A Wonderful Life ~ Twice

I have a wonderful life. It’s rich with people I love and who love me. I’m safe. I have room to grow and make a difference. Most of all, there’s my husband, and my son, too. Both to whom I’m devoted. And indebted.

Fortunate does not adequately describe my station.

And some days, just for a little while, I wish I could turn back time.

Dad

I would choose a summer afternoon. Independence Day, 1989. A barbecue in our yard. My 8 year-old son jumping around with excitement, fireworks to come. Our garden festooned and blooming in red, white and blue, my then husband alive and smiling — a man with a mission and a grill, and my parents. Well, happy, late middle-age, no hint of infirmity and devastation to come.

We said grace before the meal made for America’s celebration. Hot dogs, ribs, hamburgers, salads and cupcakes decorated with toothpick flags. We remembered those who fought for our freedom. We remembered those killed attempting to a scale a wall in Berlin that had finally come down. Last, we acknowledged the students killed a month before at Tiananmen Square wanting exactly what we had.

The right to choose a sun-shiny day in a little backyard oasis with friends and family, pursuing or not pursuing exactly what we wished. Whenever we wished. According to our whim.

A beautiful day. In another life. When I was a young, brunette mother and wife with a plethora of imaginings about my future and that of my family.

And now it’s all different. I am latter middle-age, new to old age, stepping into my 60s. My boy a grown man. I am bottle-blonde to cover burgeoning gray better managed with this color. Like life. Sometimes more gracefully handled by going with the flow and morphing a bit to make accommodations for the unexpected. When incredibly lucky the unexpected becomes beautiful. In time.

Brunette. Blonde. Both nice. Like my old life and present life.

But on certain days when I stop, am still and reflect, it is in an odd place I find myself. Owning  barely related lives. Picking through my past while detached from it. As though meandering through a lovely antique trove appreciating the relics. I feel pulled to them, admiring of them. A tugging to grab things and take them home. But I don’t have a place for them. In the end, they would collect dust. Distract and crowd me.

Yet these souvenirs are already mine. They are packed in my cosmic attic. Sometimes clutter. Other times cherished mementoes provoking an occasional longing I cannot deny even in my blessed life.

And today I wish I were sitting at that picnic table, crowded together under the red Cinzano umbrella, laughing again with no inkling of what is in store. No sense of what will be lost. Or gained.

Only the moment. On the 4th of July, 1989.

 

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Red Light, Green Light, In Between Light

A day or two before New Years my grandmother called me. She wanted to know how I was feeling. And doing. My infant daughter had died in October. My mom’s dad in September. My other grandfather, Noni’s husband, months before in June. It was a grueling year. Finally grinding to conclusion having ground us first.

She found it nearly impossible to be without Papa. Cocooned in sorrow. Her picture of herself as content, even alive, gone with him. In 1979.

My dog had died in April. Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. A sliding scale of despair. April seemed terrible. Then I learned there were worse things.

My grandmother worried about me. That’s why she called. To see if I was better. Healing. I told her I was because I didn’t want to worry her. Didn’t want to splash my pain on her.

And then, on New Years Eve, she killed herself. I was on the mend. The last permission she needed.

That’s how I saw it.

Green light. Live. Until she said no. STOP. Red light instead.

Her hastily scribbled note said she couldn’t go on without him. Wanted to be with him in the year of his departure. As close to him as she could get. So she made it happen. Red light to life.  A choice.

My dad didn’t say a lot. Stoic till this day. He dispatched her various detritus. Then her ashes at Donner Pass the way she wanted, where she’d floated my grandfather’s remains in the late summer. Their favorite place.

Dad’s brilliant blue eyes, the echo of his mother’s, dimmed. And no matter how much those eyes danced and twinkled in the years that followed, no one could speak of her life without thinking of her death and at least momentarily, he would blink.

We knew. Whenever Dad looked at the son I later bore and said to me, “How your grandmother would have enjoyed this boy.” His tell. The sharp knife at his core twisted.

My then in-laws were visiting from Iowa when it happened. Were standing in the kitchen when my husband took the call from my dad early New Years morning. He came into the bedroom to tell me.

Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. Grandmother.

Later in the day, a quiet day in which I hadn’t much to say except for a slow trickle of tears, my mother-in-law turned to me and said, “She had the right to choose. We all do.”

When my husband did a version of the same years later I wondered if she remembered what she’d said to me that day. If she thought it applied to her son as well as my grandmother.

I didn’t call my in-laws right when I found my husband. It was nearly 9PM where they were. The last good night’s sleep I figured they might ever get. So in the morning I called his cousin, Mort. Told him. Asked him to go to the church to get their favorite preacher, and take him, too, to tell them in person and attempt to give what would never be. Comfort.

There’s no best way to tell a parent but the phone seemed wrong.

Like my grandmother, my son’s father chose. He switched his light. Green light, I’m here. Red light, I’m not.

The Earth spun in reverse and day became night.

No mate gone before, incipient illness, or grown children flown the coop taking purpose with them; no way to explain the unthinkable. Except to say, sometimes there’s sickness we just can’t see.

But my mother was different. She slowed. To a crawl. Then stopped. In the center of the road. She let life march over the top of her. We stopped too, to give her a hand, to hold off the stampede and pull her to her feet. We did it several times. Beefed her up, held her up, cheered her up, loved her up, and sometimes ordered her up.

It didn’t matter. She glowed neither red nor green. On a dimmer, a dial she wouldn’t let us touch. She didn’t commit. To life. Or death.

She opened the door. Let death in, played hide and seek, cat and mouse, and eventually let it have its way.

We could only watch.

Now we scatter each wondering what we might have done differently.

What do I not understand about aging at this age that will become clear as I move along? Will it frighten me so much that I choose as my mother did? Death by default. Not red or green light, but instead in between light.

Is it suicide? Is it choice? Is it neither, instead capacity worn by age and inability to grasp consequence?

Is it a right? A choice we’re entitled to? If so, what do we owe?

And what are we, left behind, entitled to? Other than the sorrow, tears, frustration, missing, messiness, confusion, the ‘if only’, and ‘what ifs’?

And the anger.

I want my mom. When she carried her green light for life. Once looked out the kithcen window at the neighbor’s fancy-shmancy car, parked in their driveway crunched from a wreck.

“Well, I’d say today that car is a little more Benz than Mercedes.” She chuckled. Satisfied with her play on words. Back when her light was on bright green.

Glowing. Fading. Flickering. Gone.

 

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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“Extreme Forgiveness” by Joyce Wycoff

I have a story telling blog called Is It Really All Random? I found a wonderful story so it found a natural home there where I reblogged it.

But it’s a story about forgiveness. “Extreme Forgiveness“, as the piece is called. And here on Bite there’s much learning about that topic. Forgiving our loved ones for leaving us, sometimes with no warning at all.

Forgiving abandonment. Forgiving the nearly unbearable pain of letting go and living on without them when on some days we dream of closing our eyes and joining them instead.

We learn forgiveness of the clock that ticks on, the days that roll by, the months that march without abatement, the turning of one calendar year to the next when our hearts feel as though shredded yesterday.

And then we must say, he died last year

The world will expect something more of us because of those words, right when we have less. We’re left to forgive what the world doesn’t understand.

I had to learn to forgive myself for sleeping on the job, for not knowing a suicide was in the making. Then I had to learn it was never my job to keep someone else alive.

The learning and the forgiving seem to go on and on, all these years later.

For these reasons maybe this beautiful blog piece on forgiveness resonates even more here than on my story telling blog so I reblog it here as well.

The author is convergent media artist, Joyce Wycoff. She has a wonderful website at http://http://joycewycoff.blogspot.com where you can read her work and see her photography and artwork.

I hope this story will touch you as it did me and if so, please let her know and explore her other writing. A link to “Extreme Forgiveness” is below this piece of her work.

 “Extreme Forgiveness”

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Telling Tales “After School”

This is a long piece, written a while ago. I’ve edited it but the truth is it covers 19 years and I’m not a good enough editor to distill it further.

I place it here now for a couple of reasons. This is a tender time of year when accessing support is critical. The holidays are upon us and with them can come much pain and rumination. I notice in others and myself two things; a reticence to ask for help for fear of burdening at a busy time, and awkwardness in extending it as though the help given must be extraordinary to be worthy.

I offer this story of life-altering support in the context of two women who did a little something extra over a period of many years, and how lives were changed because of them.

I originally penned these thoughts upon reflection in Spring of 2005.

May 2005

From age five my son’s ritual summers were divided into three activities. Time at home with his father or me in unscheduled hours, a trip to Iowa to see grandparents, and a day camp where kids were tightly scheduled with delightful trips, crafts, games, sand, dirt, and swimming. There Chris’s days involved vast amounts of picnicking, water and supervision by all too fun college students.

Nothing about the program was more important to him than the two women who owned and directed it. Best friends, Diane and Terri, two mom-like ladies with a personality mix equal parts goofy and savvy, ruled with a magical combination of affection and no-nonsense, we-all-follow-the-rules-here attitude. Summer didn’t officially start until my boy could run up the path to this special getaway, into their waiting embraces and broad smiles. He never looked back except to make sure I’d quickly left.

In order to maintain sanity and order, age 12 was the cut-off for their program. My husband died a few months before Chris’s 12th birthday and summer without a plan was looming. Paramount on my mind was locating a safe place where he could find fun and comfort. Too old for his favorite day camp and too insecure to be with strangers, funds in short supply, options were few.

As I stewed about the situation an unexpected phone call came. It was Diane. She told me that each summer they extended an invitation to one child to attend “on scholarship” and this year they wanted that child to be mine. She explained that the 12-year-old rule wasn’t cast in concrete and added that because of his age he was particularly well suited to keeping an eye on younger children who might be unsure with the college aged camp counselors. Therefore he would be known as a recreational assistant and have small jobs helping with shepherding younger attendees.

In spite of the calm and convincing tenor of our conversation I was certain this was the inaugural year for the Diane and Terri scholarship program; same could be said of the title recreational assistant and the we’ve done it before attendance of a 12-year-old.

In the midst of the worst of times, the best of these two ladies sang out. With that phone call they established a tradition that lasted through high school. Each summer brought a new title, new responsibilities, new challenges, and his dear friends and guardians. The summer after his 13th birthday he became a paid employee. His first paycheck arrived with a touching note (which I still have) that concluded with a P.S. “You’re an official staff member, now!” He remained so every summer and Christmas break until after his freshman year in college.

College was a long process of both work and study and after five years of rare contact, I couldn’t help but think of Diane and Terri as I addressed graduation announcements. By then Chris was 24 and they had been in our lives for almost all of his. I sent an announcement to them and included my gratitude for all they had contributed.

Again my phone rang.

Coincidentally they would be in the graduation city for a professional conference on graduation weekend. They had a scheme in mind.

We decided on an ambush at a pub close to school where a party was already planned. True to the plan, among a crowd of college buddies and fraternity brothers ready for celebration, sequestered unknown in a corner sat Terri and Diane.

To a backdrop of low lights, smoke, pool tables, beer, hip-hop, tank-tops, denims and bar noise, Chris and family entered the crowded night spot following the ceremony. He was greeted by whistles and cheers as he walked threw the door.  We snaked our way through the line of friends; hugging, high-fiving, and shaking hands, he stopped to greet each guest. Sitting at the back of the crowded room, hidden from view, Diane and Terri waited for him to work his way toward them.

I knew exactly what happened when mid-conversation I heard his astonished, disbelieving yelp. “Holy crap!”  He surged through the swarm to the corner where the ladies now stood waiting. Chris, in stunned disbelief, hugged his old friends. They huddled as three as I’d seen many times before. The women cried and he hung onto them both, happily wearing the remnants of their lipstick kisses on his cheeks. Once the small one they protected, he towered over them, two partners-in-crime who had invented the unexpected to nurture, support and surprise him.  They did so one more time.

I looked back on the years our lives had been entwined, sometimes closely, other times at a distance. I thought of the initial year when his father had researched every summer program to find the right one for his beloved little boy.  The right amount of fun, the right amount of supervision and safety, the right amount of love.

He found it. And it lasted 19 years.

So here we are, nearing the end of October, 2012, on the cusp of Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukah. I sometimes wonder how we made it through, then I remember. People like this made it possible.

Remember when I started this blog with The First Bite? I told you I’d capture stories of the people who helped make our journey a success, albeit a painful one. These ladies are on that list and I remember them now because support is so vital especially at this time of year.

If you need support, ask for it. If you are or could be support, as athletes say, play within yourself. You need not act outside of who you are and what you know. If I’ve learned anything from Diane and Terri it’s to leverage who I am when rendering support. They didn’t do things outside their area of core expertise; they did what they always did (and do today) as loving and enterprising guides to children. But they did it in a broader way, made their circle larger and tossed in a dose of creativity. They changed the life of a child, now a man, who will never forget them.

And neither will I.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

 

For more information about San Carlos-Belmont After School, click here.

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Body Surf

Remember when I mentioned that sometimes I bulldoze my way in with thoughts and recommendations? Yeah? Today I share some of those because they’ve been important to me. Maybe for you, too. You’ll know.

So, here is something I learned about loss and grieving.

Body surf.

Yes, that’s what I said. Body surf. There’s no win in standing on the shore cursing the ocean for its rising tide or crashing waves. The ocean doesn’t care. Maybe it would if it knew you were there, but it doesn’t. It has its own imperatives. Your approval or disapproval has no consequences. For the ocean.

Plenty of consequence to you. You need all your strength and energy to heal. No sense using precious resources damning what’s already happened. It’s like telling the ocean to stop coming on shore.

But unlike the ocean, for which we have a tidal calendar, it’s difficult to know exactly when a rising tide of grief will threaten to drag us under with a powerful rip current, or overcome us with a wall of water.

I learned this, too.

It’s good to have a life jacket. And to alert the lifeguards that you’re on the beach. To put a buoy on the water so others know you’re there. This is where good planning comes in.

I found it helpful to make plans. Lots of them. If an anniversary date was approaching that was likely to cause upset, a birthday, holiday, Father’s Day, or even Valentine’s Day (because my husband had always been a bit extreme about that day), I made plans for my son and me.

Multiple plans with multiple people all of whom were amenable to being stood up. Maybe we’ll be there, maybe we won’t. I won’t know what we’ll want till we get there. That way we had options with people we loved. Sometimes we exercised one or more, took a road trip, or did nothing but watch a Cheers marathon on television.

But we weren’t backed into a corner. We used our support system to help ourselves out and we helped others by making explicit requests so they didn’t have to dance around wondering what to do for us. I recommend this approach. Alert your lifeguards.

This is what I also learned.

It’s not always the big days on the calendar that hurt the most. Sometimes it’s an errant, long cancelled newspaper accidentally delivered to someone who can’t read it and when alive didn’t miss a day. There it sits, rolled nicely with a rubber band around it, untouchable in the driveway.

It’s a piece of junk mail shoved through a mail slot that lands at your feet. An advertiser’s occupant. Your heartbreak.

A vacant space at the dinner table that unexpectedly speaks from another time. A silent chair that once creaked with its owner’s rhythmic rock; suddenly it’s your world rocking.

A song on the radio, a phone that doesn’t ring at the usual hour, an awareness of a familiar fragrance without its familiar source. Any of these can transport to another place before abruptly catapulting to a painful present.

For these instances of doubling pain there is no preparation. No planning. No girding. No steeling. It’s easy to think there’s something wrong with you because you’re so upset by a seemingly little thing.

They aren’t little. They’re a brush against a body without skin.

Don’t squelch your feelings, or hide or curse the wave. Body surf. Don’t wail against the wave. It will only serve to wear you out when you’re already exhausted. Nod in acknowledgement of  grief and pain. Ride the wave.

Body surf. Let tears mingle with the tide.

This too I learned, even when I didn’t want to.

There’s a scent to autumn that I discovered long ago with the sound of my footfall clicking its cadence against pavement as I walked home from school. New shoes, new pencils, new books with new book covers. I loved fall. It had a special smell. A fresh and good one.

Then my daughter died in October amongst the blooming yellow, brown and plum chrysanthemums, the orange front porch pumpkins and the sound of scrunching leaves. In the midst of that luscious smell something horrible happened.

Now fall still comes. And the best and saddest of memories come along with it. When people say it gets better with time, I think they’re absolutely right.

Except when they’re not.

There is a time of day when the sun shines in the house at a certain angle and spreads across my kitchen table that is so perfectly after school, when homework should be done and every chair should be occupied with chatter and dinner expectation, and they are not. They will not be.

I learned no passage of time will still the hand that holds the pin that pricks my heart.

And no one wants to say that. No one wants to say out loud that time does not heal all wounds completely.

I body surf. I say hello to a rich past of both joy and sorrow. I body surf through my powerful, dangerous aquamarine sea of sorrow.

I learned not to judge myself or the quality of my sanity because I’m this many years removed from painful loss events and they’re still painful. No railing. No misuse of my treasured self to say I should be better than this by now or that life should have been better to me.

Tears stream as I say, I know you, Ocean. I respect your strength, but I rely on mine.

Body surf. Be one with the water.

These are things I have learned.

 

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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My Down and Dirty

I didn’t know it’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Week. Didn’t even know it existed. Seems like something I‘d know, doesn’t it?

So sue me.

I’m aware of the Out of Darkness overnight walk. My son and I occasionally say, Next year we’ll do it, but we don’t. I don’t know why.

Yes, I do. It’s still too painful. Nearly 20 years later.

Here’s my down and dirty. Every day is suicide prevention day for me. Every single day. I have a suicide magnifying glass and when I gaze through it I search for the possibility, the signs. Use my personal suicide potential grading scale. I don’t even know the moment that I pull it out of my handbag. Then I become aware and struggle to set it down. To be sensitive where I need to be, and let others do the work they’re trained to do. The professionals. I go back to healing when I thought I was already.

Suicide has touched my life multiple times starting as a young adult with the death of a childhood friend, creeping closer to claim my grandmother, and finally my husband. Each time I was caught unaware. I had overlooked someone on the edge who blended in with the crowd; one step backward and over the edge they went.

Ironic how it happens. They take the leap and leave us in the abyss.

I was left to examine the clues they may have left that went unnoticed. Now I inadvertently seek answers in the faces of strangers even when I know there are none.

I have become a very meticulous observer. Because every day is a suicide prevention day for me. Whether I like it or not. Like a reflex. I search.

I have a once upon a time I was reminded of recently when writing to a friend. I told her about a boss of long ago. I called him Opus Grumpus. Brilliant man. Cranky. Shoot, cantankerous, more like it.

http://dreier.com

But not unlike a toasted campfire marshmallow. The too toasted kind, black and crunchy on the outside. Some people take a look and say, that’s burned, I don’t want that one and some of us know that inside a marshmallow like that is nothing but sweet, sweet goodness daring someone to take a bite. He had a way of scaring people off when he wanted and I always thought it was some kind of litmus test. Those who refused to be intimidated and took a bite earned his respect, kindness and loyalty.

I shared an office with Opus Grumpus. He hated returning calls and sorting through mail and messages. In order to transport himself elsewhere when dealing with the mundane, he’d whistle. And he could whistle. On the inhale and exhale without missing a note or changing strength or pitch. He did a fine Mozart’s 40th G Minor symphony. I told you. He could whistle.

When he would notice a sigh from me, a deep exhalation signaling that I was off in the wilderness massaging my regrets, guilt and grief, he would say, “Were you the worst wife ever? Well, for argument sake, let’s say you were. That’s why they invented divorce.”

What a gift. In his curmudgeonly manner, straight to the heart of the matter.

So today I write this note to me and all those like me who have lived the tragedy of suicide and live it still in ways small and large that have become part of our rituals.

We didn’t have control, we’re not that powerful. It’s a diseased choice. We walk on this side of Sanity Street. It may border the other neighborhood but we don’t live there. It’s not where our house is. Our road maps don’t work there.

We can’t make order of their chaos or sense of their non-sense because though the streets may be close in geography, they’re completely different sections of town. We can’t understand unless we cross the border. And there’s no sense in that, is there? We know where it leads.

If you find yourself in an endless loop on a path to nowhere looking again for the answer you’re sure this time you’ll find hidden in the hedgerow, make a sharp turn to the healthiest people and places you know. Find a professional, or friend that knows one. Stake a claim for your life. Honor those lost by using every available tool to grow strong again.

We celebrate their lives by living ours extraordinarily. We add meaning to their lives by walking forward in grace and getting healthy.

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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Un-Ringing

I remember what I wore that day. What my boy was wearing. We never wore those clothes again. We gave them away. Down to my favorite red winter coat with black velvet trim.

I had looked at my watch. My grandfather’s Bulova curvex with a black leather mock croc band. It read 5:17.

Does everyone look at the time when they find a body? Perhaps it was years spent working at a hospital. Someone would ask me what time I found him.

Though it must have been hours earlier, when I saw the death certificate it documented the time of death as 5:17PM.

I still have the wristwatch. It hasn’t worked properly since.

And after the coroner removed my husband, I removed my wedding ring.

Maybe because it was a symbol of partnership dissolved. A spell broken. Would serve only as a reminder that I had been but a call away from someone who would come to my aid and defense. A lion in hiding that would sprint from the bush to strike down foe.

I looked at the ring, a lie I couldn’t afford. Couldn’t trick myself into believing a suggestion I had a loving mate. Wouldn’t allow myself the comfort that once I had.

The ring had to go in the face of incontrovertible evidence I was left to rely on myself, was now my son’s sole advocate and shield.

Months later I found a support group of other young widows and widowers struggling with new reality. I barely made the cut. 40. I was the oldest. They‘d lost loves to accident or illness.

Tom’s death was neither unless one considers suicide the culmination of illness unknown until too late. It was certainly no accident.

On the day the therapist leader suggested it might be time to consider removing rings, I listened to the group describe the hellish road they’d traveled. They spoke of dead beloveds. Widowed by young moms who clung to life for one more day in which to etch a lasting memory; complete a video, finish a quilt or stuffed toy to leave behind, chronicle a special bedtime ritual, end a story. Wives described husbands who wouldn’t let go of life, couldn’t lay down their role as family protector and provider and instead lingered, and suffered.

And while the dying had worried they’d be forgotten, the mourners anguished over the worst of memories they wished one day might fade. Pain they’d seen and saw each night when they closed eyes on difficult days hoping to collapse in sleep. Instead they glimpsed pictures of events they least wanted to see. Hospital beds, medications, bald heads void of beautiful locks and cascading curls only recently captured in wedding photos they planned to peruse in the years that did not come.

In the refuse of these lives bereft was the moment of good-bye. It came when, “I just left for a moment,” “…only went to the bathroom,” “needed a glass of water.” It seemed the dying could not face the agony they’d leave behind and chose to slip away when they hoped no one was looking.

And then there was me.

I’d gone to work. Come home. Found my husband’s body in the garage directed there by a note left for me on the cold, white tile of the kitchen counter.

He did it on purpose. He planned his escape. He kept it under wraps. He tied up his loose ends best he could. A salesman who sold like crazy to keep commissions coming after he had left. Even called Neptune Society about his disposition and left instructions for me. Reminders everywhere. Of how to carry on.

Not committed enough to stay; content to direct lives in ashes. His. Ours.

A handwritten will. Two suicide notes. One for me. And one for an eleven-year old boy.

Tears on his Dean Edell reading glasses.

Then he left. According to his plan.

While the others keened for loved ones who’d done everything to stay, mine had done everything to leave. They couldn’t go forward. They couldn’t betray the dead by removing wedding bands. I couldn’t betray myself by leaving mine on.

For me there was no knowing he’d rather have remained. No pretending he hadn’t chosen to go.  I could not say out loud, Don’t you see? He’d rather die than be married to me.

I couldn’t turn back, couldn’t un-ring the bell. But it was easy to un-ring me.

 

Are you in crisis?

 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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Freshly Pressed

The editors at WordPress chose “Insides and Outsides” to feature in Freshly Pressed on the WordPress home page. For you non-blogger types, this is a really nice distinction spotlighting noteworthy blogs that may otherwise go undiscovered. It also means certain benchmarks have been met.

I believe writers write because they must. I write because I breathe. I don’t much consider the alternative. I strive to do it well and to make a contribution. Having that pursuit recognized by those tasked with unearthing unique and worthwhile work is special to me.

In teaching corporate communication workshops I encounter participants who would have me quickly list what they call the tools. It’s challenging to build a case for a shift in focus from doing to being but that’s what I do. I’ve been known to say that the risk one takes to show up as genuine and vulnerable in conversation will in the end produce something more significant than finely honed skills lacking authenticity. That’s my opinion anyway. That’s the compass I follow.

So one WordPress editor’s comment to me, “…an intimate and honest piece,” was particularly meaningful as confirmation of my magnetic north.

To new visitors checking out One Bite At a Time as a result of Freshly Pressed exposure, welcome! Thank you for coming by and know I take your time seriously.

And to WordPress, thank you for the acknowledgement and encouragement.

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Insides and Outsides

I’d always been round. A chubby child. Pleasantly plump. Pink cheeks on fair skin. Dark, dark, wavy hair. A cherubic babe from a Renaissance painting born to a later era.

I felt like a near-miss.

Mine is the least reliable memory about this; I can only say I felt awkward, bigger, slower, clumsier. I don’t remember anyone trying to dissuade me from this when I looked for reassurance. And when my grandmother made my clothes she played with the paper patterns, adjusted darts and seams so garments would fit me better.

But I didn’t fit.

When I hit middle school and slightly older, boys who could drive barked from passing car windows and their howls crystallized my perception that I wasn’t pretty. Didn’t weigh what I should. Was not good enough. Not desirable.

In reality, my weight probably bounced around and though I was never skinny, nobody’s string bean, I was average and sometimes ten pounds more. Now when I peruse photos of myself from years ago they don’t match my memories. I see a pretty young woman. In the time before mega-models like Paulina, and Naomi, Gisele and Kate, there was sunny Cheryl Tiegs. Christie Brinkley. American girls. Blonde, golden, blue, and lanky.

Nothing like me.

But when Tom chose me a lot of old pain washed away. He loved most everything about me, of that I was certain. In time I became okay with me, too. When he suggested, I knew it was just that. I respected his aesthetic and his judgment. He cared for me, admired me, encouraged me, loved me and married me. I relaxed into being me.

After his sudden death, for the first time in my life, I could not eat. Did not think of food at all, a long-time preoccupation. I could not look at food or even smell it. Most of all, I couldn’t chew it or swallow it.

Food was for some far away place where people stirred among the living and needed sustenance. My soul bereft, my mind wrapped in fog, I hovered in a state where a sandwich couldn’t help.

But I was thirsty. Endlessly so and water, water needed little help to swallow. It cleansed and cooled. With a slight pour it trickled down my throat and no matter how many pints and quarts I drank, I wanted more.

Within days I’d lost ten pounds and could feel my clothing becoming looser. Bound by grief it was a nice feeling. The lack of attachment and confinement by the material that surrounded suited me.

When little more than a month had passed so had  20 pounds. Dressing was a problem. Now clothes weren’t only unrestrictive, they were hard to keep on. Hip bones hiding since college made a blatant appearance, coupled with cheekbones I’d never seen. I pinned and clipped, rolled and belted to make adjustments.

Then, 30 or 35 pounds of me was missing. Still I could barely eat.

Co-workers made everything as comfortable for me as possible and shielded me from taxing situations. But when I’d returned to work meetings were required with individuals in other organizations. Not everyone knew what had happened nor did I want them to. By now my clothes had left the realm of oversized and rolled right into odd. It was time to shop. Mom and I together determined to make me presentable again.

It had happened quickly and the sizes I needed were so much smaller than I’d ever worn that I was disoriented. I chose things still far too big, finding out when buried once again by another skirt or pair of pants only slightly smaller than what I had at home.

I was overwhelmed by racks, and people, and choices, and colors, and mostly by being in public. I didn’t know what size I was. I didn’t know who I was. Painful as my inside was, it was at least familiar, unlike the stranger I attempted to dress.

It was a brief and tiring shopping trip. We left with a few items and I had a vaguely improved outlook. Everyone assured me I looked fine. My mother nodded her approval and the sales team said the clothes in the bag were cute and appropriate, stylish and well fitted.

I wasn’t sure. The mirror I had loved and who had loved me was gone. In his absence I trusted few.

I surrendered the familiar and oversized garments from my closet and began to wear the new. As I continued to dwindle more purchases were necessary and the single thing I enjoyed was the ability to walk into the store and grab any article quickly with a high probability it would fit and look good. In the midst of so much pain this was a (no pun intended) small delight.

And then it happened. The world I’d been shrinking away from, one of colleagues, neighbors and those I thought friends who’d distanced themselves from me, the collective mute universe filled with those who peered around corners and peeked only when they thought I wouldn’t see, all those who had nothing to say to me but plenty to each other, came out of their homes, offices, yards, and cubicles to tell me how wonderful I looked.

How svelte and stylish. Fashionable and fit. I must be feeling ever so much better they prattled on, because — I looked so good.

Never had my outward appearance so disguised my inner world, my childhood inverted. First a happy child made miserable by external deficiencies as defined by other children, and now in this agonizing period after Tom’s suicide, the scale fairy waved a wand and I drew kudos for my looks.

I wondered why they didn’t see my entrails or the trail of blood behind me.

I seethed when confronted by those emboldened by appearance who simultaneously remained timid – no, cowardly – in addressing what mattered most to me. As they felt twinges of unease and awkwardness they took an easy path. I viewed it as a choice between their discomfort and mine, and as if similar in magnitude they chose to soothe their own. “You look great,” and they hid from the opportunity to say something I could feel.

As they did, I felt hidden to the world while at the same time drawing its attention. Upside down and inside out, I couldn’t get my bearings.

One evening after dinner my son and I meandered through a shopping mall. An excursion into life. A field trip of sorts. Months had passed. We tasted social interaction in small, sample spoonfuls. A voice called my name from behind.

“Pam,” I turned to see her. A peer who sat near me in the evening philosophy class I’d dropped after my husband’s death. We’d spoken once since.

“You look wonderful. What have you been doing? Some kind of diet? Which one?”

My boy and I stood hand in hand. We looked at each other. A relative stranger barged into our world with her unsolicited, superficial observation. Maybe she deserved it and maybe she didn’t. I didn’t care about being fair.

I gave his hand a squeeze. “It’s the suicide diet. It works. Lose a life. Gain a new wardrobe.”

And for that moment my inside and my outside found compatibility.

 

 

 

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If You Hear Tears in the Night

I didn’t know my son, whose second floor bedroom was above mine, could easily hear me sob at night. Tears held back in daylight came to find me then. Sorrow already surfaced recycled in the dark.

Switching sides of the bed seemed to help a little. I could smell Tom’s scent on his pillow and felt comforted. He didn’t seem as far away.  Changing places meant I faced my empty space rather than his which was much easier. But in the hollow hours between midnight and dawn, grief and guilt, should’ve and wished I had, clamored to fill the stillness.

Following my son’s weekly appointment our therapist spent a few minutes with me. Bob filled me in on progress. General things. What to look for, how to help. State of the kiddo.

“It troubles him when he hears you crying at night. He doesn’t know what to do. So we talked about that. I gave him a little help.”

I trusted Bob. He was a constant, moderating, familiar figure, available for us whenever we needed. I asked no questions about confidences he kept. He would always tell me what I most needed to know to support my son.

Late one night not long after our conversation I lay with tears dampening my pillow.  It was then I found out what Bob had advised if my boy heard crying from the floor below.

His young voice called down from the staircase landing.

“Good for you, Mommy! You’re doing great. You just cry that pain out!”

After a laugh and a nose-blow it was just too hard to keep crying.

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