany. But I didn’t.

I have some really compelling excuses, too. Most of them involving licensed emergency responders, the ancient cat and a fire hydrant. Not necessarily in that order.

Let me add, for the record, that I love holiday cards. All the holidays. All the cards. I love sending them and receiving them. I love the formal family photographs and the blurry snapshots, I read every newsletter, poem and sentimental greeting. I rush to the mailbox, thrilled to see the stack of cards bringing good tidings of great joy, whether handwritten or preprinted. I collect them in a rising pile and wait to open them until I have time to sit with my husband and a glass of Pinot Noir. We take our time. Together we share delight in the blessings experienced by our friends and family from all over the place. This year, that moment did not arrive until well after 2018 had expired. Even so, as we opened each envelope, we laughed and smiled and made note of new addresses and bouncing new arrivals and shiny new degrees, and it was all well and good.

Until my husband asked whether we had mailed our cards. It’s a reasonable question. We had even taken a family picture with this intention. But as the ho ho ho turned boo hoo hoo, this particular project seemed to lose ground on the list of priorities. I confess that I had been considering punting on the cards entirely this year. I was ready to put this particular season behind me, eagerly looking forward to the end of the holidays. I was relieved when I prematurely relegated our explosion of Santas and snowmen and angels back to their red and green containers in the garage and kicked that crispy pine to the curb.

Lucky for me, I am married to a man who understands that there is no set expiration date for sending love to friends and family. “So what if the cards arrive after Valentine’s Day? Or even tax day? I don’t care, do you?”

I guess not. But I might feel ever so slightly better if we could maybe just agree that the time for red and green could be extended to include anything in the seasonal vicinity of hearts, clovers, limericks and leprechauns.

It is true that I have been personally cheered by the renegade Christmas card’s arrival in February, camouflaged amidst the catalogs and bills. It’s like finding that lost watch in the dresser drawer after searching everywhere else for weeks. It is also true that I married into extended families who have embraced me as their own, and one of the great things about giant families is that they practice acceptance for a wide swath of humanity and its correlated quirks. Sure, it can be complicated, but I am incredibly blessed. There are too many holiday festivities to count, a few additional hospital visits, more accomplishments to celebrate, many extra miles to drive. If the increase in family hoopla means that the so-called season’s greetings will arrive after St. Patrick’s Day, so be it.

This will sound ridiculous, but one of my favorite parts of the sending ritual is addressing each envelope. Whether I write the address out by hand, or use a printed label, I think about the recipient, acknowledging our relationship and offering a silent blessing. As I put the cards together, I think about how our paths crossed: preschool, college, church, work, kids, family camp, basketball, foosball, and pool halls. They represent a variety of faiths and alma maters. There are new-this-year-but-already-cherished names on the list. Also family members and longtime friends I have never known life without. They live all over the place. Some whose devastating losses and silent struggles I am aware of. Many whose difficult times I will not know about until years from now, if at all. Most of them are people who stuck with us through our own darkest days. Several have achieved success and acclaim and great love. Quite a few of my nearest and dearest, I am sorry to say, hold regrettable political views. Some of my favorites are even Patriots. I know, scandalous. Nearly all of them have celebrated life with us – weddings, birthdays, graduations, bat mitzvahs, new jobs and New Years. I marvel at the extent of my community. Their diversity and tenacity and kindness inspire me.

Sadly, almost every year, I remove a name or two from the list, those who, though dearly loved and greatly missed, can no longer be reached by post. I take an extra moment to hold these dear ones – too many this year – in my heart. To honor the light each has brought to my life, to wish them well. Like my husband, I believe that it is not too late to offer good wishes. And yet, this reminder that we do not know how much time we might have together motivates me to get the much-belated-but-no-less-heartfelt cards on their way.

I make a pot of tea, because the list is long. I even light a candle this year. I will get them done. Even though it will take a bit longer this year, because I am bound to screw up several addresses. And I will pause frequently to feed the ancient cat.

***

Wishing you light and strength. And belated but heartfelt holiday greetings!

Process

I write much the same way as I pack for a long weekend away:

I think about where I’m going for days, weeks, even months in advance. I imagine, flirt with and fanaticize about how wonderful it will be.

I walk the dog, pondering my experience, and return home full of inspiration and motivation, dizzy with excitement and optimism.

I forget every thought in my head, caught up in the daily caffeinated swirl of kids, cat, dog, school, work and home.

I repeat the above practice daily.

I panic, realizing that time is short, and I’ve done NOTHING to prepare. I cannot remember a single thing I need and I cannot settle on where to start.

I wonder if it’s too early to eat lunch.

I throw a bunch of stuff out there, maybe write a list, but more likely just compile a ton of pieces I think might be handy along the way.

I go to the fridge to determine whether my leftover veggie enchiladas are still in the there or if my teenager has already eaten them, leaving me only the empty container. Sometimes, I get lucky.

I check the weather, realize I’ve made a strategic error, and throw eight more essentials on the growing stack.

I rearrange the pile. And frown.

I get overwhelmed and think about doing something else – queuing up a podcast, getting the car washed, calling my mother, shopping for a housewarming gift. I add those items to the list and, once again, attempt to get down to business.

I receive a panicky text message from my teenager who forgot his [fill in the blank: calculator, iPad, team jersey, lunch money, dorm key, and yes, he lives in another state a thousand miles away]. I marvel that boys survive to adulthood. I grab the car keys, vow to finish the project after just this one errand.

Lunch, two loads of laundry, three chapters of a novel and one trip to the grocery store later, I return to the pile of good intentions, waiting patiently for me to sift through it, and I check the clock. Am I really going to tackle this before [fill in the blank: the kids get home, the scheduled conference call, the dog’s vet appointment]?

I make a cup of tea – iced or hot, depending – and I sit. I find the cookies where I hid them from the kids. I wonder if this whole enterprise is all too much trouble and I should cancel my plans. It’s expensive, glitchy, and who will really notice or care? I eat another cookie.

Sigh. I care.

I dash off a few emails. With considerable restraint and a hint of intention, I close all the other open windows on my laptop, but not before sending a quick note to my niece.

Inhale, and dive in. I’m ready to work.

Reset Wifi.

Now, I work.

I look at what I’ve done so far. I realize I’ve got way more stuff here than makes sense. I cannot carry this comfortably, so I dig in and really start thinking about what’s important. Reluctantly, I let a few things go, putting them carefully back in a drawer for another time.

Things are starting to come together, and I’m feeling good until I realize that in the midst of my focus, I totally forgot my own haircut appointment. The one I planned months ago. Missed it completely. Not by minutes, by several hours. I call and beg the salon to take me, because every trip is made better by a fresh haircut. Mercifully, he makes time for me. I feel five pounds lighter without having to give up dark chocolate or red wine.

I return home, but the pile has still not packed itself neatly into my travel bag. I peruse the weekend’s itinerary and get back to the task at hand.

I notice the cat has been eerily quiet… I get up to check that he’s: 1) inside the house, and 2) still breathing. He is. I notice the combination furball-cat-vomit on the carpet but, like a teenager, pretend I didn’t see it, hoping that my husband will take care of it later. He does.

I remember something important I had forgotten. Really important, like the-whole-reason-for-this-trip-in-the-first-place-important. I marvel that I have survived to adulthood.

The wizened cat sits on my handiwork. He looks pleased. Or maybe he has just declared it good enough. Mission accomplished.

With gratitude and surrender, I tuck everything into place and I’m ready to go.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And joy in the journey.

Touchstones

Sometimes it’s like he’s just really far away, on a secret mission in an undisclosed location, beyond cell coverage, without a return ticket. There’s no way to reach him or leave a note. He’s not coming back, and he’s not sending any text messages, not even a single, solitary poopy emoji. And yet, oddly, there’s still a relationship.

My son says, “People don’t get it. To them it seems like forever ago, even if it’s only been six months, and that everything is normal again. They don’t understand that, even after it stops being news for everyone else, you’re still living it every day.” Grief takes its own sweet time.

I return to this place, the cemetery where Sam was buried more than a decade ago. I am here for the funeral of a man I never met, the father of a friend. I show up early, early enough to visit Sam’s plot before the service begins. I do not come here often, sometimes years pass between my visits, but I know exactly where he lies. There’s been a lot of construction around the site in the last ten years, but I have no trouble finding Sam’s spot. I park at the bottom of the hill and climb up. When the boys were little, the slope seemed so much steeper and farther. Now they could ascend the hill in about three steps.

A sacred friend planted a gorgeous pine tree in Sam’s honor on the Lake Arrowhead property where we attended family camp together for many happy summers. The pine was planted on the edge of the lawn where they hold Shabbat services, the Friday sunset observance, ushering divine peace into open hearts on a warm evening breeze.

The so-called little one went to his junior prom over the weekend. When he was trying on his tux at the rental shop, another mom commented, “Your son looks just like you,” which thrilled me but also made me laugh. This is the second time in seventeen years that anyone has told me this child looks like me. The first person to say so retracted her statement about ten seconds after she said it. “Actually…,” she paused. “He looks a lot like Sam.” In fact, more people say he looks like his step-father than say he looks like me. But anyone who knew Sam recognizes the soft brown eyes, the gentle smile, the mischievous glint.

The gravestone is tarnished, worn by rain and sun and time. The inscription reads, “Let it not be death but completeness.” This site is also accessible by a walking path. I chose this spot specifically so that his parents could reach it easily – no hill climb required – but these days his mother is too fragile to spend time here with Sam. His parents’ declining health is a touchstone that reminds us of the depth of the loss. Intellectually, I know that he does not exist in this earthy plot of green, but it holds a strange gravity. The boys have lived longer without their father than they did with him, longer with their step-father than their biological one, and I am humbled to tears by the vastness of love that continues to hold these boys.

The pine tree is only a few years old and a few feet tall. We expect it to thrive. It has been nourished with this blessing: “May it grow tall and strong as a reminder of a good man, husband and father.”

More than a few friends have commented that the boy looks the spitting image of his father in the prom pictures. Not one says he looks like me. I think Sam would say that the boy looks exactly like himself. It’s not so painful anymore, although sometimes I ache with a longing, wishing that Sam could see the young man his son has grown into, both the boy and me looking for a sign of his father’s approval.

I sit at Sam’s side for a few moments. I don’t really need this place to “talk” to him. I pretty much speak my mind whenever, wherever. I offer up a prayer, and while I often simply sit with folded hands to pray, I make the sign of the cross here in the cemetery and imagine Sam’s lopsided smile. He would be thoroughly amused that his Christian wife had arrived entirely too early. I can almost hear him, “Didn’t I teach you anything about standard Jewish time?”

We didn’t go to family camp last summer. Instead, our now family of six decided to take our first international trip. Our traditions have served us well, providing a foundation for our future family adventures together.

In the same way that I didn’t want the boys to avoid their grief and sadness, I didn’t want them to avoid this physical place. It’s impossible, after all, not to bump into these moments. Like a friend, who happens to be at the same restaurant, Sam’s life – and his death – cross our paths, often in ways we aren’t anticipating. The funeral, prom night, summer plans, bring us in touch with the mystery that somehow – even after Sam’s death – we have a relationship, a connection, a sacred communion. Our memories become more blessing than suffering, and we draw strength, warmth, shade and comfort.

These moments bring us back to the intersection where he lost his life, and where we are continuing with ours.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path.

An Approximation of Psalm 23

Good Lord, I have a lot of talented, thoughtful friends. Who could have imagined such abundance?

She goes to the grocery store for me, so I can lie down in the grass and stare at the clouds.

She teaches me to meditate.

She touches my life with humor; I cannot resist the urge to laugh.

One sacred friend sends me notes of encouragement every morning, and every evening, I trust her gentle light to guide me forward.

They do not leave me alone, these princess warriors; they send flowers, text messages and emails; they make cards and phone calls; they go with me to the therapist’s office and the attorney’s.

She takes me out to lunch and patiently lets me cry.

She shows up on my doorstep with Pinot Noir and dark chocolate.

So many provide my family with meals that I need a calendar to keep track of them all; there are not enough days in the month for so many dinners.

She reminds me who I am;

And I cannot help but to share this love myself, to participate in this proliferation of beauty and light.