Life Comes at You Fast

Eventually all the pieces will fall into place, until then – laugh at the confusion, live for the moment and know that everything happens for a reason.

Remember the Nationwide ad campaign, Life Comes Fast?    Guy driving down the street, out of nowhere a wrecking ball smashes his car?  Life changes fast, I certainly get that now.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the wrecking ball that hit me this week – back to school.

Certainly I knew it was coming, and certainly I prepared as best I could for it.  Getting supplies and backpacks packed and haircuts and figuring out schedules and who will get the kids after school and get them to baseball and football and what happens if it’s raining and omg what the hell will I do if/when the kids get sick (that’s easy they are NEVER allowed to get sick, I’m secretly spiking their orange juice with massive doses of Airbourne every morning.)

Thought I had a handle on all of this, but I really only had a dad’s handle on it, not a primary caregiver (aka, military precision planner) perspective – someone who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s and actually makes things happen.  Thank god I’ve got an army of insurance agents (Insurance Angels?) looking out for me, steering the wrecking balls clear for now.  A flurry of phone calls and texts descended over the weekend and got me back on track for things that just magically happened in the past – money on the kids lunch accounts, understanding this new 5-day schedule (6 day at the junior high – or is that the other way around?), bringing those gym shorts and calculators we got last fall to school, and even knowing what time I actually have to have them there.  I think I’m in good hands (another insurance tag line pun, get it?) and I feel like I’ve got a whole army of Progressive Flo’s out there (alright that’s the last insurance pun, I promise!)  But seriously, thank you all, and please keep it up!!! 

But all this logical preparation couldn’t stop the emotional wrecking balls.  The emergency contact cards are probably bubbled with tear stains – that was just a major bombshell, crossing off Debbie’s name.  And Saturday night, cleaning out their backpacks, I found a handwritten note from Deb to one of the boys…lightning bolt thru the heart.

And how do the boys feel?  What is going through their heads?  Are they afraid everyone is whispering about them because “his mom died”, a completely normal thing for kids to talk about but the last thing a grade schooler wants to hear?  What happens on Muffins with Mom day?  What will they feel when everyone else is making Mother’s Day cards?  And where is mom’s smiling, comforting face, like a lighthouse in the stormy sea of the after school pick-up madness, after they’ve had a bad day? 

All I can do is my best.  I’m sure my little guys’ lunch won’t be as good, but there’s a special treat right under his three tiny carrots (at least two of which will probably come home with him.)  Some tic tacs in their packs, you know, for when the girls talk to him and he realizes he didn’t brush his teeth despite me telling him three times to do so.

So I release them into the stream of school and friends and new classes and new faces and all the challenges of growing up.  I so don’t envy them, but I so hope and pray I’ve equipped them the best I could to navigate their own wrecking balls, especially the emotional ones.  It feels overwhelming…

But I’ve got lots of help, and my Insurance Angels are everywhere this morning.  The boys’ teachers and administrators all know of the situation and sincerely pledge their help and understanding, and I know they will keep their watchful, expert eyes on them.  T’s friend’s parents help me find his room after my little guy ditches me like a hot potato as soon as he spots his friends.  And the boys’ friends will certainly provide a level of comfort and normalcy to them that I simply cannot.

And it’s these limits to what I can do that drain me on the walk home, and the day feels dark.  I want too much to be there to take care of them when they need it – but I know that I won’t always be, that I will be at work and they will be coming home with someone other than mom.  I’m feeling incredibly alone and a thousand miles from Holiday Park on the walk home.

But I’m not alone, and neither are my boys.  I run into a friend, and I realize we all go through trying times – that’s life.  We are all given crosses, but we are not alone, and things have a way of working out.  You just gotta let go, trust in God, trust in the universe, trust in the people around us, the angels in our midst – things will work out.  This is a hard lesson for me – I’ve tried so hard for so many years to plan and maintain some “control” in my life.  I can hear the gods laughing at me now, loud and clear – maybe it’s time to listen this friend’s advice.

And suddenly I realize that it is just a beautiful morning; the sunshine and blue sky is intensely in focus, the air is crisp, my heart is lighter, and angels are everywhere…

PS – Heartfelt apologies to all you moms or dads out there who handle these back-to-school duties; I get it now, it IS a tough emotional time.


Mom’s Hat

“Mourning is love with no place to go” – Anonymous

In American culture, after someone dies, there is an incredible dissension of chaos that is bestowed upon those who grieve.  It is all well-intended and probably necessary, but it creates a din, as friends and relatives, medical supply delivery persons and coroners, funeral home personnel and pizza deliveries invade the house.  The phone rings constantly, everyone vies for attention, trying to lend comfort to the most aggrieved, trying to come to grips with their own grief and incredulity.  The result is entrance to a dreamlike state, a bad dream, too, where you retreat further and further from the reality swirling around you, falling back deeper into your psyche, trying desperately to find a place in your mind that still makes sense.  Above all, you just want to be left alone to grieve.

Out of this necessary chaos I found my boys, and we huddled together alone in my darkened bedroom, the blinds shut, the door locked, just holding on to each other; and we cried.  When we were done crying, we ordered food, and we ate our sugary donut comfort food on the floor, just the three of us.  A sense of calm emerged, like being in the eye of a hurricane.

Of course we couldn’t stay locked in the room forever, despite wanting to.  The din had died down and the crowd had thinned, but I still kept my boys close, not really knowing what to do or say, but just feeling the need to be near them.  Jake asked for some alone time and went into his room: T and I could hear him softly crying, but he emerged a bit later the better for it, and we shared his feelings and tears.

Trevor, forever looking up to his big brother, asked if he could spend some time alone, too, and he closed my bedroom door behind him.  I tried not to go in, but the sound of his crying was almost unbearable.  I burst in only to have my heart truly broken – my sweet little T, only nine year’s old for god’s sake, was on his knees, crying, clutching his mom’s purse and her pink hat…

Mom lost her hair four times through her various chemo treatments, and struggled to find a wig or ball cap with a ponytail that she was comfortable wearing in public.  Eventually she found her blonde bob wig that became her trademark, and made her appear even more sunny.  But around the house she mostly wore a pretty pink hat with a coyote on it that we picked up on a family vacation in Joshua Tree National Park, the first place she actually lost her hair.  We used her hair as tinder for our campfires on that wonderful vacation, and mom in her pink hat was as comfortable to all of us as a pair of old slippers.  It was a part of mom.

Trevor clutched her hat in his tiny fingers and I wrapped him in my arms and held him close.  Our wails brought Jake, who joined our embrace, and together we let loose the belly ache cries that we needed.  When we were done mom’s hat was still there, wet with tears, and we all took turns holding it.  It still held mom’s smell, which was calming, comforting, to all of us.

Little T had led us to a gift; the next day I gripped mom’s hat at the podium while I delivered her eulogy, and Deb’s strength helped me through it.  That night, Trevor slept next to me, one arm hugging care bear, the other mom’s hat, and we made it through the night okay.  Since then, we all take turns keeping mom’s hat with us, to help get us through the night, or for strength when we have a difficult task ahead, or when one of us is just feeling lonely.  It’s a piece, just a little piece, of mom that we can still hold on to…

Darkness, Fear and Resilience

“If you’re going through hell

Keep on going, don’t slow down

If you’re scared, don’t show it

You might get out

Before the devil even knows you’re there”

– Rodney Atkins, If You’re going Through Hell

That’s been my theme song for the past couple of months – put my head down, do what needs done as quick as I can, move on to the next task, I’ll think and sort through feelings when I have the time.  That’s especially been my m.o. since returning to work – first, missing a month puts you behind the eight ball, but it feels like I’ve got two other full time jobs with my new single parenting responsibilities, not to mention my temporary full time job of completing all the tasks necessary when someone passes away.  These are things that simply need done, like changing beneficiaries on all my financial instruments and checking accounts, wills, and bills, in addition to the pile that is now about a foot and a half high of thank you notes that need written someday, and designing a tombstone.  I’ve been trying to tick a few things off as I get some spare time, but spare time has ground to a halt with the return to work.

I was actually feeling pretty good about tonight – I made it to the mandatory parent’s meeting for football, made a good healthy dinner of fresh farm food that even the kids ate, had the dishes and a load of laundry done, was even prepped for my travel to Akron for a staff meeting.  Everything was going as planned – hey, maybe I can do this…

Funny how life turns on a dime, especially when you make plans.  Knowing Jake had football practice at 3, I had made arrangements for T to visit a friend’s house – all I need is for Jake to walk T over on his way to practice, and it isn’t far out of his way at all.

Well Jake over-reacted, not wanting to mess up his plans to be at practice early with his friends.  And of course I over-reacted to his objections, my temper already short from a lack of sleep and not having a whole lot of options this late in the game.  I’m also upset because I need to get up so early, and I don’t have time for this.  The shouts escalate to a full-fledged fight, and charges are thrown out that nobody means.  I exercise my dictatorial rights and shut off their video games and send them to bed, but not before giving them a speech about needing to do more to help me out and to help each other out and to help out more around the house.

It is horrible, like that very first fight in a new relationship.  I’ve tried so hard to be both mom and dad, to make things as okay as I can, to make them as comfortable as possible, and now I’ve blown it all in a fit of rage.

Our bedtime prayers are perfunctory, nobody returns my kisses or love you’s, and my little guy has his head buried under the covers, the top of his Care Bear poking out the top, mom’s hat clutched in his tiny hands.  I can hear muffled crying coming from their room – it breaks my heart…

This is so unfair, so unfair especially to my kids!  My god, what is going through their little heads?  I can’t even get my head around things, what must it be like for a nine-year-old?  I can feel his fear, fear of the dark, fear of having to live by mean old dad’s rules now, missing his loving mother.  And Jake is just twelve, he should be worried about meeting his friend’s, that’s what twelve year olds do.  I hated when I was near his age and my dad died and I was constantly told I needed to help out more and be the man of the house – I just wanted to be a normal kid.

Of course I cannot sleep.  At night, when I’m alone in the dark, my fears become more vivid, more real.  I fear I will be a failure as a parent, especially after tonight’s disaster.  How will I handle future crisis’ that will certainly be much worse than this?  I fear I will never be able to do my job now that I cannot put in the routine 12-hour days.  I fear I’ll never get done everything that needs done, evidenced today by the shut-off notice from the cable company that I’ve forgotten to pay all summer.  I fear for the unknown in front of us, imagining the worst in the lonely darkness.  It keeps me up most nights and wakes me when I do sleep, but tonight my fears are especially acute.

Near midnight a light flips on in the boys room.  I immediately jump up at the excuse to go back in their room; Jake is climbing down from the top bunk to take Trevor to the bathroom.  Trevor’s never been fond of the dark, but since mom died, he doesn’t want to even be alone in the daylight, and I forgot to leave the small kitchen light on.  It melts my heart that Jake would do such a favor for T – maybe all is not as bad as it seems in the dark of night; maybe we can work through this together.  We end in a big group hug, with promises to always stick together and to always watch out for each other, for we are family.

At least I get a little sleep after that, of course not enough, and there is still a slight residual hangover from the events of the preceding night in the morning.  I’m out of the house a little after 5, wishing that I could just stay home today until the boys wake up, so I can confirm they are okay.  I vacillate between the anger of having to leave them for work, and the unfairness of the whole situation.

It is torture at work, first the three hour drive, then sitting through a 5-hour staff meeting.  I know the boys sleep late (it is summer vacation still), but no one is returning my texts or calls.  Are they okay?  I’m completely distracted and cannot even remotely concentrate on the meaningless tasks I’m being assigned nor join in with the fake laughs as we all pretend this work stuff is important.  My night fears are chasing me even in the light of day; c’mon boys, just give me a call!

And they do, and they are fine.  They are kids, they are resilient, and no strains from last night are evident over the phone.

And I do make it home in the evening, and Trevor gives me a big loving hug, and Jake apologizes before I can even unload the car.  All the chores I’ve asked them to do have been done, and we are all happy to be reunited.  Another group hug, another chance to have a better night…

We’ve made it through our first test, this rag tag family of boys, and I think we’ve all grown a little.  And the night tonight doesn’t seem as dark as last night…

Life With Dad

So my main goal in the three weeks I took off from work was to make my boys as comfy as possible in the knowledge that I could take care of them.  I told them up front that I was no mom, and I certainly will never replace the time and attention to detail and love that mom put in to everything she did for the kids.  I told them things would be a little different, but that we would be okay.

So that was put to the test immediately.  The day of the funeral, ½ hour before we were supposed to be there, I realized that the two suits hanging in the closet were both T’s.  Of course I didn’t realize this until Jake tried one on and his jacket sleeves ended at this elbows.  Panic time…

A mad scramble followed, with my buddy Al and sister Sarah sent to the thrift store (the closest place, and only place open) for anything they could find, while I started pounding the pavement down the street, stopping at every house that at some point had boys.  Wouldn’t you know it, a navy blue jacket materialized out of a neighbor’s back closet, a vest and shoes from the thrift store, and navy dress pants that matched perfectly borrowed from a cousin!  We were only 10 minutes late to the funeral home…

Now this is a big change for us Walko boys.  Debbie ran the household like a drill sergeant, and everything was planned and executed with military precision.  Surely she was appalled at our lack of pre-planning, but I was ecstatic that we pulled off the minor miracle.  I explained to the boys that this would probably be our new M.O. for most everything domestic going forward.  Prophetic indeed…

Well, I’m getting better at some things, but clothes still befuddle me.  How in the hell do all these shorts and shirts materialize in the dirty clothes pile every day, and why is there no underwear?  Do my kids secretly change clothes every time they wash their hands?  Wait, I’m not really sure they wash their hands, judging by the dirt under their long unclipped nails.

That’s probably also compounded by the lack of showers.  How was I to know that you have to actually TELL boys to shower everyday?  I figured it out when the smell I thought was the cat puke, which I was letting dry so that I could sweep it up with the vacuum cleaner, didn’t go away when I vacuumed?  Hmmm, turns out that was my kid that smelled, since he hadn’t showered in 5 days.  Lucky for me, they used 6 towels each, one for each major body part, another one to sop up all the water that drained onto the floor because the curtain wasn’t inside the tub.

All the towels created another load of laundry, but at least towels are something I know how to fold.  I cannot for the life of me figure out how Debbie used to fold the shirts so nice – mine all look crumpled and unkept, to the point where my dirty boys even comment on how they look like they shop at the thrift store (ignore the opening comments.)  But at least they’re clothes ARE clean and smell morning fresh (who is the marketing guru at Tide who comes up with these descriptions?  It’s just detergent, dammit!)

Dishes are a whole other matter.  Apparently I am not doing something right, because the boys refuse to drink out of some of the “clean” glasses that they unload from the dishwasher.  I tried explaining to them, a la Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, that if you can see through the lip prints, chocolate milk film and soap scum, that it really is acceptable to use, at least hygienically.  I’ve heard rumors of jet dry tablets or some other sort of chemicals that are usually used to clean pools that are supposed to be added to the dishwasher, but that’s a google search for another day, right after I learn how to clear the history and cookies from the computer that I now, for the first time ever, have access to.  Wow, who has time for dishes and wash when there is so much to catch up with on Facebook?

And how am I supposed to find out what that long lost crush from grade school is up to nowadays when the kids keep whining to be fed?  What, everyday?  Three times a day, too?!?!  Didn’t they just eat yesterday?  And then that creates more dishes, which need washed and put away, even if the crumbs are now baked on after going thru the hot dry cycle.  That won’t hurt you boys, think of it as adding spice to your chicken tenders.  It’s just like the 5 second rule, which has now been extended to the 30-second rule in the Walko house.  That noodle that just fell on the floor is perfectly capable of being added back in to the boiling pot of water, because the boiling kills all the germs, and anything chocolate can be eaten after falling on the floor as long as it’s free of cat fur and hair.

We have lots of adjustments to make, but luckily we are all boys, and we are genetically programmed to not see dirt and household filth, so none of us are really bothered by it, and obviously no females will ever want to step foot into our house again.  We certainly miss mom, not just for her unsung domestic duties (big shout out here to all you moms, you’re work is never done and you are vastly under-appreciated by your husbands and kids, but that is also genetically imprinted in all males, and there is nothing that will change that, sorry.)  And I’m sure I’ll figure most of this stuff out, eventually.

I’m still wondering, though, what those funny looking brushes with the long handles that reside in the bathroom corners near the toilets are for…

Wisdom from the Edge of Life

Sunset at Fisher Towers, Utah, 2009

“If life was found to be agreeable, then so should death be.  It comes from the hand of the same master.” – Michelangelo

The following excepts are from the book Life Lessons, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, an extraordinary book of wisdom, a blueprint for living gleaned from the teachings of the dying.  The authors’ words have given me incredible comfort as I deal with the loss of my wife and best friend – but they have also given me so much inspiration for living and an appreciation for life and beauty and love and all of the good things we share that we may not always appreciate.

Debbie was my first-hand teacher for many of the lessons presented in the book, although sadly I did not always understand that at the time.  I will say it again, Debbie’s passing was the most incredible spiritual experience I have ever had, and the grace and dignity and acceptance she gifted upon all of us who were lucky enough to share in it has forever changed us all.  Someday when I have the courage I will write down and share the events of that incredible week, but for now I will let Kubler-Ross and Kessler share their very powerful insights.  Know that Debbie knew these secrets in the very core of her heart…

From the beginning to the end, life is a school, complete with individualized tests and challenges.  When we’ve learned all we can possibly learn, and when we have taught all we can possibly teach, we return home.

It’s sometimes hard to see what the lessons are.  Not only may we have difficulty understanding what is being taught, we may never know which lessons we’re supposed to master.

When people are buffeted by seemingly endless windstorms and their lives look like calamities, they may wonder why they have been given so many tests, and why God appears so merciless.  Going through hardship is like being a rock in a tumbler.  You’re tossed to and fro and get bruised, but you come out more polished and valuable than ever.  You are now prepared for even bigger lessons, bigger challenges, and a bigger life.  All the nightmares are turned into blessings that become part of living.  If we had shielded the Grand Canyon from the windstorms that created it, we would not see the beauty of its carvings.  That may be why so many patients have told us that if they could magically go back to the point right before they got their cancer or other life-challenging disease, and erase what was to come, they would not.

In so many ways, loss shows us what is precious, while love teaches us who we are.  Relationships remind us of ourselves and provide wondrous opportunities for growth.  Fear, anger, guilt, patience and even time become our greatest teachers.  Even in our darkest hours we are growing.  It’s important that you know who you are in this lifetime.  In our growth even our greatest fear, death, becomes less and less.  Think about what Michelangelo pointed out”  “If life was found to be agreeable, then so should death be.  It comes from the hand of the same master.”  In other words, the same hand that gives us life, happiness, love, and more isn’t going to make death a horrible experience. 

Michelangelo told us that the beautiful sculptures he created were already there, inside the stones.  He simply removed the excess to reveal the precious essence that had always been there.  You do the same thing as you learn lessons in life: you chip away the excess to reveal the wonder-ful you inside.

In exploring the lessons from the edge of life, we become more comfortable with the knowledge that life ends one day.  It is hard to deal with death before we have to, but it is at the very essence of life.  The dying can be our teachers because we can’t experiment with death or experience it ahead of time.  We must rely on those who have faced life-challenging illnesses to be our instructors.

One of the most surprising lessons our teachers offer is that life doesn’t end with the diagnosis of a life-challenging illness – that’s when it truly begins.  It begins at this point because when you acknowledge the reality of your death, you also acknowledge the reality of your life.  You realize that you are still alive, that you have to live your life now, and that you only have this life now.  The primary lesson the dying teach us is to live every day to its fullest.

When was the last time you really looked at the sea?  Or smelled the morning?  Touched a baby’s hair?  Really tasted and enjoyed food?  Walked barefoot in the grass?  Looked into the blue sky?  These are all experiences that, for all we know, we may never get again.  It’s always eye-opening to hear the dying say that they just want to see the stars one more time, or gaze out to the ocean.  Many of us live near the ocean but never take the time to look at it.  We all live under the stars, but do we look at the sky?  Do we really touch and taste life, do we see and fell the extraordinary, especially in the ordinary?

You don’t get another life like this one.  You will never again play this role and experience this life as it’s been given to you.  You will never again experience the world as in this life, in this set of circumstances in quite this way, with these parents, children and families.  You will never have quite this set of friends again.  You will never experience the earth with all its wonders in this time again.  Don’t wait for one last look at the ocean, the sky, the stars, or a loved one.  Go look now.


“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”  – Meister Eckhart

A funny thing has happened over the past month – the emotion that I am feeling most is not grief; it is gratitude.  Sure, there are times of longing and tears, moments of sadness and missing, but they are outweighed – vastly outweighed – by the unbelievable amount of gratitude that has filled our hearts and house over the past few weeks.  The outpouring of support from family and friends, the community, even the complete strangers at the Social Security office or the credit card call-line operator on the other side of the world, has simply been amazing.  We are all just in awe, empowered, energized, and mostly, just grateful for the sharing.

Beautiful homemade meals delivered after a long day at work, a box of schools supplies on the front porch anonymously, incredibly generous offers to take the boys to Kennywood and the movies and Pirates game and Steeler training camp and sleepovers or just over to a friends house so dad can get a little nap, folks helping with the dishes and laundry or mopping the floor, offering rides when we don’t have one, a nice message or sharing a photo on Facebook, co-workers and bosses picking up my workload and offering vacation time, a phone call or email or text just to say hi, sharing a song or a favorite book, words of comfort or just a much needed hug – the outpouring has just been humbling.

It has made me reflect on how deeply Deb touched everyone, and I believe it was because she gave so freely and joyously to everyone she met, without expecting anything in return.  It gave her life meaning. 

Earlier this year I went through some extremely trying events that at the time I considered very unfortunate.  One of the by-products of these events was that I re-discovered the power of gratitude, of being grateful for all the good things I have even when life is testing me, grateful for all the little things like a cool summer rain on a hot humid day, the insects buzzing at night, the smile of a stranger.  I got into the habit of starting each day with a gratitude prayer or just a simple silent meditation in my grotto, a time to be still and ask for grace before embarking on the daily tasks in front of me.  It is a very powerful tool, and has helped me tremendously during these trying times.

A grateful person is a powerful person, for gratitude generates power.  All abundance is based on being grateful for what we have.  True power, happiness, and well-being are found in the fine art of gratitude – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Life Lessons

Debbie knew this power her whole life, and she lived it for many many years; how lucky she was to recognize the joy of every day, of every breath, of laughter and love!  That’s where her smile and grace came from, even when times were tough.

So although grief is supposed to be the overriding emotion at times like these, it seems to me that gratitude is the flip side of grief.  How can this be?

For this answer I found a wonderful sermon by the Reverend J. Michael A. Wright of the Grace Church in Charleston, SC:

“Have you lost someone recently?  Do you find yourself deep in grief?  This is not all bad.  You are grieving because you have loved. Your tears are rooted in a life that was good with your partner, mother, father, sister, brother, friend. Your grief is a visible sign of a deep and abiding love.  Well done!  And rooted in all that you feel, difficult though this may be, is a thankful heart.  Thanks be to God, you have begun to work through your grief. It is rooted in gratitude and unpacked in love.

Grief is rooted in the good life that was ours, lived out along side our loved one.  We grieve not because our lives were bad, but because they were so very good. Our loved ones’ passing hurts so because life with them was good. Grief, rooted in gratitude. We give thanks even as we admit that we wanted more.”

So may this simple prayer let you know how much we appreciate your thoughts and prayers, your kind words and deeds, your just being there to talk or pick up the kids or bring a meal or share a beer, for all the kindness you intended – “Thank you”.

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” –  Thornton Wilder


What is to give light must endure burning. – Viktor Frankl

Every night after tucking the kids in, as I’m shutting off the lights and locking the doors, it always makes me smile, a great way to end the day.  Outside on the front porch, through the front door sidelight, three tea light candles glow in the darkness.  Jake has faithfully lit the candles every night, one for him, Trevor and me, as he spends a little time alone, talking to mom about his day, what he’s feeling, or just sitting in silent contemplation.

He started this the night she died.  After we built Trevor’s grotto, we lingered a bit longer in the woods surrounding the house, enjoying the cool evening, a gentle breeze, and the stars.  When we wandered back up to the house, Jake had the entire steps and walkway up to the door aglow with candles, a la luminaries at Christmastime.  It was breathtaking, beautiful.  He did it on his own, and continues to do it every night on his own, a special tribute to his mom’s light and love and spirit.

May mom always watch over you, Jake…