To Live Again…

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


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


Over-wrought , Overwhelmed

“I felt the kind of desperation, I think, than cancels the possibility of empathy…that makes you unkind.” – Sue Miller, While I Was Gone


The home phone hasn’t worked in months now.  Called the cable company a few weeks earlier, they said nothing is wrong on their end, which is good because I would have to take a precious vacation day to sit and wait for a service call “sometime between 9 and 2.”  Was told to get a new phone, so a trip to the store is added to my list.

There is no division of labor anymore for me, I have to do everything, including all the things that Deb used to do as a stay at home mom.  The problem is that ten hours of my day are not spent at home, but working, including travel time.  I just don’t have the time to do everything, and most days we eat dinner right before bed, if we eat at all.  The boys video chairs are surrounded by candy wrappers and empty Red Bull cans and boxes of cereal, the cat hasn’t been fed in days (which actually worked out because he at least ate the 2-day old puke that no one cleaned up), and the snake is now over a month without a mouse.

The pressure mounts; it’s not the big ticket items, like grief and big losses, that cause the most – there are support groups and sympathetic ears at the ready if you need a shoulder to sob on for those big things.  No, it’s these little things, like a phone that doesn’t work, the Easter baskets still not put away, the piles of clothes that never get put away, the dripping shower, all the dozens of little things, things that are small and easy to fix, if you have the time, that really add up, that build to the crushing weight.  No one wants to lend a shoulder to hear you bitch about a thousand little things.  I don’t blame them either, and frankly, I would get sick of hearing it too – but that is what the single parent’s day consists mainly of, these things undone…

So Friday night I had to leave work early because the home phone is still not working and neither of the boys would answer their cell phones, and nobody answered the door when I sent a neighbor over.  I figured they were fine, and they were, they were outside, believe it or not.  But I’m not getting enough done at work – there are thousands of things left undone at work – and that means I will now have to somehow find time this weekend to make up the work – my big presentation is Wednesday and I am far from ready.  Add it to my list.

So I bring home the new phone and plug it in and it doesn’t work; I yell at the kids to fix the phone problem, they supposedly of the technologically gifted generation.  But that is as useless as talking to the cable company about my phone.  My kids are completely helpless and lazy, the product of a stay at home mom who did EVERYTHING for them and has now left them, completely dependent on me.  The anger rises…

I just wanted to come home and plant some trees that I bought earlier in the week, enjoy the remainder of another beautiful day that is again sacrificed to duty, maybe even enjoy the sunset, or catch a bit of the Penguins game and a beer while lounging on the couch a bit later.  The phone situation steals an hour from that plan…

And also of course, as usual, none of the boys’ chores are done.  So I set Jake to mowing (he was supposed to do it Thursday) and of course he is doing a crappy half assed job, and throws the mower down and breaks it.  And a huge fight erupts, yelling and screaming and cursing for the whole neighborhood to hear and threatening to kill each other, and I truly just want to fly away and never come back and go somewhere where there aren’t any kids and the constant “dad dad dad” that follows me like a tormentor, where there are no unreasonable deadlines and constant pressures to do more quicker and faster and better with all new systems all the time and everything in my job changes all the time, I want to go somewhere where the phones work and the house isn’t falling apart and needing constant maintenance and upkeep, and where the dishes and the laundry and the homework do themselves, and where, after a long long week of literally four consecutive 18 hour days because of work and kid crap in the evenings, where I can just come home on a Friday evening and relax a bit and plant some trees and dig my fingers in the ground and enjoy my first moments of relaxation and non- rushing and sunshine all week, that is all I wanted…

But instead we fight.

Single parenting IS the hardest job ever, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, friend or foe.  And no one understands that – except other single parents.  And we are not allowed to bitch about it – except to other single parents.  And everyone around us is sick of us complaining about it…because mostly we complain about these little things, and they don’t understand why, it’s not that bad…

But nobody understands what it is like to go over a year without a full night’s sleep, to constantly do a half-assed job on everything because you just don’t have the time to do things right, including making vital decisions that affect my kids well being.  Who knows the ramifications of my sleep deprived decisions now?  Who knows what unknown damages I am inflicting on them because I don’t even have the time and energy to take care of myself, let alone needy kids?  Who knows whether tonight’s fight will be brought up again some time in the future as it’s recounted to a counselor? Some kids come from privilege and wealth and every opportunity and two parents, and they still grow up to a mess.  And some kids come from disadvantages far worse than having only one parent and grow up fine.  Who’s to know what is important and when???  Certainly not the stressed out single parent…

So we keep plodding along, us single parents, doing the best we can.  Some days it seems fine, it seems like maybe we can do this.

And some days the wheels completely fall off and the whole world seems it is crashing down, like tonight.

Tonight is a low water mark, a breaking point for me.  Tonight I cannot do this.  I am killing myself trying to do everything and getting only 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night.  I have reached my depths, and something has to give…

Tonight I just want to cry, to throw in the towel, yell “no mas”, walk away, lock myself in my room and sleep for 100 hours, maybe forever, or at least until this weariness, this chest-crushing weariness, this zombie inducing haze of too much all the time, the over-wroughtness of over-responsibility, until it all goes away, sleep until it is all gone or at least until a fairy godfather takes care of everything for an extended period of time so that you can rest, and even crosses a few things off the ever growing to-do list (like the shower that has been dripping for three months or getting the phone working again), maybe even become human again, and remember what it is like to see and think clearly again, not rushed and hassled, and maybe even have some extended leisure time that is measured in hours not minutes and that doesn’t end with jumping right back in to the pressure cooker again, and maybe, just maybe, even having some extended time just for you…

And on top of this, Sunday we are supposed to go to the Caring Place, for a quilt making ceremony to honor mom.  I do not want to go.  We just did a very emotional and heavy tribute to mom last weekend at the Race for the Cure, and I have not emotionally recovered from that (because I have no time to address grieving issues) and right now I am so pissed at Deb that I want to explode.  She up and leaves and moves on to betterness and happiness, while I am left in hell…not fair that we go honor her, again, while I’m left picking up all the goddamn pieces at the base of an insurmountable mountain…

I don’t know what else to do except keep moving forward, even as my kids grades fall because I don’t have the proper time to work with them and help them with their homework, as they almost burn the house down because the 9-year old is hungry after school and tries to cook instead of waiting for dad to feed him when I get home at 7 o’clock, even as they miss half of the activities in school because I just can’t be at two places at once, even as their hearts break because they don’t have a mom on Magnificent Muffins with Moms day and they ask to go in late that day but dad has to drop them off early because he’s got an early conference call, even as son #2 is the worst pitcher on his team because I just don’t get home early enough to practice with him in the daylight, even as my kids are wearing shoes a size too small or don’t have a proper fitting coat in the winter because I don’t have time to go shopping, even as their old man falls sound asleep in their band and chorus concerts, because he is just bone tired, completely exhausted, and has absolutely nothing left in the tank…I just want to run away…

But as much as I want to run away – I won’t, at least not yet.  Maybe I will quit my job on Monday.  I don’t know what else to do.  I am exhausted, totally exhausted, haven’t had any extended time off since Christmas and the few vacation days I did take were mostly to get chores done.  But patterns need broken now; clearly we cannot go on like this…

I think back to the previous Friday night, when I finally got home, just as exhausted and just as in need of some down time.  I just wanted to sit on the couch for a while – but the boys reminded me that I promised to take them to Carnival night at the school…sigh…

Respite will not be arriving anytime soon, I know that.  And most nights I can dig a little deeper; most nights I can peel myself off the couch after only five minutes of rest, the first time since 5 am that I’ve sat down, and get up and go to Carnival night, and things are okay.  But I am worried about the nights where I get home and pick a fight because I am just at rope’s end, and the exhaustion just seems insurmountable…

For A Christmas Dancer

“And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up?” — Charles Dickens

Picture 244

Well there is no way around this, there is only through it…Christmas…

Debbie loved Christmas.  She loved planning for it, would start before Halloween; she loved decorating and baking and shopping for it, getting the tree up and the house ready and getting the kids excited.  Debbie smiled all year, but at this time of year it took on an even brighter glow.

I can’t say I shared in Deb’s Christmas enthusiasm, certainly not starting in October, but by Christmas Eve, after getting home from work, usually a few hours earlier than normal and with a few days relief from duty on tap, I’d finally let the Christmas spirit in.  Although the house had been decorated for weeks, it often felt like I was seeing it for the first time on Christmas Eve – I’d actually have the time to appreciate the extra effort put in to the stockings hung with care above the fireplace, the smell of cookies and other goodies baking, the beautiful tree that took two days to decorate, each ornament carefully placed to let those who bought the special decorations know how much she appreciated it (and also to keep them from becoming Boo’s Christmas presents!), and to feel the love that Deb planted throughout the house.

And the Christmas Eve party itself was always an exercise in Martha Stewart perfection – every menu item carefully planned and choreographed with the drinks and the festivities and the theme of pure joy.  And though the juggling act of keeping sixteen appetizers warm, all the drinks filled and the laughter and smiles non-stop would have left most exhausted and frazzled, this was the pinnacle of Deb’s love – this was her best dance, and she pulled it off with a grace and ease that would leave all applauding, a standing ovation every time.

Deb still found the energy to clean the entire house after the party in preparation for Santa’s arrival, and then we’d get the boys gifts’ together (this was usually the first time I even knew what they were getting) and she’d spend half an hour perfectly placing them under the tree while I nodded off.  And finally before going to bed in the wee hours, the plate of cookies had to have just enough crumbs and lip marks on the residual glass of milk to make believers out of even the most skeptical of boys.

Morning would come too early, but Deb was always just as excited as the boys.  And her payoff was just simply the smiles and excitement of two young boys romping through the most anticipated morning of the year, with all their wishes fulfilled perfectly.  It was truly a work of art; Christmas was Deb at her very best, a ballerina dancing a pirouette of pure joy.

Christmas will be different this year.  Christmas is not my dance; I will do my very best to make sure the boys have the best possible Christmas I can give them, and in the end it will be enough.  My boys have impressed me beyond my wildest imagination with their ability to handle the challenges they have been given, and they have lifted me up on angel’s wings too many times to count the last six months.  They won’t find perfection under the tree this Christmas morning, but they will certainly find all the love I can muster for them, and they will understand in time that it is good enough, though it will not be even remotely close to the splendor of Christmas’ past.

Christmas won’t be the same this year – it will never be the same again – and when the last present has been unwrapped there will still be a gaping hole in our celebration, in our hearts, a hole that no one, no thing, can ever fill…

I worry how the boys will deal with this.  I try to recall my Christmas’s after dad died, but I can’t, those memories have been lost.  I can still remember some Christmas’s from before dad died, though, when Santa was magic and still real; they are good memories, memories of waking up before dawn, of my sister riding her rocking horse in the glow of the Christmas tree, her hair flailing and her silhouette visible to the neighbors across the street still putting toys together for their own kids.

And I remember most that Santa brought me a train set every year, even though I didn’t ask for a train set, I didn’t want a train set; but dad did.  He loved trains, and wanted to share that love with his son.  So its funny, the gift dad got for himself is the one I remember the most out of all those years of presents; and for that I am now grateful, even if I wasn’t at the time.

I have only one gift that I want to give the boys. I want to convey to them this Christmas how much their mom loved them.  And I want them to keep that in their hearts always.

So I’ve asked the boys to write down a favorite memory of mom from Christmas, something that we can share, and reminisce about, something we can hold on to when it sinks in sometime, in the quiet part of the day, when it becomes too obvious that it is just us boys this Christmas.  I hope we will share these memories, and that we will laugh, and we will cry, and we will hold on to each other and to the memories of this beautiful woman, best friend, wife, the most loving mother a boy could ever ask for.  And then we will burn our gifts, and let the offering waft up to the heavens; I want this to be something we do every year.

I will share the stories of mom’s Christmas dance, of what the boys didn’t see; of the love and effort and caring that she put into even the tiniest of her Christmas preparations, of the thought that went in to each gift, and how she got blacklisted from Target for taking things back too many times even before Christmas, trying to get it just right.

I will share that Christmas represented mom giving her all, her unconditional love, to her beautiful boys.  A child doesn’t understand love, but cannot thrive without it.  My boys are doing so well, are such strong spirits and good souls, because Debbie loved them with all her heart, unconditionally, the way only a mother can.  She may be physically gone now, but that will always be Debbie’s gift to them, and to me, and it needs to live on in our hearts.

And I will share that Deb’s presents were wrapped in her hopes for everything that the boys could ever want, fulfilled.  Her decorations were put up far in advance to prepare their hearts to graciously receive gifts, and she steadfastly kept them on the right track in preparation for this day, for it’s gifts are worth the straight and narrow way, and the wait.  And her Christmas Eve party was her glorious way of sharing this love with all those she cared about.

But mostly this Christmas I will share with the boys the grace and beauty of mom dancing her most glorious dance, her Christmas dance, the dance of her love for her two boys, which she lived her life to learn, to share and to pass on…

For a Dancer – Jackson Brown

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know

Merry Christmas, Debbie…Love you, Always and Forever

Oh Very Young

“And the patches make the goodbye harder still.”

There is a hill, with picture perfect views of rolling hills and farms, where patriarchal oaks and stately sycamores stand guard over stones that fade and crack.  A creek flows at the base of this hill, and a newly planted dogwood anchors a slight apex in the hill, a corner halfway between my past and my present.

Tonight I sit cross-legged in the past, in front of a stereo, playing records, with skips and cracks and pops and all, a young boy marveling over the intricate artwork of album covers with names like “Teaser and the Firecat” and “Madman Across the Water.”  I pour over the lyrics of my dad’s records as the songs play, and the poetry comes alive with the full emotional power of music; it moves you.

It moved my dad, who passed on his own love of music by his example, which I emulate now.  A Cat Stevens disc finds its way into my cd player; Cat was one of dad’s favorites, and I understand why, for even forty years later his music is still relevant, still strikes an emotional chord.  It must be the truth then…and the truth of Cat’s lyrics are a double whammy on this hill…

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
(You know he never will)

And the patches make the goodbye harder still

Halfway from my dogwood is a stone on this hill that I have been visiting for over thirty years.  Only thirty-seven; I understand it now from an angle that was impossible to a teenager.  Thirty-seven is Oh Very Young; what did you leave me this time, dad?

You left me music, and music bridges, music heals, music connects.  Thanks.  It still connects me to you, dad, even after all this time.

And you left me dogwoods, dad, your favorite tree, my favorite tree; and now there is one here, on our hill.

There is more connecting, dad.  At the top of this hill, just passed the dogwood, there will soon be another stone, another Oh Very Young.  This one was only forty-five, this one was even closer to me, this one still hurts.  I don’t understand why, or what to do next, but maybe you do, now.  Maybe you can help me figure it out as I traipse this dogwood divided trail of 37 to 45 steps between my past and my present.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
(You know you never will)

And the goodbye makes the journey harder still

The dogwood stands dormant now, in late fall, leaves gone, sap retreating to the depths and protection of the inner trunk and roots, preparing for the barren days and long nights of winter, and those protections are necessary to survive the cold.  But there are buds on the ends of the branches, too, for the dogwood knows winter doesn’t last forever.  Maybe by springtime we will all be able to enjoy the creamy white blooms, cantilevered in perfect symmetry to this hill.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?

My youngest boy comes and gives me a big hug; he doesn’t know why dad is crying; but he sits in my lap, and we listen to Cat Stevens together…

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…

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…