Aren’t You Done Yet?

Nope.
Not “done.”
Not “over it.”
Past the designated year.
Long passed.
I’m learning to live with “it.”
Yes, still.

If by healed you mean finished and forgotten,
I’m not that.
Not healed, but healing.

I’m learning
to live with joy, passion and light.
To love
Despite the obvious risk.
To laugh out loud
Even if that offends as well.
To cry
To dream
To celebrate
To be faithful notwithstanding
All of it.

It’s not a bad thing, you know.
To love someone so completely
That he becomes a part of me
like a dialect.
That I laugh at what he would have found amusing,
That I hear his voice, even now heeding his advice,
That I see his children through his eyes,
That I call his family mine.
That I wear him like a favorite sweater.
That I remain crippled by his wounds.

This love – and this loss – shape me
Into who I am,
Inseparable from who he was. And is.
It’s not a bad thing,
To let my heart open and stretch,
Because love is not static.
Love changes.
Love grows.
Love heals.
Love doesn’t end.
Love remains.

He is the part of me that I gave over to love,
And his love granted me
my whole self.
I will not delete our story
to suit your (in)sensitivity.
Love brought me here.
My story.

I do not flinch
As I speak his name
Sam.
Still healing.

I’m living
With confidence
With clarity
With pain and beauty and tears and truth and laughter and hope
And gratitude,
All together.
With love.
Still.

***

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

Infatuation

The last night of Sam’s life was one of the strangest of mine. I knew about his chronic back pain, but I didn’t know about the crippling despair. I knew about the job stress, but not the intensity of his shame. The pieces only made sense in retrospect. And by the time I put them together, of course, it was too late.

The night before Sam died, I found our Wills and Trust sitting out on the counter. It didn’t strike me as odd because I was a practicing trusts and estates attorney, and I had been thinking about revising our estate plan. We had had a second child since we originally executed those documents, and I wanted to update our Wills and Trust to include both boys by name (as opposed to “our son Michael and any other children we might have”). So when I noticed the binder of documents on the counter, I said to my husband “Oh good. I’ve been meaning to get those out so I can revise them.” He said not a word. After the fact, I realized that butthead had been reading our Trust to make sure that the boys and I would be covered even if he left our estate plan alone.

Out of the blue, he said, “Jim Wilson was a smart guy.” I can picture exactly where I was standing in the kitchen at the island when I threw up my hands and replied emphatically, “Jim was an idiot! He left a wife and two kids.” Jim was in our law school class, and he was, in fact, a very smart guy. Before attending law school, he had graduated from medical school, so he consistently ruined the curve. We would have hated him, if he had not also been such a nice guy. But somehow he lost his way. Several years after we all graduated, Jim committed suicide by jumping off the parking structure at his office, leaving his wife and two young children. Only later did I realize that what Sam meant was that Jim knew how to get the job done. More women attempt suicide, but more men die from it. Sam had his heart set on it.

That same night, Sam said, “I’m so sorry I failed you.” Again, I heard his words, but I didn’t understand his intention. I responded unequivocally, “Failed me?! What are you talking about? What part of this was failure? We have each other, we have two gorgeous kids, we even have a ridiculously cute little black dog and a white picket fence!” But Sam didn’t hear me either. As I replayed that conversation in the hours and days immediately following his death, I realized he hadn’t heard my answer because he wasn’t trying to apologize. He was trying to say goodbye.

Our conversation seemed so peculiar. We spoke in that shorthand that couples use when they’ve been married a long time, but we weren’t understanding each other. He was preoccupied and distant. I intuited that something was wrong, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what it might be. I began to fear that maybe he was having an affair. It was the worst thing I could think of. I didn’t know he was flirting with his own mortality. Late that evening, I looked him in the eye and asked the question that terrified me, “Are you sure you’re not having an affair?” It didn’t occur to me that he might be suicidal. “Oh Charlotte,” he said, looking at me with tenderness and shaking his head. “No. I would never.”

He wasn’t so much tugging on a lifeline as he was pulling a ripcord.

Sam never came to bed that night. I have often wondered whether if he had slept – even just a few hours – things would have looked brighter in the morning. The sun rose on a new day, but he had already checked out, seduced by the promise of a better place.

In retrospect, it appears obvious. At the time, I missed the signs completely. We couldn’t connect because we were operating from two different levels.

When the boys and I left the house the next morning to go to the little one’s soccer game, Sam stayed home to take a nap. I learned later that he literally raced out of the driveway and down the street, uncharacteristically erratic behavior for a man who was protective of pedestrians and the local children. He was a man consumed by a passion.

I don’t know if I could have stopped him, or if he even would have slowed down long enough to take a nap or take a breath. The attraction was too strong. He had completely disengaged, inspired by the hope that Death would take him.

I believe that the allure of suicide came upon him suddenly and beguiled him with a promise to end his pain, both physical and emotional. I believe that he acted quickly in order to keep me from stopping him.

I returned home later that day, anxious because I hadn’t been able to reach Sam. I arrived to find a police car in front of my house, lights flashing silently. Two uniformed police and a priest waited for me in my driveway. Sam’s silence and his words clicked into place: I’m so sorry I failed you. Jim was a smart guy. Oh Charlotte, No. Suddenly, the pieces fit together in a way that I didn’t want to believe.

I have certainly berated myself plenty for having missed the clues. And I’ve beaten Sam up, too, for dropping hints and then leaving me, for betraying our trust and abandoning our children. I have – over years filled with therapy, long walks, reflection, Pinot Noir and dark chocolate – come to terms with the limits of my own power to save anyone other than myself. Although sometimes I fail her, too.

I will confess that it was a comfort to know that Sam was enchanted by a mistress whose name was Death, instead of, say, Dahlia. I do not know that I would have handled that well. After all, Death will have the last dance with each of us in this life. I hope She has been kind to Sam.

***

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

Heart Murmur

My little black shadow is following me silently today.

His toenails are not clicking on the hardwood floor, paws shuffling after me. He is not scratching at the door to be let out. Or in. Again. He is not barking for a cookie. He is not coughing, struggling to catch a breath, his little heart working increasingly harder but accomplishing less.

I hear clearly what I desperately miss – the thump, thump, thump of his wagging tail against the side of his crate every morning, always excited to see me. If he was awake, that tail was wagging. Sometimes even before the rest of him was awake. When that tail got going it wagged the entire little black dog, from tail to hips to shoulders. Even his feet got happy.

I can hardly focus at all in the midst of all the noise the little black dog is not making.

He spent most of his days by my feet or at my heels. I’m not an excellent sitter. It’s one of my challenges as a writer, keeping my own tail in the chair. I pop up when the washing machine goes silent. I pace. I heat up my coffee or grab a snack. But when I do sit, my little black dog sleeps at my feet. A closed door separating him and me distressed him so much that he put long, desperate scratches in the bedroom door. And the kitchen door. And especially the front door. In recent weeks, he moved noticeably more slowly, so I waited for him, holding the door open a few moments longer to allow my constant companion time to join me.

He was everything the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is reputed to be – affectionate, playful, loyal, gentle, and prone to overeating. When the kids started kindergarten and elementary school and their confidence increased, along with their time away from mom, the little black dog stayed home with me. When Sam died, the little black dog, with his therapeutic spaniel ears, comforted us through long, dark nights. We called him “Love in a dog shape.”

He also suffered from the heart murmur that commonly afflicts his breed. His little heart worked overtime his whole life; in the last year, he started three different heart medications. Yet his tail still wagged. I didn’t look to his head for confirmation that he was well, I looked to his tail. Between his declining health and hearing, his ears did not always respond to the first noise of my homecoming. But his tail always did.

Until yesterday. When I walked in after my morning run, no part of him wiggled or wagged at all. Not at the beeping of the house alarm, not when I called his name, not when I knelt to touch his head. The worst part was not the silent tail or the still heart or the unmoving ears or even the blue tongue, evidencing his heart failure. It wasn’t his final piddle on the floor. The worst part was the long, teary day, waiting for my boys to come home from school. Their first puppy. A faithful friend. Always up for a game of fetch. Or a cozy nap. Or sharing a snack. That little dog with his soft ears and gentle heart carried their sorrow and lifted their spirits when they were sad. They had that little black dog in their lives longer than they had their own father. My heart aches.

When I do tell them, I worry that I will not hold up under the weight of their grief. We sit together silently, tears running down our faces. We stroke the cold spaniel ears for the last time. We hold his hushed tail. His furry little body is so cold, the first dead body that the boys have touched. It is not creepy or morbid, it’s just sad. There is a sense that the little black dog simply got up and walked away while we weren’t looking, leaving his body behind to let us know that he had gone. We have learned so much about how to love and how to live from the little black dog whose heart was marked with a congenital defect.

Ours may not be a culture comfortable with death and grieving, but ours is a home where broken hearts are seen, and heard and nurtured. None of us ever saw Sam after he died. It is a question that, not surprisingly, the boys bring up now, as they face death once again. The boys were so angry with me when I did not allow them to see their cold, dead father. There is research that supports the idea that children who have seen the body have an easier time coming to terms with the death of a loved one. I cannot now remember where I read that theory, but it does make sense to me. For many, many months, one of the boys wanted to believe that his dad was on an extended business trip. On the other hand, Sam’s body was so terribly disfigured by the trauma of his death that I feared this visual was likely to do more harm than good. I remember asking the police officer whether I could see the body myself, and he looked at me with great sympathy. The words that came out of his mouth were, “You can,” but as he held my eyes with his, willing me to understand, he began to shake his head slowly back and forth. I had never told my sons this story, and it gives us an opportunity – once again – to talk about their dad.

These are not necessarily easy judgment calls to make, and there is no one right answer. For me, I decided that I did not want that grisly picture of Sam to be imprinted on the boys as their last memory of dad. They were so little, and their father was so much more than that one terrible day. In this regard, the little black dog has given us his final gift – a gentle, tender death. The end of his life was not tragic or traumatic. It was just his time to go.

We are, of course, heartbroken.

It is hard to believe that the little dog who was all heart could have died of heart failure. We sit next to him, tenderly stroking his cold hears, but he is gone. His heart no longer fails him, and his love does not fail us. The little black dog is no longer love in a dog shape. He is, simply, love. But we do miss his wiggly waggly self.

I had forgotten how distracting an absence can be. My favorite reading chair has a permanent divot across the top. No amount of fluffing or patting will reinstate its original shape. It was his favorite chair, too. He rested his chin on my shoulder while I read, his tail flopped over my other shoulder. Now I sit with a book open in my lap, staring out the window. The clouds are gathering, growing darker, sunlight dimming and hidden, branches are bending and bowing to the approaching storm.

The raindrops fall gently. I hear his heart murmuring still, mimicked by the thump, thump, thump of his beautiful black tail.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little black shadow.

Love Notes, Lists and Leaps of Faith

I’m thinking about getting organized and cleaning out my files. Maybe this is the year I’ll even be ahead of the income tax game. Not likely, but I am an optimist. There is, unfortunately, a significant risk of being sabotaged in this process, and not just by a blown budget or an approaching deadline. By a handwritten note, a photograph, even a receipt can derail me from my organizational goals. It doesn’t usually send me into a tailspin the way it used to, when I came across a love note from Sam, for example, or the old-fashioned bank books from the kiddie accounts he set up for the boys years ago. The only remaining value of those old accounts is the handwritten name of each child on the bank books themselves. The boys have so few things with their father’s handwriting, evidencing his presence, his touch and his care.

There is one note that stops me in my tracks even still. Sam’s last note – not the love note I would have wanted – but “nice” as suicide notes go. At least that’s what the police officer told me, and I’m sure he’s right. There are a lot of terribly vindictive, painful parting words out there. Dear Charlotte… In his very-nice-suicide-note, Sam told the boys and me for the last time that he loved us. I love you. Tell the boys I love them. He apologized for what he knew he was about to do, unable to anticipate just how much pain his death would cause. I’m so sorry. Sam expressed his confidence in me and my ability to raise our sons, and his loss of faith in himself. They need you …. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a commission. I didn’t get to say, “No I can’t!” Or “Don’t you dare!” I didn’t get to tell him, “Get back here! I’m not done talking!”

I had signed up for ‘till death do us part, but not yet.

People often ask me if I saw Sam’s suicide coming, and mostly the answer is no. He wasn’t diagnosed bipolar or depressed or medicated. In retrospect, of course, I cannot help but to see things differently. Sam suffered chronic back pain from the time he was 13 years old, and he had already had two back surgeries for herniated discs. He feared that a third surgery might be in his near future. He suffered from job stress, but everyone I know who has a job has job stress. It’s worse when you don’t have a job. I had just started back to work part-time, as a trusts and estates attorney, and our discussions of the future involved whether I would want to open my own office, whether we should consider moving to a place not subject to the steep Southern California weather tax, and whether we should have another baby. We weren’t contemplating the life of one of us after the death of the other of us. At least, I wasn’t.

The night before he died, I noticed our Wills out on the kitchen counter, and I mentioned I was glad he had brought them out because I had intended to update our estate planning documents, now that I was working again. He said “mm…hhmm.” Among other things, I wanted to make sure that both kids were included by name. I was a trusts and estates attorney, so the “Last Will and Testament” didn’t make me cringe in the slightest. Only later did I realize that he was reading them for a different purpose altogether. That butthead was making sure the I’s were dotted and T’s crossed so that he could go die with some small measure of peace, knowing the kids and I were covered. Maybe if I had been a civil rights lawyer, I would have known enough to be alarmed.

Meanwhile, across town, a couple I didn’t know were having a very straightforward conversation about her imminent death. She had stage four colon cancer. They were high school sweethearts and had been together for 25 years. She was 40 and he was 42. She told him that he should find love again. He said “Not a chance.” She told him not to be an idiot. He said he had every intention of sitting on the porch, playing guitar and drinking scotch until his own death. She continued. He was young, and she wanted him to live his life. She did ask that Tim find somebody who already had children, because she thought a woman who was a mother would make a better step-mother to her sons. With one caveat. She gave him three names of women she did not want him to date, all of them bitter and angry girls. This grouping of single ladies comprises what we now refer to as the “Do Not Date List.” One night, while Debbie was still alive, a woman arrived at the front door with a “dish” for Tim. The casserole lady is #4 on the Do Not Date List.

I admire the woman who writes the Do Not Date List for her husband on her own deathbed. She loved him with all of her heart, and when it was her time to go, she not only gave him permission to live his life but encouraged him to do so. I am in awe of that kind of love. She trusted Tim’s ability to love again long before he did. I am so grateful that she said it out loud.

I did not feel quite so appreciative of Sam’s trust in me. I resented him deeply for his particular leap of faith. I didn’t want to raise our sons by myself. Would he have stayed if he had less confidence in my capacity? I had no intention of being supermom, and resolved absolutely never to fall in love again. Ever. But I found myself in this untenable situation where, even though I wished Sam was wrong, I wanted to be the woman my husband believed in. I did not want to wear the widow chip on my shoulder forever. Little by little, I began to put the pieces of our broken lives back together again, inching our way toward wholeness, finding gratitude, joy and, yes, even love.

It is no small miracle that Tim likewise allowed himself to fall in love again. Then again, Debbie knew he would. It is a strange and wonderful blessing that Sam’s love and Debbie’s love brought Tim and me to where we are now, sitting together on our back porch, surrounded by kids, cats and dogs. Life and love in abundance. Tim sometimes even plays guitar, and we share the scotch.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a splash of Balvenie Doublewood.

Deathaversary

The word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” We couldn’t find the word to mark this particular occasion, so we made up our own: “deathaversary.”

Somehow the word “deathaversary” carries a better balance of the gravity and levity of the day. The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not a celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and find joy, well then, there is reason for celebration. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry – or at least I do – because I (not to be confused with the men in my life) am a sissy crybaby. Personally, I believe the fountain of tears has contributed in no small part to my ability to heal, gentlemen, but I digress…

Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

We have, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk hurting feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt feelings. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (and maybe fail!) to help.

Our town has a deathaversary coming up. It is more than a little painful. Last year, a senior boy committed suicide on campus at our local high school. The year before, a sophomore took his own life at a neighboring high school. Our Number 2 son found out about both events before any of the rest of us because friends were texting him (in school, of course, but don’t tell the Dean of Discipline).

How do we let these kids know how desperately they are loved? How worthwhile their lives are? I don’t know, but I want to try. At the time, I responded in the way most natural to me. I went for a run. I used my words. I talked to my children, and I wrote an article for the local paper. In the interest of grabbing that deathaversary bull by the horns, I’d like to share that letter again, and I apologize because some of you might have already seen it, but I think it’s still relevant, so here it is…

The Speech

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk.  My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10 minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help.  When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married just over a year ago. (Three years now!) 

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

 ***

Wishing our teenagers light and strength. And extra snacks.