Wintering

Suicide is the storm that knocked out our power, 
plunged us into darkness, 
blue-penciled our future. 
An impossible interruption
delivered by an unwelcome uniform. 

Friends and family arrive, 
and their light accentuates the devastation. 
Words fall like rain, 
streaming into the gutter and gushing down the storm drain,
too loud to make sense of.
Lightning flashes anger.
Questions snuff out candles of hope.

Well past blankets and hot cocoa,
we sit together in the stinging cold,
silently alarmed at the landscape of this life,
daring still to breathe
for who knows how long.

Some day we will pick up words like fallen branches,
carefully
shaving away the splinters
wondering what we might use to build
something.
But not today.

Today’s work is
to feel the black ache,
the powerlessness
the unrelenting fear
the seeming insignificance of love against such tumult
and to gather ourselves
gently
present anyway.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Especially during the storms.

There is help if you need it: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Taking Flight

This piece is from the archives, as it were, and as kids are heading back to school, it feels like the right time to share.

***

The little one’s last two years of high school have been colored by a renewed struggle with his father’s suicide. I can’t blame the father 100% for the child’s behavior. It’s entirely possible that the boy would have engaged in the stereotypically risky teenage business anyway. But his adolescent anger has fueled some unfortunate decisions, and I’m afraid that love and patience and therapy will not counter the effects of paternal abandonment and the allure of drugs and alcohol and pretty girls. 

My son believes his mother didn’t get it. And indeed, I don’t.

I love him. I am proud of him. And I am profoundly afraid. 

Over the summer, my son and I fly to the Midwest for his orientation weekend for incoming college freshmen. We travel together in that distinct tandem of parent and child. At nearly 6’3”, he acts as my defender, and as the baby, he follows my lead through the terminal to locate our departure gate. Naturally, his eyes occasionally roll dismissively in my direction, and also, he falls asleep on the plane with his head resting on my shoulder. I tip my head toward his, feeling his thick, unruly hair against the side of my jaw, trying not to think about the fact that the next time we fly to Milwaukee, his ticket will be one way and I will return home to my freshly empty nest. I inhale the sea breeze scent of his shampoo and close my eyes. No matter how stinky and surly a teenager becomes, these points in motherhood stabilize the tension. Balancing on the razor’s edge between love and loss, I drink in this tender interval between a moment and a memory. 

On the return flight home a few days later, he wants to watch a movie, but he has forgotten his earphones. 

I wonder silently whether he is really ready for college.

“Can we share yours?” he asks, smiling impishly. “Let’s find a movie we both want to watch.”

Normally more of a book-reader than movie-watcher, I slide my iPad into the seatback in front of me. His three older siblings have conditioned me to drop most everything when they want to share an experience, which becomes increasingly rare as they grow older. If he had asked to borrow my headphones, I might have simply handed them over, and I am pleased he wants to watch together.

He scrolls past the action movies he knows I’m not inclined to choose, Spiderman and The Fast and The Furious.

I scroll past the documentaries RBG and Free Solo.

He lands on A Star Is Born and looks to me for approval. 

“You know there’s a suicide at the end,” I say. 

“I know,” he says.

“At least 10 people who loved it warned me not to watch it.” I have purposely avoided watching this film. I’ve lived with a suicide. I don’t need my entertainment to be punctuated by one.

“I know,” he insists, “but I heard Lady Gaga was great.”

Thus, we are agreed.

Held close to each other by the cord of a shared pair of earphones, we watch. As the movie nears its foretold conclusion, I force myself to breathe. Inhale, exhale, repeat. I feel my son’s warm, brown eyes – inherited from his father – glancing over, watching me protectively.

In fact, it is a brilliant film with heart-wrenching performances. Painful scenes echo our own reality. My friends were kind to have warned me. And yet, this is probably the best way I could have watched this film – on a tiny screen and connected to a son who shares my earphones and my grief.

The most poignant moment happens after the film is over, when my son who at six idolized his father and at 16 reviled him, turns his 18-year-old self to me and says, “I wasn’t expecting to like the Bradley Cooper character, but I really did.” Which begins – yet another – conversation about his father, about life and mental health and suicide and love. About how it might be possible – if inexplicable – that Sam both loved his children dearly and never would have hurt them, and was suffering so desperately that he imagined they’d be better off without him, shattering them. That he could be a truly kind man and the asshole who left. And that the child himself could love his father and resent him and be proud of him and ashamed and miss him and feel his presence. All these can be simultaneously true. 

I marvel at my son’s resourcefulness and his capacity to love and forgive. 

Yes, I think. My no-longer-little-one is prepared – for college, for travel and for life. He has everything he needs, even when he forgets his earphones. 

***

Wishing you light and strength along your way. And please remember to remove all personal items from the seatback in front of you.

***

Also, my iPad found its way back to me. And the so-called little one is now half-way through college.

Ringtones

Most times when I call, the phone just rings and rings. There are no phones in the patients’ rooms on the memory ward. The line rings at the nurses’ station, and if they have time – between distributing meals and administering medications and the myriad other life-affirming tasks they do – an angel might pick up the phone and then walk it into my father-in-law’s room. I’m often on hold for 10 or 15 minutes before I hang up and try calling again. I might finish my morning coffee while I wait. 

On a good day, I speak to the operator only twice before I get through. Some days, after several conversations with the main switchboard, she gently suggests that I call back later. He’s on the East coast; he already has a three-hour head start, and as the day progresses, my father-in-law becomes increasingly disoriented. For him, time itself seems to take on an otherworldly quality, where present, past and future blur together. It’s better to talk to him in the morning. I hang up the phone and sigh.

On his 92nd birthday, I sat at the dining room table with the morning light filtering through the South-facing windows and my heart thumping anachronistically. It wasn’t so much that I was nervous to talk to him as it was that I worried that when I did get through, he would be more confused, less himself. I was afraid of losing him. He has been fathering me for 30 years – since I was 23 – and he’s the only dad I have left. 

Even if he didn’t know what day it was, I did. The nurse answered pleasantly, and there was a scratching sound and a muted voice as she handed him the receiver. I heard his breath against the receiver, like a young child waiting for the phone to speak, and I said hello.

“Charlotte!” he said. He sounded so happy to hear from me. 

I was relieved that he recognized my voice, that he still knew my name. “Happy Birthday!” I said.

He paused before asking, “What day is it?”

I told him.

“It’s my birthday!” he said, sounding as delighted as a child announcing the fact in a first-grade classroom. And we laughed together.

His spirits sounded good, even when he told me he didn’t know why he was in the hospital. “I feel fine, but they tell me I’m sick!” I could picture the way he turned his head and raised a bony shoulder into the shape of the question, wondering whether the entire hospital staff was one taco short of a combination plate.

We didn’t talk long. We never do. When my mother-in-law was alive, he often handed her the phone within moments of my calling, seemingly happy enough to know that I had called and yielding the rest of the time to his wife of over 60 years. 

He seemed to remember all of my children, his grandchildren, including the stepsons I added to the mix when I remarried 10 years ago, although he was having trouble keeping track of the girlfriend, the fiancée and the wife. When I told him he was going to be a great-grandfather, it didn’t quite compute. I never ask if he remembers Sam. His only son has been gone nearly 14 years, and while I know that love never forgets, I do not know how dementia might torment my father-in-law’s heart, how fresh the loss might feel, how utterly lost he might become. If there is any kindness in dementia, I hope that it softens the edges of my father-in-law’s grief. 

These days, he often reverts to the language of his young years, and I sometimes struggle to understand as he segues into Spanish. But mostly our conversations cover the same territory, so it doesn’t really matter which language we speak. He almost always tells me that my sister-in-law is coming to take him home that afternoon; his optimism is unflagging. It’s so sweet. And heartbreaking. It reminds me of another grandfather who, though blind, bedridden and wearing a flimsy cotton hospital gown at the time, leaned over to my then 15-year-old and asked him to “bust me out of this joint.” I almost wished I could hand them the car keys and see them off for one more adventure together.

Today might have been my 29th wedding anniversary, if Sam were still alive and all the other planets had aligned, and my kid who for years refused to say the words “dead” or “dad” now decides that he wants to go to the cemetery. The last time he visited was probably five years ago, and it was related to a school assignment; today it’s for reasons all his own. It’s hot and sunny, so I grab a broad-brimmed hat and off we go. When we arrive, he remarks that the grassy lawn that once appeared steep and expansive now seems a gentle green slope. I don’t think it’s only a matter of his physical growth; it looks smaller to me, too, and easily navigable.

We spend some time at Sam’s gravesite, and on the way home, we call Sam’s father from the car. Must be the luck of the grandchild, because we get through on the first try, and though his voice is soft and distant, my father-in-law sounds happy. He still knows who we are, and I am grateful. “Mi vida,” he calls my kid. My life. Which from a couple thousand miles away feels like a warm hug. 

Because I’m not quite ready for this weirdly magical anniversary afternoon to end, I suggest we get ice cream. And instead of tasting several different options like I usually do, I choose vanilla, just like Sam would have done. We sit on a bench in the shade with our cones, and my kid turns to me with blue eyes sparkling. I’m expecting another insightful comment, another display of his progress along grief’s path, but instead he grins and says, “You have ice cream on your hat.”

There have been times over the last 14 years when the black pain of loss felt hard and heavy. Days when no amount of sunshine or sugar lifted our spirits. But today is not one of those days. Today, love feels lighter than laughter.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And ice cream!

Light and Strength

Hello Tuesday People ~

I’m feeling like I should say something, but I’m not entirely sure what to say…

Like all of us, I’m trying to keep my wits about me in the ways that suit me. I’m taking the dog for a lot of long walks and I’m sitting down for quiet sits. Online yoga in my living room, or weather permitting, outside in the sunshine. I’m limiting my time on news and social media sites, and spending much of my time writing…. Writing grocery lists, writing love notes and mostly writing my manuscript.

What I want you to know is that I am deeply grateful for you, my Tuesday community, and that I am holding you in my heart. Know this, even if you don’t see much activity on my blog, that I am sending love and giant hugs your direction.

Here are some of the resources in which I am finding comfort in these crazy coronavirus days. Please feel free to share:

Staying Present: Elizabeth Gilbert’s 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique: You sit and notice 5 things you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 you can feel, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste. This practice brings you right into the moment. It’s especially yummy if you can do this lying on the grass in the sunshine. Dog optional, but recommended.

https://www.instagram.com/elizabeth_gilbert_writer/channel/

Meditation:

Tara Brach’s talks and guided meditations are terrific. She has several resources on her website, and you can subscribe to her podcast on iTunes or wherever you access your podcasts.

https://www.tarabrach.com

Good News:

If you haven’t already discovered Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, I recommend it. “The Sunday Paper is a free modern digital newsletter to inspire your heart and mind.” It does. Enjoy.

https://mariashriver.com/sundaypaper/

Poetry:

Of course, poetry! A salve for the head, the heart, the soul…

“Go to the Limits of Your Longing”  by Ranier Maria Rilke

(Book of Hours, I 59)

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

***

Light and strength to you all.
Love,love,love,

Charlotte

One Team

Sunday was a beautiful day for the Los Angeles Marathon. Perfect running weather: cool and breezy, partly cloudy, no chance of rain.

I watched the elite runners on the televised coverage. The twenty-year-old who pulled away in the last half mile to win the men’s race was a picture of lungs and legs and power. Pure and breathtaking. The human spirit in motion.

What you might not see in that moment is the 20-mile training runs. In the dark, in the heat, in pain. But you know they’re there. You don’t cross the finish line without them.

Once the elite runners completed their races, I got out of my jammies and headed to Santa Monica to cheer my runner on for the last mile. I found my place along the route near a grandmother and her grandson, also looking for their runner. The grandma cheers especially for the women. I assume she’s acknowledging International Women’s Day, but maybe it is just heartfelt encouragement from one woman to another. The path is not easy as a woman. Living while female is not for the faint of heart.

They say if you have lost your faith in humanity, run a marathon. The good news is that you don’t actually have to run. Just watch. Choose a spot anywhere along the route, but if you can, find a vantage point somewhere past mile 20. There are people of every age and ability, bodies of every size, shape and color. I see those who appear to be lifelong friends racing the last mile together, smiling. Complete strangers limp forward together. Everybody cheers for everyone else. People run for all kinds of reasons, and many of those reasons are displayed in brightly colored shirts bearing slogans and acronyms. Even though I don’t know a single spectator along the route, and really only a few running the course, I am inspired. It displays our essential interconnectedness and our shared humanity. A reminder that everyone you see is running for the same team.

Eventually, the man that grandma and grandson have been waiting for runs toward us. “Run, Daddy!” the little boy shouts. His father answers, “I love you, buddy!” I am taken aback, because his voice and intonation sound uncannily like Sam’s. It reminds me of how Sam used to greet our little boys. I can hear the echoes of Sam saying the same thing to my boys — now young men — I love you, buddy!  I wish they could hear him now.

“I love you, Daddy!” the chirpy young voice replies.

“I love you, buddy!” He stops running long enough to lift his little one into the air with a celebratory hug, even though there’s another mile to go.

This is the moment I notice that the charity displayed on the man’s shirt is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I’m grateful for sunglasses that hide tears. I ran my one and only half-marathon as a fundraiser for AFSP in honor of Sam. I wonder who this man might be running to honor… his own father? A dear friend? The little boy’s mother?

“I love you, buddy!” he says again as he lowers his boy gently and heads toward the finish line.

I turn my attention back toward the runners, still in the race, moving forward, one foot and then the next, at all paces, toward a common destination, until I see my runner. The love of my life greets me with a smile, stops for a hug and a kiss and then continues toward his goal. I turn down the block and race up a sidestreet to meet him at the finish line.

Most weekday afternoons, I see a young man walking together with his caregiver. He appears to be in his teens, tall and gawky, like many teens are. The young man wears a fluorescent yellow vest with black lettering: AUTISTIC. PLEASE BE KIND. I sometimes imagine all of us wearing the same team jersey with one message: LIFE IS HARD. PLEASE BE KIND.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And please, be kind.

Birthday 2020

Maybe I’m used to missing Sam on his birthday. I’ve been missing him for the last thirteen years. But I’m not used to missing his mother. For eleven of those years, I talked to Sam’s mother on his birthday, and it is not the same without her. Today, I miss her.

This is what my grief looks like. It’s the pang of not being able to call my mother-in-law, not hearing her laugh, not repeating myself – loudly and slowly – in as much Spanish as I can bludgeon with my American accent. It’s the pain of not hearing her tell me how proud she is of me and all four of my sons, how proud Sammy would be. It’s the silence of not hearing her say – in English and in Spanish – that she loves me.

I believe that the work of therapy – and make no mistake, it is work – is to become an expert in my own grief, to notice the places where it hurts, to change what doesn’t serve me, to honor the beautiful, tender, vulnerable places in my heart. To honor the glitchy grouchy wounded places, too. To put some distance between me and the habits that are not in my best interests. To let go of the things – and regrettably, there are entirely too many – that I cannot control. And then to let go of the resentment surrounding the fact that I would make a much better plan than Whoever-Is-In-Control-Of-Planning (or whoever is asleep at the wheel) or whatever. To nurture, with kindness and courage, the budding new skills and perspective. To be patient with the fact that some days demand chips and salsa for dinner. Or ice cream. I go straight to the freezer; I do not stop at the farmer’s market. I will eat kale another day.

Today requires dark chocolate and a glass of something red and bold. Any greens will be in the form of mint or pistachio ice cream. Or possibly guacamole to go with the salsa.

I will draw my grief a hot bath, or take her for a long walk, or put her to bed early. Or all of the above. We will settle into our cadence of grief: inhale, exhale, repeat. I will remind myself that grief is the price we pay for loving wholeheartedly, and just because I pay the price willingly does not mean it doesn’t hurt. It does.

I will bring out a favorite picture, a portrait in black and white, from when my mother-in-law was newly engaged to my father-in-law. She’s a beauty.

I will think about the times she introduced me as her daughter, “the blondie,” even though I’m more gray than blonde these days. I will remember the day the family sat around the table chatting after brunch and the ensuing nipple-piercing conversation with abuela that sent all the men reeling and running from the room. Abuela and the rest of us girls dissolved into laughter, the kind of laughter that echoes through the house and sends tears rolling down our cheeks even years later.

The grief comes and goes in waves, and the love remains. It takes a winding way, but I find my way home to the love. Always, the love.

***

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

We Begin Again

Mom

The so-called little one. I can hear the anguish in his voice a thousand miles away through the one word text message. It’s a terrible thing to lose a hero, especially when they’re so young. Or we are. Or ever, really.

Whether that hero is an icon or a parent, a son or a daughter. We ground our hopes in their vitality and curiosity and tenacity, and through them find our own. But what to do when they are gone?

Kobe died in a helicopter crash.

We feel the loss keenly, the way it reverberates on the heartstrings of our own losses.

Kobe was 41; my husband was 41 when he died.

He died on January 26th; my dear father-in-law died on the same date a few years ago.

His daughter, too; it’s impossibly sad.

I think about a blue-sky day, not long ago. I was out walking my dog when I saw my neighbor walking their dog. A neighbor, and also a friend. Our families have coordinated carpool, celebrated graduations and bar mitzvahs, shared meals and concert tickets.

I cross the street to greet him, and he looks gaunt and pale, almost gray. My stomach clenches, prepared – not prepared, braced – for imminent bad news. I can almost hear the words “I have cancer” before he says them, but what he says is unimaginable. “My son is dead,” and suddenly I understand that this is not a dad with a terminal illness, it is a father in grief, in shock. There are not enough words for this kind of pain. His son was traveling abroad; he was supposed to return home to begin his junior year in college. Catastrophe is not how the story was supposed to go.

There is no way to make sense of this. I have so many questions I do not ask. It won’t make any difference; no answer will bring the boy back.

I have no words. There are no words. Only palpable pain and silence.

I do not want to offer the platitudes I myself had been served. But I probably offer up different ones. Maybe not. I can only hope.

I give him a hug.

“I have no words,” I say.

“There are no words,” he says. And we look at each other for a long moment, until his dog wags her tail and puts her paws up for attention. He smiles wanly, and says “What is there left to do but walk the dog?”

Indeed. There is nothing to say or do, only that I am glad that he told me himself. There is something about the communal breaking of hearts that softens the suffering, if only slightly. And the walking of dogs.

Almost immediately I think of an overcast day a few months earlier, when I met up with a friend whose teenaged son had fallen to his death in a crazy, tragic accident. As I held her she sobbed and said, “How can people walk their dogs?”

Indeed. Normalcy has no place in a world that has been tilted off its axis by so great a loss.

Take care of yourselves, Tuesday people. Walk the dog. Or not.

Inhale, exhale, repeat.

Notice where it hurts.

Shoot baskets until your arms ache.

Shout, cry or talk. Or don’t.

Write. Write a song. Or a poem. Or gibberish. It all counts.

Pray. Or not. Tell God to take Her own flying leap.

Sit and stare vacantly at silent green stems for however long it takes the daffodils to open.

Feed yourself with something good and spicy or sweet and life sustaining. Or both. You are here. You are loved.

Today begins again the healing process. I leash up the dog, who is an enthusiastic partner for the journey, and we spend an hour moving along in companionable silence. We stop to smell the paperwhites, now open, that we’ve been watching for a week. As we are nearing home, I see a woman up ahead on the road. I’ve only seen her once before — two miles ago when our paths met for a short stretch. She smiles broadly as we cross paths again. “Still going!” she says.

I smile in return, “Yes, we are!”

Yes we are. Still going. 

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. You’re still going.

***

Sometimes people ask me what I’m reading these days. Here you go:

Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, by Tembi Locke (If possible, and especially if you aren’t fluent in Italian, I recommend listening to the audio version, read by the author herself.)

 

Imagine

“Just as long as I’m in this world, I’ll be a light of this world.”

~ Joan Osborne

 

We have the opportunity – again, today – to bring this world closer in line with our imagination of how it could be. As we envision a place of equal opportunity, fairness in abundance, and vibrant integrity, we draw those ideals closer to our lived experience.

It is not easy. These dreams do not take root without our participation.

Yesterday I heard an audio clip from a sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. His voice rises and falls with passion and clarity, the telltale static in the background betrays the age of the recording. He speaks of freedom from bondage and discrimination and injustice. He encourages us to “keep on keeping on in order to gain freedom.” He urges persistence and consistency in the pursuit of equality and justice and peace.

The reverend’s voice is not the only one I hear speaking with conviction and purpose. Behind me in the pew sits a child, maybe eight or nine years old, reading along and out loud the printed excerpt of Dr. King’s speech. The young voice is cheerful and confident, an emerging reader describing the world as it could be, a place inhabited by people of purpose and character and led by principled leadership. This little voice is not shushed, and is not discouraged by the sluggishness of progress. As I sit listening, this duet fills me with hope: the voice of experience in synchrony with the voice of optimism. We are already the beloved community, and also, we must create a community where each of us feels our belovedness.

We have work to do.

We start by imagining a more just and peaceful world, and then we take steps – little ones, persistent ones, splashy ones – to bring that world to light.

***

Wishing you light and strength on the path toward your dreams. And the freedom to dream out loud.

Inhale, Exhale, Repeat

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I’ve entered the New Year with a bit more stillness than in years past, which I attribute to the fact that I’ve become more consistent with my meditation practice. Could be the everlasting sticky cold that has planted me on the sofa for days on end.

I suspect it has something to do with the empty nest as well. After decades of raising four boys, the house is oddly quiet now. And the ancient cat, an 18-year-old Siamese mix with his congenitally crooked tail and his sock fetish, is gone. He always had something to say, a morning greeting, opinions about our competence, demands regarding his dining experience, objections to the fact of the dog. The silence of his missing meow practically echoes around here.

The garbage truck beep-beep-beeps down our little cul-de-sac, and I make a mental note to remind the boys to bring in the garbage cans when they come home from school. I look at the clock – it’s almost time for school to release – and I feel the butterfly wings of excitement. I always look forward to the afternoon moment when they walk through the door, strong and vibrant, silly and weird.

And then I remember that they are all now off at school or working or exploring. It’s scary and hard and wonderful and amazing. I am grateful and proud and also just ever so slightly bereft.

The fall was easier to take. One college drop-off, then another. One parent weekend, then another. The honeymoon trip we had delayed for nine years, planned for that exact moment when all the boys were off to the races, and then the holidays arrived.

The winter drought is harder. A slower pace, fewer gatherings to propel the calendar forward. Fewer distractions. More focus on this one moment. Settling into the rhythm of my own life is oddly challenging. But I sit, letting the energy settle and swirl, feeling the opportunity gathering in the quiet moments. It is, if I am completely honest about it, an intriguing time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the defective hunting dog is proving to be an excellent meditation companion. It will be interesting to see where we go next, but for now, we sit.

***

Wishing you light and strength right where you are. And comfort in the silence.

***

If you are looking for some meditation resources, these ones caught my attention recently:

Tara Brach is offering a Radical Compassion Challenge, January 21-30, 2020. “The medicine our world needs is widening circles of compassion. We need to love ourselves – and each other – into healing.”

Sharon Salzberg is offering her Real Happiness Meditation Challenge for the month of February, 2020. “Each week of the Challenge explores a different type of meditation practice to cultivate greater focus, clarity, kindness and resilience.”

Oprah Winfrey & Deepak Chopra are offering their 21-day meditation program, Perfect Health, which begins February 3, 2020. “Discover the healthiest version of yourself.