Friend-Like Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Reunion Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Celebrations

I.

I haven’t seen her in a few weeks, and my friend Linda greets me with a hug and this question: “What party are you planning now?” The irony of this question amuses me. It’s not as if I’m a professional party planner. On the contrary, I am well versed in a specific form of sucking all the fun out of a room, which is to say that my formal training is as a lawyer. At heart, I’m just a girl who likes to celebrate the good stuff in life.

I don’t ignore the bad stuff. I believe that facing into those dark moments of loneliness, terror and sorrow prepares the heart to recognize love, joy and hope when they walk through the door. As a family, we observe fatherless Father’s Days, birthdays even after the death of the honoree, and deathaversaries (our home-spun term for the anniversary of a loved one’s death, because “anniversary” doesn’t convey the appropriate gravitas). We attend funerals with abandon.

But I do love to throw a party. It’s almost as good as finding the perfect gift.

With four sons and as many mothers and mothers-in-law, we are constantly coordinating birthday parties, graduations, holidays and anniversaries. We hosted a 60th wedding anniversary last weekend, a 50th birthday in March, and I’m in the midst of planning the menu for a 50th wedding anniversary for next month. We don’t have any graduations this year, but we had two last year (the so-called little one from 8th grade and our first college graduate!). If all goes according to plan, we will have at least one high school or college graduation for five out of the next seven years. We honor a lot of milestones.

II.

There’s so much to celebrate in this life, even if it means getting older, although I appreciate that not everyone shares this perspective. Years ago, I had called a high school friend to wish her a happy 39th birthday, and she was lamenting our impending “old age.” As I recall, I responded with something like, “Are you kidding? My life just keeps getting better. My twenties were way better than my teens, I got married in my twenties. My thirties were even better than my twenties, because I had my kids in my thirties. I cannot wait to be forty!” I was widowed a month later. Sam’s death left a black cloud on the landscape of my thirties, and then, truly, I was ready for a new decade.

Little did I know that I had yet to be introduced to the love of my life.

When the spring came, I threw myself a 40th birthday party. In all fairness, it was less about embracing a new decade than it was about bidding a not-so-fond farewell to thirty-nine and its corresponding widowhood. I was not unhappy to see my thirties in my rearview mirror. Partly celebration, partly a thank you to a handful of my closest friends, the nearest and dearest who held my hand during some very dark days after Sam’s suicide, it was an evening of pomegranate martinis and laughter, a reminder that my life wasn’t over.

There are worse things than getting older. Like not.

My 40’s have, in fact, brought me great joy. I fell in love. I gained two more wonderful children. We got an “ours” puppy. We are grateful and precious and blessed.

III.

I recently attended a wedding celebration for a dear friend and fellow widow, one of the charter members of our local Club-You-Don’t-Want-To-Be-In. As we gathered together to share in the bride’s joy, I was struck by the incredible beauty and resilience of the women present, glasses in hand, tears in eyes, smiles on faces. These women have loved, lost and loved some more. They are living proof that if you keep living and loving, your life will be resurrected over and over again.

There are no specific requirements for membership in our Club. Other than having been widowed. Or divorced. Or never married. Oh nevermind, we are not exclusive; we invite married women to join us, too. We welcome all who have suffered losses and still find moments to embrace and appreciate in this life.

We do not host regular meetings or collect dues. We laugh. We have joy and love and struggles in abundance. We put one foot in front of the other, some days more slowly than others. We dare to live our lives fully. And again.

We are fiercely protective of our children, especially the atheists and suicidal ones. Well, also the ones who are distracted and dyslexic, who suffer from severe illness or chronic pain. Oh hell, we are fiercely protective of all of them. We would defend the perfect children if we had any. We kneel in tears at the foot of the cross holding a beloved child, asking for help, praying for healing, begging for another day.

Some of us have nursed a husband through cancer and dared to love him again, knowing all too well the pain that will ensue if – God forbid – the cancer returns. After all, every so-called successful marriage ends in death. We have lived that, too. And still had the audacity to find love after death.

We dare to be seen – in public, in yoga pants, without mascara. We take communion. Some of us pray. All of us swear. We say the names of our beloved dead out loud. We dare to love teenagers we didn’t birth, which is like handing your surgeon a pizza cutter for your open-heart surgery.

These unflagging women are my people. We are legion. We honor the past and we celebrate our present. It’s the Club-I-Want-To-Be-In, these scandalous women who continue to find love and strength and hope in this life. There is incredible joy in the power of the phoenix. We raise our champagne glasses, and we dance.

There are, truth be told, some who liked us better when we were grieving and miserable and victimized by life. A select few remain who continue to take offense at our joy. They don’t have to join the festivities if they don’t want to.

But the rest of us are going to have a party.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the camaraderie of scandalous women.

Help!

If there was a way to walk the so-called hunting dog this morning without my having to get out of this chair, I’d be all about it. It’s drizzly and chilly out there, and I’m tired. The dog is curled up snugly in his crate, even though the door is wide open. He is giving absolutely no indication that he intends to move. This might be one reason we call him defective. I confess that I’m a little grateful, because I don’t want to move either. I am vehemently slumping into this chair and planning which tasks I can postpone or avoid altogether. I suspect that forward progress will require more than another cup of coffee.

There are times when a silent sit is exactly what I need, and in general, I need to slow down more than I need to speed up. Unless, of course, we are talking about my actual running speed, which starts off slow and seems to decrease over time. On the other hand, I have a preternatural fear of inertia, which sometimes clouds my ability to see clearly.

I pause. I sit. I think. I definitely need to move. It has become evident to me, however, that I’m not going to get there on my own. I need help. I need a companion to jump-start today’s journey. It’s time to send up a smoke signal.

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally to me. I like to think of myself as capable and independent. I can be as maddening as an adamant two-year-old who insists on putting her own shoes on her two feet, climbing up into her carseat without an assist and buckling herself, even though the process will take at least twice as long. My inner toddler does hold a bachelor’s degree in literature, as well as a graduate degree. Surely, I am not without personal resources. I also have children, who in and of themselves provide an education in psychology and emergency medicine, along with a healthy dose of humility. I have learned, over the years, that sometimes a girl just needs a little support on those first few steps before she can go the rest of her way.

I wish I were better at keeping a journal. It is hard for me to remember those early days immediately following Sam’s suicide. I know that I didn’t sleep much. I ate even less. I have a beautiful collection of journals with inspiring covers. Unfortunately, most of the pages are blank, other than random chicken scratchings on a few pages. I also saved several miscellaneous emails. Four days after Sam’s death, at 2:54am, I sent this email to a select group of girlfriends:

So among the many weird things that have been happening, today a cousin says to me “Charlotte, I want you to consider moving closer to us — we would love to see you every day — but I know you have that amazing community.  And I would like to think we could offer you that… but those women put on a good game.”

Keep your game faces on, girls. I need you.

I so get the urge to scoop up my loved ones and keep them out of harm’s way. I do not fault my cousin for wanting to whisk us off, but as soon as the thought was verbalized, I knew I wanted to stay put. If I were going to move, it would be a deliberate shift toward a better opportunity in our lives. For now, I would stay in my amazing community. I would not run away. Or throw up the white flag. I would stand on my own two feet.

But first, I would need to dress in black. And I would need to be propped up by a few faithful friends. There are times when asking for help can demonstrate more wisdom than attempting to go solo. Keep your game faces on, girls. I need you.

They began to rally to my side. One contacted the local papers and drafted the obituary. Another created a website to disseminate updated funeral logistics and to provide a virtual touchstone for our concerned friends and family, too many to speak to personally in those initial days. One contacted the County Coroner’s Office to arrange for the release of the body. Another drove me to the rabbi’s office. And to my therapist’s. My dear friend and family photographer cropped a picture, taken just two weeks prior to his death, to frame Sam alone. One designed the program for the funeral; another made a collage of family photographs for display. Somebody arranged for a limousine. A team coordinated the reception following the funeral.

One friend brought my favorite of Sam’s suits and ties to the funeral home to dress him. Several furnished suitable black dresses to my doorstep for the occasion. I have a vivid memory of the surreal moment when “Tracey” sat on the side of my bed as I tried on a dozen suits and dresses. It was oddly like going to a bridal salon with my maid of honor, searching for just the right wedding gown. Only the dress was black. And the groom was dead. When I tried on a simple sheath dress with a matching knee-length jacket I turned to look at my attendant for her approval. She smiled, and sighed, and she said, with tears in her eyes, “It’s beautiful. He would have loved it.”

On the day of the funeral, she fastened the pearls at the back of my neck, and accompanied me in the limousine. Together we sat and inhaled silently as Rabbi Daniel began the service. When it was time for me to speak, Tracey squeezed my hand and let me go. I took a few steps forward, and I gasped. From the alcove where I had been sitting, a privacy curtain blocked my view of those in attendance. From the podium, I could see that the largest chapel at the cemetery was full beyond capacity, with people standing along the walls and spilling out into the courtyard. If there was one definitive moment when I knew viscerally just how many people I could turn to and depend on, it was now. My game face girls sat front and center.

I wished desperately that Sam could have felt the presence of all these people who would have helped him. If only he had asked.

I wrote the eulogy myself. I delivered the eulogy with the aid of just half a Xanax beforehand. And the promise of the other half afterwards.

I know how to mobilize a team when I’m facing a challenge I cannot handle alone, even when this means getting up and out the door instead of crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over my head. Because some days this is no small achievement. We all have times when we need encouragement to face the day. Some days more than others, of course, but every day counts.

It is my experience that help is generally available when I ask. I call my neighbor. As it turns out, she and her dog need momentum, too.

I love when Life works this way.

Three miles later, all four of us are in a better place. We have conquered a steep hill together, we have shed a few communal tears, shared some laughs, uttered a couple prayers for our collective children, and we are equipped to face the day with renewed optimism and energy. The sun is breaking through the cloud cover, and we are on our way.

Now I’m ready for that second cup of coffee.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And help when you ask.

!Yo Puedo!

I grew up in a devoutly religious home. We went to church services twice a week. Religiously, as it were. When I was a little girl, I used to write Bible verses on a slip of paper and keep them in my pocket. Usually a verse from a favorite Psalm or Bible story, almost always including a promise of presence and power. Often these messages began with the angel’s command, “Fear not.” Even if I didn’t pull it out to read, the folded verse reminded me of divine presence, like tucking an angel in my back pocket.

Shortly after Sam’s death, we flew across the country for a family bar mitzvah. Sam was a Cuban Jew, and I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but just trust me on this point. One of my cousins used to have a stand-up comedy routine she entitled “Jewbans.” Anyway, we flew to Little Havana (Miami) to join the celebration.

My cousin’s sister “Alexa” is a cancer survivor, a stunningly beautiful woman with the most amazing, gentle green eyes. Graced with strength, fortified by family, blessed with intellect and heart and humor, she is a princess warrior. She is one of those women whose power and gentleness emanate in equal parts. I had never met her before, and I found my place next to her, soaking up her energy and warmth. She didn’t speak much English, and I only speak a poquito de Spanish. But pain is a universal language, and suffering levels the playing field.

Several of us cousins stayed up late one night, folding programs, preparing party favors and name cards and centerpieces. We laughed and chattered — in a mix of Spanish and English — and eventually our work was done, but we kept up the conversation, softer voices, still hands. I didn’t sleep much in those days, and I was grateful for the female companionship in the late hours.

Alexa looked at me with her beautiful green cat eyes, and she saw me. She saw the confused and wounded little girl, tucked tight in a ball. She saw the grizzly bear mother, rising to her full height, roaring, claws outstretched, prepared to eviscerate any threat to her cubs. She saw the young mother bird, gently folding a chick under each wing and singing her little ones to sleep. And she saw my own inner princess warrior, a prayer in one hand and a sword in the other. Without judgement, and with recognition, she saw all of me. I curled up in her arms and wept.

It is one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other — a place to be known and safe, a place where the frightened child and the fearsome warrior both reside.

Throughout the week, Alexa would offer me words of encouragement, mostly in Spanish. At the end of the week, she presented me with a single white 3×5 card: Yo puedo! No tengo miedo! Soy fuerte! Salgo adelante! Yo si puedo! SI! And on the opposite side, like the answer to a vocabulary flash card, in English: “Don’t forget: “I can!” 

From the early stages of my process, I was determined not to get stuck in my grief. I still keep Alexa’s card in my wallet, not unlike the Bible verses I carried with me as a child, so that I will see her words and think of her eyes and remember: I can!

This morning I’m planning the route for my run. I am tired and busy and I don’t really want to run at all, not even with my trusty side-kick, the defective hunting dog. But my girlfriend has talked me into another half-marathon (um, yeah… more on that later), and according to the training schedule, I need five miles. I do not even want to go that far today.

I lace up my running shoes and head out anyway. I aim low. I might walk a few miles, but only to take the edge off the dog. After the first mile, I start to wonder whether I could hit the three-mile mark and yet avoid the construction that seems to be afflicting the local streets this week. All this makes me think about how Life’s construction zones sometimes block my intended path and send me in another direction. I have several friends for whom Life has recently thrown up a big DETOUR sign, which has forced them to stop, gather their strength and start again in a different direction. Several are facing really big things: cancer, career changes, marital issues, the death of a sibling, financial challenges, parents in declining health and crises of faith. And, of course, the adage is true: a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. Fathers too. My own least happy child is decidedly downcast, and I spend the first part of my run on the verge of tears.

I think of my friends, many of whom picked me up and dusted me off when Life threw me a curveball, knocking me to the dirt. The least I can do is to keep running, like a prayer in motion. I decide to run by one girlfriend’s house in particular, not necessarily to stop (although I would if she wanted me to), but more like an intentional prayer loop, holding her tangibly in my thoughts and heart. It will add an extra mile to my route, but that’s what friends do. And as an incentive, I intend to let myself walk the last mile home.

I don’t stop and knock at my friend’s door because I don’t want to interrupt. (Not to mention that I suspect she would prefer a “virtual hug” from her panting, sweaty friend.) But I do hesitate for a moment — even though I’m afraid I might not get moving again — in an expression of solidarity. Like the song says, “When you’ve got troubles, I’ve got troubles, too.” I hold her in my heart and inhale. I exhale encouraging thoughts in her direction.

Inhale, exhale, repeat. Another of my favorite mantras.

Yo puedo! (I can!)

I begin to move again, first walking, then running, mentally pushing myself with the same thoughts I directed toward my friend. As I approach the home stretch, I am still thinking about several friends and the challenges ahead.

No tengo miedo! (I am not afraid!)

I remember their strength, their faith, their capacity for love, forgiveness and humor. I am winded. I’ve now achieved the prescribed 5 miles and can completely justify walking the last hill. My legs are heavy.

Soy fuerte! (I am strong!)

But as I contemplate the pain, anger and fear facing some of my friends, I press on. These women and men propelled me along my own healing journey with their strength and positive energy, and they inspire me still. I aim to encourage them and offer support along theirs.

Salgo adelante! (I’m moving forward!)

It is not until the steep hill home that my own tears spill over, but this is the place real strength lies, where the wounded little girl and the princess warrior make their way. Because the fact of the matter is that vulnerability and humility often require more fortitude than climbing up a hill. The tears and the sweat run together in one salty mess. Which is why I recommend wearing sunglasses on a run.

Yo si puedo! SI! (Yes, I can! YES!)

I reach the top and smile.

Whether you call it prayer, intention or desire, I believe that there is power in the positive thoughts that we radiate toward our loved ones. In fact, I know this to be true because I have experienced time and again the lift that comes when friends hold me in their hearts.

That extra hill was for you, my friend.

!Si, yo puedo!”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And words of encouragement.

Volume Control

When our boys are bickering over whose turn it is to play on the xBox or take out the trash or use the car, or venting frustration over whatever the latest unfairness might be, our frequent response is: “You are 100% responsible for your 50%.” Meaning that you cannot control everything (or anything, really) that other people do (particularly if those people happen to be your brothers), but you can control yourself.

Needless to say, this concept has little appeal to the kids. They are far less interested in changing their own position than they are in transforming their siblings into compromising, understanding, selfless individuals. When they groan that the coach or the teacher is unreasonable, they would prefer to change the grading rubric than to get an early start on their training schedule or summer reading. Our refrain frequently falls on deaf ears.

These are among the many parenting occasions when I long to transform my children into rational human beings who appreciate the wisdom in maternal advice. Instead, I am reduced to following my own recommendation. The trick is figuring out what constitutes my 50%.

I have a pair of friends from college who are like the brothers I never had, in all the ways that older brothers can be. They were protective and helpful, showing me around campus and introducing me to friends. They also taught me how to play quarters and corralled my roommate and me out to a country bar to learn the Texas two-step. Bobby and Earl were a pair, and if you met either, you likely knew the two of them. In fact, once you knew them, it was awkward to say one of the names without the other. Like milk and cookies. Or maybe not quite.

Earl and Bobby devised a system for the music on their road trips — this was before iPods and satellite radio — to keep the tunes playing and promote relative harmony in the truck. One took over the dial for the tuner and the other controlled the volume. We went to school in Texas (I mentioned the truck), and there was a lot of ground to cover between our little school in Houston and their respective homes. That’s just a lot of time on the road. Their arrangement worked well: When the “tuner” liked the song, he kept that station playing, and if “volume control” didn’t care for the song, he turned the volume low. The tuner would then change the station, and once he found something they both liked, the volume came way up. Simple, but effective.

Sometimes I like to be reminded that even when I don’t have complete power over a situation (and in fact, I never do), I can still exert control over something. I can turn the volume up, down, or even off. I am a girl who finds comfort in silence, so that helps.

I tried a new yoga/pilates class on my vacation. The instructor brought a lovely energy to her practice, and she used words like beautiful, strong and yes. She said, “I love this pose!” so enthusiastically so many times that we laughed, which was another way she brought smiles to our faces, even while she was treating us to additional ab work in the form of a plank. I think she genuinely loves that tortuous chair pose and was strong enough to have sat there for the duration of the class. Her joy became contagious.

I don’t know why her class made me think of Bobby and Earl, except that hers is the kind of exuberant soundtrack that they would have tuned into and cranked up the volume on, exactly the consonance I want to invite into my life. I cannot control the “haters,” as my sons call them, but I can choose to turn the volume low on their disheartening messages of inadequacy, fear and inertia.

As a parent, I cannot control everything my sons do. After all, that is their 50%. I bring the boys to church and serve them veggies, but it’s up to them to find their own inspiration and eat broccoli.

Humbled again, I turn toward my own 50%. I love and cherish my sons and their father. I eat brussel sprouts (Roasted at 425, olive oil, salt & pepper. Better than potato chips. Trust me!). I try to be kind. I read inspirational books. I walk the dog. Some days farther than others. I take a deep breath. I listen.

From time to time, I participate in a friend’s Wellness Camp exercise program. It’s kind of like a a 40-day boot-camp-style exercise program, only completely unlike boot-camp. We train hard, but we also meditate daily. She motivates with words like strength, balance, joy, healing and grace. I turn the volume way up on her messages of health and wellness. One morning while we were working out at the track, we heard another instructor (he-of-the-drill-sergeant-style) bellowing at a group of boot-campers to “Run like a Rottweiler is chasing you!” I am so grateful my friend never yells at me to run like a dog is hot on my heels. Life is hard enough. For the long haul, I’d prefer beauty, light and love to power me through.

I don’t have complete control, of course, but I do have some. And I exercise my choices thoughtfully, adjusting the volume on the incoming messages up or down or off with intention. Just enough to keep the peace on my journey.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little volume control.

Belonging

Blending a family does not happen overnight. There are many aspects to consider, and much patience is required. A sense of humor helps. Along with a glass or two of something red.

Or maybe something white. Because it’s been awfully hot at family camp this week.

Sam and I started going to UCLA family camp when our boys were 3 and 5. We are big Bruin fans — between the two of us, we had three degrees from UCLA. The camp is popular, and it can be difficult to secure a spot. It took us three years applying to the lottery to “win” our spot, but the way it works is this: Once you get a week, you keep priority for “your” week (there are 10), for as long as you continue to attend. Which means that we end up vacationing with many of the same families every summer. Our kids grew up together in their groups, from the little “pooh bears” to the surly teenage “grizzly bears,” all led by talented, energetic young counselors currently attending the university. Meanwhile, we parents connect, attending faculty lectures on timely topics, or hiking, or biking or lounging poolside, all while somebody else does the cooking, cleaning, marketing and making of the beds. It is truly a vacation for everyone in the family.

When the boys were very young, they were in tears coming down the mountain after our week at family camp, newly separated from their favorite Bruin counselors and already counting the 51 weeks until we go back. One of the first questions the boys asked me after Sam died was whether we would be allowed to return to Bruin Woods, our reservation having been made under his name. When I am tempted to regret having attended law school, I remind myself that those three years were my ticket to family camp (not to mention my actual family since Sam and I met at UCLA) and worth the price of admission. And even the collateral brain damage.

Over the last 10 years, our camp families have become some of our most cherished friends. We hiked together, and my nurse friend determined whether I should get stitches when I hit my head on a climb. They took pictures of my kids when I forgot my camera. They gave me orthodontic advice and shared recipes. They cocooned me the summer after Sam’s death. They cried with me and laughed with me and cheered for my boys when they performed in the family talent show. They delighted in my engagement to Tim, and they looked at every single wedding photo the following summer. They welcomed additional sons to my brood. Together we celebrated and commiserated over our collective step-parenting steps and miscalculations.

Some of our favorite family memories come from camp. The main lodge opens to an expansive front lawn, where the kids play tag, catch, soccer, extreme dodgeball, often while parents linger over dinner. Late one summer afternoon, three charter buses pull up the driveway, and onto this lawn spills the entire Bruin football team. The team is en route back to Los Angeles after training in the San Bernardino mountains, and they stop at a place where a little bit of Trojan-bashing and a good deal of Bruin brain-washing and Eight-Clapping are daily fare. What could be better? These football players are bigger than life, and the fans are elated. Especially the dads.

My youngest son finds me after an hour or so, and he has stars in his eyes. He has been playing with two of the guys. They jumped into the lake together, they taught him to skip rocks, they played basketball. They may be elite athletes, playing Division 1 football in the Pac 12 conference, but they are also just big kids. The boys each signed my son’s shirt. On the left sleeve is Deitrich Riley’s signature. Deitrich is special to our family because he went to the same high school as my sons, and we watched him play ball under the Friday night lights. On my son’s right sleeve is the signature of Anthony Barr (a linebacker who was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft).

My boy was so excited that he didn’t even think to take his cell phone out of his pocket before jumping into the lake. I couldn’t have cared less. (My kid does not have a smart phone, or I might have cared a smidge more.) It is an experience he will remember fondly for a very long time, and I suspect he will keep that shirt for many years, and not because of the value of any signatures but because it carries the memory of a magical afternoon, when heroes he’d only heard about landed on the lawn, lifted him on their shoulders and taught him to skip rocks on a lake at sunset.

Unfortunately, the shifting school calendar has been threatening the viability of our week at family camp. Do not get me started on this — just because some people have kids taking Advanced Placement courses and want extra study time doesn’t mean that the rest of us should have to suffer. Last summer, for example, I drove two of the boys back home mid-week in order to start high school, and the youngest and I stayed for the rest of the week just the two of us. That’s how reluctant we all have been to leave our friends from camp. Honestly, I’d rather change my ob/gyn. In fact, I did, and it was less traumatic than switching our week of family camp.

This summer, none of the boys’ school schedules would accommodate our regular week at family camp, so we had to decide whether to change our week of Bruin camp or not to go at all. We changed weeks.

With excitement and trepidation and a few tears (mine this time), we head up the hill for camp. I miss my friends from our former week with an intensity that surprises me. I cannot bear to let them go. I flirt with the idea of sneaking up for a day during their week at camp while my kids are in school. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

After a few days in our “new” week, we are acclimated (mostly) to the altitude and the change. All of us have made friends, settled into some of our favorite activities and tried a few new trails. But there’s one big upside to our having switched weeks. It is the first time that Tim and I have attended with our boys together as a blended family. Our “new” friends have met us as a family of six, and they only know us as Charlotte & Tim. It’s lovely.

Some have learned the story of the widow and the widower. It’s hard to avoid that explanation for long because two of our sons share the same first name. Upon hearing our history, several have commented: “You two seem like you’ve been together forever.” Also: “You suit each other so well.” And my personal favorite: “You belong together.”

Indeed, we feel the same.

We have met some truly lovely people this week — several who I expect will remain friends for a long time — and I already cannot imagine my life without them. We have even made dinner plans for the fall.

I have also made plans to run up to family camp for a day next week — the day before the boys start school — so we can all hug a few cherished friends in person. Because that’s the kind of friends they are.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends — both new and old — who you belong with.

After the Rain: A Word on Hope

I would not have used the word “hopeful” to describe any part of me in those early days after Sam’s death. Not optimistic or positive either. “Determined” might have been the closest to hope I would have dared. I employed quite a few of Uncle Jose’s colorful words, “hope” being a four-letter word not among them.

One of my girlfriends gave me a stone with this inscription on it: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord… to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). I was not even remotely comforted. I was so overwhelmed by my dismal present that I could not see beyond it. I promptly tucked the stone in the back of a drawer because I was afraid that one of the boys would smash it or use it to break something else, rock-breaking constituting one of their frequently employed outlets for grief. To be fair, the sight of it made me so angry that I wanted to hurl it through a window myself.

Sometimes the closest thing to faith I could muster was my incredulity that somebody else had hope for me and what Life still had in store. Turns out that’s enough. Sometimes the best I could do was to mask how annoying I found their optimism. Often I couldn’t. Turns out that‘s okay too.

There is a lot I don’t remember from those early days of grief. I remember an extraordinary number of questions and very few answers. I didn’t sleep much. I hardly ate. I held my breath.

I lost my partner, my best friend and my compass. I lost my appetite and 25 pounds between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. I lost interest in my favorite hobbies: cooking, photography, reading, writing. I lost my ability to focus. I couldn’t hear people talking; I often I wandered out of the room while they still were. The nights were dark and very long.

I cannot imagine what this process looked like to the outside observer, but judging from the caring, stricken faces of my family and friends, the train wreck wasn’t easy to watch.

Recently, a friend asked me how I managed through those initial days and weeks. When everything was gone, I had to bring myself back to basics: eat, sleep, breathe. The holy trinity of healing.

My mantra was, “Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.” I silently and audibly repeated it so often that one girlfriend gave me a silver bracelet with one word inscripted: Breathe. I have worn it nearly every day since she gave it to me, and even now in times of stress you might notice that I reach for it with the opposite hand and inhale.

As it turns out, letting people help can be instrumental in the healing process. I do not believe that line that Life only dishes out what you can handle. Life routinely piles on more than one person can manage alone; but Life also hands us each other. I tried to focus on eating, sleeping and breathing, and I let my girlfriends do pretty much everything else.

They picked me up and dusted me off. They cooked and carpooled. They wrote cards and emails. They took me to lunch and brought me books. They drove me to therapy and to Trader Joe’s. They sat with me, they ran with me, they cried with me. They argued with each other over who would do my laundry. Seriously. When your world goes black and you have friends who – with tears in their eyes – are fighting over your whites and colors on your front lawn, you are a lucky girl.

Through it all, they rallied to my side. When they asked, “What can I do for you?” they honestly wanted to know the answer. Much of the time I was too brain-damaged to I know what I needed. This did not deter them. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other and breathe my way through the day, fueled by the occasional snack. Ultimately there is no fix, but there is great power in presence. And dark chocolate.

My parents moved in with me. My house doesn’t have a guest room, but it didn’t matter. The boys and I slept like puppies in a queen bed for months. With the actual dog, of course. Not that I slept much, but I took great comfort in hearing the boys breathing. And the dog snoring.

What impresses me most as I look back is that my friends – through the lens of their own talents — noticed what I was missing and willingly filled in the gaps. I already told you about the closet. Another of my friends noticed that I was chronically late bringing the boys to school. According to her own self-assessment she has “no social skills”; she’s an engineer. For months, she showed up on my doorstep precisely at 7:45 – with her own children in tow – and got us ready, collecting lunches, socks, shoes, backpacks. Then she marched us up to school, prepared and on time. Do you know ANY moms who can be anywhere at the exact same time five days a week, with or without their children? This is her gift. I didn’t need a dozen moms on my doorstep. I just needed the one. And she was there.

One of my friends whose skills include organization and discretion came over once a week to sort my mail and remind me to pay the bills. I guess I needed a lot of hand-holding. Also a little Xanax.

One of my girlfriends – emotionally close but geographically distant – sent me an email every morning and every night for the entire first year after Sam died, even when her kids were sick or she was travelling. Usually just a few sentences. Sometimes a funny quote from the kids. Occasionally irreverent. Incredibly kind. For once, the time difference played in our favor. She gave me something to look forward to. Every morning. Every night. She was a life-line, and I depended on her.

I told more than one friend that I was not on speaking terms with God. I didn’t have anything nice to say to Her. Or about Him. I took God’s name in vain. Sam’s too. I refused to pray. But … many friends and friends of friends, as well as people I did not even know, prayed on my behalf. I’m pretty sure that most of them did not use Uncle Jose’s colorful words in their prayers. I know for a fact that some of them did.

These amazing, lovely friends found ways to be present with me in my pain. Theirs were the hands cupped around the flickering flame of my hope, keeping it aglow in the midst of the winds of change.

A girlfriend from college, an amateur photographer, created a blog for me, where she posted her work. She entitled this photograph “After the Rain.”

Image

Something about it resonated with me, resembling my now family of three. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that there might be an “after.” There was simply so much rain. But she did think about my “after,” so when I later heard this quote in my favorite yoga class, I knew it belonged together with the photo: And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (by Anais Nin) Sometimes I just stared at this photo, still tight in the bud myself, wanting to believe that the day would come. My friend had faith in me, trusting that after the rainstorm that was my husband’s death, the three of us – my little boys and me – would bloom again.

She was right, of course, but first I wore a lot of black. The boys wore out their shoes. I swore. We spent a lot of time breaking big rocks into little rocks in those dark and lonely days. We remained tight in the bud – each in his own time – tucked safely in the darkness until we were ready to turn toward the sunshine.

***

Someone is praying for light and strength to filter into your world. Let them.