Summer’s (almost) Here!

And like that, we are into another season. When I attempted this post a few weeks ago, spring was in full bloom with summer just licking at its heels. This weekend we made the leap into July-like heat. Garden season.

I can barely keep the English Ivy from swallowing up my property at home yet signed up for not one but two community garden plots. The new one is in the upper field where animals seem to be less of a problem. Almost no one has a fence up top and the bounty seems better than what us poor neighbors below harvest. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve been at this for years but am not a particularly skilled gardener.

I thought I was clever when I planted a cover crop of rye last autumn. I did no research beyond reading the package I’d picked up from the cool, organic local herb farm. As you can see from the photo above, it made a lovely thick lawn in my limited square footage. After earning nice blisters trimming the grass with hand clippers before it seeded, I left the clippings to dry and a few weeks later turned them into the soil. As you can see below, now it looks like a great mess. I’m hoping all the great rye grass nutrients in the soil (along with seaweed Molly and I gathered from the beach) will make for some tasty vegetables. I’ll keep you posted.

I can’t help noticing that everyone else’s plots look more organized than mine. This won’t surprise anyone who has ever seen my work desk. My neighbor’s gardens have rows marked with string and little markers identifying what is planted where. I imagine their kitchen shelves are similarly organized. I admire, maybe even envy a little, that way of being but I have never been that person. With anything. I made a conscious effort to try and wrap the hose in a nice loop when I was done with it and this is how it ended:

Seedlings are starting to sprout in the new patch – and I’d tell you what they are but I made no sweet tags to remember what’s what. In the past I stuck a stick through the seed packet that usually fades or blows away in the first storm. I didn’t do that this year. I vaguely remember planting carrots in here and beets there. Or the other way around. I was strategic in how I planted the lettuce – sprinkled where they might benefit from the shade of tomato plants. They don’t appreciate the hot sun for too long. Spinach and peas I think are in the middle. It will be a mystery until the first true leaves are visible. This is the way I garden. A little chaos to keep things exciting. No need for perfection in my life.

Any gardening tips?

Nurtured By What Used to Be

Barely awake, I pull a coat on over my pajamas, leash Rufus and step out into the frosty morning. A red sky announces the sun is on its way and today’s weather should be fine. Rufus does his usual pause a few steps from the house, lifting a leg for a long pee on the hedge. The bushes are dripping from last night’s rain and I walk gingerly over a slippery mat of leaves. We are only half-way down the driveway before the stubborn dog turns back to go inside. He’s persnickety about getting his feet wet.

I see the orange of my bagged newspaper at the end of the driveway and drop the leash so he can wait by the door rather than me drag him the five extra steps. Paper in hand, I turn back towards the house when something catches my eye just above the hedge next to the oak tree. I have a sense that something is missing but where I stare is only empty space. Yes, the leaves are newly gone everywhere but that’s not it. Something should be there next to the slowly rotting tree trunk. In decay, it has slowly been separating from the oak. I can’t place what caught my eye, what I think is gone. Did something disappear during the night?

There used to be three trees where now there is a only an oak tree and the rotting trunk of the elm that died when Dutch Elm disease hit the Northeast hard a few years ago. Ever frugal, I chose the bargain tree removal, leaving the branchless body of the tree in place. The trunk is a great playground for the squirrels and a smorgasbord for the birds and recently, a rabbit has found haven in the hollows of the roots. For a few more years, the oak and Norway maple stood together with this dead but lively sentinel.

Then two years ago, the Norway maple fell under the weight of an early snow, crashing through the hedge and landing in the street. Within 24 hours, the city cut it up and dragged it away – a gift – costing me only my tax dollars. This was the dramatic end to decades of togetherness. Three different trees – elm, Norway maple and the oak fused together, trunks and roots entangled.

Now, only the oak continues on – surviving longer because oaks do.

This morning, I think I ‘saw’ the other trees there- some essence – like a phantom limb. Or a flashback of the past. A flicker of movement that made me look again. A shift in light maybe? Or simply a reminder that I am not alone, that what is there cannot always be seen. These moments remind me that I live with benevolent ghosts.

Recently I read this piece in the New York Times Magazine – how forests, trees, communicate and support each other, even in death – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a birch tree or an elm, a maple, an oak. My scrappy oak is probably being supported by the fungus of the long gone trees. Perhaps beneath the earth, their roots embrace. And maybe what caught my eye was a glimpse of love.

I like to think that it’s always love that lurks beneath, love that remains.

The Importance of Updating

Well, hello there! Did you miss me? I was locked out of my blog for more than a month. Yes, I was hacked but it was also my own fault: I’d ignored the pesky reminders to install updates. The format or something that I was using became so out-dated that I was no longer able to upload posts. What a perfect metaphor for my life. I need to keep up with the program. Lesson learned? I hope so but this feels harder as I get older. Does it for you?

I used to be adept at change, regularly going somewhere or doing something different. In my youth, I moved every few years – often to another state or country. The grand finale before settling here in Connecticut, was in Molly’s first year of life when we moved four times, three different countries. Same with jobs. A year in one place was my average until I landed at the United Nations where after a few years at the NYC headquarters, I left to work out in the field. Boyfriends? Rarely did I hit the six month mark with any of them. Friends are different – I’ve treasured and nurtured those loves and they’ve sustained and supported me for decades.

Physically COVID makes the advisability of change questionable. Time to hunker down and hang onto whatever is working and hibernate through the seasons. Luckily I adore being in my sweet house with porch and garden and the Long Island Sound only minutes away. I miss sharing meals and drinks with friends but not being able to meet up in big groups is not a hardship for me as I am more on the introvert than extrovert scale. My daughter is with me – a joy of daily laughs and hugs. Molly’s cheerfully helpful, running all errands including braving the grocery stores. She cooks gourmet meals and makes a mean cocktail. We have become YouTube fix-it experts with the latest accomplishment: replacing our toilet! And she’s my IT specialist — the reason why I am here with you today.

But: this is not what’s supposed to happen. She should be launching into her own adventures and discoveries – not stuck at home with mom.

We are in a kind of forced meditation, aren’t we?

I don’t hate it. I appreciate being forced to look inward. The search of self and being feels rich and interesting to me and if anything, I wish I had more time for that. But of course, I am distracted by practical questions too. How do I hope to spend whatever years are left to me? What can I sustain? I used to feel stressed going down this path — regularly doing math as if the answer lay in a budget I don’t have. But these days, I worry much less. So little and yet so much is possible. Does that make sense? What can we control, anyway? Breathe – because we know how precious that is, don’t we?

These days, as I imagine my daughter’s eventual adventures, I remember my once intrepid self and realize that gal, that ME is still here. A little rusty but that’s what happens when you fail to move. What’s next? I’m not sure but as my blog reminded me, it’s impossible to move forward if you don’t refresh and update. And dream!

What’s happening in your COVID world? Are you taking good care of yourself?

On the Water

gorgeous Sound

We get to the beach early, landing a parking spot right next to the kayak launch spot. Molly hauls our boats to the shore and I ferry the life jackets, paddles and water bottles. Within 20 minutes of leaving our house we are floating on the Long Island Sound.

As we push into the heaving tide my mind-muddle of to-do tasks is left on shore. At high tide our usual spits of land and sandbars that inspire lazy paddling, were nowhere to be found so we head to a more distant island with an inviting empty beach. This stretch can feel like Grand Central Station at rush hour on a sunny weekend day but in the morning, there are only a few oyster boats probably out before the sun. We have a few hours before motorboats with loaded beer coolers begin tearing through the water and we savor the quiet, only the lapping waves and sea-bird shrieks.

me on grassy island

Terns and gulls swoop across the sky. The rhythm of paddling returns even after a year. Pushing through the water feels good. Molly is usually ahead of me because she’s younger and stronger but also because I periodically pause to just float, my plastic boat bobbing, the morning sun warming my bare legs and arms. When I open them again, Molly is near the island. I straighten up and paddle hard to catch up with her.

Me and my gal

We pull onto the sandy beach. This island is city owned – it’s possible to camp here and the thought of sleeping on this patch of wild in the water has appeal – an easy getaway with only nature’s luxuries. For now we are happy to unpack the fruit and coffee we carried with us. We sit on our towel and marvel at the beauty until we are discovered by horseflies. To escape their nasty bites, we strip to our bathing suits and make our first plunge of the season. I am not much of a swimmer, but there is something about that deep breath and dunking into the muffled, other-world of underwater that shifts my brain immediately into vacation mode. My summer baptism.

 

Temporarily Out of Stock

I sell books. Selling houses, cars, clothing, even towels would earn me more money than books, but that stuff doesn’t stir my soul. Being a salesperson doesn’t come naturally to me but my love of reading allows me to convince myself it’s a good cause. Of course it helps that I sell mostly to teachers who have the mission of teaching kids to read. I know so many remarkable ones determined to mobilize the power of books to open minds and hearts. I’m lucky to tag along on their great work.

The perks of being a bookseller include a great discount and free advanced readers copies, ARCS – a sneak peek at soon to be published books. I’m just finishing The Buddha on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff (also author of one of the finest books on addiction, Beautiful Boy). Sheff’s newest title is a blend of social justice and Buddhism – a good read in my quest to live life from a place of peace and love rather than fury. Jarvis Masters has managed to do this through meditation and Buddhism, while living on death row in San Quentin. For 30 years and still today, this Black man has been denied a fair hearing and remains on death row for a crime he did not commit. Yes, more fuel to take to the streets.

book stack

I look to books to help me be a better person, to explain the world. And it makes my heart sing to report that I am not alone: last week, bookstores across the country sold out of  books on racism. Take a look at the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list transformed into a veritable what-to-read to know How to Be an Antiracist – my next read. What are you reading?

**In support of #BlackoutBestsellerList and #blackpublishingpower, we are encouraged to purchase two books by Black writers between June 14 – June 20. (Happy to recommend titles!)**

 

 

 

A Sadly Prescient Post from November 2016: Caution – Danger Ahead

kiseljak

I am re-posting something I wrote and posted in November 2016. Four years later and the predictable tyranny, chaos and destructive forces are now in full gear. Did you vote for this?

I support peaceful protest and support my Black brothers and sisters with love. You lead the way – I am listening and I will stand with you. As a veteran of a war fueled and led by bandits who benefit by fanning the flames of division with nationalistic lies, racism, militias armed with assault weapons is familiar territory. We are in a very dangerous place. Pay attention — it is happening here. Where do you stand?

*************************************************************************************

This is an excerpt I’d edited from my memoir The Things We Cannot Change:

From my window, rooftops are visible against a ribbon of the almost-green trees muting the incessant drone of the highway. Everything appears serene and lovely this early spring morning but I cannot help and wonder what goes on inside these houses. What hatred, prejudice, violence might simmer under those roofs? Could this community in Connecticut combust? Might neighbors turn on each other in violence? Of course not – that seems impossible. We are sure we are different. That is not who we are. Yet I have seen what darkness can reside in homes with roofs just like ours and know such horrors are possible anywhere.

***

My apartment sat on the main road of this tiny predominantly Croat town in Bosnia. I heard everything. Nights, I hid under a ridiculous number of blankets for warmth and to try and drown out the drunken shouting and yelling of local soldiers in the street. The next day at work, I knew I’d be reading UN military reports of Moslem families being bullied from their homes, men taken away in the night. It could not just be me listening but doing nothing about the evil soundtrack of those sleepless hours? What about my neighbors? Under the veil of darkness, families were forced from homes they’d lived in for generations. The Croats were ‘ethnically cleansing’ the town of Moslems – right on the UN’s doorstep.

Man’s inhumanity to man being played out so close around me, overwhelms what should be memories of my excitement of new love. Instead, an icy fear and anger clutched at my throat and tightened with every night.

Years later, I remain haunted by that Bosnian-Croat town – the dark secrets and nights of violence spilling into daylight.

destroyed-village

This chapter selection is from my time there when Central Bosnian villages were being ‘cleaned’ out. During the day, from the safety of the UN armored car, what from a distance looked sweet bucolic cottages, up close became surreal scenes of horror. Windows smashed – ruffled curtains flapping like surrender flags flown too late. Some houses burned. Doors left open – chickens wandering the yard, a dead dog. No human in sight. Eerie. The village had clearly just recently been ransacked – the people fled, taken prisoner, killed? Any of those was possible — all of it happened. We sped on to our meeting.

kids-in-sarajevo

The beauty of the places I lived and visited in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia during my four years there is unforgettable. But the hatred between those cousins wore my soul out. In 1996, I was ready to come home and glad to settle in the diverse, welcoming community I now love and call my own. While racism and prejudice has always existed in the United States, in my experience, it was rare to encounter it as shameless. There was at least a sense of being wrong and certainly some modicum of legal protection against hate crimes, discrimination. That’s what I thought in 1996 as I packed my bags to move back to create a life with my new family in my home country.

I’ve gotten a glimpse of what can happen when government leaders and their propaganda machines fan the flame of fear and hatred. I’ve seen what happens when citizens feel free – even encouraged – to harass (and worse) their neighbors with impunity. It’s more terrible than you can imagine. Let’s not go there.

Silver Lining: ZOOM Yoga with Robert

I love being at home, especially now as Spring explodes with flowers and my little patch turns into paradise. Pre-pandemic, I rarely wanted to venture out into the world beyond my little house and yard.  I was happy to clock every hour of the weekend at home. When the weather was cold and miserable, I was inside by the wood stove, sometimes climbing back into to bed after a quick dog walk. Days like we’ve been having, I’m outside for hours, pruning hedges, pulling weeds and sitting on the front porch reading the newspaper while the birds sing and the squirrels tear through the trees torturing Rufus. I am very lucky: while the reason is bleak, it remains a pleasure for me to spend every day and hour at home.

But there is one weekend outing I made religiously pre-Covid that I have missed. Every Saturday, earlier than I left for work most mornings, I was out the door to go to the gym. Yes, the gym. I’ve had a membership for at least 10 years. For a few of those years, the neighborhood gals would inspire me (meaning pick me up in their cars) to join them for a weight and a even a few zumba classes. (you don’t want to see me dance — sadly, I suffer from serious white girl-disease) Sometimes I forced myself to get my heart beating by huffing and puffing on the elliptical. Ten minutes was about all I could ever muster and that ten minutes felt like eternity. The only reason I kept my gym membership and got up and out at 6:30 on a Saturday morning was for Robert’s yoga class.

I’d wager Robert’s following is larger than any other yoga class at the gym although not everyone loves him. It’s not unusual for a new person to pack up their mat and leave the class early because they wonder what the hell this guy is up to. And Robert jokes about it. Light’s are dimmed and like most classes, each session begins with a few minutes of meditation. But he doesn’t play any woo-woo music and his non-stop talking veers from the profound to the irreverent — weighing more on the side of irreverent and to me, he is laugh out loud funny. No sun salutations for us — we may spend 3/4 of the class sitting on our mats twisting and leaning and stretching only inches at a time – and always, he’s talking.

By listening to him, I have learned to listen to myself. And the next day, I’m pleasantly sore and grateful.Robert’s quirky, warm and wise guy reminders motivate me. Since going to his classes, if I feel a pain anywhere in my body, I almost always know how to figure out what is causing and how to fix it. These days, sitting for long hours in front of my tiny work laptop, it’s not hard to know why my shoulders are tense or my hips tight. And I know what to do about it. I credit Robert for teaching me this.

But here’s the thing – a silver lining to the current state of things: Robert is teaching on ZOOM twice a week. So now, I enjoy his class in my own cozy room with the sound of birds wafting through the open window rather than the clank of weight machines outside the freezing cold room at the gym where we met for a mere 40 minute class. Robert’s classes are over an hour – that flies. And YOU can join too – no matter where you are in the world! There’s a class on Tuesday at 12:30 PM or Saturday at 11:45 AM Eastern Standard Time. This will be the best $15 you’ll spend in a week — you should try it – no matter how creaky and stiff and challenged you might feel. All the better – as Robert says – use it or lose it! Even if you have never done yoga. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you the info. It would be fun to see you there!

A Pandemic Inspired Rant

Rufus Rakes

What will the world look like when we come out at the other end of this? For me these days are mostly an exercise in being present to the moment, made easier in a sweet house, with beloved daughter, plenty of food and still – a job. But the freaky specter just beyond both our physical and metaphorical doorstep creeps up on me in the evenings in that familiar chest-tightening way that fear and anxiety has.

At the end of the day when I watch the news, read Twitter, look at Facebook — my cozy bubble bursts, fury erupts and my heart breaks at the pain and injustice in the world. What does the future hold for any of us — especially living on the wrong side of the financial brink?

I am privileged and feel currently graced in my life — but living close to the bone is not unfamiliar to me. With no partner to share expenses, no trust fund family, no bulky bank account to see me through my old age, like most people, I must continue to work until…? That’s fine except it would be nice if I could imagine an end in sight that didn’t include destitution.

I’m exaggerating. For a start, I’m good at living on little and in fact delight in finding clothes at thrift shops and furniture at flea markets. I mow my own lawn, clip my own hedge, refer to Youtube tutorials to make repairs around the house. I heat the house with my wood stove, hang my laundry and have no dishwasher. Yes, I’m a veritable pioneer woman. None of this feels like I am denying myself – I prefer to live simply and I have more than so many.

But I also believe there IS enough to go around so we can all have a better life and we should not accept the stark inequities that exist. One solution resisted by the powers that be who will fight to (our) death against it — is that richer people of course should pay more taxes. And the obscenely rich (who really needs to be a billionaire?) who pay none, need to pay them instead of posing as heros or our benefactors, sprinkling a fraction of their wealth on pet projects or the latest emergency, while we gratefully send thanks for the money largely earned off the backs of others or just because money begets money.

Other countries take care of the health and good education of their people as a matter of course. I’ve lived in a few of them, enjoyed their health care, healthy and fresh food choices on every corner, cleaner more efficient public transportation. While working with UNICEF in Croatia during the war, I once visited a school that had been damaged by a mortar. I was given a tour of the classroom – the sky visible through the hole in the ceiling. But the thing that struck me beyond the damage was what a beautiful, well equipped and updated school this was in a not-wealthy village. The destruction of the class was sad and it was awful to imagine if students had been there at the time (they were not) but I couldn’t help thinking what a more beautiful school this was compared to let’s say, the South Bronx not far from where I grew up. I think of that cheerful room with colorful desks and plenty of books and equipment (back in the early 90s) now when I visit some classes in schools in urban Connecticut. I am a witness that the quality of life in countries not as ‘rich’ as ours is often better. The gap between rich and poor here is shameful and has only been getting worse.

I want to believe that this pandemic is shifting us into a new understanding and reality where we really are in this all together. I don’t think, nor do I want to, go back to ‘normal’. For one, I haven’t felt ‘normal’ in almost 4 years. I’ve been on a low, angry simmer. The need for change has been amplified to a deafening decibel with this dreadful disease. Can you hear it?

Chapter 35

Kyoto 2004

 In July my friend Naomi called from Japan. When I lived in Kyoto, Naomi and I spent many late nights in hip bars discussing art and men. Now we spoke only once or twice a year. I told her about Neil’s suicide and heard the shock in her silence and quickly filled it in with reassurances.

“We’re doing okay now. And hey – I made Molly a promise that within the next two years, I’m taking her to Japan to show her all the places I always talk about.”

“Two years? Why two years? What about this year? Come now! I have some money just sitting in the bank in San Francisco. I’m going to send it to you so you can come to Kyoto this year.”

“That’s very generous of you Naomi, but I can’t take your money.”

“What do you mean? Of course you can. I’m sending you a check today, so make plans. I’ll also send you the name of my friend who’s a travel agent – she can find a great deal on flights,” she insisted.

A few days later, a check arrived in the mail for $3000. I brought it down to Chris’s house.

“Look – she really did it – she sent me the money! What do I do with this?” I held the check up in disbelief.

“What are you talking about? That’s great – you go to Japan – what do you think? What a good friend you have.”

“I have many good friends, including you guys. But Chris, I can’t take this!” I waved the check.

“Why not? She wants you to have it or she wouldn’t have sent it to you.”

“But it’s too much!”

“What if she had sent you airline tickets instead? Would you accept them?”

“I guess.”

“So what’s the difference? You have to go. You need this and Molly needs it too.”

We were sitting in Chris’s kitchen drinking red wine. Molly and I came here almost daily for the warmth and comfort of being with this family, sharing both tears and laughter. Chris was right, if Naomi had sent tickets, I would use them. We would go.

 

In late August, Molly and I wandered through Kyoto’s sweltering streets as if in a dream. We often spoke of Neil on this trip and I continued to try to make sense of his suicide. We wondered aloud to each other why he chose to give up a chance at having even one day like we were enjoying. This sadness ran like an undercurrent through everything – wading into the Kamo River trying not to disturb the elegant egrets, ducking under the noren into tiny restaurants where Molly learned the etiquette of slurping her noodles. How could he have chosen to miss this experience – to miss life? I imagined him here with us, too tall for the little Japanese souvenir shops near Kiyomizu-dera temple, flirting with uniformed schoolgirls, giggling behind their hands at the attention of so handsome a foreigner. They would have thought him a movie star and he would have played along, rattling off the movies he’d been an extra in. Molly watched as smokers made their way into the designated smoking car on the Shinkansen train and said, “That’s where Daddy would have been!”

Conjuring him like this, we laughed affectionately, his phantom presence always with us. I had often imagined the three of us one day making this trip. Now as Molly and I visited spots I once described to Neil, I wished he were.

My life in Kyoto had been a time of solitude, contemplation. It was the perfect place for me to be now. Perhaps I might rediscover the centered person who had spent hours wandering temples and gardens for inspiration. Back then, I’d pedal my bicycle back from the rock gardens to paint or carve wood sculptures in my postage stamp sized garden. After a decade of obsessing over Neil, I needed to find my way back to that self-possessed person once so alive to the world. Kyoto was also where I first recognized the longing to be a mother, to have a family. I held Molly’s sticky hand in my own as I led her through my old neighborhood.

“That’s where I lived.” I pointed to the heavy wooden gate hiding the patch of garden and an old wooden house. I stood on the hill over the little river listening to rush of water over stones, remembering that at night, as I lay in my futon under the open window, how the flowing water sounded to me like the cacophony of chattering party guests.

We got lost in the narrow streets, stopping into gardens and temples, stepping across mossy boulders and gravel paths. We sat in the shade of verandas looking out at the sculptural gardens of gravel and rock, the cool wood and tatami mats beneath our bare feet. Meditation came naturally in these ancient spiritual places. I felt I was learning how to breathe again.

 

It had been 15 years since I left Japan, but some of my expatriate friends still made their homes in Kyoto. Jenny, an Australian with flaming red hair and freckles, now had two daughters around the same age as Molly. Jenny’s marriage to a Japanese man had not worked out either. We had a lot to catch up on as we traipsed the girls around Kyoto together. Climbing up the rocky path through the tunnel of seemingly endless orange tori gates of Fushimi Inari – a huge Shinto shrine south of the city we smiled at each other as whooping and laughing, our girls ran ahead of us.

“Well, mate – it’s a credit to you that Molly is wonderful. She seems like a really happy child,” Jenny said.

“Do you think so? I feel like she is okay, although the future will tell. It’s amazing for us to be here together and it feels like coming home to me.”

“Yes, Kyoto really gets under your skin. Would you ever think about living here again?”

Moving back to Kyoto was tempting on so many levels: the safety of the place, the beauty still felt so exotic. And while I knew it was a ridiculous notion, I couldn’t help thinking that by dramatically changing our world, our painful memories might fade faster.

“You know, in some ways I’d love to but it would be too much for me now – and not the best thing for Molly. Besides, my Japanese was never great and I don’t have enough brain cells to really learn to speak it well now. And, I’ll never be able to read which would drive me crazy.”

Jenny laughed, “Yeah, it’s embarrassing how us gaijin live here for all of these years and are still functionally illiterate.”

“I know – my reading ability only goes as far as identifying what bathroom to go into!”

Up ahead the orange tunnel of gates opened into a small clearing with a temple and teashop. The girls stood expectantly, obviously hoping for a treat. Jenny bought them all a drink then we stepped into the little temple. Rows of flickering candles reminded me of my Catholic childhood then the gentle notes of wind chimes, rushing stream behind the temple and Buddha, eyes closed, surrounded by more crudely carved, smaller figures, brought me into my exotic present. I knew the little figures to be jizo, each face and mood different: smiling, laughing, angry, serene, many with little hats on or aprons wrapped around their simple stone torso. The O-jizo-sama is believed to ease suffering and shorten the sentence of those in hell.

“Do you want to light a candle for your Grandpa?” Jenny asked her girls. Her father had died the year before. The girls nodded solemnly. Molly looked over at me.

“Yes, Moll. Light one for Daddy.”

Jenny dug in her bag for coins to give to the old man who sold them their drinks. Each came back with a long match. Jenny showed them how to use a flint stone at the altar to get a flame. The girls carefully chose one of the unlit candles as their own. Molly watched as the sisters expertly lit the wicks, turned to the benevolent face of Buddha, clapped two times then bowed their heads for a few minutes, eyes closed.

“Mommy, do it with me.” Molly whispered, tugging on my arm.

We stood side by side, the air thick with the smell of incense. I watched as she lit a candle in front of a laughing figure. He appeared to laugh even harder in the flickering light of Molly’s candle. She extinguished the long match into the ashes as she’d seen the girls do and side-by-side, we clapped to get the attention of the gods, bent our heads, eyes closed over our prayer hands. A cool breeze broke through the humid air and the leaves on the trees made a strange rustle that sounded like laughter. Molly and I opened our eyes and looked at each other, eyes wide.

“It’s like Daddy is answering us!” she whispered.

“I think he is honey. I think he’s telling us that he’s okay. I can almost hear him laughing!”

I felt it. Tears welled up in my eyes and a profound peace and lightness swept through me. I looked gratefully again at the laughing jizo and silently thanked him for delivering Neil and for delivering me, safely out of hell. Molly’s hand in mine, we stepped out of the temple onto the path. One of Jenny’s girls tapped her on the arm. “You’re it!”

Giggling, Molly followed her friends into the tunnel of orange gates.

 

Epilogue

 

The calendars of our lives become checkered with time, marked by anniversaries of wonderful joys, terrible sorrows. A certain day once just another measure of 24-hours is ever after associated with the thing that happened. May 1st is that day for me. I remember the cloudless, strangely bright morning I found my husband dead. But this year, the morning was shrouded in fog and I was grateful for one less trigger.

Grieving after suicide is complex. Rarely do people kill themselves completely out of the blue. Addiction and depression lived in our little house for years. After his death, mixed in with my shock, anger and anguish was also profound relief. “It’s over.” I said to myself even as I doubled-over in sobs when the policeman confirmed what I knew.

Molly and I were recently discussing the awkwardness of telling people what happened to her father, my husband. We reassure them after they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry” with dismay, maybe a little horror. Sorry to have upset them, we answer, “No, it’s okay, really!” And of course, that’s a weird thing to say – it’s not okay and it was terrible, and it’s still sad. But we have not forgotten how frightened we were as the man we loved was swallowed by addiction. Our day-to-day lives were unstable, his behavior so erratic that we ultimately felt released from a terrible insanity. We have largely made our peace with the bad parts and now remember mostly the good. Time has given us that grace.

The anger that gripped me for years has been replaced by forgiveness. But a desire to understand what damaged him remains. Was it something in his military experience – about which he was so strangely mum? Surely almost 20 years of cocaine use destroyed much of his brain, but I am certain he was self-medicating but for what? Bipolar? Every mental health professional he encountered failed him – and us.

The years pass and I still want to understand what destroyed this good man. As I look at photos, I remember the early days when I first met him in that crazy war zone. There he is standing amidst the ruins in Bosnia, making children laugh. Wasn’t he handsome! His personality filled the room and he made sure with well-told (if rude) jokes and crazy antics that he was the center of attention. What amends was he making, what demons were kept at bay as he helped to save rather than to kill people in that terrible Balkan war where we met? In the center of constant crisis seemed to work like a fix and he thrived on what traumatized me. He seized every opportunity to save someone – and in doing so, for those years at least, he saved himself. He was at his best there.

I am grateful for the grace of time that allows for sadness when I remember him on a date I can never forget.

 

THE END

Chapter 34

Could we afford to stay in our beloved little house? Did we even want to? Every time I left the house I passed the doorway to the garage and saw him again. I walked quickly and resisted the almost magnetic pull to look at the eave. Part of me longed to leave the scene of Neil’s death behind but my neighborhood had become our family. The last months solidified our roots with friends who absorbed us into their lives and we felt safe. I added numbers over and over as if I might come up with a different total. Could I keep paying the mortgage on this drafty little house with a long list of needed repairs, including a new roof? On just my salary, it felt impossible. But I had been doing it. Neil’s employment was erratic and even when he earned a paycheck he supported his drug habit before us.

I always associated Social Security with retirement so was surprised I would receive a monthly check for Molly based on the few years Neil worked in the US. Documents in hand, I drove to a nondescript building across from the courthouse and took the elevator up to the Social Security offices. A woman behind a thick plastic window buzzed me in and directed me to a skinny man who looked like he’d been there for a century. His desk was piled with files. He nodded and then began to drone out what documents I should hand to him.

“Social Security card.”

He sounded as if he were a surgeon asking for a scalpel. I shuffled through the papers in my manila envelope and handed it to him.

“Driver’s License.”

“It’s expired, although I don’t suppose that matters, does it?” I said.

“Is it the most recent one?”
“Yes. His license had been suspended so he couldn’t get another.” This unnecessary detail of my troubled husband was of no interest to the man peering over out-dated, silver rimmed glasses at the page in front of him. Did I hope for some reaction from him? Why did I want to tell this guy my story? Obviously, he wasn’t interested.

Watching the back of his oily head I was grateful he wasn’t looking at me as I my eyes filled with tears.

“Passport.”

I handed over the slim maroon UK passport stamped with dates that triggered flashes of wandered streets, savored meals and us holding each other tight in a world that felt ours.

“Is there a Green Card?”

His Green Card – the cause of so much frustration while waiting for permission to work. Was that when he started up with cocaine again?

“Will I get these back?” I asked.

“Yes. I just need to make copies.”

A cliché civil servant, the man did his job without looking at me. No word of condolence, not even the refrain I heard so many times during the past two weeks, “I’m sorry for your loss” or some platitude to make this all less cold and official. Maybe some gallows humor even a little sarcasm would be welcome. He took Neil’s documents off to the copy machine. I tried to suppress a sob, crumpling the yellow envelope. Returning, he read from his computer.

“You will get $565 a month for your daughter. Are you working?”

“Yes.”

“If you lose your job or for any reason are not working anymore, you will get $967 a month,” he said without looking up from his paper. “A check will be mailed out the week of the deceased’s birthday each month so you should expect your first month check around the 10th of next month. And there is a one time death payment of $250 mailed out to you within the next two months.”

“What do I do with that?”

“It’s up to you.”

“Do you need anything else from me?”

I was anxious to get out of there. When the dented metal door to the elevator closed with a groan, the tears I’d been swallowing spilled down my face. How pitifully our lives are measured – by this handful of documents now back in the crumpled yellow envelope – a packet of government-issued laminated plastic cards as proof of our lives and then our death. But, I could finally count on monthly support from Neil just when I thought he had left us only his debt.

Lucy reported from England that the family held a funeral and cremation. For Molly’s sake I decided we should hold a memorial service. I had long ago rejected the religion of my childhood and anyway, it was not Neil’s. The only church I had connected with was a nearby Unitarian Church. Molly learned about many religions and I appreciated that no guilt was being doled out from the altar while I sat for a quiet hour in the lovely glass building surrounded by trees. Sometimes Neil, trying to be the family man, would join us. We both liked the minister and it felt uncanny how often his straightforward, mostly secular sermon was exactly what we needed to hear. When this happened we left affected and for a few hours I allowed myself to hope something profound had shifted for Neil, that he heard and felt the same thing as me and that a shared insight might be the miracle to turn our lives around. I called the minister to discuss a memorial service.

Frank’s shock of white hair and full beard, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes made him a natural for the Santa outfit he donned each Christmas. It was this comforting face that greeted me as I entered his office. The walls of his office were glass and the surrounding trees seemed part of the room. I sat on a comfortable couch full of pillows across from the minister who listened quietly as I told him about Neil’s suicide. When I finished he let out a sigh and said, “Well, that was a huge ‘fuck you’ he gave you, wasn’t it? He gave you the ultimate finger.”

I looked back at him and burst out crying.

Frank understood and targeted my anger and made it seem okay to feel that fury.

“I’m sure you know Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy: ‘to be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’ – I think it speaks volumes.”

“Yes, Neil loved it too – he knew it by heart. Hamlet was the very last film he worked on before leaving the movie business. This should definitely be part of the service.”

We would not honey coat the story. While celebrating Neil as friend, father and husband, I would not shy away from nor be cowed by the stigma of his disease or violent death. Acknowledging the damage he wrought in his addiction and death seemed to dissipate some of my bone-aching anger and pain. As Frank prodded me gently, memories of the goodness of Neil also returned. Neil was an addict who did a terrible thing in killing himself, but he was a good – not terrible man. Planning the ceremony led me beyond memories of lies and the chaos of living with addiction and beyond the image of his horrific last act.

 

The evening of the service Molly and I waited in a side room watching our friends and neighbors enter the church. As the principal and assistant principal of her school walked up the steps, followed by a few classmates Molly danced around the room, thrilled they were there for her. Neighbors came and people from my work, old friends – a steady stream soon filled the boat-shaped building. My heart felt full watching the parade of people who cared about us, who had stood behind me through the joys and struggles of the past 10 years. There were couples from the joint Al-Anon and AA meeting Neil and I went to, old friends with their spouses and children. A few of Neil’s past work-mates came, but mostly his friends were from AA. They were better at forgiving his transgressions or maybe knew better than to lend him money or believe his promises so never felt burnt by him. Molly and I followed the minister up the center aisle to the front row. The massive windows were open and an occasional breeze filled the space with the sound of rustling leaves from the surrounding forest.

The minister recited the Hamlet soliloquy, poetically addressing suicide head-on rather than letting it dangle with the terrible weight of the unspoken. He then invited Molly to light a candle on a small altar with Neil’s picture on it. Molly’s new shoes with a bit of a heel, clip-clopped up the few steps to the stage. She carefully used a long stick to take the flame from one candle to light the votive in front of her father’s photo. She’d turned nine just a few days earlier. The candle flickered in front of a headshot Neil had taken when we first arrived in the US when he thought he might try and get back into the movie business. His face fills the frame, full and healthy, eyes looking straight at the camera, smiling.

Molly and I sifted through hundreds of photographs taken over the years to make the collages in the church foyer, laughing as we glued pictures of Neil wearing Molly’s tutu and in a New York café with a beard of cappuccino foam, capturing the man constantly putting on a show. Craving attention, requiring the spotlight, yet never revealing his self. What effort this must have taken, so impossible to sustain. I glanced at his actor’s photo.

Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the podium and with sweaty palms, placed two sheets of paper in front of me and looked up. I knew these faces, close to a hundred friends who filled the room and looked back at me. Many knew of the struggles of my home because I had vented, wept and worried to them over the years. Others knew Neil as the character who made them laugh and greeted them warmly in the neighborhood and little else. How could they know?

“I’m overwhelmed to see everyone here. Thank you for coming.” Taking a deep breath, I began, periodically looking up from my paper at the sea of friendly faces.

I talked about how Neil loved to have people around the house. He was a generous host and put out a great spread, taking pride in preparing plates of food as beautiful as they were delicious. And no one ever came to our house without getting offered a cup of tea.

“I already miss his cups of tea…”

I choked up, remembering his last words to me. Struggling to regain my composure, I continued, my voice breaking only a little, “… that he made throughout the day, they were a reason to just stop and sit together.” I stopped for a moment to swallow my tears.

“Neil will be missed in the neighborhood. Walking Tetley, he always shouted out greetings to neighbors, waving to people as if he were mayor. Neil was so friendly, warm, fun and exciting and made quickly made any community in the world, his own.”

I described meeting Neil in February of 1993 in Sarajevo and how he transformed my bleak life there and all the good things he did as a humanitarian aid worker in a war zone. In some ways, they were his best days. Perhaps only war was big and hideous enough to distract him from his inner demons. In Bosnia, he felt needed. He conjured hilarity even as shells thundered around us, yet he recognized danger and was adept at getting out of dicey situations – talking his way through checkpoints manned by drunken soldiers, befriending a few of the bandits along the way. Neil saved lives – yanking people out of sniper fire into his car or smuggling whatever ethnic type was on the out, into a safe-zone. And he kept at it when we moved to Connecticut. As Molly and I sorted through photographs, we found an ‘Unsung Hero’ certificate awarded to Neil by the local Red Cross for pulling a woman out of a burning car on I-95. He was on his way to work and for once had a good excuse for being late because, of course he stopped. His instinct was to go towards trouble instead of away, to see if anyone needed saving. He joked how it was his best excuse ever for being late and was sure to bring the police report as proof.

“But he couldn’t save himself,” Molly had wisely said as she sat on my bed and looked at the snapshot she held in her hand of her handsome father.

“Neil hated the disease that haunted him. He would hate me mentioning it even now. He wanted to keep it secret from everyone, including me and even, I think, from his self. His dark secret, this demon of drug addiction, ultimately killed him. So I feel compelled to name it. Many of us were hurt by his habit and are still baffled by it – and by his death.”

I thanked everyone for coming, and for the love and support during the month that had just past and through the years. And I thanked Neil for the laughter and for the most unbelievable joy in my life: Molly.

I stepped down and took my seat next to her, pulling her close. I had thought long and hard about acknowledging Neil’s addiction in this venue. Of course many here already knew – but not all – not the school principal or many of my neighbors. In the end, I decided I wanted Molly to know there was nothing for her to be ashamed of.

 

Friends gathered round and reminded me of good times, sharing anecdotes of Neil’s humor and warmth. The ceremony gave us a chance to recreate those days and recall the goodness of his life. Slowly, I could hope, the haunting, last image of my husband would be replaced by one of the man I had loved.