Intentional

Alas, I can really only do one thing at a time – and sometimes not even that.

I despise the fact that I cannot accomplish every single thing that I want to do, check off all the items on my to-do list, answer every piece of correspondence, listen to each and every podcast in my queue, read all the novels stacked by my bedside and downloaded on my Kindle, and sort through the ever-growing mounds of keepsakes and god-knows-what-else accumulating in my garage. I resent that I have to pick and choose. I cannot tolerate letting others – and myself – down, but disappointment seems to be the direction I’m heading. I keep running up against the limits of time, endurance, focus, and those boundaries do not yield. I love the decisive, emphatic “yes”! I am not the biggest fan of the word “no,” but I suspect that this very small word might be my greatest advocate at the moment. “No” might hold the key to my sanity, and perhaps I should befriend it.

I feel like I have learned this lesson before. But I seem to have forgotten it somewhere. Evidently, it’s time to learn again.

I am confident that I am not the only one whose inner Wonder Woman struggles with this issue from time to time, fighting the urge to surrender. I wonder whether this resistance is serving my best interests or simply feeding my ego with a nutrition-poor diet of caffeine and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds.

I love caffeine and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds.

After Sam’s death, I was left to juggle all the life-logistics-parenting balls by myself. There were so many to keep in the air: paying the mortgage, showing up on time or at all, washing my hair, feeding the dog, all in addition to the paramount goal of nurturing the health, well-being and grief of my sons and me. The big one was eight years old, and the little one was six. We were devastated. Chores along the lines of getting my car washed never even entered the juggling ring. It was all we could do to get out of bed in the mornings. It didn’t occur to me to write a book. I could not even keep a journal. I could barely answer emails, and when I did, it was during a bout of insomnia, the time stamp on my note betraying my disinclination for sleep. I remember a friend asking me, How do you keep all the balls in the air? The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. On a good day, I got to choose which ones fell to the ground and bounced into the gutter. On a really good day, I tossed a ball to a friend. I focused on the most important things – healing, breathing, moving forward one baby step after another.

We have come so far. It will be ten years in October.

We have cried and laughed and read the entire Harry Potter series multiple times. We have run and prayed and cursed, usually in the same breath. I’ve baked scores of chocolate chip cookies for dozens of teams, groups and guilds. I’ve eaten a truckload of dark-chocolate covered almonds. The boys – not surprisingly – have eaten pretty much everything within arm’s reach. They have become young men. Now I am the little one.

Shortly after Sam’s suicide, a friend of mine who had lost his own father to suicide when he was a similar age to my sons, offered these words: “You will be amazed at what you and your boys will do.” I was encouraged; his was the voice of experience. He and his brother, along with their mother, had traversed this very path – or one similarly formidable – and they had moved forward in their lives with intelligence, joy and a weirdly dark sense of humor. All qualities I admire. He is a smart man and a reliable friend. He was also right. I am amazed. And grateful.

As I start to see the empty-nest phase ahead in my not-so-distant distance, I feel a pressing need to be intentional about my yeses and my nos. To think about why I do what I do. I drop everything whenever any of my four sons needs an assist, but they all seem to be alarmingly self-sufficient these days, so I am thinking about my empty-next phase.

I started writing the blog SushiTuesdays to bring light to others, to share what has helped me, to be a voice for hope for those who struggle with loss, faith and blending families. I write out loud because I think it’s the most effective way to take the stigma out of suicide and mental illness, and because it creates a community. Selfishly, I write to remind myself how far we have all come. I’m so proud of all my boys I can hardly stand it. I write because I think it helps to know that there are others in the same leaky boat. I write because I like to, even though it’s hard, even though I have a ton of shitty first drafts that never see daylight, even though it takes forever – maybe longer – to wrestle those slippery thoughts to the page.

I have shared bits and pieces of my healing journey through presentations, speaking engagements, coffee with friends and on this blog. I am often urged to “write the book.” Those who have been with me from the beginning know that I started the blog sushituesdays.com as a manageable step toward writing “the book.” It has, however, become increasingly clear that the book goal will be more demanding than I had anticipated. So, as the kids are heading back to school, I, too, am turning toward the manuscript more intentionally. It terrifies me to say this out loud. If I push “publish” on this post, it will be no small miracle. But it’s time. From the beginning, I have believed that the blog would help me achieve the goal of writing the book. The weekly discipline, the readers who have found inspiration in my sharing, the positive feedback and encouragement, have all increased my desire to complete the project and my confidence that the book will find an audience. All of which is to say, please forgive me if (when!) I miss my weekly posting goal here on SushiTuesdays.

I’m excited and intimidated.

I’ll be here. We will run into each other online and around town, at the market (after all, I have one teenager still stalking the refrigerator with his irrepressible appetite and his equally ravenous friends). I’ll see you in our favorite local Mexican restaurant and on the trails with my defective hunting dog. I will continue to sprinkle love and light in this space, but it might be on random days of the week. Just saying.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And caffeine and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds.

Recalcitrance

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

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

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

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

Too bad life doesn’t work that way.

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

It’s a little nutty, this life.

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

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

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

Sometimes we don’t get much of a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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