Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Sleeping in the Stars

Last week, as I was driving home from work, a song came on my playlist that almost forced me to the side of the road. It's not a new one, but if I had heard it prior I certainly was not paying attention. From the first two lines, the tears started coming and by the chorus I was full on ugly crying while driving north on 95. 
I've listened to this beautiful song by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill more times than I'd like to admit over the past week. It keeps drawing me in and forms a sort of soundtrack as memories of my life with Joe race through my mind. I realized tonight that it feels especially poignant now with the calendar turning to our son's 12th birthday. With such a big marker approaching, I have no doubt that it's the music video that my mind creates as I listen that has brought me back to listening over and over again.
While I was driving to a meeting tonight, listening to the song and bawling (again) it fully clicked for me. The deep pain I've been feeling this week is a natural extension of being a first hand witness to our incredible son growing up without his dad. It has sucked from the moment Joe died and as Domani creeps closer and closer to adulthood, more and more is revealed of what is missing for both of us, but especially for him. 
There is something about Domani's birthday this year that is hitting different. Looking at him I feel like he has gone from little boy to young man almost overnight. Every 3 months he needs new shoes and I can barely keep up with everything he eats. He can keep up in adult conversations and has taken on new levels of responsibility all around. Sometimes it is awe inspiring, sometimes bittersweet and every once in awhile it is downright gut wrenching. But it is a time that his dad would have loved to be here to walk him through. And Joe would have been so good at it.
Instead, with each year that passes, I work to fill in the gaps - all the while seeing more and more of "Joe" in him. 
His technical know how.
His curiosity. 
His kindness.
His sense of humor. 
His thoughtfulness.
His looks.
His compassion.
His memory.
If you knew Joe, it is impossible to be around Domani and not see "Joe" things pop up in some way.  I have found that the similarities are comforting and painful all at the same time and I have realized that I am grappling with the nuances of that dichotomy on a regular basis.
I more often remember with a smile than tears and I do my best to name for Domani the parts of him that remind me of his dad. I know that is a gift for him - maybe not the kind of gift he expects to receive for his 12th birthday - but a gift nonetheless.
As for  me, I'll probably listen to this song a bunch more times. It's a lovely reminder of the bond the two of us shared and the many ways that Joe is still carried forward in our lives today.

September 2022 in OCNJ

When God calls me homeAnd my soul is laid to restThat won't mean I'm goneDarling heaven knowsI'll love you just the sameSo, don't you feel aloneYou may cry a tear or two and that's okayJust know I'll never be too far away
I'll be sleeping in the starsShining through the darkWatching, smiling, singing out in the silenceEverywhere you are I'll be sleeping in the stars
Some steps that we takeLeave an everlasting markEven death can't take awaySo, if you're missing meJust look inside your heartAnd let the memories play
You may cry a tear or two and that's okayLook up and know I'm not that far away
I'll be sleeping in the starsShining through the darkWatching, smiling, singing out in the silenceEverywhere you are I'll be sleeping in the stars
I'll be sleeping in the starsShining through the darkWatching, smiling, singing out in the silenceEverywhere you are I'll be sleeping in the starsEverywhere you are I'll be sleeping in the stars

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Happy Birthday to Me...Still Without Him (but with so much else carried forward)

It's been ten years since my first birthday after Joe died. When March 8th rolled around in 2012, it had only been three months since that awful day. My grief overwhelmed every aspect of my life and I felt like no measure of joy would ever return. I had an 18 month old son and was facing the prospect of raising him alone - something that was obviously never the plan. I felt helpless and like no one could possibly understand.  It was the hardest birthday of my life to date. 

Don't get me wrong. I had plenty of family, friends, and co-workers who supported me. There was evidence of the legacy of love that Joe left all around, but I still felt lost and painfully alone. So, I returned to the thing that has often brought me comfort. Unsure of what else to do to work my way out of the grief box I was in, I started writing. This time, though, I didn't take to writing in a private journal as I had done since I was young. I took a leap and started this blog. Unsure if anyone would read it (aside from my own parents and Joe's mom), but sure that I needed it, I wrote my first post with tears in my eyes and a knot in the pit of my stomach. 

In the ten years since, I have written and published 160 posts since that very first one. Each post, whether it was about my grief or not, helped me keep moving forward. Over the years, I've attended (and eventually led) grief support groups. I've consumed media of all kinds from books to music to art and have had countless conversations with friends and strangers alike about life and death. Last year, I completed a certificate class in End of Life care. I've been on a path that I never would have predicted, but one that has both challenged me and brought me peace and comfort.

Last night, I found myself having an intense yet beautiful conversation with my son about death. He had some burning questions on his mind and wanted to talk.

That moment, which could have been extremely awkward and painful, made me thankful for all of the open talks we had about death in my family growing up. For my own father who hasn't shied away from letting us know that he has song and scripture suggestions written in the back of his Bible. For my G-Mom who shared openly with me about her own grieving after my grandfather died and who carefully wrote each of us a heartfelt note which we received after she died. For my good friends who held me accountable for finalizing my own will and life insurance and end of life wishes when no on else our age was even considering such things. 

It doesn't mean that death sucks any less, but at least all of these positive influences and all of this grappling has helped me land in a place where I can acknowledge death as a natural part of life.

It has taken time and a lot of work on my part to find my way out of that painful grief box, but over these last ten years I've seen how grief is indeed a journey and moving forward in it doesn’t mean we forget our people. We find ways to honor them that also honor the continued living of our own lives. We move from painful ambushes of grief to sweet rememberings. We learn how to carry our love with us through the years.
 
Joe is still present in our lives - in some obvious ways and in some ways that are only visible to those who know Whether it's a song, which at one time brought overwhelming sadness, but now warms my heart and reminds me of my beloved Joe or a son who at 11 years old embodies mannerisms and habits that can only be traced back to his dad, there is progress. It's a progress that likely won't be complete until my own death, but I'm thankful for each step that allows me to breathe a little deeper and live a little more freely.


I expect this year to be a quiet birthday. I'll get up early to take in the sunrise on a walk around my neighborhood. I'll have a full day of work with a scheduled break to enjoy a birthday lunch with my sister. I'll attend some meetings in the evening and then do something fun with my not-so-little-anymore guy. And I'll be thankful that I get to celebrate another birthday - even if it is still without Joe.

From my 30th birthday
One of my favorite birthday photos with Joe



Monday, December 6, 2021

The Mystery of the Christmas Lights

Towards the end of last week I read a book called Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt. It's mostly an examination of the words people say as they are nearing death, but there were also some parts that dealt with experiences of family members after the death of their loved one. The timing of reading Smartt's book could not have been more perfect because it had a section titled "Doorbells, Alarms, and Lightbulbs" and I was having some of my own issues with such things in this week leading up to the 10th anniversary of Joe's death. I found that two and a half page section to be speaking directly to me and it was both liberating and heartwarming.

You see, I've been down this road before with things not working as they should. Not long after Joe died Domani and I took a trip down to Washington, DC. We had done the same trip in the same car (the one that belonged to Joe) together as a family the previous fall to watch the Mets play the Nationals. This time though, the car stereo on this not-even-2-year-old SUV decided to completely crap out just as we were ready to leave. I tried everything I could think of to get it working again because the prospect of a 3 hour drive with no music seemed truly awful. I remember talking to Joe, asking him to help me fix it and wondering if this was all just him trying to get my attention.

Then, at some point (I don't remember exactly when) it just started working again. No service required. No rhyme or reason. No obvious intervention on my part. It just started working again. Common sense told me it must have just been a loose wire or a faulty connection that resolved itself when I went over a bump. I'm sure there could be a thousand logical explanations and so I chalked it up to a quirky coincidence even though I knew in my heart it connected me back to Joe.

Then, I started hearing stories from other widows. They shared with me their own interactions with electricity and every day items that require power to run. Clicking off and on. Working and then not working and then working again. All at moments or in ways that had some particular significance. Many of them felt the same presence, the same saying hello as these things happened that I did with the car stereo. I found comfort in those stories and told Joe that I'd listen and pay attention.

Fast forward to now and the story of Joe's little tree and the outdoor Christmas lights.

We have a tree in our home that we call the "Joe Tree". It was the tree that he had in his apartment before we were married. His mother had bought it for him and started him off with a selection of ornaments so that he had some Christmas in his place. I love her for that. It has white lights and a beautiful gold star tree topper that also plugged in and lit up. Our favorite ornament that goes on the "Joe Tree" is a naked Peter from The Family Guy holding a strategically placed present. The tree is both fun and sentimental.

Joe and I continued putting up his little tree in our home after we married and when he died it took on an extra special meaning as Domani and I put it up each year. We add to it ornaments from places that we have visited. It's our way of sharing those adventures with Joe.

This year, we carefully brought the tree down from the attic and set it in its spot in the living room. We plugged it in and enjoyed its lights for a few days before putting on any ornaments. Wouldn't you know it though that just as we were preparing to decorate, the lights stopped working. Domani decided we would replace the white lights that weren't working with new multi-color lights. And then we plugged in the star which was also not working. Obviously it's not unique for lights to stop working. Any of us who have cussed out a strand of lights while trying to decorate can attest to that. It's the timing and 1-2 combo of the lights and the star that caught my attention and once again had me noticing Joe with a smile and a quiet nod. 

However, I was not at all prepared for what happened next.

It was time for the grand finale of "Doorbells, Alarms, and Lightbulbs" - this time with the outdoor Christmas lights. My mom had offered to help me put up the rest of the outdoor lights I hadn't gotten to so they would be up when we held Joe's remembrance yesterday. On Friday afternoon, she came over and put up lights on our trellis, bushes, and along the back fence. When night came and the lights clicked on I noticed there was one strand along the fence that was completely out. I tried adjusting them that night and even took a look the next morning. I just couldn't figure it out and had resigned myself to having one strand out for the Christmas season.

When I told my mom about it she confided that she hadn't tested the lights, just asked Joe for his help in making sure they all worked. She jokingly complained that Joe hadn't done his job and we both got a laugh.

That night I arrived back home to the lights still out. I left the house for all of 2 hours and when I came back the strand was ON! I immediately was thankful to my mom for coming over and fixing the lights. Except that when I asked her about it the next morning, she said it wasn't her. At that point, there was no holding back the tears because we both knew in our hearts what had happened. I'm done trying to find logical explanations for things that are, in fact, liminal in nature. 

There are ways that Joe still says hi even 10 years later and sometimes that way is as simple as turning on the lights.


Saturday, April 3, 2021

Lent and Grief and Waiting for Easter

Anyone who knew both Joe and me also knows that he was the neat and organized one who could always put his finger on anything he was looking for and I am the messy one who is always searching for something I put somewhere. So, to say that Joe would have been amused (and thrilled) with my Lenten undertaking this year would be an understatement. For the second time since he died, I decided to embark on the "40 bags in 40 days" idea and ride the wave of cleaning, organizing, and moving things out of my life.

When I completed this in 2014, it was intense. It involved finally eating the two chocolate bears that were in my refrigerator (one with my name and one with Joe's) from three Thanksgivings before and wrestling over and over again with WWJD (in this case, What Would Joe Do?)

Over the past 46 days (Sundays are "little Easters" in Lent for those who don't know), I have cleaned out a wide variety of spaces in every room of my home. For good measure, I even added in some spaces not in my home. I used this opportunity to clean out the car that was Joe's and is now mine and to start throwing away some non-essential items in my office. For the most part though, I was tackling my overrun junk drawers, packed until they burst cabinets, and closets that could have been hiding just about anything.

I shared with a friend early on in the journey that I always feel more connected to Joe when I do things like this because he was the one who would not hold on to things. So, anytime I hit a moment of hesitation, even around things that may *feel* sentimental, I channeled an inner conversation with him and found the resolve to either throw it away or give it away.

Obviously not every item got moved out. During one particular night of work I came across a ticket stub (remember when those were a thing?) to the last concert that Joe and I attended together. We saw Greg Dulli at the Trocadero in Philly. We sat in the balcony because with his colostomy bag and generally weakened state, he wasn't up for standing on the floor - our usual spot at shows. As I looked at that ticket stub and remembered that show it hit me that the Trocadero is now closed. Even before COVID-19, the Troc had closed. At least I have the ticket I thought as I tucked it away in the display on my wall that I have for such things.

Over the course of the last 46 days I have come across so much that reminded me of Joe. It is now almost ten years since he died and after a lot of grief work these remembrances are much more likely to bring smiles than tears for me. I still miss him in a million different ways, but I have learned that processes like this one help me to keep bringing him with me as I move forward in life.

It has been years since I remember having a dream about Joe. But during this process, as I was moving through the spaces of our home and channeling those "inner conversations" I had a dream about him. Even now I get teary thinking about how I felt that morning when I woke up. I don't remember the details of the dream, but the way it made me feel sits deep with me even weeks after it happened. As I found during the first time I spent my Lent cleaning and organizing, there is something profoundly spiritual about making space.

As I made my way through my 40 days I documented each day with a photo. It was pure joy today for me to be able to look back on all of those photos and think about the myriad areas in my life that now have more space. I admit that there have been times that I have opened my drawers just to remind myself that they are not loaded down with things or looked into my bathroom closet just to admire the way that everything has a place. I can feel Joe cheering me on (and also reminding me that there are still random piles of things on the bedroom floor). Perhaps I will get to those too.







I rounded out my 40 bags in 40 days with a Holy Week focused on moving and listening. Each morning no matter the weather I went for a walk (as I have every work day since January 19) and on Good Friday I did something extra special. At the suggestion of a dear friend, I listened to David Suchet read the Gospel of Mark. It took two hours and I listened and walked as the sun came up on Friday morning. 

Throughout that walk there were moments when I stopped to process, to let my tears flow, and to take in all the beauty around me. I was overwhelmed by this story of Jesus that emphasized God's abundance, unconditional love, sacrifice, and even humor. It left me feeling thankful and hopeful, two things I needed at my core.

Tomorrow will be Easter. It will also be Joe's birthday. He would have turned 46. Thanksgiving and hopefulness are two states of being that I crave for myself tomorrow.

Since I found them on my Good Friday walk, it seems fitting that I close out this writing with the photos I took while I was listening to Mark. 

May you encounter the spiritual in a way that leaves you with thanks and hope for the road ahead.










Monday, March 8, 2021

Ten, A Poem

1...

2...

3...

they continue

4...

5...

6...

still more

7...

8...

9...

not quite done because at this moment the final number is

10...

Easy counting

if you're a toddler and don't know

that each one is a minute and a lifetime 

all at the same time.

Two hundred and forty hours of birthdays.

14,400 minutes acknowledging a milestone.

864,000 seconds celebrating without him.

And some of that, 

mercifully, 

I spent sleeping.

Please let me wake up and have it be over or maybe let it last forever 

in pregnant expectation of what could be

Each one

Empty and full.

The glass is both.

It's a steady stare at all that's firmly in the past, but also a bright red arrow pointing to what is still in my

soul.

Joy and pain living together 

like opposites that attract

and refuse to be pulled apart.

Never completely one thing or another

Always some mix of what's gone and what remains

A decade of birthdays with me

and not him.

Written by Anne Luck-Deak, 3/8/2021


Today, my 43rd birthday, was a good day. I didn't work, spent some time with one of my best girlfriends, and ate so many foods I love. Domani and I took some old gift cards and went shopping at Target, we walked on the towpath at sunset, and then grabbed our favorites from Tortugas Mexican Village for dinner. My order was undoubtedly the same one I got 10 years ago today when Joe and I brought 6-month old Domani there to celebrate my birthday.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dear Joe (A letter on our son's 10th birthday)


Dear Joe,

Today - Sunday, October 11, 2020 - our son turns 10 years old. 

That means it has been 9 years since we celebrated his birthday as a family of 3 - his first and only one with you here. He is way past the Sesame Street of that party, but the memories linger and they make me wonder what it would be like if you were here with us this weekend.

Double digits is a big deal for any kid. It's an even bigger deal when two years earlier Mom promised that 10 is the magic number for being able to get a cell phone. (Yep, I did that.)

The excitement has been building here in the Deak household for more than a month in a way that I only remember counting down to my 17th birthday and my driver's license. Maybe you wouldn't have agreed to the cell phone at age 10 or maybe, given your obsession with all things new in technology, you would have caved even sooner. 

You were always the best gift giver so maybe you would have chosen something I haven't even thought to get him. Maybe we would have celebrated in a completely different way than what I planned. Maybe you would have just suggested pancakes for breakfast and a quiet day inside.

As the time goes by since your death, I feel like I can predict less and less the things you would have done and what you would have thought - not only when it comes to Domani's 10th birthday, but about so many other things too. That gap is a new pain that I've only begun to confront on this now almost 9 year long grief journey.

Sometimes I engage in some real mental gymnastics with the "what ifs" and the "could have beens". I wonder if I am losing you all over again when I can't say for certain that you would have let Domani ride his bike around the block or stay up past 9pm. I go back and forth on whether you would have agreed that Domani could watch shows like Drunk History or Trevor Noah with us. I wonder if he ever would have taken dance lessons or played soccer before trying baseball.

One thing I know, though, is that you would be beaming with pride at Domani the 10 year old. 

Two weeks ago he spent all day Saturday building a gaming PC with my Uncle Bob. He had spent time researching parts and brainstorming about how to get the highest quality parts for the best price. He tracked with excitement as each part arrived and carefully packed them into a tub for transport. 

The whole process reminded me of the gaming setup you created in our basement and I do know that if you were still here this would have been a father-son project for sure.

Beyond his new found interest in computers, he is thoughtful and empathetic, independent and determined. 

He has a quirky sense of humor and is able to land jokes with almost spot-on comedic timing. 

He speaks Spanish, excels at math, and has a memory that means I need to be extra careful what I say and especially what I promise to him. 

He has an interest in bugs even though he will often be freaked out by them. 

He can follow directions to put together small projects like his shoe rack all by himself.

He is kind and loving and always working to do better. 

He has areas to grow too - like his constantly messy room and displays of impatience (he gets both things from me obviously) - but he is an impressive 10 year old which helps me feel like we are on the right path.

We miss you terribly, Joe, and there is no doubt that life would be more full if you were still here with us. But you are not absent from our lives. In fact, you are woven into all that we do and who we are as a family.

So, in those moments when I am unsure if I'm doing things right with our son, I return to a truth that I learned not long after you died. We can only do the best we can with the information we have at the time. Judging our past actions using information we did not have isn't helpful. 

So, today, on our son's 10th birthday, I center myself in that. Even though I may not be certain what you would have picked out for Domani's gift this year or how we would have planned his celebration in the midst of a pandemic, I do know that he has a lot of you in him and that's more than enough for me.

With Love,

Anne

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday in a Pandemic

Good Friday.

The day on our Christian calendar where we fully acknowledge death and the separation it brings. Before Joe died, it was nothing more to me than a speed bump on the way to Easter. Once 2012 rolled around, though, this day began to carry much more weight as I felt the sting of death in unique ways with each passing moment that year.

How much more it stings now for those mourning in the midst of a pandemic as waves of grief are flowing deep and wide around the world.

Good Friday is the world as it is - with all its pain and brokenness, anxiety and fear. Over the years, I have come to appreciate this day not as a speed bump, but as one of the truest reflections of our reality. 

After all, it is in this "world as it is" that we all live. We see it around us starkly now, as family members grieve in isolation without the physical gestures that often get us through those initial moments of shock and despair. We see it in the frontline workers who are confronting an unseen, but deadly virus every day. We see it in the desperation of people whose place in our destructive economy is laid bare in new and frightening ways.

I recognize that in my own life over these past few weeks I have gotten through day to day by finding ways to compartmentalize all of the pain, only allowing it out from time to time in small doses. I have made it a point each day to instead list 10 things for which I am thankful. I have purposefully sought out moments of joy and ways to change up routine within our home.

But today, I observed Good Friday by allowing myself to connect with it. I prayed through the stash of Christmas cards I keep by the side of my bed. As I touched each card and looked at the faces and handwriting of friends, family members, and co-workers, it drew me to the flood of pain that so many of them are working through right now. I began to feel the heartache of living in this world as it is right now.

And then I turned to writing. I have never written so many sympathy cards in one sitting and the truth is that it shook me. We aren't even through this yet and there are so many people who are enduring deep levels of pain and are doing it in isolation. 

I know that I can't fix the grief for my friends or family now any more than they could do that for me 9 years ago. In fact, my favorite card that I dropped in the mail today says on the front "Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason." (Thank you, Emily McDowell cards.) This is not a time for pithy expressions. It is a time for us to be real with each other and acknowledge that, even though this is our reality, we can show up for each other in the midst of it.

Good Friday is about the world as it is. 

Yes, ultimately we can change that. It can happen through building community. Through organizing. Through showing up for one another. Through the model of hope that comes on Easter morning. 

But let's not rush through today to that. Let's not pretend as if this doesn't hurt. 

Let's allow our friends, our family, our loved ones time to grieve.

Let's allow it to be Good Friday. Easter will come. It's just not here yet.