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.

In Celebration of Love

“Hey Mom — What are you writing about this week? Death? Grief? Suffering? Misery?”

My kid thinks he’s hilarious.

Actually, I’m writing about “till death do us part.”

Which is completely different.

The gift of marriage is all over the news these days, and for good reason. Personally, I am delighted. I’m in favor of love, fidelity and equality. It is one of life’s sacred blessings.

The first time I was married, Sam and I were in our early 20’s. It was much easier to commit to “till death do us part” when death seemed a lifetime away. It was hard to fathom what sickness might feel like, especially chronic pain or mental illness, when we were both young and healthy. We could appreciate poorer, because we had nothing but student debt. Our net worth was a big red number. Which is not to say that “richer” is the key to a happy marriage, but we did think we might prefer it. The fact of the matter is that you have no idea what you’re getting into when you say, “I do.” Only that the two of you have promised to stick together through all of it. Until one of you dies.

Sam and I met in law school. We sat next to each other in Community Property, Wills & Trusts and Contracts. I understand intellectually the whole idea behind the prenuptial agreement, but I never wanted one myself. I don’t understand getting into a marriage from which I already think I might need an exit strategy. I appreciate emotionally the urge to control all the various facets, plan for future eventualities, to keep things neat and tidy and predictable. Like a flow chart, or an algorithm. But life isn’t like that. Neither is marriage.

I did a lot of things right and a few things wrong in my first marriage. We went out on date nights. We implemented a financial plan. We held title to our home in our family trust, which is only prudent in California. I trusted Sam completely. When he died, I had never paid a bill online, I didn’t know how much was owed on our mortgage, I didn’t know a single password to any one of our accounts. My mom literally handed me two 5-cent coins, because I did not know if I had two nickels to rub together.

She’s hilarious, my mom.

A sense of humor is key to life. And marriage. She has been married to my father for a long time, and they still seem genuinely to like each other, so they must know something about marital bliss. I’m happy, too — not just because I’ve benefitted from my parents’ example of love, commitment and faith — but because I am a girl who likes to throw a party. Just give me a reason. Or, as of next June, 50 reasons.

Or, better yet, 200.

In one of the quirks that is our blended family, my husband Tim and I have all eight of our collective parents and in-laws. Our children have four sets of grandparents, all of whom they call grandma and grandpa in one language or another. Each of these four pairs has been married once and is still married several decades later.

Two summers ago, we hosted a 200th wedding anniversary party for our parents and in-laws. That year my parents (the “newlyweds” among this group) were celebrating their 46th anniversary, Tim’s parents were at 48 years, one of our in-laws were at 49 years and the other in-laws were celebrating 56 years of marriage, for a combined two hundred years of holy matrimony.

That’s a lot of for better and for worse.

In case you’re counting, all those anniversaries only add up to 199, but we called it an even 200 and threw a party. Just for the record, the following summer it was 203, and this summer they hit 207. There’s more to marriage than math, but those are some compelling numbers. That’s a lot of love, honor and cherish. I’m not saying that marriage is always sunshine and champagne, but when storms are brewing and the chocolate is running dangerously low, these parents of ours believe and hope and pray and love their way through. Together. What an amazing legacy for our children.

And for us.

Because the second time around, Tim and I knew — even more so than our parents — what “till death do us part” looks like. In fact, the only thing we argue about consistently is which one of us will die first next time. We know a little of the for better and for worse of this life. And somehow, miraculously, we have found each other and committed to each other for a lifetime. When, during our wedding ceremony, Tim pledged “in sickness and in health,” I began to cry because here stood a man who knew exactly what he was signing up for. And he promised to love me anyway. It’s crazy, really, if you think about it.

Tim and I are much less likely to hit the 50 year-mark (an occupational hazard of having married in our 40’s), although I certainly hope we do. In the meantime, we will love and laugh and cry and pray and work and play together. Not every day is a party, to be sure, but we celebrate the little things along the way. We will have date nights and share passwords and a dark sense of humor. We will hold title to our home in a family trust and hold each other when Life kicks dirt in our faces.

Every once in a while, when I tell Tim “I love you,” he will pull me close and whisper, “I love you too.” Then he pauses, “Until the day I die.”

He thinks he’s hilarious, my Tim. And I do, too.

***

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

Deathaversary VII

We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself

the means of inspiration and survival.”

~ Winston Churchill

It’s Sunday afternoon, almost dinner time, and we have finally finished cleaning up from our family brunch. Tim and I are exhausted. The house is quiet, dishwasher humming. The boys are settling in with homework (homework seeming the lesser evil than laundry), the dogs are down for a nap (like overtired toddlers after an afternoon with grandma), the cats are contentedly crunching, and I’m curling up with a cup of tea and a book. I’m having a hard time concentrating, however, because tomorrow marks the seventh year since Sam’s suicide.

Our brunch included all eight of the boys’ grandparents: Sam’s parents, my parents, Tim’s parents and his first wife’s parents. Add our nuclear family of six, and that’s a lot of bagels. To be fair, two of our boys are away at college, but my sister and brother-in-law volunteered to bring strawberries to our grandparent gathering, and I certainly wasn’t going to decline their offer.

We don’t have a table big enough for everybody to sit comfortably, but we do have nice weather and patio furniture and the kind of family who is willing to scooch up a chair, eat in his own lap, risk spilling on her neighbor’s lap and laugh out loud. We share stories, coffee and the better part of the day. The logistics are rarely simple in our family gatherings, but I am grateful. My house and my heart are full. So is the dishwasher.

On her way out, Sam’s mother pulls me aside. Although she speaks more comfortably in Spanish, she addresses me in English, as a courtesy. She tells me that she is so proud of all four of my sons, and (like the self-respecting jewish mother-in-law that she is) she also frets over each one of them. She is going to go to the cemetery tomorrow, and she is going to tell “Sammy” how well his sons are doing and that his wife has created a beautiful little family. She tells me that she knows Sammy will be happy and very proud.

And I know he will be. And while Sam’s approval is gratifying, it is his mother’s approval that moves me to tears. I have a friend who refers to her daughter-in-law as her daughter-in-love. My mother-in-law has similarly treated me as her own. Years ago, as she was walking with me on one side and her own daughter on the other, she laughed and said “I have two daughters — one blonde and one brunette.”

She shuffles toward her car with her cane in her left hand and my arm in the right. She explains to me that she does her physical therapy exercises consistently, and I know this to be true. In fact, she even turns on music and “dances” her exercises across the length of her apartment. She’s in her 80’s. My father-in-law shakes his head and smiles. He has been smitten with her for nearly 60 years, and it’s easy to see why.

I cannot imagine what she has suffered in the loss of her son. And yet, she makes it a practice to dance across her living room every day. It is very hard to understand how her son lost his way, but I believe with all my heart that he is, indeed, proud not only of his wife and children but also of his mother. It is no coincidence that, despite the heartbreak and challenges that life has brought, her children and grandchildren find their way with joy and tenacity.

She dances every single day.

***

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

Global Positioning System

For Mother’s Day a couple years ago, my husband gave me one of those GPS watches so I could track my time and distance when I run. I love it, because I am a dork. At the time I was training for my first (and potentially last) half-marathon. It is fun for me to sit at my desk, download my activity and admire the little red line on the map and blue elevation gains chart. I like to see the miles add up, and uploading my run from the cute pink device to the computer serves as my equivalent of a running diary.

I play a little game to motivate myself when I run. I try to make the second mile faster than the first mile, which is generally a “gimme” because I walk the first quarter of a mile to warm up. Really, it’s to make sure the dog is “empty” before we pick up the pace, which believe me, is not significantly faster. Then just for fun, I challenge myself to make the third mile faster than the second. If I’m in for four miles, my goal is to make the fourth mile faster than the second mile, knowing that it’s going to be hard to beat the third mile, and on the rare occasions that I continue for 5, then the fifth mile has to be faster than the first mile, all of which indicates that the law school inflicted brain damage appears to be permanent.

Before I even step out the door for my run, I have a map in mind of the route I plan to take. Notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, my inner perfectionist control freak likes to think she‘s still in charge. The difference between me and the app is that I map my run before I go anywhere. He-Who-Is-In-Charge (or is He?) can only take so much of my shenanigans before He shakes up the ant farm.

The other day I head out for my run, armed with poopy bags, my GPS watch and a four-mile plan. After about the first mile I realize that I have a technical issue, and in the interest of discretion, I should head back home. But this detour is not part of my plan, and there is no way that I can hit my target speed (if you can even call it speed) if I turn home at this point on my path. I live on a hill. There’s a reason I can round out the third mile faster than second mile. I cheat. I know the route that I’m going – because I’m the one who planned it – and the 3rd mile is still on the downhill slide.

Reluctantly, I head up the hill. I had intended to get in another couple miles, but I’m so annoyed that I’m ready to call it a wrap as soon as I get home. I’m not sure why I’m feeling bitter. Maybe it’s the simple fact that I don’t like stopping. Or maybe it’s just really poor planning that teenagers and their mothers suffer hormonal swings simultaneously. But in my mid (okay, late) forties, I am getting better at breathing. After a few sighs and a couple more inhales, I realize I can still hit the four mile mark – even if not within the time I had hoped – by changing my route to a figure eight instead of an oval. Undaunted, I head out again. Okay, slightly daunted. But not defeated.

There are four high schools in our little town: the public one, the private one, the catholic boys’ school and the catholic girls’ school. Three of the schools are located within two blocks of each other, but the catholic girls are sequestered way up at the top of a hill. It’s a beautiful campus, and they are closer to God up there. And farther from everybody else, which if I had any daughters, would appeal to me as well. To get there, you have to take a couple curvy streets, none of which are particularly well-marked, serving as an effective “moat” around the castle of princesses.

As I’m settling back into a running rhythm, a flustered grandpa driving a sedan asks me how to get to the girls’ school. Maybe he’s on his way to watch his princess play basketball? Or to hear her sing? He’s probably late. I stop, and I get out of my own head long enough to give him directions. I wouldn’t have been in this spot at this moment if I had been on the route I originally intended. Maybe I was supposed to be here now. Not for myself but for somebody else.

Maybe it’s not all about me.

A lost elderly gentleman and a crabby middle-aged mom manage to bring light into each other’s paths. Somehow the Divine, with a little shake of the ant farm, transforms my sullen, selfish self into something else altogether. In what surely must be one of my less attractive states, surly and stinky, I could still bring light and direction to another person. And he brought a gentle reminder that — even armed with my fancy pink GPS device — I am simply not in control. My role is to be myself. Perhaps I could accomplish that with just a little more grace.

One of my favorite meditation instructors begins and ends each of his classes with a slight bow, hands pressed together, and the Hindu expression “Namaste.” Which translates approximately as “The divine in me honors the divine in you.” Humbled, I uttered a quiet “Namaste” as the man drove away in his gray Honda. It occurs to me that we just may be the answers to each other’s unspoken prayers. Maybe, if I pay attention, the simple fact of my presence is enough to bless another’s soul. His presence blessed mine.

Ironically, as I relinquished to need to control my route, I found security simply as a child of the universe. As usual, my run – though not how I planned it, or maybe because I didn’t  – has brought me perspective.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Namaste.

A Walk With Intention

As a student and a bookworm, my favorite place on most any campus is the library. Even as a parent, my favorite volunteer activity is my allotted time in the high school library. Some of the sweetest, smartest and strongest people I know are librarians. I might like to be one when I grow up.

Libraries promote inspiration. Even without picking up a book or opening the pages, the sheer number of volumes, authors and subjects is humbling, and the overwhelming variety of voices, stories and styles motivates and encourages budding authors. Libraries also provide a haven for subversive activity. And I don’t just mean the kind of activity that can be shushed by a glare through spectacles. I mean the revolutionary kind where young people encounter new ideas, access cutting edge research, and cultivate an understanding of other people. Ideally, it is a place where children can learn to think for themselves. 

I engage in my own brand of counterculture activities on my library shift: I smile at stinky, surly teenagers. Sometimes I pray for them. Yes, in the public school. I gave a presentation to the students at the public school last year, and the principal advised me, “You know you can’t say, um… the F word here,” by which he meant Faith. So I don’t say it out loud.

But I can walk it.

I have made it a practice to pray around the public schools. Every week I walk the dog along a route which literally encircles both the public and the private high schools (and mentally extends across the country to include my college-aged sons, their friends and my friends in education). According to John O’Donohue, “Wherever one person takes another into the care of their heart, they have the power to bless.” So, today, on the traditional start date for the academic term, I walk around the schools with gratitude for the faculty, staff, students and parents investing in the education of children. I take them into the care of my heart, and I offer a blessing as this school year begins:

May divine wisdom and mutual respect guide all those who contribute to the academic life — teachers, students, parents, counselors, administrators, staff, volunteers, directors, coaches, facility managers, coordinators, groundskeepers, crossing guards and security personnel.

May the school community flourish within a spirit of patience, appreciation and progress.

May the individuality of each student be honored and nurtured.

May light, inspiration and understanding guide conversation, in the classroom, on the field, in the hallways and at the lunch table. And on the phone. 

May integrity and initiative motivate each student to apply his talents and her gifts in creative, relevant ways.

May parents, step-parents, foster parents and guardians delight in their child’s success and honor each child’s uniqueness and wholeness.

May those students approaching the end of their tenure complete their programs with stamina and honesty. May they enjoy their achievements and use their capacity in the service of life.

May each kindergartener and college freshman and all those transitioning to a new school gain confidence in their new surroundings while maintaining connection to the love, support and faith that brought them to this threshold. 

May the lessons of responsibility, initiative, diligence and flexibility be celebrated.

May mistakes be understood as guideposts for improvement and not as examples of failure. May there be perspective, discernment and harmony.

May the reluctant student find purpose, momentum and joy.

May all students be inspired by possibility, challenge and laughter.

May student leaders structure innovative, effective, inclusive programs.

May faculty and administrators be beacons of calm, generosity and compassion. May they discipline with firmness and gentleness.

May all who contribute to campus life — from preschooler to professor — learn to speak each other’s language.

May the broken-hearted find connection and wholeness, befriending life through art, athletics, literature, challenge, a kind word from a classmate or colleague, or a smile from a volunteer librarian.

May all who participate in education experience rest, safety, unity and hope.

Obviously, it’s a long walk.

The principal of the local public high school will remain blissfully ignorant that I pray on and around his campus several times a week, primarily because his internet security system has blocked my SushiTuesdays website. I presume this is because of the “shit” in the middle. Ironically, the faculty and administration at the boys’ catholic high school, as well as several clergy friends who subscribe to my blog, let the Su-shit fly. Go figure. 

May the invisible, vibrant grace bless us all.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your educational path. And a quiet, comfortable spot in the library.