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.
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.
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.
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. “Buya 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.
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.
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.
Thirteen 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.
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.
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?
Written 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.
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.
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.
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?
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!