Friend-Like Strangers

I was thinking about her on my walk the other day, this woman whose name I do not know but whose path I cross from time to time on our mutual walks. I did see her in the grocery store once, but she didn’t seem to recognize me out of context, wearing lipstick and without my defective hunting dog at my side. It’s funny to call her a stranger when I see her regularly, but I don’t really know much about her, other than what the scarf covering her head seems to betray about her health. Several months back, I was happy to see her without the scarf, her thick, dark hair growing back. As usual, we were heading toward each other along a certain stretch of road but in opposite directions, and when we caught each other’s eyes, I couldn’t help but grin and say, “It’s good to see you looking so healthy!” She returned the smile, but then her eyes grew downcast, and she confided that she was fighting again.

I didn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know me. I don’t know her. Even so, I pressed my hands over my heart and told her that I would hold her in my prayers.

I didn’t see her again for months. The other day, as I was running along the stretch where I most often see her, I began to fear that perhaps I might not see her again.

I saw her the very next day. She was wearing her scarf again, but she was outside and on the move. I was with my most faithful running partner (second-most faithful if you count the dog), and I was so delighted to see her that I stopped to hello and chat for just a few seconds. I wish I had asked her her name, but I was too embarrassed. I’m not entirely sure why. There is a real comfort in knowing each other by name, and yet we can bless each other even in anonymity.

Never have I felt more humbled than one evening shortly following Sam’s death – before the “official” meal schedules had been coordinated – when a woman whose name I did not know stood on my front porch with dinner for my sons and me. I recognized her face; our children attended the same elementary school, but hers and mine were all in different grades and classes. She knew how hard it is to get dinner on the table under the best of circumstances, juggling work, sports, and volunteer schedules. She didn’t know much about me, other than that I had been suddenly widowed, and she showed up and offered her own family’s favorite comfort food. Grace personified.

I am resolved to ask my friend-like stranger her name when next I see her, and I hope I see her soon. But there is something about praying for a stranger that draws me into the very heart of prayer. I don’t know her history, the time she insulted her sister-in-law or embarrassed a colleague or broke a promise. I don’t know what she’s afraid of, why she consulted with her physician this week, or her therapist, or her lawyer. I don’t know how her mother abused her, or who her favorite author is, or who she voted for. Which movies make her laugh. I don’t know whether she hurls epithets at her ex-husband, or her kids, or at Jesus, or whether she reads picture books to her young nieces – or to struggling readers in an impoverished school district – every opportunity she gets, or all of the above, and none of that matters. I am not burdened by her offensive habits, and I am not influenced by her status. All I know for sure is that we are on this treacherous and beautiful road together. None of the details get in the way. My judgment stands clear of my intentions. I wrap her in my heart and lift her toward the divine.

On Sunday, I saw another woman whose name and story I do not know. I see her in church, and like my other friendly stranger, I hadn’t seen her in a while. She usually sits alone, often in the pew behind me and my puppy pack of boys. I do not know the nature of her personal struggles, but I pray for peace in our hearts. I turn to introduce myself, but she has left before the final blessing, before I could ask her name.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the prayers of strangers.

Fear Herself

I cannot move,
Paralyzed by fear,
The kind of dread that brings tears to my eyes,
Steals my breath and appetite,
Makes my heart race toward a refuge I cannot reach.
I’m afraid of uncertainty
Financial loss
Emotional loss
Compromised physical safety
The vulnerability of my children,
Afraid of the future
And evil everpresent,
Threatening
Abuses of power too many to count.
Overwhelmed,
I sit.
My breath is shallow,
My jaw clenched, afraid to speak,
Afraid to say nothing.

Then fear herself takes a seat.

She rests her hand – surprisingly small and warm – on my trembling knee.
She waits.
I meet the gaze of her gray eyes,
My daughter,
I’m sorry.
I didn’t intend to frighten you.
I just wanted your attention
For a moment
To point you in a different direction.

She releases her grip
and is gone.
I reach for the comfort of her presence
And discover that she has left me
A compass.

Tuesday Light

I was going to take the day off. No real reason, just several lame excuses.

Then a friend asked me to be sure to post this week because her Tuesday gets off-kilter if I don’t. Truth be told, I feel the same.

So I tried. I started a half a dozen different starts. And deleted them all.

Then the septic pump broke.

Again.

I thought maybe that would be a good enough excuse.

But still.

I start again. This time with some constructive avoidance: I read a few paragraphs from a book I occasionally find inspiring, and there was a story about some dude – he’s like a chef on a cruise ship – and he’s made this gorgeous meal for everyone on board, about four thousand people, and no more than three minutes later his entire staff starts complaining that they’re hungry and there’s nothing to eat, except for one boring loaf of bread. And the chef-dude is completely flummoxed. The pastry chef is whining that the maître-D forgot to bring the appetizers, and everyone is yelling and bickering like children in the back of a station wagon with no air conditioning. And the chef-dude says, Seriously?

The entire staff stares back at him blankly, as if he’s speaking to them in Greek. And he says, Don’t you people get it? We are all in the same leaky boat.

But they don’t get it. So the chef-dude exhales a huge longsuffering sigh, and he picks up the one, woefully inadequate loaf of bread, and he says, Whatever you do with love and gratitude blesses everybody. And that’s enough. Even more than enough.

And then he goes back to his day job.

So now I’m thinking about how gratitude and love never get stale. I start writing down a few of the things I’m grateful for in my life – friends who motivate me and family and children and my silly dog and a pretty day – and while in the process I think of a few more – my favorite Tuesday yoga class and dark chocolate and and Pinot Noir and a sense of humor about my septic situation and a life partner who will spend Valentine’s evening together with me at parent teacher conferences featuring eleven accomplished and generous individuals who care about my kids. And I smile. And then I laugh out loud. Because there’s a lot of joy in this leaky boat.

***

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

Birthday Developments

It’s Sam’s birthday again, and what dawns on me is that this fact does not take our breath away today as it has in years past. It’s like this: The boys went to practice and school as usual, and I’m home addressing a little plumbing issue. I don’t mean to minimize the problem, the “backup” is definitely the most urgent and offensive matter I will resolve today. I wonder aloud whether Canadian homes are on sewers or septic, because the answer to this question might inform my next decision. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the emotional significance of the day is not weighing us down.

And then there’s this: I’m standing in the garage while the rooter works on the obstructed pipe, and I start cleaning out a box we had stuffed into the garage years ago. We crammed quite a lot into boxes and tucked them away because we just couldn’t deal at the time, and then we got distracted with life and kids and lots of good stuff, and the boxes seemed to multiply while we weren’t looking, and now, much to my chagrin, there is a veritable mountain of crap in the garage, most of which needs to be shredded or donated or trashed. It’s not a particularly enjoyable project, so we often avoid it, but the task is more appealing at the moment than my plumbing problem, so I take a deep breath and remove the lid from the box.

I find some costume jewelry that I had forgotten about, an old photograph of one of the boys with Santa, and the check register from the weeks shortly following Sam’s death. Some of the entries are exactly the same as my current on-line bill pay records: telephone, water, gas, electricity, the pediatrician. Others are much less routine: one for the mortuary, and another for the emergency room doctor who signed Sam’s death certificate. These two entries are in my mother’s distinctive cursive, her protective hand evidenced in this careful detail. Friends, too, leave their supportive marks in my check register. For example, one check reimburses a friend for the groceries she bought and put away in my kitchen, and another check reimburses a college friend for gifts she had purchased on my behalf. What is not evident from the face of the check, but what I know, is that she had spent an entire week with us before Christmas, cooking for us, shopping for us, wrapping gifts and decorating, leaving her own very young sons in order to care for mine, and for me. She has recently won a national science award for her work in mechanical engineering, but in our house we know her for the egg noodle soup she made when we were under the weather. We still make the soup that we call by her name when illness strikes. I put the check register back in the box. It suddenly seems too precious to shred.

Meanwhile, the plumber finishes his work, and I am released to resume my normal programming. I stuff the entire box back in the garage for later.

But there’s also this: My husband Tim has taken each of our four sons on a college visit for their 16th birthdays as part of our family undergraduate motivational plan, and now it’s the baby’s turn. Each of the older boys remembers his college tour with dad fondly, and so far the plan seems to be working. Our oldest is now a college graduate and living on his own, putting him squarely in the lead for favorite son. The diploma and the independence also make him the envy of his younger brothers. All part of our plan.

So today, on Sam’s birthday, Tim is picking up the so-called “little one” immediately after school and heading straight to LAX to catch a plane for the weekend. It is undoubtedly the best gift we could offer to Sam.

The boys are living with joy, determination and love. They are looking forward much more than they are looking back. They do not forget Sam, and in fact, they often think about his academic path and which parts they would like to imitate (as well as which parts I would prefer that they didn’t). They wonder what he might think or what he might find amusing, but none of this hinders their progress. Our boys move onward.

While Tim and one son are en route to the mid-West, I am at home with another of our sons. We raise a glass to Sam and eat one of his favorite meals.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And birthday celebrations.

The Telemarketer’s Regret …and Mine

You might think that 10 years after her death, Debbie no longer gets phone calls. But she does.

We still have a telephone line at the house. I’m not entirely sure why. The only time we use the number is when we call our local pizza joint for delivery. They have our address and usual order saved under the home phone number. We hardly ever answer when the home phone rings, we only have one telephone with a cord plugged into an actual jack, we rarely remember to check the voicemail and when we do, most of the messages are a combination of clicks and static. Any family or friends trying to reach us will call the office or our cell phones. It seems like the last few times I bothered answering the phone, the “voice” on the other end was recorded or on delay, so I hung up.

I answered the phone again the other day. I’m not entirely sure why. I might not have been in the best, kindest, calmest, most level-headed frame of mind, having just scrolled through a variety of inflammatory political Facebook rants. I took a deep breath and committed my first subversive act of the morning: I got out of bed. And then I blew it. I happened to be right next to the house phone when it rang, so I picked it up. The voice on the other end asked to speak with Deborah.

I did not subject the unsuspecting telemarketer to my own partisan and incendiary thoughts du jour, although she might have preferred that conversation. Instead I said, “I am so sorry. Deborah died in 2007.” Those words might not appear terribly acerbic sitting there in black and white on the page, but they were delivered with some bite. I said two-thousand-seven so slowly and emphatically that year remained suspended in the ensuing silence, like a tangible speech bubble hanging in the air between us. There was a long pause. And then a click. She didn’t call back.

I usually deliver the news of Deborah’s death to the unwitting representative on the other end of the line with a little more gentleness, and the caller often apologizes and promises to update their records. It’s likely that I am giving this brief interaction too much thought, but I don’t feel good about it. The fact of the matter is that you never know what somebody else has going on, and I don’t know a single detail about the woman other than that she called my house. She doesn’t know that I feel protective of my husband and kids, even if I am justifiably annoyed at the outdated record-keeping. Life has its way of forcing strangers to bump into each other, and these exchanges do ripple around the world. I like to think how we interact makes a difference and that I could initiate a happy little wave. In light of the fact that I still receive both mail and phone calls for Debbie, it would be reasonable for me to expect that I will continue to get correspondence pretty much from here on out.

My mother reports that when she gets such calls for my father, she tells them he’s out at sea. Maybe I’ll try that next time.

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received recently from friends who are facing significant crises: being widowed or divorced, the death of a child, the illness of a parent, or the illness of a child and the death of a parent, a career change, a move, crippling fear, the questioning of faith, lack of direction, an empty nest, a sense of powerlessness. These crossroads are not inconsequential. Maybe it’s the perimenopausal plague. But these issues of life and death, these questions of whether we are spending our time doing the things that are most important in the time we have left seems to be pressing on several of the hearts of women I count among my closest friends. I’m a lot better at fielding these calls.

One friend in particular is struggling to find her way, and I do my best to encourage her. She feels like an overqualified underachiever, a sentiment I am altogether too familiar with. There is a temptation to look at my life and to wonder whether I’ve really accomplished anything. I’m not sure how, precisely, one would measure the value and the impact of a life. We just have to show up and do our best. As Anne Lamott says, we get our work done, one inadequate sentence at a time.

The prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” is as much about living in the moment as it is about grace. The phrase could just as easily read, “Give us this day our daily work,” because having purpose and meaning is essential. Or “Give us this day our daily invitation,” because sometimes we need a little guidance. Or “Give us this day our daily hug,” because every day requires moments of love, encouragement and gratitude. Ten years from now I might look back and see my efforts taking a defined shape, but for today I need only accomplish this day’s task.

It’s not exactly glamorous.

I’m sitting at the dining room table with my cup of tea and my laptop, and my fantasy of working while the boys do their homework in my general vicinity remains unrealized. I left the office early to pick up one child from school, and the cup of tea he asked for is quickly becoming tepid on the kitchen counter. He sat down for a minute and fell sound asleep. The life of a teenage student athlete. I’m contemplating drinking his tea. Or giving up on my project altogether and doing something even more pointless, like matching athletic socks. The high school senior is awake and has surrounded himself with all the tools of engagement – his iPad, binder, mechanical pencil and a textbook. But then I hear a burst of laughter from the next room, and I suspect that he is not, in fact, working on his economics assignment.

I remind myself that it’s not my job to do all the work. I only have to do mine.

The next call comes on my cell phone from a number I recognize. A familiar and much-loved voice says, “Hey! Guess what?” I cannot help but smile. The boy and I have come a long way. Ten years ago, we were strangers. Today we are family. Together, one day, one conversation, one invitation at a time, we have created our own mother-son relationship. Which is a beautiful thing in this world. And no small accomplishment.

I’ve done some things well and failed at others. I am a work in progress, but the telephone will undoubtedly ring again, and I will get another chance to create a kinder, gentler ripple.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And telephone calls that make you smile.

Post Office Tales

An Encounter

As do many couples with young children, Sam and I had a standing Saturday evening “date night.” This weekly respite saved our sanity more than once, especially after we found the wonderful Madeleine. She was pretty and kind and gentle, and the boys adored her. She was organized and careful, and the kitchen was spotless when we got home. We adored her, too. Maddy was a junior in high school when she first started watching the boys, but she was incredibly mature and preeminently reliable. From the first night she tucked them into their pajamas and read stacks of board books to them until the very sad day she left us to go away to college, she only canceled on three Saturday nights: her debutante ball, her senior prom and the day her mother died.

We didn’t even know her mother was sick. A cousin called us Saturday afternoon to let us know that she was terribly sorry but Maddy would not be able to watch the boys that evening. We were stunned, heavy-hearted and embarrassed. How could we not have known? And how did she have the wherewithal to make sure her cousin called? It turns out her mother had been ill with cancer for some time, and that we – precisely because of our ignorance – provided a sanctuary for her during what was a difficult and emotional time. She was a blessing to us, but we were a blessing to her, too.

Sometime after she had gone away to school and after Sam’s death, I happened to run into the wonderful Maddy at the Post Office. I asked how school was going, and she told me she had decided to transfer back to a local college. She asked how the family was doing, and I told her that Sam had died. We made sure we had each other’s current phone numbers, and soon afterward, Maddy was watching the boys again, sometimes while I was working, often when I was going to book group, and occasionally for a Saturday evening date night with a certain handsome widower.

I can’t remember if I cried in the Post Office the day we reconnected, although it’s entirely likely, but I distinctly remember thinking that this chance meeting was not a coincidence. Maddy’s presence in our lives – before and after Sam’s suicide – feels like a gift. Not only had she known the boys from the time when the so-called baby was, in fact, a baby, but she knew their father. And she knew from experience that Sam was a good and kind man, a perspective that his sons so appreciated hearing. She also knew what it was like to lose a parent at a young age, and there is much comfort to be had in the companionship of a heart that understands.

To this day, we hardly ever refer to her as simply Maddy, she is “the wonderful Maddy.” She has earned her degree and completed a credential program, she is married and has moved, but we stay in touch. We will forever hold a special place in our hearts for the wonderful Maddy, and I will always be grateful that I saw her in the Post Office that day.

 

A Conversation

A few weeks ago, toward the middle of December, I found myself standing in line at the local Post Office with a package in my hands, surrounded by folks with packages and boxes of holiday cards to mail, and needless to say, I was not alone. The young woman in front of me was initially discouraged by the length of the line, but, she confided, she was actually enjoying the time to herself. Her toddler son was home with her husband, and she would rather bide her time in line than go back home to order stamps online. She reached into her purse for a picture of the young Nicholas and realized she had left her phone in the car. She dashed out to retrieve her phone, but she didn’t need to rush. We hadn’t budged by the time she returned to her place. We were there for the duration.

Nicholas is adorable, of course, and his mother shares a story of his latest adventure and mischief. She frets about his sleeping, confessing that her mother-in-law doesn’t approve of their parenting approach. It’s amazing what people will share with complete strangers, bonded as we are by the mutual experience of waiting in line for stamps. She is exhausted, but happy. I smile and encourage her, remembering those sleepless nights with a fondness that wasn’t quite so vibrant at the time, thinking about how teenagers keep us parents awake at night for entirely different reasons. I don’t say this out loud. I marvel that parents ever sleep soundly again after that first baby arrives.

She asks whether I have children, and I am, of course, pleased to reciprocate by relating tales of my own brood of four sons. She asks their ages and what the college graduate does now, and then she admits that she’s thinking about when to have another baby and asks what the spacing of my children was like when all four of them were little. It seems a benign question, but this business of striking up a conversation with a stranger can be treacherous. I rarely lead with the conversation-stopping, “I was widowed when I was 39 and my sons were 6 and 8 at the time,” but questions like hers are almost impossible to answer without divulging this little bit of history. I didn’t give birth to all four sons, as she has assumed, although I wished for an epidural more than once as my then-teenaged boys and I navigated the early days of our relationship. I honestly don’t know what it would have been like to have all four as babies, because we didn’t come together as a family in that way.

Her face falls as she takes in this idea of a young parent’s death, a widow, and children left without a father. She recovers quickly, because she already knows that my story doesn’t end there, but she seems unsettled, as though she just remembered she urgently needs to get back to Nicholas.

 

A Connection

Today I am in the Post Office mailing a care package to my college boy, and I notice a toddler discovering her power. While her father is standing to the side, filling out the forms for Certified Mail with Return Receipt Requested, she is systematically catching the eye of every person who walks through the door and then smiling. To a person, they respond in kind. She is delighted. When she catches my eye, I do the same.

I hope she will continue to use this superpower of hers, this ability to connect and bring joy, that she will remember that she can turn a stranger into a friendly face with her own warm smile, and that she will be awed by the fact that our relationships are linked together in ways that we cannot imagine.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And on your trip to the Post Office.

Signposts

(Or, How to Read Rejection Letters)

 

We did it!

And by “we” I mean, he. The boy did all the work, making the grades, preparing for the tests, writing the essays, navigating the Common App, asking teachers for recommendation letters, and submitting the applications. My role in this process has been limited to Chief Financial Officer. I handed over my credit card for the application fees and (mostly) kept my fretting to myself. It’s not my first time at the rodeo, you know.

Of course, each child is different, and his process has likewise been unique to him. The boy really wanted to know what his options were (that’s my kid!), so he chose not to put all his eggs in an early decision basket but to cast a wide net and see what he draws forth. He has thought about schools from his home in California, across several Midwestern states and including a school or two on the east coast. Plus one in Texas, just for shits and giggles, as they say. He has a confidence about his having a place and seems perfectly content to spend the next three months just enjoying his senior year in high school without obsessing over where exactly his post-graduation steps will take place. He has submitted his final application, completing this part of the whole process, and he is delighted now to do nothing. I’m not sure whose child he could be.

Now the thing to do is to wait for envelopes big and small, email notifications and updated portals. Here’s the challenge: waiting is nothing at all like doing. The kid seems to be fine with it, but it’s making me a little crazy. Or to be fair, crazier than usual.

It is his journey, however, so my role is to sit quietly, which I do, and here’s my epiphany: acceptance and rejection letters are only signposts pointing toward the next step. They are not a judgment on performance or character, they are not a prediction of future success, they should not form the basis for self-worth. Especially parental self-worth. They are simply red or green arrows for today. Oh, this is much easier said before those puny, pathetic letters arrive, lurking in the mailbox like a noxious cloud, released into an unsuspecting hand. But if it is possible to settle into the knowledge – even before the applications are sent toward a committee of admissions personnel – that each one of us has a place already reserved in the human journey, then we can sit confidently and await the next set of directions.

Sometimes – when that small envelope arrives unexpectedly, dashing dreams the way only two dismissive sentences can do – the only answer is chocolate. Don’t bother trying to find a substitute. There are simply not enough French fries in the world to overcome the deficit. Chocolate is the only way. Personally, I go for a simple, solid dark variety, although occasionally a rich chocolate cake is the ticket. And then, with a little antioxidant lift, you can read the single page missive and think of it simply as a road sign. It might say Yield, or Do Not Enter, possibly Detour. Maybe it’s a full Stop. It’s likely too soon to tell. Or maybe, it’s a green light in a direction you didn’t anticipate going, on a road you might never have traveled otherwise, but that you actually enjoy. You never know. Those letters – big and small – are simply possibilities. They are what you decide to make of them. It’s still up to you.

The boy doesn’t seem to need my advice. He is at ease finding his own path. Which is as it should be. As I look ahead to another high school graduation, perhaps I am not wondering so much about what the boy’s next step will be, but about mine. I have traveled together with him for eighteen years, and I suspect my own steps will falter without him far more than his do without me.

But I take comfort in my own advice. As the boy progresses forward in his young life, I, too, will find more than one little green arrow pointing me toward new possibilities.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your forward path. And extra chocolate, just in case.

Day One

I’m embracing New Year’s more enthusiastically than usual, and not only because 2016 featured several stunning disappointments, but that might have statistical significance. We ended the year by gathering our little family together, and my heart is full.

I resolve to spend the first day of the year sitting in front of the fire that my husband started until I finish reading the book in my lap. Granted, it’s a quick read – 150 small pages, big print, little words – but still. I’m not going to wait for a nasty virus to put me down. I’m going to put my tail in this chair and let the Christmas decorations linger in the living room beyond their expiration date. I’m going to choose stillness.

I’m not especially gifted at stillness. The hum of the washing machine and the dryer betray the fact that I must have gotten up at some point to switch out the laundry. When the washing machine stops the next time, however, I do not budge from my spot in front of the fire. I read for a few more minutes, I gaze at the flames, I watch the cat curled up contentedly in his own chair. Then I finish the book. And when I’m done, I sit a little longer.

I practice more intentional stillness. I’ve been cooking nonstop since Thanksgiving, and while I’ve got the ingredients for a lovely dinner tonight, the kids all have other plans, so I decide not to prepare any of it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I make my husband’s favorite part, the apple pie, and whip up actual whipping cream, and we eat that for dinner together on this hearth.

And then I stare at the blank white pages of my 2017 calendar – not electronic pages, actual paper pages that I can write on with the ink pen in my hand. I love the promise of a new calendar. I stare at those white pages with my heart wide open and dream. I’ve got plans for one graduation in May and one July wedding, but as for the rest of the year…? I wonder what this next trip around the sun will bring. For today, I sit still and soak up the energy and possibility of a new day.

***

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

Inevitable

It will not be avoided, Christmas. It’s coming. It’s practically almost here. We are racing through December and heading quickly to the 25th. I’m inching my way through. I thought maybe I could get through the season without waxing eloquent on the season (which might be the case nonetheless), but then I was felled by a nasty bug. Some might say it was my annual bout with the Bah-Humbug, but it sure looked like a virulent stomach flu.

There comes that moment, when in the midst of the queasiness and misery, the only thing to do is to lie perfectly still, inhaling and exhaling slowly. It is dark and lonely, my feet are cold and my forehead is hot. I don’t even have the stomach for my morning coffee, and the caffeine headache alone might do me in. I adore curling up in bed with a novel, but this is decidedly not that. I cannot focus on a single printed word without inducing fresh waves of nausea. The closed book remains disappointingly just beyond my reach. The hours pass slowly, and I breathe.

Eventually, inevitably, there comes that moment when gratitude rears its impish head. It might look like a phone call from one of my sons, reporting a recent success or asking for guidance. It might be the gift of an audio-book from my dearest friend. It might be the silly dog’s ridiculously hopeful wag. Gratitude sneaks in with a smile and just half a mug of steaming hot chicken broth. I take it all in. I look out the window, and I am smitten by the beauty of twilight, the black outlines of the palms and the pines against the last bit of bright blue background before the sky goes dark. It gets me every time.

If Advent is about waiting, then maybe that’s what I’m doing. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. I think about Mary and her journey toward Bethlehem. At what point during the process – while riding ponderous miles astride a donkey, while settling into the stinky stall with the pigs snuffling and the hay poking into her back, while catching her breath in between contractions – did Mary reflect upon her Yes, turn to Joseph and wail, What the hell was I thinking? Or maybe that’s just me. But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that the Christmas experience is not all goodness and light. Yes, there is much goodness. Yes, there is extraordinary light. But there is also a fair (or unfair) amount of darkness and pain along the way. Ignoring my Christmas angst seems only to exacerbate it. For me, it is easier to embrace the radiance and joy when I acknowledge the yucky parts. And then, when the light and love arrive, it is breathtaking.

I can barely remember the first Christmas after Sam’s suicide. I could not tolerate the idea of having our traditional celebrations without him, so we did something different. Tim can barely remember their first Christmas just two weeks after Debbie’s death, but he thinks he tried to keep things consistent for the boys. There is no right or wrong answer to this challenge. There will be tears. There will be laughter. There will be gifts and treats and long, fretful sighs. It’s all part of the package.

I was scheduled to speak at an evening of remembrance hosted by a local bereavement group this week, but the flu bug got the best of me. I was terribly disappointed to miss. I was looking forward to the event, a special evening honoring our human capacity to feel love and loss and hope in all of its complications and mess and loveliness. I had presented at this event previously, but last year I had thought about canceling about a hundred times, because I didn’t know how beautiful and healing the evening would be. I was delighted to be asked back, and I was prepared to be insightful, inspirational and funny. We were going to laugh (because I’m hilarious), and we might cry (because life is hard, and I’m a sensitive girl). Plus, I was going to wear a cute outfit. I love cute outfits.

I was going to talk about finding light in this sometimes dark, heavy world. The kind of light that comes from inside ourselves, the light we remember when we sit quietly and wait for morning’s sunrise. That internal light we realize we still have when the sun continues to rise every day – in that comforting and infuriating way that the sun does. I was going to talk about the light that our friends and family shine on us in all their myriad ways with the warmth of a summer day, bearing casseroles and baked goods and greeting cards. The friends who urge us forward through the miles, sometimes literally, and the friends who rally to our sides when we need to sit. The many – some friends, and some strangers – who shine light in our direction with their prayers, their encouragement, their songs and their stories. And I was going to talk about the light that still shines from our loved ones, even the ones we have lost. Like the stars that shine in the darkest night’s sky, drawing our attention upward, the light from the lives of our loved ones still shines.

Personally, I was looking forward to remembering both my father and my father-in-law at the gathering. It has been a difficult year for my little family, and we are feeling the loss especially during this holiday season. And yet. And yet, their light still shines in our lives.

These days our December gauntlet looks like this: Debbie’s birthday (she would have been 50 this year), her deathaversary (9 years), her stage-4-cancer-diagnosis day (the moment that changed everything), her favorite holiday (Santa Central). She is much in our thoughts and hearts. Our Christmas celebrations looks like this: Christmas Eve with my side of the family, Christmas morning with my husband and our children, Christmas breakfast with Debbie’s parents, dinner with Tim’s side of the family, and – thank God Sam’s parents are Jewish – one night of Hannukah. We exchange stories and gifts. We might cry. We certainly laugh. We eat.

The Bah-Humbug might have taken me out for a week, but it will not deprive me of the light of this season. I went for a run this morning with the silly dog, and it was such a joy to get out and move. I have the wherewithal to eat cookies again. I love Christmas cookies. Cookies don’t fix anything, but they mean everything. Especially from that dear friend who wants to mend your broken heart with chocolate and pecans, or oatmeal and dried cranberries, or cinnamon and sugar. There is no wrong answer when it comes to cookies.

I even baked Tim’s favorite Christmas cookies, and we hid them from the kids, Scrooge-style. Our newest favorite holiday tradition.

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Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And joy!

Reunion Tour

We girls got together for a reunion run around the Rose Bowl recently. These girls are the women who ran with me at o-dark-thirty for months after Sam’s death, and boy, was my world dark both night and day back then. These running friends paced me for hundreds of miles over the course of several years, through valleys of sadness, anger and grief, up mountains of fear, across miles of joy, serenity and strength. I would say that these ladies healed me, but one of them told me, “The truth is, Charlotte, you were healing yourself. We were just privileged to watch.” I cannot help but wonder, though, whether I would have kept moving forward if they hadn’t been watching.

We had a schedule. Short runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, long runs on Saturdays. We signed up for a half-marathon. Some mornings, depending on the work-kid-life dynamic, there would only be two of us, sometimes as many as six or seven, but we kept on track. Literally. When later one of us was training for a full marathon, the rest of us divided the route into shorter distances, so the marathoner almost always had a companion along the way. A real support team. But life got busy, and our regular morning runs fell by the wayside. Over time, most of us suffered injuries and disappointments, all of us have launched children in a variety of forms, many switched job situations or marital status, some willingly and others reluctantly, and several changed homes. Still, we move forward.

Then one of our number reached a point where she needed companions for her journey. It was time to get the band back together. We issued the clarion call.

The reunion tour was a blast. When teenagers at home no longer find us funny, beautiful, intelligent – or even remotely reasonable – then it is a distinct pleasure to spend an hour sweating and swearing with kindred funny, beautiful and intelligent women. When the septic backs up over a holiday weekend, the grouchy cat shreds another sofa, and the dog develops a neurotic reaction to hearing the football game on television, so much so that the whole family gathers surreptitiously around a laptop behind closed doors to catch the highlights instead of turning on the flat screen in the family room, it is a relief to hear others’ tales and travails of homeownership, quirky pets and psychotic sisters. When one of our children receives an award, scores a win or gets that fat envelope from a preferred college, our joy is amplified by sharing the news with these friends, the same friends who were there for the child’s concussion or his car crash or his heartbreak.

The power of community to lift, to love and to laugh is remarkable. We liked it so much we decided to run together again the next week, but I almost didn’t make it. Primarily for reasons associated with the prior evening’s activity, the get-together of another group of hilarious, gorgeous, witty women, at an equally raucous but slightly more sedentary event – our book group. I seriously considered curling back up in my cozy bed instead of braving the cold, but then I thought about the many early mornings that the girls had gotten up early to run with me.

I load up the dog’s crate, and we head out to greet the morning. There is healing power simply in the act of showing up.

We walk, we run, we pause. We listen, we laugh, we cry. We share stories of disgruntled children bemoaning the existence of chores and our inadequate parenting. We encourage each other through family traumas and holiday gatherings, which are occasionally one and the same. We put one foot in front of the other, some days more slowly than others, but still moving forward. It is an honor and a privilege to go alongside, bearing witness to the progress, seeing each other’s beauty and value. And we’ll do it again next week.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends along the way!