Signposts

(Or, How to Read Rejection Letters)

 

We did it!

And by “we” I mean, he. The boy did all the work, making the grades, preparing for the tests, writing the essays, navigating the Common App, asking teachers for recommendation letters, and submitting the applications. My role in this process has been limited to Chief Financial Officer. I handed over my credit card for the application fees and (mostly) kept my fretting to myself. It’s not my first time at the rodeo, you know.

Of course, each child is different, and his process has likewise been unique to him. The boy really wanted to know what his options were (that’s my kid!), so he chose not to put all his eggs in an early decision basket but to cast a wide net and see what he draws forth. He has thought about schools from his home in California, across several Midwestern states and including a school or two on the east coast. Plus one in Texas, just for shits and giggles, as they say. He has a confidence about his having a place and seems perfectly content to spend the next three months just enjoying his senior year in high school without obsessing over where exactly his post-graduation steps will take place. He has submitted his final application, completing this part of the whole process, and he is delighted now to do nothing. I’m not sure whose child he could be.

Now the thing to do is to wait for envelopes big and small, email notifications and updated portals. Here’s the challenge: waiting is nothing at all like doing. The kid seems to be fine with it, but it’s making me a little crazy. Or to be fair, crazier than usual.

It is his journey, however, so my role is to sit quietly, which I do, and here’s my epiphany: acceptance and rejection letters are only signposts pointing toward the next step. They are not a judgment on performance or character, they are not a prediction of future success, they should not form the basis for self-worth. Especially parental self-worth. They are simply red or green arrows for today. Oh, this is much easier said before those puny, pathetic letters arrive, lurking in the mailbox like a noxious cloud, released into an unsuspecting hand. But if it is possible to settle into the knowledge – even before the applications are sent toward a committee of admissions personnel – that each one of us has a place already reserved in the human journey, then we can sit confidently and await the next set of directions.

Sometimes – when that small envelope arrives unexpectedly, dashing dreams the way only two dismissive sentences can do – the only answer is chocolate. Don’t bother trying to find a substitute. There are simply not enough French fries in the world to overcome the deficit. Chocolate is the only way. Personally, I go for a simple, solid dark variety, although occasionally a rich chocolate cake is the ticket. And then, with a little antioxidant lift, you can read the single page missive and think of it simply as a road sign. It might say Yield, or Do Not Enter, possibly Detour. Maybe it’s a full Stop. It’s likely too soon to tell. Or maybe, it’s a green light in a direction you didn’t anticipate going, on a road you might never have traveled otherwise, but that you actually enjoy. You never know. Those letters – big and small – are simply possibilities. They are what you decide to make of them. It’s still up to you.

The boy doesn’t seem to need my advice. He is at ease finding his own path. Which is as it should be. As I look ahead to another high school graduation, perhaps I am not wondering so much about what the boy’s next step will be, but about mine. I have traveled together with him for eighteen years, and I suspect my own steps will falter without him far more than his do without me.

But I take comfort in my own advice. As the boy progresses forward in his young life, I, too, will find more than one little green arrow pointing me toward new possibilities.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your forward path. And extra chocolate, just in case.

Options

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

~ Maya Angelou

 

Some people are offended by joy. This is not my problem.

I believe that healing is always a choice, and that joy is a possibility. It’s not necessarily easy or simple. It does not always arrive quickly. Healing is not a one time, check-the-box and you’re done kind of a thing. It’s a daily choice.

The choices might seem small or significant, whether to go for a walk or crawl back into bed, whether to sell Sam’s car or keep his name. How long to wear black, whether to wear mascara, or whether to wear the necklace Sam gave me on a recent anniversary.

To be honest, I didn’t anticipate finding quite so much joy. I was just hoping to make it through a day without wasting perfectly good mascara. For weeks, maybe months (I can’t remember), I stopped wearing make-up altogether. The day I chose to apply mascara was a public display of hope. My friend Susan (the one who later introduced me to Tim) remembers the day clearly and with fondness. I think that was the day that she breathed a sigh, trusting that I would be okay.

Those little, daily choices start to add up to something meaningful.

It helps to choose role models carefully. I didn’t want to be that bitter crabapple who never recovered after her husband’s suicide. We all know an old grouch – like Oscar, but without the charm, or the trash can. I was running an errand this afternoon and ran into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in years. We chatted for a minute, and when I told her things were going well, she simply paused and said, “I hate you.” Seriously. Apparently, she liked me a lot better in the days when I had given up on mascara completely. At least Oscar has friends and a sense of humor. And when he loses his sense of humor, his friends put his lid on him.

I can choose to be defined by what has happened, or I can choose to define my life for myself. I do not intend to minimize the tragedy. It is hideous and real. I do not mean to ignore the past or pretend it didn’t happen. On the contrary, I look at what has happened. I stand with my mouth gaping open at the horror of it, because people are suffering. But I choose to believe that the tragedy is not the end of the story.

Genuine healing usually means letting go of the way things used to be and opening the door to something new. I chose to embrace a new life, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It helps that my preternatural fear of inertia is greater than my fear of change and the unknown.

Sam and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary two months before he died, and he surprised me with a pretty diamond heart necklace. He chose the little heart specifically because its asymmetrical design appealed to him. I loved it. But a week or so later, he confided that he was concerned about our budget. It was sweet that he had bought the necklace, wanting something special to commemorate our anniversary, even though finances were tight. In the course of our conversations, we made a couple decisions, including that I would go back to work part-time and he would return the necklace. I thought I was being practical and helpful, but later I wondered whether he felt this resolution as a rejection or his own failure.

I found the heart necklace in a drawer a few weeks after Sam’s death, still in its black velvet box along with the original receipt. I was sick to my stomach. He had never returned it. Seeing the necklace in its jewelry box made me realize how difficult this task must have been for him. I felt confident that we would have many more anniversaries to celebrate, but maybe he suspected we wouldn’t. I didn’t have the heart to return the gift. But I felt too much sorrow and regret to wear it.

I mentioned my dilemma to a friend, and she offered to take the necklace back to the jeweler. The shop owner was very kind, and he remembered Sam. He was surprised and dismayed to learn of Sam’s death. He offered to give a store credit, but not a refund. I put the necklace back in the drawer, where it remained for several more months.

In the meantime, I thought about other decisions, such as what color nail polish I should choose for my pedicure and whether to sell the house.

My friend suggested that if I wasn’t going to wear the heart necklace I should donate it to the school auction. But that option didn’t really feel like a good fit. I wondered – with uncharacteristic superstition – whether the heaviness and shame might follow the necklace. Back into the drawer it went.

I thought about the little diamond heart necklace from time to time. I might look at it occasionally, but it filled me with sadness and remorse. I didn’t know what to do.

I continued to make choices. I went back to work part-time. I started drinking coffee. And Pinot Noir. I decided to join the extended family for Thanksgiving dinner and to avoid any New Year’s celebrations. With the help of a few close friends, I planned my own 40th birthday party. I started running. Not every step represented progress, but there were enough to create some momentum, bringing me toward a new life.

But I never wore the necklace. It wasn’t that I didn’t wear anything that Sam had given me. I continued to wear my wedding ring for a while. Even now, I wear the watch Sam gave me, as well as a favorite pair of earrings. Just not the necklace. Not exactly.

A year and a half after Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends asked me to be her daughter’s godmother. I was honored, of course, but I wasn’t Episcopalian and I was only recently on speaking terms with God again. It didn’t seem to me that I was necessarily the ideal choice for spiritual guidance, but my friend insisted. I suspect she saw something about my relationship with God that I didn’t really notice until she called my attention to it. I had not actually stopped talking to God, but I certainly didn’t have anything nice to say. And I definitely wasn’t listening. But God waited me out, in Her annoyingly patient manner, while I threw my temper tantrum. So that later, I found my friend’s request drawing me closer into a relationship, not only with her daughter, but also with Jesus. I began to think about being baptized.

This time I went to the jeweler myself, wondering if the shop owner would remember Sam. He did. He also remembered the heart necklace. I told him I was thinking about replacing the heart with a cross. Almost immediately, I noticed a small, diamond cross, one that the jeweler had designed himself (as he had also designed the heart). I felt a flutter of joy – in part because it is very pretty, and in part due to the slightly heretical thought that my late Jewish husband had just given me a cross.

I wear it all the time.

Healing is always an option. There is so much good news in this perspective. The door to healing is always unlocked, I just had to decide to open it. I did not, however, have to fling the door open wide. I started by inching it open. Just a sliver. Enough to let a little light through. Little decisions. Small choices, that led up to the more significant ones and into a new life.

As it turns out, Joy is on the other side of that door, looking for me.

***

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