Sacred Steps

There are so many things I love about running, not the least of which is that anyone who has known me for longer than a decade will believe that the real Charlotte has been abducted by aliens based on the appearance of the words “love” and “run” together in one sentence. I did not willingly run until I was 40 and then only because I needed to do something with all the mad that was torqueing me after Sam’s suicide. Running turned out to be an effective method to pound away a lot of anger. It was, for me, my own version of the fast and the furious.

Nearly nine years later, I am still running. I’m far from furious (and I never was fast), so there must be another hook. It’s the companionship of my defective hunting dog. It’s the joy of being outside, the connection to nature and fresh air. It’s the simplicity: I don’t need a court reservation, a bicycle pump or a team, just a good pair of shoes. It’s definitely a sense of accomplishment, and it’s an excellent excuse to go shopping for running clothes, which is cheaper and more fun than therapy.

But mostly, I run for the metaphors.

Every step counts.

I’ve put in a lot of distance since I took up this awful sport. I’m physically stronger, more emotionally balanced, and I have a drawer full of running tights and tanks. Running is hard. So is grief. But there’s an alchemy in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Running away doesn’t solve problems but running as a means of facing into the pain of loss is empowering. The steps need not be quick; a plodding, methodical gait just as surely brings me closer to healing as a blistering pace. In fact, the slow, deliberate steps are themselves the very evidence healing, because they demonstrate that I am not stuck. Inertia is not holding me back. I shift my energy from hurt and anger toward peace. Movement is success.

And there’s more good news. As my physicist father says, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So off I go.

It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up.

Every time I lace up my shoes, leash up the dog and head out the door is a victory. It doesn’t matter whether I go around the block or the Rose Bowl, how fast I run, or how long I spend on the trail. Life has a way of dishing out stops and stalls in myriad forms – injuries, inclement weather, doubt, fear, family issues and stray white dogs. There are a million reasons not to go, but when I do, I feel better for the effort.

Getting back on the trail again is not necessarily easy, but it is an option. Not unlike dragging myself out of bed in those early days of suffocating grief. A running habit is a practice in resilience. I rarely regret making the choice to get out and run, because it means that I have not been defeated, not today.

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

I never believed it possible to find enjoyment in the process of running. Honestly, do runners appear to enjoy the process? After many miles under my belt, I can say with a straight face that I have become an enthusiastic, if untalented, runner. Getting out and moving is joy incarnate. It’s a meditative time, a space for reflection and place to stretch. Maybe I’ve just become serotonin and endorphin addict. Maybe I’ll reward myself with a new pair of running shoes. There are worse things.

There are also the vistas and wildlife. I live in the foothills above Los Angeles, and I never tire of the way the morning light falls on the mountain terrain. The sunrise brings possibility. An early run is a great way to connect with the energy of a new day.

For the most part, our local wildlife consists of deer, song birds, harmless lizards and small rodents. I have, however, seen more coyotes than I care to count and had a few unfortunate encounters with leashless dogs. Mercifully, I have only seen our local bobcat safely through the kitchen window or posted on FaceBook. Not counting the suit in the Audi, the least civilized animals I engage on my run are my own native jealousy, resentment and endless chatter, and those beasts get quiet and calm in the course of a long run.

Life is a series of ups and downs.

True enough. There are no flat routes around here, unless you’re inclined to run around the high school track ad nauseum. Which I’m not. I’d rather sport neon orange and head for the hills. Which is to say, I’d rather fall in love and run the risk of loss and heartache.

Life’s road trip brings incredible joy and great sorrow, torrential rain and sunny days. Some miles are faster, some slower. Some hills are steep and slippery, some a long, gradual climb. You can call them opportunities, challenges or butt-kickers. Which makes it all the more satisfying when I stand at the top, inhale and smile. It’s not without its hazards, notably the shiny, black Audi careening past at breakneck speed, but I’m not bitter.

It gets easier.

It doesn’t, actually. The first mile always hurts. Every single run. But the second mile is easier than the first. Usually. Sometimes it’s worse. Runs can go that way.

It will get easier and it will also get harder, but somewhere along the road I get stronger. In any event, my story has not ended yet. My favorite variation of the It will get better/All will be well/Don’t give up encouraging theme is “Hang on little tomato.” The image of a little red tomato holding persistently to a green leafy vine, waiting for the clear blue afternoon amuses me no end. I can almost smell the sunshine on the vine from my childhood vegetable garden. The sunny someday is a hopeful path. True, I enjoy the days when the running is easier, but I keep running even though the course is challenging. I am hanging on.

We are all connected.

Years ago, I started running with a group of intrepid ladies who hit the trails together in the early hours of the day. With kids and work and other of life’s interventions, our schedules rarely align these days, but even when I go by myself, I don’t feel alone. It is nearly impossible to get out into the day without running into somebody I know in my stomping grounds. My community of runners is omnipresent, including friends, strangers and bloggers. We run down dreams and renegade children. We wave at each other and our rescued canines. Even if we don’t know each other’s names, we are companions on the journey.

I often have fortuitous meetings with people I know along my path. An impromptu conversation with a neighbor, a smile and a wave at a generous friend on her way to drop off kids, sometimes my dear husband Tim on his way. He stops to give me a kiss, and I am blessed beyond measure. More often than not, I return home from a run filled with gratitude and surrender. Sometimes even forgiveness.

Keep breathing.

Breathing is key to the whole process. My life mantra applies equally well to a run: “Inhale, exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Running as meditation is my favorite form of the sport. Sometimes I think when I run, which proves to be a great source of inspiration. Sometimes I reach that place where I stop thinking altogether and the mind escapes its hamster wheel. These moments when stillness and movement connect might be the most beautiful experience of all. In this space, I am rhythm and motion and power. I just am.

I wasn’t motivated to hit the pavement in order to gain fitness, achieve a personal goal, raise awareness or find community, although running has provided all of those. I was yearning for peace of mind, which, much to my surprise, I found on a run. The journey continues, and every step toward wholeness is sacred. That is why I still run.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And sacred steps.

Thoughts for My Grieving Son On Father’s Day

You were little.
A boy is not supposed to lose
his daddy so young.

I wish I could have protected you both.
Instead, I was left
holding the fragments of your broken heart
waiting
for you
to piece them back together.

And you have,
With love
Patience and diligence
Kindness and joy and faith
Intelligence and goodness and humility and character and humor and hope.

Shards remain.
Value them.
Notice
when anger inspires you to face injustice.
Let incredulity guide
initiative
and increase understanding.
Let hatred provoke
your actions toward peace.
Respect the resentment
that fuels your desire to change.
Just enough.
No more.

Listen to the voices in your heart
to sustain you,
heal you,
form you
hold you together.
You will recognize your father’s love
incorporated in you.
His presence
in your life,
strength,
stillness,
a gentle confidence,
resembling his hand on your shoulder.

Your tears stop,
not because you no longer care;
You simply no longer cry.
Your wholeness
intact
safe.

The tears return,
and when they do, do not be discouraged.
It does not mean that you have not healed,
they point
simply
to the depth of the loss
and the remarkable capacity of your broken heart.

Mind, Body, Heart

I had always approached pretty much most of life’s challenges from an intellectual perspective. If there was a book (or several books!) or a TED talk, seminar or course that I could read, watch or attend, I was reasonably confident that I would be equipped for the task at hand.

But then there was grief.

Grief does not lend itself to a tidy outline or a lecture. Grief is a physiological journey, as much as an emotional and spiritual one. Grief is a corporeal takeover – the insomnia, the bone-crushing exhaustion, the tears and mood swings, the cravings and the loss of appetite, the panic attacks, the gastrointestinal distress, the inability to focus, the difficulty breathing. It throws every function out of whack. Grief, like pregnancy, is a total body experience, but without the party games, the cute baby clothes or a due date.

The jagged edges of my broken heart pierced all the other biological systems. I should not have been so surprised; everything is connected. For weeks, my therapist focused on whether I was eating, sleeping and breathing. No healing was going to happen until those body basics were covered. She knows that I’m more at home in my rational mind than my emotional one, but grief was a problem I could not think my way through. I would have to let my feelings guide me through this scary, uncomfortable territory, feelings that have a home in the body.

We begin with the simple human needs: eat, sleep, breathe. A child who is well-rested, nourished and cared for will naturally progress through the stages of sitting, crawling, and walking. So too, the grieving heart finds comfort and hope within an anatomy embraced with tender care.

Eat. It’s hard enough to eat healthy, and there are more than enough nutritional theories to go around, which I will not debate here. Bottom line: Even with a refrigerator full of comfort food, I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in the first three months after Sam’s death, and nobody would argue that this approach was particularly beneficial. I had to find my way back toward nurturing the body that takes me around in this life. Mercifully, the body is a marvelous teacher, if I am willing to be attentive. I find my balance with food. Sometimes that looks like kale salad or beet juice. Often that means dark chocolate and Pinot noir. Always gratitude.

Sleep. There’s plenty of research to support the idea that a good night’s sleep is key to mental and physical health. I didn’t need to read any of it to know that after a few sleepless nights, my capacity deteriorated on every front. I had never before experienced that combination of exhaustion and insomnia. It seemed like anyone I knew who was even remotely qualified to do so offered to write me a prescription for something to induce sleep. I initially resisted, but soon I began to appreciate that a full night’s shut-eye would go a long way toward recovery. Sometimes, I just had to tuck myself into bed and let that little girl fall asleep.

Breathe. My mantra, then and now, remains: “Inhale, exhale, repeat as necessary.” Breathing might mean a long walk, a short run, a steep hike or a pedicure. This breathing might present in the form of a long sit, a guided meditation or a silent prayer. It almost always looks like yoga, whether cat, cow, tree, warrior or child’s pose. Even corpse pose is a great place to breathe; flat on the ground, held and supported by the earth, I remember that I am not a corpse yet. I have the gift of this moment, this life, this miraculous body, both broken and blessed.

When life goes sideways and my heart needs tending, I turn toward this holy trinity of healing: eat, sleep, breathe. The body holds incredible wisdom and remarkable healing powers. When I can incorporate my losses with tangible gentleness, I bring peace to my suffering heart and engage the human capacity for hope and light.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. Along with snacks, a walk and a nap.

Aren’t You Done Yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The Short History of Tim & Charlotte

We tell the story often.

It’s a beautiful story, if a little awkward.

On the surface, we look like a pretty traditional family: mom, dad, four sons, a dog and a cat. We go to church most Sundays, and we make the boys mow the lawn and take out the trash. We genuinely like each other, and we laugh a lot.

It comes up when people ask where we met or how long we’ve been married. It comes up when a guest at a party notices that my wedding ring looks more like an old-fashioned cocktail ring, instead of the traditional diamond solitaire. It comes up in the pediatrician’s office when there is a question about family history of illness or allergies. It comes up when we attempt to explain our complicated Mothers’ Day plans or why the tall blonde Christian girl is welcomed so warmly at the Cuban Jewish funeral. Or why the boys attended different elementary schools. It comes up in the context of grandparents and how a girl could possibly have so many mothers-in-law.

It comes up most frequently because two of our sons share the same name. The boys’ favorite explanation is to whisper: “maternal brain damage.” And then look at me sympathetically.

Sometimes, the kids don’t even bother explaining. They are amused by the quizzical looks that ensure when they introduce each other with, “These are my brothers, Michael and Michael.” Or, “Hi, I’m Michael, and this is my brother Michael.”

I don’t always offer an explanation either. Just this afternoon, for example, I received a phone call from a freshman at the university where my son attends. She and I talk about whether my son is happy at the university, what his major is and whether he participates in Greek life. She asks whether anyone else in the family participated in a fraternity or sorority, and I pause. The truth is that his mother was in a sorority (but I can’t remember which one) and I was not (my college didn’t have any), but the young woman on the phone thinks that I am his mother. In the interest of simplicity, I say No, which is true enough for purposes of that particular conversation. These seemingly straightforward questions often raise the issue.

So here is the short history of Tim and Charlotte: We were both widowed in 2007 (cancer and suicide), each with two young sons (ages 6, 8, 11 and 15). We met each other in 2008, fell in love and were married in 2010.

Most of the time, people don’t know whether to say I’m sorry, or Congratulations.

No, we did not wait until all four boys were in favor of our marriage, and yes, now they get along like brothers. Everybody’s picture is on the walls and the piano, and yes, that includes Debbie and Sam. Yes, there was a time when we had his, his, his, his, his, hers and ours therapists. No, we did not meet at grief counseling, and yes, we really did have our wedding reception at a local park with the In ‘n Out truck.

We feel blessed and lucky. Neither one of us expected to find love again, and here we are. I can’t explain it, but I am grateful. One of my own (and by “my own” I actually mean Sam’s) cousins says she thinks Tim and I were made for each other. Unbelievable. The road here was steep and rocky, to be sure, but absolutely worthwhile. There is certainly truth to the idea that once you have experienced sorrow, you appreciate joy. But if I told you I sometimes race the dog to the front door to greet Tim when he comes home at the end of the day, that would just sound stupid. We laugh at the terribly irreverent, and we joke that the widow and the widower never miss a funeral (even though that’s mostly true). I could never have imagined being so happy, but there you have it. We are together, and that is evidence of grace.

In the last several months, Tim and I have attended four funerals (see what I mean?) and a wedding. He was the best man, and here’s a picture:

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So yes, it sounds silly. But more often than not, I win the race to the front door.

***

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

States and Stages

I would have hoped that something called the “Five Stages of Grief” could be a relatively orderly practice. I imagined the five stages as a sort of Life syllabus for the grieving process. A bit like the developmental stages of infant-toddler-young child, with a clear trajectory, even if there are some points of overlap. First, he turns from back to tummy, then he sits, then crawls, walks, and runs. The actual grief experience, however, is much less defined and quite a bit louder.

The chaplain hands me a simple pamphlet, describing the five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The whole process seems tidy and manageable, all summed up in an 8 page glossy format. I read the whole thing in less than seven minutes. It seems reasonable enough. Almost refined.

And then the work of grieving begins.

Let me just say that my grief has not been especially cooperative with the outline. I’m a pretty diligent student. If grief and healing had been a class, I would have completed much of the assigned reading and turned most of the assignments in on time, all within the course of the semester. But loss is a test you can’t really prepare for.

Each grief is different, just as every child is different. The best I can do is to become an expert in my own grief. The good news in all this is that there are many ways to do grief right, and only a few wrong ways.

I swing from Denial to Acceptance in a single loop around the Rose Bowl. I hold on to a few steadfast girlfriends who are relentless with their love and attention. I have two good reasons to get up in the morning, but Depression crawls back under the covers after she walks those reasons to school.

Not every experience fits neatly into a five-pronged paradigm. The uncontrollable tears – are those Depression? Or Anger? Or Acceptance? Isn’t there a plain vanilla Sad? What about Panic, Sleeplessness, Loss of Appetite and Inability to Focus? The sense of being so completely Alone. Resentment. Remorse. Apathy.

The stages blow in together like a winter storm, with lightening flashes of Desperation, clouds of Fear, winds of Self-Pity, hailstones of Loneliness. The calm and beauty of a summer day seem very far away.

There’s no real time constraint. Just when I think I’m done with a stage, Anger for example, one of the boys comes home from school devastated because somebody else’s dad brought a prototype Mars rover to show the class, or gave a cool art presentation on Picasso, or just came home from work like he does on any given day, and then I’m angry all over again. Angry at Sam, at myself, at Life, at Picasso. Just plain angry.

And so it goes. I cannot check the stages off, like my daily task list. Done. The stages come back in their random order and time. Acceptance seems to linger for days or weeks at a time, but Depression might return when certain anniversaries come around. I revisit Bargaining when the children suffer.

All of which is complicated by the fact that the children’s grieving process is as noncompliant as my own.

Some days the six of us are each in a different stage, and it’s like playing a game of musical chairs, with each of the five chairs representing a stage of grief. When the music stops, the last man standing looks around, bewildered, not wanting to play the game at all. By evening, of course, everybody has exchanged seats, some of us multiple times (except the one who refuses to leave his chair), and we face an entirely new conglomeration of simultaneous stages. We cannot agree on which music to play. It’s not organized or pretty.

We live our way through.

Because the fact of the matter is that grief – whatever its states and stages – is the price we pay for living wholeheartedly.

A few months after Sam’s suicide, I took a meditation class. I didn’t realize what a healing course this practice would be at the time. I continue to engage in a meditation practice, as those five stages – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – appear with alarming relevance in the course of parenting teenagers. The key is simply to become aware of the range of experience, without judgment. Just notice what is happening, and let the feeling flow without getting stuck. Awareness leads to healing. It’s not ignoring the sadness, but there is kindness toward the process.

One of my favorite places to sit and meditate is on a balcony above the boardwalk at the beach. The sun warms my face. I hear the wind in the palm fronds. And I’m vaguely aware of the stages of grief, traveling along the path before me. Anger scoots by on his skateboard, kathunk-kathunk, kathunk-kathunk. Depression plods by with sticky footsteps. Denial and Bargaining walk together, yammering animatedly. Acceptance runs by, light on her feet, steady and joyful with movement. And still the warmth and the wind. Gentleness.

An amazing thing starts to happen in this place. Even though there is constant change and flux, my essential wholeness remains intact. The true self. The soul. Spirit’s song. Inner light. Identity. Whatever you call it, I am. Right here. In the midst of all that has been broken and shattered, I am whole and safe. The universe holds all the pieces.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a quiet place to inhale.

Intersection

“I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

 

We calculate the age of our grief – like the life of an infant – first in hours, and then days. The days add up to a week, then two. Eventually a month. Slowly, unbelievably, the days and weeks continue. We number the months, but the “and a half” still seems relevant. Baby steps. The first year passes. It seems to take much longer than one year.

For a long time, the dark moments monopolize our attention. Our world has been upended, and we are angry, sad and confused. We move slowly through the sludge, day after day. Sleeplessness and exhaustion provide the soundtrack. Grief is a heavy traveling companion.

Almost imperceptibly, moments of grace accumulate: a peaceful night’s rest, an unguarded laugh, a full breath. Spontaneous gratitude. Peace. We notice a brilliant pink sunrise. Healing starts to happen. Not because the time passes. Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing takes time. And healing time is sacred.

Several years pass, and in that time we begin to rebuild our life. We find joy and love, and the dark, heavy, pain-filled moments are fewer. We do not forget, we incorporate both death and life. Balance. We remember without the painful longing. We loosen our grasp on what we lost and open our hearts to the love that is now. We create new relationships and family traditions, and we find joy.

And then one day, when he is in high school, the boy who would not say the “D” words – “dead” and “dad” – for two years following his father’s suicide is given a project in his theology class. The assignment is to make a cross, relevant to a personal, historical or current event. He chooses to make a personal cross, honoring both his father and the first wife of his step-father. He has an idea.

The vertical line of the cross will feature a photograph of the structure where his father committed suicide. He drives together with his mother to the intersection to take the photos himself. He hasn’t been to this location in four or five years. They pause on the sidewalk and look up to the top of the building. It is a long way to fall. The boy seems to shrink. The mother feels nauseous. But they have arrived with a purpose, so with their task in mind, they take pictures of “dad’s jumping place” from each of the four corners. Click. They look at the intersection with their artists’ eyes, and no longer from the tear-filled eyes of the newly grieving. Click. Click. Click. They pause again. There are times – even years afterward – that dad’s suicide seems impossible to believe, and yet here they stand. It is no small measure of grace.

The horizontal line of the cross will include two photos — one family of four on the left side, and another family of four on the right. A wide, blue ribbon encircles the picture on the right, because blue ribbon is the symbol for colon cancer. The boy assembles the cross with help from his step-father and affixes the ribbon with help from his mother. 

In his written description of the cross, the boy cites a quote from the Gospel: “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.” The boy goes on to say that he believes that not only God’s love, but the love of everyone we have ever lost stays with us for our lives. Always with us in our hearts and memories. He explains that these two deaths brought the six of us together — a complete family, loving and joyful. Even with Trojans and Bruins living under the same roof.

Death and resurrection in a school project.

IMG_3913

There is no specific timeline. The first year is hard, and the second seems worse. But the thing is progress. Little steps in a positive direction, toward wholeness. Grief loosens its grip. Progress can be almost impossible to discern in the moment, but when we look back at the preceding years, we see in those moments the evidence of healing. Of grace. Of gratitude. Of light and love and laughter and life. All with one of those UCLA/USC “House Divided” garden flags on our front porch.

***

Along my route when I take the dog for a run, there’s a certain section where I hear the echo of my own steps. I’ve traveled this part of road many times over the last few years, and even though I know it’s the sound of my own footsteps, I cannot resist looking behind me to check if somebody is following in tandem. Nobody ever is. It’s the acoustics on this little stretch of road. But every time I glance over my shoulder I imagine Sam smiling. I can almost hear him say, “I knew you could do this.”

The boy is right. Even after our loved ones are gone, their love remains.

***

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

 

iPhone Irony

My ______________ (fill-in-the blank, husband/child/friend) seems depressed. What should I do?

This question terrifies me. Obviously, I wasn’t able to save Sam. It baffles me how many times in the last eight years people have asked me for advice on this issue, because every time there’s a part of me that thinks, Why would you ask me? Don’t you realize I failed? Ask a professional!

By putting the question out there, however, they are already a step ahead of where I was in the process. I didn’t know the depths in which Sam was struggling. I saw the clues in retrospect, of course. Loss of appetite, insomnia, job stress. All pointing toward depression. But a cursory internet search will also yield that the opposite signs of increased appetite, exhaustion and inability to focus may signify depression. Or pregnancy. If you had asked me before his death whether Sam would have been more likely to commit suicide or to become pregnant, I would have chosen the pregnant option. I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

There’s a lot of misinformation, stigma and confusion surrounding the suicide scenario. It’s not as straightforward as an “easy” way out. It’s not necessarily manipulative or vindictive. How much is attributable to mental illness and how much is a matter of individual responsibility remains a valid question. It is unspeakably ugly.

If Sam had had a diagnosed anything – cancer, heart disease, mental illness – we would have rallied to his side. We would have wanted to do something to empower him in the face of suffering. Instead, he struggled alone. Picking up the phone must not be easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the ones you love most in the world are better off without you.

Sam was not what you might call a computer wizard. He was rarely interested in keeping on the cutting edge of technology. He relied on his computer-savvy cousin for technical expertise, who during law school was, conveniently, also his roommate. Convenient for Sam, that is, when he ran into a technological glitch while preparing for a moot court competition at 3:00am, but not exactly endearing for his cousin.

But in the summer of 2007 Sam was enchanted by the new iPhone. The very first release. It’s already hard to imagine our world before smart phones, not quite 9 years since the iPhone initially came out. In fact, when Sam purchased that first iPhone, he didn’t use it as a phone; the iPhone was a cheaper, more powerful alternative to a small laptop. He kept his cell phone for making actual calls, and he used the iPhone to access the internet, research stock information and send emails.

After Sam’s death, I had three cell phones (mine, his and the iPhone), which in 2016 doesn’t seem like overkill, but was at the time. Eight-year olds didn’t have their own cell phones and tablets in 2007. We still primarily used our home phone. It seems logical now, but at the time I had to decide which cell phone to keep, and the iPhone was extravagant and expensive. In the process of consolidating the phones, I noticed that Sam did not have a single contact saved on his iPhone. He had a grand total of ten contacts saved in his cell phone: “1Charlotte”, his mother, his assistant, a friend and two cousins. Also, the Apple Store, Baja Fresh, California Pizza Kitchen and Supercuts. Of those contacts, only six were people, four family members, one friend.

His whole world seemed condensed and small in that moment. He must have felt so alone. It made me sad that so few of us comprised his entire universe.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the one he should have called but didn’t. Should he have asked for help? Definitely. Should I have paid closer attention? Probably. It has been easier to forgive him. It has been harder to forgive myself.

Did he truly not realize how many people cared? I could have readily named 30 more. The exotic, stoic girl at the dry-cleaner with the thick black eyeliner burst into tears talking about Sam, years after his death. A little kindness touches people more significantly than we realize. I do not know how he could have marginalized himself. I do not understand how he became so disconnected from his faith – in himself, in life, in others. I can only caution my children (and everybody else) to ask for help before they reach that point, if – God forbid – they ever find themselves drawn toward that dark, dark place.

Any one of us on his contact list would have helped. Even the person answering the phone at the Apple Store (live people answered the phone back then) could have looked up the telephone number for a suicide hotline (still answered live).

One of his favorite clients routinely called Sam himself – not exclusively for financial advice – but for reassurance. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he often counseled and encouraged her.

But when he was the one suffering, he didn’t reach out. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask.

He entered that dark tunnel where he somehow genuinely believed that we would be better off without him. He took his own life and left us with a paradox: Either we would founder and fall apart and fail, because we couldn’t survive without him, thus proving him wrong; or, we would find a way to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and build new dreams, demonstrating that we did not need him and therefore proving him right. It is crazy-making logic at its worst.

We choose to believe that we honor Sam’s life best by living our own with integrity, love, joy and hope. We live with the paradox.

So, if you want to know how to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened, I do know a thing or two about that. It starts with a single day, a time devoted to healing and radical self-care. A sacred space designated for intentional breathing, contemplation and snacks. It starts with Tuesday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And Tuesday’s peace.

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.

Dear Sam

Dear Sam ~

Just a little note to let you know we’re thinking of you extra today. You are often in our thoughts and conversations, of course, and tonight we will go to one of your favorite restaurants and raise a glass in your honor, as we do every year on your birthday.

You would be proud of your sons. They are smart, funny and hard-working. They are kind and compassionate. They are grateful and faithful. And really tall. Both are taller than I am, and the so-called little one will likely catch you by about Wednesday of next week at the rate he is eating.

Don’t worry – they’re also normal teenage boys. They leave their crap all over the house, their table manners could benefit from an immersion cotillion weekend, and they think I don’t know when they’re only pretending to do homework. Whenever I hear comments featuring the words “talks too much” during parent-teacher conferences, I blame you entirely.

The kids and I were recently having a “discussion” about doing their own laundry, and they enjoyed hearing that early in our marriage, you turned my favorite cream-colored blouse a pretty light blue. I’m still not quite sure how you managed that, but then I never let you do laundry again. For years, I thought you were the stupid one. But after we had been married 10 years, I realized that you hadn’t done a stitch of laundry in, well, 10 years. More often than not, you were the Ricky to my Lucy. I should have known that pale blue blouse was a clever trick.

In the last few months, both of them have mentioned that they wished you had spoken Spanish with them. I smiled, and told them that you and I had a difference of opinion on this particular issue. And so I say to you now – as any well-adjusted and mature adult would do – “Neener, neener, neener. I was right!” I will also tell you that they can both roll their R’s, even though you never could, and I gleefully take all the credit. But since the gringa is helping them with their Spanish homework, perhaps you are having the last laugh. Maybe you could just whisper a few vocab words in their ears, because the so-called little one has a quiz today.

If this doesn’t seem too weird to say out loud, you would be so happy that Tim has come into our lives. He is good to me, and he loves those boys as his own. You would be pleased at how all of our collective sons have opened their hearts to each other. They are a puppy pack, those four. They wrestle and flop and growl and wag. We are blessed beyond measure.

I guess I really just want to let you know that we are doing well. We have joy and laughter and faith. We are grateful for this day you were born, grateful for the time we had you in our lives. We miss you, but we still feel your love. And we love you.

Happy 50th, Sam.