Monday, December 31, 2018

Ferraro Foods and Don't Stop Believin'

When Joe and I started dating again in 2005 he was working at Ferraro Foods in Piscataway, NJ. He worked an overnight shift doing IT work. The first time we saw each other after several years was at the Dunkin Donuts near where he worked while he was on his "lunch" break. I don't remember exactly what time we met up, but my sister Karen and I were on our way home from line dancing at the Colorado Cafe so I'm sure it was midnight or later. It was good to see Joe and it wasn't long before we were dating again. We started where we were, with all that had happened in the time in between, and just kept building.

His overnight shift at Ferraro Foods defined much of our early relationship as we had to juggle when we would see each other around his work and sleep schedule which were the opposite of my own. We managed it well enough and after about a year he had landed a new job with a more traditional Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm schedule. Even still, in my mind, Joe was connected with Ferraro Foods, and that place to me was a reminder of what it meant to start where you are and keep moving. That place was a part of the story of our re-kindled relationship and even then seeing any reference to the company would give me a little flutter of hope.

After he died, it was even more pronounced. I began noticing trucks with Ferraro Foods emblazoned across the side or a strategically-placed package of food with their logo at times when I most needed some encouragement. Just like how I feel about the song Don't Stop Believin', seeing something with Ferraro Foods became a little hello from Joe.

December has been a tough month. It now starts off with the anniversary of Joe's death on the 5th and this year concluded with my Dad in the hospital. He spent his birthday there as well as Christmas and now will be there for New Year's too. In the midst of the hard though, I have gotten little hellos from Joe at just the right times. There have been many moments, but the big one came on Dad's birthday. I was driving up to work, approaching the Turnpike exit for the hospital, and I started feeling overwhelmed with sadness. I glanced over to the truck lanes only to see that familiar Ferraro Foods truck right there, moving at the same pace. I almost couldn't believe it. But I had to because at just that moment, as if I had planned it myself, "Don't Stop Believin'" came on the random shuffle. Random. But not really.

I am thankful when signs like these pop into my life. They reassure me that I am not alone and that there is a reason to hold out hope. Thirteen years ago when Joe and I started dating again I had no idea how things would turn out for us. But there was the hope of something new and meaningful, which was exactly what we both needed. That hope is what I will carry with me into 2019, knowing that to get to where I want to be I must first start where I am.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

God Is Present: Reflections on Who Is God When We Hurt

I've been reading a lot lately. I made a decision a few months ago to always have a book that I'm reading and to carry it around with me in my giant mom bag. As a result, I've read a lot of books and have spent plenty of time digesting what they mean for me. Also as a result, I have become a collector of books I want to read and now have a stack of them still to be read by my bed. Never do I finish one without having the next lined up. Over the past month, I've read some great ones including Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, The Happiness Project, The Magic of Thinking Big and most recently Who Is God When We Hurt?

Who Is God...was a special one and I couldn't wait to dig in. There's just something about seeing the smiling face of someone you know and love in the author spot that sends the act of sitting down to read a book over the top. That was all kinds of true with this one written by Beth Scibienski.

When I finally looked at the finished copy of Who Is God When We Hurt? A Pastor-Caregiver wrestles with loss, grief, faith, & doubt I remember thinking...Oh, this is something I know a lot about. Perhaps even everything there is to know. I did, after all, care for a cancer patient and a newborn at the same time - my husband of one and a half years and our newborn to be precise. If I'm honest, somewhere in my mind as I first sat down to read Beth's book I was thinking "I could have written this book myself."

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Almost instantly I found that, as a pastor, Beth brings a unique perspective to her journey as a caregiver. Not only does she bring a unique perspective, but she does it in a way that allowed me, as the reader, to both enter into her journey and reflect on my own. From the first chapter on wedding vows to the epilogue wrestling with "lasts", it resonated. There was much head nodding and "Mmm-hmmms" as I made my way through the book, but it was not a re-telling of my own story. And I think that is what brought me the most comfort. 

Since my own experience with caregiving and grief, I have noticed a strong desire on my part when speaking with those also in the midst of caregiving and grief to look for the similarities I have with that person and to immediately latch on to them. Recently, I have been noticing more my own tendency to briefly listen to someone else's loss and then immediately jump in to talking about my own and what I may find to be similar. 

It makes sense. We are all searching for connection and validation and in some ways it is more comfortable to talk about our own experiences than to sit with someone else through theirs. But what I have come to notice, especially over the last few months, is that the longer I listen and hold back from jumping in to my own story right away, the more likely it is that two beautiful things will happen - I learn more about my own caregiving and grief journey and I allow for a much deeper connection with the person to whom I am speaking.

Certainly, there were places and spaces where I saw my own caregiving and grief journey reflected in Beth's writing, but what I valued most was the ability to "listen" to someone else's unique story and insights without the temptation to interrupt the flow with my own. In the end, it meant that I felt her story and all that surrounded it in a powerful way, which in turn meant I could think in ways I had not previously about my own journey and how I relate to those around me who are also struggling.

Beth was the pastor present with us the night before my husband died. She shares about it in a chapter in this book, but even as I read that section I didn't know it all. I couldn't have written it in the same way and that, I think, is a beautiful thing. She ends that chapter by referring to a plaque in her office with words that have been circling around in my head and heart since I read them in this book. It was the power that I experienced that night before Joe died, but expressed in a way that helped me understand it on a new level:

"Bidden or not, God is present. Called or not, God is present. Summoned or not summoned, God is present. Invoked or not invoked, God is present. For us, holding hands in a circle around Joe's bed, with the Giants playing in the background, God was with us."

I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to step in to Beth's wrestling match with loss, grief, faith, and doubt through this book. And unlike the last few books I've read after which I've immediately dived into the next one, I find myself lingering with this one a bit. And I think that's just fine.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Soaring Victories, Crushing Defeats, Goodbyes, and New Beginnings

I own two David Wright jerseys. He is my favorite Mets player and both jerseys were gifts from Joe. Wearing them and even looking at them since he died has been overwhelmingly bittersweet. I have no idea which one of them I will wear today as my son, sister, and I go to Wright's last game, but I know putting it on will pack a punch. 

In a lot of ways those jerseys carry the story of us. So many games together where I wore one or the other. So many baseball moments for us as a couple over the years and the one consistency on our Mets was Wright. There were lots of games in 2006, the year I got Joe a ticket pack halfway through the season as an anniversary gift. We even got to be at the first game of the Division Series that year, an experience that yielded a Mets win and my favorite photo ever of us.

I still remember taking photos of the TV in my living room as the Mets celebrated winning the NL East that year, burning forever into my memory images of Wright and Reyes celebrating together. Joe made fun of me for doing it and I thought of him when I did the same thing after Santana's no-hitter and the 2015 NL East-clinching game.

In 2007 and 2008, David Wright won both the Silver Slugger Award and a Gold Glove. Joe and I got engaged and married. We never stopped going to games and cheering on our Mets. We went to one final game at Shea together on closing weekend in 2008 and watched with some tears from home as Mike Piazza and Tom Seaver walked off the field. Baseball was life - with its soaring victories and crushing defeats, new beginnings and goodbyes.

We, of course, made our way to Citifield in 2009 - Joe with his Johan Santana jersey and me still with my David Wright gear. In May of that year we also traveled to Boston to see our Mets take on the Red Sox. Even though the Mets' record was awful, it was a good year.

Then, in January 2010 came our own crushing defeat paired with a new beginning. In a matter of one week, we got the news of Joe's stage 4 cancer and a positive pregnancy test. Baseball was one of the things that saved us that year. Being able to go watch Wright play and Santana pitch complete with our soon-to-be Mets fan son was a bright spot in the midst of a tough year.

Since Joe's death in December 2011, baseball has been life-saving for me. I go to games with my little guy and we acknowledge his Dad's part in that even though he isn't physically here. It may be remembering how at his first game at Citifield his Dad bought him a Mr. Met doll or how he fell asleep in his Dad's lap at Nationals Park at his first Mets game ever. I tell him about his dad's favorite players and how he hated to high five. And I teach him about the game, something I'm sure his dad would have loved to do, but I will not have go undone in his absence.

My son and I went to Opening Day at Citifield on April 5, 2012 with one of my good friends. It was 4 months since Joe had died and the day after his birthday. In that game, Santana pitched 5 scoreless innings and David Wright went 2-3 with a walk. The Mets won 1-0. It was my first time at Citifield since Joe died - a goodbye and a new beginning. It was a day with, as I like to say, "all of the feelings", but I left feeling thankful for this sport and this team that has taught me to believe even when the odds seem so long.

This morning I watched a clip from an interview Wright did recently with Steve Gelbs and in it he said so much of what I've been thinking over the last 7 years since Joe died. 

"This is adversity in the baseball world. This means nothing in the real world. In the real world, people go through real adversity. But even using baseball as an example. Fight. Just fight. Keep fighting." -David Wright

I am inspired by Wright. Just like in the real world, in the baseball world things don't always go the way we want them to go, but Wright's observation in this interview that when the results don't go the way you want them to don't let it be because you didn't work hard enough or want it bad enough resonates. I see in him someone who was dealt a painful detour in life, but persevered with hope. For years, he dealt with the effects of his spinal stenosis and surgery after surgery, all while working to come back to major league baseball. When I heard him talk about it over these last few years, I saw in him not only the heartbreak and humility of a setback, but also the hope and determination of a comeback. Those are the things that make us human and they are also the things that make us great.

No matter what happens today (or which Wright jersey I decide to wear), that is what I will take from this moment of David Wright's last start at Citifield and my own journey forward through grief. I know Joe will be there with us as Domani and I take in this amazin' moment at Citifield and that makes me feel all of the feelings.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

One of Those Days

It's been quite a year. As I sit here in the wee hours of August 16th on what would have been my 10th wedding anniversary with Joe I can't help but think about all of the things that have already been packed into this year - and how they would have been different if he were still here by my side.

Our Wedding Day - August 16, 2008

I imagine what it would have been like to have his support in January when my Dad went into the hospital and during each of those times that followed when the news seemed to be scarier than the last. I think back to the sleepless nights and countless trips back and forth to New Brunswick and remember how desperately I just wanted to be able to fall into his arms with whatever downtime I had. While I am thankful for our tight knit family and my incredibly supportive friends I know that it was measurably harder to be on that roller coaster of concern without him.

I think about the day in February while my Dad was still in the hospital when my mom called me on my way to church to let me know she had been in a car accident. I remember what it was like to pull up to the scene of the crash only to see her being put into the back of an ambulance. Once I was on my way to the hospital to meet her at the ER, I remember the overwhelming urge to just grab my phone and call Joe. But his number has been disconnected for years so all I could do was talk to the air through my tears. It's been over 6 years since I've been able to pick up the phone to call my husband and talking to the air is just one of the ways I work shit out in this life after Joe.

He was always my calm when I was on the high seas and there have been many times this year when his patient way and gentle touch would have made my path easier. Even now almost 7 years later and even though I have learned in some ways and at some times to emulate his patience and calm, there is still a certain emptiness that comes when I am faced with these moments. He's not here and so sometimes I stay on the high seas. Sometimes there are others who help. Sometimes I go for a run. And sometimes I talk to the air.

This year I turned 40. I never imagined I would do that without Joe. I suspect that if he were here the celebration with friends and family would have taken a slightly different form. He likely would not have planned a brunch where people run a collective total of 40+ miles together before eating and drinking. But given that running has proven to be one of the most powerful outlets for my grief over these past six years, it only made sense to me that my friends and family would join me to "run in" my 40th birthday. Six of us gathered early that morning to run a 6ish mile loop through my neighborhood and then the rest of the crowd joined up to run a mile (or two if you got stuck running in the pack with me) in the park near my house. A few friends and family members got a pass on all the physical activity in order to get the food and drinks ready while we ran.
The 6 mile 40th Birthday Crew

We covered well over 40 miles and I felt so much love that day. The icing on the cake (of which there was a homemade Mets one from a friend in my running club) was that both of my parents were able to join us for the festivities. After all that they had been through during the first two months of the year, that was really all the birthday present I needed.

Not long after my birthday, there came a big day in the life of Anne. On March 22, I was appointed to my local Board of Education and then later I was honored with a Power of Women in the Labor Movement Award. It was a special night and I am thankful that I had my son as my date to the Awards dinner and plenty of friends there along with my parents. But I realize more and more as the years go on without Joe that it's when I return home after these kinds of nights that I miss him the most. It is those times when I'm either on top of the world or feeling lower than dirt that I just want to be with someone who gets me in the context of the whole back story of me. He certainly did that in a unique way and I miss it.

With Mom, Dad, and the Little Guy at the Awards Dinner

On March 29, it was Opening Day for our beloved NY Mets so Domani and I went as we always do to officially welcome in the baseball season. It has become a tradition for us since Joe died, something we do to spend time together and to be in a place that reminds us of Joe. A reporter started talking to us while we were waiting to get Domani's Kid's Club passport stamped and we ended up on the CBS 5 o'clock news during a segment on Opening Day at Citifield. We talked about Joe and how we go to Opening Day to keep his memory alive. It was a beautiful segment, complete with Domani spinning the prize wheel (just like we always do) and winning a t-shirt on camera. I remember getting home that night, falling into bed, and marveling at the twists and turns that had brought my son and I to that point in our lives. That news segment coming on Opening Day for our Mets at a point in my life when so many other things were feeling hard felt like a little hug from Joe. It's a hug that I feel like I've gotten many times throughout this year in many different ways and for that I am thankful.

Screenshot from the CBS news segment

One thing that I suspect I would not have gotten myself into this year had Joe still been alive is the crazy Spartan Beast race I did in celebration of my 40th birthday. My guess is that we would have taken a fabulous trip somewhere instead. But since I was the one doing the planning, it was off to Mountain Creek for me. I have done a lot of races since I started running in 2012, but none as physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging as the 13+ miles and 30+ obstacles of the Spartan Beast race. I feared that I was doomed from the beginning when I couldn't even hoist myself over the wall to get into the start corral. Thankfully, a kind soul gave me a boost and with some perfectly timed pump up music before our start I hit the race course determined to put it behind me. When I came upon the same wall within the first few obstacles I almost froze in my path. Instead, I found something deep within me and just went for it. I lifted myself right over on the first try and then promptly shouted "HOLY SHIT I DID IT!" over and over again. It felt awesome. 

I had the "HOLY SHIT I DID IT" moment again with the "Bender" obstacle. By that point I had already done penalty burpees on the Tyrolean Traverse and I had no interest in doing more. In my mind I was going to do everything possible to get by that Bender obstacle without subjecting myself to another set of that misery masquerading as exercise they call burpees. A woman who I had been chatting and racing with through a couple of obstacles helped make sure I secured myself along the first rung of the Bender and then I started working my way up and over with some other racers on the ground giving direction as to how to maneuver myself. I am certain this obstacle is where I racked up most of the bruises on my body as I both clung tightly so as not to fall and pushed through many awkward and painful positions to get myself over the obstacle. Once I was finally over and safely on the ground, I almost cried. And that was only a third of the way through the race.

There were so many things in that race that I thought I could never do which I did. Carry this huge stone. Climb over this wall. Crawl under this barbed wire. Keep going up and down this mountain all day long. Go under this dunk wall. Carry this bucket with rocks along this path. Burpees. Burpees. And more burpees. Carry this sandbag down this hill and back up again. Penalty hike up this mountain for missing the spearthrow. And this one for falling off the Twister. Keep going through the pouring rain and in the thunder and lightning as they close the course while you are less than a mile from the end and then wait to hear if the race officials will even let you finish. By the time it was over I was soaking wet, bruised, bloody, and happier than I had been in a very long time. 
Bucket Brigade and my race in a nutshell

It took me weeks to recover, but it only took me hours to decide that I would be finishing the other two (shorter) length Spartan races this year in order to complete my Trifecta. I've got my eye on conquering Mountain Creek again in October and I plan on doing way fewer burpees this time around.

This year I also opened the last gift I ever received from Joe. Music was always one of the things that kept Joe and I connected. We loved going to shows together, listening to music at home or in the car, and learning new things about our favorite artists. Joe always seemed to be the guy who knew everything about everything when it came to music. It should come as no surprise then that, unbeknownst to me, he had pre-ordered a CD recording of the NYC show for the Greg Dulli tour we saw in Philly in 2010. That Philly show was the last one we saw together. We had tickets for the one in NYC too, but between having a baby at home and Joe not feeling 100% we decided that one show would have to be enough. 

The CD arrived about a month and a half after Joe died and although I had opened the envelope (which was addressed to him) I had left the CD in its packaging. Until this year. So, in May, on the day that was 7 years from our last show together, I opened it. Listening to that album was one of the greatest moments of catharsis I've had in awhile. It became a special part of my year and I keep the CD in my car for those times when I want to have some moments with him where I'm doing more than just talking to the air.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Memories of His Dad - A Box for Domani

Tonight my heart is full. I just finished putting together a Father's Day gift for Domani that has been more than a month in the making. Friends and family have been sending me photos and written memories of his dad in order to create a memory box for him to keep and I couldn't be more excited to give it to him. This past year as Domani has been attending his peer grief support group he has become more and more interested in hearing stories about his dad so it seemed like perfect timing to pull together a gift that would do just that.

When Domani is thinking about his dad or on special days like Joe's birthday, he loves looking at old Shutterfly photo albums and the two "Daddy and Me" board books I made for Father's Day (one for Joe in 2011 and one for Domani in 2016). He has gone through those albums and books so many times over the past year especially that he almost has them memorized. I realized that it was clearly time to expand his "Joe library". We started to do that over the holidays with some family members writing down memories and a few including photos too, but I could tell that as we moved past Mother's Day and towards Father's Day there was a need to do something meaningful for him. He was looking for ways to connect to who his Dad was.

I know as his mom that I will never be able to fill the void that was left when his Dad died. There will be moments when he feels cutting pain and sometimes those moments will come in the midst of really wonderful things. There will be times that he is caught off guard by his grief - like tonight when he was asked by a well-meaning acquaintance what he had gotten his dad for Father's Day. There will be times when all he wants to do is rail against how unfair it all feels. 

I know some of those things as a woman who has lost her spouse. I do not know them as a child who has lost a parent. So I do what I can to support my son. Just after Mother's Day, I made the difficult ask of friends and family to go through photos and write about their memories of our beloved Joe. I know it wasn't easy. I did it myself and for as many times as I have already cried looking at our photos from our 2010 tour of Citifield there were still a few more tears left. But things are not easy for my little guy either and I know that having these stories will be such a gift for him as he grieves his dad.

I think I received memories by every method you could imagine, with the exception of fax and carrier pigeon. The flood of Joe stories and the diversity of people who shared them were truly special. As the memories came through, I was struck most by all of the love - the love in the stories, the love in the time and emotional effort it took to tell them, and the love of those who are continuing to be in community with Domani and me through so much of life's hard stuff. 

This is a beautiful box because it is full of love and I am sure we will be adding "Joe stories" to it for Domani for many years to come. This truly one of those moments in life where pain and joy can co-exist. Father's Day is hard in our house, but my heart is full and I am thankful.

I leave you with a quote I came across in a book I'm reading that has been life-changing for me this last month.

"In the end, nothing we do or say in this lifetime will matter as much as the ways we have loved one another." -Daphne Rose Kingma as quoted in The Happiness Makeover by M.J. Ryan

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Happy Birthday to Me...Without Him (the reprise)

It hit me all at once while I was out to lunch with one of my best friends last Wednesday. I'm turning 40 in less than 2 months and I have a lot of feelings about it. The only thing is they have so little to do with getting older. Sure, I am catching myself wondering from time to time why I can't seem to remember things quite the way I used to and I am noticing an increasing number of aches and pains setting in. But what I've been feeling is bigger than dreading a few "over the hill" balloons and banners and an aversion to the getting old jokes constantly thrown at me from younger friends and family members. 

This was a troubling to my spirit that had started bubbling up more and more each time a conversation turned to what I wanted to do for my birthday this year. It's not that I hadn't thought about it. Maybe I wanted to go on a cruise with my sister or down to Port St. Lucie for Mets Spring Training or perhaps I wanted to throw myself a big party. Each time I would contemplate any of these things (or others) I started feeling outside myself. Then disoriented. Then tight. Then sad. 

At first I did write it off to the typical emotions that must come with approaching a milestone birthday, but the more I started really examining what was happening the more I knew it was different. And then, for some reason, what I had started to talk about in bits and pieces at a grief group the week before all became clear for me that Wednesday afternoon over my portobello mushroom sandwich at the Mill Hill Saloon. Because what I wanted more than anything was for Joe to be able to answer those 40th birthday questions with me (or perhaps even for me) and for me to have been able to do the same for him 3 years ago when it should have been his 40th. Missing these milestones with each other is exactly what has been gnawing at me. It has been that uncomfortable chunk sitting in the back corner of my brain and it has been that unsettled part of my heart.

It's another one of those times when grief, even though far removed by years, has snuck back into my life for one more bite at the apple.

I started this blog with a post I wrote on the first birthday I celebrated without Joe. Our respective birthdays continue to be heavy days for me because even without him here physically, they are markers. There always remains the question of what will I do (or not do) on those days and there are always the what ifs that play in my mind. The one thing I have come to realize, though, is that ignoring the day never seems to work. Some years have been better than others, but always he is there in some way.

The Wednesday lunch cry was helpful. It led my friend and I to a discussion about ideas for what I actually wanted to do for my birthday this year (a run with friends and family and perhaps a small birthday dinner) and it freed me to set aside those things which I actually did not want to do (the trips and big parties I would have to plan). We are still talking and planning, but I am confident we will figure something out - even if it means scrapping all the "plans" the day before and doing something completely different.

The cry also provided me the final kick in the ass I needed to do something for myself.

I had been waffling about signing up for my first Spartan race for some time, feeling like I needed a new physical and mental challenge to welcome in my 40th year, but also feeling beaten down about my ability to actually do it. The cleansing tears and conversation with my friend were just the push I needed to sign up. During that lunch break, I finally committed to the race and to the training. Before I was back from my lunch break I had the race confirmation in my email. So, at the end of April I'll be taking on my biggest racing challenge yet - 12+ miles up a mountain with obstacles thrown in. I have my work cut out for me, but as my friend pointed out...this is exactly the kind of thing I thrive on. 

And it is exactly what I need.

So, a big thank you to Julia. Now, for better or for worse, I have one big piece of my 40th year already coming together and I couldn't be more terrified...I mean, excited!