The Den

After my husband’s suicide, shock and fury masked my sadness for months. Molly propelled me to pay attention to grief one afternoon as I heard a friend ask her where her father was because she hadn’t seen him in awhile. Molly answered, “In England.” She could not speak this new terrible language of death and loss. Shortly after that car ride and 9 months after his death, I began taking 9 year old Molly to The Den for Grieving Kids. She was afraid The Den would require her to talk about feelings and make her cry like the therapist she’d rejected. The Den would be different, I assured her. She’d be with other kids her age who’d lost a loved one and they’d have activities. If she didn’t want to, she need not utter a word.  Immediately, Molly felt at home and marveled she was not the only kid whose parent had died.

There were years we never missed a session. Two Mondays a month, I’d make the drive down to Greenwich where we ate pizza and salad perched on tiny chairs in the pre-school classroom before moving into the big room for introductions. We formed a heartbreakingly large circle. We took turns saying our names and, only if we wanted to, who died.  Or simply: “I pass” because, at first, it was hard to get the words out: my husband, wife, father, mother and worse — child, brother or sister died. But over the weeks, as the realization and pinch of our losses grew into scars, it became easier to share the declaration of these deaths. At least with this group of fellow survivors.

From that very first session, Molly loved going to The Den, easily going off with a group of children her own age. In another room, us parents gathered in a circle, sharing stories, struggles, tears — and laughter, too. Initially, I found myself envying what seemed the tragic but uncomplicated grieving of the others whose spouses died from illness or accidents – not suicide. How could I admit to them, that in the mixed up soup of my emotions I also felt relief? I discovered no shame and much healing. Regardless of anyone’s tale, grief is thorny territory and we were all traversing it together, reluctant members of the same club.  The Den for Grieving Kids eased our travel on this road.

Seven years later, my daughter has decided it is time to say farewell to this amazing place.  For these few hours a month, she and I reflected on N’s death. Then, in the car driving through the dark towards home, the two of us shared stories, carefully paying attention to each other and our healing hearts.

Going On


I find myself still looking at the stories and images of the mother who lost her parents and her beautiful children in a fire on Christmas morning. I study them as if I might identify what enables her to survive such loss.  Photos from the funeral captured the bewildered, distraught faces of mother and father watching the coffins of their daughters being carried into the church. Her face crumpled in grief, his raw with pain. How will they go on? How do us humans do it?  What is it that keeps us going, through those horrible minutes, hours, days, weeks, months? Perhaps only years will make the ache sear less.

Heartbreaking stories like this one can be found in some community, every day. This one haunts me because it happened only minutes from where I live.  They did not live in a war zone or a blighted ghetto – she had everything and still lost it all. If it can happen to her…

And yet I look at her and marvel: she bravely comforts the father of her children, sharing stories of her beautiful girls and making plans for their remembrance. Making plans. Carrying on. She will carry on with this business of living even as, (I can’t help imagining) she wishes she were dead. The human spirit is magnificent.

We lose the ones we love most in the world — and yet, continue to live. Most of us still find a way. Such losses can seem  impossible from the outside. Part of me wants to turn away from this terrible story, it feels wrong and voyeuristic to want to know more. But I cannot help wanting to, even as I observe with dread. As if I might see how to arm myself against comparable experiences. This same thing is unlikely to happen to me, but there is no escape from what life doles out to us and something else as terrible might again. How would I go on?

We all eventually lose what may seem to be the source of all love — a lover, a spouse loses their soulmate, a child loses a parent, and most horrible of all – a mother loses her children, and still find the will to live. Slowly, slowly finding moments of laughter, once again discovering the beauty in light and recognizing  the myriad of feelings beyond the numbing punch of grief that once threatened to end it all. How? Many have the comfort of their faith guiding them through. But even those of us without the clarity of belief in the wisdom or  master plan of a God, there is something greater than the fear of death that keeps most of us going.

I see around these parents, a beauty glimmering like a haze softening the curtain of anguish. Somehow, in the darkness of mourning we must sense something, some light of hope.  Or perhaps we see it reflected in those who gather to comfort us. In a New York Times article on the funeral a man who only shared the same church with the family called out to the children’s father as he passed by “Brother, I love you,” and according to the man the father reached over and said “I love you, too.” Perhaps that’s it – what drives us forward from our loss, just love.

Working

My 16 year old daughter started her first job in the real world yesterday. I dropped her off and watched her walk through the dawn-lit, still empty parking lot to the small family-run cafe. Driving home I recalled my own first job at 16.

Nature’s Kitchen was a storefront Indian restaurant. It was just me and the cook, Singh – a gentle man with a young family back in India. He loved beer and the Average White Band. As soon as the last patron left, he cranked up a tape and we’d clean up to the blaring funky beat.  No table cloths on the 15 or so tables, just yellow paper placemat with scalloped edges, one set at every place. I remember this detail because for years I kept a little love note on a torn-off piece of placemat from an admirer I liked back. He probably scrawled it while slurping his mulligitawny soup. There were crushes, celebrities and crazy people who came in regularly. The glove lady was most memorable. She wore elbow length gloves and came back into the kitchen to boss Singh around. She wouldn’t place her order with me and only allowed him to bring her dishes out – probably because she had crowed at him to wash his hands first. She always finished her meal with the Indian pudding — a scary looking cream-of-wheat concoction  in a battered frying pan, kept warm but also drying out, at the back of the black stove. Thinking back, I’m surprised anything out of that kitchen met glove-lady’s clean neurosis.

Waitressing became my go-to job. It was easy to walk into a restaurant and get hired. Quick and cash, tips that back-in-the-day, did not get reported. I waitressed in restaurants, bars, country clubs and hotels for over ten years. My final job was at a fancy hotel chain as a unionized banquet waitress. I was relieved to no longer have to rattle off salad dressing choices or beers on tap. Sometimes I could go through the whole night only saying one word to the customers as I rounded each table with a heavy pot: “coffee?” Lifting the metal lids, balancing two plates on one arm, a the third in hand slid quietly in front of the diner, while at the next table, my colleagues did the same. It all felt so choreographed. Most nights, I enjoyed moving efficiently through the room in my little black polyester uniform with white ruffly apron, the night planned out – a beginning, middle and end around courses of a mass meal. Finally, worried I’d be doomed to this work for the rest of my life, I swore waitressing off and headed to Japan with the idea of learning how to make seiketei – Japanese rock gardens. But that’s another story.

I wonder how many of us finally land a way to make money that is really right for us? Something that gives us pleasure — or at least, does not defeat us body and soul? And for how long does it remain so? For now, I watch my daughters new pleasure at making bacon-egg sandwiches and coffee and hope she always finds a way.

A Quiet Thanks

I like Thanksgiving. Gathering with loved ones to reflect on gratitude, if only for a moment before digging into the scripted menu. What’s not to like about that? But this year, I am delighted by our plan for the day: Molly and I will search for an open Chinese restaurant and share a meal together, ordered off a menu. Later, stuffed with dumplings and rice, we will meet up with Rob and tumble across the street to share pies and wine with our dear friends from the neighborhood. I am grateful for the luxury of this day and my daughter’s emerging rebel spirit. Really, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays — but sometimes, the timing just isn’t right.

Molly is tired after an activity packed autumn with barely an evening to herself. And Friday launches retail madness month with harried, long work days. We are happy to duck out of any requirements – no place to go, nothing to make. Oh, enticing invitations came our way – and I even considered hosting myself – but when Molly said, “I don’t want to go anywhere.” my heart soared. Yes! I don’t either.  So why should we? The flip-side of the lack of doting relatives around to show up at Molly’s plays, concerts, graduations, etc., she and I are free of that feeling of requirements. We don’t have to go anywhere. We can do whatever we want. My siblings are the same as me – although we do keep Christmas day precious – they dutifully, and I hope with some glimmer of joy, make the trip out of the city to celebrate at our house – a homage to the only kid in the family.  Today, nothing is required of us and for that and so much more, I am grateful. I will reflect on that as I dig in to my … hmm, maybe I’ll have sushi.

We Would Be Haunted


This morning I finished a memoir by an American woman who met and fell in love with her husband in Sarajevo during the war, prematurely gave birth to her longed-for baby in a beautiful European location, and struggled unsuccessfully to sustain a marriage to a tortured soul with an addiction problem. No, not my memoir, The Things We Cannot Change (still agent-shopping) – Janine di Giovanni‘s just published, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption. 

Reading her compelling story was sometimes eerie – as if some Balkan spell had been cast over us who, by choice, lived through those dark days in Bosnia. So much struggle and sadness in our lives, so many unhappy endings where there once seemed such promise – bright love out of the bleakness of war. And yet, of course we would be haunted: what were we thinking?

Janine di Giovanni’s time in Bosnia and mine overlapped although my experience was very different. She is much braver than me and as a journalist, hers was a very clear and admirable mission. As an international civil servant with an administrative job, I lived a comparatively cocooned and frustrated existence. Traveling from New York to be part of a very cloudy ‘Mission’ – I harbored the short-lived illusion, I might be serving the cause of peace.  My war experiences do not compare to her powerful accounts. But as women in love – with love, adventure, romance, our respective babies, our men – it was like reading my own story. And for the battle against addiction, there is no armor.

She writes beautifully – her heart pulsing in each word as she relives her life with Bruno. I vaguely remember him from the Holiday Inn and remember seeing Janine – such a majestic, striking woman. And I remember her friend Ariane, a French journalist who never seemed to leave Sarajevo yet always appeared to be cheerful. I wonder if they would recall the crazy, dashing Englishman, smartly dressed with an ascot tucked into his Barbour, who drove the ICRC around and certainly flirted and flattered them? He never missed an opportunity to leap from the balconies inside the Holiday Inn connected by the climbing lines one of the journalists set up. I think it was Paul who did this – Paul Marchand, the elegant, warm French photographer with a perpetual cigar was one of Neil’s favorite people in Sarajevo. Just this morning, from Janine’s memoir I learned that in 2009, five years after my husband ended his life, Paul also hung himself. So many memories stirred up – and so much sadness. But regret? No. Like Janine, I marvel at my child and cherish the love from those ashes.

Dodging a Bullet

Wednesday, I had my ovaries out. For the record, it was a cinch – thanks to the wonders of laprascopic surgery. Pre-surgery, I searched the web for reassurance and didn’t find much. The information I read made me nervous and I began to doubt my decision. Thus, although hesitant, I decided to write about my experience. Perhaps another woman having her ovaries out prophylactically might be comforted.

I dragged my feet about this for years, convinced to be out with them only after seeing one of my dearest friends go through treatment for ovarian cancer this past year. I spent only a few hours in the hospital, leaving slightly bruised and tender but delightfully loopy. The only a bandage on me was a bandaid on my arm where the IV had been. Ferried home by my fellow, I slept. It was lovely to just to sleep – to have that be what was expected of me. And in these days, post surgery, I continue to surrender to this business of healing.  It is tempting to fall into normal activities and I probably should not have sat on a cold metal bench in the wind watching my daughter play field hockey yesterday. It felt grueling, but they lost, so maybe I was also feeling sympathetic.

I won’t be doing any downward-dogs for a few weeks, nor taking marathon walks with Chris, but I did take Tetley out yesterday (he was very gentlemanly). My refrigerator is so laden with good food from my remarkable neighbor-friends that I don’t really need to cook – but can. I can sleep on my back and either side, comfortably. I’ve barely taken any painkillers. In short, I feel really good.

And lucky. I have a beautiful daughter – and in any case, am too old to have more kids. Because I was on Tamoxifen for 5 years, I will mostly be spared crazy, hormone related reactions. I have great insurance. And so far, the word that I remember from the haze of post-op is ‘benign’. My circumstances are excellent. I am grateful to have crossed this silent killer off my list. Thank you to my dear, now healthy friend: it was her fierce battle with this bitch of a disease that Galvanized me into action.

Trusting the Universe

Post hurricane, the yard is covered with branches and leaves and in the distance, chain saws grind away at fallen tree trunks. We got off easy at our house – not even losing electricity. I wasn’t worried about what the storm might bring. I used up all my anxiety worrying about Molly’s safe arrival from England. She landed less than 12 hours before New York airports were closed down and until then, I was a neurotic mess. The hurricane certainly made things worse but regardless, I am anxious when my daughter flies.  The powerlessness I feel as she passes through the departure gate is intense. It eases when I know she is with her English family but engulfs me again when I know she is making her way back to me.

Molly was only a few months old when I had my first episode of terrifying vulnerability – a sense of being completely unable to protect my child from the world’s dangers. The sidewalks near my flat in Zagreb were narrow, the roofs of the shops slanted, and the tram line only inches away from the curb. Usually, this was a lovely, benign route to push baby Molly along in her carriage on the way to the market or just to get some air. On one sunny winter morning, snow was beginning to melt, and icy drifts began falling from the rooftops at least 3 stories high, walloping unfortunate pedestrians passing below. What if a mass of snow and ice were to fall on my sleeping baby? I gripped the carriage and walked quickly, then slowly – as if I might guess where the next avalanche might fall.  But how could I? I realized then that this is my lot as a mother. There is only so much power I have. While I will nurture and protect and love my child with all my heart, I also better trust in the universe. I needed to venture out into the world without infecting her with fear.  Slowly, my panic eased as I turned onto my tree lined street, carried the pram up the stairs to our flat, pushed open the door, lifted now smiling Molly and held her to my beating heart.

Gardenias At Last!

 

I wish I could share the scent of these waxy, fine blossoms — heavenly! This little Gardenia plant has lived with me for about five years and this is the first time it has blossomed.  My chair pulled up beside the pot, I lean down every few minutes to inhale the perfume from now, multiple blossoms. See —

My favorite flowers are fragrant. I force Hyacinth and Paper Whites when the snow still covers the ground — breathing their heady scent as I come in from the cold reassures me that spring is not so far away. Lilacs evoke something old-fashioned and dreamy from childhood weekends spent in the country. Gardenias — they transport me to the south of Italy. There was a bush heavy with blooms in a planter on the veranda where I read and napped, waiting for Molly’s imminent birth. Exotic and rich, to me these exquisite blooms smell like love.

Birth Days

A bright Sunday morning, still early enough to be quiet – no lawnmowers or blowers, no cheering from the baseball field. There is even an occasional lull of quiet between the usually relentless highway  whoosh of cars and louder, barreling truck noises. But looking out at the evidence of M’s 16th birthday celebration I can still hear the laughter, singing and whooping of more than a dozen teenagers who gathered on our lawn last night. A few napkins and cups litter the the grass and on the table there are empty ice-tea jugs, wooden sticks used to melt marshmallows. Good kids, (no beer bottles, no cigarettes) they brought in the (junk) food and blankets last night – the remaining mess will take only minutes to clean up. Maybe I’ll need to whip up breakfast for the three that slept over but more likely, they’ll slip out early to go home to celebrate Father’s Day – a holiday we are exempt from in this house.

I was dreading ‘the gathering of teens’ at our house — too many horror stories of crashed parties and trashed houses. So the little bit of mess outside is benign.  Sixteen years ago, although M was already a week old – she remained in an open incubator in a Brindisi hospital. Born almost 2 months early in the wrong country, she spent her first three weeks being swaddled and sung to by loving Italian nurses. That stint in an Italian neonatology ward was a frightening, crash-course in motherhood: the worry never really goes away.  But at least for now, my beautiful, Italian baby is just fine.