Thursday, September 28, 2017

Seasons of Love and Grief

September is already on its way out and with any luck it will take with it the summer weather that has stuck around just a bit too long. We are officially into the fall and soon enough the weather will undoubtedly catch up. Without fail, the change of season from summer to fall is a trigger for me. It was the time when Joe's health started to decline and so the fall included the last times that he, Domani, and I ventured out as a family. This year, though, the summer, too, carried its own weight so as the calendar turned to September and I felt the usual stirrings, I also felt myself finally starting to process the months that had come before.

I have realized several helpful things.

One - Loss and grief are unpredictable and can never be packed up in a neat box. In many ways, I have born witness to the pain of loss and grief in the lives of my friends and family over the past several months. In my own home, I continue to engage with my son as he works to process his dad's death. The quote that keeps coming back to me is one of my favorites from Anne Lamott.


I am thankful for the ways that I have moved from mourning to joy in my own life even in the midst of additional losses and the distinct pain that comes with them. I am also glad that I have learned enough about myself and the ways I grieve that I can do it with patience and find the strength through my faith to be there for others who are experiencing a loss. 

Two - There are some people who are in our lives for just a season and that is perfectly fine. It's important to soak up all of the good from that time, learn lessons where applicable, and let go when the time is right. It was true for me in more than one way over the last few months and the letting go has opened itself up to more good than I could have thought possible in even this short time - new people, new experiences, personal growth, deeper relationships - in a word, it's been healthy. It makes me think back to the biggest example of this in my life so far - when I finally accepted the end of a toxic relationship only to open the door to reuniting with Joe. Expending energy on pieces of life that are better let go keeps that energy from all of those other healthier places. I'm relieved that I was able to leave behind the toxicity all of those years ago and to once again accept when the season called for change and the redirection of my energy now.



Three - Although a week plus at Disney World certainly tested the boundaries, I could not be more thankful for my family. All 10 of us took on Orlando for our family vacation this year and it was not lost on me how lucky I am to have a family I can enjoy myself with for that long in such a high stress environment.

While we were there, I watched my super-mom sister Karen navigate her 3 children all under the age of 7 around 8 days of Disney World, ensuring that they saw and did each thing they wanted to do. It was nothing short of miraculous and we have over 700 official Disney pictures to prove it. 

I watched my dad tear up as he witnessed his grandkids getting hugs from princesses and then laugh with joy while getting his own photo with Chewbacca. It was not too long ago that my dad couldn't even walk around the floor during his hospital stay let alone spend 6 days walking around Disney World. At that realization, I was the one with tears in my eyes. We had serious life conversations late into the night while lounging in the hot tub, played insanely competitive poker games wagering whatever random things were lying around the dining room, and covered more miles than I can count making memories that will last a lifetime.

A very happy Dad making friends with Chewbacca

I've always known that my family is something special. After all, not only can I survive a week at Disney World with them, but they inspire me, encourage me, hold me accountable, and love me unconditionally. But there has been something about these past few months that has made me realize on a deeper level just how fortunate I am to have such a close-knit, loving family in my life. They are a lifeline and God knows I need that right now more than I ever have before.

The whole family with Chewbacca

Heading out to the field to run the bases
 after our last game of the year!
Four - Baseball is still my oasis even when the Mets are awful. Whether it was Citifield, Citizens Bank Park, or PNC Park, taking in a Major League Baseball game this summer was one foolproof way to calm my nerves and reset anything else in my life that seemed off kilter. Now, the standings don't lie. This was a tough season to be a Mets fan. The injuries. The drama. The "trades". The losses after losses after losses. My Neil Walker shirt still teases me every time I flip through my closet. Domani's Lucas Duda growth chart stares at us from the wall each night when I put him to bed - a bed that has a Curtis Granderson fathead within reach in one direction and a Thor news article in the other. This season with its high expectations that came crashing down has felt like a million tiny papercuts that never stopped coming.





Waiting out a rain delay, finding some hope in a rainbow
Yet even on our worst days this season when it was nearly impossible to find a "fan" with a good word to say, I still had the privilege of enjoying baseball with my son. We did it for 20+ games between NYC and Philadelphia and because I never know when that privilege may be taken from us, I will never take it for granted. Domani is a smart and enthusiastic baseball fan. He studies statistics, watches replays, and now knows more about the Mets roster than I do. He cheers for his Mets in any and all circumstances. It is a pleasure going to games with him.

This season he decided that he wanted to choose an American League team to cheer for as well. To make his decision, he studied. He spent many weeks following statistics and standings, reading about players, and checking out replays from games. About two months ago, he chose the Twins. (There was, admittedly, quite a bit of lobbying from my co-worker Mr. Seth, although this only served to make Domani resistant initially.) I guess the good news now is that at least one of us has a team to cheer on into October. It also doesn't hurt my "Ya Gotta Believe" optimism that Mr. Seth's Twins finished last year with 103 losses, even worse than our Mets this year. Tonight, I watched them celebrate clinching a Wild Card spot. You never know what can happen in a year.

Showing off his Twins hat and batting stance
Five - When I think I can't, I still can. A running lesson re-learned. While I was training for the Philly Marathon in 2014 in hopes of qualifying for Boston I learned a lesson on a particularly tough 10 mile run that powered me through to qualifying then and still stays with me - "When I think I can't, I can." The problem is that recently I have been talking myself out of it in a hundred different circumstances. This past month I decided that no matter what I would not let that happen.

Earlier this year I had signed up for the Newport Jersey City Half Marathon because it was a package deal with the Newport 10k. I fully intended on doing some training for it, but I didn't. I have no good reason for not training. I just didn't. Even so, I am still in decent running shape and my doctor assured me the week before the race at my annual physical that all systems were go. So, I decided my mantra would be "when I think I can't, I can" and even though an Afghan Whigs show the night before got me into my Jersey City hotel at 3am I was at the start line and ready to go by the 8:30am gun time.

Mid-race selfie with the Statue of Liberty
It was my slowest half marathon ever. Slower than the first one I ran in Miami Beach for my birthday. Slower than the Disney World one when I stopped and took photos with characters. Slower than my slowest by over 5 minutes. But I felt so good about it. I hadn't run the distance in a year so completing the race at a steady pace left me feeling powerful again. I'm claiming it as a personal victory because that is exactly how it felt - a beautiful reminder that when I think I can't, I still can. I feel like it's a mantra I can start carrying again in my life and one that I can allow to seep in much deeper than just for running.

Six - Music is still my best medicine and concerts my ultimate church. All summer long I had been looking forward to the fall for one big reason - all of the concerts. Starting with The Afghan Whigs in September and ending with Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, I spent the summer listening to music and longing for my opportunity once again to hear it all live.

Brooklyn Steel. 9/16/17


The Afghan Whigs shows did not disappoint. Three shows, each of them unique. So many of my friends there with me. Music that stirred up all of the feelings. A meet and greet with special merch in Philly. The performance in its entirety of In Spades at The Bowery Ballroom. Front and center with some of my most favorite people for a rock your face off set at Brooklyn Steel. Remembering Dave Rosser with love alongside others who got it.


With Malinda. Philly. 9/12/17

Into The Floor. Philly. Viva La Rosser. 9/12/17

Live Afghan Whigs shows can keep me going for weeks except that this time my music high was interrupted by some shitty news. I couldn't even process it when I saw that Charles Bradley had died. I thought back to when I first saw him in September 2012 at ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror Festival in New York City. I stood near Greg Dulli watching him perform one of the most exciting sets I had ever heard. I remembered October 2014 when I saw him open for The Afghan Whigs at The Beacon Theatre. He was my favorite part of that show and by that point I knew the words to almost all of his songs I had listened to him so much. His music changed me that night and continues to change me as I listen to it today. It's almost as if I have little personal revelations whenever I listen to his songs. Before his cancer came back he had returned to touring and was scheduled to play at Voodoo Fest in October. His name on the lineup was one of the reasons I so wanted to be there. I'm going to miss the Screaming Eagle of Soul, but am so thankful that I can continue singing along with my decidedly worse voice to his soul-shaking music.


EPILOGUE - Over the past few days as I have been writing this post, Domani has taken an interest in having me read to him from this blog. It's a little overwhelming. It started out one night when he was feeling sad about missing his dad and wanted to hear some stories about him. Having already read him the many photo books we have multiple times, I got the idea to offer him something a little different. So, I pulled up a post from 5 years ago that had come up in my Facebook memories and I read it to him. We laughed and cried together. At several points I stopped and asked him if he wanted me to continue reading, which he did. We finished that first post and he wanted me to read more. The following night, he again wanted to hear one of the "poems" I wrote about his daddy. We read the post I wrote on the first anniversary of Joe's death. He especially loved the photos and the parts of the post that mentioned him. He told me when we were done that he wants me to keep reading to him about his daddy. Reading those posts to him was an incredibly bonding experience. I'm looking forward to more of it as he is ready.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Grief and Baseball and Running

I woke up last Wednesday morning still sleepy and reached for my phone, looking forward to yet another sunny day at the Jersey shore. There was plenty of stress brewing back at work and my body was feeling ragged, but at least I was on vacation. I was away with my little guy and he was with his cousins. We had books to read, salty air to breathe, and the ocean to play in.

Before starting my day, as I do most mornings, I wandered between Twitter and Facebook to see what was new with friends and family and the world around me. What was new was grief. 

GRIEF PART ONE

First it was one random post. Then another. And then a flood. Until finally, it was the only thing in my timeline. Dave Rosser had died. Dave Rosser, who not only played guitar with The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins, but also with The Afghan Whigs. Dave Rosser, who was not only an insanely talented musician, but a remarkable human being. Dave Rosser, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in October.

With Dave Rosser before the October 5, 2012
show at Terminal 5 in NYC

Talk about ripping a bandage off an old wound. Our favorite music. That same pesky fucking disease. Even right down to them both playing the guitar. These moments don't happen anywhere near as often now - almost 6 years since Joe died - but when they do, it's a bitch. It was a day of not knowing what to do with myself. 

By that point in the week I was finishing up a book called Baseball Life Advice by Stacey May Fowles and starting a book called The Long Run by Catriona Menzies-Pike. If not for the insight from these two books this week I might have found myself today in a messy heap on my bedroom floor. More on the rest of the week in a bit.

BASEBALL LIFE ADVICE

Baseball Life Advice was one of those books that had me alternating between talking out loud to the author as if she's my BFF, crying behind my sunglasses, and trying to downplay my obnoxious guffaws. My reading of it seemed to be timed perfectly with what was unfolding in my life. So it goes sometimes in what I like to think of as these miracle moments because when I chose this book for my vacation reading I obviously had no idea what would be brewing.

It only took me the first chapter to know that Ms. Fowles is "my people". It's there where she explains her deep affection for baseball with prose that had me wiping away tears and carrying on whole conversations with the text. Except for a few details, I could have written many of the words myself and that was incredibly comforting.

In one section she writes, "Baseball became "my thing," and its stadiums my church, a place to pray in times of hopelessness, the source of a solace I couldn't find elsewhere. I never feel more human, or more sane, than I do inside a ballpark." 

And I thought, "Yes, yes, YES!" 

Baseball has been my medicine since Joe died. Going to games with my son. Going to games with friends. Being alone at games. There is both communion and medicine for me at the ballpark. The crack of the bat. The taste of a pretzel and a cold beer. The isolated cheers that grow to fill the stadium. A stolen base. The predictability of the 7th inning stretch. The crowd on its feet for that final strike. The deafening roar at a game-winning homer. Knowing that more often than not my Mets will break my heart and that will remind me of life too...because that is what's real. 

Ms. Fowles includes in her book a quote from Roger Angell's book The Summer Game which has stuck with me all week.

"This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us."

Truth be told, I've been feeling very "Met" recently. And not the 2015 postseason-bound Mets or the 1986 World Series Champion Mets or the 1969 Miracle Mets. I've been feeling a lot like the "now" Mets and it seems like every time I turn around there is a new thing in my way. This year the Mets seem to have injury upon injury and I just seem to be accumulating life stuff. 

I wasn't going to get to a ballpark until Saturday, but thankfully we filled in the gap with some baseball on the beach with the kids. It was my son's favorite part of vacation and for sure one of the most tender times for me to both watch and join. It was impossible to do without envisioning how Joe would have fit into the mix. I guess these things were on my little guy's mind too.


GRIEF PART TWO

It was two days after the news of Dave Rosser's death when he approached me on the beach looking sad. He cuddled right up to me and wanted to have his beach towel wrapped around him. Once he was comfortable I asked him what he was thinking and if he was ok. I don't think I'll ever forget what he said to me.

He told me that he wants to be a baby again. When I asked what he meant he said that he wants to stop his life where it is and start it over again because he misses his daddy. If the news of Dave Rosser's death was like ripping a bandage off an old wound, these words from my 6 year old were like that scene from Temple of Doom where the beating heart is ripped out of the guy's chest. I couldn't even catch my breath as I processed what it meant for him to think this deeply about his loss and how much he wants to have his dad here with him.

I do everything I can to surround him with love and help him grow, but I cannot give him his father back. I can grieve with him (which I did) and I can share stories with him (which I did), but there is this space in his life which Joe occupies that I just cannot fill for him. I am realizing more and more that he is on a grief journey too. He certainly will rely on many of the people around him to love and support him, but in the end it will be his journey.

RUNNING

There were many lovely things about Catriona Menzies-Pike book, not the least of which being that it kept encouraging me to run while I was reading it - encouragement which has not been easy to come by for me of late given some seemingly endless health challenges. The most important part to me though was a section at the end because it captured my own feelings towards running while also reminding me to be gentle with myself through all that life throws my way.

"I might not have become a champion, but I've become a runner, and somewhere along the way I stopped raging about what my life might have been like if that plane hadn't crashed. That's a life that I can now see has been plotted by surprises: including both an horrific airplane crash and the discovery of contentment in running. I've been fit enough to run marathons and, in between, I have slowed down and sped up again, delighted by my body's capacity for renewal. There are many limits to my progress as a runner: some of them lie within me, some are beyond my control. Instead of trying to master the contingencies, I just live with them."

If there is one thing that I have learned in my years of running since Joe died it's that so much running advice is also good life advice. So, perhaps for me right now life calls for a little less of trying to master the contingencies and a little more trying to live with them.

Last night, the little guy and I were back at the ballpark and for good measure I went in my Viva La Rosser shirt. It just felt right.

With my son at the Trenton Thunder game
July 4, 2017

(I encourage you to check out both books... Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me by Stacey May Fowles and The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion by Catriona Menzies-Pike)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Trainspotting Redux: Choose Life

Today my husband Joe would have turned 42.  Instead, it is the sixth time his birthday will pass without him here. Even six years later there is still a sharp tug each year when the month changes to April and I still have a cry when I wake up on the 4th unable to wish him a happy birthday. It's just one of those days where inevitably grief weighs in.

It also happens to be one of those days that has come with a life lesson for me.

In 2011, when he celebrated his 36th birthday I was in Bangor, Maine on an assignment for work. We had discussed it when I was first told about the trip, but since neither of us were in the habit of making a big deal out of our birthdays unless it was a "big year" we figured I might as well just go. I have no idea if he quietly hoped I would refuse the trip and stay, but my own mind was just not there. I was overwhelmed with my workload and a 6-month old and a husband undergoing chemo treatments. I wasn't thinking about life. I was just trying to do it.

Besides, he was doing well. If you looked at him at that time you wouldn't have even known he had cancer. We both thought he had plenty of birthdays left. But the thing I know now is that April 4, 2011 when things seemed to be going ok and when he seemed to still have plenty of birthdays ahead of him was exactly the moment that I should have made celebrating his a priority.

I knew it before I even returned home from that trip. Before his health started to decline that fall. Before he died in December. It's one of those moments that continues to define choices I make today and for that I am thankful.

It meant some incredibly special moments with Joe and Domani in the months that followed (and some other less important things that fell to the side). It has meant not only fun birthday celebrations with family and friends, but also the seizing of countless everyday moments. It has also meant learning how to say no to the things that would steal away the opportunities for those moments whenever it is necessary.

In our home we celebrated Joe's birthday today. I took off from work and went to watch T2: Trainspotting. Twenty one years ago this August Joe and I went to see the original Trainspotting on our first date. It seemed fitting to spend his birthday seeing what Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie are up to now. On the way home from the movie, I had a great visit with a friend from high school and finally got to meet his lovely wife. Visiting with them left me marveling again at the beautiful simplicity of mutual love and the truly meaningful aspects of the work I do - both valuable reminders to me right about now. 

When I picked up Domani, the two of us spent some time looking through old photo books and talking about his dad. Then, I bought Domani a small gift in honor of Joe's birthday and we met up with one of Joe's best friends for dinner at our favorite Mexican place. Our dinner plans were Domani's choice for Daddy's birthday. 

Being away for Joe's birthday in 2011 is a regret that I learned from and so I no longer regret it. My life has undoubtedly been richer because of the choices I've made since then.

I wish I could remember the whole new "choose life" monologue from the movie today. But this part certainly applies...

"Choose the ones you love.
Choose your future.
Choose life."

Getting ready to head in for dinner tonight.