To Live Again…

“A widow’s refusal of a lover is seldom so explicit as to exclude hope.”  – Samuel Richardson

italian_dinner

I’m sure it looks like any other normal family dinner at a nice Italian restaurant – a mom and a dad with four kids, two girls and two boys, enjoying a fantastic dinner of pasta and salads and steak (and of course pizza for the little guy!)  There is laughter and sharing and lively chatter and smiles.

But the guest of honor at this special table tonight is Gratitude; for a normal family meal did not seem possible even a few short months ago…

Nothing is taken for granted anymore by this hodgepodge group – for there are two empty chairs at the table tonight.  These chairs can never be filled; forever there will be an important piece missing from every family meal, from every milestone celebration, from every family vacation and from every one of those times where you just want to share with your best friend, where you need the guidance and comfort of mom or dad, when you’ve just had an impossible day, when you just want to be a normal, complete family again.

Cancer is a terrible disease.  It can and does strike anyone, even those who least deserve it, indiscriminately cutting short brilliant, loving lives, and robbing their families of so much more.  Those left behind are befuddled, staggered, angry and confused, lonely, and afraid.  What do we do now?  How do we carry on without mom, without dad?  Who will take care of us?

It has been over one year now for the Brunson family, who lost John, age 48, on July 3, 2012, leaving behind Kimberly, and children Claire and Emily; and over one year also for the Walko family, who lost Debbie, age 45, on July 8, 2012, leaving behind Joe, and children Jake and Trevor.

This past year has been numb, terrifying, sad, sometimes hopeless…  How are we supposed to carry on?!?!

But you do carry on, because you must.  You do begin to work through the sadness, through the tears that at first seem like they will never stop, through the heaviness that threatens to crush you at any moment.  You work through it mostly because you have no other choice.

And you work through it because life is still good, so very good, even when the sunset is watched alone, through swollen, wet eyes.  Deep down you still know this, it has just been buried recently by the grief.

And you work through it because these young people, they need you, they need hope, they have so much love and so many good things to experience, as Debbie and John certainly knew, and as they so would want their children to know.

And you work through it because so many people care.  There are rides to school functions when mom is stuck at work, there’s someone to cheer on the boys at football and baseball games and take them out for ice cream after, someone to watch the kids when mom or dad just needs a break.  There is a box of school supplies delivered anonymously on the front porch, gift cards in the mailbox, little notes to let you know others are thinking and praying for you, fantastic dinners cooked for us on busy days.

And tonight, complete strangers at an Italian restaurant share the gift of a great meal that no one has to cook, that no one has to clean up from, and that all enjoy – it warms my heart when it has been broken for so long.  It’s a homemade chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven, stringy chocolate sticking to the plate, the kind mom always made when I came home bruised and battered…

I think back to the incredible events that led us here…

The phone call last Saturday was unexpected; patrons at the Olive Garden in Monroeville, PA read my blog, and passed on to the staff at the restaurant the story.  The staff, in particular Chris Painter, wanted to do something nice for us, and offered me a meal for up to 8 people.  Of course I immediately thought of the Brunson family, who are in just as much need as the Walko’s. 

After my wife’s death I was compelled to start this blog, despite having never done something like this before, despite having never written with purpose before, to express and share my feelings, to heal, and maybe to help others through the sharing.  “Grief shared is grief diminished”, I quoted.

 A friend of Debbie’s from her church was reading this blog, and also knew about John, and thought that maybe Kim might benefit in some way from our shared experiences.  Through mutual friends, my blog and email address were exchanged…

I did not know that Kimberly, who also lives in my community but whom I had never met,  was reading my blog, and was feeling the same emotions I was in dealing with the loss of a spouse and the challenges of single parenthood and the running of a household and desperately trying to hold onto a full time job and keep the grass mowed and bill collectors at bay and the laundry pile manageable.

 She read to herself for a while, but eventually had the courage to reach out to me, and we started communicating electronically.  We actually met a few months later in a grief counseling group through the Hospice organization at Forbes Hospital. 

It is amazing how much common ground we share and how much we have helped each other and our families through this tough time…

And our meeting certainly seems guided by a Higher Power, much  like these “random” acts of kindness, like this beautiful meal.  

And perhaps it is just simply Destiny – for our deceased spouses met before we did – they are buried right next to each other at Plum Creek Cemetery, plots 22 and 24 in Section 24, picked out long before our paths ever crossed…

I have this vision, clear as day, a vision of Debbie and John, young and in their prime, big hair and even bigger smiles as they introduce each other and share conversation and a beer or  two,  sitting on that beautiful hillside above Plum Creek, between the dogwoods and below the towering oaks.  Bathed in The Light and The Love, they are whole, they are happy, they are aglow; laughter and honesty are exchanged easily.

But they also still so love their families, and don’t want to leave for their sake.  As they look down at our pain, at our struggles, which they now understand is necessary for our growth, they still want to help, as was both their nature.

So they concoct a plan, to guide us, to help us to help each other, to help our children.  The signs are so obvious that even two headstrong survivors, hearts shattered, souls torn and  frayed and splayed open to the universe, and heads finally empty, pay attention.

And help it does; healing begins …

Debbie and John are certainly filling those empty chairs tonight, and they too, are most thankful for this generosity and further confirmation in taking care of those that they love tonight.

And right now, at this table, immersed in the smells of warm bread and steaming pasta, the tastes of rich sauces and red wines, amidst the clatter of dishes and the laughter of our children, captured in the knowing glances Kim and I share across the table, and in the tears of our wonderful  server Cory (Cordell Smith, who stayed two hours after his regular shift, just to wait on us) when we tell him this story, I can’t help but think that maybe things will be okay.

Things happen that weren’t expected, and people drop into your life from outer space, bringing their special gifts, right when you need it the most.  And you meet others who are going through the same thing, who have the same hurts and the same struggles and who truly feel your pain; and the sharing lessens the hurt, and it brings hope, it brings strength and renewal.

And I am grateful.  So grateful…

Grateful for the small victories amidst the larger “tragedy”, grateful for getting through each day, grateful for those so willing to help, grateful for people like Chris Painter and Cory and the Olive Garden staff.

Grateful to the family and friends who have been by our sides through thick and thin.

Grateful to the special strangers who enter your life because they are supposed to.

And mostly tonight, so grateful for just a normal family dinner, something that never seemed possible ever again a year ago…

It makes you start to believe you can carry on; maybe even thrive again; dare, even love again…

And you do.

Grief and sadness knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger than common joys.

– Alphonse de Lamartine

Advertisements

Dirt and Sky, Part II

Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. -William James (1842-1910)

sunbeams-through-trees

Okay, I am back this morning, finally…

Yesterday I let myself be dragged down into the depths of worry and despair.  A depressing conversation about my health insurance options, a similar discussion about my life insurance, the realization that there are a ton of legal obstacles standing between what I want to say and actually saying it in a book, and a mild case of writer’s block.  Sigh, poor, poor pitiful me, and isn’t the world in a terrible place?

That attitude carried over into my personal relationships yesterday, leaving a sour taste, and before I went to bed I realized that the joy that had been so profound recently… was gone.

And that truly is a reason to sigh.

I recognized instantly my fear – fear of the uncertainties in front of me, fear of not having a well laid plan, fear of the unknown – all of my usual fears, built up and made worse than they actually are by years of habit, years of not trusting myself, and I so easily  slipped right back into those patterns yesterday.

In this past year, grief has forced me to confront so many of my fears, to look them straight in the eye.  Death was always one of my greatest fears, and the fear of losing a loved one seemed insurmountable.  So I chose not to look at it.  I gave it power by avoiding it and not letting myself recognize that it was only my fear, and that others, like Debbie, didn’t have it.

Fear is the opposite of joy, the opposite of love, and fears come in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than others.  But if death can be reckoned with by some folks, certainly figuring out life insurance and how to write again is surmountable.

And I know now, in my heart, that I want to live joyfully.  Like I have been these past couple of weeks; not fearfully, like I had for so many years.

So I decided I wanted my joy back.  I didn’t know how right then, and I was too tired to try at that point anyway, but I threw out a prayer for a joyful return, and then went to sleep…

And sleep I did, right through my normal 5 a.m. wakeup time.  Hmmm, that’s weird, I know I set my alarm, but the clock is flashing and three hours slow, like the power went out.  But no other clock in the house is doing that…

I was kicking around possibly sleeping in anyway, so I guess that has been decided for me, and now it is too late to get my run in before the kids need up and readied for school.  But to be honest the extra sleep felt really really good – maybe I needed it.  I certainly handle things better when well rested.  So I will run later after the bus picks up Trevor.

Running always calms me, always resets me, always slows me down, especially my racing mind; maybe someday I will actually be able to outrace my mind!  But that is not necessary today, I just need to feel my muscles moving and my heart pumping and my lungs filling deeply.

And the endorphins kick in, and I settle into a meditative pace.  And I leave the subdivision to run through the woods of a local park.  The grass is still wet with morning dew, and the bright sunshine on this clear crisp day is a long way from burning the moistness off; it seeps through my shoes and socks.

The sensation awakens me.  I notice the dampness, I appreciate the slightly chilled air, the golden sunshine, the birdsong.  And then it hits me like a ton of bricks – I hadn’t noticed it before…

I have been up for a couple hours, mindless going through my routine, getting the kids ready, small talk at the bus stop, making plans for the rest of my day, not really feeling anything, like watching a movie.  I didn’t even notice this gorgeous day…

Tell me, what is more joyful than a morning like today?  Bright sunshine, no humidity, white puffy clouds and the energy of fall migration in the air, the promise of colorful leaves and campfire smores, the slowing down of fall?  How many times had I driven to work the past 25 years longing to do what I am doing today, walking my boys to the bus stop and then going for a run?  How is it that I am so wrapped up in my thoughts and worries as to not recognize the gift of this morning before this?  I am ashamed…

But I forgive myself quickly, for the day is too bright, the joy is too real.  I can feel the water enveloping my feet, my breathes are fresh and clear, and the blood courses vibrantly through my body.   I am alive!

I strikes me now that there really is only one true “sin”, the sin of not really living, of just blindly running through it.  And sin is not the right word because it is really just a forgetting – forgetting that simply living our joy every day is enough.  It is so easy to get distracted, so easy to get caught up in our worries and fears.  But this comes with a steep price – you might not notice the sheer joy of the moment.

I grew up near the woods I am now running through, and I pass a clump of sumacs in a field.  I remember as a boy climbing into a similar clump of small trees, and just sitting there.  I had entered a new world, a world that completely changed its perspective from the wide open fields around it.  This world was bounded by the tangles of stems and trunks, and formed a green universe unto itself.  I entered by worming through a portal at the base of two of the larger trees, and then I was just still, taking it all in.  Soon this new universe accepted me, and it came alive with its own presents.  The sounds in here were different, filtered by the leaves, and the light more muted with no direct sunlight, and it had different insects and vegetation.

It was peaceful, too, self contained, and I was filled with the anticipation of new discoveries.  And as I was still, just observing, just being with this new universe, a common yellowthroat entered too.  Since I was now a part of this world, it did not mind my presence, and flitted through the undergrowth, its natural habitat, right up to me.

What a handsome bird, bright yellow breast and leaf green back, broken by a jet black mask from bill to wings!  And so alive, a bundle of energy, always moving, its aliveness brilliant as it stared into my eyes from only a couple feet away.   And we connected, this tiny creature and I, and I felt his aliveness, and I felt his joy, innate joy, in being alive…

I feel it again, right now.  And no kidding, as I round a bend on my path in the woods, the sunbeams burst through the canopy, the diagonal white translucent spears piecing the morning fog from cloud to earth, the perfect picture of God and joy and sunshine and renewal and Jesus laughing and common yellowthroats and dew on the grass and fresh air in my lungs.  I run into the sunbeams.  And I laugh, I laugh out loud, and I raise my hands in joy, pure joy!

I am back, back to my place of joy, back to where I asked to be last night.  And the worries are put in their place, they will be taken care of when the time is right.  And the words flow freely this morning.  And I wonder, how did my clock get messed up?   For had I run at my normal time, well before dawn, I would have missed the sunbeams…

 Common Yellowthroat

Live Laugh Love

Life is short, so live it.  Love is rare, so grab it.  Fear controls you, so face it.  Memories are precious, so cherish them.  We only get one life, so live it!

dance naked

My neighbor passed away today, unexpectedly.  She was 70, and had experienced some health problem recently, but it was still a shock to hear the news; I just talked to her walking her dog yesterday.

Her husband was out of town, and called a neighbor to check on her when she didn’t answer his calls.  My other neighbor, 88 years old, made the terrible discovery and had to be the bearer of such halting news.   He was clearly upset when I ran into him, just an hour or two after, and before the authorities had even arrived.  88, health problems of his own, his own mortality now thrust front and center, visibly distraught.

I always thought that when you reached his age, you had already made your peace with your own demise, without any effort, like hair turning gray.  Clearly that is not the case.  We must all struggle with the inevitable, and age has nothing to do with it.  Some of us are forced to confront this much earlier than others, but even living a good long life doesn’t mean you ever want to let go; life is good, and there is so much beauty, even in the struggle.

But our bodies have limits, and the rules of biology and physics must be honored, and life and death is the realm of the gods, not us mere mortals.

What is up to us is how we react to these limits.  Once again I am humbled and awed by the courage and acceptance that Debbie displayed when faced with these inevitabilities…

I stopped down tonight to visit my distraught neighbor, his first night joining me in the Gibralter Drive Widowers Club.  The house will be quiet tonight, too quiet; it will feel like everything is wrong.  And it is; you just don’t spend 90% of your years with someone and then suddenly adjust to their absence.  It won’t feel real; he will be trapped somewhere between a bad dream and disbelief; we always think we have one more day.  There is not much that needs said at this time, because we both know what it feels like; and sometimes you just need to sit with those feelings for a while.  So we embrace and I honor his wishes to be alone tonight, and I certainly understand that, too, as memories of my first night alone flood back…

I stop in to see how my other neighbors are doing, too – you just don’t live next door to someone for 41 years and not feel the loss, too.  He and his wife graciously welcome me into their home, clearly happy for the company tonight.  We talk; about our neighbor and his wife, all the good times they shared, all the changes they have seen over the years.  We share a beer and memories, the memories of what makes life special – pride in 59 years of being married to your sweetheart (and a big 60th anniversary coming up in December!), pride in raising their two boys, pride in their hard work and accomplishments throughout their working careers, pride in their neighborhood and their humble house full of love.

Stories.  They are what make us human, what makes us unique.  In the end, it is all that we have; but it is all that we need, if we have written ours in full, if we have truly lived.  I am honored to have shared tonight in my neighbors’ stories, and the spark in their eyes recounting these cherished memories does not go unnoticed.  Indeed, it burns as bright in the eyes of someone who is 88 as it did the days they were made.

I can’t help but imagine a time much earlier, bodies young and muscular and functioning perfectly, hearing and eyesight still good, the new lime green carpeting in a brand new house full of dreams lit up in the hopes and dreams of an evening sunset streaming through the front picture window, just like tonight’s…big smile.

Life is precious, even if you are 88.

And life is short.

So write your story, everyday.  Visit your elderly neighbors and relatives while you can, while they are still here to share their hard-earned wisdom.  Comfort those who need a shoulder, if you have a shoulder to give.  Enjoy every sunset, especially the ones that light your dreams and memories.  Smile until your face hurts, cry when tears need shed.  If you are lucky enough to love someone, tell them.  And when times are good, sing out loud, no matter how off key, and dance, dance naked and rejoice!

Live, laugh, love…

Rain

When faced by any loss, there’s no point in trying to recover what has been; it’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new.” – Paulo Coelho

Lightning flashes light up the woods and rocks in an eerie electric blue, but only for a second, the pitch darkness quickly returning like a thick heavy wet blanket, the thunder rolling through the hills and up my spine until the hair on my neck stands straight up in perfect posture.  The leaves scream in collective protest, like the roar of a crowd building and fading with each gust.  The wind tosses the trees, stretching them to their breaking point, and in the far off distance snaps and cracks tell of those pushed too far.  I am alone and small, just like the leaves, just like the animals that cower for shelter wherever they can.  We dig in, and steel ourselves to the storm as best we can…

And it passes.  Every storm runs out of rain, eventually…

After the storm, with the lighting and thunder receding into the distance far up the valley, visible and audible but no longer threatening, a light gentle rain settles over camp.  It creates a mesmerizing white noise, interspersed by the tick-tocking of larger drops as they collect on the leaves of the now-stilled trees and fall to the saturated earth with a plop when their gathering burden can no longer resist gravity.  Adrenaline is replaced by calm, even a weird serenity, that comes from weathering the storm.  I will be able to sleep now…

The gentle rain continues through the night, and into the morning, and the song played on the tent walls is the sweetest lullaby; true refreshment greets the gray light of morning.  Emerging from the tent, I am met by a whole new world of lush, lush wet, and green of every hue, a jungle bowing down to the life giving moisture.

The birdsong is charged this morning too.  It is not the joy and spark of a sunny day, but the confidence of survival, a confidence that banishes any vocal wavers and cracks to passing adolescence, replaced by the maturity of graduating the storm’s test.

These tiny creatures, with only lightweight feathers for protection, many weighing no more than a dime, tossed and turned in the tempest last night like the leaves and reeds, surely they are even more joyous than I for surviving the storm.  And this sense of gratitude permeates the entire forest, and it flows through me without effort, like the fog that connects the earth and the sky now…

Mystique is the main character this morning, accompanied by possibility.  Creation is possible, dreams are refreshed, life is renewed, life is gloriously alive, and we are here to take part one more day.  And for now it is calm, and I go forward with cautious confidence into the beauty and mystery and storms that lie in wait down that foggy, wooded path…

Dirt and Sky

You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields.  That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind….”  – Kahlil Gibran

Grief is sometimes like a transcendent gaze; you look down at yourself and what you are doing as if you have been detached from your body.  You watch the movie of your life alone from the back row of a dark, dirty little theater, shoes sticking to the floor, afraid every time light pours in from the opening door, hoping to forever hide in the shadows.  Some days you just go through the motions with no empathy at all for the main character in this movie, you; at the end of a bad day you wonder how you even accomplished the “normal” things.  Everything is different now, and you search for something to hold on to, something real…

Running is real.  Working out, pumping the weights, pounding the pavement, blood coursing through wide open veins, heart pounding, big gulps of breath filling screaming lungs; life courses through you, and you cannot deny it, you can’t hide in the shadows from it.  And it feels good.  We rent these incredible instruments for a spell, these vehicles for our light that can do these incredible, immaculate things, that are capable of carrying us to the greatest of heights, and through the lowest lows.

So I use mine now.  Let the rhythmic footsteps and breathing transport me to a better place, calming my mind and quelling my fears.  Let the endorphins soothe the pain, physically and emotionally.  Let the cleansing breaths refresh and rejuvenate at the cellular level, and let the sweat carry away the built up toxins of grief…

The Earth is real.  Today my footsteps pound the white rocks and yellow dirt of the great wide open Sonoran desert.  A solitary wilderness trail winds through the prickly pear and mesquite and yuccas, and the flat expanse of the desert is bounded on all horizons by far off purple mountains.  Large lobed jackrabbits and striking black-throated sparrows flee my approach, and I admire them for earning a living in a place that is so full of thorns and sharp edges.

At the top of a flat mesa I pull off trail and stop running.  From this vantage point I can survey the entire Verde valley.  A brown river cuts through it, its’ cottonwoods providing an emerald green necklace against the tan rocks.  After being penned in for so long in a beige cubicle and bounded by all these new responsibilities, the endless horizon is freeing.

The ancient ruins of Tuzigoot are outlined on a bluff in the river valley below me, marking human time and connecting it to the timelessness of the heavens and earth.  Burial plots from 1,000 years ago attest to the truth of the cycle of life and death; my grief is nothing special.  Indeed it is a necessary part of life; so I’ve been told.  What I need to understand now is how to uncover the gifts of grief, buried under the layers of vegetation and dirt that have accumulated around a topic mostly ignored and forgotten, like the ruins before archeologists did the tedious work to excavate it.

It feels right to kneel on this mesa top, to feel the rock cut into my skin under the bright sunshine, to say a prayer of remembrance to those that have gone before me, to those that would normally be here with me.  Alone on this mesa top, I let the wind dry my tears.

But as I gaze down on this valley, on the life giving river, on the ancient ruins and the thorny bushes and a trail cut through the desert, my heart begins to stir.  Instead of bowing in prayer to what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel grateful for what I have right now – this view, this body, this experience of being alive right now!  I raise my arms in gratitude as my soul reaches for the sky…

And the sky is real.  This big desert sky, picture perfect blue painted with white cotton ball clouds, so crisp, so clear, so free here in the desert; I drink it in, and it fills me.  I must run!  It is downhill, my strides stretched full; I take off my shirt and let my skin soak up the warm afternoon sun, and let the wind evaporate the sweat that courses down my forehead and back.  It is exhilarating; it is freeing; it is like flying!

For the first time in a while I experience joy, pure joy, and my heart and soul are lifted high into the desert sky!  I run much faster than my normal pace, for I want to feel my heart pound again, want to feel my lungs burn and my muscles ache; I want to feel alive again, living, not just going through the motions.  And if only for this brief, glorious run, at least I know it is possible again…

But that is reason enough to rejoice.  My mind fills with song, and I sing out loud to the rocks and the trees and the rattlesnakes…

I fell back alone on a gray Sunday morn

[Heart aches with memories that are] tattered and torn

I stumbled along ‘til I stood [with the wide open desert]

The wind it blew cold as my soul finally started to stir

Yeah the afternoon sky it grew feathery wings

Lifted me high above everything

As darkness descended I knew I had only to sing

I had only to sing, yeah, yeah!

La la la la la la la la la la…

(Apologies to Bill Deasy for taking liberties with his lyrics [in brackets] to his incredible song “Levi”. Thanks for putting emotions to music, Bill – this song leaves me rejoicing and singing along every time…

You Tube video for the song:

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=Zglxy5d0biY&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DZglxy5d0biY

Mountains and Canyons

“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is nature’s delight” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Vacations are supposed to be fun, right?  Well this certainly hasn’t felt “fun” for me, after a long travel day, getting from Pittsburgh to Phoenix with two kids and four bags of camping equipment and food and clothes.  The details are endless and overwhelming on my own, and the preparation and planning and packing that went into this tenting vacation over the last few weeks have exhausted me.  All these tasks that I used to have help doing – well, those are mine now, mine all mine.  And I no longer have a co-pilot to help navigate, to referee fights, to find a good radio station or a place to eat or to drive a little when I need a rest, or just to smile and tell me everything is alright when my face starts to twitch and the blood starts to boil after making a wrong turn.

Apparently I have been taking these frustrations out on the kids; Trevor is the first to crack.  After another command for him to take care of something that mom used to do for him, he stops and screams at me.  “God dad, you’re so mean!  All you do is yell at me!  I hate you!”  He bursts into tears, sobbing.  Instead of patience, I react by yelling more, and I tell them that they can’t be 9 and 12 anymore, dammit, they’ve got to grow up and help more because mom’s not around and I can’t do it all myself.  “Dad I’ll be 10 next year” Trevor sobs, before diving into the tent and crying in his sleeping bag.

Oh my god how could I have said that to them???  I hate myself right now; god I’m never going to be able to do this, to raise two boys on my own without scarring them for life, without passing on all my faults and fears.  God dammit Debbie, why did you have to go and die and leave me with all this responsibility that I just can’t handle???  This isn’t fair!

We are tucked into a remote forested canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff, far far from home.  That’s something that usually sets my soul afire, traveling to remote, spectacular places, being in the wilderness, sleeping on the ground, breathing fresh air, and not being in my beige cube.  I thought it would be a great idea to bring the boys out here with me, to share in my love of the outdoors, do a little bonding, maybe a little grieving, or maybe to just forget about everything for a while.  But as the darkness descends and the temperatures drop and the boys quietly cry and do their best to ignore me, my idealistic plans seem to go up in the campfire smoke…

Feeling completely alone in the darkness of the forest, my fears and demons reign freely over my exhausted imagination, and my dreams are haunted by the fight, and my whole body feels the crush of the overwhelmingness of having to do everything myself.  Sleep comes fitfully…

But there are good reasons why I go to the wilderness.  The healing peacefulness that permeates these places is real, and we need some healing and peace now.  In the middle of the night I get out of the tent for a bathroom break.  I almost crawl back into my tent without noticing, but the stars are too brilliant, even for my exhausted mind.  Wow, with no light pollution, the night sky is just spectacular.  I stare for five minutes, taking it in, feeling something good starting to stir inside of me, until the cold forces me back to the tent.  Something lightly brushes my soul, and this little hint of peace provides incredible comfort.

The morning dawns spectacular – we’re tucked into a beautiful forested canyon, and the morning mist is aglow from the rising sun just peaking over the canyon lip.  It filters through the forest and makes my boys look like angels, silhouetted in the glow, hoods from their jackets pulled tight to ward off the chill, the exhaust from their breath like smoke from a fire.  Scents of ponderosa pine and campfire mingle, and the smells and scenery push any remnants of last nights’ fight deep into Oak Creek canyon.  Even a bit of that starry peace remains with me, and I sense it in the boys, too.  Nature at work…

Today we have decided to tackle a big challenge – we want to climb to the top of Mt. Humphrey’s, highest peak in Arizona at 12,633 feet above sea level.  I tell the boys it will be a challenge, but it doesn’t register with them, having never climbed that high.  Even when we spot the mountain peaking through the forest along AZ highway 89, Trevor says it will be easy.

I want to warn him, and Jake, that sometimes things that look easy from afar certainly aren’t when the boots hit the ground.  Like this grief thing.  We’ve been going to the counseling, and I’ve been reading books, and it all sounds so simple to work through.  Until you feel it.  Until the words on a page become the body blow that takes you down, when you really feel the emotional impact of the tremendous power of loss; that cannot be comprehended or shared with anyone else, it can only be felt.  The boys haven’t felt it yet, haven’t let themselves feel it, and I’m worried about that.  I haven’t fully felt it yet, either, and worse, I’m dredging up feelings of incomplete grief for my own father’s passing over 30 year’s ago.  So much imprtant work yet to do, for all of us…

We are on the trail by 9:30, and the hiking is fun, the spectacular fall mountain scenery, aspens afire in bright yellow, the sky brilliant blue, the clouds perfectly white.  It is all uphill, endless switchbacks through the forest, and we take frequent breaks.  I try to get the boys motivated to keep moving, knowing the best plan is to get up and back down as quickly as possible, since us lowlanders are not used to the lower volume of oxygen in the atmosphere as we climb higher.  But I want them to enjoy it, too, so just like everything that I’m learning about single parenthood, I have to try to strike a balance.

And three hours later my balancing skills are truly tested.  We’ve cleared the treeline, hiking now through volcanic scree and boulders, and the slope is much steeper, and the view spectacular.  Jake is going on adrenaline now, and wants the top, bad – his first taste of summit fever.  I want it, too, probably more than Jake, for these are the adventures that make my soul sing, but Trevor is starting to slow down and complaining of not feeling well.  How much do I push him, and Jake?  Certainly we will all face situations where you have to push through the pain to achieve your goal, and this is a great teaching opportunity.  But how do you know when to stop pushing?  Again, I miss my co-pilot…

Today is October 8, 2012.  It has been exactly three months since Debbie died.  I feel my progress through my own grief has come to a standstill, too busy with work and single parenting, and my lack of sleep disrupting even regular thought.  It seems we don’t even have time to miss her anymore, what with work and school and football and baseball and CCD.  But we brought mom’s hat with us, along with some other pink hats, to wear at the summit for our summit picture…

Finally we make it to a saddle between Mt. Humphrey’s and Mt. Aggassiz, at about 12,000 feet.  Trevor has been crying intermittently to stop, to go back down, and Jake has been less than kind in telling Trevor to suck it up and keep walking.  At the saddle the wind is funneled through the narrow opening between peaks at high velocity, probably 30-40 mph, and this high up, it’s cold, very cold.  The boys huddle in their jackets, but even then they are still cold.  I give Trevor my down jacket, and the oversized puff ball swallows him like the stay-puft marshmallow man – but at least he is warm.  I make the decision that this is as high as we go.  Jake protests, and is mad; Trevor wants to go now.  We compromise and stay for 20 minutes, enjoying the spectacular views from 12,000 feet, and have our picture taken with our pink hats on and say a prayer for mom’s grace and love and patience.  But the unceasing winds force us back down, not a moment too soon for T.

And poor Trevor is really starting to feel the effects of acute altitude sickness.  His stomach is quaking, and he can’t eat much at our lunch stop out of the wind.  I carry his pack as we start back down, but not too far from our break, poor T has to throw up.  Up comes lunch and breakfast.  Once he recovers enough, I try to push him down the mountain as fast as possible, knowing that is the only thing that will make him feel better.

But we have to stop 4 mores times on the way down for T to throw up, and Jake develops a throbbing headache that he says alternates between a sledgehammer and a regular hammer pounding his brain.  I feel it, too, though having done this before, I at least am prepared for it.  The going is slow and miserable for both of them, and I feel miserable for putting my kids through yet another discomfort.  God, what kind of parent am I?  My confidence takes another hit.

But we do make it down, one foot in front of the other, the way most challenges in life have to be tackled.  I am so proud of them right now, even though they aren’t proud of themselves yet.  The boys don’t notice that the aspens have been plugged in by the low electric evening light, spectacularly aglow in their fall majesty.  But I notice, and I take it in, adding to the peace of the stars last night.  There is a smile on my face…

The boys collapse in the car and are instantly asleep, before I even turn the ignition key.  I get down the remainder of the mountain as quickly as I can, but I cannot wake them in the parking lot of Denny’s in Flagstaff.  So we all nap, working off the hangover of another adventure that dad has dragged the kids into that hasn’t turned out quite the way I wanted.

But funny things happen when you survive adversity together.  Once down safely, and feeling better, the discomforts seem further away, the achievements more profound.  T throws up two more times in Denny’s, but then feels better, and a big pancake breakfast for him and a Grand Slam for Jake, and unlimited fountain drinks, and we are all feeling a lot better.  In fact, we can even laugh about it now, and I think it begins to sink in that, yeah, this was a good adventure!  We didn’t make it to the top, but we climbed to 12,000 feet, only 633 vertical feet from the summit, and that’s pretty impressive for a 9 and 12 year old.  I can see the pride on their smiling, dirty faces, and I can sense an appreciation for this adventure, maybe even an appreciation that their old man just might be able to take care of them after all.  Dare I say we’ve even bonded a bit???

It’s dark when we arrive back at camp, but tonight’s camp is so much lighter than last nights.  We laugh and regal each other with tales from the trip and zingers that T and Jake slung all day (where do they get this sharp-witted sense of humor?), tucked into our sleeping bags and cuddled together against the canyon.  I can’t help but think how ironic it is that the highest point in Arizona is so close its most spectacular low point, the Grand Canyon, separated by only 70 miles.

There is a real sense of camaraderie tonight, and a sense of peace and relief that comes from pushing yourself to your limits, and surviving.  I don’t tell them that this lesson can be applied to so many other things, and I certainly don’t bring up working through their grief.  But we talk openly of wishing mom were here, and how much we miss her, and even if it’s not the body blow emotions that need to come out eventually, it’s a start.  One foot in front of the other…

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Here comes the rain again, Falling from the stars

Drenched in my pain again, Becoming who we are

The lightning bolt this time came from the radio.  I thought I took only upbeat songs for my long morning drive to Akron that started well before dawn – I need to stay awake and focus on my upcoming presentations.  Figured Green Day was a safe bet, but here I am alongside the road, tears flowing as hard as the pelting rain in the dark night.  Forgot about this song, and it hit me like a ton of bricks…

It was a beautiful September day four years ago, a Friday evening, not a cloud in the bright blue sky, a crispness in the air hinting of fall.  Normally we’d be enjoying the end of another work and school week with the excited release of two days to do what we want.  But I remember that day spinning at the treetops, spiraling, not quite out of control, but certainly this couldn’t be reality.  We held on to each other, the four of us, two not even up to my chest, way too small to be experiencing this, all of us scared, devastated by the news delievered coldly, over the phone, to Deb – yes, you have cancer.  Stunned and stoic at first, the fear built in my head until it couldn’t be contained; I cried out loud in anguish, outside on this beautiful day, and held on to my family, my wife, knowing all too well that this wasn’t good, and for a brief moment my tears grew to unrestrained wails.  I’m sure I scared the shit out of all of us, especially my two boys, because I was scared shitless, so composure was quickly demanded.  But all four of us are shaken to the core…

I don’t know what Deb felt that day; I don’t know how she thought of that day looking back, either.  But certainly it scarred her.  Maybe the first time it was an anomaly, and certainly the odds were in her favor that she could beat this.  A round of surgery, radiation and chemo; certainly things will be looking up.  But two Septembers later, and it is a repeat, again another Friday, again another cold conversation with a rushed doctor heading out on vacation while we are left devastated, this September the news worse – it’s spread to the lymph nodes.

I didn’t notice it at first.  Jake and I had tickets to an upcoming Green Day concert; it would be his first concert.  We were listening to as much Green Day as we could to get psyched for the show.  Deb would always disappear without a word when this song came on.  I didn’t make the connection until later, when I caught her hiding her tears and I finally put two and two together.  We didn’t listen to this song again from then on…

But of course the cancer got worse.  The next round, it couldn’t even wait until September; we received the Stage IV news on a hot steamy summer August day, by far the most devastating and ominous of the three bell tolls.  By far the hardest body blow…

As my memory rests, But never forgets what I lost

Wake me up when September ends

This September, Debbie is no longer in pain, she is freed of her nightmares and the fears that accompany this disease; for that I am grateful.  But this September has been horrible for me.

The boys and I, we are still here, still trying to understand this, still trying to come to grips that life still goes on when there is no way it seems it should.  Look, there are people on their way to work, people smiling and laughing and carrying on as if nothing is wrong – but everything is wrong, everything has changed, and there is nothing good at all about this September, either.

The entire month is hell for me.  I can count on one hand the nights I have slept since late June.  I am learning all new jobs, packing lunches and doing homework and getting the kids to baseball and football and CCD and to school.  Most days I haven’t even 15 minutes to myself, or if I do, the to-do list screaming at me guilts me into cutting short any rest.  Worst, am I back to work, and the deadlines and pressures have not changed an iota; in fact they feel that much worse because I no longer have the time to do my job to the level of quality I have for the past 25 years.  I feel like I am failing at everything, my nose just a millimeter above the water, just one big wave away from drowning.  The culmination of this month from hell is September 26th, when I have two big presentations in Akron.  My sanity is held together this morning by shoestrings, and they snap when this song comes on…

Summer has come and passed, The innocent can never last

Wake me up when September ends

Where did the summer go?  Where did the spring go, or this whole year for that matter, easily the worst year of my life.  What has happened, why am I being tested like this, how much can I bear?  Wake me up when this entire year ends…

But somehow we soldier through the month, somehow I’m surviving still employed, the boys are doing well in school, and baseball season has ended and I have a week off in October.  At the vague edges of my consciousness I also aware of a growing understanding of the questions I have been asking, and recognizing that we are not the only ones going through hell, and that maybe you have to go through hell for reasons that won’t be clear for a long, long time.  It doesn’t make it any easier when you’re reduced to an emotional puddle and stretched bare to the universe, but you begin to feel that you will make it one more day, and that that’s an accomplishment to be proud of…