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.

 

Three Important Lessons

For surviving a trip to the DMV, and maybe for Life

Lesson Number 1. Things take time. Nothing moves quickly at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not lines, not people, and especially not cars. We almost arrived on time for our 1:45 appointment, not that anybody was checking, armed with the child’s passport, his birth certificate, and his father’s death certificate, which it turns out we don’t need, even though all the instructions warn that both parents’ signatures are required for the permit. It’s a bit unnerving to carry Sam’s death certificate around, but it doesn’t take our breath away like it used to. The boy doesn’t’ want to see it, which is fine by me, I’ve stared at it long enough for all of us.

We’ve also got the certification from the drivers’ education school, a printed confirmation of our appointment time, and my physical checkbook, which I had to make a special trip for, because who carries her checkbook with her anymore? In the DMV time warp, however, they do not accept credit cards. We do get the so-called red carpet treatment because we have an appointment, which means that we wait our turn on the dingy red carpet inside the air-conditioned building. For this, we are most grateful, because the other line goes out the door and around the building, almost the length of a block. Even so, we’ve been at the DMV for over an hour.

All of humanity is here, which is part of what my husband and I love about living in Los Angeles. We have everybody – all ages, cultures, genders and orientations, every color, bodies in various shapes decorated by pearls and tattoos – each of us united through stretching the limits of our patience in the labyrinth of the DMV. I hear snippets of conversations in English, Spanish, Chinese and what I’m pretty sure is Armenian. There’s a woman with her teeny tiny baby in a stroller, and I can only imagine the urgency of the matter that brought her to the DMV with her newborn and her aging mother in tow. I’m dying to tell her that she’s not going to believe that before she knows it she will be sitting next to her child, who then will be taller than she is, getting ready to take his permit exam, but I don’t, because I don’t want to be that crazy old lady at the DMV who tells you that before you know it you will be sitting next to your child, who will then be taller than you are, getting ready to take his permit exam. But I am thinking it.

There’s a man who looks to be in his 60’s, accompanied by a woman who could be his daughter. She is reading the application for renewing a driver’s license to him and noting his responses on the form. I wonder why he is not reading it himself. I don’t think he’s blind, because otherwise he wouldn’t qualify for a license at all, and I remember that my own father was here 8 months ago, cataracts and all, memorizing the eye charts so he could renew his own license. He had given up driving, but he wasn’t ready to give up his actual license. The man is telling his daughter “Yes, I’m a citizen. Yes, I’m a veteran. And No, I don’t want to register to vote. I served in the military for fourteen years, I’ve been a citizen for my entire life, and I have never once voted in any election.” Again, I say nothing. But believe me, I am thinking it.

My first-born child was several weeks old by the time I realized that my driver’s license had expired on my birthday while I was up all night nursing a newborn. In my sleep-deprived and somewhat brain-damaged state, I had completely neglected to complete the paperwork required to renew my license. I had neglected a lot of things, but not the baby. For many years, the photograph on my driver’s license showed the straps of the Baby Bjorn carrier (but not the marsupial himself who was sleeping contentedly within). I’m confident, thinking back now, that some lady was sitting with her teenager on the cusp of driving himself, watching me with some nostalgia.

The baby’s mother hands her child to the woman I presume is grandma, who looks at me and smiles. Two blinks later, her child has a child. And so it goes. Time moves slowly at the DMV, but if you are paying attention to the snapshot, you will see life zipping by.

Lesson Number 2. They change the rules while you’re not looking. The first representative we talk to informs us that they added proof of residency requirements in July. Nowhere, mind you, is this information published in a medium that might be available to the general permit-seeking public. In fact, the sole evidence of the changes seems to be found on a worn photocopy they keep behind the counter, the upshot of which is that I need to provide two more pieces of documentation demonstrating both my last name and our home address. For the record, a DMV issued driver’s license does not count.

Under normal circumstances, it might not be a huge hairy deal, but I did not change my last name when I married Tim. One of the challenges of a blending family is the matter of the name change. It was easy enough to change my name the first time I got married; I was 24, with a short credit history and a shorter resumé. I wanted to share the same surname as my husband and my future children, so the traditional decision was straightforward. But after I was widowed and remarried, everything was more complicated. I chose to keep my already-changed-once name, which happens to be the same as two of the children. On the other hand, having a different name than my now husband can often create confusion and a frustrating absence of supporting evidentiary instruments. These are the times I despair of ever having all my affairs in order before I get hit by the proverbial bus, as my children might never forgive the former trusts and estates attorney the mess she left in her wake. Another reminder to look both ways and proceed cautiously.

I imagine the traffic building at this hour between this governmental office and my files, and I do not believe I could get there and back with the additional documentation in time for my son to begin his written test by the 4:30 deadline. We call for help. Mercifully, the child has this amazing stepfather who’s willing to bring the appropriate documentation to us; he scares up a Form 1099 showing about $16.00 worth of interest for the year, a Member Fees statement from the State Bar of CA, so I guess that JD is worth something after all, and a health insurance bill. We are given the green light, which means that we are sitting again, now waiting for our number to be called.

Of course, this whole scenario strikes me as amusing in its predictability. The boy, however, does not find this experience humorous. I text my nearest and dearest: “We’ve been at the DMV for over an hour, and the boy has learned: 1. Nothing moves quickly here and 2. They changed the rules in July.” The boy does not find my commentary even remotely entertaining. “Mom,” he lectures me, “Think about how boring this is for us. Now think about how boring it’s going to be for her to read about this.” Which makes me laugh even more. They can change the rules, but they can’t take my sense of humor.

Lesson Number 3: Objects in mirror appear worse than they actually are. I provide the documentation and pay the fee, the boy gets photographed and fingerprinted, and then he goes to the exam room to take the written test. Meanwhile, I sit. As I look around at the many faces navigating the system, I imagine the hundreds of stories contained in this one room, the many hours people spend waiting for loved ones and the results of exams. I think that about the fact that this is another milestone that Sam has missed, I think about how lucky I was to take one of Debbie’s sons to the DMV for his behind-the-wheel exam, and I think about how amazing it is that Tim is present for the so-called baby. Eventually, I am woken from my reverie by the presence of a handsome young man hovering silently above me.

His face bears an unusually glum expression, and my stomach sinks. He was so confident that he would pass the written exam, but instead it looks like we’ll have to come back to spend another afternoon in the bureaucratic maze. I hesitate to respond, trying to read the disappointment in his eyes. His chocolate brown eyes start to twinkle, and he grins at my fallen expression. “I passed.” He shows me the paperwork, authorizing him to get behind the wheel, and then his smile fades, as he turns to the last page, the one with the driver’s photograph. “Mom! What is with this picture? Does the DMV try to make you look ugly? Seriously, do I look this bad to you?!” Luckily for him, none of his brothers are within earshot of that question. I inform him that it’s the DMV equivalent of a snapchat filter, making everybody look uniformly ridiculous, but without any fun.

It’s not as bad as it seems. In another stroke of blind luck, he will have the opportunity take a replacement photo in about fifteen years, maybe about the time he has his first child.

***

Today, the so-called little one has his first behind-the-wheel instruction, and as he pulls decisively away, I realize he is about three blinks from his driver’s license, the SAT exam and the prom. Four blinks from taking his own kid to the DMV for a driver’s permit. Panicky, I turn toward the defective hunting dog for comfort. He is always happy to see me, and he never speaks. Not one sarcastic word. Most importantly, he will never leave me to go away to kindergarten or to college, and he will never drive off, leaving me standing at the curb, thinking two things: 1. We do not have enough crunchy snacks in this house to last for the entire two-hour driving lesson, and 2. I wonder whether it might not be the worst time to get another puppy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And extra dark-chocolate-covered-pretzels.

 

 

 

 

Beasties and Besties

Let me see if I can explain how great this moment is.

I’m sitting in our family room with my son watching a movie that my friend the soon-to-be-priest asked us to preview for a class she’s teaching. Any time that one of my now-taller-than-me sons will sit with me for pretty much any reason is both notable and joyous. They have social lives of their own, which evidently are much more engaging than hanging around with their mother, unless I am playing Banangrams with a glass of Pinot Noir in my hand, but I’m not at liberty to tell you more about that particular scenario.

We are a blended family, but my husband and I don’t make a distinction between “his” and “hers” as far as the boys are concerned. They’re all mine. All of my boys litter the floor with their athletic socks, borrow each other’s chargers with abandon and genuinely believe that they are the dog’s favorite human being. Not one of them wears his retainer. They refer to each other as “my brother,” even the two who share the same first name, and we all count this development a grand success. They call me “Mom,” “Mama,” “Charlotte,” or simply “She.” Even our dog is male, so if the “B-word-that-rhymes-with-itch” is uttered, it could really only mean one of us, but that doesn’t happen often. Not anymore, that is. Blending a family requires effort, commitment and a vibrant sense of humor.

So this movie. The protagonist is just beginning his senior year of high school and – like most 17-year-olds I know and love and have been and have mothered – finds his mother’s counsel supremely irritating. “My mom,” the lead character explains to the audience, “is basically the LeBron James of nagging,” which makes us both laugh out loud.

Within a few minutes, my boy tells me to check Facebook. You should know that I am fundamentally a Facebook flunky. I’m more of a face-to-face girl. And I can really only do one thing at a time, and sometimes not even that, which, now that I think about it, is probably a compelling reason to play Bananagrams without the wine. In any event, to watch a movie while checking my Facebook is out of my wheelhouse, as well as counterproductive for my later conversation about the film with my priest friend.

But as I may have mentioned before, if any of my teenage/young adult sons wants to engage me, then the answer is yes. At least it should be. So I set aside my misgivings, pick up my cell phone, and open my Facebook to find that my son has posted his status as this: “My mom is basically the LeBron James of nagging.” And then he tagged me.

I can only speak for myself, but my own inner teenager is alive and well and occasionally peevish with her parents, even the dead one. In fact, his death completely annoys me. I mean, her. So even though in this context I am the mom whose most annoying qualities have now been posted for God-and-all-my-friends-plus-their-friends to see, I can’t help myself, I click that laughing-haha-emoji button.

We watch the rest of the film, we laugh some more and cry. Or rather, I cry. We curse cancer, the beast that has taken away grandparents, friends, cousins, my boy’s own mother. We do our best to answer the questions on the study guide even though it’s late and we’re tired. He dictates his answers while I type, and then I add my feedback as well.

The next morning, we start talking about the movie again, which bodes well for the use of this film in the classroom, and he adds a few more comments on loss and love to include in our response. As I’m about to hit “send” with our responses, my soon-to-be-priest friend sends me a text message. The study guide is the least of her concerns. She saw my boy’s Facebook post and, she tells me, “I cried actual tears.” I should explain that we have been friends for a long time. She knows my struggles and my heart, and these are happy tears – happy because she gets it, happy because she adores her own step-father with a passion that transcends biology (even though she herself might have called him a few less-than-complimentary names when he first came into her life), happy because love does win. She knows that the most significant part of my son’s status post is not the phrase, “the LeBron James of nagging.” The most significant part is not my sisters-in-law who rally to defend me and my mothering, although I confess that their supportive comments are gratifying. The most significant part is those first two words: “My mom.”

Sometimes, I just have to take a moment to let those two words sink in.

The so-called little brother says, “She’s more like the Michael Jordan of nagging.” It’s an argument our boys have from time to time, which super star is the super-est star. As brothers will do.

No, blending a family is not so easy, but these moments are awesome.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And awesome relationships.

 

Stretch Marks

My kids call me a crazy church lady, because I actually enjoy attending Sunday services. I need the fresh inspiration, the sense of community, the weekly reboot. I love the music and the liturgy and communion. I am delighted on those increasingly rare days when we have all four boys with us in church, and I am deeply grateful to sit side by side with my husband, in silence, in prayer, in song.

But we don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.

I cannot abide another insipid sermon admonishing a child to admire his mother, citing the pain she endured in childbirth as an obligation for such reverence. I resent the implication that it’s somehow the baby’s fault for all that pain and now – through guilt and other misguided motivation – the baby owes the mom and must make amends. It makes me tense when the minister excludes or discounts step-mothers, foster-mothers, adoptive-mothers, friends, aunts, sisters, grandmothers and many who happen to be female who “mother” children that they didn’t give birth to. I cringe when I recall the ache of women who long to be mothers but aren’t yet, and might never be. Or the weighty grief of mothers who have lost children and pregnancies. I bristle at this inadequate definition of motherhood on behalf of children whose mothers have neglected, abused or abandoned them. And my heart breaks for children whose mothers have died and who feel the loss of her keenly on a certain Sunday in May. I am thinking of two children, in particular.

I love these boys, I support them the best I can, but I do not believe for a minute that I “replace” their mother. There are days when I so wish I had known the boys as babies and toddlers and little kids, and moments when I desperately wish that their mother could see the young men they have become. Believe me, I am extremely grateful that Debbie gave birth to these two children-who-are-no-longer-children, and I’m especially grateful that she did the laboring for the 10-pound bundle of boy. I call them my sons, not because I gave birth to them, but because we have our own relationship.

Yes, childbirth is painful, but the pain of not giving birth can be excruciating. Yes, motherhood is beautiful and amazing, and even so, moms make lots of mistakes. Sleepless nights will have that effect. As do mental illness, addiction, poverty and selfishness. Or simple ignorance. The fact of giving birth to a child does not necessarily engender respect.

The most excruciating physical pain I’ve endured was not when I gave birth but when I had a tubal pregnancy. The most searing emotional pain was the several years following that life-saving surgery with its resulting reduction in my fertility, along with two more miscarriages. The pain of losing of these pregnancies and the fear that I might never have children branded some very dark years. The pain of actual childbirth paled in comparison. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the anesthesiologist looked like Denzel Washington. When that doctor walked into the room, I looked at my husband and said “You got me into this trouble, but he’s going to get me out.”

I’ll tell you what else is painful – showing up and sticking around. Pain is watching your child suffer. Pain is lying awake, panicked about the results of a blood test, or an aptitude test, or an MRI or a biopsy. Pain is knowing your child didn’t get the nod, the invitation, a spot on the team, an acceptance letter. It is beyond agonizing to watch your son’s spirit breaking, knowing the only thing you can do is to be here for him, which seems unbelievably small and insignificant in the face of so much heartache. It is the look on my sweet mother’s face – lined with anxiety – watching me make a decision she disagrees with. Pain, not just from biting her tongue (although she is expert at that, one of the qualities I admire about my own mom), but fear for me and whatever consequences I might rain down on my own head.

Yet these are not the only aspects that expand a mother’s heart (and her hips). There is unprecedented joy and gratitude. Delight with a child’s successes and steps toward independence. A passion, a graduation, a healing. The privilege of a front row seat to his achievements. The child is a gift. I call him my son, not because he was created in my womb or made in my image and likeness, but because we journey together. Although we do find it amusing when people think he looks like me, because in fact, he looks like his mother.

Several years ago now, my son and I were sitting together in the pediatrician’s office, chatting and laughing. I look wistfully at the young mom with her infant and toddler, also in the waiting room. She looks exhausted and harried, but also blissfully in love with her young sons. I’m sure I look wrinkled and gray, and relatively short next to the young man whom I call my son. She smiles at us and says, “I hope my sons and I have what you two have when they’re teenagers.”

My boy and I look at each other and smile, both thinking the same thing. But we don’t say that out loud. Instead, we grin conspiratorially, and I say, “Teenagers are a lot of fun.” Which they are much of the time, notwithstanding their reputation.

Once we are safely in the car and out of earshot, we look at each other and laugh, finally saying our mutual thought out loud: “We are only here because somebody died.” Neither of us had the heart to tell the young mom our specific parent-child history. But she is right; my son and I do share something special.

Our relationship has not always been not an easy one. The poor boy desperately wanted his mother back, and I wasn’t her. It was that simple. The fact of my existence caused him excruciating pain, and all I could do was to dedicate myself to the relationship. Sometimes I looked toward the heavens, tired and teary, and prayed for the strength to love these little beasts. It is not always easy to love teenagers up close and personal. They do not smell like heaven any more. We spent several harrowing years in the Teenagers-are-the-bane-of-my-existence/Charlotte-is-proof-that-the-devil-is-alive-and-well-and-torturing-me stage of our mother-son relationship. With patience, humor and commitment, we have grown genuinely to love and admire each other. But it did not come about because I gave birth to him. Thank God, because by the time he came into my life, he was nearly 5 feet tall and weighed much more than his 8 pound birthweight. Not even Dr. Denzel could administer an epidural for that.

Motherhood is more than biology; it’s a connection, a presence, a shared journey.

Which is why we will not be going to church on Father’s Day either. I cannot abide another unimaginative sermon on death as the ultimate sacrifice a father can make for his child. This oversimplified interpretation of fatherhood misses the unconditional quality of paternal love. Death may be the ultimate sacrifice, but presence is a sacrifice with an altogether different depth. There is real power in sticking around.

On those days when hearts are particularly tender and vulnerable, we let the children guide our day. We fill them with the messages that we want them to hear, that we will be by their side, that we love them. Our celebrations usually include bunches of grandparents, which is a blessing. I suppose if they really wanted to go to church, we would go with them.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a gentle Mother’s Day.

Enchiladas, Love and Gratitude

A month ago, my godmother pointed out a couple at church. They were obviously grieving, he standing tall, stoic, and red-eyed, and she unable to speak, tears running down her cheeks. Evidently his father had died suddenly, and they were getting ready to make the trip across the ocean to his native Ireland to bury his father. The wife’s grief struck a chord with me, and I thought she must have had a special relationship with her father-in-law that she felt the loss of him so deeply. I’m not sure why my godmother felt compelled to draw my attention to the young pair that day, other than the obvious, that grieving a loss is heavy work. And the support and prayers of a community band together to lift up hearts from the darkness. So I added my own prayer to those of the congregation holding this grieving family.

Two days later my own father-in-law was killed in a tragic car accident. I am sad for my mother-in-law, of course. The path of the widow is dark and heavy; the nights are long. I am terribly sad for my husband; losing his father in this sudden, physical way makes his personal top ten bad days list, and that list has some doozies. I am desperately sad for our children, who now all share the pain of losing a grandparent. But I am also heartbroken for me. I loved being his daughter-in-law; I loved him.

He was kind and welcoming the minute I met him. He didn’t confuse his heartbreak over the death of his first daughter-in-law with his affection for me. After all, the new girl, the wicked step-mother, the evil daughter-in-law, is an easy target. He just opened his arms and his heart. He accepted me for being Charlotte, and he loved me as is. He was genuinely happy for his son and grandsons, and he added two more grandsons to the mix without hesitation. I will miss that man.

A friend brought our family dinner tonight – all in disposable containers, and she even provided paper plates and plastic forks. “No dishes to clean up,” she insisted. “And do not write me a thank you note. Just cross it off your list right now.” This friend knows me well, because I had, in fact, already added her name to my to-do list of thank you notes. Then she added, “I want you to spend the time thinking about happy times with your father-in-law.”

Which I did. After the kids were fed and back to doing homework, my husband was off to his mother’s house, and the dishes in the trash, I sat alone at the dining room table, quietly folding funeral programs. I carefully placed the insert with the addresses for the interment and reception inside each program, and I thought about this warm, faithful man.

It is always too soon. We’re never ready to let go. There’s really no good way to go. It hurts, but it is the price we pay for love. Worthwhile, but painful.

I already miss his smile, his voice and the times he looked toward me with a grin and held out his empty wine glass. I cry, afraid and sad that he might have suffered. I sigh and smile, thinking about his sense of humor, his work ethic, his quirks, like lip-kissing everybody. I tear up, missing the fact of him and his bear hugs. And somewhere in the midst of the chaos of engulfing emotions, an overwhelming calm settles over me like a prayer blanket. I realize how lucky I am to have a father-in-law whose death is so painful.

And so I sit, inhaling gently, softly folding program after program, grateful for the love of this man in my life. I breathe in, knowing that this blessed moment will sustain me in the days to come.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And moments of calm.

Dear Sam

Dear Sam ~

Just a little note to let you know we’re thinking of you extra today. You are often in our thoughts and conversations, of course, and tonight we will go to one of your favorite restaurants and raise a glass in your honor, as we do every year on your birthday.

You would be proud of your sons. They are smart, funny and hard-working. They are kind and compassionate. They are grateful and faithful. And really tall. Both are taller than I am, and the so-called little one will likely catch you by about Wednesday of next week at the rate he is eating.

Don’t worry – they’re also normal teenage boys. They leave their crap all over the house, their table manners could benefit from an immersion cotillion weekend, and they think I don’t know when they’re only pretending to do homework. Whenever I hear comments featuring the words “talks too much” during parent-teacher conferences, I blame you entirely.

The kids and I were recently having a “discussion” about doing their own laundry, and they enjoyed hearing that early in our marriage, you turned my favorite cream-colored blouse a pretty light blue. I’m still not quite sure how you managed that, but then I never let you do laundry again. For years, I thought you were the stupid one. But after we had been married 10 years, I realized that you hadn’t done a stitch of laundry in, well, 10 years. More often than not, you were the Ricky to my Lucy. I should have known that pale blue blouse was a clever trick.

In the last few months, both of them have mentioned that they wished you had spoken Spanish with them. I smiled, and told them that you and I had a difference of opinion on this particular issue. And so I say to you now – as any well-adjusted and mature adult would do – “Neener, neener, neener. I was right!” I will also tell you that they can both roll their R’s, even though you never could, and I gleefully take all the credit. But since the gringa is helping them with their Spanish homework, perhaps you are having the last laugh. Maybe you could just whisper a few vocab words in their ears, because the so-called little one has a quiz today.

If this doesn’t seem too weird to say out loud, you would be so happy that Tim has come into our lives. He is good to me, and he loves those boys as his own. You would be pleased at how all of our collective sons have opened their hearts to each other. They are a puppy pack, those four. They wrestle and flop and growl and wag. We are blessed beyond measure.

I guess I really just want to let you know that we are doing well. We have joy and laughter and faith. We are grateful for this day you were born, grateful for the time we had you in our lives. We miss you, but we still feel your love. And we love you.

Happy 50th, Sam.

What (Not) to Say

I choose to believe that most of the time, people are well-intended when they say things out loud. They don’t necessarily mean to say something stupid and hurtful. People (myself included) just don’t know what to say in the wake of death, sorrow and loss. Naturally, people feel this urge to say something over saying nothing. So they open wide, and in what is an attempt to inspire me to feel better after my husband’s death, out comes something like this: “You can never replace a parent or a child, but people routinely replace a spouse.”

As if I should just run to Costco, pick out another ready made husband right off the shelf, and wash my hands of this ugly grieving business.

While legalistically true, the statement remains oversimplified and emotionally wrong. Maybe it was intended as a variation on the “there’s always somebody who has bigger problems that you do” theme. Perhaps it was meant to encourage me to smooth over my loss of a husband with the latest and greatest model, like the pretty new sweater I purchased after I accidentally shrunk my favorite wool one in the wash. The fact of the matter is that nobody can be replaced. It’s not so simple as checking a box, submitting the fee and moving on. This real life is messy and complicated and somehow beautiful in a way that’s nearly impossible to explain, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I hadn’t intended to replace my spouse. I kind of liked Sam and wanted him to stick around. We were family by choice, not by accident of birth, but does that make our relationship less valuable, less worthy of grieving? Spouses are supposed to stay together for life (life, meaning well into old age, and old age looking like that sweet couple shuffling slowly down the sidewalk holding hands). We were partners, lovers, confidantes, everything. We promised.

And then he died.

Everything we had built together now rested on my narrow shoulders. I was left holding the babies, who were by far the two best reasons for me to get up in the morning. So I did.

As a mother to grieving children, I cannot completely separate their suffering from my own. It’s true that I don’t know personally a loss of a parent, but my sons’ loss of a parent grieves me with each stage and graduation their deceased father misses. My heart aches for my step-sons as they grow and progress without their mom, even as my same heart swells with gratitude for these young men and pride in their accomplishments. If I do my job right, and the children do theirs, my boys will leave me and create lives of their own, maybe even with a partner he chooses (and who chooses him), if they are so blessed.

As a daughter-in-law, my in-laws’ loss of a child is never far from my heart, especially when we plan holiday celebrations. Again, it is not my loss, but there’s a tenderness and awareness for that particular ache. I hold an insider’s seat watching my father-in-law go from desperately losing his own will to live to embracing the life and family and love that is present for him. He teases my husband Tim (his son-in-law-in-law?) if we do not have his favorite beer at family gatherings, and my Tim drives across town to pick up my in-laws to bring them to brunch. No, it doesn’t replace the father-son relationship, but it is something special. There’s love enough for both.

My son once explained to me that the adage “blood is thicker than water” actually derives from the military context, in which the soldiers (blood brothers) who fight together form a closer bond even than twins who share the same womb (water brothers). I am grateful that he appreciates the varied forms that love presents to us. Because in the end, does it really matter? Whether the family we choose or our family of origin, we are bonded together with love.

The comparative loss paradigm is a subtle snare that diverts us from a healing path. Nobody wins the competitive suffering competition. It doesn’t make sense to me that the loss of a 5 year marriage is by definition less meaningful than the loss of a 50 year marriage, any more than it makes sense to tell a mother that the death of her 5 year-old child should be less excruciating than the death of her 50 year-old child. We could let the individual nature of our losses divide us, or we could instead let love unite us. In the words of Francis Weller, “We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

And so, we hold other’s hands, we meet for coffee or a walk, we laugh and cry.

I appreciate that people want to say something, something that will be helpful and kind, something inspirational, something that might reduce the pain. I get that the silence is heavy and scary and painful. I understand that our culture is incredibly uncomfortable with grieving and sadness. And that the future is frustratingly opaque. I wish – way back then – that I had known to say something like this, Here’s the deal. You try this: You do not have to say anything; it’s okay to sit with me silently. Please don’t try to talk me out of how agonizing grief is; let my pain be; just sit with it, with me. And I’ll try this: I will forgive you if you say something hurtful in an attempt to be helpful; I will listen to your heart when you cannot tolerate my tears or silence any longer, and I will ignore your words in an effort to hear what your heart is saying: I love you, I’m here, and I don’t know what to say.

***

In a way, my friend was right, in the sense that she hoped I would find love and joy again. Eight years later, in fact, I am happily married.

It might seem incongruous that I am still talking about grief and loss and healing and hope and light. I guess that’s just how big love is. It’s not defined by time or space, or what it looks like on the surface, and the whole crazy mess is an integral part of who I am and how I got here. It’s not as though you can simply delete the past, even if you want to. Just yesterday, I received a letter for Sam from the County Assessor’s Office. Evidently, they are lagging behind in their record-keeping. Nearly every day, I drive home from the office via the intersection where Sam jumped to his death. And yes, I think of him. Every time. Sometimes, it is with joy and gratitude, occasionally with anger or sadness, often with a smile and prayers for peace – for Sam, for our family, for those in the human family struggling with depression and despair. It’s just part of my route, my routine.

None of this negates how crazy head-over-heels in love I am with my Tim.

I did not replace Sam with Tim, and he did not replace Debbie with me. We have our own relationship, and we do not love each other less for the journey. The resurrected life expands to hold the whole of love and loss and pain and joy. On the one hand, I will always love Sam and never quite get over the heartbreak of his suicide, and on the other hand, my Tim is a gift and a light in my life that I adore. As Kate Braestrup says, “I can’t make those two realities – what I’ve lost and what I’ve found – fit together in some tidy pattern of divine causality. I just have to hold them on the one hand and on the other, just like that.” Which is exactly what it’s like.

The other day, Tim and I were sitting at lunch, and something about us caught the attention of the woman at an adjacent table. She kept looking over at us. Eventually, she leans toward me and says, “You look like somebody.” Julie Christie? I offer. (When I was waiting tables in college, one of the regulars called me Julie because he thought the resemblance was so strong.) “No.” Pause. Then she says, “You look so happy together. There’s a light about a woman whose husband truly loves her. How long have you been married?” Five years, I say.

I often feel compelled to explain that the two of us were widowed, because “five years” doesn’t come close to containing our relationship. Maybe because we look our age, complete with wrinkles and more than a few gray hairs. Maybe because our children are much older than the years of our marriage. So I told her the short story of Charlotte and Tim: we were both widowed, with two sons each, and then we met, fell in love, married and blended our family. Margaret smiles. “Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve made my day. You are a beautiful love story.”

Which might also be why I keep talking about love and loss and life and hope. Because love is a beautiful story.

***

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

***

Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (2015).

Kate Braestrup, Here if You Need Me (2007).

Recalcitrance

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

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

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

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

Too bad life doesn’t work that way.

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

It’s a little nutty, this life.

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

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

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

Sometimes we don’t get much of a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Our Daily Bread

Peanut Butter & Jelly

There are two people I think of every time I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One is my first husband Sam. He always thought I was too heavy handed with both peanut butter and jelly, and I thought he didn’t lay it on thick enough. We each have our preferences.

The other is a woman named Mary, the only child of a single mom, Silvia. Mary was a few years older than I, and she never married or had children. Silvia and Mary were very close. I didn’t know either of them particularly well, I just saw them at church on Sundays, stopping to chat briefly in the portico before heading off to brunch. I remember Mary telling me, when my own sons were probably too young even to eat peanut butter, that her mother always spread the peanut butter and jam to the very edges of the bread so that each bite of the sandwich, even the crusts, had all the necessary elements of a PB&J. Mary had a great deal of appreciation for her own mother who prepared her sandwiches with this level of care. Those little details in her lunchbox epitomized the thoughtfulness in their relationship.

Mary and Sam once happened to be on the same flight to Dallas. It was exactly 17 years ago. I remember the timing because I was neurotically pregnant at the time. Sam hadn’t called me from the airport; he waited to call from the hotel. I would have been completely frantic by that time were it not for the fact that Mary had already called me from DFW airport to let me know that their plane landed safely. Right after she had called Silvia. Mary was a sales rep for an international company, and she travelled frequently. Every time she landed safely in a new airport, she called her mother.

Mary died in her 40’s. Cancer, I think, although I don’t know for sure. Silvia died not terribly long thereafter. A broken heart, I’m sure.

It may seem a small reverence, but when I prepare my boys’ sandwiches, I use a bit less PB&J than I otherwise would. I also spread the peanut butter and the jelly right to the edges of the bread. I smile, and I think of Sam and Mary every time.

 

Loaves

When Tim and I first got married, our collective brood of boys were ages 9, 11, 14 and 17. Among the many changes in our transition from two families of three to one family of six was the simple matter of buying bread. I was accustomed to using three slices of bread for the daily lunches, because the youngest only ate half of a sandwich. With four sons, however, our daily consumption increased to eleven slices, because the oldest two ate two sandwiches each. This will happen with teenage boys who are growing like weeds, especially when they play freshman football and varsity basketball.

All four boys have gone through that stage where it feels like I can watch them growing in front of my very eyes. It’s breathtaking each time. I swear they are taller when they stand up after dinner than they were when they first sat down. And it only takes them 7 minutes to eat. They unfurl every morning, stretching into men that I reach up to hug as I hand them their lunches on the way out the door. One of them playfully lifts me off the floor and moves me out of his way, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

With two away now, our daily bread intake has decreased again. It rises and falls as each boy comes home to touch base and flies off again to create his own life. And make his own sandwiches. It is no small miracle, this feeding of children and watching them grow.

 

Bread of Life

In the flurry that comprises my life – kids and cats and dog, office work and volunteer work, church life and home life – I rarely prepare bread from scratch, although it is an activity that I thoroughly enjoy. It’s a busy weekend, and I intend to use the day to catch up on some work, tackle a few chores and bake, which honestly is a welcome reprieve from the weekly chaos that has been our standard fare. Baking bread from scratch is somewhat of a lost art in our culture of pre-made everything, but there is something deeply satisfying about the process. I have dedicated myself not to go anywhere today. I’ve been craving a day to make bread.

My favorite is challah, the Jewish Sabbath bread. It is a celebratory bread, fluffy and buttery, often prepared in a variety of shapes, but I favor the braided version. The strands look like arms intertwined. I bake dozens of loaves during the Christmas season to share with friends and family. I am abysmal at decorating ginger bread cookies, but I can turn out a golden brown, shiny loaf of challah. It also makes excellent French toast, if it’s around long enough to get slightly stale, which rarely ever happens.

The recipe book opens automatically to the page. The ingredients are simple – the basic stuff of life – eggs, milk, flour, butter, a pinch of salt, a little sugar, and of course the yeast. It’s not particularly difficult, but it does take time. And attention. And a little finesse. Too much heat or too little sugar will kill the yeast and ruin the bread. I suspect there is a parenting lesson for me in this. I am so annoyed with the inactivity of certain teenagers with exams on the horizon that I am ready to apply a swift kick with the pointy end of my boot. Instead, I think about the yeast and the sweetness, the heat and the time. I bite my tongue.

One of the things I love about baking is that it draws the boys to the kitchen. “Quick, Mom, quiz me! What’s a heliocentric system?” I know the answer immediately: “A system that revolves around the sons – like our family.” He’s not amused, but his brother in the next room laughs.

He looks over at the bowl sitting on the counter with a clean towel and asks his next question. “Why is the challah just sitting there? Did you give up?” Yes, I did. Sometimes that’s what quality parenting looks like. Giving up seems to be the only thing I do consistently as a mother. I give up over and over, right before I try again.

I set the whole sticky mess aside in a quiet spot, left alone to do its rising thing. It might look like it’s sitting there, doing nothing, but such things are not always as they seem. After some time, the needling, I mean kneading, begins, and the sticky lump begins to take shape. By this point both baker and kitchen counter are covered in a fine dusting of flour. The pounding down of the leavened dough is therapeutic for me as the baker. It is not nearly so pleasant when I feel like the dough that the Maker is beating down and molding. And yet, this part of the process is not the end of the story. The dough rises again.

Some days, I need this reminder. The process is not easy, it cannot necessarily be rushed, but the result is delicious.

These are the same basic elements worth using to create a life – a little sweetness, a warm quiet space to grow, periods of challenge and difficulty, often forcing us back to a warm, safe space, but which inspire us and form us anew. In this place, we find a community, within which we give our time, our unique talents, our own beautiful selves.

As the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the kitchen, the boys draw closer, wondering, “Is it ready yet, Mom?

The first loaf invariably disappears in a flurry of hands and steam and melted butter. Then comes the boys’ least favorite part of the process: the recipe yields four loaves, and I always give one away, even when it’s not holiday time. “Can’t we just keep them all for ourselves?” We never do, because some things – and homemade challah is one of them – are simply better in the sharing.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And daily bread.