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.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

World Series Bound...Why Am I So Sad?!

I finally realized it today when a good friend said it to me at lunch. It hadn't been the first time this week. Friends and family alike have expected me to be ecstatic. After all, my Mets just finished sweeping the Chicago Cubs on the way to clinching the National League Championship and a berth in the World Series. I know that co-workers who could normally care less about baseball had been checking scores each morning to have an idea whether it would be a "good mood" or "bad mood" day. It took until my friend's blunt declaration that I should be happier for me to recognize what I really already knew.

This is a bittersweet journey through the playoffs. It carries with it shadows of loss - not only of my beloved Joe - but also of my Mets-loving Grandma who died many years before him. With the joy of every win also comes the sinking feeling of who is missing. The high five almost always denied by Joe who hated high fives. The reminders of those Mets mementos that continued to pop up throughout my grandparents house long after my Grandma had passed away. That "ya gotta believe" spirit coming on the heels of what was almost always soul crushing year after soul crushing year.

When Jeurys Familia struck out Dexter Fowler looking to end the game last night, sending the Mets to the World Series and the Cubs directly into the cold Chicago winter, there was no avoiding the flashback to the 2006 NLCS when the result was the heart-breaking opposite for the Mets. Joe and I were glued to the TV in his apartment when Beltran struck out looking against Adam Wainwright to end the Mets World Series hopes that year. There were plenty of expletives. There was much hand wringing and head hanging. There may or may not have been something launched in the general direction of the TV. I remember the scene and the feelings and being there with him as if it had happened yesterday.

But it isn't what happened yesterday. What happened yesterday is the Mets won in decisive fashion. Duda and D'Arnaud didn't make us wait with painful anticipation. Instead they launched back to back homers in the first inning. Matz, Colon, and Reed combined to hold the Cubbies to just one run through 7 innings - plenty of breathing space. Daniel Murphy did what Daniel Murphy apparently does in the postseason and went 4 for 5 with a homerun. Then, Jeurys Familia left all who were watching no doubt that the Mets were going to the World Series.

How I felt post game is exactly how I explained it back when I made the trip to Washington, DC for the final game of the Mets series there.
It was as if for that moment, 2006 and 2015 occupied the same space in my heart and mind. Honestly, it was a beautiful thing and I am thankful for it because it was something like this...

Then, this morning - while it was all still sinking in - I received the most perfect text from my aunt with the sentiment that I had already been mulling around the night before. Grandma would have been so happy. Oh, those Mets fans in heaven... and now with some of the most AMAZIN' Mets players as well.

At so many points this season, I have had the privilege of living into a space that was both full of joy and full of sadness. I have come to learn this is just as much a part of the grieving process as those first few months after Joe died when all I could do at the sight of the Mets orange and blue was bawl. The memories and the loss were just too raw then for much else.

It's been almost 4 years since Joe died. Maybe if the Mets weren't the Mets I could have dealt with all of this sadness in the midst of joy sooner, but, in typical Mets fashion, it took a little while for the joy to get here. I'm ok with that...perhaps it just means that I'm in a better place to soak it all in.

As the season has progressed, there have already been some special moments.

From the "magic number" that was his.... the conjuring of sweet memories from bygone seasons.

So many times this year and especially this postseason I found myself happy and teary. I was overwhelmed by it when I wrote about the Mets v. Nationals game I went to in DC in September and it has only snowballed since.

Thank goodness the ride's not over yet. So, when I roll into the World Series games at CitiField next week I'll probably have some tissues tucked away in my bag. It won't be in case we lose, but, more likely, in case we win. How beautiful and special it is this bittersweet journey to become World Champions. #LGM

Tailgating at NLCS Game 1 with the Little Guy - He has loved the postseason and this was a great Mets win!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ya Gotta Believe in DC

I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that there was some significance to heading down to DC for the 3rd game of the Mets "Labor Day" series with the Nationals, but when I bought the game tickets I definitely wasn't thinking about it. It didn't really hit me until I stepped out of the car in the parking lot and realized I was parked in the very spot where Joe and I had parked with Domani 4 years ago.

Domani with Joe at the Mets v. Nationals game on 9/4/2011
Maybe my memory is off by a spot or two but it was close enough that it made me stop in my tracks and catch myself against the car. It had been Domani's first Mets game, also one of the Mets "Labor Day" series games, part of a weekend getaway that we made a priority as Joe's health was beginning to decline. We had things we wanted to do as a family and even though the Mets were less than impressive, finishing 77-85 and 4th place in the division that year, seeing them was one of those things. Joe and I were long suffering Mets fans. But we suffered and celebrated together and it was a wonderful thing about our relationship.

For the last month and a half I've been pinching myself over this amazing Mets run and wishing more than anything else that my Joe were here to share it with me and Domani. What a year 2015 would be if he had been here cheering along with us. When I'm home watching the game, I glance at his empty recliner. When I'm at a game celebrating, I think about his aversion to high fives and how in REALLY exciting moments you could squeak one out of him. Inevitably I come across old Mets pictures of us. I think back to the best season we shared together - 2006 - and then many frustrating ones.

I drove to DC on Wednesday alone in my car with so much of that on my mind. This year has felt different to me for awhile, but it has really felt amazing for the last month and a half. That's been great, but it's also been hard. So, when I arrived at the parking lot and found myself leaning up against the car catching my breath and holding in the tears, I finally just allowed all of that to sink in. What's happening is a perfect storm for me and perhaps one more stage of grieving to move through.

With Susie before the game!
With Tom after the Mets won!
Once I arrived at Nationals Park I met up with Tom, a friend from NJ and Susie and Matt, friends from the DC area (and Nationals fans). For part of the time while Strasburg was shutting down Mets batters I was hanging out with Susie and Matt near a whole bunch of Nats fans who were acting like they had won the World Series with every out. But, Tom and I were lucky enough to be sitting with a few other Mets fans so there were plenty of high fives to go around when Strasburg gave up the game tying homerun to Kelly Johnson. Then, when Matt Williams decided to bring in Storen to replace Strasburg in the 8th we had good company for the Stooooren chant and subsequent high fives after the inevitable Cespedes homerun.

And then Familia shut it down. And there were Let's Go Mets chants in Nationals Park. And I got a little teary and thought of Joe. We lingered for a few minutes soaking in the victory and then made our way out of the stadium. Tom and I were still talking about baseball, and "I can't believe Yo" and that Rendon won the internet by actually bunting for a hit this time. Then he headed off to the Metro and I went back to my car which was parked in the very same spot where Joe and Domani and I had parked four years ago.

Mets win.

Let's Go Mets. I've got a feeling this is our year...

With Joe at the NLDS in 2006. Definitely dreaming of October baseball again....

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Getting Ready for School

When Joe was diagnosed with his colon cancer in January 2010 we had found out a few days before that I was pregnant with our first child. He went through an emergency surgery and by the time his oncologist came by to speak with us it was Friday evening. While most of the conversation seemed like the scene out of 50/50 in which Joseph Gordon Levitt's character receives his own unbelievable diagnosis, the one thing I clearly remember her telling us was to not go on the internet and start searching WebMD for survival rates. She said there were new trials every day and lots of possibilities, but of course the first thing I did once I had a moment away from Joe's bedside was to google "web md stage 4 colon cancer prognosis".

I will never forget the way my stomach dropped as I scanned to the bottom of the page - past all the treatment protocols and lingo - straight to find that at 5 years the survival rate was 10%. In my mind, I pictured our child about to start school and me being the lone parent taking the first day photo and giving the goodbye hug and kiss. It was too much to bear. When I returned to Joe's hospital bed he was asleep, but I held his hand and cried to him about how I needed him to be there for my pregnancy and the birth, and for our child's first year and first day of school and holy fuck this is all so unfair.

Now here I am over 5 years later with a soon-to-be five year old and no Joe. School is about to start and for the first time Domani will be taking part in the festivities - heading off to pre-school. It is what I feared in that hospital room more than 5 years ago. 

I can already feel the feelings. Yesterday, the little guy and I decorated our windows with some school-themed Stik-ees and today we finished putting together everything he needs from his pre-school checklist. 

Domani showing off his Stik-ees

The back door decorated
August has been a tough month. It included my and Joe's anniversary, so much work, a family vacation, and all sorts of difficult news from many corners of my life. Each of these things has brought on me their own unique emotional and spiritual weight. I didn't realize just how much until I found myself in church this morning singing "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less". By the start of the second verse I casually pulled my sunglasses down, mostly so my old lady eyes could read the words but also so the stream of tears that had started flowing would stay a little more private. 

When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace; In every high and stormy gale, My anchor holds within the veil. 
On Christ the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand, All other ground is sinking sand.
His oath, His covenant, His blood Support me in the whelming flood; When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand, All other ground is sinking sand.

Then there were parts of the message that especially sat with me. God meets us where we are but doesn't leave us there... We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses... How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? Don't be afraid to risk yourself and your deepest longings by bringing them to God... Accept what God pours back.

By the time the service was over, I felt some measure of peace - at least enough to know I will make it through this week. September is not quite as scary now (and not only because the Mets are still in first place!) And what was too much to bear five years ago is sad, but definitely manageable. 

I know that Tuesday will be both exciting and hard. Domani is more than ready. I'll probably need to tuck some extra tissues in my purse before we leave the house. But no matter what, I know that we will get through it together.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Faded...This I Feel

It doesn't happen nearly as frequently as it used to, but when the flood of grief comes it still comes with plenty of force.

Usually I can pinpoint a particular cause - it's a special day or there's an event that carries a memory - but today there was no such thing.

There was only the weight of everything and then at some point about 2/3 of the way into the 7 hour drive home from Niagara Falls I missed Joe with the ache as if it had just happened yesterday.

Deep anxiety. Hopelessness. Fear. Extreme and complete loss weighing down. It bubbled up at first and then overflowed.

He was always the proper measure of crazy and sane when it came to our Mets and God knows I could have used that after the disaster of a game today.

He always knew just the right way to direct even my deepest well of injustice-fueled rage and mine still sits within me tonight with no idea where to put it.

He challenged my mind and sharpened my soul every day, constantly pushing forward a better version of me and my heart and mind have been feeling all kinds of cloudy lately.

He made me more patient, more observant, a better listener and in his illness and death more appreciative of each of life's moments.

He kept my life ordered and complete, but also exciting and beautiful.

Tonight, as I stared down the construction traffic on Route 78 and had my good cry to Faded and Step Into the Light, I realized once again the true value of a loving relationship.

It was a realization that made me happy and sad at the same time.

Happy because the relationship I had with Joe was amazing - not always perfect or always smooth, but amazing.

And sad because I miss it. At this point, I've got my eyes and heart open in case another relationship comes my way, but I don't miss what I had with Joe enough to settle for anything less than what I know is real and inspiring. I will take these moments and memories, grab on to what I know is possible, keep believing on what may be found, and in the meantime do my thing the best I know how.