Happy Holidays from the Upside Down

I am mostly doing really well, honestly, but this past Saturday night I cried until mascara made black half-moons under my eyes while Renee and I walked our dog. (Renee gets bonus points for acting unembarrassed by my sobbing on Rt. 116 as I picked up Lola’s poop.)  I’d held myself together for Thanksgiving, but two days later the realization hit me: No matter how much gratitude I practice nor how many new traditions I embrace, I will always have a giant hole in every single special day in my life, forever. Understanding I was permanently damaged just made me cry.

Our Thanksgiving was lovely, spent with my wife, my mom, and old and new friends, cooking, drinking mulled wine, feasting, and crafting collages about our gratitude.  But all day long I felt like I was experiencing the day from behind glass. thanksgivingI was there but not there. I knew what words to paste and images to clip out for my collage – love, poetry, nature, friendship, rest. I knew how to play hostess and thank my dear friends for spending the day with me. But the absence of Kyle in the world – and my extra-acute awareness of his absence — felt bigger than anything happening right in front of me.

Having to act normal, let alone festive, when the day had that huge hollow center was exhausting.  (In fact, I threw up Thanksgiving evening before the first guests left and several more times since then, which is a bummer, as I thought I had my mysterious cyclic vomiting thing licked, but more on that another time.)

thanksgiving collageUntil now, every holiday since my son’s death has been a first – first birthdays without him, first Christmas without him, etc. For all these firsts, it seemed only right that our open, messy mourning would dominate the day. But this year’s holiday marked our first second – this was our second Thanksgiving with Kyle dead… Soon we’ll have the second Christmas without him alive. And it has become clear to me that each year, we’re going to be expected to act a little less sad. Mercifully, I am less hysterical and shaky than I was the first year, more able to practice normalcy – but it turns out I’m no less heartbroken.

I’ve been working hard on gratitude and acceptance. To help keep my Thanksgiving focus on the blessings of friendship and love I still have in my life, I created a slide show of photos of all the loved ones coming to dinner on Thanksgiving. We all enjoyed seeing it play throughout the day. But at the end of the night, I felt compelled to try to convey my underlying sorrow, so I briefly played on repeat a 5-second video of Kyle laughing and talked about how haunted I’d been by the sound of it after I’d stumbled across it while making the slide show. Everyone who heard it was suitably saddened.  But why did I do that? Sharing my sadness does not relieve it. Amplifying my grief by making others feel it with me only makes me sadder – and then I feel regretful about ruining someone else’s mood. There is nothing new or helpful left to say about how sad it is that Kyle’s gone. There is now only a hole that we all have to accept and step around.

Kyle potato masher
Here is Kyle getting a potato masher for Christmas in 2011; mashed potatoes were his favorite part of holiday meals.

Holidays and other special occasions when Kyle and I would always have been in touch, if not together, make the hole he left yawn even bigger.

My delayed tears flowed when I realized that the widened pull of the hole – like the dark opening to the Upside Down in Stranger Things — was always going to make holidays scary. Special days will now include a maw opening into an even larger well of grief than I am already facing on regular days. So now this whole month leading up to Christmas (I’m Jewish, but was raised celebrating Christmas) has an ominous spirit. Even worse, I feel this same fear when I know I’ll be seeing Kyle’s daughter; she’s delightful but is also a constant reminder of what he is missing; her most precious moments open the hole widest of all.

I do know that a form of this grief is universal at the holidays, even when we aren’t mourning – because holidays are often a reminder of how our families are seldom quite what we want them to be. The gap between our hopes and our realities can be vast, particularly if we’re aiming for a  perfect Hallmark holiday free of criticism and disappointment. Divorce, mentally ill family members, not having the money to buy the presents our kids want, all of these can create their own holes.  Even in the best years, when everyone I loved was gathered in my warm and cozy house cooking and laughing together. there were still tensions and squabbles, judgments and tears.

So for Day 28 in my month of gratitude, I return to acceptance. I am grateful for what is still good (so so much, and I never forget it), grateful that technology let me end my Thanksgiving night with a video chat with my daughter and a video performance and reading by Kyle’s daughter, maggieamberskype.jpggrateful that Jamie had a good celebration with friends and that Amy made her husband a heart-filled treasure hunt for his birthday, grateful for my mom living near enough for a sleepover on Thanksgiving night, grateful the universe put two wonderful pseudo daughters, Priyanka and Natalie,

IMG_20150227_004723
This is Natalie & Priyanka helping us celebrate Renee’s birthday at a karaoke club in NYC a couple of years ago. 

in my life – and let them be part of the slumber party here, grateful a friend’s cancer surgery the previous week went well, grateful another friend found homes for several homeless boys this month, grateful for the fabulous mother-daughter film Ladybird that I got to see with my mother the day after Thanksgiving, grateful for the writing accountability buddies who have been meeting with me virtually and in person.

Much as I hate it, I am even learning to accept the hole. I don’t expect ever to feel grateful for it — but I am grateful for the love that dug it, and for all the love that pulls me out of it every day.

Moon Signs

My lack of faith sometimes causes me to miss some pretty bright signs.

Or perhaps … my delusional wish to believe in an afterlife sometimes causes me to imagine signs where there are none.

You can decide, depending on your own bias, which of these statements is true about the signs – or the delusions – I had the last couple of nights.

Our friend Carolyn had come to watch some disappointing episodes of Stranger Things with us, and as she was getting ready to leave, I stepped outside to give our dog her night outs. As soon as I clicked on Lola’s harness, I looked up at the sky — and drew in a breath at the beauty of the full moon shrouded in fall clouds over darkly silhouetted trees (see totally inadequate picture).IMG_20171102_233239189

The moon, as I explained when sharing this photo in a Facebook post, was a symbol my children and I used to communicate our connection to one another. Wherever we were, if we wanted to tell the other two we loved them, we would send a photo of the moon – even though photos cannot do the moon justice. We understood this meant we were shining our love up at the moon – and that the moon, in turn, was beaming our love back down on the other two. This practice stemmed from a fun elementary school assignment in which students had to find the moon each night (even if it meant driving around for a viewing) and then create a project about it each day.  Kyle and Jamie wrote poems about the moon, did artwork and science projects about its phases, and looked forward with excitement to our nightly search. So did I.

Since Kyle died, the moon’s beauty is often a reminder of how there are now only two of us looking up at it – and only one other person to whom we can send a photo. But the moon is still a reminder of our spiritual connection, now as a symbol of how Kyle’s love continues to shine down on us even though he’s not here with us. I try to keep my heart open to that idea, though sometimes seeing the moon just makes me tear up with how terribly I miss my son.

Jamie has a haiku she’s saved in her phone that Kyle wrote and texted to her about their moon connection – and I thought he’d sent the poem to both of us. After sending Jamie a message last night while looking at the full moon, I yearned for a connection with Kyle, too, and thought I would dig up his haiku message. Turns out I couldn’t find it – nor any of the messages I know he sent me with moon photos. Nearly all my many texts and FB messages from him seem to  have disappeared. (Perhaps this is a sign that I am supposed to stop looking for them, part of my letting go.) But as I looked at our last FB Messages, I was prompted by a yellow hand in double parentheses with the words, “Send Kyle a wave.”  By this time, I was crying a little, telling Renee why I was sitting outside in the dark tearing up at the sight of the moon, and so when this prompt showed up on my phone screen, I laughed through my tears and said, “OK, fine, I’ll send him a wave.” And I pushed the button and a little wave showed up, and now the screen says “Waiting for Kyle…” at the end of the exchange.

It wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I realized how I had gone looking for a sign from Kyle, and then he had pretty much waved at me… This idea really made me smile.IMG_20171103_142824

I know part of why this didn’t occur to me while it was happening is because my wife is as close to actively atheist as an agnostic can be — as Kyle sometimes was. She doesn’t believe there is any higher power, doesn’t see how it’s possible that there could be a supreme being caring about each individual hair on our heads. I get it. The idea is impossible to conceive, beyond human understanding. A friend of mine in high school who had found Jesus but managed never to get preachy about it wrote a poem about how trying to explain the vastness of God’s love was like trying to scoop up the ocean with a Dixie cup. Our minds are the Dixie cups, way too small to hold on to an idea so big as God. Kyle liked that analogy, too, and told me he shared it sometimes in meetings. (Here, as a total aside, is the value of poetry, even when we don’t know who our audience might ever be. I read this line in high school; it was never published outside the school — but I still remember it 35 years later, and it has now been shared with countless others)

But back to my musings on signs from the beyond: I feel better when I believe in them and worse when I discount them. So hey there, Kyle, thanks for encouraging me to wave at you. I’ll try to keep my eyes and heart open for your next sign.  And I’d also like to recognize that maybe your daughter dressing up the same way you did at the same age could have been a sign, too.  I hope you could see her following in your Power Ranger footsteps from wherever you are:

kyle power ranger

IMG_20171102_211419

 

P.S. I called my cousin Debbie two nights ago to make sure she was OK after the NYC terrorist attack; she was, thank God. But she mentioned that she’d read my last blog post and wondered if I’d ever finished compiling my poetry manuscript. YES, I did, and I am sheepishly proud of it, and I’ve sent it in to several poetry publishing contests and also sent several individual poems in for consideration by various magazine editors. I did all this while I was in Maine staying alone in the empty home of our friends, and am hugely grateful I had that time and space to get that done. Now on to National Novel Writing Month, because it’s good to have goals.

One Day for Atonement?

Tonight marks the start of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and most somber day of the Jewish year, a day meant to be spent fasting and repenting for the previous year’s sins.  In the exact opposite of that spirit, I would like to share an irreverent poem I wrote about repentance 15 years ago in a poetry circle with my children:

ATONEMENT FOR ALL

The Catholics go in weekly
to seek forgiveness for each deed.
They confess each sin, bow meekly,
do penance as their priest decreed.

The Baptists seek more salvation:
“Praise the Lord” louder, “Christ is great.”
One born-again exclamation
wipes clean a lifetime’s whole sin slate!

The Buddhists urge a strength of mind,
an inner path to living pure.
Avoiding sin means being kind;
confession just is not a cure.

The Jews have got a special spin
on the matter of redemption:
We set aside one day to win
a mea-culpa exemption.

On Yom Kippur we fast all day,
a swap for falling short all year.
Give God our regrets, then we pray
to get the once-a-year “all-clear.”

If we’re sorry, God sets in stone
our names in the Book of Life.
Then it’s a year til we atone
for the next twelve months of strife.

I need relief from Jewish guilt,
so I like that we make amends.
But even contrite to the hilt …
one day seems not enough to spend.

So I propose a medley:
a forgiveness potpourri:

When you’re wrong, admit to it fast
When others are failing, be kind.
Don’t wait all year for God’s die to cast:
Atone as you go for true peace of mind.

——————

I hope that didn’t offend anybody, but I am discovering there is no way to be a writer without taking that risk – so what I really hope is that it made some of you laugh.

Regarding my own Yom Kippur, I will not be spending the day atoning. My son is dead, so if I believed in a punishing God, which happily I do not, I would expect I’ve already received the worst punishment I could have been dealt for whatever sins I may have committed. More to the point, I have spent the entire past year praying and reflecting on the suffering I have caused myself and others, so I think I’m covered for the day.

Instead, I am enjoying a blessing beyond measure. Dear friends have loaned me the use of their bright and beautiful home in Cape Neddick, Maine, and I am here for two weeks putting together a book-length collection of my (more serious) poetry for submission.068.jpg

Renee was with me for a romantic getaway the first couple of days and is coming back to share another whirlwind mini-holiday with me Sunday-Monday, and at the end of my stay here I am thrilled that Jamie will be flying out from Portland for a mother-daughter writing retreat with me here during the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day weekend. But mostly I am here on my own.

When my friends first generously offered me the use of their home while they were traveling, it was because I was grieving and in need of time alone to mourn. But that was many months ago, and something about building myself up for the one-year mark has helped me turn a corner. So instead of mourning (or rather, in addition, as mourning is part of my forever now, like breathing), I am here writing, reading, revising, compiling,063 doing yoga, dancing, eating, circling poetry book contests in Poets & Writer’s Magazine, and playing with pastels on the lawn overlooking the ocean. I am blessed. God is good. And I am glad to be here.  If I have anything to atone for, it’s for all the days I’ve failed to be this fully alive.

Yom Tov, everybody – which means, “have a good holy day.”

The New Year

Today, even though it is the one-year anniversary of my son’s death, a chihuahua with wheels on its hind legs attacked my little terrier mix, Lola, during our morning walk. (Lola’s shaken but OK; I yanked her up into the air by her harness, and wheels-for-legs may be fast, but she can’t jump.)  The chihuahua let me know first thing that the world is not going to stop to help me mark this sad day. The dog still needs to be walked and comforted. The gas still needs to be pumped, the online bills paid, the deodorant applied.

I am glad for this anniversary marker, though, just as I was glad for the one-year memorial event; both dates gave me a deadline to work toward and let me imagine I might achieve some closure.  Of course there’s no end to my grief, but I am hoping to use this date as a demarcation between the year I spent actively grieving and the years I will spend with grief as my steady, loving companion rather than as a micro-managing, hyper-critical, tyrannical boss who doesn’t believe in coffee breaks.

The memorial event this past weekend was beautiful, or at least that’s what the friends who attended have kindly told me. I spent most of the day feeling a bit out of my own body. It was blazing hot and muggy, and I had set up craft tables outside for people to do scrapbook pages with Kyle’s photos, paint rocks with messages from Kyle on them, and write letters to his someday-teenage daughter, Maggie, about what Kyle might wish for her or want her to know. I didn’t do any of the crafts and mostly stayed inside in the air-conditioned cool grave-marker.jpgof the house playing video clips of Kyle as a baby, as a stand-up comic, as a poet, as a rapper, as a brother and a friend and a son. I felt huge gratitude to every single friend who showed up (or even just sent loving messages) and to the dear ones who flew and drove for many hours to be with us — but I didn’t feel Kyle’s spirit when we stood around the grave marker and lay down our heart-shaped rocks and tried like hell to feel him in our hearts.

img_20170919_132228384.jpgHappily, when we were a smaller group gathered inside that evening, his spirit infused us all as we held hands at Jamie’s suggestion and sang Stand By Me —  and then had a truly joyful dance and karaoke party.  When I had asked Kyle what we should do to mark the day, he told me he wanted us all to laugh a lot and have a fun party.  I was annoyed; I didn’t see how that was possible. But it turned out he was right; laughing and dancing and being joyful is the only true way to feel his spirit as it lives on in us.

As I was typing this, Jamie called; she said Kyle had directed her to reach out – and it turned out the last words I had typed before my phone rang were “messages from Kyle,” so that was kind of cool. I read Jamie my opening paragraph and she said she was having the same thought as she looked at her day’s calendar: she has two home visits to make and a class of 20 pre-schoolers to teach, and will be seeing a parent whose six-month-old baby is having open heart surgery today. So she, too, was struck by how life was pulling her in and demanding her attention, despite this supposed momentous anniversary. We both know keeping up with life is good for us; the alternative serves no one.

In Judaism the one-year mark is significant; children, parents and spouses who have grieved all year are supposed to mark this anniversary with a Yahrzeit candle reflecting the fragility of life, the light of the soul, and a verse from Proverbs: “The soul of the man is the candle of God.”  This year, making the significance of this  anniversary even more clear, the anniversary of Kyle’s death falls on the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah –a day when Reform Jews eat round challah to celebrate the circle of life. Many Jews also mark the occasion with a tradition called tashlich, which means “casting off” in Hebrew; when my children were little we would throw bread into the water to represent everything we wanted to cast off from the previous year. We would each say something we were sorry for and wanted to do differently in the year ahead.

In my current friend-family, we celebrate by making water colors of what we are repenting and wanting to shed — and then throw our artwork into a baby pool until whatever we’ve painted has been washed away.  I’m not sure I can join my friends for this ritual tonight; I think I need to stay home – but I know what I want to cast off. It’s been a year of self-absorption and sad reflecting, of questioning every choice I made and IMG_20170815_204449wishing I’d done so many things differently.

Today I will endeavor to let my regrets go and to celebrate all that was bright and beautiful in my boy, as doing so is what truly allows his memory to be a blessing.

Shanah Tovah, my friends — here’s wishing us all a good year.

What Is Wrong With Me

love love loveHere’s how today’s writing practice went: I wrote a poem, or rather, a poem started to pour out of me, and I caught it and splashed around in it for several hours. (How lucky am I, how privileged, to have time to do this?) Then I sat down to post the poem here but lost courage, so wrote a long blog-post to precede and explain the poem. Then, through the act of writing the explanation, I rediscovered my courage and realized I should just let the poem speak for itself.  Of course. So here’s the poem…  no explanations.  (I think this is progress, I’ll take it.)

What Is Wrong With Me: Sickness As Symptom

Our bodies manifest the pain
our souls cannot express.

When my son was an infant
I became engorged
when I couldn’t express
my breast milk, turning my
once soft skin into stretched
stone that hurt when touched.

Back then my only cure
was ice and weeping
with agonized longing
to be home nursing.
Bathroom pumping
was a one-day outlet
that made me miss more
the antidote I craved,
which was to breastfeed
longer than six weeks.

My latest maternal pain
also fills me with rocks;
if I had a pump this time
I’d use it. Instead, my body
manufactures new outlets.

The pain moves out
while I’m in motion:
the herniated disc,
the blade-divided heart,
both muted by distraction.
Only when I stand still
do pain’s pincers seize
my lower back, clamp
the spot where my neck
meets my shoulder,
rip my meal back out
through my gasping mouth.

The miracle is: my soul will
be able to absorb my son’s death,

just not all at once. My breasts
had one day to dry up, don armor,
and get back to a job they didn’t want.
What lies beneath them, my enlarged
heart, is a damaged muscle; she won’t
work well against her will, even
pumping double-time she can’t fill,
then empty in so great a hurry.

I’ve let in the needle, but speeding
the plunger would kill me.  Sometimes
the wall holds me while I catch my breath.

I’ve been delicately making my way,
one memory at a time, trying to digest
all the moments that made this outcome,
chewing each misstep mindfully,
remembering to breathe between bites,
so the glass is smooth when it goes down,
so I can forgive each choice I made.
So I can make his memory a blessing.

Sometimes I forget to pace myself,
and everything rushes in at once,
all the knowledge that made Eve
sorry she was naked, sickened
by the bitter worms in every bite.
My body rejects the speeding influx
forcefully enough to scare me.

For every ache and itch I’ve had,
my soul has an explanation:
My stiff neck asks how it can ever
turn easily to face this full-on.
It orders me to better manage
my peripheral vision, which plays
tricks now if I’m not watchful.
I’ve been crawling out of my skin
since I heard the news, too,
wishing to be out of this body
before the full brunt bears down.
No wonder I tear tiny wounds,
scratching at the backs of my hands.

Yet pained or not, here I am;
the six weeks this body fed my son
were the only ones I will ever get;
and the lifetime I have left in this body
will be all the time I’ll ever get
to miss him in every cell of my being,
and for that alone I must cherish it.

———

To satisfy my worried wife,
and to keep the will to live this life,
I smooth on the creams, take
the medicines, see the doctors,
even though I know there is
nothing in me they can fix.

What can a stranger do to treat
the wind-rush of pain I breathe in
upon waking? When my heart expands
until the membranes near rupture,
it’s up to me to let air out of the valve
by breathing in. Then out. All day.

I do the yoga (thank God and Adriene for the yoga).
I write – my own prescriptions and this poem. I pray
and wish I knew You could hear me,
but give thanks I don’t know You can’t.
I cry to release more steam,
I enjoy each taste my tongue chooses,
I let the open sky touch my face,
I take joyful kisses from my dog
and watch my cat discover sunshine.
I cheerlead all the warriors
in my circle and in the world.
I  laugh at comedy and read
universal stories of suffering
so I am less alone. I love as a verb
the dear ones still here on Earth.
Including, most challengingly, myself.

I look at lists my son was ordered
by his sponsor to write of his fears:
“That God is a lie I tell myself,
that I will die without doing anything
I hoped to get done.”
I resolve to write a list of hopes instead,
just as soon as I feel ready.

 

 

Is my grief excuse expiring?

Like most women, I feel I have failed if I have not made everyone I love (or even know) happy.  

Probably most people who know me don’t think of me as conflict-averse (I’m not) nor shy about sharing my feelings (ditto).  But this blog https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2017/01/10/healthy-boundaries-in-grief/ about being able to set boundaries, especially with the people closest to me, really spoke to me today.

Like most women, I feel I have failed if I have not made everyone I love (or even know) happy.  No amount of therapy or self-help reading has been able to cure me of my sponge-like absorption of everyone else’s feelings, especially the negative ones, nor of the ridiculous notion that it is up to me to fix every problem brought to my attention.  So when Kyle died, my only relief was being cleared of nearly all my emotional-support responsibilities. Having failed to make Kyle happy enough to value his own life, I obviously wasn’t going to be expected to make anyone else feel happy anytime soon. (I am being sardonic; I recognize it isn’t my actual responsibility to make anyone else happy — but it was a relief to know I didn’t even need to try for a while.)

In the first months after Kyle died, I said no more easily and asked for what I needed more directly.  I took a medical leave from my job, where I would once have considered myself too indispensable to arrange two months off.  (As one friend said to me, not meaning to be unkind, “You can probably get away with pretty much anything now.”) And now I am on permanent leave, no longer employed, because I was able to say I needed space and time to figure out how to live with this loss.  (And also because I am privileged and married to someone willing to undergo a lot of economic changes.)

As my son’s one-year memorial is approaching, I am having trouble being as clear about what I need, even with myself — or feeling as entitled to protect my time and energy. Is it OK to shut off my phone when my daughter sounded sad the last time I talked to her? Is it OK to tell my mother I don’t want to go to all her doctors’ appointments with her? Is it OK to tell my wife I want to be alone again this evening when I have already spent all day by myself? Is it OK to always make my friends come here to see me because I have a new social anxiety? Is it OK to read a novel when I am “supposed” to be planning a memorial? Is anything I’m doing OK?

It’s a lot harder to tell what is the right thing to be doing when there are no longer any clear goals being set for me — and when I occasionally hear, “Oh, come on, you’re home all day now, so surely you can __________.” (Fill in the blank with whatever it is that person wants me to do.) If I try a tentative no and am asked to explain myself, I have no good answers.  Is it OK to have no excuse, to not explain how I am getting through each day, to say — as my therapist instructed me — that I thought about what I wanted, and I simply don’t want to do what I am being asked to do. It doesn’t feel OK. It feels scary and bad. And like my grief excuse might be expiring, which is even scarier.

Unfortunately, my body is doing a lot of the talking for me, as I have been suffering from itchy hives, spontaneous vomiting, a propensity to injure myself by banging into things, stiff necks and severe lower back pain despite daily yoga. A good friend who is practicing somatic-experience therapeutic techniques (“where does it hurt? why does it hurt?”) worked with me yesterday and we concluded my physical pains are manifesting to distract me from the more agonizing emotional pain that is always lying in wait when I run out of distractions. Perhaps there is wisdom in letting ourselves access the full depth of our grief.  I am letting in as much at a time as I feel I can take, but it seems like my body wants me to let in more — rather than, say, spending a day acquiring new furniture on Craigslist.

I had been pressuring myself to feel a sense of closure — as if my grief is going to be wrapped up in some way because it’s been a year. This fellow grieving mother’s article helped me recognize that my first year of grieving was mostly spent in shock, denial and avoidance as I continued working, traveling, and helping loved ones through major moves and life transitions.

I feel like I am just now getting into the heart of my grief — whatever that is. Kyle’s father, Larry, whose heart is surely as broken as mine, takes comfort in working multiple jobs and staying busy; he doesn’t understand why Jamie and I spend as much time as we do looking at pictures and “making ourselves sadder than we need to be.”  I appreciate that avoidance works for him and have often envied his ability to be cheery in the face of grim news. (His last voicemail to me, the day before Kyle died, assured me that I was worrying for nothing, that Kyle sounded great the last time he spoke to him. I never wished more for his endless optimism to be on target.)

Meanwhile, I am still practicing my own methods of avoidance and distraction: Facebooking too much, for example.  Even writing this blog was a form of procrastination that allowed me to avoid the work I keep meaning to be doing with Kyle’s poems.  I wanted to assemble them, and a scrapbook, and a video compilation, all before/for the memorial, but I’m starting to think I might not be able to get any — or certainly not all — of that done. Reading his writing hurts so much that I must pace myself; knowing there is no more of it hurts, too; maybe I am better off having these projects still waiting for me after the memorial.  I am trying to trust myself, even though many days I wonder what I am doing, why I’m not getting more done.

So instead of asking myself if it’s OK that I sit many days in a room surrounded by Kyle’s writing and photos, talking to him, trying to figure out how this happened, how I can best honor his life, and what I’m supposed to be learning from this, I will try to just be — to practice the radical self-acceptance I praised in my wife the day we were married.

I welcome all of you to keep reaching out — or even to start reaching out if you’ve been waiting for an appropriate amount of time to pass before being back in touch. But I’ll be grateful to know you understand if I’m not ready to say yes to your requests just yet.

First Anniversary

Tomorrow is my first wedding anniversary–and also the first anniversary of the last full day I had with my son.

To celebrate like the schmoopie romantics that we are, Renee and I are going to drink peach bellinis made with unopened wedding champagne, feed each other the wedding cake she saved all year in our freezer, and enjoy a few surprises along with the chicken marsala dinner we’re planning.

Marking the last-day-with-my-son anniversary is going to be harder.{01380890-E5AF-47CF-8B69-E3D3E8DA6F2C}

I’ve accepted that our wedding memories will always have this shadow over them – not because Kyle was there (because of course I’m thrilled he was there and that everyone was able to spend the day with him). No, I am haunted by how I treated Kyle that day. He was sweet and patient with me–and visibly anxious to please both me and Renee, to do a good job with the tasks we’d assigned him, including planting last-minute flowers in the yard and serving as DJ at our do-it-yourself wedding. But I was wound tight, worrying right up to the last minutes over dozens of details involved in throwing a party for 100 people. I fixated on the stupidest things and came down the aisle 45 minutes late because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my hair.

Despite this, our wedding was all we’d dreamed; we were giddy with pure joy – and so so grateful to everyone there witnessing and celebrating our pledges of love and helping to put the wedding itself together. But when the music died in the middle of our reception because D.J. Kyle hadn’t plugged the laptop in, I should have just laughed and helped him find a charger. Instead I was snarky and sarcastic with him when he raced over looking for one.

I’m sorry, Kyle, that I only started talking to you with pure love and no criticisms now that you’re dead.

The heaviest fear I carry is that seeing me marry Renee might have given Kyle some kind of permission to relapse.  He loved Renee; he made a beautiful toast about our love and how much it meant to him to see me so happy. But I secretly fear that seeing me “taken care of” and in love gave him permission to give up; he started shooting heroin again within a day or two.  Then again, I hadn’t just gotten married all the other times he relapsed, so perhaps the two events are unrelated.

Meanwhile, there’s Renee, who couldn’t have known on our wedding day what this first year of marriage was going to bring.  I wish it had been otherwise, but here we are.  She’s been extraordinarly sensitive and supportive. And to paraphrase Sinatra, if we can make it here, in the land where sons die, then we can make it anywhere. Congratulations to both of us for making it through year one.  Happy Anniversary, baby.

Shut Up, Helga

“I embrace my inner wisdom to do what is best for me.”

That’s the mantra I came up with this morning in response to a yoga prompt. For a moment, saying it, I felt happy and peaceful — and then my competing inner selves started fighting over my right to relax:

“People are dying in floods. Trump is still president. White-power pamphlets. India monsoons. Trans soldiers. What the fuck are you doing just lying here [doing yoga and saying mantras]?”

“Shhh, no, this is good. I need to take care of myself before I can take care of anyone else.”

“That is some indulgent, privileged bullshit right there. You might as well be Tina Fey eating sheetcake.”

“Ha, good one. But hey, where is the rest of that gluten-free cake? Oh, right, I ate it. OK, what else have we got?”

And now I’m in the kitchen, typing on my laptop with the stove as my desk because I like to write standing up (and because the pets don’t walk on the keyboard up here). I just ate many bites of different things, my favorite! Alone in my kitchen, I’m at a magical buffet with no manners. But for some reason instead of just enjoying my brunch (of, in case you’re curious, buttered English muffin, sweet coffee, and bites of cauliflower and broccoli baked in Slap Ya Mama seasoning, rice, eggplant parm, red grapes, and cantaloupe), I feel the need to be confessional.

I spent the first two of my awake hours this morning scrolling on Facebook. And my inner voices have been doing a lot of squabbling about this, as well.

“This is terrible, you always feel terrible after you spend a lot of time on here, what are you doing? Seriously, why are your reading this? Why are you even clicking on that? You need to pee! Put down the phone!”

“Shhh, no, this is good. I need to stay informed and connected with people. A lot of what I’m reading here is real journalism, brilliant essays, poetry.  What’s wrong with me spending a little time reading and checking in on the world at the start of my day?”

“Oh, please, who are you trying to sound moderate for? You have got to put that shit down for good. You are an addict. You check for likes and comments all day.”

“Ouch. But… I don’t want to read things without being able to share ideas with a community of thinkers. I don’t want to miss photos of my grandkids.  And with everything terrible happening I feel like staying current is truly–.”

“– the least you can do? Yeah, that’s for sure. As for the sharing you want to do, people read or watched the news in years past and saved their knowledge up for dinner conversation or a cocktail party. You don’t need to be sharing your feelings about every outrage. Everyone is outraged. What is your point in posting an article every ten minutes and announcing that you’re horrified. Again.”

(Mumbling). “Well, I don’t know… maybe people haven’t heard about a thing. I get a lot of my news first through Facebook.”

“So? Really? You think if you aren’t there to share an article your public will be deprived of vital information?”

“God, no need to be a bitch.”

(This is so fun, I think I’m going to give that inner bitch a name: Helga.)

“That’s probably anti-German …

“Shut up, Helga.”

That’s it, that’s going to be my new response to all my negative thoughts: “Shut up, Helga.”

If a few of you want to join me in this, we can tell each other’s Helgas to shut up, too, if they start saying negative things about any of us.  (Just writing this feels so transgressive; I don’t use the phrase “Shut up,” and I’m sure my children were forbidden to say it. ) But think of it: you look in the mirror wearing some outfit you really love and suddenly find yourself flashing on how disappointed your mother would be with your new look, and bam, “Shut up, Helga!” You have shut that down. You are in charge of what you say to you! Not Helga.

OK, just now the dog interrupted me and demanded I take her outside and holy crap, people, are you aware this is the most glorious day of the whole year here in Western Mass? Get outside if you possibly can. I literally broke out into the chorus from Zip-a-DeeDooDah when the sun hit my face.  So I gotta go for now.

“Two weeks and three days until Kyle’s memorial and you still don’t know what you’re doing. You really think you can spare time outside when you’re supposed to be up in his room poring over his poetry? Figuring out how this could have happened and what you’re supposed to say and how you can honor him when you’re still this devastated?”

“Shut up, Helga. He’d want me to go outside. “And do the yoga. Not sure about the Facebook, but he’d want you to speak more kindly to me in any case, so if you don’t have anything nice to say, peace out.”

Journey’s end (fears and findings)

Welp, I made a rookie-blogger mistake by saying, “more tomorrow,” at the end of my last post. (I did start an entry the following day, but then… life.) Now I just want to finish  recounting the trip I made with Jamie so I can start writing about more current events, so here’s what I meant to say:

How awful is it that the threat of male violence shadowed me on this trip as much as the ansarithreat of bears? I don’t even like to admit that such fear influences my behavior (since I know that keeping women afraid is abear tool of the patriarchy, as depicted by Azis Ansari in one of my favorite-ever sitcom scenes, originally recommended to me by Kyle: http://fusion.net/video/229604/aziz-ansari-master-of-none-walking-home-women/). But let’s be real:  it is harder to pretend my feminist Wonder Woman cape will protect me (from men or bears) when I am alone in the woods with my daughter.

Because of this, despite the extraordinary natural beauty surrounding us, I spent an anxious night falling asleep with mace clutched in my hand while staying at Pole Creek Cabin in Big Horn National Forest.

Jamie was excited the cabin was completely isolated – high up on the side of a mountain in the middle of the woods, far from all other campsites. As we unloaded our supplies, we were moved by the generosity of previous campers who had left friendly notes, chopped firewood and cabin supplies we could use as needed.  But still, I kept fighting the feeling we were in the opening scenes of a horror movie where the hills had eyes and no one would hear us scream.  I kept reminding myself that I had always encouraged Jamie’s refusal to let fear dictate her choices, so I was trying hard not to talk about how worried I was. But I hated how alone and vulnerable I felt we were.

Then, after dark had fallen and Jamie had triumphantly built her first-ever fire without any help or fire starters, she trotted toward the car to retrieve the marshmallows for s’mores and gave a cut-off shout of fear before running back to me.

“Mom,” she said, her voice low and shaken, “there’s a white pick-up truck out there. I think someone followed us and is watching us.”

Before we’d left, my wife Renee had taken me shopping for mace, which I’d been carrying with me everywhere on the trip; I’d attached it to our car keys.  A therapist with whom I’d discussed my fears said it was smart, not paranoid, to have a safety plan for what we’d do if we felt in danger. So when Jamie reported her truck sighting, my hand closed around the mace in my sweatshirt pocket – the use of which was the extent of my safety plan – but I was discouraged to realize this did not really make me feel safer. I felt enraged, actually — infuriated that the threat men pose to women is  a specter everywhere women go, even in the deep forest on what should have been a night of sacred and open-hearted communing with nature.

I walked to the car myself and saw the pick-up truck Jamie had seen about a quarter mile down the dirt road.  I thought of shouting back to Jamie, “OK, I’ve got the gun now, don’t worry,” but then I feared that if the stranger heard me, he’d come to steal our (imaginary) gun.  I decided that rather than wait in terror all night, I would investigate, so I started creeping silently toward the truck – and as I got closer, I saw there was a tent set up, and a fire being built, and two figures who looked like a man and a woman working together to set up camp.  I relaxed a little.  Maybe there was a campsite closer than Jamie had thought; or maybe someone was camping illegally nearby.  Either way, img_20170630_203914782.jpgthe presence of another woman helped me feel more confident that the pickup wasn’t there for us and that it might even be useful to have someone within shouting distance if we had reason to shout.  But I still fell asleep clutching the mace.

In the end, we spent 12 days side by side in a crowded car with broken air-conditioning (and side by side in Kyle’s tiny tent), and still ended our trip saying lots of loving things to one another, so that feels like an accomplishment. We also figured out along the way that we wanted to spend more time in nature and less time driving, which prompted us to change our plans once we got to Yellowstone.  Prior to that, we were both a little stunned by how worn out we were from driving by the time we reached each national site. Even places we’d wanted to visit, like Crazy Horse National Monument, wound up getting just a drive-by, as we tried to maximize the time we’d spend at each campsite rather than on the road.  (Mt. Rushmoreimg_20170630_122839797_hdr.jpg got only a drive-by, too, but that was because we didn’t want to support the colonialism and genocide it represented; I felt guilty we chose not to spend $22 to see Crazy Horse.)

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I failed to execute the Vanna White presentation of our first Yellowstone sign; I was tired.

When we got to Yellowstone, the park was more breathtaking than anything we could have anticipated – even after days of driving through the jaw-dropping beauty of big-sky country mountains and forests.  Everywhere we looked in Yellowstone, there were steaming geysers, mountain ranges capped with snow, hiking trails, massive lakes, trees – whole forests of them, both dead and alive – creeks, rivers, and wild animals: bison strolling beside cars, elk lying on bison by the carthe island midway in a parking lot, a baby bear causing a “bear jam” (a traffic back-up caused by people ignoring all the signs not to stop on the roads when they saw wild animals).  We immediately knew we wanted to spend more time there than we’d planned, even though it meant scrapping the rest elk on the roadof the trip and doing triple the driving at the end – so I agreed to primitive camping conditions (Jamie scored us a first-come, first-serve campsite on Fourth of July weekend, but this meant we had to be in a site with no running water and pit toilets, not my favorite part of the journey.)  Nevertheless, I was glad to have four nights amid the greatest natural beauty I’d ever seen.

 

old faithfulWe saw all the sights, including the amazing Old Faithful.  We hiked the hardest hikes I’ve ever been on — and I believe we narrowly avoided being eaten by bears: A ranger had warned us we weren’t going to be loud enough, two little women, to keep away an aggressive grizzly, so on our last hike I sang at the top of my voice and shouted constant nonsense, including sing-roaring repeatedly, “I am a Mama Bear, too; you don’t hurt my cub and I won’t hurt you.” Despite this, we still saw a bear print directly on our path — and then in our footprints on the way back down, too, which meant the bear was literally right on our tail. Running was said to trigger a bear’s chase response, so after we spotted the paw prints, we went speed-walking back down the way we’d came, with me scream-singing the whole way.  We were trembling with adrenaline when we re-emerged and saw our car.

Most of our time in Yellowstone was a lot more relaxing than that, though.  I hiked up my first mountain; the views were absolutely breathtaking everywhere we looked. We read novels, swinging in the hammock Jamie had brought. We cooked hot dogs on a stick. We listened to music and laughed a lot. We wrote poetry.  We missed Kyle together. We prayed. We mostly didn’t have any internet access, which was a lovely forced break.  We cheered each other on as we talked about our dreams for our futures. And we spent our last night before Portland in a deliciously air-conditioned hotel.  (More on Portland itself another time.)

Since I’ve been home I’ve been starting to transcribe all of Kyle’s writing, including his journals, and here’s a passage Kyle wrote in 2014, just at the beginning of his heroin use, before he was truly addicted, as he rode a bus to a rehab in Plymouth, MA. He had shot up before getting on the bus in order to ensure he’d get medically detoxed (i.e., given more drugs):

“I had recently promised myself that no matter what, even if God forbid I relapsed, that I would never shoot heroin again. I decided my selfishness had to have some limit, and with all the headline-making amount of overdose deaths happening in Massachusetts, I couldn’t risk dying on Mom – she’d never recover. Jamie either.”

There is anger mixed in with my grief sometimes – and transcribing this passage really caused fury to spark in me.  Maybe Kyle is right; maybe Jamie and I will never “recover,” if by that Kyle meant we would never be the same. Of course we won’t.  But we are living, Kyle; we are doing it even though it is hard. We are living on with the blade you left in our hearts because even when we feel we’ll “never recover,” as I know you feared you would never recover, we won’t ever inflict on anyone what you inflicted on us.

Even on our happiest days, we feel the pain of grieving you. On our worst days, every fucking breath hurts because of you. But we are not letting your disease take any more of us out with you. We have learned from your example.  We don’t risk our lives escaping reality ; we take our meds and do our self-care and get the professional help we need to keep on living, even when we feel hopeless, even when we aren’t sure we want to.

IMG_20170704_195232436_HDRAnd sometimes, lo and behold, we find that we are not just surviving, we are thriving. It’s painful to see you knew what you were risking – not just your life, which you hadn’t adequately valued in years — but also our happiness (and the happiness of so many others)… yet you kept on using heroin until it killed you.  But rather than dwell on how painful that betrayal is, I like to imagine you can see us from wherever you are and are sharing in our surprise and gladness for every good day we manage to have.  Jamie, especially, has wisely surrounded herself this summer with the natural grandeur that fed your soul when you were clean and the love of friends you couldn’t feel buoying you while you were alive. I hope you can experience from wherever you are some of the love she’s getting, as it’s such a terrible shame how much of it you are missing.

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P.S. One last picture to summarize the trip: some blue skies, some grey clouds, some tissues in our car window reflection: IMG_20170629_135820171

 

 

Journey, Days 2 & 3, Staying Open

My daughter Jamie and I had a great time camping and hiking in the Badlands – but tears welled up for both of us over how much Kyle would have loved the freaky lunar landscape of rock climbing there.  Everywhere Jamie and I looked as we set up camp, we couldn’t help thinking of all the wild climbs Kyle would have wanted to take on the hundreds of rocky cliffs rising all around us. tree climbers 2 2012He and Jamie climbed a lot of trees and hiked a lot of mountains together.  This is a shot I took of the two of them climbing higher than I wanted them to in 2013, and below is a shot Jamie took of Kyle rock-climbing with her in Red Rock in Nevada in 2015. ky climb closeup 2015

And here are some shots of me and Jamie in the Badlands last week:

 

Had Kyle been there in the Badlands with us, I know he would have terrified me; I would have been – as I always was — powerless to stop him endangering himself, upset by the crazy chances he was taking with his life.  I would have refused to watch him climb, and he’d have teased me for being scared, assuring me he’d be fine.  Possibly he’d even have goaded his sister into following along and taking  foolish chances with him, which would have made me even more anxious and angry. I would have been praying he was as invincible as he imagined himself to be – and that Jamie wouldn’t try to keep up with him just to prove she could. I try sometimes to remind myself how terrible my constant, rampant fear was while Kyle was alive, but of course I still wish he’d been with us in the Badlands, even if I would have spent the whole day frightened – a perfect metaphor for how I feel every day now.  004 (Who knew I’d ever wish to feel such terror again, now that the worst has already happened?) The flip side of fear is hope; without one I no longer have the other.

Here’s a photo of one of the many times Kyle miscalculated the dangers while hiking, one of the many times he told me about a fall he’d taken,  sounding amazed at how lucky he was to be alive, lulling us all into thinking his luck would last forever …

Meanwhile, by the end of Day 3, my admiration for Jamie had grown to new heights: not only had she become some kind of Zen master, leading me in yoga routines and setting the most loving intentions for us, but she’d also turned herself into a skilled and expertly outfitted camper and hiker.  She gave me a pair of hiking boots and loaned me a pole and then took me up the Badlands’ steepest trail. (She was kind and patient with me when I started perseverating about a fear of snakes on that trail, too, given all the rattlesnake warnings posted all around us.)

 

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Jamie in a heart-shaped cave in the Badlands.
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Jamie looking out over the Badlands at the top of our climb.

The next night she named herself “Fire Goddess,” building a fire entirely on her own, spending 30 minutes gently blowing oxygen at the fire’s underside to help the flames catch.  The following night, she pitched the tent, rolled out our sleeping bags and set up the fire all by herself while I was getting food (earning my camping name, “Mama Bear.”) Jamie brought along a cook stove, a headlamp, a lantern, a hammock, art supplies, tools – everything we wanted or needed for the journey, she had it. She was so on top of everything that I found myself able to relax and let her be in charge of all the trip logistics – which I think is the first time I’ve experienced that since I became a mom. (Lovely! I could definitely get used to not being in charge of things!)

I mentioned to Jamie that she seemed to have risen to a new level of competence and self-confidence, and that I wondered if this had anything to do with her recently shaving her head – and/or if it had anything to do with her trying to fill some of the roles Kyle once filled. She’s always been a girly girl, and somehow, despite all my best feminist intentions, acting girly seems to have sometimes meant acting a bit ditzy and helpless.  (My mother does this with real skill, and I know that I have been guilty of batting my lashes and confessing my ignorance, too, to get help with everything from changing a flat to finding my way when I’m lost. I don’t feel like I’m acting, though; I really don’t think I’d be able to change my own tire, and I do get lost quite often.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jamie agreed that since shedding some of her girly-girl persona along with her long hair, she’d noticed others treating her as more capable, which has probably contributed to her viewing herself that way.  As a short-haired woman, she noticed, people expected more of her, which she liked.  She agreed that perhaps she had taken on some of Kyle’s roles, too, as she felt that if he were with us on the camping trip, he would have put himself in charge and she would have deferred to him. “I want to be independent,” she told me. “I want to know how to take care of myself.” She is rightly proud that after this most awful year, she is — and can.

More tomorrow…