We Begin Again

Mom

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

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

Kobe died in a helicopter crash.

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

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

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

His daughter, too; it’s impossibly sad.

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

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

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

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

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

I give him a hug.

“I have no words,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

Inhale, exhale, repeat.

Notice where it hurts.

Shoot baskets until your arms ache.

Shout, cry or talk. Or don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

I smile in return, “Yes, we are!”

Yes we are. Still going. 

***

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

***

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

Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

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

 

Inhale, Exhale, Repeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Crosswalk Contemplations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Dog, Agnostic, and Other Measures of Grace

The car ride to school is sometimes the most quality time I get with my busy teenager on a given day and not nearly enough time to connect and check in. But every now and again the mile drive is entirely long enough to create some serious mother-son angst. I was attempting to encourage my son to rely on me as he navigates the challenges of high school. What I meant was that I will do whatever I can for him. What I actually said was that I would throw myself in front of a bus if I thought it would help.

Yup. To the child whose father threw himself off a building.

In my defense, I will just say, Oh nevermind. There’s no excusing this one. It’s true that the suicide-related idioms run rampant in our culture. But his own mother should have behaved better.

Note to my mom friends: You might still be in the race for runner-up in the Mother of the Year contest, but I’ve just clinched the title.

I confess my maternal transgression to an agnostic, my dear and amazing friend Helen. She continues to love me and support me no matter what stupid shit comes out of my mouth, which – obviously – is no small measure of forgiveness. She is more accepting and open-hearted than many a church-goer, and I thank God for her daily.

Helen reminds me that holidays are on the horizon, including her own extended family’s particular brand of dysfunction and various Christmas-related anxieties, and that she might yet have a chance at the title. She’s right. This competition is going to be a sprint to the finish line.

With a little grace and some real fortitude, there’s still time to redeem myself. I lace up my running shoes, and I leash up the dog. The so-called hunting dog has placed himself strategically in front of the heating vents this morning. His sister is hunting quail in the Dakotas. Meanwhile he sits shivering in Southern California. We all have our strengths. Or not.

And it is precisely this weakness that opens a space for me to breathe. The dog is almost everything his breed is reputed to be, except for his aversion to cold, wet feet, and we adore him. So it is with all of us, our vulnerabilities and glitches do not preclude us from being loved.

I’m going to run. I’m going to breathe. I’m going to forgive myself. I’m going to apologize to my son and try again to say what I mean: That I will do whatever I can to support him, and that I will love him no matter what.

On our run, the defective hunting dog and I turn up a little street that we don’t usually traverse. As we come around a curve along the route, we slow to a stop, for in the middle of the road there are four deer, a mother with her three young ones. They appear to be adolescents, still immature, even though they are almost the size of the mother, who stands tall and alert, almost regal, while the three skitter to the shrubs along the sides. She stays still, not taking her eyes off me and my coyote-size dog, as though assessing the risk, even though a car approaches and slows from the opposite direction. She does not budge until she is confident that her young ones have found cover, and only then does she shift – intentionally, gracefully, powerfully – out of harm’s way herself.

That’s the image I meant to convey to my son.

As the dog and I continue, we pass an open field where the deer now race, hurtle and spring, exuberant and unaware of threat or danger, and again I stop to look. They are breathtaking in their youth, energy and innocence. The young bucks (which almost rhymes with something I called my own kids the other day) are fast and strong and will soon overtake their mother. Yet she guides and protects them in whatever ways she can. I imagine she stops – as I do – admiring her young with pride and delight.

I pause, grateful for the reminder that I am not alone on the path that is motherhood, full as it is with both dignity and remorse, success and disappointment, hurting feelings where I intended to console, but coming back to each other still. I know he needs me less as he takes his faltering steps toward independence, despite my own parenting mis-calcs and his occasionally unfortunate, juvenile behavior. We re-create our relationship as the child achieves a milestone, and I step back to watch. I smile, continue on my way, and look forward to telling my son about the deer.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And small graces.

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.