Steadfast

My father isn’t perfect, but he thinks I am. Which occasionally produces incredible frustration and angst and is also a source of great comfort. Sometimes I feel as though my own father doesn’t see the whole of me, that he refuses to see the parts of me that are self-righteous, petty, disappointed or jealous. When I’m angry and wounded because of a real or perceived injustice, I want him to acknowledge how hostile and unfair the world is – or at least how I feel in that moment – but he simply doesn’t view life (or me) that way. He sees the glory and the victory. He’s positive and grateful. He’s generous and kind. It’s super annoying.

When work or life or parenting makes me feel small and inadequate, when challenges threaten to bring out my worst version of myself, I channel my inner teenager, stammering and stomping defiantly in front of him, daring him not to notice how enraged, afraid or venomous I am. He doesn’t. Look at my little girl, he smiles, isn’t she just so wonderful? It’s infuriating.

His approach leaves me with an untenable choice: dig in my heels and prove my own limitations, or rise above the trial and up to his expectations of me. I want to wallow in the mud and maybe even sling a little, but it won’t work. Trust me. The man is relentless with his love and approval.

The other night my husband is out of town, and I’m home alone with three of my sons, none of whom particularly want my attention. I am hoping to take at least one of them to dinner and a movie, but they all have other plans. Truth be told, only one of them has actual plans. The other two prefer no plans at all to an evening out with me, because of course no self-respecting teenager wants to be seen at Panera or Deadpool with his mother on a Friday night. They don’t want to order pizza and rent a movie either. Even the dog has abandoned me in favor of curling up with the stinky teenagers, and I am left with an aging and ill-tempered cat. Regrettably, the cat and I have more in common than I care to admit.

I decide to make a salad and pour a glass of wine and curl up with a book, which would normally make me happy, but I’m still in a funk and feeling sorry for myself. A black widow has taken up residence in our wine rack, and although my husband has seen her several times, she manages to scuttle away before he can exterminate her. She is a deft one. Absorbed as I am in self-pity, I start to imagine that if the murderous spider bites me, I could justify going to the hospital where at least somebody will care whether I live or die.

Instead, I call my dad. He drives me crazy with his optimism, and what I need more than anything right now to counteract my foul mood is a dose of my father’s rose-colored glasses. He does not disappoint. I tell him about the black widow. I despair of my parenting shortcomings. We joke about the fact that my children would readily acknowledge my flaws, perhaps even offer a dissertation on the subject. Our conversation covers the range from the inconsequential to catastrophic, which is to say that mostly we talked about the weather. He is the ideal antidote to my peevishness, spares me a costly trip to the hospital and restores peace to my evening. We laugh, and he suggests that I could use the material for my blog. Smiling, I hang up the phone and settle in with my book and my glass of wine. He may not love me perfectly, but my father loves me consistently.

By the end of the evening, one of the boys is in a state himself. His plans, or lack of plans, did not turn out as he had planned. He searches the house and finds me in my favorite chair, contentedly absorbed in my book, which I readily set aside to tend to his bruised and aching heart. We do not discuss the weather.

This parenting bit is not so easy. I cannot help but feel grateful for the reliability of this man who has loved me from before he met me. He demonstrates that love need not be flawless to be dependable. Our relationship survives despite our glitches and quirks. (I can hear him already: What glitches?) We manage to find a balance together.

My dad so rarely comments on the Su-shit that I don’t know whether or not he reads my blog regularly. I think I’ll print this one out and send it to him for Father’s Day with a handwritten note: Thanks, Dad. You’re wonderful.

***

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

Funeral Attendance

I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.

I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.

The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.

Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.

I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.

You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.

The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.

The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.

On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.

In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.

So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.

***

Light and strength.

Enchiladas, Love and Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Thanksgiving Tables

Thanksgiving is my favorite.

Not every year has been Martha Stewart perfect, of course. I can barely remember that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, which is probably for the best.

I grew up in a close-knit family with my parents and one sister. We lived in Southern California with our nearest set of grandparents on the east coast; the farther set was in Europe. More years than not, our Thanksgiving table featured place settings for four, and even though I loved our intimate, yet abundant, gathering, I also set my heart on having a big family.

The configuration of our Thanksgiving table has varied widely over the years, because that’s how it goes with families. Somebody comes home for Thanksgiving, but somebody else doesn’t because there are exams and expenses and LAX. Some years, distant family members are in town, and most years include “orphans” whose biological family lives too far away to break bread with. Some years are elegant, displaying antique linens and heirloom silver, and some are casual, featuring jeans, paper plates, plastic forks. Some years we have had double days, feasting early at one house and later at another. I have served as host, guest and orphan, and there are aspects I love about each, but at the end of the day the togetherness is what I adore. And the gratitude. Even on our darkest days, we have something to be grateful for. Usually several somethings.

Eight years ago, Sam’s family and mine limped to an aunt’s house to be together in both our sadness and our celebration of Thanksgiving. With heavy hearts, Tim and the boys brought a plate from Thanksgiving dinner to Debbie in her hospital room.

This year, our family will gather, as we have done now for several years, at one grandparents’ house. And by “our family” I mean mine, Tim’s, Sam’s and Debbie’s. Everybody. Unbelievable. I never imagined that there would be so much joy in this next chapter of our lives. But here we are.

We will have all eight of the boys’ grandparents together at one proverbial table. Not only do they bring their signature dishes and quirky behaviors, but more significantly they bring all their best qualities – their faithfulness and humor, patience, perspective and insight. They bring their tenacity and strength. And their gentleness and understanding. They bring their love and acceptance in that arms-open-wide grandparental way. A veritable feast.

I have my big family: my doting husband Tim and our four sons, my parents plus three sets of in-laws, an abundance of aunts and uncles, plenty of sisters-and-brothers-in-law and a plethora of cousins, nieces, nephews and goddaughters. I love it even more than I thought. It’s chaotic and messy and inclusive. It’s crazy loud. There are way more loved ones in attendance than we have silverware or crystal. Needless to say, the logistics require more than simply adding a leaf to extend the table. It’s exhausting. I’m so grateful.

A family football game, friends and food. Full hearts. Full plates. Full house. Gratitude. Thanksgiving is my favorite.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a Happy Thanksgiving.

With Gratitude

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I was all set to write about gratitude because I believe in its power. Plus there’s the whole November bit, what with Thanksgiving and all, which is honestly, truly my very favorite holiday. I love Thanksgiving because it’s about what it’s supposed to be about — family and friends, food, football and gratitude.

But I’m not feeling excessively grateful at the moment.

Well, that’s partially true. I am feeling distinctly grateful, but also overwhelmed, powerless, afraid, and exhausted. Maybe a tiny bit resentful. Underpaid. My inner perfectionist control freak is having an absolute panic attack because in the last three weeks she thinks I should have written more, cleaned out another closet, organized a file drawer in the office or paid the property tax bill on time, and purchased a few more Christmas gifts. As in, all of them. Or at least one. Instead, I’ve spent every day at home ministering to a child who suffered a head injury and is under orders not to do any exercise or schoolwork, not even to go to school, not to watch television, play video games or interact with screens of any kind, not even to read a book, which pretty much leaves me as entertainment. Unfortunately for the kid, I’m not that entertaining.

As for me, the less he is allowed to do, the less I seem to accomplish. Healing has become not only our primary, but almost exclusive, focus. As the schoolwork accumulates, the pantry empties and the to-do list lengthens, the two of us sit together. We discover that I can read to him without exacerbating the headache. Of course, we eat a lot of snacks. After a few days, we can even play simple board games. Emphasis on the bored. And we eat more snacks. It has been three weeks now since his concussion, and although he has not yet been cleared to return to school, he is making progress. For which I am extremely grateful.

What is weighing on my heart today is that my friend and her son are about to face their first Thanksgiving without dad. And I think it’s insensitive and trite to declare that family and food and football necessarily create a happy holiday, negating life’s tragedies with a golden crust on the apple pie and glossing over heartbreak with a red and silver ribbon. Because the fact of the matter is that day sucks.

Grief brings its own form of brain trauma. In fact, as I peruse the symptoms on the concussion evaluation form, many are the same: headaches, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, feeling mentally foggy, problems concentrating, irritability, sadness, feeling more emotional, anxiety, sleeping more or less than usual, trouble falling asleep. I experienced most of these when I was pregnant as well, but with a “due date” to mark an end to the time frame. Grief does not progress with a specific deadline; healing happens in its own time.

I could barely breathe my way through that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, to weather the surreptitious glances and worried looks, to look into the teary eyes on the tilted heads of well-meaning family members who asked how the boys were. Several were aching to ask but didn’t muster the courage. I can’t blame them. It was all I could do not to bite off the heads of those who did with a “How the hell do you think we are doing?!” I might have, actually, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, if we had been doing well, wouldn’t that have been more alarming than the fact that we were falling apart?

Somehow in the midst of my emotional turmoil, I genuinely felt gratitude. Even on my darkest days, I had two good reasons to get up and going every morning. I was grateful for my education, the kids’ education, a roof over our heads and food on the table, often prepared by the hands of a caring friend. I was grateful that Sam hadn’t killed himself at home. I was grateful that I wasn’t the one who found him. And that the boys never saw him. I was grateful that Sam wrote me a note; not the love note I wanted, obviously, but it was better than silence. I was grateful that he had enough Vicodin in his system to dull the physical pain. I was grateful for 17 years together, even though it wasn’t long enough.

A conversation with the newly-widow is not for the faint of heart. It might be easier to turn on the football game.

I happen to believe that it’s entirely possible — even healthy — to feel both filled with gratitude and utterly bereft, all at the same time. Not only because the darkness makes me appreciate the little pinpricks of light, although that’s certainly true. But because the full range is richer and more accurate. Occasionally, I vacillate between gratitude and bitterness, swinging hard to the resentful side of the pendulum, but even then feeling the pull toward grace. Yet I find my stability when I can sit quietly, comfortably uncomfortable with all the pain and sorrow on the one hand, and all the blessings on the other. Tears and a smile together. Gratitude in the midst of the mess. Which is, I think, the real power of gratitude — not that it eradicates the darkness, but that it provides a toehold in the overwhelming darkness.

And if not, there’s always football.

I’m not the biggest football fan, but I do love the Bruins. Between Sam and me we had three degrees from UCLA, and yes, I am wearing blue and gold as I type. But there’s a Trojan “Fight On” sign prominently displayed in my kitchen. Tim’s first wife earned her degree from USC, and (much as my Bruin self is loathe to admit this out loud) “Fight On” is one of the great university slogans. It could even be a good personal mission statement. And an accurate synopsis of many a treatise on healing hearts.

Even when “fighting on” looks like this:  Sitting quietly, healing. Which is, my husband reminds me, the most important work I have to do right now.

Thanksgiving is coming, whether we are looking forward to it to or not. When I was nine months pregnant, I remember going to bed each night thinking, “If I wake up in the morning and I’m still pregnant, I just have to make it through the day.” The first grieving Thanksgiving is a little bit like that. Whether the turkey is dried out and cold, or catered. When the little girls twirl into the kitchen, knocking over appetizers, and the big boys throw a football across the lawn. Or the dining room table. When grandma says dad’s Mo-vember mustache makes him look like a 1970’s porn star. When we suffer through a holiday for the first time after daddy’s death, keenly feeling his presence in absentia. Breathe in. Exhale out. The day will pass, with its sadness and yes, even a little joy.

Now it’s Tuesday, and the Bruins will have won or lost and, in either case, will already be preparing for the next game. Because that’s what we do. We fight on.

By Tuesday evening, my house and my heart will again be full with my college boys home for the holiday, and I will be baking apple pies and all manner of Thanksgiving fare and favorite comfort foods. Because, after sitting quietly, crying, laughing, and eating my way through several years worth of family dinners, Thanksgiving has regained status as my very, most favorite holiday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Fight On.