Anniversary Dinner in NYC

 

It was one fine French restaurant, “Delice and Sarrasin” in the West Village in NYC on a perfect night in July. There were some unusual things about this night and the first was the weather. It had been relentlessly humid for days and going into the subway was akin to descending into hell. Sweat would just drip from my forehead until the relief of an air-conditioned train car arrived. Much as I tried to be very still waiting in the station, it was still difficult to breathe. But this night was glorious with a summer breeze, no humidity and that nighttime glow I have only seen in New York City. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night I try to recreate the sound of the buzz and the energy I hear there that I find oddly soothing. The third unusual thing about that evening was that 40 years had passed since our wedding day in Quogue, Long Island. It seemed impossible to imagine that we have defied the odds and stayed together for this long and even more, that we still love each other so much, and have been to heaven and to hell and back several times. From this love six incredible sons came to the earth and each one has made a difference in one way or another, despite the short stay of one of the sons.

 

But perhaps, the most unusual part of the evening was that we were about to dine on French cuisine that was also vegan food! This really seems like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But in the end, it may have in fact been the best meal I’d ever eaten in the sweetest, cutest restaurant with the man I adore.

 

The small tables in the tiny restaurant were very close to each other so when this couple sat next to us I was intrigued. He was a very tall man with very large fingers that I noticed immediately. In retrospect maybe he looked so large because everything else in this space was so small. He had gray hair and looked to be in his sixties. She was a Diane Keaton type including the attributes of a mature Annie Hall! He was madly in love with her, holding her hand across the table and trying hard to appreciate the vegan food she liked, though he couldn’t help but like it since it was so delicious!

 

I noticed a wedding band on his left hand but when I couldn’t see hers, I thought, “Uh oh, he’s cheating on his wife!” Then, I eavesdropped and heard him describe a friend of his having told him earlier in the day that he would have made a great dad and that it was too bad he’d never had children. She smiled and agreed that having a son would have been wonderful but that it was okay that he’d never had one. She was kind and caring. I don’t think they knew I was listening but it was becoming challenging for me to stay focused on my own husband and food. I’d decided we should talk of the best moments of our lives instead of the worst ones, which we tend to dwell on. I kept trying to concentrate on the task at hand and to stay present.

 

But about the food. Our adorable French waiter guided us along insisting we begin with Escargot. There are certain tastes I’ve missed over the almost five years of plant based foods and something like Escargot is one, though I have not thought of it before. Out it came in the little plate right out of the oven with the six inset spaces, so hot that we were reminded not to touch. And there were these delicate, garlicky, “buttery” gems made from oyster mushrooms served with home made French bread and I can only think of one word to describe these and it is “divine.” For some reason even the Rose wine (it seemed like the appropriate one to order) was completely delicious. Then, came our recommended entrees. Shep had Boeuf Bourguignon that might have made Julia Child take a bow. It was sublime and meaty and hearty with plenty of Burgundy sauce for dipping more of the French bread in. As for me, I had the Tagliatelle aux Fruits de Mer et sa Douce Creme. Oh my! “Shrimp, Scallops, and Squid” in a light creamy sauce on ribbons of tender pasta. There was no speaking while I ate this and was carried away to heaven.

 

Every single course blew us away and in the end, the waiter encouraged us to try dessert. We chose a strawberry, dark chocolate, and cream crepe with slivered almonds (La Francinette Crepe.) It was gorgeous, almost the size of the table and it literally caught Annie Hall’s eye when she said, “Wow!’

 

Grateful for the invite into conversation I said, “You must have this. It is beyond imagination.” I continued with, “it is our 40th anniversary so I figured I would order dessert which I never do.” I mentioned how unusual it is to be able to eat French food when one eats a plant based diet and she agreed. I shared that I’d been texting my niece. Katie who works in a French restaurant in Wilmington, NC and she said there’d be no way to make French vegan food! Then Tall Rob said, “Oh I live in L.A. but go to Wilmington regularly on business trips and I always eat in one restaurant there, “Caprice.” Of course you’ve guessed, this IS where my niece Katie has been a server for many, many years and he promised to ask for her the next time he goes there to dine.

 

“Oh,” Annie Hall said, “forty years – wow, we have been married nine!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “Living in L.A we had an odd meeting after a lifetime apart following high school. I had five grown kids and went to park my car one day. I had difficulty parking where I wanted to, so I drove around the side of the parking lot where I saw this very tall man reaching into the trunk of his car. I thought to myself, “I wonder if that is Rob from high school, dozens of years and entire lifetimes later,” recalling how tall he was in high school. Then he stood up and I realized, It was in fact, Rob!” “Tell them what your next thought was,” Rob said to her beaming. “Oh, next I thought to myself, Oh shit, I’m going to have to get married again!”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Gifts of God for the People of God

I remember the scene in The Thorn Birds, eons ago when Richard Chamberlain played Father Ralph de Bricassart leading the community up hill in Drogheda, Ireland for each of the burials of parish members. That moving and emotional scene has stayed with me all these years.

 

It seems that I return to the Episcopal Church I attended in Raleigh, North Carolina for 17 years, when there is a death and a funeral service. This seems to happen more and more often, which is disconcerting at best. It is an aging congregation though I suppose in some way, all congregations are, yet the deaths have not always been those of advanced age and some have been sudden and completely unexpected.

 

This church meant so much to us as a family. We were northerners new to the south and this was our first taste of “eastern barbecue” a taste for which, I have never acquired! We were welcomed and invited to stay. My sons grew up there and were active members of the youth group. I learned everything I know about social justice, compassion for the troubled, inclusivity of all, and that everyone is welcome at God’s table no matter what your faith or background is. This is counterpoint to what I learned growing up in a Catholic church where to this day, only practicing Catholics are invited to this exclusive ritual. This always irks me, as I cannot imagine Jesus at the last supper saying, “You can have some bread and some wine, but you over there nope, you can’t.”

 

Our priest and rector for those 12 years was completely unique. She was this tiny, blond woman full of passion and brilliance, strong willed, relentless, very often ill, hilariously funny and irreverent, spirited, riddled with anorexia, haunted by the demons of having a brother who’d died as a teen, leaving her with all family responsibility for success. And, I would say, she single handedly saved my life when I wanted nothing more than for it to end. You see, my two-year-old son, (the youngest of four) drowned in a pool over 23 years ago and it was this priest who we phoned first when we were in New York completely inconsolable. It was she who said, “God’s heart has just broken for you all. Come home.” It was she who wrote poems about his small body floating in his yellow sweat suit and it was she who made a place next to the playground at church where his ashes could be interred. It was her tiny hand that held my hand around that white pottery urn and helped me lower it into the earth. She kept holding my hand knowing full well that my heart and my soul were going down into the earth at the same time. She kept talking me through it minute-by-minute, step-by-step. And it was she who came to my home daily to help care for and distract my children from the endless wailing grief. Soon after, she would help us create a beautiful memorial garden in that place where many river stone markers have now been added, as others have been laid to rest along with our son. And three years later it was she who held vigil in her office as she paced with worry when I went to the hospital to deliver newborn twins. Then, it was she who played a musical candle that sang happy birthday that day, overjoyed and relieved. And months later, when we carried those twin sons to the altar to be baptized, it was she who said, “There could be no more joyous sight than to see this father holding infant sons again!”

 

In 2008 she campaigned hard for Barack Obama, which was no surprise and she looked forward to his victory. But, she had a surgical procedure that very Election Day that ended in a major stroke. This wiped out her entire left side leaving her with a life that would never be the same. Her recovery process was arduous and endless as was her pain, her limitations, and her fear. She could never unclench her spastic left hand. Regaining a semblance of herself, took a very long time with a lot of dedicated help. The kind and magnanimous bishop and close friend had the somber job of terminating her position as rector of her beloved church. This could not have been more devastating to her and we all wondered just who she might be without this church that she had built and nurtured. For years to follow, there were simply “substitute teachers” also known as Interims or Supply Priests. The majority were not good, some were better than others. But for us, life was passing along with the years, and our children were aging out of youth activities, which had become minimal. So, we found a downtown church with a thriving youth group and since we’d moved downtown as well, this ended up making more sense.

 

A little over a year ago one of the pillars of the church and one of the founding members, Gail died suddenly, asleep in her bed and found by her beloved husband Tom. She left her only daughter eight months pregnant with her first child, whom she would never see. We went to her funeral and were welcomed with open and loving arms by all those who had loved and cared for us through the worst time of our lives. It felt warm and it felt holy, despite the sadness of death in the community. There have been others as well, including the husband of our dearest friend, Lesley who may have loved her husband Larry more than any other woman in the world. Larry initiated American Sign services along with the rector, which attracted a significant deaf community. All services were signed by our rector along with a deaf interpreter each Sunday. What a truly a lovely and caring thing to have created!

 

Gail’s husband, Tom died a few days ago, which came as yet another shock to this tight knit community. Gail and Tom had been so kind to us years ago by caring for our children every other Wednesday night so that we could attend Compassionate Friends meetings. We went to the visitation last night and there were the loving arms for us, as always. The daughter, who’d been pregnant at the death of her mother, was now carrying a darling, blond 18-month old son. She is merely 30 years old and has lost both parents. When my son died 23 years ago, Kathy came to my house to read the hospital report related to his drowning with me. She is a nurse and so we felt she could interpret it best. There was no “best” because it was all just as awful as could be. I remember her walking into my house that day and asking, “Are you still breathing?” Oddly, so very oddly, she walked into the funeral home last night and said to me, “Are you still breathing?” though I am quite sure she did not realize these exact words had been said so many years before. The answer I am afraid, is that I am barely breathing and am living in a deep depression that I cannot seem to shake. Sleep eludes me, fear paralyzes me. My oldest son was arrested eight months ago, which came as a complete and traumatic shock. One month later his first child was born without him and he misses every moment of every day along with his bereft wife. Followed by the daily nightmare of him being in jail all this time, came the heartbreaking death of my only sister, leaving me to wonder quite how I am to march on. Mostly I find myself in a vortex of sorrow and grief. So it was hard to answer Kathy’s repeat question because I am not quite sure if I am still breathing.

 

Today, I went to the church for the funeral of Tom, the first senior warden of the church with the then, new rector in 1992. The newest rector has been at this church for several years now and she is lovely and genuine and caring. I simply have no history with her though. The casket arrived covered with the creamy satin pall. And then to my total surprise, my dear friend and former rector was wheeled in by her husband in her wheelchair. There she sat, up front in her black priest garb, her blond hair still blond, her right hand working, her left hand not. And I was in complete awe. I could not take me eyes off of her tiny little, powerful, sustaining self. My history flashed before me, as I met her eyes. And when the service began with “Amazing Grace,” she not only sang every word but she signed every word as well. Talk about amazing grace!

 

She proceeded to give the most moving eulogy I have ever heard and she did so without a single note, which should not be surprising because in fact, in all her years of preaching, she NEVER had a single note! She spoke through many tears because she loved this man and shared how he’d always had her back in every way. She described how Tom was out of pain and in the glory of the arms of God, whereas the rest of us, every single person in the church is in pain. “If you are not in pain, then you are likely no longer living on earth,” she said. And she added, “If you lose your sense of humor regarding just how crazy things are here on earth, then you might as well just forget it.” I was awestruck at every single word, sitting bolt upright, and when the deacon stood up to follow with a homily, he simply said, “There is no way I can follow that. There could be no words to add to the incredible things just said.” At first, stunning silence, and then applause broke out.

 

I believe I feel closer to God in that church than just about anywhere. I am not sure if it is my own past I have left in those walls, or if it is the warmth and love that flows from the people who know my history and each of my children. It is a feeling unlike any other. And when it came time to go to the altar rail for communion, I found myself trembling. So many times, so many, many times, I barely could crawl up there, sunglasses hiding my tears, shaking as the bread of life was placed into my hands, turning and heading out to the memorial garden where I could contain myself no longer. And here I was today, recalling those moments as I received communion. When I arose from the kneeler and turned, there was my priest’s only mobile arm, her tiny right hand extended from her wheelchair reaching to me as she said, “Oh sweetheart, sweetheart.” I made it back to my pew and dropped my face into my hands, whispering my pain to my God, begging for help.

 

The bereaved family processed out to the hearse to bury their father. I walked out the back and talked with a few dear old friends for a while. But then, I made my way to the Memorial Garden where I dropped to my knees at my son’s grave and sobbed begging him, “Oh son of mine, please help me. Please help your oldest brother. Please help me come out of darkness. I love you forever and ever and I miss you every single day.“ I turned to look at the fake bird on the fence behind me when I suddenly realized it was a real live owl in mid-day! A month before my sister died she saw an owl come to her window and told me this was an omen of impending death which I denied to her. Now, I shuddered in complete fear and left. I do not want to leave this precious earth and those I adore. It was time for me to go and babysit for my grandson. I had spent time in the arms and love of God and it was time to rest my tears for a bit and carry on. There is work to do. The gifts of God for the people of God.

 

 

 

 

 

Stroking Jail Glass

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I stroked the glass window.

His cheek was behind it.

I tried matching my hand up

To where his was

As if I could hold his hand.

I looked deep into his eyes

Which typically are filled with tears

But I saw the deep dark eyes

Of love and caring

That I met for the first time

When we locked eyes at his birth.

I wanted to touch my son

So badly that I ached from deep inside

Knowing that it had been months

And not knowing

How much longer

It might be.

So as he spoke into the phone receiver

Like so many movies you’ve seen,

I kept stroking the glass

Though I don’t think he could see,

Me doing that

As I think his only view

Is of our faces.

His mother

His father.

And their broken, oozing hearts.

 

I remember when my younger son died

And I thought for sure I would die as well.

I craved holding his two year old self

So desperately that I would rock the air

And sway my hips in that way

Mothers seem to do unconsciously.

But I recall thinking

I want NO ONE else to feel this pain,

This relentless, sleepless, longing.

Let no other mother feel this.

 

But when I glanced over to the next cubicle

With the very dark skinned woman

Leaning into the booth crying,

I knew my wish had come too late.

She wasn’t stroking the glass like I was

But her heart was no longer intact.

And next to her was the couple

With the woman wearing the scarf

Around her head that dresses up

The cancer she’s trying to hide.

So she gets to have cancer

And visit her incarcerated son/husband/brother

But I’m not sure she was stroking the glass either.

 

Always try to say, “I love you

With all my heart”

Before the picture fades to black

And he disappears

With me still hoping

And praying

That none of you

Ever have to stroke

The glass window

Yearning to feel

The skin of your beloved son,

And no matter what his age

Or size,

To cradle him in your arms

With the tender love and care

That Mary held Jesus with.

Forgiveness.

Mercy.

Miracle.

 

 

3D Mammogram

 

My sister has been dead for three months and as many of you know, she died from Metastatic Breast cancer that metastasized to her bones. In the end, her skull got too crowded with disease and a bleed and ended up as a stroke. At the moment I am focused on my existing Osteopenia and Osteoporosis along with my mammogram. I have been told that I am now considered “high risk” for breast cancer which I suppose is true however, without knowing if my sister’s cancer was of the genetic sort, I am not sure. I’m working on finding that out if I can. If I can’t, I suppose I can be tested myself for the BRCA1 or 2 gene.

 

So, I discussed the idea of getting a 3D mammogram with the midwife I saw for my annual GYN exam last week. She didn’t seem to have an opinion so I decided on my own that it seemed a more extensive screening to do, despite being exposed to more radiation, which always makes me cringe.

 

I drove to Chapel Hill to UNC Cancer hospital this morning but as I arrived at the parking deck it all began to hit me. This is where I had come with my sister several times and I was about to relive a lot of it. When I walked into the lobby, the déjà vu began. The masked women, the wheelchairs, the wigs, the no eyebrows or lashes, the pink ribbon pins, the whole scene. First you wait on a line and get a number, sort of like at the butcher. Then your number comes up on a screen and you go to registration. UNC is a well oiled machine and they care deeply about their patients/customers to the extent that a cart is rolling around offering coffee, tea, or hot chocolate as if you were on a transcontinental flight. Green tea is a common choice because, oh yeah, we heard that fights cancer. Sure. Too little too late perhaps?

 

Anyway, I find myself trying to act super healthy, almost super young and vibrant, walking at a rapid pace, responding quickly, etc maybe to show that I am not one of the fallen warriors? Just why do I do this? None of this is necessary. Who am I kidding? But, when they seat me in the next waiting room in the very chair I sat in five years ago, I am overcome with emotion. This was the chair that I sat in when Alice’s boyfriend yelled at me in front of the entire waiting room of people because as he said, “I had not greeted him with a proper hello!” I remember how stunned I was as my sister was sitting in the mammogram waiting room a complete wreck at the time and because she needed water, I’d come out to get it, Never did I expect to be met with this maniacal demand. I recall yelling back at him saying that he was out of line and should stop making a scene. It was at that moment that he looked me in the eye and said, “You are not going to win this contest, so you’d just better get used to it.” Still flummoxed, I asked “What contest? I didn’t know there was a contest. I thought you were her boyfriend and I was her sister and we were here to help her with her recent cancer diagnosis.” He scowled at me and I went in with Alice’s water at which time she said, “What is wrong? You are bright red.” “Oh nothing,” I replied. “That’s not true. Did you just have a fight with Pete?” I told her he’d yelled at me for not saying hello the way her preferred when I’d rushed in wanting to be at her side and she said that she just wanted peace and for everyone to get along which only made me feel guilty and confused.

 

And so back to the present, the tech came to get me and brought me into the exact room I’d waited with my sister and the rest of the hairless, scared-to-death silent women, that day five years back. And when she pointed me to one of the ten lockers to place my clothes in, it all started to be too surreal. I recalled saying to Alice, “don’t worry about which locker it is. It is the last one on the right.” Today, I was assigned the last locker on the right. I put the gown on with the opening in the front as instructed, but there was no way to tie it so I simply held it closed till she brought me into the radiation room. I remembered Alice saying, “How the hell do you tie this gown anyway?” Waiting to be called in I noticed that the TV was still on the same Food Network cooking show. I wondered then, why women who were so nauseated with fear or chemo were subjected to this particular TV genre. Now, years later, I still wondered.

 

The tech then asked me why I was getting a 3D. I said that my sister had died from metastatic breast cancer and I was now considered high risk. “Oh how long ago did she die?” she asked. I was fixated on the crocheted flowers bobby pinned to her hair and her quirkiness but this question jarred me. “She JUST died” I said. “It was only a couple months ago” I said as I started to fill with tears. “I sat with her in this very room when she was having her follow up mammogram five years ago,” I said in my now quivering voice. “Tell me how I find out if she had genetic type cancer or not” I asked. She was getting nervous now and said, “Now honey, you just sit tight here and I will go find out and come back with that information.” It was not the best idea to leave me in there alone in panic mode in the midst of a Star Wars set. I reached my right hand down and searched for Alice’s hand to hold onto. The kind, skinny, strong hand of hers. I tried on the left first and squeezed the air wondering if it was her hand. Then I tried on the right. Then I extended both hands, squeezed the air in front of me and began to cry silently asking Alice to please for God’s sakes hold my hand! I wanted to bolt for the door, run and maybe never stop. In the end, I realized that if in fact I am following in my sister’s footsteps, it would not make a difference if I ran forever and didn’t look back.

 

The tech came back in and brought me to the dreaded, monstrous machine. “Remove the gown from your right shoulder” she commanded. And then, the torture began. My breast on the shelf, holding my breath, chin this way, no that way, squeeze, slam, pinch, compress, ouch, ouch, ouch, you have got to be frickin kidding me. “You can breathe” she says. Breathe? Who in the world could breathe? “Wait let me make sure I get not only your breast but your chest muscle too because of your situation we want to get everything we can. I will do each breast on each side and front in 3D and then I will do each direction the same in 2D, just in case. And you are only being exposed to slightly more radiation than the 2D.” “You can breathe now on this one.” “I am not breathing,” I say, “I am in far too much damned pain to breathe,” Oh good God I am thinking. Surely I will not survive this screaming pain and ultra rads. I did for now.

 

“If they see anything, they will call you to let you know. If they don’t they will mail you a letter telling you everything is okay.” I am wondering how one survives the waiting for the letter while you are waiting for the fateful phone call. But, I leave, go to the end locker, get my clothes, sit on the bench in the small changing room, cry silently, get dressed, walk out and across the bridge to the parking shelves. It is a warm, sunny spring day. In my mind, I hold my sister’s hand swinging my hand back and forth like we used to do when we were little girls. Once in my car, I am safe to talk to her with no one around. “Thanks for coming with me dear sister. Thanks.”

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April 15th Isn’t Just Tax Day

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A year can pass so quickly

And painfully slowly all at once.

Some do without much ado

While others are filled to the brim

With much you never saw coming

And wish you hadn’t.

A year ago it was bright and sunny

With the ocean as a back drop

And a smiling, beaming family

Gathered to celebrate

The union of love

In front of the ocean

With our feet in the sand.

 

We were so joyous that day

Full of the hope and dreams

Of the years to come.

My sister had battled her disease

For nearly five years

With much success

Extending her life

Gracing us with her presence.

Leaving no stone unturned,

She was now headed

To Mexico in the morning.

And though I begged her to keep her money

Away from the charlatans

And even more to hold tight

Onto what good health she had,

She’d become angry

When I challenged

And annoyed when I pleaded.

So I gave in and “supported” instead.

I suppose I will always regret that

And yet I know it was a battle

I could never have won.

 

It is so odd to me

That we never know

Which days are turning points.

I kind of wish

There was a certain alarm

That would sound loud and clear

With warnings of

“Hey, after today your life

will never be the same again.”

 

But our lives seemed the same

After the joy of that day

When Easter morning followed the next day

Along with the birthday

Of my third eldest son.

There was a lot to celebrate that weekend

And we were loving every minute

Feeling as if joy had arrived to stay.

 

To further bond their love,

The bride and groom announced

The baby-to-be

Just a few weeks later.

And I remember feeling as if

Nothing could ever be wrong again

Because this was so blissfully right!

 

My sister returned four weeks later

And would never be the same again,

As they’d whittled her down

To bare bones

Mostly made of juices,

Coffee enemas

And enough supplements

To correct the vitamin deficiencies

Of an entire developing country.

It was not good.

She was not good.

But we followed her wishes

And dammit we juiced

And when we were done,

Her daughter and I

Would juice some more.

Until she became so depleted

That she needed the blood of another

To keep her alive.

We cried together

And we laughed too,

But never could a finger

Be pointed at the Snake Oil.

Mexican salesmen dressed

In white doctor coats,

Because on some level,

She still believed in them

And I guess she needed to.

What we didn’t know then,

Was that the count down had begun.

And there were only about eight months left

Before there were no stones left

To unturn.

 

And the marriage that was made

Would have only seven months to

Remain shiny and new,

Gaining very little terra firma

On which to stand and remain grounded.

He would be handcuffed

And taken to jail.

She was terrorized by police

While her third trimester

Became a tornado of fear,

Worry and Cortisol.

All of our lives

Would dissolve into a valley of tears

Most especially on the day

The beloved baby was born

With his loving dad in absentia,

Tortured missing the moment

He’d dreamed of forever.

And baby’s mom a solo warrior

Stood up and birthed that new soul.

Our sadness and frustration

Is never ending and we wait

And then we wait some more

But no one waits as much as he does.

We wait for what we dread or dream of

and we pray for kindness,

and understanding of

the heart of this good

and loving man.

But we know nothing else to do

But wait.

 

So let me just mention this

Though you may not know what to say

And you might be trying hard

To distract us

Or worse, “cheer us up”

Please don’t.

This is on our minds

Most every minute of every day

Except for the few hours here and there

When we finally give into exhaustion,

Close our eyes and try to sleep

Which sometimes works

And sometimes doesn’t.

I have taken to falling to my knees

Now before I sleep

Because it seems a more appropriate way

To beg for mercy and miracles.

 

I know you want us back to who we were.

You liked us a lot better that way.

But we’re just not those people any more.

So if you feel that you can’t ask us

About how we are,

Or how our incarcerated son is,

Or even how it feels to

No longer have a sister,

Perhaps you’re just not ready

To be around us at all.
I know it is hard to bear witness this way,

But well, I’d choose bearing witness any day

Over living in the center of hell.

Be brave, try and talk to us about it all.

It is a gift to be given at a small cost to you,

But deeply appreciated.

 

 

 

Unexpected, Unscripted Angels Amongst Us

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It’s long been noted and noticed that when one is in the depths of despair whether due to illness, death of beloved, brokenness of a family member, or another of the many available hells on earth, you just never know who will “show up.” I put that in quotes because it isn’t always a physical showing up, (though that in and of itself counts in a huge way,) but in other ways. The irony is that the ones who you normally feel closest to and most dependent on, are not necessarily the ones who will stand by you, walk on the hot coals with you, cry with you, and offer you love from the depths of their hearts. Instead, those lifesaving measures can end up coming from the most unlikely people in your life.

 

Having had my eldest son arrested, my first grandchild born without his dad, my only sister die, my sister in law at the brink of death, and my car blow up leaving me car-less within a time span of a tad over two months has left me in a heap with many days feeling like eternity. But, the angels in my midst have been the ones who have often gotten me through one more day with the hopes of standing up to face the next one.

 

In the complete and total chaos that ensued on the day of the arrest, which will forever be the marker of “before or after,” I did call my friend who has been there for me so many times over the last 23 years. We sort of have this pact that when she or one of her beloveds is in the hospital, I show up to sit by her side and she does the same for me. This time there was no hospital but rather hysteria at the kitchen table and she was there sturdy and compassionate to all of us. She has remained there for me mostly as my phone friend for these past almost five months. I cannot imagine how much of a burden it must have been when I just wept on the phone without putting many words together, but she remained steady and most importantly, “there” as she always seems to be.

 

My other really good friend who has also shared religion, faith, soul searching, and high-school-teen-raising has been there day and night throughout. When it was time to host the Blessingway for my pregnant daughter-in-law less than a month after the arrest, I knew I could not do it. These two friends took over and made it happen with me just a weeping willow. And recently, they read the same article with me about grieving and depression and invited me over allowing me to cry and grieve and be completely miserable with no pressure to be otherwise. She also listened to every stage of my sister’s illness journeying to the end as she had gone through this with both of her parents a few years back. She allowed me to rant and rave and she never judged me. She’s made food and gifts, yoga videos and poems and admitted that there are in fact “no words.” These two have been my very dear friends all along, so I am ever grateful that they have stuck around through my free fall and remain present.

 

There was the infamous day when I decided to leave my sister for a few hours to drive to Raleigh, see a client and come back. It turned into the day that never ended, though it did, in all the worst ways. My beloved mini van blew up on the interstate on the way in and I stood in a ditch that freezing morning waiting over an hour for AAA to rescue me. They finally towed my car and me to the repair shop near my office where I was two hours late to meet with said client. When I took a breath and sat down to work with this mama and baby my phone rang relentlessly. It was my niece and my husband saying that my sister had had a stroke, was unconscious and was on her way to Hospice Center. I needed to get back immediately, but I was two hours away and I had no car!! I called my nearest friend and colleague and she arrived within minutes gathering my helter-skelter self into her car as she proceeded to drive for the two hours straight from hell. She says she’ll never forget it and I of course have trouble remembering it, except I know I was absolutely frantic to get to my sister and I made calls to each of my sons sobbing in between unintelligible panic. My friend had converted to Judaism a few years ago but I asked her, “Do you remember the Lord’s prayer?” She nodded that she did and I asked her to pray aloud with me. She did. The divine was in our presence but she was an angel at the wheel who somehow got me back to my sister six hours before she died. I might mention too, that just a month before, this same angel pretended that she had a reason she needed to be in Wilmington, NC on Christmas Eve. The truth behind this was that she actually drove the four hours round trip, brought my sister back to my condo as we readied to leave for Christmas Eve service! I got to have Alice at my side, to pray, to sing Christmas hymns, to weep through Silent Night together, to receive Communion with her at the altar rail, to have dinner together, to exchange gifts and to sleep in my bed together for the last Christmas eve ever. This was an angel in my life that made it all possible and I will remain forever grateful to her for her completely selfless acts of generosity.

 

For many weeks and months I found that I could not speak I was too depressed and too scared. I wanted mostly not to be here any longer for fear of feeling any further pain. My sister-in-law and I have not really ever gotten all that close either due to geographical distance or just our lack of similarities. Our deep love for the man who is her brother and my husband is our strong bond. We’ve grown closer in recent years. But, on the day that I was at my lowest, she called and I pulled over and parked letting it all come out on the phone with her. She cried so hard and begged from deep in her heart, making me understand that if I was no longer here she would likely lose her brother as well and she would not be able to survive that. I listened and I found her very convincing. She was the angel that day and I will never forget it. She cares about all of us and loves us. I can tell.

 

My inability to speak for so long made it very hard on many friends who called all the time and I regret that. I just was unable to put words together without sobbing through them. It is still difficult. I mostly just waited for the 15 minute call from my son each morning and would speak and listen intently then, savoring every single word he offered and each breath I heard him take, holding back my tears until the call ended. I know that there are so many who care deeply, but I still find it somewhat hard to be with anyone and frankly look forward to my slippers and robe most of all each day when and if, I get through seeing clients in my office. My good friend and colleague was one I felt remiss about. We used to talk almost every morning while trying to get our high school sons through one day after another when all they wanted most in the world was to not be in school, but we saw it otherwise. We shared the same profession, sisters with a similar disease, and a lot of the same angst, so while I missed her, I just couldn’t talk about those things anymore. Seeing clients has worked for me. It is one of the only things in my life that is the same as before losing my sister and my son. It looks the same and my practice is the same. I craved familiarity when there was none.

 

When Alice died at the end of January, I got some beautiful notes and cards. Despite death being no surprise after years of battling cancer, I was no less devastated by her loss and find that I continue to struggle with this loss more than I could have imagined. I feel a terrible, wrenching loneliness on many days. I miss calling her every morning and every night because in the past few years she ALWAYS sounded happy to hear me. She REALLY cared about my son/her nephew. She told me I looked pretty sometimes and sent me an email of admiration and apology for past hurts, requesting that I not respond but just take it in. We shared a past that no one else will ever know or understand. I think (or at least I hope) that she knew the awe I had for the way she handled her illness and true love I had for her. Her positivity and determination left me in the dust. No one can substitute for her and it makes me sad every day. Replaying her voice mails is wrenching but I do it just to hear her ever cheerful voice. And yet, when my two-year-old son died over 20 years ago, she was not the most comforting. She wanted me to be “better” as soon as possible. She wanted to have me back to being me. I would never be me again and so she didn’t know what to do with that. So she kept trying to distract me, which was impossible. I told her many times how hurt I was when she wouldn’t acknowledge my son’s birthday or anniversary of his death. She just couldn’t do it. Over the years I came to accept and understand that better.

 

During that time, my priest and friend was a loving support especially for my kids. Compassionate Friends was a Godsend for sure. Our church community was there for us always. But out of the blue, my friend who I had known all my life sent part of the inheritance she got from the death of her father to build a memorial garden at the church where my son’s baby ashes were interred! This was a loving gesture of a lifetime that I will never forget. She was an angel in my midst and remains so always. She said to me at the time, “it is not easy to call you. I dread it actually. But, I call you anyway because I love you.” That too.

 

And then there’s the friend I have known since I was 16. Together we have been through so much including the months when her mother took in “teenage me’ and we shared a room. There has been heartache over imaginary romances, broken homes, premature births, cancer battles, son nightmares, a beloved special needs child, sibling frustrations, deaths of parents, and death of a child. When she tells me I can call at any time day or night and she’ll be there, she means it. I took her up on it one night when sleep was just not happening. She has listened and prayed and brainstormed and just plain let me cry. She’s been in my life forever and I hope I have been there for her one iota as much as she has been there for me. I remember one morning when I called her in the midst of a round of chemo and she said, “How did you know to call me just now at this moment when I have completely lost my way?” It was an angel nudge. So maybe I have been there for her a time or two. Her love always keeps me going.

 

I have a friend who is also a priest, a therapist, and a lawyer. It doesn’t get better than that and sheis also a stellar person with a deep heart. When disaster struck, I called her in a panic and I was too hysterical to be understood so she calmly asked to speak to my husband who was able to explain to her what was happening. She has helped with so much including lawyer selection, spiritual guidance and most of all, she visits my son regularly which he cherishes. She does this on a rotating basis with three other angelic clergy members each of which is walking the talk and truly following the path of Jesus in offering their hearts and time. Angels for sure.

 

And speaking of unseen angels, when my sister died my nieces and I were unsure where to hold her memorial service. I had happened to attend a Sunday service at a random Episcopal church (my sister was Catholic) a couple weeks prior. My sister’s Catholic church had become too difficult and inflexible and so despite knowing no one at the Episcopal Church, I called the rector. This woman showed up, gave us every option, arranged everything including an incredible reception and banquet after a beautiful service and Eucharist where she emphasized, “All are welcome at God’s table.” She was definitely an angel with huge protective wings when we needed nothing less.

 

But then, a dove came flying into my path a few weeks ago. I have this old friend who I have known since 1990-something. We actually found each other in the Memorial Garden when one of her premature twins had died and she’d been sent by a chaplain to take a look and see if she liked it. “Liked” being the operative word, which of course has no place in this situation. However, she did choose to inter her daughter’s ashes next to my son’s and of course we became intense friends and soul mates for many years. We regularly planned women’s retreats together but we had a falling out over one of them and our friendship could never glue the shards back together though we tried once. I missed her and her kids so terribly that I grieved for years but eventually gave up and moved on, never really having understood why this had to be like this. And so there it was, a Facebook message saying she wanted to meet with me for coffee. I felt really anxious since I was mostly scared of everyone now, but she seemed like this needed to happen as soon as possible. Ironically, I was headed to the doctor to discuss my high blood pressure, which of course was that much higher in the midst of this anxiety. I had lunch with a very dear friend who has also been hugely supportive and patient with me not answering most phone calls and messages. (Actually on the first day I was trying to head to the office that friend called and when I told her in a whisper of a voice that I just couldn’t do it, she said, “Take a breath and think of what the women in the Holocaust had to do and then you can do it.” She was right.) Anyway, I got to Panera for coffee all trembling and sat down wondering. My old friend was lovely and said she’d been thinking of me all the time, praying and shedding tears imagining my family’s struggles. I wasn’t planning to talk and then, I couldn’t stop and I imagine she thought I’d lost my mind. I have. But, then this long lost friend out of my hemisphere for so long, handed me a book about suffering and said that when she heard of it, she felt it would help. It is a gem and I savor every word. The author begins by saying that there are many hells on this earth, which has been my mantra. And so, when I left and got into my car, I knew for a fact that this had been an angel sent to me sharing, “More Beautiful Than Before” by Rabbi Steve Leder.

 

In March it was time for me to attend the professional conference I look forward to each year. It came up a bit too soon for me this year because I felt I was not ready to be in the company of 300 colleagues just yet. But it was paid for and non-refundable so I forced myself to go. This one sweet woman is dear to me each year but this year she was especially loving and warm, offering me anything I might need including trips to Whole Foods or Trader Joes if I needed any vegan items. I declined but was deeply moved by her empathy and caring. And then, the other angel there, was so loving and warm offering me tenderness and understanding and more than that, she had chosen a beautiful necklace for me that depicted my sister and me saying “Side by Side” and on the other “Deeply Loved.” These are two serious angels in my life that I have given nothing to and yet, give to me in the most meaningful ways.

 

My husband and my sons are always my angels. They never give up on me and never condemn me even when they are sick of my suffering. I am aware that at least one of them thinks of me as too dramatic and another finds me too emotional so he shuts down even more around me. But, a tight hug from any one of them can get me through the day and on many of those days they are the ONLY ones I can talk to. I have many loving friends near and far and my friend back in New York is a forever angel, always showing up for me through one crisis after another, having attended both the birth and the death of my son and always caring about all of us. She and I also share the death of a son, which is our common heartbreak. I always love and miss her as she has been an angel in my life forever. There’s also my friend, deacon and neighbor who knows just which teacup I like when I come for tea and sympathy, which she offers freely along with sublime wisdom and deeply spiritual and loving thoughts. Being a spiritual director, hospice nurse, and Episcopal deacon is a Carl Yung devotee and includes references to the divine in nearly every conversation, I value and love not only her but her wisdom as well. There’s my British friend who helped me through the hardest days of caring for twin newborns and for years after. And still, despite recently interring her own beloved husband’s ashes in the infamous Memorial Garden, she is always ready to offer love and care to any one of us.

 

Angels appear. We just don’t know who or when. But they glide in and pick us up in any number of ways. It appears like synchronicity as they seem to know just when and how. And when we can no longer carry our own broken hearts, they carry them for us until some healing begins. With all the loss and heartache I feel as I stare at the stripped, dark and barren church altar this Maundy Thursday, mourning my son and his desperate situation, I am still grateful for all the angels who continue to carry me.

Alice and I Christmas kids25389_1359481020736_3809374_n

 

Send me a Sign, Please Send me a Sign

A few weeks before she drew her last breath,

She said, “You know it would be nice to see another spring”

Her patio and her yard were sheer delights to her,

So it was no surprise to hear her make this announcement.

It was more surprising though to hear what followed when she said,

“But then, I think I have already seen spring so I guess it’s okay to miss this next one.”

She knew she was dying and in some incarnate and beautiful way

This took my breath away to realize that someone who loved life as much as she did,

Could actually be brave enough or resigned enough to let it go.

I think it was stunning to me in a way.

 

As it turned out, she died shortly after

Not quite at all how we expected,

When she was still so full of life,

Eating, showering, out and about

And entertaining friends endlessly.

An unexpected stroke took her out

And I was gone those few hours

For which I will never really forgive myself.

But it was the end of January and it had been

A cold and miserable winter

Even though she lived close to the beach.

So I didn’t really think of spring quite then

And in the next two months

It kept being gray and very cold.

I yearned for spring a bit, but I dreaded it as much.

 

Here it is the end of March

And today is the first day

I thought I smelled some spring.

When I got into my car

And opened the windows

For the first time.

I don’t know how to work this Prius very well

It all seems foreign to me.

But I thought I’d figured out

How to keep the radio on NPR,

Which is what I like to listen to mostly.

 

Well today, the radio had run amuck

And while driving, I could not

Get it back to NPR

And off the Bible preaching station

Which I imagine the previous owner had set.

That smell of spring poured into the car now

And I yelled, “Alice, I don’t believe what you said about spring.

I think you just said that to trick me into thinking

You didn’t care about leaving but I’m not sure.”

And then I began yelling and crying at the same time

Demanding a sign or something.

“C’mon Alice! I shouted

“Show me a Cardinal like you kept seeing.

I miss you so much and feel so sad,

I feel all alone so just give me something!”

I had to get the radio off the station it was on now

Because I was in no mood for “Ppppppoker Face”

So I hit Scan and hoped for the best.

And then, THERE it came.

The volume went up by itself

And behold came the voices of

Peter, Paul, and Mary

Singing “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane”

In their finest, clearest version!

I never hear that song, ever!

It is old and gone but oh boy,

This was Alice’s theme song

For her entire lifetime

And usually, she could not bear

To hear it without it bringing her to tears.

 

You see, my father left us so many times

Because he had to, because my mother

Was completely impossible to stay with.

And though we were bereft every single time

We understood him having to leave

Despite our young age.

BUT, when I was 16 years old

And felt so despised

And tortured by my mother

I left too.

And this left 10-year-old Alice

Alone and desperate

And thus, this became her song

Forever more that would always

Remind her of all the pain and all the loss.

 

So yes Alice, I got the message today

And though it made me cry louder and harder

And I yelled, “I’m so sorry” to you over and over

I realized you might just be here with me after all

Because that was way too freaky to have happened

For any other reason.

But in the end,

You’re the one who left

And today is Maundy Thursday.

 

All my bags are packed
I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’
It’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’
He’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome
I could die

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

There’s so many times I’ve let you down
So many times I’ve played around
I tell you now, they don’t mean a thing
Ev’ry place I go, I’ll think of you
Ev’ry song I sing, I’ll sing for you
When I come back, I’ll bring your wedding ring

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m…