The Seven-Year Itch

Woman shroud hilltop

It’s been seven years.

A week of revolutions around the sun.

Happy (?) deathiversary to me.


I’ve made (some) progress.

My days no longer commence with torrential tears.

I seldom sense the vacant weight of my wedding ring.

Still, my singularity seems abnormal.

A bunker of pillows occupies the empty promise that is his side of the bed.

The duo I once was has been replaced by a shadowed silhouette and what is left of me.


I obstinately strive to satisfy my sons’ paternal vacuum. The maternal exercise in futility I refuse to cease — the truth I’m reluctant to verify.

Even in the slightest dilemma, I wonder: What words of advice would he impart? Would this be happening if he was here?

The absence of a father’s wisdom torments a mother’s heart.


My widow’s shroud swaddles and suffocates. It’s my daily personal paradox: Do I let it lull me into a muffled serenity or should I cast off sorrow’s cocoon?

Grief is the wolf that threatens my sheep’s clothing.

When my children were in elementary school, they each witnessed the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly. As it neared the time for the insects to emerge from their chrysalis, the students were warned not to “assist.” Aiding or abetting in the butterflies’ escape could result in malformations. There would be no choice but to let flightless creatures succumb to their deformities. Successful transformation required solitary struggles.

I continue to curb such a transfiguration. I’m seeking adaptation, not evolution. Disowning all traces of my former self would be tantamount to annulling my marriage. I need to move forward, not break away.


My mourning attire is beginning to itch. At times it is sweltering. But will shedding it completely leave me basking in a cool breeze or shivering from my cold reality? Is such a prophecy feasible?

Do I really want to know?

The future whispers from just beyond the horizon. Uncertainty muffles the echo, but I must submit to its summons. Inertia will only spawn decomposition.

That’s not what he desired for me.

That is not what I aspire for myself.

Dazed and Confused: Enduring an Emotional Concussion

Grief by Sarah Gath

A little while back I was having a heart-to-heart with a close friend.  Within a period of six months, he had lost both his stepfather and his mother. Dealing with his grief was becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s like I’m in a constant haze,” he explained. “I can’t seem to comprehend or complete the most basic of tasks.” “Makes perfect sense to me,” I replied. “You’ve been emotionally concussed.”

As a dedicated football mom, I am quite familiar with the physical ramifications of a brain bouncing inside a skull like a pinball. For four years, I ran the high school sidelines. I knew the signs of a concussion and subsequent protocol. It was my task to make the calls to 911 and/or an unsuspecting parents more times than I would have preferred. There were the instances when the brightest kids on the team had no idea what day it was. Sometimes, the athlete would drift in and out of consciousness, complaining of an intense headache when he was briefly coherent. Then there was the kid who acting as if he was happy drunk. We needed to assign him a babysitter to keep him from frolicking back onto the field.

When my own son had his first concussion, I witnessed the day-in and day-outs of such an injury. A designated “math kid,” he couldn’t add 2+2 for nearly three weeks.

The NFL, FIFA, International Olympic Committee, and other sports organizations look for numerous symptoms when assessing a possible concussion. Besides a persistent headache, these include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Sadness
  • Nervous or anxious
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Irritability

Due to the recent outcries (and lawsuits) over the long-term damage of repeated concussions, both the NCAA and NFL have revised their guidelines regarding possible brain injuries suffered either during practice or competition. With the general medical consensus being that the more severe damage occurs when an athlete returns to play too soon (before the brain has had adequate time to heal) many injured professional and collegiate athletes are now mandated to refrain from competition until he or she has demonstrated satisfactory cognitive function. A secondary concussion suffered by an athlete who resumed competition too early can result in catastrophic brain injury.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not the sports community is doing too little too late to prevent brain injuries – what are the correlations between concussions and emotional trauma? Or overwhelming grief? In my own personal experience, and in the lives of those whom I’ve consulted on the matter – plenty.

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Some say I’ve had more to “deal with” in my life that most. I might take issue with that conclusion, but I can’t dispute the facts: My son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 2 and a half. He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month. My father-in-law was stricken by colon cancer and was forced to go on dialysis due to a tainted batch of chemotherapy. My husband donated one of his kidneys to save his father’s life. Some years later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent a stem cell transplant, almost lost his eyesight, and eventually went into cardiac arrest and died a few years later. Personally, I have been affected by debilitating endometriosis, infertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer to name a few. I guess my plate has been full for quite a while.

In many of these instances and others, my emotional circuitry was fried. Most of the time, when I needed to function despite of my circumstances; any and all sentiment was suppressed. I went numb. Other times, I sparked like an overloaded transformer, singeing those closest to me with blistering words and scalding outbursts. With my sideline sports history, you think I would have recognized the signs of something a little more serious than “feeling down” or being “overly sensitive.”

It’s been said that emotional trauma is stress run amuck. According to the American Psychological Association and the National Center for P.T.S.D., the symptoms of emotional trauma include:

  • Detachment
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Extreme sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of intimacy
  • Eating disturbances
  • Memory lapses
  • Irritability
  • Feeling distracted

When you compare the symptoms of emotional trauma to those of a brain injury, they are almost identical.
Hence – emotionally concussed.

While scientists continue to debate the sequence of physiological events that produce emotion, the central nervous system is still considered to be the mastermind behind whatever we are feeling on any given day. When your CPU (your brain) has been strained to the upper reaches of its capacity, there are bound to be ramifications; much like the recently-documented cases of broken-heart syndrome, where excess amounts of stress hormones damage the heart. If the traumatic events happen in succession, the damage can be devastating.

Severe emotional distress can make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Stunned and dazed for a moment, it might take you a moment to regain your bearings. If you are stuck repeatedly, or if the blow hits you just right, that “moment” can take days, months, or years.

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Sports enthusiasts and ER personnel are frequent users of instant ice packs. These portable plastic packets are filled with a powdered chemical. Inside that is another pouch filled with a liquid chemical or water. When you squeeze and/or shake the packet, the inside pouch pops and the two chemicals react. As you are holding it, you can feel the reaction progress through the packet as it slowly turns completely cold.

Your brain can act the same way under extreme stress. Too much and Kapow!, your inner composure is burst, oozing into your surrounding grey matter. Soon, your synapses are cooled and your temperament is frozen into a mechanical and barely functioning tranquility. Your cognizance is in “Safe” mode.

As with an athlete, those who grieve run the risk of returning to life’s playing field too soon. Jobs, family, and friends may expect you to bounce back faster than you are ready. You, yourself, might be overly ambitious and presume you are prepared to get back in the game when you are far from it. Resuming strenuous, or even normal, activity before you are recuperated can be highly detrimental.

There is no pharmaceutical quick fix for a concussion — or grief. In reality, giving a brain injury patient certain analgesics can cause more harm than good. Aspirin or ibuprofen can thin the blood and exacerbate a brain bleed.  The best prescription is physical rest, mental relaxation, and time. Unfortunately, in the era of instant gratification, we are loathe to allot ourselves suitable amounts of any of them.

When my husband passed away, I was offered numerous agents to help me “cope:” one pill to help me sleep, another to boost my spirits, still another to help me get through the day. I declined them all.  I was wary of becoming dependent on any type of mood enhancer. More importantly, I didn’t want any agent to either dilute or dull the experienced trauma. To me, doing so would only delay the inevitable. I needed to experience the rawness – the full brunt of anguish – in order to get through it.

This is not to say that I always followed my own “sage advice”—far from it. I suppressed a lot of the grieving process, telling myself there were things that needed to get done, kids to take care of, other family and friends who needed to witness my composure so they could get on with their own lives. In my warped opinion, time was too precious and not worth the expense.

It's time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

It’s time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

Recently, I have had to go on short-term disability due to a persistent illness. I have to wonder: Is my body finally saying enough is enough and forcing me to slow down? Have I ever taken the time or done the work to truly rehabilitate? In the past few months, I have been able to experience quiet and search my soul, expand my creative writing, and enjoy more time with immediate and extended family.

If I had continued to be deemed physically fit, would I ever be emotionally well?

I am unsure if Emotional Concussion is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders. I doubt if I am the first one to coin the term.  I only know it accurately encompasses the symptoms of grief my friends and I have confronted. It helps to realize that we are not alone in this condition. We are not suffering from a rare, orphan disease.

We are not losing our minds.

With over 2.5 million deaths occurring each year in the U.S. alone; there are tens of millions of left-behind loved ones who currently and will continue to grieve for years to come. Acknowledging that we have been battered and bruised – that we need a breather – is the first step. It is crucial to heal our minds and our hearts, create our new normal – restore our sense of self.

Rest is not a dirty word.

Epilogue to: What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ICYMI: Here is the link to my previous post.

Well the two-part season finale has come and gone. IMHO, Grey’s conclusion was honest, and perceptive throughout both episodes. Not only regarding Meredith, but those surrounding her, including friends; his sister, Amelia; and even April Kepner. In fact, the episodes could have accurately been entitled “Portraits of Grief.” How one handles the loss of a loved one is not an A-to-B-to-C progression. It is multifaceted. It has twists, turns, and double backs. It rarely stays the same.

Of course, we were riveted by the young couple and their unborn child involved in a horrific accident: Can they be rescued? Who will be the hero? Will they survive? Romance in all its complexities was portrayed by the Richard-Catherine story line: How do two, strong-willed individuals compromise enough to commit to one another? But the underlying current was grief — in all its guts and glory.

We soon learn the Meredith packed up the kids and slipped away in the middle of the night. Gone for a year, we are shown snippets of how her friends deal with her absence. At first they are worried, then frantic. A little pissed off; most of them resign themselves to Meredith being Meredith. What she, the new widow, failed to understand is a concept that took me a while to realize: you are not alone in your loss and are now a role model for how to grieve. Your closest companions, family, in-laws, and colleagues have lost someone as well and are unsure of how to handle it. They need to see that you are OK, that you are coping, moving on — surviving — before they can as well. In a twisted way, their lack of composure is comforting; at least it was for me.

It demonstrated that my husband’s life resonated with others, that he mattered, that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

This is not to say I don’t admire Meredith for her selfishness. I am actually jealous. Her kids aren’t of school age. She had the financial resources to disappear. It was a luxury that few widows have, but secretly crave. All in all, it was a perfect metaphor for the sense of suspended animation you are in for a least a year. The world continues to rotate; life goes on, no matter how enveloped in grief you are. She was able to get off the infamous carousel for a while and just breathe.

Amelia’s grief demonstrated how loss is dealt with when it is initially denied. As the damaged sister, she had her walls in place. She’s been through this before. (father, lover, baby) She didn’t need any help. She was just fine, thank you. Only when she teetered on the edge of losing sobriety, did she finally cry out for support. As I hoped Grey’s would do, she angrily confronts Meredith about not having the chance to say goodbye to her brother. My husband had three sisters, just like Derek Shepherd. Only one was able to speak her farewell to him at the hospital. This was a moment in time that was of utmost importance to her and would have devastated her if it was prevented.

Meredith’s reaction was equally revealing. She breaks down in tears after Amelia leaves. Why such a response? Did she feel guilty? Unjustly accused? Probably a little bit of both. But in that scene, the audience is shown a key component of grief. 365 days— whether they are in reality or the television universe — are but a moment in the life of a widow. Emotions can well up and over at any time. They may or may not make “sense.” Every so often, they are uncontrollable.

Even April and Jackson were caught up in the cavalcade of grief. After losing their child, April runs off to a combat zone to channel her anguish, leaving Jackson behind to grieve alone. She comes back recharged, but different. “I like the new April,” Bailey tells a skeptical Catherine. Jackson later tells April that while he is happy for her new sense of purpose, he did and continues to feel abandoned in their supposedly shared heartache. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a child, is partially a cooperative experience. When someone in the grief collective opts out and decides to go it alone, the rest are left feeling forsaken. The processing of their sorrow may be incomplete. Will their marriage survive this trial? We are left to ponder for the duration of the summer.

These story lines aptly portrayed the ripple effect of death. Losing someone close to you, whether it be a treasured friend or cherished loved one, affects everyone differently — but continually. Grief is both private and public, intimate and communal. It is ugly in its brutality and beautiful in its poignancy. Bravo Grey’s Anatomy. Thank you for getting it right.

Grief Lessons You Are Never Taught: The Prelude & Aftermath of Special Occasions

Lee Hayword

Few things in life are more personal than grief. The only one-size-fits-all premise is that everyone encounters, digests, and processes it uniquely. Since the progression of that process is in a perpetual flux, I find myself commonly exhibiting three different modes of grief. (Although I am sure there are others lurking.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:

  • The Neon Sign: This is time I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of “Sympathy for the suffering!” and “Alms for the widow!”
  • The Grace Kelly: Like a favorite pair of classically-styled earrings, my grief during these moments is subtle and demure, never ostentatious. It’s the pièce de résistance that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there.
  • The Influenza: This is the ailment you try to ignore – attempt to maintain the stiff upper lip. The problem is, the more you try to stifle this type of grief, the harder it is to breathe and the increasingly nauseous you become.

All these types are prowling about, waiting to crash the party, when you are about to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was recently discussed in a post on Medium and subsequently featured in the Huffington Post.

What I didn’t disclose, and what nobody prepares you for, is the before and after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days – and the ones when you feel the most isolated.  

The days, often weeks, before are a gradual crescendo. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You’re apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it’s an event that you have to attend – want to attend – such as a child’s graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.

When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling or as uplifting as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, throbbing ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.

But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails, or presents don’t materialize to celebrate, soothe, or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten – bereft of comfort and understanding. Like a burn victim, you need to debride the dead tissue: expose the uncontaminated and living flesh existing underneath the defunct scabs of yesterday. Most of the time, this is a solitary and nerve-wracking assignment. No one else recognizes the necessity.

For those who are grieving, give yourself the time you need to contend with a celebratory challenge. Allot at least 72 hours to endure and not be your customary, post-loss self. If you need more – take it! Don’t berate yourself if you can’t “get over it” in an arbitrary “timely” manner. Sorrow’s schedule is subjective. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one’s struggles.  Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.

Photo credit: Alone by Lee Hayword

What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ellen-pompeo-meredith-grey

I’m not even going to bother with the spoiler alert. If you are interested in reading this, you know what happened. McDreamy was killed through a series of unfortunate events. 1. Foolishly stopped his car in the middle of road. 2. T-boned by a semi. 3. Transported to a level 2 hospital. 4. Suffered the ramifications of either the chauvinistic medical system or an egomaniac on-duty attending, depending on your viewpoint.

Many posts have been written about the way Derek’s departure was handled. Was the episode a 41-minute middle finger gesture by Shondra Rhimes to Patrick Dempsey? Was it a commentary on the unavailability of top-tier medical facilities? Or was it an accurate depiction that people can be careless, needless mistakes can happen, and people die for stupid reasons? I’ll leave that debate up to other blogs, the Twittersphere, and Change.org petitions.

No, my focus is going to be on Meredith, the unsuspecting wife, doctor, and ultimately, the woman who held Derek’s last breath in her hands. You see, years before, that character making that gut-wrenching decision to sign the ominous papers was me.

On August 23rd, 2008, my husband went into cardiac arrest while coaching our son’s football game. We waited over 18 minutes for emergency services to arrive, while two dear friends – an EMT and a paramedic, worked valiantly to keep him alive. A third, a NICU head nurse, dictated events to the 911 dispatcher. Terms like “agonal breathing” and “unresponsive” stabbed their way into my now muddled consciousness. We could hear the sirens circling, but they were having trouble locating an entrance. Each circumnavigation lulled me further into a hypnotic panic.

Finally, fresh, unexhausted paramedics arrived on the scene and joined in the resuscitation efforts. Our two sons (ages 13 and 15) and I watched hopelessly as he was hooked up to electrodes, shocked and jolted repeatedly. I lost count after three. At some point, he was deemed stable enough to transport and was loaded into the awaiting ambulance. I wasn’t allowed to accompany him. That was the first hint of permanent calamity.

I pride myself on being somewhat medically savvy. Back at home, I know that our local hospital is ill-equipped to handle major traumas and it’s best to travel to the one in the next valley. I knew the mega Children’s Hospital in the city had the elite doctors we desired to monitor our son’s diabetes. When my husband was first diagnosed with leukemia, we researched which cancer center had the finest treatment options. But we were out of town at the moment. I had no idea what hospital we were going to or its reputation. Just like the path of Derek, I simply had no choice in the matter.

As we arrived right behind the ambulance, I noticed my husband was having seizures. (The second clue) I was deftly whisked to an administration counter — not to the emergency room where he was being treated. (Third omen) Asked to fill out simple paperwork, I was dumbfounded by my inability to sign my own name. The signature I had practiced countless number of times across notebooks and napkins before legally scribing it for 18 years would not flow from my shaking fingers. My brain and my body were disengaged.

Soon, a priest emerged to speak with me. (Fourth indication) Our family and a few select friends were provided a small, private waiting room. (Fifth warning) Still, I held on tightly to hope. I need to be strong for our children, for my husband. There was not the time to break down. I do fairly well under pressure. Periods of extreme stress seem to short out my emotions. I’m left in what I have dubbed my robot mode: capable of handling traumatic situations without the encumbrance of sentiment. Much like the soon-to-be widowed Meredith who reaches her husband’s bedside and immediately demands his chart to assess the situation, I knew the moment I saw Matt what was to be the outcome. What the signs had be indicating. I understood I needed to stay in control.

As a devoted wife about to lose the love of my life, my personal sense of time seemed to slow down. Medical personnel frantically moved about, but I felt as if I was floating through a cloud of uncertainty and disconnection. I was informed there was very, very little chance of survival. Did I want to continue heroic efforts? “Yes,” I replied. I didn’t want our children to ever have any doubt that all chances were exhausted.

Soon, the discussion about the infamous papers transpired. Just like Mrs. McDreamy, I knew they were coming, I knew what they meant, and I realized they would take my (and my husband’s) breath away. This time, miraculously, I was able to script my autograph. Each of us was given the opportunity to say goodbye. When Meredith told Derek it was OK to leave, I heard my own voice emanating from the television.

Movies and TV never seem to depict what happens to family members after a loved one’s life support is discontinued. You’re at a loss as what to do next. What is expected? Another room is arranged for you to spend time with the deceased. To say I was uncomfortable with this was putting it mildly. It wasn’t him. It looked like a deflated and vacated body, not my Matt. He was gone. The next dilemma is when to leave. How long do you remain in the hospital where your spouse has just died? What is the proper waiting period before you have to leave him or her behind?

I was particularly struck by the scene where Meredith emphatically instructs the young ER doctor to make Derek’s death count. After which, she vomits in the bushes. I’ve displayed that facade of authority. Donned the same stoic pout. Being a new widow didn’t nullify her position as a doctor, a teacher. Much like losing my husband didn’t abolish my role as a mother or a wife for that matter. In fact, it increased its importance tenfold.

The next few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (conveniently shown during the sweeps period) promise to depict the aftermath of Dr. Derek Shepherd’s departure. I am curious to see how accurately Ms. Rhimes crafted the scenes. Will Derek’s sister be pissed she wasn’t given the opportunity to say goodbye? (A glaring misstep I noticed on Meredith’s part.) Will the loss of his presence resonate in episodes and seasons to come or will his memory fade from future mention? Previous episodes did justice when the news of a prior misfortune made its way to fresh ears. Case in point: When the current batch of residents learn about the plane crash that took the lives of many characters and cost Arizona her leg. Hopefully, this honest portrayal of tragedy – one of life’s everyday occurrences — will continue.

My sister and I were texting while the now famous episode was airing. Numerous “OMG”s and “Can you believe this?!” were traveling the messaging airwaves. Finally, I had to cease all communication. Whether it was helpful to me or not, my eyes were transfixed on the screen. My ears were honed to detect any subtle dialog. I had to see if they got things right. I still do.

Beyond Her Wildest Dreams

She’s been having weird dreams. Not like the type she used to endure. The ones where she’d wake up in a cold sweat, weeping with grief, with loss — bereft. Unlike the other ones, either. Those she described as “whackadoodle.” A variety similar to nightmares that would occur when she was a child, sick with fever — apocalyptic tales of zombies and morphing faces. A quick Internet search revealed taking Tamoxifen in the evening could be the culprit. Switching to a morning routine solved that problem.

No, these were of a different sort. Not exactly disturbing, but when she awoke she was encompassed by a sense of unsettling curiosity as to their meaning. The premise was consistent. She’s with someone — an unknown acquaintance, an old high school friend — never an individual in her current sphere. They are always about to go out — to the movies, dinner — the destination is never the point. The problem lies in that they are unable to leave until someone joins them. That person is always the same:

Her deceased husband.

“This puts a new twist on the term, ‘late,’” she thought to herself after her last encounter with the dream. She knew her husband would have appreciated the pun. The dreams had been going on for months. In each of them, her dream partners and she are in a state of perpetual expectancy. Her husband is always on the verge of arrival, but never shows. In some dreams, his tardiness makes her anxious. Not worried, just a “Come on! Get here already!” temperament. In others, she is lackadaisical. He’ll get there eventually. She’s enjoying her present company. All of the dreams were underlined with uneasiness.

She rarely remembered her dreams before her personal day of infamy. Deep down, she had always known it was coming, but she had envisioned warning. Like a hurricane, she expected it to start slowly and then build. Forecasters would make their predictions, state that things were looking ominous. At some point they would realize the storm was indeed coming — better secure the household and prepare. It would hit them with full force and bombard their entire existence, but they’d be ready to accept the inevitable. Instead, it arrived like an earthquake, without notice. It shook her suddenly and violently; she felt her brain rattle and bruise. Her foundation cracked, leaving an abyss. It took her quite some time to regain her bearings.

She’s a native Californian. She should have known.

Still contemplating, she realized her morning had a mental soundtrack. Alex Clare’s “Too Close”.

…At the end of it all, you’re still my best friend,
But there’s something inside that I need to release.
Which way is right, which way is wrong,
How do I say that I need to move on?
You know we’re heading separate ways.

She was disturbed by the lyrics echoing in her head. It felt like the dream was remaining, intruding on her waking hours. Was it playing in her actual dream? She couldn’t remember.

You’ve given me more than I can return,
Yet there’s also much that you deserve.
There’s nothing to say, nothing to do.
I’ve nothing to give,
I must live without you.
You know we’re heading separate ways.

Still perplexed and getting annoyed, she went to the Internet to visit her modern day swami on a hill — Google. She entered several variations of “waiting for dead husband to arrive in dream.” The results were more numerous than she had supposed, but none had the answers she needed. All of them went completely off-track by the second or third page. By the tenth page they included “How to get pregnant faster with Bible promises,” and passages from The Iliad. She wondered what babies, faith, and Homer had to do with it before clicking back to the first page. The common theme there was how and do loved ones communicate with those “left behind?”

She had a friend, more than one, actually, who asked her if she talked to her husband. The friends claimed they talked to their dead relatives regularly. Every light flicker, every floor creak, was a sign. A “Hello!” from their departed loved ones. She, however, never participated in such communications. Nor did she believe in them. Heaven, to her, was perfection. Her husband was finally at peace, whole — free from the physical pain and discomfort that haunted him on earth. What good would it do him to witness one of their children suffering an injury? Or to observe her own tussle with cancer? How could he watch the anguish they all felt after losing him? He loved them with his entire soul and being. That wouldn’t be Heaven for him. That would be Hell.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
There’s nothing I can really say.
I can lie no more, I can hide no more,
Got to be true to myself.
And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.

She was sick of the daybreak disturbances that were now customary. She wanted to awake rejuvenated, refreshed. Instead, she felt pensive and agitated. Where was the promised ending of time healing all wounds? She’d made progress, done all the things they had discussed when they contemplated the “what ifs.” The house was paid off. She was going back to work full-time. Her social calendar was full. Intellectually, she knew that she was doing what was necessary. He would approve, applaud even. Her friends touted her “strength” and “courage.” But her heart (dreams?) would send in sneak attacks attempting to halt her advancement: “Fraud” “Betrayal” “Dishonor” were lobbed like grenades into her consciousness. Occasionally they would be duds. Often they would explode.

“Enough of this shit!” she declared as she shut down the computer.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.

So I’ll be on my way.

She’ll be on her way.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

False Bravado

gorilla-loroparque-blackwhite-112108-h

I told a lie.

I told it multiple times.

I told it over and over. I told it ten times, one hundred times. If I told it once, I told it a thousand times. I must have said it a million times. I told it infinity times infinity.

I told a fib. I told a tall tale. I told a cock-and-bull story. I did a song and dance. I told a whopper.

I falsified information. I misrepresented the facts. I perjured myself.

I told a little white lie. I told a whole pack of lies. I lied down with dogs and picked up some fleas. I lied like a rug. I lied in wait. I lied in ruins. I lied at death’s door.

I told it with a look. I told it through my teeth. I told it with a smile.

I told it in a whisper. I mentioned it in casual conversation. I shouted it from the rooftops. I told it to the ends of the earth. I told it to the moon and back. I declared it to the heavens.

I put it mildly. I put it bluntly. I told it to the best of my ability. I told it with piss and vinegar. I told it with vim and vigor.

My lie was an all-out effort. It spared no effort. It was a last-ditch effort.

I told it at full strength. It was my main strength. It was my weakness. It did not know its own strength. It was my pillar of strength.

My lie kept the home fires burning. It was fired up. It was fired upon. It added fuel to the fire. It spread like wildfire. It fought fire with fire.

My lie was a force of habit. It was out in force. It was full force. It was forced down my throat. It was a force to be reckoned with.

My lie was idolized — customized — publicized. It vitalized — galvanized — agonized.

My lie has been an open secret. A trade secret. My lie has been safe with me.

I told it to my friends. I told it to my co-workers. I told it to my neighbors. I told it to my pastor. I told it to my family. I told it to acquaintances. I told it to strangers.

I told it to myself.

My lie has reached to the sky. It has been out of reach. It has reached its boiling point. Has it reached its conclusion?

If the truth be told, it’s the moment of truth. Can I handle the truth — the naked truth, the gospel truth, the honest-to-God truth?

Here’s the truth:
He died. He’s gone.

Here’s the lie:
I’m fine.


Winner of the @Medium writing prompt contest

I Wasn’t Going to Cry on Valentine’s Day – But the Google Doodle Shot That all to Hell.

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Valentine’s Day, 2014 began like any other day. After all, five VDs had come and gone and I was sure this was going to be the one on which I didn’t cry. No more feeling sorry for myself. This was the year.

Then I saw the Google Doodle.

It started out innocently enough. A lovely illustration of conversation hearts headlined the page this holiday. “How adorable!” I thought. “How charming! I love conversation hearts.” (Yellow is my favorite.) My eyes glided, enchanted, across the sweet sayings of “Crush” and “First Kiss” and settled on the soon-to-be insidious PLAY button on the lower right-hand corner. “Bonus!” I thought. “It’s animated.” Naively, I navigated my mouse over the triangle and clicked, fully expecting the hearts to begin their pretty pirouettes, choreographed to a delightful ditty and magically morphing into a cupid-filled depiction of their illustrious logo. My need for alliteration satisfied, all would be right in Googleville.

That’s not what happened.

Instead a voice, a male voice, starts emanating from my speakers. What’s this? Where’s my syrupy sing-song or powerful piece of classical music? I’m confused. He explains that all the stories I’m about to hear are true. ??? Did I drop into an episode of Dragnet?

Hesitantly, I click on the pink “Mr. Right.” Another voice, this time an older woman, begins to tell the tale of the day after she got married. Worried that she has made a horrible mistake, she sets out on a walk that lasts well into the evening. She arrives home to her frantic husband and soon realizes this is where she is supposed to be. Forty-two years later, she has never had another moment of doubt. As the story is being told, line drawings come and go on the selected heart, animating the dialog. And so it continues on down the line from “First Kiss” to “Puppy Love” to “Blind Date.” Each story heart touching and poignant.

Commence the tears. You know the routine. Small pools form in your eyelids. A quick sniff or snort to try and make them retreat. Deep breaths — and then all is lost. Floodgates are open.

DAMMIT!

My expectations for the day completely derailed in the first thirty minutes, I began to ruminate over what just transpired. I was doing so well! My grief had evolved into an attribute — no longer my definition. I pondered this self-disappointment all morning — getting dressed, driving to work. Preoccupied, I had forgotten to pack a lunch. Then, in the drive-thru, the revelation struck me — I wasn’t weeping out of melancholy, I was weeping out of empathy. I had been responding to the tender moments of someone’s history. For so long I was pushing and compressing my emotions deep into the bedrock of my being, fully expecting them to fossilize. Meanwhile, my subconscious was constructing a derrick and had begun the gradual and cautious drill into my sentimental reservoir. The Google Doodle was just the final twist of the bit spewing the tears up and over.

I should have seen it coming.

There were hints. The previous summer, I attended a wedding. The bride was the daughter of an old and cherished friend. I traveled to Spokane with another lifelong cohort; the three of us inseparable since childhood. Our bond had survived through countless trials. We were bridesmaids for one another. This was the first wedding for one of our children and it was special.

The big day came and I was composed. No tears expected from me. Heck, I had been to funerals and not spilled a drop. You think a wedding could unsettle me?! Cue the music…

Release the Kracken!!!

It didn’t help the procession music was the love song from Princess Bride, one of my husband’s and my all-time favorites. But what the heck was this?! Hold on second — it’s not just crying — it’s blubbering!!! I wasn’t prepared for this assault. There was no feminine handkerchief in my pocketbook. I struggled for something to sop up the onslaught streaming down my face. Frantically, I grabbed an offering envelope from the pew and cradled it under each eye. Not their intended use, but it was better than nothing.

Completely taken aback, I struggled to make sense of this phenomenon and gain my composure. I had never, ever cried at a wedding. Why now was I bleary-eyed and snot-nosed? But the bride was the spitting image of her mom on her wedding day. In both appearance and mannerisms, she was a reflection of a date more than twenty-five years earlier when all was right with the world. Plus, I had held this wife-to-be when she was only a few days old, a little peanut of an infant. She was our collective first child. There wasn’t going to be enough envelopes to last the weekend.

My dear friend and closest confidante asserts I never stood a chance. “It’s the beginning of menopause,” she explains. “Those hormones will get you every time.” I suppose some of that is true. There could be a biological component bringing on the waterworks. But is that all there is to it? I hope not. That would mean that there will be an end to this epiphany. The change will eventually complete and I will return to being unresponsive and dispassionate. I am finally at a place where I feel it’s safe to express my vulnerability and I don’t want to retreat. I want to feel the sting of raw emotion and be confident that it won’t scorch my soul and turn me to ash. I want to shed a tear and be happy about it.

I want to cry at the Google Doodle.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

Today is Your Birthday

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One of my favorite stories is the one your family used to tell me about the day you were born. You were the third of four, the only boy, in a patriarchal, first-generation Italian family. Your father brought your mother roses; no such gift heralded your sisters’ arrivals. One would think this would create conflict, but it never arose. The family revolved around you as the sun-son of their universe.

You were proclaimed the golden child and that was that.

I wish I could have known you as a little boy. On all those previous birthdays when they would drape a blanket over your shoulders, place you in your highchair and pronounce you “king.” Your mother would make you chocolate cake for breakfast and your father would burst with pride. His son, named after his own father, was growing into a fine young man. Years later, we would continue the tradition and name our first-born after him.

It was the first time I saw your father cry.

I caught up to you when you were seventeen. I was your “Christmas present” from a mutual friend. As we stood under the mistletoe, you pointed out the cheesy stuck-on bow the friend had somehow convinced me to wear. We shared our first kiss—my first kiss. Three months later, when you turned eighteen, we almost broke up. Some friends had called me “jail bait” and it made you apprehensive. Even though no statutory offense had been committed, the thought that you could go to jail for falling in love with me sent you, the son of a detective, into a minor tailspin.

I told you to stop being ridiculous and that was that.

You never really liked your birthday. It wasn’t because most people could never get the date right. Even family members would ask, “Is it the 30th or 31st?” You objected to a day being devoted solely to you. Maybe all those years of being the center of your family’s cosmos had created the aversion, I don’t know. Christmas was more your character. You relished its reciprocity.

We were married by your twenty-eighth birthday; living in our one-story, blue-and-white house you had gallantly purchased. I wouldn’t dare to make you a chocolate cake. Your mother’s was sacred. I made you a special dinner—salmon, I think.

Our first son was born the year you turned thirty. Your father’s age was the same when you appeared. The three of you always delighted in the symmetry.

Our second son came into this world just barely into the month you turned thirty-two. He shares the date with his Auntie, but he shared the month with you. We were never able to grow our family more.

We were complete at four and that was that.

The year you turned thirty-four, you donated a kidney to your father. Some questioned how I could allow you to present this gift to him — your dad, my father-in-law, our boys’ Papa — as if I had any say in the matter. They had no idea that it was my turn to burst with pride at the mention of you. You were left with a fourteen-inch scar to mark the occasion.

We received the call when you were thirty-six, during a late-evening, family dinner. The doctor asked for both of us to be on the line when he related what the tests had decreed. We soon realized that after-hour phone calls would be forever ominous.

Your fortieth birthday was celebrated halfway through your treatment. The month before, your medical court had brought you to death’s precipice, and then cautiously, methodically, brought you back to our realm. Your sister had the honor of cup-bearer, offering her lifeblood for the rite. For weeks you had been in isolation, developing the strength needed to withstand our world’s contamination. The doctors conceded to the momentous occasion and allowed you to go into the garden and bask in the sun as we basked in you. We festooned your wheelchair with balloons and the boys took turns sitting on your lap. You overexerted yourself for our happiness.

Each of the five birthdays after that was precious. Resplendent gems that our hearts treasured. We coveted them, but the golden child was waning and that would soon be

THAT.

We held your service five months after your forty-fifth birthday. An elite few were chosen to proclaim their tributes and testimonies from the rose-adorned altar. Over a thousand people came to pay homage.

It was the second time I saw your father cry.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

In Search of Big Girl Panties

I have very little tolerance for martyrdom. It’s the helplessness and the “feel sorry for me” mindset. I am the first one to say, “Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it, woman!” If I see someone continuously curled up in a ball, my initial instinct is to kick him or her down a staircase. Not my most empathetic attribute.

A little over five years ago, my husband, Matt, died.

There. I said the “D” word. I’m a regular user of all the euphemisms — “passed away,” “the day we lost him,” “left.” There is nothing wrong with any of them and most likely I will continue to use them. It’s just that I have specifically avoided the word DIED. It seems so irrevocable — so harsh —

so … dead.

Maybe that’s why it has taken me so long to write this. Why it has taken over half a decade to begin the process of putting on my personal panties and dealing. I always had something else more important, someone else who needed my attention. In retrospect, there is no doubt I erected those “somethings” and “someones” as barricades to protect (obstruct?) my own recovery. These barricades even had their own set of panties: the mother, high-waisted and lacking all femininity; the candy striper, supportive and sticky sweet; and the trooper, camouflaged to disguise any hint of vulnerability. I need to get a new pair. My own fresh and unique undies.

Now — for the first time in my life — I am living alone. An empty-nester. A widow. Single. Honestly, I dislike all labels. I would rather be known by my personality and accomplishments than my “situation.” The situation is whispered about at parties or school functions. Occasionally, I’ll catch an attempt at the discreet finger point. No one introduces me as the Widow Gastaldo, but the title is there. It’s my aura.

Then there are the times that I want to scream it from the rooftops. I want to stand on a stage yelling into a microphone,

“Do you know who I am?!

Do you know what I have gone through?!

SYMPATHIZE WITH MY SITUATION!!!!”

I then consume an entire cherry pie, sit down to watch an episode of Parenthood and sob.

I guess it’s time to dissect and digest these classifications. Empty-nester. When my husband died (there, I said it again) our boys were thirteen and fifteen, in eighth and ninth grade. Resolute to make up for what they had lost, I threw myself into volunteering for their football team, their track team, whatever. If they were on the field, I was on the field. Matt had coached every sport they were in from the age of four and I was determined to continue that legacy. This was the era of the mother and the candy striper. Then the boys went off to college and suddenly high-waisted and sweet didn’t fit quite right. Don’t mistake me; I have never been one to pine for days gone by with my boys. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage of their life as it occurred. Ecstatic for what they have accomplished and what their future brings, #proudmama is my most frequent hashtag. But the nest is unoccupied now. It is too silent. I can go an entire day without uttering a single word. I need a new focus.

Widow. Wearer of the trooper. Most days I don’t feel old enough to have the title. Yes, I am aware of how cliché that sounds, but it is authentic. In my mind, I am that 16-year-old naïve teenager that my husband fell in love with. (High-school sweethearts, another cliché.) I still have years left to achieve and witness much. Other times, I feel extraordinarily ancient. A lifetime lived-and-done-with, begun-and-completed-earlier than most. Then there’s the look the word generates. I hate the look!!! It passes across their face when your situation is explained and people contemplate you like a caged dog in a shelter that needs rescue.

I swear I can hear Sarah McLachlan singing.

Now the worst of all — Single. Ownership of that designation is still difficult, maybe because I did not chose to be single. It was thrust upon me like a lance that I could not avert. Single sounds whole and complete. But I don’t feel whole. I feel hacked, a fraction of what I once was. For better or worse, clichés and all, Matt was my better-half and I was his. We shaped each other into adulthood. He was my seatmate in life’s roller coaster and now I’m the single rider — the extra. Sometimes, I wish people could see the giant scab that runs the length of me and has yet to completely scar and heal. They unknowingly pick at it and would be mortified to find out they do. Yet each time a husband lightly strokes his wife’s back during casual conversation or a wife gives her husband a look that can mean anything, but only he understands, the scab bleeds just a bit. I quickly wipe it away so no one will notice, but the sting lingers. It is the actual physical sensation that NO ONE warns you about and thus you are unprepared. Unprepared for the craving of non-sexual intimacy and chemistry you used to know. A forced detox if you will, constantly longing for the fix of a hug or caress or casual conversation. There are no undergarments for this, only bandages.

So that’s it. That’s the situation. I know I won’t be able to shed these classifications easily or entirely, but a girl has to start. It’s time to remove the roadblocks, resist the urge to roll up like a pill bug and shop for my new big-girl panties. Perhaps I will head to Victoria’s Secret and settle on an eye-of-the-tiger-wonder-woman hipster. Or (gasp!) a thong. If you see me veering towards the clearance rack located in the Aisle of Martyrdom, please take me to the top of the nearest staircase and kick.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com