There is a chasm where the echoes of you resonate
Memories vibrate, resounding up through the depths
Humming, strumming my heart
Orchestrating haunting internal melodies
Sentimental serenades bereft of lyrics
Frequently, the songs are as tender as a lullaby
Tranquil, faint, soothing as a purr
Intimate whispers shadow my perceptions
A fleeting smile or tear offers a glimpse into the hymns
From time to time, the reverberations are flagrant, flamboyant
Visceral concertos of cacophony
The interludes intrude and occlude
Boisterous crescendos, their clamors are deafening
Outwardly silent, inwardly surging, I await their conclusion
Most often, the intrinsic music is my resident accompaniment
Instrumental ballads proclaiming, portraying a bygone life
An opus of a lover pining for an encore
The unfinished symphony plays on beyond the curtain call
How I ended up being the mother I was always intended to be
There was never any doubt in my mind I would be a mother. As with most everything in my life, I had a plan: College, Career, Marriage, Children (four was the magic number — two of each). We’d grow old, retire, and wait for grandbabies.
Life would be as simple as blowing soap bubbles. With a little effort, each stage would inflate and delight with iridescent elegance. It would drift away when the time came and a new radiant bubble would wondrously take its place.
Somehow, in my youth, I failed to acknowledge that bubbles are bound to burst.
“Mother is a verb. It’s something you do. Not just who you are.”
Dorothy Canfield Fisher
It all began perfectly enough. I received my degree, started my career in public relations, and married my high school sweetheart.
I knew pretty soon after we started dating, he was father material. He treasured his nieces and nephews. He had a knack for connecting with any child, no matter what the age. It planted a seed in my maternal heart. I couldn’t wait to start our family.
When we decided the time was right, we tossed aside the birth control and got down to the business of making babies. But no matter how much time and energy we were putting into the project, we could not generate a profit. The plus sign would not appear in the urine-stained window.
Off we went to the doctor to get to the bottom of our elusive dividends.
Diagnosing and treating infertility is not for the demure. Blood tests, vaginal ultrasounds with an acoustic dildo, and post-coital exams to rate the hospitality on my uterus were on my agenda. (Nothing like your vaginal canal getting a Yelp review from the gynecologist.) More blood tests and monthly cup deposits delivered in a brown paper lunch bag were on my husband’s.
After 18 months of mood-altering medication, biweekly doctor visits, and sobbing at Huggies commercials, the test came back positive. The doctor beamed. The nurse cried with delight.
Our first son arrived early — he couldn’t wait for us to be a family either. Our second came less than two years later. We didn’t want to go through the physical and emotional turmoil of fertility treatments again, so we resolved to let nature take its course — or not.
Our offspring were capped at two, but it didn’t matter anymore. The seed that sprouted my maternal heart had taken root and blossomed. I was a boy mom, and I was ecstatic.
“Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had.”
Even before your children are born, you begin planning the life ahead of them. Merging your hopes and dreams with theirs and contemplating the milestones along the way.
Having one of them develop a life-threatening disease is usually not part of the equation.
When our eldest was two and a half, he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Within hours, our entire family was drafted into a life-long battle with his condition. We entered diabetes boot camp and learned how to manage his disease and hopefully, not kill him in the process.
And so began our months (and then years) of every-hour-on-the-hour glucose tests, monitoring everything he ate, keeping track of exercise, computing insulin intake, and praying he didn’t catch some illness that would send his sugars soaring.
But in the process, I became a warrior mom. I steadfastly guarded his health like a sentry. I studied his illness, educating all of us and others. I defended his rights and taught him how to do the same. Eventually, the power of my son’s own wellbeing was passed on to him. The tour of duty was complete.
“When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”
Life during my children’s elementary school years was going according to the “new plan.” (I was still naïve enough to think that I was done with any further disruptions.)
I worked part-time as the school librarian and was active in the PTA. Saturdays were spent at the local recreation center where my husband coached whatever sport happened to be in season. Sundays were filled with church and extended family get-togethers. We were in our element. We were prospering.
Until one day — we weren’t. When my children were six and eight years old, their father was diagnosed with leukemia.
Girded by my warrior training, I went back into battle. Alongside my husband, I contended with hospital stays, complicated medication regimens, and cross-country trips for vital treatments.
All the while, I fiercely defended my children’s sense of normalcy even when we were anything but. They never missed a day of school. To help them feel secure, family members stayed with them in our home when we were away. Their father valiantly hid the full extent of his suffering and I followed suit.
I was the mother offering hope — right up to the day he passed away.
“Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.”
If it wasn’t for my children, I don’t think I would have survived the loss of my husband. They gave me a reason to function — to hold onto life. I was a hollow robot, mechanically going through the motions.
Somehow motherhood — that deep-seated desire to tend to my boys — provided the strength to endure. They already had their world torn in half; I couldn’t bear it if I caused it to be obliterated.
Ever so slowly, the need to stabilize our family drove me to reclaim my humanity.
“When we have joy we crave to share; we remember them.”
Rabbis Sylvan Kamens & Jack Riemer
When my husband was first diagnosed, I began mentally preparing for the inevitable. There is plenty of material on how to withstand — or even understand — the death of a spouse. I, myself, have written many times on the topic.
However, I was completely caught off guard by what widowhood would do to my identity as a mother. Suddenly, I was the sole captain. My co-parent — my child-rearing partner — was gone. The one person who could wholeheartedly share in the sorrows and revel in the joys of raising our sons was absent.
I lacked backup when I needed it and a contrary opinion when necessary. I’m sure my boys grew tired of my voice and longed for the counterbalance of their father’s baritone.
The title of “single mother” never seemed to fit. Single = One. One is a whole number. I was fractioned — incomplete. It took me years to accept this new individual version of motherhood.
“Motherhood is the biggest gamble in the world. It is the glorious life force. It’s huge and scary — it’s an act of infinite optimism.”
I often wonder if life had gone according to plan, would I be the same woman I am now. What kind of mother would I be? Would I be as resilient or empathetic? Would my children?
The trials we encountered brought out a fortitude I never knew I possessed; a steely determination to nurture no matter what the circumstances. Like apprenticeships, each struggle provided the preparation and developed the strength I would need for the next one.
My boys are now adults. I can only take partial credit — or blame — for the men they have become. Their personalities are unique and innate. It filters how they perceive and respond to whatever lessons I may have tried to impart.
Many mistakes were made along the way, but I have cast aside the guilt. (Well, most of it.) I know I did the best I could with the tools I had at the moment. How can I regret anything that helped produce the remarkable sons I have today?
Motherhood was not — or continues to be — entirely what I expected, but what in life is?
The bubbles may continue to burst, but they leave rainbows in their wake.
If I confess my deepest darkest regret, will you think less of me? Will the colorful image you had of my character fade to gray?
I guess I really can’t be concerned with such matters. The need to be authentic compels me to admit:
During the last months of my husband’s life, I was a wretched wife.
When your spouse is diagnosed with cancer, a halo is promptly bestowed upon your head. People behold the aura of an angel, a selfless guardian.
The moment your beloved dies, you are bequeathed sainthood. No canonization investigation required — you’re decreed a living martyr.
I wasn’t worthy of either title.
For years, I was able to pull it off
From that fateful day in 2001 when his leukemia was detected and throughout the stem cell transplant in 2003, I was my husband’s fierce warrior — his faithful companion.
I eagerly attended every doctor’s appointment. During the transplant, I sat by his hospital bed with my notebook of lab results, daily stats, and Q&As for the attendings. I kept track of how many ounces he drank — and expelled. I’d help him shower if he had the energy to take one and especially when he didn’t.
For eight weeks, I monitored and worried. His steadfast sentry, nothing was going to be missed on my watch.
The 45-minute drive home each night was my time to cry — that is, if I could allow myself the release. Gasping sobs would have to wait. One can only shed so many tears when navigating a freeway.
Our two young sons, ages eight and ten, would greet me at the door, anxious for news about when their Daddy — their hero — might come home. I never had the heart to tell them the odds were he wouldn’t.
Once he was released from the hospital, the location had changed, but the vigil continued. He was in lockdown for 100 days while his immunities were rebuilding. Every morsel of food and drink was strictly controlled to prevent contamination. I flushed his Hickman twice daily so we wouldn’t need to hire a nurse.
My husband’s only excursions were visits to the doctor, where I diligently came prepared with my ever-expanding notebook. I reported on his progress and tattled on him when he “misbehaved.”
Part scolding, part admiration, the three of us would laugh and cry, smile and cringe about the pace of his recovery.
Throughout it all, he would hold my hand and thank me. Silently sing my praises with a sly smile. I would soak it all in — letting his pride in me briefly douse the dread simmering in my soul.
I was a triumphant wife.
Reality settles in
We soon learned the harsh reality of “surviving” a stem cell transplant. Remission does not equal well. It only means cancer-free.
My husband was in a ceaseless war. His immune system had been overthrown by the transplant and it wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Every skirmish left a little more devastation in its wake. His body was the battered battleground.
As he bravely soldiered on, I slowly withdrew. I continued the day-to-day activities of being a wife and mother, but I retreated from us — from him.
I was a fraudulent wife.
I was repulsed not by him, but by the disease slowly taking him away from me.
Every ailment withered his physique, but strengthened his resolve. The more he suffered without complaint, the more I wanted to scream about the injustice of his illness. I seethed with selfish anger and writhed in empathetic pain.
The two of us continued on in a stoic hush, not wanting the world — or each other — to realize just how fragile we were.
Not comprehending that isolating our feelings would soon isolate us from each other.
I could handle much of it: the perpetual sores on his feet that he spent 30 minutes each morning dressing, the near loss of his vision requiring contacts only available across the country, and the limp that took stole his weekly game of basketball.
It was the rest that made me go AWOL
First, it was his drastic drop in weight. I used to joke I didn’t marry a man who was thinner than me, playing on his ego to try and get him to eat. But that was only the truth floating on the surface. From the center of my being, I ached for his strong, muscular arms that would make me feel safe and protected.
Each pound he lost tolled how precarious our life had become. He finally stopped telling me his weight. I would never ask again.
Doubly desolating was the siege of his mouth. Dry and full of sores, he couldn’t muster enough saliva to eat normal food nor tolerate any sort of spice. Nearly every meal I could make caused him pain. When he stopped joining us for dinner, I gave up on cooking.
No amount of breath mints could disguise the scent and flavor of sickness inhabiting his mouth. The mouth that gave me my first kiss. The one I used to spend hours savoring was now sour — a distasteful reminder of a life being vanquished. Our affection became relegated to pecks on the cheek.
He developed a form of scleroderma. The condition marched across his skin, laying the foundations for its eventual sarcophagus. Disfiguring and immobilizing everywhere it advanced, we knew it was only a matter of time before it hit below the belt.
I was a neglectful wife
Each night, my husband would retreat to our bedroom soon after dinner. A full day’s work for him was exhausting. After the kids were put to bed, he’d ask me to join him. Sometimes for intimacy, mostly for simple companionship.
To my profound regret, more and more often, I’d come up with a reason to decline his request.
From “I’ve got a headache,” to “There are bills to pay,” to “My favorite TV show is on,” I guiltily spouted them all. Dejected, he eventually stopped asking.
My love for him never wavered, but truth be told, I was resentful, morose, and a sad excuse for a wife. I fumed that every waking moment was dictated by his disease. Embittered that our children didn’t remember life with him well.
I was despondent over being robbed of our happily ever after, even as I was robbing him of the closeness he needed — and deserved.
I was in mourning before he was dead.
It never occurred to me I was suffering from depression.
The other shoe drops
For seven years, the WHEN? shadowed us during the day and loomed in our dreams at night. We tried to pretend it wasn’t there, but it haunted us all the same.
His death brought forth a cavalcade of emotions: Shock, sorrow, and deep-seated anguish that left me hollow. It also brought relief. Relief that he wouldn’t have to endure another minute of suffering. Relief that cancer no longer ruled our lives.
Relief that I didn’t have to take care of him anymore.
Then the guilt would wash over me like Bactine. I would sting mightily with shame and then go numb.
I was a grieving widow.
Clarity comes in the aftermath
It’s been 12 years since he’s been gone. A dozen years living with this secret disgrace.
I’ve chastised myself a thousand times for falling short. Remorse still prowls my cheerful memories, waiting to pounce and condemn.
Only recently have I acknowledged I was depressed. The years of “being strong” had left me weak. There were only so many hours in the day I could keep a smile on my face. I was also suffering from an autoimmune disorder that sucked dry any reserves I may have had.
Desperately working with my meager coping skills and failing miserably, I simply thought this was par for the course when confronted with cancer. Too dumbfounded to recognize that I needed — we both needed — help.
I was doing my best, but I know it must have hurt him deeply. If I could change one thing, I would have swallowed my pride and reached out to someone.
Maybe then, I could have settled into his embrace each and every night of those last months. Let him kiss me like he did our first time under the mistletoe.
Remind him — remind me — that our love could soothe all wounds.
Cancer caregivers experience depression at more than double the rate of patients
The American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that up to 59% of cancer patient caregivers experience some sort of depression, compared to up to 25% for patients. Continual, untreated caregiver burden can negatively impact the health of the caregiver as well as the patient.
If you are a cancer patient caregiver and feeling overwhelmed, please don’t keep it to yourself.
How I found laughter and love in my darkest of days
My friend was running a bit late, and my mother was agitated. “Where is Katie* (named changed to protect the terrified) with that cold cut platter?”
It was the day before my husband’s funeral. We were expecting another influx of people stopping by to pay their respects and were running low on food. Katie had graciously offered to bring up the traditional wake tray of deli meats and cheese.
She was always on time, so I realized it could only be one thing. “Knowing Katie,” I said, “she is taking the time to make it look perfect.”
An interior decorator by trade and fabulous cook, everything Katie created was impressive. She could make even the most mundane chips and dip look Insta-worthy — even before Instagram existed. “It’s all about the presentation,” she explained.
Suddenly Katie and another friend, Christine, frantically burst through the front door. “There are three sheriff cars and five officers with their guns drawn right in front of your house!” they breathlessly exclaimed.
Christine and I bolted upstairs to my son’s room to get a good view of the action, figuring we could duck behind the bed if bullets started flying. (Our lame safety plan made perfect sense at the time.) Too freaked out to join us, my mother and Katie huddled in the kitchen.
We peeked through the blinds like seasoned nosy neighbors. Sure enough, the three cars were stopped in front of the house directly across the street. The sheriffs were slowing converging on a pickup parked in the driveway, firearms at the ready.
Our hearts beating faster than any gunfire that might have erupted, we were captivated by this C.S.I. moment playing out on my suburban cul de sac.
The officers steadily approached the vehicle in question, but found no one inside. After a thorough check of the perimeter (yes, I watch a lot of crime dramas), they determined that there was no immediate threat. The squad soon dispersed, deflating our adrenaline rush as they drove away.
Turns out the house was in foreclosure. The neighbors, incensed at being evicted, had trashed the interior before they left. The word was out to call the sheriffs should one of them return. Apparently, I didn’t get the notification. Neither did my next-door neighbor’s gardener, who had innocently parked in the perpetrator’s driveway.
Condolences and Casseroles
The gardener had been forced to use said driveway because there was no space available on the street. Every inch of curb was occupied by someone visiting my house — the home of a grieving family.
Since my husband’s sudden death a little over a week before, it had been a steady procession of people stopping by to offer condolences, deliver food or flowers, or both. Casseroles and coffee cakes overran my kitchen. Bouquets of flowers took up every square inch of table space.
I walked around in a frenzied fog trying in vain to comprehend my current circumstances.
One insightful friend brought over copious amounts of paper goods, plastic utensils, and toilet paper. When you have a constant flood of guests, they are the things you need most, but the last things you think about. It’s now my go-to offering when I visit a family in mourning.
It Takes a Village, a Family, and a Community
My husband and are were raised in large and social families. Both of us — especially my husband — were active in our community. He died while he was coaching my younger son’s youth football game, calling plays as he went down. It had made the local paper. To say his funeral was going to be well-attended was an understatement.
It was like planning a wedding for 1,000 guests with only a week’s notice.
My sons — ages 13 and 15 — and I were dumbfounded by grief. We could barely get ourselves dressed, let alone plan such an event.
Fortunately, it was this extended family and community that picked up the slack and then some. Some kindnesses were elaborate, and others were simple, but all made a difference.
No gift of compassion is ever too small for a family that is grieving.
My parents’ main mission was to tend to my boys and me, as we were rolling on empty. One person created the funeral program, another had it printed. Matt’s closest coworker took charge of the video presentation and gave a soul-stirring eulogy. I can’t remember who oversaw the floral arrangements, but the altar was in glorious bloom.
The church bereavement committee handled the after-service reception. While I hazily muddled through the greetings and thank yous, they made sure every guest had enough appetizers to ward off grumbling stomachs.
A pair of Matt’s friends transformed our backyard into a splendid venue complete with lights in the trees for the at-home gathering. Still another generous couple picked up the tab for dinner and bartended the evening. When the sunset and the lights began to twinkle, it was truly heavenly.
My husband had always envisioned hosting just such a magical party. I only hope he was able to see his dream come true.
Absurdity at the Mortuary
A few days before the funeral, Katie had accompanied me to the mortuary to finalize the details of my husband’s cremation. She was a bit squeamish with the situation but determined I not do this alone.
Uneasiness radiated off of Katie as I filled out the forms. She was trying valiantly to hide it, which only made me appreciate her presence even more. Soon, the mortician came in to finalize the details:
Would you like an urn? No, we will be scattering his ashes.
Ok, that will be $50 dollars for the cardboard box. I could hear my cost-conscious husband bellowing from his yet-to-be-determined grave.
Would you like him sifted or unsifted? Wait? What?! We aren’t baking a cake with him! Katie turned ashen.
The mortician explained that if the deceased had false teeth or any pins and rods from surgeries, they wouldn’t turn to ash in the cremation process. Lumpy gobs of metal would be left in the cinders. Matt was a very good — but accident-prone — athlete. His body was practically cyborg.
I didn’t need any Cracker Jack surprises tumbling out when we spread his remains. I paid extra for the sifting.
Finding Laughter and Love Amidst Chaos
In the eight days between my husband’s death and his funeral, I was bewildered and broken. My entire world had been shattered and I had yet to learn how to pick up the pieces.
Without the benevolent support of family and friends, my sons and I wouldn’t have survived those first days and beyond. We were in a grief-laden stupor and many details remain hazy, but our hearts will always remember the outpouring of love we received.
As it is with everything, there were periods of laughter and even joy woven into the hours of sorrow. My spirit was delighted to see far-away loved ones who arrived to console us. Katie and I giggled over the “sifting inquiry” for days and years after.
Even the alarm of a police raid provided a much-needed diversion. In your darkest of days, life will provide moments of relief if you’re willing to recognize them.
Back at the Scene of the Crime
After the commotion from the impending shoot-out had died down, I was finally able to view Katie’s platter. It was a magnificent display. The cold cuts and cheeses were impeccably spiraled around what I knew to be one of her favorite dishes. She spent time considering the color palette when she transitioned from one deli item to another.
My dear friend needed perfection for an imperfect occasion. I knew each item was carefully placed with heartbreak as she worked to ease my burden. It was her sympathy card to me.
“So, this is why you were late,” I said to Katie as I admired the tray. She smiled through her tears and nodded.
“It’s all about the presentation,” we chimed together.
No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity. ― H.P. Lovecraft
To my family, friends, and acquaintances: please read the following at face value. It is not a cry for help, a play for sympathy, or a prompt to initiate bringing me back into the fold. It simply is a reflection upon the uncertainties I, along with many others, are feeling at this time.
Truth be told, I have been feeling tenuous for a while now. Many of the ideologies I have woven into my identity have become threadbare. The events of 2020 have prompted me to take stock of my mental wardrobe: Are my convictions valuable or vintage? Can they continue to spark joy or do they provoke dismay? Do they fit me any more?
The modern definition of identity was proposed by Erik Erikson as his fifth stage of psychosocial development. While our primary personality is established during adolescence, he postulated that our sense of self develops throughout our entire lifespan. Our “ego identity,” according to Erikson, is constantly being shaped by our interactions and experiences with others. A challenge to your ego identity can occur at any time, most likely when one experiences a major life stressor such as losing a loved one, loss of employment, confronting health issues, or experiencing a traumatic event such as — I don’t know — a global pandemic.
Developmental psychologist James Marcia further elaborated on Erikson’s theory. He proposed identity is based on the exploration of a variety of life domains including intimate relationships, religion, politics, and occupation. The status of your identity is either in crisis — “a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined” — or committed to a role within these domains.
Fear of commitment
Welcome to my 2020. Or should I say, 5150? Except my current detention is looking more like 72 weeks instead of hours — perhaps even longer.
Full disclosure: This is not my first identity crisis rodeo. That occurred a dozen years ago when I became a widow. I envision identity like a lasso — twisted of multiple strands and used to secure yourself to someone or some ideal. When I lost my role as a wife, I clung to the other fibers of my life for strength. I was able to keep the rope somewhat intact until recent events have caused it to further unravel.
The first thread to break loose was with my church. Don’t misunderstand me, my core faith is as strong as ever, if not stronger. It’s just the man-made constructs that have disappointed me. When I was initially widowed, there were the standard outpourings of support and they were much appreciated. But once the dust settled, things took a turn. Slowly, steadily, (and I’m sure unintentionally) I was isolated. No longer included in couples’ events, I was relegated to coffee meetups and the occasional ladies’ lunch. Dinner party invites became nonexistent. I looked into the widows’ support group, but at 44, I was significantly younger than the rest of the members. There was no place I felt I belonged — or noticed for that matter. I would sit in the pew by myself, missing my husband more than ever. Feeling lonelier each time, I eventually stopped attending.
The next thread tattered by disillusion was my political affiliation. A lifelong Republican and Californian, I will never forget the feeling of being 18, newly registered, and attending a local Ronald Reagan reelection rally. I was thrilled to see a sitting president in person and proud to cast my first presidential vote for a man I felt possessed honor and character.
I wish I could generate anywhere near the same feeling of admiration for our current candidate. When did buddying up with our adversaries become a GOP construct? Putting policies aside, I wish my president to be a person of integrity. I continued to be baffled by how many Christian leaders (and friends) can support him as a man of God. They somehow excuse or refuse to acknowledge his consistent name-calling and slander of opponents, mocking of the disabled and women, and utter lack of humility. This list can go on and on, but suffice it to say, I feel like I’m in an alternate universe where right is wrong and up is down.
So now I’m left, or rather, was left, with my occupation. I had finally settled into my dream career: travel event planning. COVID-19 not only unraveled that thread, it chopped it with an ax and seared the ends. I’m a 56-year-old woman with a convoluted resume looking to reinvent my career yet again. California has more than 2.5 million unemployed workers. How do you like those odds?
Compounding matters, I suffer from an autoimmune disorder that has flared and left me at limited capacity these past few months. I’m not sure if it’s safe for me to return to work, let alone be physically up for it. As an added bonus, my current medication has caused me to gain 20 pounds and completely altered my appearance. Not only do I not feel like myself, but I don’t even recognize the woman in the mirror.
Temporary Restraining Order or Stay of Execution?
Marcia would most likely conclude I am residing in the moratorium identity status: in the midst of a crisis but seeking alternative identities. Working through the explorations leads to a commitment or “identity achievement.” Major life events — such as the death of a spouse — can create instability which triggers a MAMA cycle: moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement. I went through such cycles when I lost my husband, working through the identities of the widow, single mother, and middle-aged single woman.
Healthy adults will go through many MAMA cycles in their lifetime. It’s the natural progression of aging and growth. Some may term these events as reaching a “new normal” or acceptance of whatever stressor has been thrown in their way. Here’s the thing: most will encounter one upheaval at a time. What’s one to do, as in my case (and I’m sure many others) when you doubt multiple affiliations (religion, politics) and experience more than one loss (occupation, health) simultaneously? When a global crisis has disrupted society so much you’re constantly on guard, wondering what tomorrow’s shit show will be.
Do we hide, locking the world away? Do we appeal to God or fate to give us more time to sort this all out and/or complete our penance? Is there a remedy for this dilemma? Or vaccine to prevent it from happening again?
At the end of my rope, but not alone
I may be feeling unstable, but I’m not the only one. 2020 has taken its toll on everyone. A recent government survey reported 41% of U.S. respondents felt symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to just 11% in 2019. As the year drags on, uncertainty continues to litter our collective psyche. We try to discard it, but our dumpsters are overflowing.
In a Popular Science article discussing mental health and the pandemic, Dr. Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, states:
Humans look to have a known universe. That is how we keep ourselves safe,” he says. “It’s frightening to feel out of control. Sadness, hopelessness, fear — those will wear you down.
I honestly don’t know if these statistics make me feel better or worse.
What I do know is a few strands of my rope have remained intact and will be no matter what my revised identity turns out to be: My two sons, who not only support but motivate me to keep it together. My parents and siblings, who continually encourage and assist in any way they can. And my posse — my closest friends — who are always available to provide a listening ear, words of wisdom, and a glass(who am I kidding — a bottle) of wine when needed. These are my lifelines.
Eventually, with some introspection, exploration, and a little luck, I’ll channel my inner Wonder Woman and reconstruct the lasso of my truth. Surprisingly, I have found a gentleman who doesn’t view me as frayed and fragile, but as a woman of substance and strength. He wants to join me on the journey to discover a more suitable church to grow our faith. From now on, I’ll let my conscience — not my political party — be my guide when voting. As for health and occupation, I will keep praying and hoping that good news is just around the corner.
When you’re newly widowed, family celebrations often trigger waves of grief-laden anxiety. Eventually, you progress to tolerance. At some point, you’re able to rediscover the joy in such occasions. But for the widow and a mother - for me - the third Sunday in June was an entirely different ballgame. Father’s Day took my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrust it into the limelight. Worst of all, there was little, if anything, I could do about it.
Not that I didn’t make an effort. I spent countless hours trying to fill the void created by their father’s death. But my attempts were largely in vain. My persistence was futile. I simply didn’t have the tools. I wasn’t him. It was like plugging a deep chasm with a shallow cork. Sure, it may have sealed it for a moment, but it was always an imperfect fit. It settled and slipped, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.
I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy - not by a long shot.
My husband, Matt, was meant to be a father. It was an integral part of his soul and, quite honestly, one of the reasons I married him. From the get-go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Father’s Day, he bought them presents.
Typical Father’s Day Haul
When Matt realized time with his boys was not to be a marathon but a sprint, he strove to make each step count. He aspired to impart a lifetime’s worth of mentoring as swiftly as possible. Initiating what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts,” just the three of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was always spur of the moment. I was invited, but invariably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During the meal, they would talk about whatever was on their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off-limits. Their father’s insight seasoned the conversation and his compassion was the syrup on top. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.
Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, yet each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few recollections of him well. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed our daily agendas. They don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life - for us - remained and flourished.
After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved Lifetime movie, a gentleman - perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach - would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might be looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of tear-jerkers anyway.
We muddled through the first Father’s Days without Matt as best we could. At first, I thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it felt off - like I’d be adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I rejected the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father – a damn good one - I could never take his place.
Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written… Herman Hesse
It’s been over a decade of fatherless Father’s Days. The wounds of mourning have been assimilated into our history. Like tree trunks integrating the scars of fire, we have endured. The rings of struggle bear witness to our survival, rather than constricting our growth. We have matured and become resilient. My boys are adults. It is no longer up to me to tend to their grief.
The festivities of the holiday that once seared and stung now invoke comforting remembrances of a fatherhood well lived. Memories have ceased highlighting his absence, but serve as guideposts for our sons to become men of character. Perhaps, God willing, continue the legacy of exceptional parenting. It’s time to delight in Father’s Day once again.
This post previously published on Illumination | @Medium
It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.
So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.
Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.
Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.
No more talk of darkness Forget these wide-eyed fears*
Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.
I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.
When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense – and my realtor – told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.
You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to – that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden – our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.
It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth – a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford – until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us – to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.
Promise me that all you say is true*
As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.
It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.
All I want is freedom A world with no more night*
Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.
Loving you always,
*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990
This post previously published at Hello Love | The Good Men Project | @Medium
It was inevitable, no matter how hard I tried to prevent it. A conversation the night before had ignited a pessimistic spark. Dread simmered in my dreams. I awoke sullen, buzzing with trepidation. Before long, I was descending down the rabbit hole into one rager of a pity party.
I habitually obscure my struggles. When occasionally asked how things are going, downplaying is my diversion. Raindrops on roses and all that. Everything is practically perfect.
Or so I would lead them to believe.
Secretly, I crave reassurance — thirst for sympathy. I expect my friends and family to discern what it truly going on — even while I am reciting “I’m fine,” or signaling all is well. “Where is their consolation?” my pathetic ego whimpers. Aren’t they clairvoyant? Can’t they perceive the stress vibrating through my veins? I pay no heed to my flair for camouflage.
One hell of a party pooper
So, on this particular morning, I was wallowing in mire as thick as tar. To be honest, it had been percolating even before our isolation mandates. My uneasy temperament had been nuked into Hulk-sized anguish by our collective crisis. The scale in my bathroom bore witness to this mutation. Perhaps binging on Lays and Thin Mints had exacerbated this state of affairs. Who’s to say? Did you know chocolate left in the back of the cupboard for three years is still somewhat edible? Especially if you down it with a glass of cabernet. But I digress…
Of course, anxiety didn’t miss her invitation to my shindig. Feeling sorry for myself was the theme for this soiree. Loved ones’ supposed lack of telepathic abilities set the mood. Annoyance at succumbing to the dark side added just the right amount of oomph. Incensed and dejected, I yielded to what was to come: Plummeting to the depths of the rabbit hole.
It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to
There’s a hollow emerging in the sofa from days upon days of lethargy. I burrowed into the cavern like a grizzly nestling in for hibernation. The drone of the local tv news lulling me into a pacifying stupor. I was lounging in the void between panic and apathy when I received a text from my boyfriend. He wanted to know how my day was going. Seriously?! Couldn’t he detect my tormented spirit from his home six miles away? I thought we were on the same wavelength.
I expressed my angst — or so I thought. I sent vague texts about how no one understands without any further elaboration. My ire escalated as he seemingly couldn’t grasp the complexities of my despair. I even chastised him for not responding to my messages quickly enough. If he truly cared about me, his replies should be immediate, shouldn’t they? My conceit was enormous. I sent one last snippy retort. He gave me a call.
The onslaught began.
There was no slowing my roll. I sniffled and sobbed and despised myself for conceding to this display of vulnerability. I spewed my presumed misfortune and disappointment in my family, my friends and him like a machine gun. He listened, gently chided me when I deserved it and consoled me as much as possible until my arsenal was depleted. His character must be fabricated from Kevlar.
We are all Alice
When I first sat down to write this piece, I had planned on eloquently expressing my dismay. Catalog all that beleaguered me. That would garner me the outpouring of empathy I coveted. I envisioned relishing every last morsel. My self-indulgence was intoxicating.
And then I sobered up.
In reality, what would have that accomplished? Who was I to place such irrational expectations upon those I hold dear? Moreover, the entire population is spiraling down rabbit holes — stepping through their own looking glasses. It’s hubris to deem mine more abysmal than others. We are entering a new Wonderland with a yet-to-be determined set of rules. “Curiouser and curiouser,” we collectively cry. Brooding over news bites and statistics to assess our safety quotient.
If we are not careful, misery may be an even worse contagion that the virus itself.
That’s not to say that throwing your own pity party is unwarranted, if not crucial, to process the enormity of a world turned upside down — society’s ambiguous future. In my case, it proved to be a vital release, albeit a not very glamorous one. (Thankfully, no mascara was mistreated during this melancholy madness.) The trick is not to overstay your welcome.
Capturing the moment to seize the day
A good friend of mine recently told me she is choosing to say, “I’m having a bad moment,” instead of, “I’m having a bad day.” This slight shift in perception reminds us that moments pass. They are not eternal.
I’m striving to be more mindful of cheerful interludes. (No, this isn’t another boastful #blessed list.) Purposefully capturing periods of joy — contemplating gratitude. Protecting them in my memory so I can reflect upon them when worry shrouds my contentment. Call it my attitude stimulus package:
I am thankful for a roof over my head, potato chips in my pantry and plenty of toilet paper.
I find peace in knowing my God has a plan for me — even though I routinely shout, “Are you kidding me?!” like a petulant teenager.
I’ve been granted a large affectionate family, friends who find my goofiness charming and a boyfriend who likes to take me dancing just to see the delight on my face. (He also thinks 90% of one’s troubles can be subdued with charcuterie and wine. This hypothesis requires some continued research on my part.)
Such illuminations beckon me out of my rabbit hole. I shouldn’t ever squander these endowments.
Typically, I have little use for trite mottos. Life is too nuanced and our world more precarious than any sentimental declaration, but they can be a beacon. So here goes: Acknowledge the suck. Allow yourself to lament. Rail against whatever hardship until you are spent. Then, reboot your disposition. Create your own relief list.
The diem ain’t gonna carpe itself.*
*As seen on my new favorite t-shirt on Amazon and other fine vendors of pithy attire.