Frog Days

Somewhere there is a picture of my boy’s small, soft hands holding the tiny frog he caught at the edge of a pond. “Take a picture, Mommy,” the enraptured boy said, “so we can show Daddy.” I dutifully snapped the photo on my phone, since I didn’t have my camera with us. The boys and I had gone on an afternoon hike in the local mountains with the dog. Daddy had stayed home to take a nap. At least, that’s what he said he would do.

We navigated the path to a small waterfall, home to a number of very little frogs and a convenient destination for our afternoon journey. The boys and the dog had short legs and a limited endurance for hiking back then. I wish I could find the photograph, but I didn’t print it out. I’m not sure that I ever even transferred it to a computer or a flash drive. That day was so long ago, the picture might now only exist in my memory.

Daddy never did see the frog. By the time we returned from the hike, his car was missing, and a police car sat parked in front of our home instead, lights flashing silently, waiting for our arrival in order to deliver the news of his suicide. During the time we were hiking, Daddy had been rushed to the local trauma center and pronounced dead. When I picture my boy’s young, tender hands reaching toward me, gently holding the brown spotted frog, I imagine also an ambulance driver’s hands on the wheel, rushing to the emergency room with my husband on board, the nurses’ urgent hands moving efficiently through their life-saving efforts, and later, the doctor’s hands with nothing left for her to do but sign the paperwork, then the technician’s strong hands carefully transferring the broken body to the hospital morgue. None of this appears in the frog photograph, of course, but the two scenes are inextricably mixed in my mind so that I cannot think about one without the other.

I used to be more organized about taking photographs and putting together scrapbooks, but after Sam’s death it just seemed a futile attempt to hold on to a life that would ultimately slip through my hands. For a while it took a concentrated effort even to take a picture. Gradually, I began to snap a few. At first, I relied mostly on the official school photographers and the generosity of other parents who forwarded pictures of my children. Over the years, I have gotten better at capturing these moments on camera myself, but I have also developed more capacity to appreciate the precious moment in time, without the need to document each and every event. I know my memory will fade and forget; even so, I just let the present overtake me.

My son once drew a picture of the day his father died. On one side of the landscape page was a gorgeous fall day, blue sky, green grass, bright sun, cheerful flowers and a frog. He drew a line down the center of the page and scribbled black over the other half the page. What strikes me about that drawing is that the one side does not negate the other; he did not scribble black over top of the landscape. Both the beauty and the darkness exist side by side.

I can’t find that picture either, no doubt a casualty of both the chaotic state of my garage and the whirlwind pace of a life full of kids and cat and dog. I do hope I find it. But for now, I keep it in a special place in my heart, a reminder that our bleakest days do not eliminate the light in our lives. We hold the full range, including unimaginably dark and painful days alongside gorgeous fall afternoons, full of song and puppies and other miracles. Breathtaking moments like a brown, spotted frog in the chubby hands of a little boy. Moments that carry us through the dark days, with the promise and warmth of sunshine.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And the promise of sunshine.

Enchiladas, Love and Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

And my heart breaks all over again

I believe that we are strongest in the places where we have been most deeply wounded. But then another child loses his father to suicide, and I crumble to pieces. My heart breaks all over again.

I know that there is hope. In my heart, I have faith that there will be love and light and laughter. I trust in the power of prayer and of Love. I believe that Life does not abandon its children, but in this moment Life has again abandoned a young boy. The darkness is thick and hard and cold.

All I can offer is my own broken heart, which stretches a little wider.

It’s not nearly enough.

At the absolute darkest, when light and hope were truly dead and gone, I do not know how Mary held on to her faith. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe there was just nothing else to do but sit and inhale. I wonder who sat with her in the darkness. I wonder how many heavy hearts reached toward hers, beating awkwardly, steadily toward a new day.

I sit and inhale.

My heart breaks and beats.

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.

Stigma

I never wanted Sam’s death to define me or his children or to define Sam himself. This is sort of a challenge because the last impression he left us with was rather a shock. Believe me, suicide is not the way you want to become your town’s local sensation.

While we as a culture have made significant inroads in the area of mental health, death by suicide continues to carry with it a significant stigma. From the outside, suicide looks more like a choice than an illness. It is very hard to reconcile the matter of Sam’s death with the manner of his life.

As I was preparing the eulogy for Sam’s funeral, my youngest son said, “Mommy, it would take a whole year to say all the good things about Daddy.” Indeed. It would take much longer for us to accept the fact of his suicide as a part of the package.

I married Sam because he saw me truly as I am and loved me anyway – warts and all, as they say. I was safe with him, and I grew into myself in the shelter of his love. This was his gift to me for almost 17 years. It was inconceivable that he was dead at age 41, let alone by his own hand. Sometimes I wondered whether I had really known him at all.

As usual, I turn to my dogs for inspiration, levity and acceptance. We have a little dog, a black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, with a pedigree a page long. He has a small white patch on his chin and another patch of white on his chest. It looks like he has spilled milk down his front, and he is too cute for words. Unfortunately for his breeding career, according to “breed standards,” these white patches, along with a nose that is just a tad too long, disqualify him from competition. The breeder dubbed him “pet quality,” which has since become my favorite euphemism for a doggy stigma.

He is, in fact, the ideal family pet. His little tail wags from the moment he wakes up until the moment he wiggles under the covers down at my feet. He is always happy to see us, and he is a complete joy. We call him “love in a dog shape.” His faults have not rendered him less lovable.

Our local catholic church has started hosting a weekly adoration. On Tuesdays. Not that anybody asked me, but adoration is most definitely a Sushi-Tuesday sanctioned activity. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, here are the essentials: a priest places the sacramental bread on the altar, and people sit around reverently. That’s all. Anyone can participate. You don’t have to lose ten pounds or get a job. You don’t have to dress up or wear mascara, or take a shower. You don’t even have to be catholic. You just have to show up. Slowing down helps. Adoration is simply about presence. It is as if Jesus says, “Just be here and sit with me.”

My Lenten practice this year has been to spend an hour in adoration each Tuesday. As I have mentioned, sitting still is not generally my strong suit, but I have managed to keep my weekly vigil nonetheless. Not surprisingly, I have found great joy in committing the time to silence, contemplation and community. And something else has happened in the process. Each week, as I sit still for a while adoring the gentle presence, I start to get the impression that Jesus might be adoring me too. Completely as I am. There is no flaw so egregious as to disqualify us from being loved by the divine.

The experience reminds me of Sam. This man with a gentle spirit was a kind father and husband, a T-ball coach, a concerned community member. Only a few weeks before his death, while walking his sons to elementary school, he noticed a van making an illegal U-turn. The driver was unaware that he was perilously close to hitting two eleven-year-olds on their bicycles in the crosswalk, also en route to school. Unaware, that is, until Sam stepped into the crosswalk between the kids and the van, shouting at the driver. Many times we wished that he had died that way – a hero’s death – instead of by his own design. These moments make his death that much harder to understand.

Our gift to him has been – through the course of our healing work – to see him as he was, the good, the bad, the ridiculous, and even the manner of his death, and to love and honor him still. How important for his children – and in fact, all of us – to be exceptional and unique and flawed. And loved through all of it. Adored, even.

None of which is to condone suicide. On the contrary, it is the biggest mistake of Sam’s life. Time and again, we have longed to delete that last little line of his biography. But over time, we have accepted that one word in particular. Suicide. And in the process we have learned that this last word does not invalidate any of the goodness, integrity and vitality that filled the preceding 41 years of his life. The boys and I have found our way to love Sam completely for who he was, even including how he died.

As I write, my “pet quality” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is in his usual spot, asleep at my feet. The breed is known for their sweet temperament. They are affectionate, playful and gentle. All true. This companion dog is my black and tan shadow. He is the best fetcher I have ever had, and if he is awake, his tail is wagging.

As with most purebreds, the Cavaliers suffer from a specific health challenge; most will die from heart failure. Also true for mine. I knew when we got this dog that he had a relatively short life expectancy, about 8 to 10 years. He’s 8 years old now and has a significant heart murmur. He is on three different heart medications, and the combination seems to give him the most terrible gas. It’s not always sweetness and light being the dog’s favorite, as I sit here typing in the gas cloud. It makes me so sad that the dog who is all heart may very well die from heart failure. It seems completely unfair.

Sometimes I think of Sam’s suicide as a kind of heart failure. If I had suspected he might have died prematurely from a valve failure I would have married him anyway. If you had told me he was going to kill himself, I wouldn’t have believed you. And while “suicide” is harder to say out loud than “heart attack,” I don’t have any regrets. At the end of it all, there is no easy way.

In the meantime, the best we can do is to live with joy and love and laughter, which is why I chose this ridiculously adorable dog to begin with. The heartbreak and tears will come as well. My Cavalier coughs and wheezes and wags. His favorite exercise is to jump on the table searching for scraps the second that we get up from dinner. I imagine someday he will have his doggy heart attack while gorging himself on a forbidden treat. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

And we will love him still.

***

Wishing you light and strength. And an adorable “pet quality” dog.

Courage

Being a runner means constantly sporting an injury in some form or another, but it also means learning a great many strategies for healing. My current injury – a sprained ankle – has introduced me to kinesiology tape, which bears an alarming similarity to fixing everything with duct tape, and it just might be my new favorite healing remedy. I recommend it highly. This tape comes in all kinds of colors and patterns, and I almost wish I had had a version that applies directly to broken hearts.

If only broken hearts could be taped back together.

But healing our broken hearts required a different approach altogether, a confrontation with the dragon that broke our hearts in the first place. While I do appreciate the impulse to ignore a problem in the hopes that it will solve itself, I do not think that time – by itself – heals anything. Regrettably, very few of my problems have resolved when I ran screaming from the room. I was going to have to look this dragon in the eye and stare it down.

But here’s the thing: dragon breath.

I believe that goodness ultimately wins, that love will prevail over hate, that life is more powerful than death. But evil puts on a good show. The dragon of our reality was grief, abandonment, fear, darkness, doubt. Coming to terms with our reality required the use of many words that were hard to say out loud: dead, suicide, despair, widow, was.

Ain’t no way around it. Dragon breath stinks.

But I am a formidable opponent. Legions of friends and family rallied to my side, and they armed me with love and lasagne. I gathered my children and mustered up a little gratitude. Dragons hate love and gratitude. I relied on my education, a good therapist, a dash of anger-inspired confidence and a dark sense of humor. Plus a kick-ass pair of cowgirl boots, because I did get my degree in Texas, and sometimes you have to use the pointy end of those boots.

Sam and I used to play a game with the kids at our dinner table that we called “best and worst,” where each person shared both the best and the worst parts of his day. The conversation often segues into other subjects, which can be entertaining or insightful, but we wanted to teach the kids to incorporate the range of the day’s experience. It might be more pleasant to focus exclusively on the “good” stuff, but that’s not where the growth happens. To ignore the “bad” stuff is not only unrealistic, but it doesn’t teach the kids how to deal with adversity. Or brussel sprouts.

My father has his PhD in nuclear physics – he is the sharpest knife in the drawer – and he does all those things that faithful people do. He prays, he volunteers in prisons, he seems genuinely to love teenagers. Honestly, he is a light in the world, and a beacon in mine. He also suffers from a chronic disorder which we refer to as “unconditional joy.” He consistently finds the good in everything. It’s a little annoying.

A few nights after Sam’s death, we were sitting around the dining room table, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, both boys and myself. I have no appetite, so I start the conversation, “Let’s play best and worst.” One of the boys goes first, “Well, my worst was that daddy died.” Yup. That’s going to be his worst for a long time, but I’m grateful because he is not afraid to name the dragon. “And my best was playing at my friend’s house today.” He is, after all, only 8.

The rocket scientist goes next, “My best was meeting a lot of Charlotte’s friends…, and my worst, … Well… [pause], but they were tears of joy.”

Ding dong!

By which I mean that the doorbell rang right at that moment, sabotaging our family dinner, but saving my father’s life. I left the table to answer the door. There were two people on my doorstep – the financial guy with papers to sign and the doctor friend with Xanax in hand. Between the two of them it would be the first night I got any sleep at all since Sam’s death.

And then I went back into the house to face my father, and the dragon lady cut loose with some venom and flames of her own… “Tears of joy?!? Are you INSANE? Dad, those are tears of PAIN! Are you KIDDING ME? We are SUFFERING! I am a 39 year old widow and my little boys have LOST THEIR FATHER!”

Evidently grief is harder than rocket science.

After Sam died we observed many of the Jewish mourning traditions, including the unveiling of the grave marker 11 months following his death. There is wisdom in a defined grieving period because it ends. It is, in fact, supposed to end and welcome color back into the world. But it doesn’t end if it never began. It has to begin too. And that may be the most redemptive aspect of dragon breath. It is almost impossible to ignore. And so, we turned toward the dragon.

Life has a way of rubbing up against those old wounds. That’s why the healing work is so important. Some of the times that life will irritate the wounds are predictable, like birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. Some take my breath when I’m not expecting it, like the day I recognized a doctor’s name on the plaque adjacent to my dermatologist’s office. I couldn’t place the name, but it was so familiar. An hour later, I remembered where I had seen the internist’s name. I have never met her. I only know her signature. It’s at the bottom of a page I’ve stared at over and over again, uncomprehending. She signed Sam’s death certificate.

Dragon breath.

There is no way to avoid all reminders of our loss, but if we incorporate the loss into the fabric of our lives, we accomplish an emotional alchemy. And the dragon breath turns into a warm breeze, unpleasant maybe, but no longer toxic and arresting.

I did not muster the courage to walk into her office right then and thank her personally. Maybe someday. I did, however, whisper a prayer of gratitude for the hands that cared for my husband on the day he died, and I blew Sam a kiss.

Dragons hate that.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the courage to stare down the dragon.

Deathaversary

The word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” We couldn’t find the word to mark this particular occasion, so we made up our own: “deathaversary.”

Somehow the word “deathaversary” carries a better balance of the gravity and levity of the day. The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not a celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and find joy, well then, there is reason for celebration. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry – or at least I do – because I (not to be confused with the men in my life) am a sissy crybaby. Personally, I believe the fountain of tears has contributed in no small part to my ability to heal, gentlemen, but I digress…

Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

We have, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk hurting feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt feelings. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (and maybe fail!) to help.

Our town has a deathaversary coming up. It is more than a little painful. Last year, a senior boy committed suicide on campus at our local high school. The year before, a sophomore took his own life at a neighboring high school. Our Number 2 son found out about both events before any of the rest of us because friends were texting him (in school, of course, but don’t tell the Dean of Discipline).

How do we let these kids know how desperately they are loved? How worthwhile their lives are? I don’t know, but I want to try. At the time, I responded in the way most natural to me. I went for a run. I used my words. I talked to my children, and I wrote an article for the local paper. In the interest of grabbing that deathaversary bull by the horns, I’d like to share that letter again, and I apologize because some of you might have already seen it, but I think it’s still relevant, so here it is…

The Speech

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk.  My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10 minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help.  When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married just over a year ago. (Three years now!) 

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

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Wishing our teenagers light and strength. And extra snacks.