Monday, June 20, 2016

The Weight of Grief and The Light that Shines

Joe's first Father's Day with Domani was also the only one he was able to celebrate with his son. By the time the next Father's Day rolled around Joe had been gone six months and the day took on a particular emptiness in our home. That emptiness is certainly not lost on me as I got to celebrate yet one more Father's Day with my own dad or as I look back on all the years past when I was able to make heartfelt cards, awkwardly-colored ties, and strange sculptures to mark the day.

This year was Domani's first enrolled in an official school program. He has loved his preschool and all of his teachers have encouraged him and inspired his development in beautiful and unique ways, but there have been some emotionally challenging moments given the grief that he carries with him. This week leading up to Father's Day has been especially tough. It's been a week full of dad art projects and books about dads and conversations about dads. It was enough to make me weepy just reading the daily progress reports about what they were working on in each subject area.

In fact, after reading the first day's report I sat in my car and cried for five minutes. The weight this child bears and the love and light with which he bears it.

I am thankful beyond words for the conscious way his teachers and caregivers surrounded him with love this week and made space for both his reality and his emotions - giving hugs when needed and allowing for common sense modifications of the projects. I didn't have to prompt them to do it. They just knew. He made things for his grandpas and something for his Uncle Chris. I chatted regularly with the teaching staff about how he was doing and responding. He was loved and supported not only by me, but by a school full of amazing professionals.

On Thursday, when I picked him up from school I asked him if he wanted to go to the Mets game the following night. His eyes lit up with excitement. That night, before he went to bed he told me that he missed daddy and that he hadn't made anything for him. I told him that I would make sure he would have time to make something on Saturday - in plenty of time for Father's Day. I could tell he was relieved. Oh, the things that occupy the mind of a five year old who misses his dad. The weight this child bears and the love and light with which he bears it.

On Friday, I picked him up early from school so we could go to the Mets game. I sensed from him both relief at the end of the week and excitement to show me the things he had made - a card, a colored tie, a wall hanging with a saw - thoughtful, sweet art projects. Grief is complicated and often means we end up with a mix of many emotions that are hard to pick apart. I realized this about myself within the first year after Joe died. I am seeing this in Domani more and more.

We had a fun time together at the game. It was a much needed night to enjoy each other's company at one of the places that is most comfortable for us. The Mets weren't in on the poetry of the night though and lost. At least we came away with cool Neil Walker shirts.

After getting our Neil Walker shirts at the Mets game Friday Night
On Saturday, Domani came with me to a work meeting and - using the art supplies we had carefully packed into his bookbag - created a picture for his dad. He told me that I had to help with it as well so we decided blue and orange hearts would be the best contribution from mom.

Domani's picture (with 2 hearts from mom) for Dad

After the meeting and before we headed up for yet another Mets game, we brought the picture to the cemetery. Domani always remembers details about our trips to the cemetery and this was no exception. "Mom, remember last time we were here it was before Bella's birthday party and Uncle Scott was with us?" Yeah, buddy. I remember. Next time it will be "Mom, remember last time we were here it was right before Father's Day and the Braves beat the Mets 4-3?" And I'll say, yeah, buddy. You cheered right up until the end that night. Just like you always do. The weight this child bears and the love and light with which he bears it.

Cheering until the bitter end at Saturday night's Mets game

On Father's Day in 2011 I gave Joe a board book I had made called Daddy and Me. It had photos of Joe and Domani along with short captions. The two of them would look at it from time to time, but truthfully it really became a treasure to Domani over the last year. He keeps the book close and has everything about it memorized. So it seemed fitting that for Father's Day this year I would give Domani a new Daddy and Me board book to add to the mix. I gave it to him this morning and the first time we read it together I didn't even make it to the third page before I was choking back the tears.

With his new Daddy and Me book on Father's Day

Damn it. It was just not the way Father's Day was supposed to be in our house. 

But Domani is proud of his dad and he showed that book around today to anyone who would look at it. To me, that's worth tearing up a million times trying to read it to him. The weight this child bears and the love and light with which he bears it.

Then tonight after we got home from a day of celebrating fathers and a family birthday we completed our weekly baseball standings board. The ONLY thing that changed on the board from last week was the Mets moved to 3rd place and the Marlins to 2nd place. Domani was devastated. He almost didn't even want to do the board. Instead of inserting them, he set the hats on top of the slots and pouted. Except that he does the board every week and he knows that people wait to see it. So when I asked him if he just wanted to skip it, he said no and he put those hats where they belonged. Then, even though I told him he didn't have to take a picture with it, he held it up and squeaked out a smile. I could not be more proud of him. The weight this child bears and the love and light with which he bears it.

The weekly standings board :-(






Sunday, April 10, 2016

Love In Action - In Memory of Amy

It was grief that caused my path to cross with Amy's for the first time last year and this past week grief once again became a most unwelcome intruder. It still doesn't seem possible that she is gone. I look at her smiling face in photos and part of me expects her to message me again or post on Facebook about the latest project she completed. It can't be real that someone so young and vibrant, so generous and kind has just died so suddenly. But real it is as her family and friends said goodbyes to her yesterday out in Missouri and those of us who are farther away mourn her in small gatherings and group messages to each other.

When I got word of Amy's death I was in line at a Starbucks in Chicago, part of the way through a weekend conference I was attending for work. I had a flashback to the moment I received the news about my G-Mom's death just about a month before. A message on my phone. Staring like it could not possibly be true. And then just saying....no no no no no no no.

I got the news of my G-Mom's death while in the back stairwell of my office. Two co-workers heard my crying, came beside me, and helped me to a chair in a nearby conference room. They got me something to drink and one of them drove me home. That week a friend from church cooked a ready to eat meal and left it for me so I would have something to share with friends and family in the midst of my grief. To me, these moments were love in action. In my mind, they are also the most genuine moments of life because they are when we actually see each other. Too often we look right past each other as we go about our daily business, but in the throes of grief it is impossible to ignore the humanity of other humans. And there is something special about that.

Just as at the office when I first heard my G-Mom died, there were simple gestures of care that happened in that Starbucks immediately after I found out about Amy's death which still fill my heart with gratitude and give me hope. My friend helped me to a chair and bought me a water. A stranger sitting nearby dug a pack of tissues out of her purse and gave them all to me. Friends far away exchanged messages with me for the remainder of the day sharing sadness, thoughts, and memories. These things are love in action.

In the last exchange I had with Amy, I thanked her for coming to the viewing for my G-Mom and let her know how much it meant to me to be on the receiving end of her hugs and sympathy. There is just something about those who show up for you when you are grieving that connects on the deepest level and never lets go. And how much more so for those who do it when it means battling through their own grief and pain to be present. Those hugs contain a special richness. In her message to me, she expressed that she was happy to do it and how meaningful it was to her when her own friends went to great lengths to be there with her during the services for her dad. This exchange has stuck with me throughout this week and has made me think about all of the ways big and small that the people in my life show up for me and that I try my best to show up for others. These moments are what truly matter and what will exist for long after we do.

In the short time I knew Amy it was clear to me that she lived in a way that both embraced the beauty of the world around her and spread light to those she came in contact with - whether it was through her smile and warm hugs or selfless actions. When someone did something kind for her or her loved ones, she didn't let it end there. She passed it along. What an impact we can have when we show up for others, no matter who they are to us. I'm sure Amy's friends didn't know they were starting a chain reaction of care by showing up for her when her dad died, but that is what they did. When we do these things for each other we are creating the world that we want and stretching the definition of community. It has certainly made me think about and act on these moments with more purpose - something I'm sure that Amy would agree with wholeheartedly.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Holy Saturday Poem

Prologue: During my run this morning my thoughts were heavy with this day. It is a part of the Easter story that has taken on particular spiritual significance for me since Joe's death and the losses that have come in my life after. I have blogged about it on several occasions including here and here. Most recently, I've been grieving the loss of my grandmother who died just over a month ago. We had a close relationship and she inspired me deeply in my own faith. One thing that has come to the surface through this most recent grief is how urgently we as people and as a society are groomed and designed to try to move past pain and grief, often to the detriment of really wrestling with it. On my run it was a line from my all time favorite movie that came to me and stuck...thank God for The Princess Bride...

In it, The Man In Black (who is really Westley) says to Princess Buttercup (his True Love): "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." 

It's true, and it brought me to throw together these words throughout the day. The result is not like my usual blog post, but perhaps the fact that my G-Mom had saved a bunch of my old poetry and it just got passed back to me has gotten me in a mood...

Holy Saturday

The day after the death.

When each task seems like the most impossible thing.

The day after the death.

When time stands still.

The day after the death.

When all feels lost.

The day after the death.

When your broken heart threatens to take the rest of your body with it.

The day after the death.

When everyone else continues to swirl around you with life.

The day after the death.

When you don't know whether you can go on. Or how you will go on. Or if you should go on.

The day after the death.

When there are things to do and people to see and only zombie-like eyes to get through it all.

This day after the death of Christ.

When the rest of the world catches up to those of us who know the weight of grief's grip every day.

This day after the death.

Before the resurrection.

Before the hope.

Before the light.

When there is just darkness.

And pain.

And waiting.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Unbroken

One of the first things I did after Joe died was redecorate our bedroom. Each time I walk into that room where I stayed with my husband in his final moments, I am thankful for the family and few close friends who came over and helped to rearrange furniture, pack up clothes and other items, and paint. And paint. And paint.

By the time we were done redecorating, the once beige tones of our bedroom were shades of purple and I was on the hunt for some items to fill the empty walls.

Within a week, I found the perfect painting on Etsy. Not only was it purple, but it fully captured everything I was feeling. It was called Unbroken and the painting was by a woman named Jennifer Leigh (@JENNIFERLEIGH01). It was of a tree blowing in the wind - bent and bare - but not broken. It was how I felt then and how I wanted to be as I moved forward in my grief.

So I bought it and I hung it (or rather I had my brother-in-law Chris hang it) above my bed. There it has stayed for more than 4 years as a testament to this difficult journey I have been on.

"Unbroken" by Jennifer Leigh

This morning I was feeling especially worn. Bent. Bare. Windblown. On the verge of broken. Before I left the house, I snapped a photo of "Unbroken" with my iPhone. It was on my mind all day.

My thoughts have been constantly turning to my G-Mom. Thankful for her faith and wisdom. Hating cancer all the more for yet another reason. Coming back to the story she told me when I visited her last week about how she would worry about rain at a baseball game when she was younger and her mom would tell her "You can't change the weather. Find something else to do."

Stripped bare, but Unbroken.

The call to a mental health professional on behalf of my sweet five year old son, who is bearing the huge weight of losing his dad so young. An appointment I wish we never had to put on his schedule. The uncontrollable tears that came after, tears for my little guy and all that he is dealing with as he grieves his dad gave way to a measure of calm with some wise words in a text from a good friend.

Completely bent, but Unbroken.

There were unstoppable tears as Greg Dulli cranked out My World Is Empty Without You in an IHOP parking lot in Irvington. Even with the promise of a great new relationship on the horizon there are these random and paralyzing moments during which I miss the intimacy and strength of what was before. It's hope mixed with grief in the most raw way possible.

Windblown, but Unbroken.

My body screamed tonight with every step on the treadmill - an accelerating urge to stop and call it quits built as the miles ticked off the screen in front of me. Somehow though, my heart and my mind wouldn't let my legs give way. They know that in less than 9 weeks Boylston Street awaits and the only way to conquer THAT is....

Completely worn, but Unbroken.



Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Season of Challenge

This past week marked 6 years since we found out Joe's cancer diagnosis. It was all part of one roller coaster week in my life that I will never forget. This time around it came on the heels of what was a difficult December and more than two weeks of sickness which started off my New Year. Needless to say, I am at this point so incredibly weary.

The place I have turned repeatedly for respite over the last two months is deeply familiar. It's the Psalm I memorized while I was still in school. It took on new meaning for me during Joe's illness when I would pray the beginning like a mantra. These past two months, I have worked on re-committing it to memory and I pray it while I'm doing my training runs, driving to and from work, trying to fall asleep at night, making dinner, and especially when I'm taking a break for a good cry.

Psalm 121

There have been some truly tough moments over the last two months. 

Domani has been much more focused on his dad and how much he misses him. In Domani's preschool, they spent the month of December talking about families. It led to many art projects, all with a seemingly different rendition of his family. One with Domani and Mom. One with Domani, Mom, Grandmom, and Grandpop. And, of course, one with Domani, Mom, and Dad. He decided the last one was a secret. Once he got it home, he would only talk about it with me.

There has been lots of death. Friends dealing with the death of loved ones and providing care for family members in their final stages of life. Members in our own church family who have recently died. The tears that came with hanging on my tree the very last Christmas ornament that I will ever get from my Aunt Jimmie. Christmas. New Years. The increasingly cold, dark days. 

Then there was the night about a week and a half into my being sick when Domani was getting settled into bed and he dropped one of those soul-crushing questions on me. "Are you going to die like Daddy because you've been sick?" His eyes were filled with tears and I could tell he had really been thinking about it...probably the whole time I had been coughing and sniffling and catching naps on the couch. We worked our way through this one, just like we have with dozens of other tough questions, but it is all really taking a toll.

Thankfully, one of the things I have learned over the past two months is the power of saying no. It's the freedom that comes with knowing my own emotional, spiritual, and physical limits. For me - a perpetual do-er - this has not come easy. But, as I think over the times going back to December when I have passed up an invitation I would have normally accepted or have chosen chill time with Domani or personal rest time over time DOING, I see the difference it has made. 

Is there a part of me who wishes I had taken up my friend on the invite to watch the Rangers game from a suite? Yes. Do I sometimes regret not being at that rally or speak out? Absolutely. Are there times when I wish I went out for Friday night drinks with the girls? Obviously. But then I see the spiritual, emotional, and physical benefit of knowing my limitations, and I am convinced that I would not have made it through this rough season in my life without drawing those boundaries. I have a limited amount of time and energy and I owe it to myself and my son to focus on those things which will create meaning in our lives now and in the future.

Wednesday of this week would have been the day 6 years ago when Joe was rushed to the hospital. This year, as I left the house at 5am to get to the pre-conference for a union election, I felt a tug. It's still hard even 6 years later not to acknowledge when it's "the" day. And at 8:30pm when the day was over and I was driving home, four years since he's been gone wasn't enough to erase the tug of wanting to call him and debrief the workers' election win and the rest of the evening. Win or lose, he always was my first phone call when I got in the car to head home.

Life is different now though and has been for years. So instead of calling Joe, I lifted my eyes to the hills (of NJ) and knew in my heart where my help comes from - even when the night is dark and the road feels hard.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Amazing Grace of Four Years

Four years ago on December 9th we celebrated my husband Joe's life and then laid him to rest in a cemetery just up the road from where he grew up. Many things about that day are a blur, but there are a few that are still as clear as if they had happened yesterday. 

While in the shower that morning I started piecing together in my brain some words that I wanted to say at the service. I had no idea if I would actually keep it together enough to say them, but I figured it was better to be prepared if I ended up deciding to do it. I started writing on the way to the funeral home and continued scribbling words on various scrap papers while I was waiting there to say my final goodbyes. Then, on the way to the church I took my scribbles and wrote everything over so I could actually read it if I found myself staring at a sea of sad, expectant eyes.

I remember every part of reading these words and the combination of numbness and superhuman peace that allowed me to do it.

One thing that stands out to me about Joe is that he lived every day full of life, loving others and doing the things that brought happiness to himself and those around him.

I feel like his diagnosis put these last two years on fast forward, but he certainly didn't miss any opportunity to enjoy his days.

Joe and his dad took Domani to see the Somerset Patriots for his first baseball game and Joe, his mom, and Ross took Domani for his first visit to the beach.

We went trick or treating in the neighborhood with the Franklin Park crew on Domani's first Halloween and Joe celebrated Domani's first Christmas with some new Mets outfits and a Curious George stuffed animal, just like one of Joe's own favorites from childhood.

Joe was the one who made Domani laugh for the first time just by saying "PJs!" We watched Domani's first steps together and got excited when he learned to turn off his own bedroom light at a young age.

Joe was the one sitting with Domani on a blanket outside our house on our son's 7 month birthday, waiting for me to come home from work, just so they could show off Domani's first tooth. (And, I'd just like to point out that our overachieving son, had his 2nd tooth by the next day!)

We watched Domani do the wiggle butt dance on the changing table, shake his butt to the Conan theme song,, and later, climb, run and laugh like a wild man all around the house with his cousins.

We visited Cooperstown, surrounded ourselves with Mets players at the Ritz Carlton in DC, and took Domani to his first game at Citifield.

We enjoyed an amazing family vacation this past July which included Joe and his brother Jimmy spending 4 hours plus on a hunt for a charcoal grill (which, if you didn't know, is necessary for making szalonna...and if you don't know what szalonna is, you will have to ask a Deak!), countless hours splashing in the waves and playing in the sand with Domani and his cousins, me slamming my finger in Joe's car door and him calmly driving me back to the beach house while I freaked out in the back seat, and many hours of eating great food, drinking adult beverages, watching movies, and playing games.

Most importantly, after only about $30 in quarters Joe conquered the crane game and won not only a Mets bear, but also a stuffed Elmo for Domani. It was the perfect family vacation at the perfect time.

We camped out in the basement of our house during Hurricane Irene, saw Greg Dulli once more in concert, and celebrated each special moment like it was a grand occasion.

There was no shortage of love or special moments in Joe's life and it is to those moments that we can cling now.

We will have to teach Domani about his amazing father as he grows, a task that I think will come quite naturally to all of us.

It was Joe who inspired my words on our blog which seemed to catch on like wildfire. A good lesson for today and always:

Hug your loved ones and smile at a stranger. Today only comes once.

I also remember the words from Anne Lamott that I had chosen - we had videotaped my reading of this in advance, knowing it would be difficult for me to read the whole thing during the service.

The passage from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith still sits with me and I have returned to it for encouragement many times over the past 4 years:

"But you don’t know whether you’re going to live long enough to slow down, relax, and have fun, and discover the truth of your spiritual identity. You may not be destined to live a long life; you may not have sixty more years to discover and claim your own deepest truth. As Breaker Morant said, you have to live every day as if it’s your last because one of these days, you’re bound to be right.

It might help if I go ahead and tell you what I think is the truth of your spiritual identity…

Actually, I don’t have a clue.

I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, or whether you start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn’t what you do, it’s…well, again, I don’t actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher; I should have stuck around. But I know that you feel it best when you’re not doing much – when you’re in nature, when you’re very quiet or, paradoxically, listening to music.

I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes: in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Bach, whomever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with life and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and strains to hear.

We can see Spirit made visible when people are kind to one another, especially when it’s a really busy person, like you, taking care of a needy, annoying, neurotic person, like you. In fact, that’s often when we see Spirit most brightly. It's magic to see Spirit largely because it's so rare. Mostly, you see the masks and holograms that the culture presents as real. You see how you’re doing in the world’s eyes or your family’s or – worst of all – yours, or in the eyes of people who are doing better than you – much better than you – or worse. But you are not your bank account, or your ambition. You’re not the cold clay lump you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are Spirit, you are love, and even though it is hard to believe sometimes, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill – and we’re all terminally ill on this bus – what will matter are memories of beauty, that people loved you, and that you loved them."

Those moments were deep and meaningful. But, in what remains one of the most spiritually profound moments of my life, I remember joining my fellow bandmates in the front of the sanctuary to sing the final hymn of the service. We faced the congregation while we sang Amazing Grace. My brother-in-law played one of Joe's guitars and I looked out over the family and friends who had gathered with us in that familiar space for that sacred purpose. In that moment I just knew deep in my being that God's grace was amazing indeed. It was an assurance that has stuck with me. It has not been an easy 4 years and there have been times when I have wanted to just throw in the proverbial towel. But, I can say with confidence that it has been four years full of gentle love when I'm at my most alone, unexpected miracles when I'm overwhelmed with grief, and amazing grace when I'm feeling downright hopeless. For that I am thankful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Unexpected Hope

"How is your heart lately?"

It was a tweet. Innocent enough. Just floated across my timeline, but - wow - did it get the wheels turning in my brain.

I knew my response because shit has been building.

Building for quite a long time.

Honestly, at this point I'm afraid to check in on it. My heart that is.

Not everything in life these days has been bad, but it has been heavy.

And then last night while I was on the way to band practice at church I saw the news about the terrorist attacks in France and how one of the targets was the Eagles of Death Metal concert that was happening at a Paris venue.

The feeling for me was much like that moment in 2013 when I first saw news of the Boston Marathon bombing coming across my Twitter feed. A million thoughts flashing, twists in the pit of my stomach, not knowing whether someone I knew was in harm's way. The endless loop of my own memories. In 2013, it was the community of runners to which I belong at the center of the violent attack. This time it was my family of music lovers - those of us for whom a concert hall is a form of church and live music is a salve for our world weary souls.

The band involved was familiar, one that I had been introduced to for the first time in 2012 at a live show in NYC. Like many of my friends, my mind immediately went to that show upon hearing the news. I thought about all of us who were there and what the night was like. And what the night must have been like for the music lovers just like us at the Bataclan. I couldn't turn it off. So many people I know travel for shows. Yes, even around the world. Our fan groups span the globe. It's one of the things I love most.

EODM at Terminal 5 - October 5, 2012
I felt glimpses of hope that had found their way into my world from earlier in the week fading away. I just couldn't wrap my head around any good here. Just heaviness and horror. Close to home even while far away.

But one thing about being a single mom to a 5 year old is that action is almost always demanded. So, on Saturday morning we were up at the same time as every other day and I forced myself out of the house for a run once the babysitter arrived. It's amazing what some sunshine and exercise can do for a brain that won't shut off.

On the way home I allowed myself to listen to some EODM music and it felt right. When I got back home I still had it on as I was doing some things in my bedroom and Little Guy came in to hear what was going on. He started dancing. REALLY DANCING. So I did too. We worked out a lot of "ugh" dancing around to "Cherry Cola" and "Speaking In Tongues".
Sometimes hope comes in the most unexpected places.

Tonight I was once again flipping through my social media and saw a news article confirming the death of a crew member with EODM. I had just gotten into the car with my little guy and as soon as I saw the article I said "Oh no." He, of course asked me what was wrong. As I have grown accustomed to doing, I gave him the 5 year old version of death and grief.

Then, we started driving.

We were only a few minutes into the trip when he somehow started the exact conversation I needed:

Little Guy: Mommy, you know what 3 things I'm thankful for?
Me: What, buddy? What 3 things are you thankful for?
Little Guy: Love
Me: That's a very good thing.
Little Guy: Mommy & Daddy
Me: (tearing up) Yes, definitely...what's #3?
Little Guy: Lollipops!
Me: (Laughing) That's awesome buddy, those are all really great things. Do you know what 3 things I'm thankful for? You, being able to run really fast, and having a cool job doing organizing.
Little Guy: And the 4th thing for me is PRESENTS!
Me: Of course... you should always be thankful for presents.

Sometimes hope comes in the most unexpected places.

I'm still afraid to fully check in on my heart. In fact, that tweet exchange happened tonight after all of the other stuff. But I do know that I got the doses of hope I needed today to push me onward.
Perhaps that is the thing for which I am MOST thankful.