Recalcitrance

A new day, a new beginning, a new year …

I’d like to say that I’m looking forward to all that 2016 will bring, but to be completely honest, what I’m feeling is more like trepidation and less like excitement. I would say that I’m looking forward to the blessings that 2016 will bring, but only if I could stipulate that those blessings should be ones I recognize as such, like happy and healthy children, peace and prosperity. No blessings in disguise, if You don’t mind. I would like to open my arms and heart wide to welcome the New Year, but I’m reluctant, more like a bouncer, arms crossed and scowling at the riffraff. Except that I’m too slight to intimidate any riffraff.

It could be that I’m still up to my eyeballs in Christmas crap. Decorating for the holidays can feel so festive, but dismantling all those Santas and snowflakes is a chore, even if also a relief. Maybe I’m just recovering from all the recent quality time with family. Or suffering from the self-imposed post-holiday Betty Ford rinse cycle.

I’m acutely aware of the range that a year can bring – incredible joy and unspeakable pain – and I’m bracing myself. I don’t get to choose my favorites, like I do with the assorted box of See’s candies, carefully selecting the marzipan or dark almonds and avoiding toffee, Bordeaux or anything covered in milk chocolate. I’d like to open the door to the New Year just a sliver, enough to make sure I like what I see in my future with time to slam the door closed if I don’t.

Too bad life doesn’t work that way.

Then again, I’m on a path I most definitely would not have chosen, and here I am, living a life full of joy, faith and passion. Along with a few oddball pets and a mountain of stinky athletic socks.

It’s a little nutty, this life.

I try my standard places for inspiration: I read, I run, I bake, I text my girlfriends. I treat myself to sushi for lunch. Nope. Still not feeling ready to face the day, let alone the year.

I go to church, hand in hand with the love of my life. We sit. We pray. We listen. The priest is talking about the Holy Family and making the point that what makes the family holy is not its perfection, because even the Holy Family isn’t perfect. Which is a huge relief, in light of the fact that this particular imperfect mother has left her imperfect children home to sleep while she and her imperfect husband sneak off to an imperfect church for a few moments of relative peace (without the relatives). Even the Holy Family suffered their share of disappointments, disapproval and one especially cold but memorable night in a barn.

No, the priest continues, what makes a family holy is the willingness to respond to God’s call. To say yes when He asks. Which seems easy enough in theory, but He rarely seems to ask for anything simple. He usually dishes out something new, or complicated, or non-traditional. It’s hardly ever popular. He has this way of setting us on a path that we didn’t expect and maybe don’t want. Even if Joseph didn’t audibly express any doubt about where this unexpected pregnancy would lead, I imagine he must have at least raised an eyebrow when the angel wasn’t looking. I’m just saying. That kind of yes is a big ask.

Sometimes we don’t get much of a choice.

Tim and I were both widowed in 2007 (Debbie from cancer / Sam by suicide), and each of us vowed never to live through that again. I did not want to open my heart – or my children’s hearts – to that vulnerable place, love. Tim and I met the following year, introduced by a mutual friend. Naturally, we fell in love. Humble pie is one of God’s favorite entrees.

We married and blended our family of four sons, two rotten cats and a little black dog. Then we added an “ours” puppy. We have all eight of our parents and in-laws. In our years together, we’ve celebrated two 50th wedding anniversaries for our collective parents (with plans for one more in June and a 60th wedding anniversary in the spring), three 8th grade promotions, two high school graduations and one college degree. We’ve held each other’s hands at several family funerals, suffered through the range of illnesses from garden variety flus to pneumonia to a significant concussion, and only one broken bone (but multiple x-rays and considerable experience with the local urgent care facilities). We are down to two teenagers, a defective hunting dog and one cat with a sock fetish at home. It’s not perfect or without struggles, but we are weathering life’s sunshine and storms together. We chose to respond to God’s invitation to love, and that yes makes our own little family holy.

In this season of resolutions, renewal and motivation, I am mindful that God will not love me more if I keep my weight down or get my salary up or pursue another degree. Or even if I say yes when He calls, but you have to know that I will be thinking about Jonah and that whale. In the interest of expedience, I will try to take a deep breath, bite the no that sits so naturally on the tip of my tongue, and say yes.

God doesn’t ask for perfection. He extends due dates and allows for do-overs. He appreciates laughter. He takes a little willingness and runs with it.

Sometimes the challenge is recognizing the ask when it happens. I’d like to think I’d say yes more readily to a winged messenger, bathed in light and accompanied by an angelic chorus. So far that hasn’t happened. The best I get is an atta girl after I’ve taken a few tentative steps in the right direction.

I spoke at a gathering of bereaved families over the holidays. This is the kind of activity that causes my husband and children to snicker and call me names like Grief Girl. I might not recommend that you depend on your immediate family for the confirmation that you’ve found your calling in life. As the event grew closer, I found myself becoming less enthusiastic about my participation. I was starting to regret my yes, but I really like the woman in charge of the program. So I took a deep breath, forced pen to paper, postponed a few holiday preparations, steadied myself with a prayer and a cup of coffee, wrapped myself in a favorite sweater and set off to the auditorium.

The program consists of music, candles, two speakers (including yours truly), a “Sharing of Names” and a video. And snacks, of course. I only know a handful of people in the room. Those in attendance range from young to old, inexperienced to credentialed, and none of that matters, because we are all heart-broken. It’s that simple. The Sharing of Names is a ritual where each person in attendance speaks the name of a loved one whose death they are grieving. Some speak through tears, some in shock from a recent death, some still reeling from a death decades ago. Cancer, murder, accident, suicide, old age, youth. These deaths are not anonymous, our loved ones have names and stories. We are a community of hearts who know love and its twin sister, loss. Grief is a powerful bond in its universality, and we find comfort in this safe space. I feel honored to be a part of this beautiful ceremony. But that’s not why I’m here.

As the participants continue sharing the names, I hear a name that I recognize, a unique name, a name I remember from a baby announcement about the same time I was sending out baby announcements myself. I do not want it to be true, but I cannot dare to believe that I misheard. It is, as I said, a distinctive name, belonging to the child of a dear friend whom I had lost connection with. That’s why I’m here. Thank goodness I said yes. My little yes covered a lot of territory in that hour.

Sometimes my inclination to say no is reinforced by my propensity to seek approval, because yes, the validation matters to me even though I know it shouldn’t.

The first time I met Debbie’s extended family was at a party celebrating an aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was no small affair; the uncle is one of thirteen children. Two of Debbie’s favorite uncles greeted me eagerly. One retired military and the other a former union leader, they were both big, intimidating men. They loved their niece, and even though they were broken-hearted over her death, they welcomed me with open hearts. They didn’t blame me or punish me. I didn’t ask to be widowed, and neither did Tim. The uncles were well aware of life’s mercurial nature. They had experienced enough of life’s unpredictability to know that fairness or fault did not necessarily factor into the system. They knew that family can be the most ardent proponent and the harshest critic. They knew that the best you can do is to live with integrity and love, because you won’t please everybody. They pushed Tim to the side, flanked me, and prepared to introduce me to the many siblings and cousins. One of the uncles leans down to me and growls into my ear, “Darlin’, some of the family won’t like it, but that’s tough shit.” And so we proceeded into the ballroom.

I think about those protective men, and I cannot help but grin. I start to believe that I could greet the New Year with a tiny, little, apprehensive yes, fortified by my guardian uncles and their tough shit attitude.

I leash up my trusty walking companion, and we open the door. I cannot accomplish the whole year at once, but I can get there one breath at a time, with Faith at one shoulder and Love at the other, and Joy waiting expectantly at my feet.

All right, 2016. I’m ready now. Let’s go.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And today’s Yes.

Our Daily Bread

Peanut Butter & Jelly

There are two people I think of every time I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One is my first husband Sam. He always thought I was too heavy handed with both peanut butter and jelly, and I thought he didn’t lay it on thick enough. We each have our preferences.

The other is a woman named Mary, the only child of a single mom, Silvia. Mary was a few years older than I, and she never married or had children. Silvia and Mary were very close. I didn’t know either of them particularly well, I just saw them at church on Sundays, stopping to chat briefly in the portico before heading off to brunch. I remember Mary telling me, when my own sons were probably too young even to eat peanut butter, that her mother always spread the peanut butter and jam to the very edges of the bread so that each bite of the sandwich, even the crusts, had all the necessary elements of a PB&J. Mary had a great deal of appreciation for her own mother who prepared her sandwiches with this level of care. Those little details in her lunchbox epitomized the thoughtfulness in their relationship.

Mary and Sam once happened to be on the same flight to Dallas. It was exactly 17 years ago. I remember the timing because I was neurotically pregnant at the time. Sam hadn’t called me from the airport; he waited to call from the hotel. I would have been completely frantic by that time were it not for the fact that Mary had already called me from DFW airport to let me know that their plane landed safely. Right after she had called Silvia. Mary was a sales rep for an international company, and she travelled frequently. Every time she landed safely in a new airport, she called her mother.

Mary died in her 40’s. Cancer, I think, although I don’t know for sure. Silvia died not terribly long thereafter. A broken heart, I’m sure.

It may seem a small reverence, but when I prepare my boys’ sandwiches, I use a bit less PB&J than I otherwise would. I also spread the peanut butter and the jelly right to the edges of the bread. I smile, and I think of Sam and Mary every time.

 

Loaves

When Tim and I first got married, our collective brood of boys were ages 9, 11, 14 and 17. Among the many changes in our transition from two families of three to one family of six was the simple matter of buying bread. I was accustomed to using three slices of bread for the daily lunches, because the youngest only ate half of a sandwich. With four sons, however, our daily consumption increased to eleven slices, because the oldest two ate two sandwiches each. This will happen with teenage boys who are growing like weeds, especially when they play freshman football and varsity basketball.

All four boys have gone through that stage where it feels like I can watch them growing in front of my very eyes. It’s breathtaking each time. I swear they are taller when they stand up after dinner than they were when they first sat down. And it only takes them 7 minutes to eat. They unfurl every morning, stretching into men that I reach up to hug as I hand them their lunches on the way out the door. One of them playfully lifts me off the floor and moves me out of his way, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

With two away now, our daily bread intake has decreased again. It rises and falls as each boy comes home to touch base and flies off again to create his own life. And make his own sandwiches. It is no small miracle, this feeding of children and watching them grow.

 

Bread of Life

In the flurry that comprises my life – kids and cats and dog, office work and volunteer work, church life and home life – I rarely prepare bread from scratch, although it is an activity that I thoroughly enjoy. It’s a busy weekend, and I intend to use the day to catch up on some work, tackle a few chores and bake, which honestly is a welcome reprieve from the weekly chaos that has been our standard fare. Baking bread from scratch is somewhat of a lost art in our culture of pre-made everything, but there is something deeply satisfying about the process. I have dedicated myself not to go anywhere today. I’ve been craving a day to make bread.

My favorite is challah, the Jewish Sabbath bread. It is a celebratory bread, fluffy and buttery, often prepared in a variety of shapes, but I favor the braided version. The strands look like arms intertwined. I bake dozens of loaves during the Christmas season to share with friends and family. I am abysmal at decorating ginger bread cookies, but I can turn out a golden brown, shiny loaf of challah. It also makes excellent French toast, if it’s around long enough to get slightly stale, which rarely ever happens.

The recipe book opens automatically to the page. The ingredients are simple – the basic stuff of life – eggs, milk, flour, butter, a pinch of salt, a little sugar, and of course the yeast. It’s not particularly difficult, but it does take time. And attention. And a little finesse. Too much heat or too little sugar will kill the yeast and ruin the bread. I suspect there is a parenting lesson for me in this. I am so annoyed with the inactivity of certain teenagers with exams on the horizon that I am ready to apply a swift kick with the pointy end of my boot. Instead, I think about the yeast and the sweetness, the heat and the time. I bite my tongue.

One of the things I love about baking is that it draws the boys to the kitchen. “Quick, Mom, quiz me! What’s a heliocentric system?” I know the answer immediately: “A system that revolves around the sons – like our family.” He’s not amused, but his brother in the next room laughs.

He looks over at the bowl sitting on the counter with a clean towel and asks his next question. “Why is the challah just sitting there? Did you give up?” Yes, I did. Sometimes that’s what quality parenting looks like. Giving up seems to be the only thing I do consistently as a mother. I give up over and over, right before I try again.

I set the whole sticky mess aside in a quiet spot, left alone to do its rising thing. It might look like it’s sitting there, doing nothing, but such things are not always as they seem. After some time, the needling, I mean kneading, begins, and the sticky lump begins to take shape. By this point both baker and kitchen counter are covered in a fine dusting of flour. The pounding down of the leavened dough is therapeutic for me as the baker. It is not nearly so pleasant when I feel like the dough that the Maker is beating down and molding. And yet, this part of the process is not the end of the story. The dough rises again.

Some days, I need this reminder. The process is not easy, it cannot necessarily be rushed, but the result is delicious.

These are the same basic elements worth using to create a life – a little sweetness, a warm quiet space to grow, periods of challenge and difficulty, often forcing us back to a warm, safe space, but which inspire us and form us anew. In this place, we find a community, within which we give our time, our unique talents, our own beautiful selves.

As the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the kitchen, the boys draw closer, wondering, “Is it ready yet, Mom?

The first loaf invariably disappears in a flurry of hands and steam and melted butter. Then comes the boys’ least favorite part of the process: the recipe yields four loaves, and I always give one away, even when it’s not holiday time. “Can’t we just keep them all for ourselves?” We never do, because some things – and homemade challah is one of them – are simply better in the sharing.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And daily bread.

The Club

I remember a brave, young widow coming to school for the first time after her husband’s sudden death, with their very young children in tow. The little ones were in kindergarten and second grade, the exact same ages and classes as my own sons, and as she approached, she said, “Well, today is the first day of the rest of our lives.” I was struck by her beauty and strength, and impressed by the fact that she hadn’t stayed in bed in her pajamas, which seemed only logical under the circumstances. I myself would have dissolved into tears right there in front of a dozen second-graders were it not for the widow’s own fortitude. It had been a rough go for our little microcosm of parents with two kids, ages 5 and 7, at the local elementary school. We had now lost two dads within two months, both with two children these same ages. Little did I know that within the year, I, too, would join this circle of newly-widowed moms.

These lovely souls who were widowed by cancer and an unexpected heart-attack welcomed me, widowed by suicide, with open arms, broken hearts and stiff martinis. Each of us entered the group kicking and screaming, without any actual kicking or screaming, but a fair amount of tears and pain nonetheless. “It’s the club you don’t want to be in,” they said, but thank God for them, these girlfriends who get it.

I never really found my place in a formal grief group. I went to a suicide survivors group meeting exactly once. I was the only widow present. Everyone else had lost a parent or a child. I managed to stay for the hour or so, and then I pretty much ran screaming from the room, but without the actual running or screaming. My friend, who had also lost an immediate family member to suicide years prior, had driven me to the meeting and attended with me. We got in her car, avoided eye contact and conversation for a while, and eventually looked at each other. I was relieved to see that she, too, was appalled and horrified by the wreckage we witnessed that night. I never returned.

Part of the challenge with that particular group on that specific night and, admittedly, through the lens of my own raw distress, was that there was no evidence of genuine healing, or progress of any kind for that matter. Instead, there was a fair amount of wallowing, some competitive grieving and an apparent lack of hope. They talked about hope, but they didn’t emanate hope. Time had passed – and for one in attendance, quite a lot of time, a decade or more – but little healing had occurred. Granted, some of the situations were horrific, which, in combination with my new and tender grief, undoubtedly colored my own impression. To be fair, most in the room had lost a child, an additional potential loss that was beyond overwhelming for me to contemplate. I had already seen the terrifying statistics on children who lose a parent (for any reason, not just suicide) and was determined to do what I could not to let my children become one.

I had no intention of joining what appeared to be a suicide-sanctioned pity party. I didn’t get a clear sense that they had lives beyond their loss. I never gave that group another chance. I needed a balance, but there was none to be found in the suicide survivors group that first night. It pointed a direction that I did not want to go.

On the other hand, I had grown up in a culture of denominationally-issued rose-colored glasses, and ignoring the loss was most certainly not going work for me. I was unsatisfied with the platitudes, that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all part of a grand plan. I do not feel drawn toward a God who plans tragedy in an effort to further my personal growth. It’s no coincidence that I would eventually join a church that reveres faith, resurrection, and hope but does not shy away from the broken body on the cross.

It is hard to find a balance, between the experience of loss and suffering on one side, and compassion and hope on the other. Healing is remembering, but not dwelling. Healing means incorporating the loss, without being consumed by the loss. Healing means kindling momentum, without running away. Healing means letting the loss color the view of the world without distorting the picture, a lens through which to consider the experience. Wallowing in misery is different than being present with the misery long enough to let it go. Pretending all is well when all is not is a lonely place, not a healing one. Healing means an ability to honor the uniqueness of each loss, to find a connection in loss without a need to compare losses.

I don’t mean to disparage groups. People are searching for different things when they join a group, and we each have a variety and range of needs (which change over time, just to render grief and healing all the more complicated). I know lots of people for whom groups have literally been life-saving, a refuge of compassion, mutual respect and shared sardonic humor. I totally get that. I didn’t find what I needed, but I learned that I didn’t want to go to a church or a hospital to find my healing place. I was too angry with God, and too wounded to be able to handle with any equanimity the various traumas present at a hospital. In that regard, at least, the group pointed me toward a healing direction.

I attended a different grief group a few times, this one designed for parents who had suffered the loss of a spouse. I found it somewhat helpful knowing I wasn’t alone in this messy business of grief, loss and single-parenting. Also helpful was that the organization simultaneously conducted a group session for the children, but neither of my boys felt especially comfortable in the kids’ setting. We attended a few times, but each week there seemed to be a widower in the parent group whose primary purpose in attending was to promote his search for a replacement wife, as though the grief group was a narrow category within a dating network where he could find someone to swoop in Mary-Poppins-style and fix everything. I started to think I needed a females-only group.

I have always had men in my life whose friendship I cherish, but after an unfortunate incident involving a single dad at the kids’ elementary school, I began to avoid single men intentionally. I’m not quite sure how he interpreted “No, thank you,” as “Not coffee, but how about Las Vegas for the weekend?” I was not prepared for male attention, with its threatening sexual vibe. I felt like Meg Ryan in that beginning scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally when she says she has male friends, and Billy Crystal says, “No you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t…. Men and women cannot be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” I suspected Billy Crystal might have been right. I began to avoid men altogether.

The feminist in me began to resent the men who thought I required their caretaking, either to fix me or the dripping faucet. The mother in me resented the men who thought my sons needed a step-father to groom them into manly men. And if I’m honest about it, the widow in me simply wanted to protect her broken heart: if I never allowed myself to fall in love again, then my heart would be safe.

I needed women to cocoon me during the storm, strong but gentle, broken-hearted-but-not-broken women. Women who had suffered loss, but who weren’t embittered by it. Women who didn’t wear their loss like a badge of honor, or an entitlement, or an excuse, but whose loss enabled them to find a deeper healing, a more expansive compassion, a larger purpose. Women who had faith – in life, in healing, in themselves, in me.

The formal grief group wasn’t the place for me, but I found my healing places in a book group (two book groups, truth be told, even though an alarming number of our book selections feature suicide), a yoga class, a meditation course, a running group and a small prayer group. I found healing on the trails, at kitchen tables and on the yoga mat. In an exclusive group consisting of my therapist and me. And on a team of one: just me with my meditation pillow, my breath and a parade of feelings.

The women in these groups were survivors of all manner of loss – death, illness, divorce, infertility. We drank together, sometimes side by side, sometimes virtually, through photos sent via text message, and we laughed at wickedly morbid repartee.

I found that several of my most reliable supporters were also single mothers, many by virtue of divorce. I do not pretend to know the divorce path and pain; I just know that there were enough parallels that these sister-friends and I clung to each other, symbiotically bailing our leaky boats, crying our synchronous tears, holding each other close and mutually celebrating our professional, maternal and emotional achievements. For whatever reason, the single-parent track was a more meaningful connection for me than the suicide specific loss. It was all a part of finding my way.

After many months, lots of coffee dates and countless loops around the Rose Bowl, I came to the realization that there is really only one club, and we are all in it. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.” Or, as the girlfriends and I say, We are all in the same leaky boat.

There is no one path to healing, but a healing path is to be found. For me, my healing places feature tears, laughter, dark chocolate and noir pinot noir. My healing groups include runners, readers, prayers, singers and an unlikely band of moms who met sporadically for tea and snacks. Women who, through their presence, encourage and inspire. Women of grace who can simply be with me. Which is the greatest, healing gift. And which, it seems to me, reflects the promise of Immanuel, or God with us. The God who comes to us in his vulnerability and innocence, kicking and screaming, and to whom we open our arms and hearts and say, “Welcome to the club, baby.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Bail, baby, bail.

Recovery

Our days have been full to burst, as my grandfather used to say, with family, work, church, school, the usual suspects – and all good (mostly good, anyway) – but there’s just so many of them. The color-coded calendar is working overtime, as is our Mr. Coffee, by which I mean the actual pot and not my darling husband, although he, too, is putting in some long hours, starting early by bringing coffee to his sleepy wife. I find myself squeezing in projects between appointments, in the name of productivity, trading writing time for the sake of volunteer demands and devoting precious little time to my self.

Years ago, shortly after Sam’s death, I claimed Tuesday as my day just for me, which as a practical matter was not the whole of the day, but from about 9:00am – 2:00pm, the few, valuable hours that both kids were in school simultaneously. I protected this time from external demands, appointments and certain professionals with letters following their names. I strictly avoided forms, the DMV and anyone related to health insurance. I rarely scheduled coffee, or lunch, or even a walk with a friend on Tuesdays, because I needed the time free from restraints. It was the one day I put myself at the top of my own priority list, subject only to critical needs of the children.

Over time I’ve begun to share my day more liberally. I’m healthy and happy, as are my husband and all our children, and I’ve let my guard down. It starts with the plumber who can only fit my sewage leak issue into his Tuesday schedule, and by the end of the day I’m still standing and mostly sane, so I loosen my protective grip on the day. Maybe I don’t need to devote the time to my own health as I once did. I begin to use the time for some extra work or one more project, a meeting or a conference call. I still get to yoga most Tuesdays, but during the final meditation, I find the wheels beginning to spin and I’m already planning breakfast and a wardrobe change.

I think I need to reclaim my Tuesday.

My inner perfectionist control freak bristles at this idea. She thinks I need to do more, accomplish something tangible, and make some measurable progress, but I suspect what I really need right now is to do less. Not just because it’s an incredibly beautiful, cool (finally!) day out there, but I confess that particular detail may have factored into my epiphany. Not just because some friends lost their child to suicide last week, although that might have played a role. More because I noticed I was holding my breath this morning, and that’s not a good sign. And there’s this lingering low-grade headache, which could be attributed to allergies or the change in the weather, but I suspect it’s something different.

I’m going to stop and breathe and be for a while.

I’m going to send a text message to a friend just to say I love you and feel incredibly grateful to have such a friend. I’m going to read something life-affirming and uplifting – a story, a poem, or just a verse – something that doesn’t contain the words “compliance,” “code” or “deadline.” I’m going to be patient with myself.

I need a moment to pray, to trust in a God who does not disinherit Her children. I need to listen to Natalie Merchant’s Life Is Sweet on repeat, to cry and smile and inhale. And then I will take the dog for a long walk, which is the most healing practice I know.

I am going to sit still and listen to my heart beat for as long as it takes to feel my whole body pulse in rhythm with my soul. I will stay put until I reach the place where I feel in my lungs the simple truth that Life is breathing me.

I’m going to put on my favorite jeans, my favorite boots and a favorite sweater (fall weather – my favorite!), and that will pretty much be my achievement for the day.

My therapist calls this self-care. Some call it procrastination, a waste of time, inefficiency. I’m going to call it my Charlotte-Shabbat and preserve this day to come home to myself. Somehow I sense that that’s also what today needs from me.

Tomorrow, I will tackle errands, to-do lists and projects. I might even work up the wherewithal to talk to a lawyer I’ve been meaning to call, but not today. It’s Tuesday, and I need some sacred time.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your daily path. And time for your sacred self.

All Souls’ Day

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. … Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. … Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”

(Some Modern Beatitudes, A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, by Nadia Bolz-Weber)

***

My son wants to visit his father’s gravesite today, which seems appropriate for All Saints Sunday, a day to honor the lives of those loved ones who have died. But the excursion is not as altruistic as it sounds. He has the opportunity to do an extra credit project — for Spanish or Religion, I can’t remember which — in observance of El Dia de Los Muertos. He has been given the option either to go to the gravesite of a deceased relative or to attend the festivities based on the Mexican-catholic tradition celebrating El Dia de Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. That scene is as colorful as you might imagine. The shy boy thinks it will be easier to go to his father’s gravesite.

The thing is, the boy has only been to his father’s gravesite once before. To say the experience was excruciating would be a gross understatement. Oh, and there’s this: Sam was neither Mexican nor catholic; he was a cuban Jew.

But it’s for school, and it will be a time for the boy to face into some serious business, and snacks will be involved. So I’m in. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

His assignment is to decorate the gravesite Dia de Los Muertos-style, so we have come prepared with orange flowers, two family photographs, chocolate and a “double double” cheeseburger from In ’n Out. With fries. Sam loved fries, especially cold ones.

Needless to say, we are the only ones at the Jewish cemetery bearing snacks.

The first time the boy came to this spot was just about a year after his father’s death, for the unveiling of the memorial tablet. The boy was determined not to go that day. He wanted to stay at school instead. I promised him that I would never force him to go again, but I insisted that he join us for the ceremonial unveiling. I wanted him to participate and to see that the place is beautiful and peaceful, with a view of the city his father loved. It’s not morbid or scary like a bad horror movie.

But it is exquisitely sad for a little boy to have to visit his father in this place.

Sam’s name was etched in bronze on a tablet set in the grass, with his years of birth and death, and a quote from a poem I found comforting: “Let it not be a death but completeness.” I chose the word loved, as in “Loved husband and father” because one of the boys thought the word “beloved” sounded so ugly. He heard the word for the first time at his father’s funeral, but he didn’t know what “beloved” meant. No wonder the child thought it sounded ugly.

A few friends and family had gathered for the unveiling ceremony. It was brutally hot, and the young tree close by granted very little shade. The rabbi was late, predictably stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway. On that day, my broken-hearted baby stomped on his father’s memorial tablet. Multiple times. My poor father-in-law flinched, visibly shaken, because his broken-hearted baby had just been the recipient of the stomp. He told me to stop the stomping. I refused, because I thought it was the perfect expression of little boy grief. For the record, it’s not just the kids, I’ve thrown rocks at that tablet myself.

One good thing about this space is that it’s big enough to hold the full range of our feelings, from loved or beloved to reviled and to loved again.

And now we return to the cemetery. It has been several years since I have been here, and even longer for the boy. Initially, we cannot find Sam because there’s been a bit of construction in the interim. Neither of us asks directions, but it only takes a few minutes to find him. We are drawn to the spot by feel.

My son sets out his offerings. I snap a few pictures. We sit together in silence for a while. It is no small achievement for the boy to have arrived here today. This is the child who refused to say the “D” words — dead or dad — for two years after his father committed suicide.

Today my boy does not stomp on the site.

He sits quietly.

He thinks for a long while.

I inhale and exhale. I don’t want to rush. I try not to cry.

Eventually he indicates that he is ready to go.

I ask him whether there’s anything he’d like to say to dad before we leave. He says No. I give him a few suggestions of phrases I’ve said to his father in the course of grieving his death: “I love you? I miss you? What on earth were you thinking? Fuck you?” My boy looks at me and sighs. He smiles and shakes his head. I’m not sure whether this means he really has nothing to say out loud to his dead father or whether he is simultaneously amused and annoyed at his mother’s preternatural impulse to say everything out loud. He wipes the tear forming in the corner of his eye, and we stand up to leave.

The nearby tree has grown several feet and casts a wide shadow, yielding a comfortable refuge from the heat, the bronze tablet has been weathered and darkened, and the young man is thriving in ways that a father hopes for his son.

I think it might have been easier to go to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. To get lost in the general revelry and anonymity with the crowds and costumes and music. Instead, my son has chosen to look squarely into the face of his own grief. He is brave beyond measure. He has found his way to beauty, gratitude and peace in this place of mourning, and, I dare to say, he has been blessed.

***

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

What If?

Sam committed suicide in October nearly eight years ago. There is so much stigma surrounding suicide that it is still strange to say out loud.

One of the boys tells me that sometimes, instead of using the “S” word when people ask how his father died, he tells them that Sam fell accidentally, so they won’t think less of his father. I get that. Immediately after Sam’s death, I expected to be ostracized by my community, my church, my sons’ school, even potentially my own family. It’s the world we live in. A world that criticizes death by suicide. A world that marginalizes the grief wrought by a loved one’s suicide. A world where a young boy feels compelled to protect his dead father’s reputation.

I wasn’t treated as an outcast after Sam’s death. I was held and fed and heard. I think this is a testament to the progress that has been made by raising awareness and increasing compassion toward mental health issues, even in one generation. But we still have work to do.

Sam’s last words to me were “Bye, sweetie. I love you.” What if, instead, he had been able to say, “I need help”? What if he had been able to let me – or someone, anyone – know that he was in a kind of pain that wasn’t addressed by an aspirin and a nap? What if he had been able to articulate that he was in so much anguish that jumping off a parking structure seemed like a rational idea?

I have learned not to get caught in the “what if” loop, because “what if” wasn’t and “what is” is. It might not have changed everything. It might not have changed anything. But there is a place for “what if” thinking; it is the place where we hope to create progress, a place where we provide community and a gentler world for those who follow. We might not have been able to eliminate Sam’s pain, but what if we could have taken away his shame? Maybe he would not have felt so alone in the darkness. Maybe he could have heard my last words to him, “Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

Sam had chronic and debilitating back pain, and he rarely (and then reluctantly) asked for help. Then again, his back pain was impossible to mask, wincing as he got in and out of the car, shuffling along old-man style. In fact, he had a prescription for vicodin left from his most recent back surgery, but he resisted taking the pain-killers for fear of becoming dependent on them. The toxicology report showed that he had vicodin in his system when he died and, as a result, was not likely in any significant physical pain. I found this fact oddly comforting. But what if, instead of reaching for the bottle, he had reached for the phone?

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally, and some of us seem to struggle more with this than others, especially if we fear being judged. When life’s problems do not yield to simple solutions, these are the times that companionship along the journey is especially important, but silence suffers alone. Sam had fewer than ten contacts saved on his cell phone; more than half of those were his favorite places to order take-out. What if he had called any one of the ten? I imagine that even the pizza guy would have wanted to help. It might not have changed everything. Or anything.

Sam didn’t call anyone.

September is the official Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and even though it’s October, the conversation continues. Believe me, I know these are hard conversations to have, but silence makes the stigma worse. What if, by increasing awareness and compassion, we open up the possibility for the kind of world where someone in distress can reach out for help without fear of judgment? It’s a legacy worth talking about.

***

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

Presumption

Usually, my morning run calms me, or at least takes the edge off. I return home with a fresh perspective or renewed commitment or surrender or resolve or increased motivation or even a new approach to a sticky situation. If nothing else, I have spent a good half an hour with my sweet and hapless defective hunting dog. But every now and again, I come back from a run all fired up and tetchy.

Today a woman in a white Acura sets me off. I’m not sure what has her attention – a kid in the backseat, the traffic report, a text from her office – but her eyes are not on the road. My eyes, on the other hand, are fixed on her tires coming toward me perilously quickly. She is driving on the shoulder, tires so far over the edge of her lane line that you might think it was a second lane, but it’s bicycle width. There is no sidewalk on this particular stretch of residential road, so it’s just me, the dog, a rapidly narrowing shoulder and some tall landscaping. As the car approaches, I cry out. I yank the dog’s leash and we press ourselves into the hedges.

I don’t think she even brakes as she careens around the curve. I turn and issue a piece of advice, a few well-chosen words suited to her blatant and reckless disregard for human and canine lives. I don’t know whether she heard me. I half expect to hear a crash as she continues on her way. She reminds me of someone else I’ve encountered recently, hurtling her way through life without a thought for others traveling the same route.

I finish my run, each mile winding me up a little tighter, and I walk in the door thoroughly annoyed. I’m pissy and prickly, sweaty and out of breath.

Warning: I’ve caught my breath now, and I’m about to let a few choice words fly.

I like to think I’m reasonably open about this path I’ve travelled as the widow due to suicide. I try to be mindful that each experience is unique, including mine, and open to opinions that are different that my own.

There is certainly a sense in which we are all in the same leaky boat. When I meet other survivors of loss – not just of a spouse, and not only by suicide – there is frequently a softening, a mutual respect, an appreciation. This connection is enhanced by the recognition that each experience is individual.

I’ve attended presentations given by and for suicide survivors (which, by the way, I think is a terribly misleading term, but I haven’t – yet – thought of a better one). I’ve given presentations to therapists and first responders detailing life in the trenches of my day-to-day experience as a mother to four grieving sons. I cannot speak for all parents. So I don’t.

And I don’t appreciate some misguided jackass drawing conclusions about me or my husband or our relationship based solely on the fact that he killed himself.

Several years ago, a dear friend of mine had a friend who had a friend whose husband committed suicide. And she thought that this friend (I’ll call her Jessie) should talk to me. Not long afterward, I received a message that Jessie herself wanted to talk to me and forwarded her cell number to me. Naturally, I called her. Jessie didn’t answer, so I left a brief voicemail, leaving my name and cell phone and encouraging her that if she wanted to chat I would be available any time.

What I received back was a protracted, emphatic text message asserting that not only did she not want to talk to me, but she informed me that I had nothing to offer her because she and her husband were very much in love and happy. Her situation was unique among suicides, and I wouldn’t understand.

I wanted to type back: Go fuck yourself. You don’t know a single thing about me, about Sam, or about our marriage. But I didn’t. I bit my tongue and my texting fingers, sent a short apology and goodbye. And then I fumed. I deleted her message and contact information. I hoped never to hear from her again, and so far I haven’t.

Healing is hard enough without the judgment and criticism of some asshole who thinks my husband killed himself because he didn’t love me or that I didn’t love him. Or whatever the hell she thinks. I don’t need her to stigmatize my husband or shame me. And she doesn’t have a monopoly on pain. It’s not a competition; we both lost. There is so much misunderstanding surrounding suicide, and misguided criticism only perpetuates the stigma.

It would be so much cleaner to divide the world into good guy and bad guys, good marriages and bad ones, but life doesn’t work that way. Suicide is not necessarily a moral weakness or character flaw or somebody’s fault. It’s immeasurably messy.

I loved my husband and he loved me. We had children, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and a white picket fence. Sam loved his sons. He was involved in their lives, their education, coached their T-ball teams. He was a confidante, a loyal friend, a trusted advisor. He was kind and conscientious. Jessie presumed Sam had been otherwise. Or that I was. Like many couples, we had happy and sad, celebrations, disappointments and disagreements. He also, like so many of us, had job stress and family pressure. He suffered chronic and debilitating back pain from the time he was 13 years old. He must also have wrestled with demons whose names I didn’t know.

We survivors carry a terrible burden of guilt. Could I have loved him more? Or better? Probably. Would it have made a difference? I will never know. He did not have a “suicide” tattoo stamped across his forehead like a warning label. If he had, maybe I could have avoided falling in love with him in the first place. Then again, we all bear the stamp of mortality by virtue of our humanity. The risk we take when we live wholeheartedly and love imperfectly is that we will lose each other sometime, in some way. Suicide is a particularly ugly way.

I’m no expert or statistician. All I know is myself and a handful of widows. We loved our husbands as best we could, and they loved us, too. No marriage is perfect. It’s not supposed to be. If the vow was to love only during better, health and wealth, then marriages would last just long enough for the wedding coordinator to insult a favorite cousin and the caterer to spill champagne on Aunt Helen, which would amount to maybe seven minutes in ordinary time. The real challenge is to love through all the times, not knowing in advance what those times will bring.

I understand the urge to differentiate from the suicide stereotype, but that stance only increases misconception and stigma. Mental illness doesn’t look like anyone in particular or live at a specific address. People want to think that they can inoculate themselves from the risk of suicide because they exercise daily or have an advanced degree or a really good therapist, or give up chocolate. Believe me, I do all those things. Except giving up dark chocolate, of course.

Sometimes we end up in the soup anyway.

I think about the woman in the Acura, and I think perhaps I would do well to heed my own advice, not the words that went through my head as she zipped by, but the ones that I actually said out loud: Slow down. If my run doesn’t calm me, maybe today I need to sit and breathe, maybe I need to be gentler with myself.

In this moment I realize that I need to listen carefully to more of my own guidance: Just because we share the same road does not mean we experience the same journey.

I think about Jessie, and my heart softens. There is more than enough anger, shame and guilt to go around. If I could find a way to pave the path with a little more connection, acceptance and trust, even for one who offends me, this would be a far more productive endeavor.

I still don’t want Jessie ever to call me again, but I take a deep breath and a long exhale and I try to loosen the hold of my own guilt and convictions.

Love alone does not prevent suicide. If it could, suicide wouldn’t exist. Sometimes love and prayer and medication and therapy and surgery are enough to bridge that divide. Sometimes they aren’t. I don’t know why.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And slow, mindful drivers.

The Hard Questions

I was presented with many difficult questions in the wake of Sam’s death. Single plot or double? How would you like the obituary to read? Did you have any clue he was in so much pain? Will you stay in the house? What are you going to tell the children? Are you going to change your name? And, of course, the ubiquitous Why?

But the hardest questions come from the children. Usually at bedtime, when it’s dark (in both the physical and metaphorical sense), and we are tired and vulnerable. This is also the time when the world recedes to the background, and we settle into our own space, reflect and breathe. “Mommy,” the little boy asks, looking at me from his father’s brown eyes, “Do you think that if Daddy had loved me more, he wouldn’t have committed suicide?” And then, “Mommy, is Daddy in heaven?”

On the one hand, I feel wholly unqualified to answer these questions. Parenting books and several diplomas did not prepare me for this discussion. Complicated enough for a master’s thesis, but with a six-year old audience. On the other hand, the platitudes and sometimes hurtful responses that we hear in our daily walk are not what I want to feed my kids. I’m not a trained theologian, I’m just a mom. But I do love my sons, and I understand their sensitivities, and maybe these are all the credentials I need to provide honest, thoughtful answers (or at a minimum, a compassionate response) to questions that young children should not ever have to contemplate.

I put aside my own bitterness at life’s unfairness and my resentment toward the kid who told my little boy that his father didn’t love him enough and that people who commit suicide automatically go straight to hell. We snuggle under a blanket, and together my son and I unravel the hard questions.

I inhale slowly and start with what I know.

I know your father loved you with every fiber of his being. You are his delight, his defining moment, his compass. Your daddy was kind and smart and helpful and honest and funny and hard-working and faithful and everything that good people are supposed to be. If, by loving more, Sam could have fended off the Angel of Death, he would have. There is no doubt in my mind on this point. Unfortunately, love is not the deciding factor here. This is hard for me to say out loud, because I really do believe in the power of love to restore, heal and redeem. But love is not enough to stop the cancer from spreading, love alone does not preclude all suffering, and love does not stop death from knocking on the door. Love does not stop good men from dying, it does not keep little boys’ hearts from breaking. Or an adult man’s heart either.

Oh and there’s this, too, based primarily on my experience in the local Urgent Care (and yes, with four sons, this is not an insignificant investment of time). Every part of the human physiology is geared for self-preservation. From the moment an injury occurs, the body begins the healing process. It is no small miracle. Suicidal thoughts and actions are not signs of a normal, healthy human biology; there must be some kind of hormonal, chemical or psychological imbalance. Daddy had to have been sick. Clearly, he was not himself. And isn’t the anguish of depression and suicidal brooding hell enough? If he can be faulted for making a mistake, his mistake was that he didn’t ask for help. But he was a human being, in a human body, with a human mind. The combination of which has been known to result in mistakes.

I cannot believe that a loving God (and I do believe in a loving God) would punish us for being sick (or by making us sick), and furthermore God forgives us for making mistakes. Here’s the thing. I’m a pretty good mother, but I’m not perfect. My children get sick and my children make mistakes and even I  — in my imperfect, glitchy state — still love them. I have to believe that God is a more loving parent than I am. At least, I hope so. 

So, no. I do not believe that if he had loved you more, he would have stayed. He loved you with all that he had, and he is gone anyway. And yes, yes, yes, I tell my heartbroken little boy, your father is indeed in heaven.

For added theological support, I run the question by our family priest (who also holds a degree in psychology), and he said yes, too. In fact, he added that “God is all the more merciful at such a tragic moment. This is mercy. This is our God.”

To which my son and I both say Amen.

Of course, I might have exercised my maternal discretion to edit the good Father’s version if he had drawn a different conclusion. Believe me, the visual I have created for myself of my late Jewish husband hanging out with St. Peter brings me great joy.

As a mother to grieving children, I do my best to provide authentic answers to all of their difficult questions, and to honor each boy’s unique healing journey.

At times, my words spill out naturally, without conscious thought, and yet I recognize their truth. When the policemen were still in my house, having just delivered the news of Sam’s death, I heard myself saying, with one child tucked under each of my arms, in a clear, unwavering voice, “Your father’s love for you will protect you for your entire lives.” I had not previously considered this idea. After all, I had known I was widowed for about 17 minutes, but in the moment I heard those words coming out of my own mouth, I knew them to be true.

And there are times, when the most accurate truth I can speak is, “I don’t know.” But I will think about it. I will read about it. I might even ask a professional about it. Most importantly, the boys and I will stumble forward in the darkness of not-knowing, and together we will live our way to the answer. We find our own way through this uncharted territory. In this place, we discover that love’s true strength lies in the power of its presence. Love’s tender presence, even in the absence of fairness, logic and understanding. And we become aware that not only my love, but Sam’s love for his children is with them still.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the voice to answer life’s hard questions.

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.

Cleaning the Closet and Related Hazards

I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon cleaning out my closet, and much to my dismay the closet still appears full. Better organized, but not exactly the progress I had hoped for. My girlfriend told me she gets rid of everything that she hasn’t worn in two years. I’m not that disciplined. In part, my friend is trying to motivate me because her daughters are collecting items for a huge charity yard sale, and I did manage to fill several bags worthy of donation for the event. In the process, I also stumbled upon several violations of her two-year rule, including a festive Nicole Miller silk vest. I know precisely the last time I wore it: December 13, 1997.

I have a cousin who remembers pretty much everything she’s ever worn, not just for significant events, but the mundane as well. The crazy part is that she remembers everything everybody else wore too. My mind doesn’t work that way. But I do remember when I wore this particular item of clothing because that day topped my short list of bad days back then. It was a traumatic day, it would require months and years to recover physically and emotionally, but in retrospect it wasn’t an altogether bad day, because that was the day Sam lived.

It was a Friday, and my firm’s Christmas party was scheduled for the afternoon. Thus the festive vest. Sam left the house about 20 minutes before I did, as his commute was a bit longer than mine. When I got in my car, I popped in a favorite CD, Mi Tierra by Gloria Estefan. My Cuban husband was bilingual, but I was not. This CD was as close as I could get. Sam and I as a pair were a little like Ricky and Lucy, except that Sam couldn’t sing. Anyway, Gloria was singing Con Los Anos Que Me Quedan, and even if (like Lucy and me) you don’t e-speak e-Spanish, it’s a beautiful love song. The chorus translates approximately: “With however many years I have left to live, I am going to show you how much I love you.”

Our life wasn’t perfect, but it was a good day. Sam and I were happy, Gloria and I were singing, and I was looking forward to an abbreviated work day and a holiday party to kick-start the weekend. But I never made it to the party.

I was just barely up to speed on the freeway when the traffic slowed back down, which was unusual at that hour. Traffic is always an issue in Los Angeles, of course, but we left the house early because in those days we didn’t have children, only a mismatched pair of rescued cats.

I have never had the stomach for rubber-necking at car wrecks, but I felt something pulling me closer to the flashing lights ahead. It was odd. As I approached what I could now see was a car accident, I saw a line of flares, several police cars, a firetruck, a red suburban and a pale blue late model sedan, the entire front of which was crumpled. The hood appeared to have flown open on impact, shattering the windshield. The back was also open, revealing a spotless trunk. I knew only one person with a car that shade of blue who kept the trunk of his car perfectly clean, probably because we didn’t have kids yet. I tried frantically to remember Sam’s license plate, but I couldn’t. My cousin remembers fashion. I remember license plates. It’s really not fair. At that moment I could not think of a single letter or number, but I knew it was his car. He was gone.

I was 29 years old and I was a widow. I heard Gloria singing, ”con los anos que me quedan,” and I thought I don’t have any years left. Shaking uncontrollably from head to toe, tears streaming down my face, I pulled my car in between the flares and stopped. A firefighter approached me, and I rolled down the window, but before he could direct me to move, I blurted out “Is that Sam’s car?” I’m not really sure why I asked that question. I already knew the answer. I suppose I simply could not have articulated the words, “Is he still alive?”

I didn’t need the answer to that question either. I had seen the car.

The firefighter instructed me to wait a minute, and he walked away. That minute lasted forever. When he came back to my car, he told me what I already knew. It was Sam’s car. And then he told me what I hardly dared believe. “Your husband is alive. He told us you would be driving by. He hoped we would have all this cleaned up before you saw the mess.” It would have been typical of Sam to protect me. There’s a scene in Reservoir Dogs that I’ve never seen because he fast-forwarded through it when we watched the movie.

I remember walking through the hospital corridors, lost and feeling completely out of place in my party attire. I imagine this is common in the ER — shocked, unprepared people dressed inappropriately. I found the emergency room and walked through the double doors. My husband was covered in blood, mostly from the gash above his eye, his right hand was swollen to about the size of a grapefruit, his right knee to the size of a large cantaloupe, but he was breathing and he smiled when he saw me. And at that moment, he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Based on the wreckage left on the highway, I could not believe he was still alive. Neither could any of the doctors who saw him that day. But he was. Tears of relief erased any mascara I might have had left.

He later told me that as the ambulance tech was cutting off his shirt en route to the hospital, Sam said “Oh man, that was my lucky shirt!” To which the tech replied, “Well, it looks like it worked.” Friday the thirteenth turned out not to be so unlucky after all.

Even in the midst of everything that was broken, and so much was, we were grateful. For seat belts, for each other, for another day.

It took reconstructive knee surgery, hours of physical therapy and six months for Sam to drive again. It took longer for me to recover from the trauma of witnessing the scene; for years, the sight of ER vehicles on the freeway would make me shake and cry. It took even longer for us to forgive the woman who left her suburban in the middle of the freeway. After that car accident we reevaluated our career paths and made some changes. We continued to be grateful for what didn’t happen that day.

Ten years later, he would be pronounced dead in this same ER, having died suddenly, violently, intentionally. Strangely, one of the few thoughts that gave me comfort after Sam’s suicide was thinking about that car accident in 1997. I had thought I was widowed that day, but I wasn’t. I got ten more years and two wonderful children.

That car accident taught me a lot. I learned that the road to healing is hard work and includes wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches of all kinds. Healing may require surgeries and often involves setbacks. The days are long, and the nights are very dark. Tears and laughter are essential. Forgiveness is key to the process. It is sometimes harder to witness the healing of a loved one than to be the one healing. Healing may include physical therapy, talk therapy and retail therapy (which might explain a few of those donations). Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing does take time, often more than we would think or hope. For years, I would remove little shards of glass from Sam’s hands. In fact, just three weeks before his death, I had pulled one from one of his knuckles, a tangible reminder of survival and healing.

Perhaps the most important lesson from that day and the months that followed was to fall in love again. To learn to live and to love whole-heartedly despite my fear of loss and death. I almost didn’t want to love Sam again after his not-death. And I certainly didn’t want to love again after his actual death. I had no intention of risking that kind of heartbreak.

And then I met a wonderful man, one whose heart had also been broken by life. It takes courage to fall in love in the face of death. Tim and I fell in love anyway. That having been said, the only thing Tim and I argue about consistently is who gets to die first next time. Well, that and which one of us gets to run our defective hunting dog. We do not know how many years we will have together, but we have been blessed with today. So I will love and laugh and hold Tim’s hand.

I think about these lessons as I hold the vest. It reminds me that we do heal after the traumatic and unexpected. It reminds me that scars need not be a sign of weakness, but instead the evidence of resilience, strength and tenacity. It reminds me to buckle up.

I place it carefully back in the closet.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And reminders — a vest, a scar, a little glass splinter— of your own resilience.