Faith, Grief, Trauma, Uncategorized

A Chain of Seemingly Small Moments

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My toes uncurl slowly under the warmth of a spotlessly white duvet. Oxygen finds its way down into my churning stomach continuing onward into my clenched calves. My shoulders gradually melt, freeing my neck for the first time in hours.

It’s been a long day.

The day began well and according to plan: write, pack, eat, hug boys, issue last-minute reminders, pick up rental car, drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first five list items checked off, Ricky chauffeurs me to the rental car place. More snow on the road than expected or wanted. My maternal instincts clash with Ricky’s manhood as I ask him to slow down. Once alone in my car chill seeps into every crevice while snow streaks across the highway under an overcast, lonely, Winter sky.

Bundled up in layers, I feel warm though. Emotionally strong again. Yet still a bit shaky. Or perhaps just stronger than the days leading up to this trip. You see the moment I announce to anyone–my therapist, friends, family, radome readers, God–I feel better, then I am guaranteed almost one hundred percent of a set back. And boy, did I get one after writing about my suitcase dream.

Well it took three friends to convince me to not back out of going up to seminary for a week-long intensive class. Part of an entire group of extended people supporting me on this trip.  Including Ricky delaying his return to campus for a night, my niece flying in to stay with my younger son, a friend at the ready for an airport run, my tuition and books paid for by an assortment of sources, and my sons willing to triple up on their chore lists.  Yet my bed seemed so much safer. With its early morning green tea and dark chocolate and computer and flow of words from my head to the screen. More enjoyable and predictable than learning about post-modern Christian mission.

Reading a sermon by the wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor*, I heard change is difficult. The blind don’t always enjoy seeing. The lame sometimes resent walking. And in my case, the grieving may feel internal emotional collapse safer than living. I identified with the blind man of Mark 10:46-52, one of the many Jesus restored from seperation to life. Joyous in my healing as this man was. Yet fearful in my unknown future.

Clasping my healing more than clutching my fear, I drove Northwest through Iowa. Winter weather, evident across my adopted home state, not such a big deal. But also not fully comfortable either. Slower speed for sure because as the weather experts like to say the day was one of “normal winter driving conditions.”  Which out here means blowing snow, patches of ice, packed snow on the road, and often only one open lane. After a few hours of highway driving I was grateful to finally reach the interstate with its state troopers and salt trucks and rest areas.

winter-landscape-2571788_1920The interstate’s pavement almost immediately caused me to maintain my slower speed. It’s wet surface cautioning us travelers like an electronic billboard. Pre-treatment, salt, and sand no longer evident. Washed away by wind, tires, and vehicle spray.

The touch of the tires to pavement felt odd as my car wiggled in a wind bent on mopping the prairie clean. Forcing me to right the tires again and again and again. Before I could slow down even more the treads lost their grip. The car skidded this way and that. My hands tightened on the wheel fighting reality for control. Finally I gave into the pull of the ice. The other lane of parallel traffic not a safe option. My car headed for the shoulder. Landing me a half-mile south of exit 197 on northbound I-35. Facing the large, interstate green sign announcing the upcoming exit to Mason City, Iowa. Into a deep ditch. Next to acres of dormant farm fields. Into a foot of snow, the top layer blowing hard and steady. Below zero, wind chill factor weather surrounding me. Tires spinning with the whine of a leashed and whimpering dog. Too jammed into the snow to rock the car. Stuck now. Gasping for air. Tears freezing on my cheeks.

A black pick-up truck pulled over almost immediately just ahead of me. Sat there, idling. Hazards flashing. Finally backing up just above me on the shoulder. A man got out. Oh crap, I thought, Friend? Possibly not.

He approached the car. My window came done, the startling cold jolting me out of my shock. Tear-filled words spewed out of my mouth uncontrollably. Stuff like, I can’t die. I’m the only parent now. My husband died seventeen months ago. I have a child still at home. I’m going to be a pastor if I ever get to seminary. My words covering my other truths: I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. I want to hide. Run home. 

Unruffled, my stranger nodded reminding me of Tony’s calm in the face of my many messes. His clear thinking when mine muddled with fear or fatigue. His voice at the other end of the wireless waves. There for me.

Terry from a small town nearby tells me he’s calling a tow and the trooper.  Taking charge because obviously I am not in a good space.  Needing help, reassurance, and hope, he steps into my glaring vacancy. I allow it.

He trudges back up the ditch to his truck. I call the car rental company. Give up because the wait is forever. Call my friend, already at seminary, who tells me to call 911. Reminding me I don’t know this guy. So I do. Talk to Nancy who thinks my car has been called in but will check and call me back. She does, reporting Frank’s Towing is on its way. By this time I’m cold, tired, hungry, and lonely. So I plod, sinking deep into the snow with every step, up the shoulder to Terry’s car and get in. “What towing company did you call?”

“Frank’s,” he replies.

“Yah, that’s what 911 said,” I say.

Then we “shoot the breeze” as people do in these parts. We look like we could be related but he doesn’t know his ancestry. He’s Baptist. An NIV Bible sits on his dashboard. Four kids. A wife who teaches special ed. Does something in finance. “I get the Gospel reason why you are sitting here,” I eventually say, “But don’t you have a job or someplace to be?” He’s off today he tells me since its MLK day.

The trooper shows up. Checks on us. Leaves. Frank’s arrives and does their stuff. Terry oversees the work telling me there’s no need for me to be out in the cold. He then follows me to Frank’s shop in Hanlontown, Iowa. Right on Iowa 9 a few minutes from the interstate. Snow blowing steady through the surrounding frozen fields and over the road like swirling stars.

The car isn’t running well. Bumped along the entire five-minute drive. Frank, who I find out isn’t Frank, thinks the snow needs to be cleaned off from underneath the chassis. I wander into the waiting area seeking warmth. The resident dog kisses me. The owner’s wife says, “You’re not pissed as hell! You’re just all smiles.”

I am smiling at this point. I am not hurt. My immediate needs are outsourced to others. Responsibility resting elsewhere while I recuperate for the rest of my journey.

The wind roars hard outside. Winter light wanes a bit. Inside the shop however life bubbles creating a coziness of sorts. Complete now with a snoozing dog. Terry and Frank’s wife share where they live in this neck of the woods by who used to live on their property. Relationships defined by people but also by land out here. Terry of course seems to know the former owners of every acre. The northern Iowa rural parlance batting about the place wraps me in memories of my own kin now mostly gone.

Three mechanics scrape off a lot of snow from underneath my car. They figure out the all-wheel drive is not engaged which explains a lot. Scares me further in an after-the-event way. “After-nerves” I used to call these feelings in my previous performing life. Then they continue to fuss with the car filling it up with windshield wiper fluid, explaining my all-wheel drive system to me, offering to back the car out, and then sending me on my way. Meanwhile the rental car company assures me over the phone they will pay for the tow. Eventually they decide to not charge me for the car.

iceland-2184824_1920The twenty-eight mile drive from Frank’s to the gas station right off the interstate at Albert Lea, Minnesota is dicey. Dusk further inhibits visibility as the wind blows harder sending more and more snow across the lanes and cars into the ditch. The truck drivers loading up on snacks at the gas station say its bad and will only get worse with night fall. Men and women, years on the road showing in their wrinkled skin and missing teeth, share their hard truth which I accept. If I were you, Ma’am, I’d find a hotel room for the night. 

The hotel down the way has a room. The manager says, “You’ve been here before. I remember you.” As if January retreats in Albert Lea, Minnesota are now part of my year. One year ago, still a complete mess from Tony’s death, I holed up here while facing similar weather. Alone and afraid.

I unload slowly. The cold, wind, and my haphazard packing make the process difficult. Eventually I settle in. Eat, finally eliminating some of my shaking. Call the boys carefully avoiding the truth of my day. Crawl into bed. Write because it’s the only thing I know how to do when things get really bad.

And today was bad. Could have been worse. If I hide in denial, my body reminds me of this truth as it contracts. Balling my insides up. Squeezing my stomach up through my esophagus landing in my throat once again.

Yet the emotions bubbling up through my heart into strings of words embrace not fear and tragedy, but goodness. For a few hours in this divisive world we now all inhabit, it did not matter who we voted for or which version of the Bible we read or even if we all believe in God or what level of education we obtained or where we are heading and why. What mattered was a bunch of people willingly helped me, a stranger in their midst. A vulnerable, sobbing, scared, middle-aged widow woman shaking with adrenalin again. Wondering why the hell she ever thought going to Minnesota in January was a good idea. Or attend seminary. Or do anything outside of her seemingly safe, small box of life. Let alone provocatively become a pastor!

I cry into my pillow for a good two hours before sleep finds me. Wordless emotions flow out finding a warm nest in my rented bedding. Sleep, when it comes, is fitful and intermittent. I wake every few hours to the rumble of diesel engines left to run in neutral through the freezing night. Their drumbeat piercing the air keeping company with my heart.

In the morning, we the stranded stand at the lobby windows wondering what to do. I wait. Watch. Wonder. Pray. But eventually, I get back in the car. Drive like a granny, slow and shaky. My chest clenching, welling up for a grand and explosive anxiety attack. I tell the universe all I really need right now are dry roads, safety, and my frozen finger tips to warm up.

My requests granted, I arrive at seminary safe and somewhat sound. Finish out my week as planned. Even have some time with my widowed, pastor Aunt whose presence alone reminds me I can complete what I begin here. On Saturday, after driving on wonderfully dry roads, Ricky picks me up at the rental car place and once home sweeps out the garage of the accumulated winter grit. Paul tells me of all the chores he did and all the project ideas he’s had in my absence. And at some point, I realize how many people in small and large actions it took for me to be gone six days. Creating a chain of seemingly small moments, one not holding me in place, tethering me to my past and to my fears. But an emotional chain forming a kind of human train. Connecting me to our home yet sending me forward and out into the world.

“Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well...”

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV) 

 

*Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Courage to See” in Mixed Blessings. 

Photos courtesy of Pixabay.

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Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

A Dream Full of Grace

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The other day my therapist shared something with me. In her opinion, I am most likely done with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. EMDR is a therapeutic intervention method used to realign the brain after a traumatic event. The method stops the reeking of emotional havoc occurring as the brain continually tries to make sense of what happened. Sense out of the senseless in other words. Which is what Tony’s death was. So my brain has been on overdrive for months.

My therapist’s professional observations mirrored my current experience. I feel good, even great some days. Free much of the time from the waves of emotional and physical pain, memory lapses, what-ifs of guilt, creeping agitation of anxiety attacks, and intrusive flashback scenes. Replaced most days by the everyday tasks of life accompanied by droplets of tears here and there.

At home that evening however, a funkiness settled on my heart. Maybe I was tired at the end of my seemingly endless day. Maybe I was fighting off a cold. Maybe the encroaching holidays infected my mostly healing wounds. Maybe my therapist was wrong.

Standing in the middle of our once shared bathroom, I talked to Tony about it. Talking out loud to my no-longer-living-in-any-human-way husband. Not for the first time either. In an act bereaved people do, not just me…or so I’m told in hushed whispers by those who know loss. Quietly, because it sounds kind of kooky.

But here’s another truth for me anyway. There’s always this moment when talking to Tony that I somehow begin talking to God at the same time.  Which gets really confusing to explain to others so mostly I don’t. But I was talking to Tony or God or both wondering if it might be okay for me to feel healed enough. Not fully well. Not ever the same. But perhaps slowly moving ahead with my life. Leaving this intense and all-encompassing time of trauma and grief. Entering now into a phase of healing grief, the kind with some sort of future. And what did he or God or they think about the possibility?

When I told this part of the story to my therapist the following week she asked, “well, what did Tony say?”

I think I giggled. No judgement on her part. Just curiosity and acceptance of my humanness complete with quirks.  So I told her. “Nothing…at first.”

But the next morning after talking to Tony or God or both in the bathroom, I had a dream. You know, one of those early morning dreams we all have at dawn. After we wake up, assess the time, and go back to sleep for a few coveted minutes. Between our first false start and the real beginning of our day.

In my dream we were coming back from a trip. Just us without the boys. From someplace overseas because it was time to go through customs. Only I couldn’t find my luggage. We only had Tony’s green, Samsonite bag. The one my mother gave him for Christmas or a birthday years ago but somehow I used more than he.

Tony said, in the dream, he would go find my bag. So, I got in line holding onto his bag. Well rolling it really since it’s one of those. Standing, grasping the handle of his bag. Waiting both for Tony to come back and for the line to move forward. But not too quickly, the line I mean, because Tony still needed to return.

But Tony didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

I craned my neck looking for him not wanting to leave our place in the long, snaking line. Still there was no sign of him in the busy airport. He just seemed to disappear. Evaporate. Slip away. Like the day he died.

People swirled around me in the line. Holding Tony’s bag now somehow in my arms. Clutching it with angst. With disbelief. Using the arms I was so denied of the minutes before he slipped away. My arms rendered futile in the violent rushing of water out-of-control. My arms aching for months with the pain of being refused the only action they wanted so very much to do that day. Reach out. Touch. Grasp. Bring him back to safety. Hold him. Hold on. Cling.

Now in my dream becoming really angry. Because I didn’t want this baggage. The contents felt emotional and familiar and heavy and isolating. I didn’t want to be here among strangers in this strange place wondering what to do next.

I woke up. Passing slowly from dream to day. To a new morning. To reality. Bewildered. Puzzled. Confused.

Of course, I thought about the dream all day. How could I not? Through homework and work and parenting and running our household the dream stayed by me. Poking at me for meaning. Remembering at some point I recently searched through a few boxes stored in the basement from Tony’s office. Looking for something I couldn’t find. Once again triggered by what closing his business had been like for me. A surreal experience. Full of every emotion possible. Emotions experienced daily in the course of a mere few hours as I sifted through every detail of his work trying to understand what needed to be done.

So that’s what the dream meant to me. A remembrance of being left alone. Carrying the baggage of Tony’s work when least capable of doing so. Or so I thought…

Until I began having visions of what the dream could really mean. These came to me in a billow of sensations and images. The first vision was that inside the suitcase was not pain and burdens. No! Inside the suitcase were gifts Tony left us. Not tangible gifts like a souvenir t-shirt or coffee mug or all the jewelry he showered on me over the years. But love and lots of it. And all the little and big things Tony taught me about our emotional lives and about trauma recovery. And the assurance that he believed in my resilience in the face of his tragic death. And his ongoing support for my writing and in my call to ministry and in my ability to mother our children. I tenderly held this vision to my heart, keeping it close as I went about the rest of my day.

Later, as the day quieted, another vision formed in my mind’s eye. And in my heart as well for this vision took my breath away! The end of the dream, the one I woke before seeing, was simply this: Tony walks out of the airport onto the sidewalk and into a bright and sunny day. He walks alone rolling my suitcase, taking it with him wherever he is going now without me. Without us. Without the boys.

And I realize wherever Tony is going in my dream, he’s taking my stuff with him. Not my clothes and shoes and toothbrush. Not my half-read novel or my new dress or my favorite shoes. But my stuff. You know, that mental-health-clinical-slang term meaning the products of our emotional wounds. The lacerations living in our limbic systems dictating our lives like autocrats. That stuff. Rolling away behind a man I spent two decades loving. Its earthly weight following him willingly while releasing me from my fears, shame, and insecurities. Freeing me from this unwanted cargo for the rest of my earthly life.

Leaving me behind, yes. Painfully yes. Ever-so-painfully-yes. The world twisting around me as I journey on alone. Not knowing how to transition at this point from being a traumatized, grieving widow to a healing one. Often unsure of myself. Seeking Tony’s permission only to alleviate my guilt for feeling good. Yearning for his take on things so that I don’t have to claim liability for my past, current, or future mistakes. Offloading the resilient power, he of all people, knew I would not lose.

My shoulders eased as the vision faded. A bit of the load from all these many months lifted. Space, once taken up by pain in my stomach and in my heart and in my mind, opened. I breathed fully into my reclaimed body and into my evolving thoughts. Understanding fully that there are still gifts and dreams waiting to be remembered, unpacked, and incorporated lovingly into my life now from this symbolic suitcase of Tony’s I currently clutch.

And…I have something else as well. Actually need something else before I wholly realize the contents of Tony’s suitcase. I have this one, amazing, life-restoring act of wild and disruptive grace. Scaffolding me forward with gifts and dreams in hand. Moving me on. Propelling me into a living light without my stuff. Wow!

So I guess I have my answer.

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay. 

Uncategorized

Uncomfortable Realities

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Us, circa 1996

 

We were naive or maybe it was just me. Living as we did in Chicago among many. In a neighborhood full of old Swedes, lesbians, and Lebanese merchants. Working in a neighborhood populated by Palestinians, Latin Americans, and Lithuanians. African-American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Polish co-workers. Our inter-cultural, inter-ethnic, inter-racial relationship was not a big concern heading into marriage. Student loans and a honeymoon destination were.

The next state we lived in was a different story, far different. All of a sudden we had to demand tables away from the kitchen door. People made comments on how dark baby Ricky was compared to my fairness. Along with dead deer hanging from trucks in the fall was a growing number of confederate flags.

I began to understand a few things. Things not comfortable. Things we needed to be careful of.  Things I wanted to run away from. Most of all my own naiveté.

My true education into our country’s reality began with my marriage to a man not white. An immigrant. A Pacific Islander with a Spanish last name. Sure my many experiences working with people from all over the world both in New York City and Chicago helped. But working with those who are different than ourselves is far, far, far different than living on the other side of truth. Alone in public I was still white with all that comes with being so in this country. With Tony I darkened.

I hyphenated my last name because I understood this reality. I told people it was because I was thirty and career-wise already known by my maiden name. And there was verity in my words. But the other truth, the ugly one, was I knew now. I understood. Even if my understanding could not compare to Tony’s or his family’s. I understood more than my white family and friends. And this information about how things are in our country shaped my decision.

In between my name change and Tony’s death, many other large and small incidences occurred to Tony and to us. Happenings I began not sharing because explaining these realities to white friends and family became work, their disbeliefs needing comforting I was and am still unwilling to provide.

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United States Passport

 

But I will share one recent occurrence here. A couple of weeks ago the boys and I reentered our country, the United States of America, after sojourning in Europe. We went to new countries, visited family, and escaped a bit of our grief. Now we waited in the customs line first for the check-in kiosk and then for an officer.

The customs officer was dark, maybe Latino, not-white. He looked at us in the eyes. He said pointing to the large black X on our customs tickets, Xs’ I had not noticed in the rush and fatigue of traveling, Xs’ never before appearing on our customs tickets when reentering our country.

“From now on you will get this mark. We have to check everyone with the last name Rodriguez.”

We remain a family of color. Meaning we also continue to be seen as suspicious by others.  Worth extra attention because of our country’s shared historical story heightened now by a spinning, ill-informed ideology that continues to dictate who is possibly dangerous and who is not.

And we as a family continue to be suspicious of others when we are treated differently or with mistrust. Because suspicion works both ways.  Because I’ve learned having watched loved ones suffer in ways I do not. Because I have to go there, to that dark truth that is all of ours to own.

The cruel discriminatory legacy of color, of differences, of bias, of religion, and of fear continues in this country. In big demonstrations, tragic political stances, and heightened paranoia. But also our collective story of discrimination continues through the many seemingly small actions and occurrences encompassing a day. Small actions many of us who are white do not see or do not comprehend or do not speak up against. Our ignorance bliss in its unearned freedoms. Until for some reason we too are marked in someway, maybe with a large black X. And then our true education as to what it means to be an American begins or my case continues.

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Uncategorized

A Widow’s Wreath

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Wreaths for sale.

Last December, amid all that this season brings under normal circumstances and what the first December brings to we who grieve, a display outside my local grocery store sent me whirling down into some unforeseen weird widow expectation. There along the outside wall right before the entrance door where no one could possible miss this exhibition stood wreath after wreath on tiny green stands. In previous Decembers I would have given this display a mere glance being fully buffeted by my typical December angst. But this year, four months into my widowhood as if the universe compelled me, I stopped to decipher the sign. It read “Cemetery Wreaths.”

Oh shit,” I thought standing there in the cold, waning light of dusk, “I’m suppose to put a wreath on Tony’s grave.

It took me days to work through whether or not I really wanted to put a wreath on Tony’s grave. My answer continually turned up as “no.” I didn’t want to be Tony’s widow in the first place so why in the world would I ever want to decorate his, well really our, gravestone.

Then I wondered if I didn’t place a wreath on the grave how it would look. Would it seem like I just didn’t care? Or was being sloppy in my responsibilities? The old me, pre-widowhood, would have said with a note of scorn “Don’t worry about it. No one is even looking at your husband’s gravestone. They are all too busy with the season or too young to think about it.

But my own reasoning of an era now past in my life did not stop the internal niggling that somehow I was screwing up.

Niggling brought thoughts of perhaps I was being a bit selfish and really what would it take for me to buy and place a wreath in the cemetery this first Christmas. But the temperatures dropped to way below zero and it snowed and really when it came right down to it, I didn’t want to learn how to do this gravestone decorating thing. So I procrastinated.

I figured out however over the course of many days, my thinking slowed by my grief, that if I indeed placed a wreath on Tony’s grave I would need both a wreath and a wreath stand. But the stand at the grocery store was twenty dollars for something one of the boys could make if they were so inclined. Instead armed with a hobby store coupon I bought a wreath stand for a few dollars thinking, perhaps reasonably, that the stand might not survive the season. If it did survive the cold, snow, or human hands then I would have it for the next wreath needing holiday that I may or may not know about.

Of course I couldn’t find the stands in the store. After searching the entire place because really no one needed to know my mission, I was forced to ask a clerk for assistance. Then I had to put on a “this is common and normal, this asking for a cemetery wreath stand,” face so that I wouldn’t break out in tears which would crack my veneer of privacy and throw the clerk for a social loop.

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Wreath stands for sale.

Once purchased, I threw the stand onto the back floor of my car. There it lived for days staring up at me every time I collected the grocery bags. “Buy a wreath,” it seems to say until loaded bags of food squashed its insistent message.

By the time I finally convinced myself to buy a wreath most were sold out. Eventually I found a ragged, half-priced, slightly brown circlet at a local hardware store and tossed it in my trunk.  Still the wreath and the stand stayed put in my car for another week void of their final resting place as  I drove around town doing errands or running my son here and there or attending meetings or generally avoiding the cemetery.The evergreen aroma made my car smell festive at least.

After Advent service at church one night, I talked with another recent widow I know. We stood in the dark and  cold parking lot talking of things only widows talk about. She too did not know about the wreath thing. But she had put a pumpkin on her husband’s grave in October. My insides screamed, “A pumpkin! Am I supposed to decorate for every holiday?” More evidence of the weirdness of my condition.

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I polled my mother and aunt (both seasoned widows) on the wreath. Each put wreaths on their husbands’ graves through some program at their perspective cemeteries. So actually someone at the cemetery buys and places wreaths on each gravestone while my mother and aunt just send checks in. I like the sounds of this program but seems I picked a cemetery without this added bonus feature not knowing this perk should have been part of my decision making process.

Assured by both women that whatever I did was fine, I felt a bit better. But the wreath still gnawed at me. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was if I had developed a brain glitch over the whole custom. I couldn’t shake what felt like an expectation coming out of nowhere. I wondered what I would say if my mother-in-law asked me if I had put a wreath on her only son’s grave. I would want to be truthful but also knew I did not traverse nor did I expect myself to know her cultural expectations at all during this time of bereavement.

Maybe however the expectations I sensed were not all external. Maybe some of this stuff haunting me was coming from within like my need to do well in my new, unexpected, and unwanted role. As if falling down on this job, that of widowhood, dishonored Tony and our love for each other. I felt guilty but wasn’t quite sure of the crime.Guilt that the parts of my life that were bringing me joy and solace now took precedence over things that were beginning to feel compulsory. And I began to feel not “good enough.” Not good enough as a widow and therefore as a wife. Grief saturates the mind in ways no one prepares for making for odd and sometimes irrational thoughts and conclusions. I just didn’t trust my own thinking in this matter.

People stepped in.  My mother reminded me that in our faith Tony wasn’t at the gravesite anyway He is with God whatever that truly means. A friend who had worked with Tony asked me if he would care about a wreath. “No,” was my answer. He thought such rituals receptacles for empty actions developed to please others. My therapist laughed with outright joy as I told of my anxiety over the cemetery wreath. Her advice was to blog about it which at the time I thought a bit crass but now you can see I am doing exactly what she suggested. Tony himself would have found my dilemma wonderfully humorous which in turn would have given rise to a few words of blustery irritation on my part. Regardless of others’ support of my inaction, something didn’t seem quite right during this season so fraught with grief triggers.

So finally one less cold day when the temperature soared into the low teens, I caved as if needing to cross a task off my perpetual “to do” list. I drove to the cemetery on my way but really in the opposite direction of a monthly meeting with women friends in ministry. I love with a whole heart these women who early on in this expedition into the bowels of sudden, traumatic, and complicated grief sat in my living room and somehow understood my pain or maybe were just willing to imagine it. Then they dared to remind me as the weeks passed and I gradually awoke from the clouds of shock and sorrow that my mind was created to think and feel, not just feel. On this day my meeting with these friends would be my reward for doing what I was avoiding or still didn’t fully understand and of course didn’t want to do.

Off I went loosing my way within the labyrinth of old narrow roads which course through our final resting place. Heading toward the woods which line our joint plot I found Tony’s grave under a new landscape of snow and winter sky making it almost unrecognizable. Quiet permeated the cold as I set about my business as if it was business, alone in this place so full of other people’s memories thinking I did not want to be here now or ever.

Then the stand wouldn’t stay put on the sloping, frozen ground. It kept falling over, the earth unwelcoming to its spindly little legs. Giving up I retrieved the now weary, worn looking wreath from its hiding place. A trail of needles followed the wreath and I from from my car to the grave like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I managed to set the two together, the stand and its partner. But the wreath’s weight combined with the slope of the hill continually knocked the duo over until I leaned these bedfellows against the stone itself. Now the duet covered my name carved so precisely into our grave stone unsettling my nerves with its frankness. I stood back not really admiring my work but glad to have accomplished this arduous task.

But I wasn’t done yet.

It was a last minute addition, a thought welling up from deep within, the reason for the smooth grave stone top instead of the rough stone look. In my car I grabbed a stone bigger than my hand. It was one of many I had found in Tony’s office and hauled home along with business records, lamps, and computers. This one sat on the sill along the bank of windows lining one wall overlooking the heart of downtown. I crunched back down the slope placing the blue grey stone wrapped in a single cream line on top of the gravestone like I had seen in Jewish cemeteries. I realized I didn’t know the meaning of this practice but that it made visceral sense to me now, more so than the wreath. The stone, like all the stones in Tony’s office and in our home and in our gardens, came from places we had visited–Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, and even I suspect countries in Europe. Tony was forever lugging stones home like a scavenger and using them as paper weights, door stops, garden borders, and objet d’art. I didn’t know where this stone hailed from, but I knew it reminded me of our family’s life together, our voyage both with Tony present and with Tony’s love still surrounding us.

And I know my late husband would appreciate this gesture. The wreath, a topping. But the stone and the many which now live in a basket in our mudroom waiting to be put in a place of remembrance signify what we built as a family on a foundation of love. Love fraught with all the ins and outs loving relationships bring to us. Yet, love none-the-less.

And the wreath? Maybe I will next year and maybe I won’t. I do hope and pray and truly think the boys and me will have found many, many ways to celebrate our love together by next year which might be seen at the sight of Tony’s grave and then again might not. And that I, with more months of healing, more therapy, and more acts of resilience will have found my way as a widow that is true to who I am in this life and what our love as a family was and still is. Wreath or no wreath.

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Closing Words

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On a dark afternoon in early December not too long ago, we closed the door on my late husband’s office for the last time. My oldest son said, “It was a good run,” reentering the office once more as if looking for something or someone he had lost.

Locking the door, I took a deep breath as I do now many times per day. As usual the old hallway smelled a bit musty. Sounds and smells from the restaurant below wafted up the stairway.The other doors in the hallway warmed the area with light from within. The one I locked, Tony’s door, was dark. Soon new life will again warm this door, but not today. Not in this moment of finality.

We descended the steep stairs in quiet not looking back and parted on the street below. My son heading with a load of things from the office to his new college apartment. I with three sets of now useless keys not wanting to go home. The outside air smelled fresh and of impending snow–a smell I usually love in winter especially during Advent. The air bolstered me a bit, woke me up to the life before me even in the midst of closing the past.

all-signs-update-3-7_mens-centerThirteen years ago last November, Tony and I opened The Men’s Center. It was Tony’s dream, his calling, to do this work which began by opening his heart and skill set to male survivors of child sexual abuse and grew into working with and for people suffering from sexual addictions. In those early days we debated the tag line for the business for what seemed like forever until finally settling on a place for healing, mindfulness, and possibilities. Our niece, Marissa, created the beautiful and heartfelt logo and webpage. We rented an office near our home and bought office supplies

Then the work began and as a family the boys and I often saw only the beginnings and endings of Tony’s days. The beginnings, hurried moments for all of us trying to prepare for our days of work and school. The days’ ends, an exhausted and quiet human being used up willingly in the work of healing who told corny jokes to let off steam if anyone would listen. Vacations were often not free from his work for any of us. One year while hiking in the Santa Catalina foothills, we watched and worried as Tony tried desperately to save a client’s life on a cell phone with poor reception. Another year he spent hours on the phone planning his book, Facing Heartbreak. img_20161226_162516_488

In the wake of his death, I can only imagine the healing which occurred within the walls of Tony’s various offices. The boys and I bore witness as Tony would say, to so many stories told to us in person and through cards and letters after his death. So many stories. So many lives changed and in some cases saved. These stories kept me afloat that first month after his death when I could hardly think or feel. Stories which reminded me it had all not been in vain even as I looked out over our deck every morning donned in widow’s black wondering how the future could happen without him.

The week before closing the door for the last time, I gathered our children, my mother, and our pastor to say goodbye to The Men’s Center. Empty and dusty, the space which housed this dream had already lost its warmth as a space for healing. For a few moments we stood in a circle in the middle of the office talking of vocation and the Spirit filled early days of the business when I never knew how anything would get paid for yet there was always money. Then we prayed acknowledging the courage this business took to create and maintain while reminding ourselves that this same courage will help us live now without Tony.

So on this very snowy night during our first Christmastide without him, I pay tribute to the work Tony did. Work I supported. Work which defined Tony and in many ways defined our family. Work I could be resentful of. But work I was and am still in awe of. Work which will always be to me and maybe to our children, synonymous with Tony’s very being, his soul made more fully known to the world than most through his courage and sacrifice.

It was a good run my darling. It was a very good run.

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CANVAS

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If my life was a canvas would I paint in my pain? Would I draw my disappointments? My failures? My gain?

If my life was a canvas would I paint what I want? What I could be come tomorrow and not what I forgot?

Or would my canvas keep evolving some days dark, some days not with the presence of past remembrances swirling throughout my art.

If my light is rekindled what can my canvas be? Will I dare to paint what’s possible and tell the truth in me?

img_1291Written October 12, 2004 in honor of the early days of The Men’s Center and its creator, a man who dared to follow his heart. Revisited and reworked this month to mark the closing of The Men’s Center and in loving remembrance of Anthony D. Rodriguez.

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COMMON CURSING: PART ONE

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Expletives!

My eldest son likes to cuss, curse, and swear. Profanity prevails in his speech pattern. Fulmination flairs when he does. He’s eighteen, a creative, an explorer, a curious learner, and a wonderful guy who just happens to love words which send my husband into shock while sounding like fingernails clawing the chalkboard to me.

But my son adores this language. He revels in its explosive sounds using it as often as possible and in as many expressive ways as he can think of.  His verbal discharges go off at every turn no matter the time of day, night, or situation. As a mother I am at times offended, astounded, embarrassed, or (and this is the worst one) beset by feelings of maternal failure.

When my son was younger he created his own curse words—words I could not deny the use of because “technically” they were not bad or banned.  My son used these suspicious words daily as he marched toward the open doors of adolescence.  One word, bodo, was an often used utterance I merely grew tired of hearing at the time. I assumed rightly that this word phase would soon pass. My mistake was misunderstanding where bodo was leading.

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Ouchy Iowa Prairie Plant

It occurs to me however (only in my calmer moments after breathing measured counts both in and out for ten minutes)that my current maternal state of angst and need for a “curse free” vacation clouds the true issue…just a bit.

Midwestern Prairie
Still More Midwestern Prairie Biters

Cursing is not new in the grand history of humanity. It’s certainly not new during the tumultuous transition time we all face between childhood and adulthood. And let’s face it: Such emotionally infused word choices may be as old as the prairie out here in Iowa. I’m sure the native peoples in these whereabouts had a few choice words for the many, many variations of biting thorns growing in and among the grasses.

I suspect also that people have been making up cursing words and phrases in every world language, dialect, and regionalism for centuries. After all, sound and word play are fun and seem to discharge a bit of our built up emotions. Avoiding maternal irritation may be an added benefit to creating new sound combinations.

So could it be that cursing is good for us?

YES!
YES!

My son would say “yes”. And who am I to judge? Our shared heritage basks in a number of utterances which seem to cross the line into the cursing genre. These utterances in their heyday,when people still spoke the old country languages, were acceptable and common within the culture…

even with mothers.

Check back soon for Common Cursing: Part II which boasts actual video footage of my Minnesota relatives (can you believe it?) possibly…(this is hard for me to admit)…using language that may be considered…cursing. Until then, Huffff…da!