Touchstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path.

World Travelers

It took me a while to choose the artwork for my office. For several months, I stared at the blank, white wall, wondering what might belong in that place. There’s something appealing to me about the freshly painted walls, free from scuff marks, dings and imperfections. The open space invokes excitement and mystery. The wall calls out to be adorned. It is full of potential, but the process is also intimidating. And expensive. Art is risky. The piece should have an appropriate message and be the right colors. I’m going to spend a lot of hours sitting across the desk from this art. What if I don’t like it as much as I thought I would? I can’t just try it on for size, and I will not be allowed to return it. I cannot afford to change it out like fashion, assuming the latest trend in hemlines with each season. It’s a commitment. I dared not rush into this decision impulsively. I spent hours clicking on various paintings and photographs, some original art, some prints, trying to picture the small image on the screen taking up residence over several square feet of wall space. After some time, I found the perfect piece, but then it almost didn’t arrive.

My best friend from college lives in New York City. Louise grew up in Wichita, we met in Houston, and now we live on opposite coasts of the country. Occasionally, I feel the physical distance between the two of us like a vast Midwestern cornfield, but more often than not, I feel close and connected. I know what would make her laugh and what (or who) would irritate her. We occasionally speak live on the phone, but we exchange text messages almost daily. For the entire first year after Sam’s death, she sent me an encouraging email message every morning and every evening. Every single day. For an entire year. She never missed. She was going through a protracted, contentious and expensive divorce at the time, but she remained present with her support and her humor. When she met my Tim for the first time, she took me aside and warned me, That man’s in love with you.

A client mentioned a website that features artists from all over the world and suggested that I might find a suitable piece there. I did. I felt drawn to it almost immediately, an oil painting entitled “Riverside” by an artist from Ghana. It conveys a moment of peace in the midst of what surely must be a difficult journey. I shared the picture with Louise for her blessing, and she loved it, too, as I knew she would. Somewhere between West Africa and the west coast of California, the painting went missing. UPS lost track of it. It vanished. The representative from the art website offered to give me a significant discount on another piece. I clicked and clicked to find a suitable replacement, but nothing fit. The wall stayed blank, no longer inviting but rather disappointed, resigned to waiting for the second-best option.

I ran my first (and so far only) half-marathon with Louise at my side. We trained on opposite coasts, comparing progress and injuries along the way. We shared a training schedule and smoothie recipes, and we encouraged each other when illness, weather and teenaged-boy-related incidentals interrupted our flow. After a few months, race day arrived, Louise flew to the west coast, and I drove up the coast to meet her. Together, we ran the 13.1 miles from the foothills to the beach, all the while motivating each other with anecdotes, insights and ‘atta girls. Every step after the 10-mile marker was a personal best for me. I had never run farther.

“Riverside” is mostly green and yellow, a tangle of trees so thick that the path the two women travel is obscured from the viewer. The river flows in the foreground, including reflections of the women in the moving water. They have come to fetch water, a task that probably takes up the majority of their day. In the painting, they have turned from the river’s banks, and they are heading back home to their village, each balancing a large water container on her head. The women appear tall and strong, almost regal, one with a blue headscarf and the other with red.

I also ran that one-and-only half-marathon with my husband Tim at my side. Flanked by my best friend and the love of my life, I have never been stronger or happier.

“Riverside” arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. The cylindrical package appeared travel-worn at the edges but otherwise intact. There were no unusual markings or labels to indicate where it might have been diverted or delayed along its path between Africa and North America. As I carefully unrolled the painted canvas, a small leaflet fell to the floor with a brief description of the piece, the name of the artist, and the tagline, “Every treasure has a story…”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe travels.

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Family Funeral

We arrive more or less in black,
Hats on sunny days,
Umbrellas in the rain.
This part is always the same: We smile and cry and embrace,
Reunited,
Genuinely happy to see each other.

We knew today would come,
She was nearly 90.
Sad,
But not tragic.
We miss her already,
Especially her laughter.
She was thoughtful,
Diligent,
Educated,
Opinionated,
A gift to her many students.
She was a loving wife and mother,
Generous,
Fiercely protective,
Turned a blind eye to her children’s glitches,
Like most moms I know.
Like me.

My son serves as a pallbearer,
A role his father would have fulfilled,
If he had lived so long.

The young man would stand shoulder to shoulder
With his dad,
Maybe even taller now.
The abuelas whisper to each other
loud enough
for all to hear,
“So handsome!”
“Those eyes! He looks like his father.”

The tias smile
With tears sparkling.
They glance at each other knowingly.

The boy doesn’t remember the tias and abuelas,
who have been there for him,
Since before he was born.
They attend bridal showers and weddings,
Baby showers and baptisms and birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
And funerals.
Always funerals.
His own father’s funeral.
He was too little to be a pallbearer then.

The tias and abuelas fretted and fawned.
They hoped and prayed.
They were there.
They always are.

They share joy and laughter and pour champagne,
They bear sorrow and grief
and prepare the condolence meal.
They lift spirits and hold hearts with steady hands.
They show up
donning Chanel and pearls,
or jeans and tennies.
Love takes many shapes.
They remember,
Even if he does not.

On those very dark days,
When Life disappoints
And it is hard to believe,
May he yet have faith in the aunties.
May he feel God’s bewildering love for him,
In the kiss prints of so many tias and abuelas
All over his cheeks.

Thoughts for My Grieving Son On Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intersection

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

~ Abraham Lincoln

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death and resurrection in a school project.

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

***

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

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

***

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

 

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.

Begging and Bribing and Other Favorite Prayers

I think the prayers of begging and bribing might be underrated. And name-calling. That’s another one of my go-to prayers.

It’s 7:33am, and I’m already done with people. Not any of the ones who are the subjects of my Christmas card photographs. Or even the ones to whom I send those pictures. Just everybody else.

Regrettably, my general misanthropy is beginning toward extend to the dogs, or at least one of them. In an effort to salvage our relationship, I deliver him to the groomer. When he vomited up the lizard a few days ago, that was a mess we could address ourselves. This morning, however, requires a professional.

I’ve been praying for the little dog. We are not quite sure what’s wrong. Might have been the gum he stole out of the trashcan, but I did manage to retrieve that from his throat before he swallowed it. I also cut the rest of the sticky mess out of his hair and confirmed that Extra Spearmint contains no xylitol (which is toxic to dogs). More than likely that lizard is having the last laugh after all.

The dog who would normally eat until he explodes has not touched his food — or anybody else’s — in a day and a half, and frankly, we are all becoming alarmed. Our youngest son says, “Mom, if the dog dies tonight because you didn’t take him to the ER, you are going to feel really bad.”

Yes, I will. Thank you for mentioning it.

I can’t really blame him for pressuring me to step up the efforts on the dog’s behalf. This directive is oddly similar to the prayer missives I’ve been throwing in God’s direction. Which, thus far, seem to have been largely ineffective. Intellectually, I realize I might just need to settle down, get my self out of the way, and try a different tack. But no. I rattle off a few threats, bribes and creative names. I beg. It’s like my own personal version of the rosary. I give God the litany of reasons the dog’s death would be unfair: the dog is only 8 years old, our children are young and have already experienced tremendous loss, I just spent hundreds of dollars to board all our pets so they would be safe on our vacation, and we drag our kids to church every week (mostly) and feed them asparagus (occasionally). Is it too much to ask that the family dog live until he sports a gray muzzle? I add a few “Don’t you dares” for good measure. I call God names. And the stupid dog. I call him names too. I promise that next week, I will not sneak off to church with my husband while the children sleep late; we will dress them up and bring them with us. I end my rant with “Not now. Just not yet. Please not now. Please, please, please.”

Only after much rambling does it occur to me that I could recite the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm. Or check out the day’s Gospel reading. Or tune into gospel music. All of which I love. But I don’t seem to be ready to hear any of those messages.

I guess sometimes I need a protracted exhale before I begin to inhale. Or maybe I keep talking because I don’t think I want to hear what Jesus has to say. I don’t want to be kind or patient or longsuffering. I definitely don’t want my little dog to suffer. I don’t want to trust God’s plan. I have my own plan for how and when this dog is going to go to doggy heaven, and for starters it will not be until after our youngest son has gone off to college.

When I was growing up our family dog — the one my sister and I begged for — was a Samoyed/Australian Shepherd mix. She was the runt of the litter and looked like a puppy until the day she died. Which, in appropriate family dog fashion, she did not do until she was 15 (ancient in dog years). By then neither my sister nor I was living at home; she was in college and I was in graduate school. On Valentine’s Day, the dog followed my father out into the yard and took a nap in the shade under a nectarine tree while he gardened. By the time dad was finished with his yard work, the dog was gone. And by “gone” I really mean our beloved Butterscotch was dead.

That’s how the family dog is supposed to go. Quietly, peacefully, painlessly, in the shelter of a familiar garden and in the company of the one who has fed, groomed and walked her for years. Yeah yeah yeah, my sister and I promised that we would take care of the dog, and like all children who beg for a puppy, sometimes we did. Thank goodness our parents picked up the slack (and the puppy prizes), as they knew they would when they capitulated to the idea of a family dog, because the dog would have been really hungry otherwise. We did adore her, and that’s ultimately what the family dog is about — to teach a little bit of responsibility and a lot of unconditional love.

The family pet is not supposed to be hit by a car or attacked by a coyote or accidentally poisoned by a neighbor with a rodent problem. I have lost pets in all those ways, which makes me appreciate the manner of Butterscotch’s death all the more.

But life doesn’t always work my way.

Like a good therapist, Jesus lets me complain and vent and cry, staying with me, holding eye contact through the well of my tears. Sometimes tears streak down his own face as well. I trust that God does not fear the wrath of Charlotte. He remains unmoved by my berating of his competence and patient with my frustrations at the unfairness of life. He sits very still.

This is my Elijah moment.

The prophet Elijah was hiding out from an irate queen who had specific ideas of her own regarding the manner and timing of his death. I imagine that the queen’s presence felt more powerful than God’s during some of those dark nights in the cave. “Then the Lord said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.” (I Kings 19:11-13a)

A tiny whispering sound? I rarely hear that still, small voice in the midst of my outbursts. And yet… the value of the begging, bartering and berating prayers is not as an ends, but as a beginning to a conversation. It occurs to me that the significance of these prayers lies in their reach toward connection. After the rage comes the calm, and then the divine presence becomes tangible, peaceful. In this moment, I recognize that the answer to my prayer is Divine Spirit’s willingness to stick with me through my struggles and tantrums, to hold my hand, to catch my tears, to share His broken heart with mine. This, after all, is the promise: “I will be with you.”

I sit very still.

Meanwhile, my little dog survives his gastrointestinal ordeal, and I am grateful. Undoubtedly, the winds and waves and flames will soon be at it again. As will the quiet whisper.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a tiny whispering sound.

Driving Lessons

We have – on either side of our fireplace – framed portraits, each of a family of four. On another prominent wall we have a portrait of our family of six. Our goal has not been to replace anybody, but to create our own unique family. With kindness, mutual respect and a lot of humor.

It took us a long time to get here.

This is how I explained it to my sons: There is a daddy-shaped space that will be in your heart forever. Nobody will take his place. Nobody else fits. But here’s the thing about love… If somebody special comes into our lives, your heart will grow. That’s what love does. And there will be a new space just for him. It doesn’t take over the daddy space – it’s its own thing.

Fast forward a couple years, and I shared this same idea with my step-son, but he wasn’t buying it. He had definite ideas about where the wicked step-mother space should be, and let’s just say it wasn’t a prominent place in his heart.

But this is a boy who is pretty much all heart, even if he doesn’t want me to know this, so instead I appointed myself head cheerleader and president of his personal fan club. And it has been amazing what good we have done by putting our little broken hearts together. I made the decision simply to be present in this boy’s life.

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This is not always an easy task, particularly when “being there” means sitting in the shotgun seat while a 16-year old takes the wheel… Nothing brings you closer to the Almighty than teaching a teenager how to drive.

My own mother is a calm, patient, kind woman. She’s not much of a drama queen. I’m the drama queen. The first – and pretty much last – time she tried to teach me to drive turned her into a squawking, raving lunatic. Normally an articulate woman, she was reduced to unintelligible gesturing in a futile attempt to explain to me how to get the stick shift car into motion without stripping first gear completely. I eventually got out of the car and insisted that she drive us back to the house.

Dad met us at home, smiling expectantly, and my mother and I quickly wiped the grin right off his face. Slam! “I’m not driving with her ever again! YOU teach me how to drive!” Slam! “I’m not driving with her ever again! YOU teach her how to drive!”

My father taught me how to drive.

And now my step-son is in the driver’s seat. My husband – already experienced in teaching our oldest how to drive – has generously opted to let me have a turn. I vow to myself that I will not become the shrieking stress case that my mother was in the passenger seat.

My boy is very excited. The ink is still wet where the instructor signed off on his driver’s permit. After an expertly executed 11 point turn, my son extracts the car from the end of the cul-de-sac. We are on our way! As we turn onto the cross street, my neighbor passes on her way into our street. Of course, Mr. Social smiles waves and proceeds to careen dangerously close to the guard rail. Sharp gasp!! The overgrown oleander would have slapped me in the face had the window been open.

I’ve already failed. My inner squawking, raving lunatic is clawing her way right out. I clasp my hands in my lap and clamp my mouth shut. “Sorry sweetie,” I say. “I’m okay. You’re doing great.”

I remember all the times my mother attempted to stop the car while I was driving by pressing her feet through the floorboards on her side of the car. I’m not going to do this to my kid. Inhale. Exhale. I’m curling my toes inside my shoes. We are jerking forward and back. Side to side. I’m really grateful the car is an automatic. It’s not unlike Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. But without the safety features.

I start to pray. Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. What would Mary have done with Jesus behind the wheel? I’m convinced that she’s only a saint because she never had to sit in the passenger seat with her son at the wheel. She doesn’t have a clue! How is she going to help me?! Jesus turned her into a raging lunatic without a car! In his preteen 12 year-old arrogance – he decides to veer off in his own direction on foot and hold court in the temple. She finally finds him and loses her cool “Where the HELL have you been? Your father and I have been looking EVERYWHERE?” To which He replies “Whatever.” Or some similar tail-tweaking response endemic to teenagers.

I try again…Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

I think about my step-son’s mother – where is she now?! I have heard several stories about her driving prowess, none of which bode well for her sons’ driving ability. I sure hope she is donning her angel wings right now and clearing the traffic for miles around. 

Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners …

I have the conscious thought that our auto insurance premiums have been paid; and we have great medical coverage. Pray for us. Pray for us. Pray for us.

… now and at the hour of our death.

Our death? This prayer is not helping. I really hope that hour isn’t imminent. I wonder whether I’ve updated the designated beneficiary on my life insurance. I feel compelled to call our attorney to make sure he’s finalized our estate plan. And to call my mother with an apology.

We arrive safely back home. Amen.

Took my son driving again today. Truth be told, he’s already better today than yesterday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. Especially when a teenager is driving.