Tuesday’s Big Ask

Hello Tuesday Friends ~

Here’s the latest: Several drafts and a book coach later, I’ve completed a full-length memoir and secured representation with a literary agent.

Here’s what I’m hearing about Sushi Tuesdays the bookHeartbreaking, hilarious and honest. Beautifully written. Hopeful. Timely. Stunning.

Here’s what I’m learning about the publishing industry: They want to know who’s going to buy how many copies of the book.

Here’s how you can help:

  • Follow me on Instagram: @charlottemayawriter
  • Like the Sushi Tuesdays page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sushituesdays/
  • Follow the blog: sushituesdays.com
  • Send me an email at charlotte@sushituesdays.com to answer this question: If Sushi Tuesdays were available for purchase today, how many copies would you buy and for whom? (friend, aunt, brother-in-law, teacher, book group, everyone you know). 
  • Share any (or all) of the above with your people.

Here’s what my kids said: Make sure they notice the shtuff in the middle of suSHITuesdays (not sure how I’m going to explain this to my granddaughter). The healing heart of my radical self-care Tuesdays was (and still is) cultivating the capacity to deal with the shtuff. Isn’t that life?

Many thanks, and I look forward to autographing your very own copy of Sushi Tuesdays when – because it’s a when, even if we don’t know exactly yet when – the book is published.

Love & Light,

Charlotte

Wintering

Suicide is the storm that knocked out our power, 
plunged us into darkness, 
blue-penciled our future. 
An impossible interruption
delivered by an unwelcome uniform. 

Friends and family arrive, 
and their light accentuates the devastation. 
Words fall like rain, 
streaming into the gutter and gushing down the storm drain,
too loud to make sense of.
Lightning flashes anger.
Questions snuff out candles of hope.

Well past blankets and hot cocoa,
we sit together in the stinging cold,
silently alarmed at the landscape of this life,
daring still to breathe
for who knows how long.

Some day we will pick up words like fallen branches,
carefully
shaving away the splinters
wondering what we might use to build
something.
But not today.

Today’s work is
to feel the black ache,
the powerlessness
the unrelenting fear
the seeming insignificance of love against such tumult
and to gather ourselves
gently
present anyway.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Especially during the storms.

There is help if you need it: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Ringtones

Most times when I call, the phone just rings and rings. There are no phones in the patients’ rooms on the memory ward. The line rings at the nurses’ station, and if they have time – between distributing meals and administering medications and the myriad other life-affirming tasks they do – an angel might pick up the phone and then walk it into my father-in-law’s room. I’m often on hold for 10 or 15 minutes before I hang up and try calling again. I might finish my morning coffee while I wait. 

On a good day, I speak to the operator only twice before I get through. Some days, after several conversations with the main switchboard, she gently suggests that I call back later. He’s on the East coast; he already has a three-hour head start, and as the day progresses, my father-in-law becomes increasingly disoriented. For him, time itself seems to take on an otherworldly quality, where present, past and future blur together. It’s better to talk to him in the morning. I hang up the phone and sigh.

On his 92nd birthday, I sat at the dining room table with the morning light filtering through the South-facing windows and my heart thumping anachronistically. It wasn’t so much that I was nervous to talk to him as it was that I worried that when I did get through, he would be more confused, less himself. I was afraid of losing him. He has been fathering me for 30 years – since I was 23 – and he’s the only dad I have left. 

Even if he didn’t know what day it was, I did. The nurse answered pleasantly, and there was a scratching sound and a muted voice as she handed him the receiver. I heard his breath against the receiver, like a young child waiting for the phone to speak, and I said hello.

“Charlotte!” he said. He sounded so happy to hear from me. 

I was relieved that he recognized my voice, that he still knew my name. “Happy Birthday!” I said.

He paused before asking, “What day is it?”

I told him.

“It’s my birthday!” he said, sounding as delighted as a child announcing the fact in a first-grade classroom. And we laughed together.

His spirits sounded good, even when he told me he didn’t know why he was in the hospital. “I feel fine, but they tell me I’m sick!” I could picture the way he turned his head and raised a bony shoulder into the shape of the question, wondering whether the entire hospital staff was one taco short of a combination plate.

We didn’t talk long. We never do. When my mother-in-law was alive, he often handed her the phone within moments of my calling, seemingly happy enough to know that I had called and yielding the rest of the time to his wife of over 60 years. 

He seemed to remember all of my children, his grandchildren, including the stepsons I added to the mix when I remarried 10 years ago, although he was having trouble keeping track of the girlfriend, the fiancée and the wife. When I told him he was going to be a great-grandfather, it didn’t quite compute. I never ask if he remembers Sam. His only son has been gone nearly 14 years, and while I know that love never forgets, I do not know how dementia might torment my father-in-law’s heart, how fresh the loss might feel, how utterly lost he might become. If there is any kindness in dementia, I hope that it softens the edges of my father-in-law’s grief. 

These days, he often reverts to the language of his young years, and I sometimes struggle to understand as he segues into Spanish. But mostly our conversations cover the same territory, so it doesn’t really matter which language we speak. He almost always tells me that my sister-in-law is coming to take him home that afternoon; his optimism is unflagging. It’s so sweet. And heartbreaking. It reminds me of another grandfather who, though blind, bedridden and wearing a flimsy cotton hospital gown at the time, leaned over to my then 15-year-old and asked him to “bust me out of this joint.” I almost wished I could hand them the car keys and see them off for one more adventure together.

Today might have been my 29th wedding anniversary, if Sam were still alive and all the other planets had aligned, and my kid who for years refused to say the words “dead” or “dad” now decides that he wants to go to the cemetery. The last time he visited was probably five years ago, and it was related to a school assignment; today it’s for reasons all his own. It’s hot and sunny, so I grab a broad-brimmed hat and off we go. When we arrive, he remarks that the grassy lawn that once appeared steep and expansive now seems a gentle green slope. I don’t think it’s only a matter of his physical growth; it looks smaller to me, too, and easily navigable.

We spend some time at Sam’s gravesite, and on the way home, we call Sam’s father from the car. Must be the luck of the grandchild, because we get through on the first try, and though his voice is soft and distant, my father-in-law sounds happy. He still knows who we are, and I am grateful. “Mi vida,” he calls my kid. My life. Which from a couple thousand miles away feels like a warm hug. 

Because I’m not quite ready for this weirdly magical anniversary afternoon to end, I suggest we get ice cream. And instead of tasting several different options like I usually do, I choose vanilla, just like Sam would have done. We sit on a bench in the shade with our cones, and my kid turns to me with blue eyes sparkling. I’m expecting another insightful comment, another display of his progress along grief’s path, but instead he grins and says, “You have ice cream on your hat.”

There have been times over the last 14 years when the black pain of loss felt hard and heavy. Days when no amount of sunshine or sugar lifted our spirits. But today is not one of those days. Today, love feels lighter than laughter.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And ice cream!

Touchstones

Sometimes it’s like he’s just really far away, on a secret mission in an undisclosed location, beyond cell coverage, without a return ticket. There’s no way to reach him or leave a note. He’s not coming back, and he’s not sending any text messages, not even a single, solitary poopy emoji. And yet, oddly, there’s still a relationship.

My son says, “People don’t get it. To them it seems like forever ago, even if it’s only been six months, and that everything is normal again. They don’t understand that, even after it stops being news for everyone else, you’re still living it every day.” Grief takes its own sweet time.

I return to this place, the cemetery where Sam was buried more than a decade ago. I am here for the funeral of a man I never met, the father of a friend. I show up early, early enough to visit Sam’s plot before the service begins. I do not come here often, sometimes years pass between my visits, but I know exactly where he lies. There’s been a lot of construction around the site in the last ten years, but I have no trouble finding Sam’s spot. I park at the bottom of the hill and climb up. When the boys were little, the slope seemed so much steeper and farther. Now they could ascend the hill in about three steps.

A sacred friend planted a gorgeous pine tree in Sam’s honor on the Lake Arrowhead property where we attended family camp together for many happy summers. The pine was planted on the edge of the lawn where they hold Shabbat services, the Friday sunset observance, ushering divine peace into open hearts on a warm evening breeze.

The so-called little one went to his junior prom over the weekend. When he was trying on his tux at the rental shop, another mom commented, “Your son looks just like you,” which thrilled me but also made me laugh. This is the second time in seventeen years that anyone has told me this child looks like me. The first person to say so retracted her statement about ten seconds after she said it. “Actually…,” she paused. “He looks a lot like Sam.” In fact, more people say he looks like his step-father than say he looks like me. But anyone who knew Sam recognizes the soft brown eyes, the gentle smile, the mischievous glint.

The gravestone is tarnished, worn by rain and sun and time. The inscription reads, “Let it not be death but completeness.” This site is also accessible by a walking path. I chose this spot specifically so that his parents could reach it easily – no hill climb required – but these days his mother is too fragile to spend time here with Sam. His parents’ declining health is a touchstone that reminds us of the depth of the loss. Intellectually, I know that he does not exist in this earthy plot of green, but it holds a strange gravity. The boys have lived longer without their father than they did with him, longer with their step-father than their biological one, and I am humbled to tears by the vastness of love that continues to hold these boys.

The pine tree is only a few years old and a few feet tall. We expect it to thrive. It has been nourished with this blessing: “May it grow tall and strong as a reminder of a good man, husband and father.”

More than a few friends have commented that the boy looks the spitting image of his father in the prom pictures. Not one says he looks like me. I think Sam would say that the boy looks exactly like himself. It’s not so painful anymore, although sometimes I ache with a longing, wishing that Sam could see the young man his son has grown into, both the boy and me looking for a sign of his father’s approval.

I sit at Sam’s side for a few moments. I don’t really need this place to “talk” to him. I pretty much speak my mind whenever, wherever. I offer up a prayer, and while I often simply sit with folded hands to pray, I make the sign of the cross here in the cemetery and imagine Sam’s lopsided smile. He would be thoroughly amused that his Christian wife had arrived entirely too early. I can almost hear him, “Didn’t I teach you anything about standard Jewish time?”

We didn’t go to family camp last summer. Instead, our now family of six decided to take our first international trip. Our traditions have served us well, providing a foundation for our future family adventures together.

In the same way that I didn’t want the boys to avoid their grief and sadness, I didn’t want them to avoid this physical place. It’s impossible, after all, not to bump into these moments. Like a friend, who happens to be at the same restaurant, Sam’s life – and his death – cross our paths, often in ways we aren’t anticipating. The funeral, prom night, summer plans, bring us in touch with the mystery that somehow – even after Sam’s death – we have a relationship, a connection, a sacred communion. Our memories become more blessing than suffering, and we draw strength, warmth, shade and comfort.

These moments bring us back to the intersection where he lost his life, and where we are continuing with ours.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path.

Variations on a Theme

I have been triggered. You have been warned.

I am generally open to offering perspective or insight. I have not exactly been shy about this path I’m on, as a woman who lost her first husband to suicide, and as a mother to four children who lost a parent at entirely too young an age. I willingly share resources that I have found particularly helpful, books, therapists or organizations, my go-to radical self-care avenues, I share stories of success and failure from my own life. If you think that I personally might be able to help your “friend” (or to help you help your friend) who is struggling because whatever whatever whatever, then I’m in.

If, however, you are calling me to gossip about somebody who “lost her husband in the worst, most tragic way,” then call somebody else. I’m not interested. Do not call me to compare death by heart attack to death by some other attack. Not because I think that my path to widow was worse than anyone else’s. On the contrary, all the ways to widow suck. Period. There is no better or worse in this space. It’s all bad. It sucks in different ways, but every way stinks. I am not going to play this game with you. This is not a competition anybody wins. We are all losers in this race. It sucks whether you’ve been married 5 months, 5 years or 5 decades. It sucks if you’re engaged and don’t even get the “widow” title. It sucks if you’ve been left with young children. Or without them. The sudden heart attack, the drunk driving incident, the terrible accident, the lingering illness. All bad.

If you are calling because you want something you can do so that you will feel better, some task you can accomplish so that you can check the newly-widowed friend off your to-do list, forget that ugly little death business and move on with your day, then I am not your girl. Google the answer yourself. I appreciate that it is incredibly painful to sit with someone you love while she herself is writhing with suffering. I completely understand that this will be inconvenient and time-consuming. If you want to make yourself feel better, pour yourself a glass of wine. Or send the flowers and a note and keep moving. It’s okay. I get that you don’t get it. No hard feelings. Just don’t try to justify to me that you’ve done your part, and now she has to get over herself and figure it out. Her grief is not about you.

If, on the other hand, you genuinely want to help your friend feel better, pull up a chair next to her and buckle up. It’s a long haul, the territory is uncharted, and you’re both in for a bumpy ride. You are welcome to call me along the way. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience, but I will share with you what I have learned.

There will be some dark days ahead. Your friend might lose her appetite and an alarming amount of weight in a short time. She might eat only ice cream for hours on end, and she will let the dog eat Moose Tracks out of the container, even though it sticks to his ears. She will seem barely to function; that’s a good day. She will show up late or on the wrong day altogether. She will hardly ever know what day it is, actually. She will stare into space a lot, especially when you start talking, or even when she is talking. She cannot keep track of her train of thought or the incoming mail. Just when you are starting to doubt whether your friend will ever find light again, she will look up and notice that her designer dog is humping your leg, and she will grab him by his little collar and say, “All right. That’s enough. If I’m not having sex, then nobody else in this house gets to have any sex either!” Then the two of you will laugh until your sides hurt and you are crying again, and in this moment you will trust that your friend is – even now – finding her way.

It is interesting to me that most of the widows I know would not trade their particular journey for somebody else’s. Every path is hellish in unique ways. It’s a lot of suffering no matter how you get there. This is not an exercise in comparing and contrasting. The point is to move forward. The path traveled turns the experience from the unknown into the known, and there is comfort to be found in the familiar. When we transcend the language of better and worse, the seeds of gratitude begin to take root.

These movements forward cannot be rushed or forced, although the loving presence of a friend nurtures them along. Show up. Listen. Cry together. Laugh together. Be together. Even on our darkest days, there are reasons to be grateful and reasons to laugh. Healing starts to happen. She manages to drive herself to the grocery store and come back home with the ingredients for a complete meal, including ice cream, which she puts in the freezer before it pools on the counter. She remembers a cousin’s birthday. She shows up early to help set up for the Back to School picnic. She drives carpool. She will, predictably, dissolve into tears at times you cannot predict, but slowly, tentatively, she begins to rebuild her life. She starts to find joy again. She completes a novel. She plans a vacation. She orchestrates an anniversary celebration. She becomes herself again.

She is not fixed; she is transformed.

If that’s what you want to talk about, count me in.

***

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

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!

Deathaversary IX

Another year passes
since the unthinkable.
We still think about it, of course.
And you.

Your picture stays,
a constant on the mantle,
soft brown eyes, no aging wrinkles,
no additional gray.
Same, steady smile.
Nothing to betray the passage of time,
other than a little dust around the edges of the frame.

Your sons’ pictures tell a different story.
Birthday celebrations,
athletics, concerts and travel.
Photographs accumulate, line the walls, accent end tables and bookshelves,
fill boxes and scrapbooks,
and cover the baby grand piano, marking accomplishments and moments.
Formal portraits,
Casual family gatherings,
Graduations,
Football teams,
School events,
Baptisms and confirmations,
Days at the beach,
Ski weeks,
Fishing trips.
Smiles, laughter and silliness.
Brotherhood in many forms.
They move through their young lives,
With growing confidence.

I see glimpses of you
in his brown eyes, of course,
in the angle of his chin,
in his stoic expression, succumbing hesitantly into a quiet grin.
I see hints of your influence
in his gentle interactions with his little cousins,
in the instinctive, confident stance he displays at the podium
and also in his awkward gait.
And yet they become uniquely themselves.

They have lived more years now without you
than they did with you,
even the “little one” is taller than you.
They live their lives,
with love, integrity and joy.
You remain in their hearts, if not at their sides.
The long shadow of your death too ephemeral to dim the light of your life,
a light in their lives.

Falling Apart

I had a dream last night about going home. The house of my childhood was almost unrecognizable, and the landscaping was so overgrown that I had to park on the street. There were stacks of books, newspapers and files on every shelf and surface and clothes hanging to dry from every doorway. People were standing around, chatting idly in every room of the house, many with a drink in hand, seemingly oblivious to the chaos. I felt as if I had stumbled into a party I hadn’t been invited to. I couldn’t move. I stood still, staring blankly, overwhelmed by the noise, the mess, the humanity, and then my cousin came to my side and gently touched my shoulder to get my attention. When I turned to look at him, I realized that the house was quiet, and I asked where everyone went. “Oh sweetheart,” he said, “they’ve been gone for half an hour.”

***

My father died two months ago, and the usual post-death arrangements, notifications and paperwork have pretty much been my focus. I have busied myself with phone calls and appointments, and I have distracted myself with trips to Goodwill and the lawyer’s office. We’ve hosted lunches and met for coffee and celebrated Dad’s birthday without him. I’ve done a reasonably good job of taking care of logistics and being patient and compassionate with other people’s sad feelings. But now, the party is over, the hoopla has died down, and everyone has gone home. Things have gotten quiet, fewer condolence cards arrive, and when the phone rings, it’s an automated telemarketer and not the voice of a long-lost-but-much-loved cousin. Gone is the busy-ness, and the real business of grieving begins. The spinning top has spiraled to rest and toppled over on its side. My heart aches. I’m falling apart.

It’s not a bad thing, this falling apart. I’m just sad. In some ways the maelstrom of paperwork is simpler to handle because there’s no time to think or feel. I can be numb and in denial and interrupted. But this administrative place does not actually tend toward healing. Soon enough, reality presses and grief demands its toll. This is the moment when I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Now that the service, the phone calls, the obituary writing, the stuff is all done, I exhale. I don’t have to hold it together for anyone else any more. Which in itself is a gift. First the falling apart, then the healing. I can fall apart.

I order my son’s AP Physics book, and that’s when I start to cry. Partly, of course, this is exactly what it seems on its face. Son Number Three is a senior in high school, and this year is typically an emotional roller coaster for the parents. I know this path. It is painful, but it’s also everything he has worked for. It is a difficult, but welcome, transition. As I click through the book order, it’s not so much the graduating senior that brings me to tears, it’s the fact that my dad – with his PhD in Nuclear Physics – was supposed to be here to tutor the boy. Our family physicist is gone. So I cry.

I suppose I might be able to help the boy. After all, I took high school physics once. Then again, that was 30 years ago, and my own father taught the class. Sigh.

I didn’t want to take physics. I wanted to take choir. My parents, however, insisted that I sign up for physics. When the registrar later informed me that the class was cancelled due to low enrollment and that I should choose a replacement class, I was delighted. I chose choir. Several of my friends were in choir. I had always wanted to sing, now was my chance, and I happily reported the good news to my parents that night. I remember my father’s crestfallen face at the dinner table. “They cancelled physics?” He couldn’t believe it.

Dad marched down to the high school the very next morning and arranged to teach the class himself, for the hour before the regular school day began in order to avoid other scheduling conflicts. All for the annual salary of one dollar. I couldn’t believe it.

My favorite yearbook photograph from that early morning class features the back of my head resting on the desk. I am sound asleep. My dad is smiling at the front of the classroom, the chalkboard covered in equations and arcs, the professor dusted in chalk. There were only six of us in that class, getting up early our entire senior year, and I must have learned something of physics, because I did well enough on the AP exam, but I’ve forgotten all the details. What I do remember was that Dad loved to share his passion for physics. Personally, I didn’t get quite so excited about the subject, but I learned what it looks like to be so passionate about something that you cannot help but share that enthusiasm in how you conduct your daily life. I hold on to that lesson. But still, I miss my dad.

I take my grief for a run, and as usual it’s hard. I want to stop and walk, but I keep the momentum by choosing incremental goals, just a few steps ahead of where I am, from this little crack in the sidewalk, to that yellow leaf, to the black mailbox, to the oil stain on the asphalt, to that acorn up ahead, and I inch forward until I reach the Spanish house at the top of the hill where somebody who loves me lives, and this process, I think, is much the same as getting through the languid days of grief. One day at a time, sometimes just an hour, from today to tomorrow to Thanksgiving, through an anniversary.

I move through the sludge. Intentionally. Slowly at first, but gaining ground. There will be other “physics” moments along my path, when memory and gravity will work against me, but I know that sadness is not a force that eliminates joy. On the contrary, feeling the sorrow is the healing trajectory that leads to laughter and song. I will get it together. I promise. But right now, I’m falling apart.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wholeness, eventually.