Remembering

On May 1st 14 years ago, the weather was just like today’s although Spring was further along back then. We’d already had many days of sitting out on the porch and working in the garden. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it probably looked so too, if you didn’t know the dissolution in progress. Molly on the verge of turning 9 years old – did her best to stay neutral between us. The evening before I thought we’d made a breakthrough – that we’d be able to move forward in creating a new life – as separate, loving parents to our girl. Yes, she could spend Christmas with him in England and summer holidays. We’d make it work. But no, I didn’t want a cup of tea, I was going to sleep.

The next morning, the light was extraordinary when I woke in the room that Molly now sleeps in. Shadows and light of morning glows like a treehouse when the trees are in bloom.

There are no leaves out yet – so far there is only the red weight of flowers on the tips of branches promising, promising to deliver soon. This morning I woke at an odd hour and did not return to sleep – remembering, feeling him here, one of my benevolent ghosts. For years, I took the day off, but I no longer feel paralyzed by grief. Time does this. The sadness comes in flashes, unpredictably – thoughts of the terrible morning, imagining the pain he was in was so great that he couldn’t have imagined ours. Could he?

Every day I remember him. And often, those memories inspire laughter. Out for a walk on Sunday, Molly and I greeted a group of men as we passed them, all hovering over an old car. We continued on and in my mind, Neil was with us but had stopped to join the banter. We walked ahead as he made new friends. Laughing, I told Molly this – that if her dad was with us how we’d be still standing at the end of the street waiting until he caught up, his long strides covering the distance in half the time. He’d fill us in on who they were and what they were up to – a marvel that he’d be able to garner so much information since he was usually the one doing the talking. He’d have told him about the Maserati we once owned for a month in Italy before it was stolen. Or some old beauty antique he’d driven in England before my time. He was there with us.

Out walking Rufus after work today, one of my neighbors stepped out of her house to chat with me. Our first post-winter catch-up. Had I heard about the mailman busted for stealing money and gift cards out of our boxes? We caught up on the kids and then she asked with a pause,  ‘isn’t this…’ yes, I answered, with my voice suddenly thick with the rumble of possible tears. Thank you for remembering. She said, I’ll never forget.

 

Some Kind of Prayer

Ever since the priest behind the confession screen at St Margaret’s church scolded 10 year old me because I’d miss Sunday mass a few times, I’ve had a mental block against prayers. When I got to the altar to say my penance that day, I’d completely forgotten the words to the Hail Mary and Our Father so I left – imagining my young soul still sullied by sins. From then on I only went to churches as required for other people’s events.

My relationship with prayer and for that matter, faith, remains complicated. While most lapsed Catholics can say any assortment of prayers without pause, I still stumble and mix them up. Except for one. It’s not a traditional prayer but rather one adapted by Al Anon where I used to clock many hours: the Serenity prayer. That evens sounds nice, doesn’t it? Some may long for excitement and thrills. Me, I’ll take serenity.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Over the years, these words have saved me. I’d repeat them mantra-like to silence chatter that threatened to swallow me in a flood of anxiety and worry especially about the addicts in my life. Repeating it thoughtfully brought me back to myself, to my breath to my… wisdom. I DO know the difference but I don’t always want to accept what I cannot change. Instead, I’ve long gotten an A-plus in denial.

Denial doesn’t work anymore but anything else feels like uncharted territory. These last few months have been tough. I’m learning that trauma and sadness cannot be hurried out of the way, not forever. Cumulative grief caught up with me after Rob’s death and now I feel it in my bones, my skin – itchy with hives, my heart heavy. And I’m figuring out that I must pay attention.

Today this bit of Buddha wisdom from a write up for this event next May at Tibet house, really resonated with me:

“…Always a realist, (Buddha) made acknowledgement of suffering the centerpiece of his First Noble Truth. The great promise of the Buddha’s teachings is that suffering is only his First Truth. Truths Three and Four (the End of Suffering and the Eightfold Path to its relief) offers something that therapy has long aspired to but found difficult to achieve. Acknowledging the traumas in our lives is important; learning how to relate to them is crucial.”

That’s what I’ve been doing – slowly, slowly acknowledging, accepting, conceding – the things I can’t change. And sometimes, it helps just to say that prayer.

The Window Closes

He moved out two years ago this month. After more chances than I can count, I gave up. He already had. I’d been slow to accept defeat but when I did, I prepared myself that things wouldn’t end well for him. When his sister called to tell me she’d found him it was some version of what I was expecting. What surprised me is the wave of terrible sadness I am flailing in. I thought he could no longer break my heart. I thought we were done.

Yesterday, his friend Ian and I went to his house to salvage what we could of music and his instruments – an effort to lessen the sense of waste and for me, to search for clues. I asked Ian if he ever spoke about me and was it with anger. He said, never anger – only regret.

We’d known each other a long time – had tried and failed at romance 20 years earlier so when we reconnected again, it was magical. His smile always made me weak in the knees – but there was more: his long, graceful limbs, beautiful face, that jawline. Even aging, his enviable head of hair turned perfect salt and pepper. And he was funny. So damn funny and a mischievous prankster. And so smart – patiently trying to explain string theory and black holes to me as my eyes glazed over. He understood and actually loved Charles Ives and Stravinsky – but most of all, Zappa who inspired his own complex, quirky music that he worked on constantly. He was a brilliant musician – as in everything, going for the difficult, mastering complicated drum riffs. When he moved in here, he built a studio in the basement and Molly and I always loved hearing him play the drums.

My friends became his friends, our home – his. He couldn’t believe his luck. But none of it was enough. A story I’d already lived through before. And again, I chose to save myself and Molly.

A few months after he’d moved out, he came over for a cup of coffee and asked me if maybe, maybe if  he could get healthy, maybe when he’s seventy — we could get back together. I told him yes, of course there’d be a chance –  he was a great love of my life. We both knew our story would not really end that way, but in a flash of fantasy, a window opened for a breath of hope.

Just last month, he turned 62. I’d watched his painful disappearing act over these last years and thought I had already braced myself – but his final exit – breaks my heart. Goodbye my sweet love.

Days at the Beach

Although the calendar reads February the weather has been mild and when I leave work, the sky is still bright. Aching to move and fill my lungs with fresh air, I have been walking at the beach. Following the sidewalk along the sand on these winter days that feel like Spring, I thrill at the chorus of languages from the chatting couples and families I pass. Spanish, Greek, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese. These are my neighbors and a reason why 20 years ago, my husband and I, fresh from our life overseas, fell in love with this city on the Connecticut coast.

And this beach. Today I walked by the playground and for a moment, I remember myself spending hours on that bench watching little Molly slide down the fireman pole, climb up ladders, slip down slides. And my heart aches with the memory and I wish I could go back in time and be who I am now, watching my beautiful girl at play, completely attuned to joy, absolutely at peace. Instead, all those years ago, for too many seasons, I was lost in a cloud of worry, anger, hurt and terror.

My husband would be home sleeping – no matter the hour. Instead of sitting beside me watching our daughter, catching up on the week, planning our next meal – even just quarreling about things I imagine normal families do, he would still be sprawled across our bed in a drug induced sleep. Often, he would not wake until dinner, ignoring my tears, my pleas and harassment, stuck in the web of addiction that would eventually kill him. On those days at the beach, ever hopeful for the miracle that never came, I watched the cars enter the beach, hoping with some kind of magical thinking, that I might conjure him driving in next. There he would be – the man I’d married, waving and calling out the window, so happy to join us. Instead, Molly and I eventually returned home, the pit in my stomach deeper than ever and Molly not bothering to ask where Daddy was as he still slept upstairs.

Enough time has passed that I mostly remember the things I loved about Neil, a remarkable, beautiful, tortured man. But sometimes dark memories are ignited – like today on a beautiful day as I pass a bench in front of the playground.

Hedge

before hedge 1There are a million things to do around my house and corner lot. This summer Molly and I focused on cathartically clearing out decades of  debris from our basement and garage and ignored the ragged hedge. It went wild.

Last weekend the weather cooled and I propped the hedge trimmer beside me while I put on my gloves. A man walking by nodded at me in greeting and asked, “You’re going to do all that?” Five hours, lots of scratches and many sore muscles later, I’d finished the whole damn thing. Okay, it’s not perfect – but it’s better.

after hedge

After 20 years living on this corner, memories are woven through every inch of privet. As I wield the vibrating, noisy weight of the clipper along the length of it, I remember.

There – Tetley dashing under the woody branches to check out a passing dog, me running around to the street to catch him, scooping him up in my arms with apologies.

Here – heaving the scraggly growth aside, clutching my barefoot, half-asleep 8 year old’s hand, pulling her through behind me – taking this weird detour rather than go near the garage where I’d just discovered her father.

That’s awful, isn’t it? I pause, doubting whether I should include this here out of concern for you. I am sorry for the possible shock of it or for the moments you’ll maybe now spend feeling sorrow. But this memory crosses my psyche like a passing cloud, moments of recognition in a tangle of shrubbery. Time does magnificent healing.

I continue trimming.

A bit further down, I find the nest that caused me to abort my attempt at maintenance earlier this summer. A frantic robin flew squawking out at me and I dropped the clippers and retreated in horror, sure I’d just beheaded one of her babies. Stupid thing! Why didn’t it  chirp or flap at me before I nicked it? I did find a feather in the trimmer but I don’t think any birds died — although I didn’t peek into the nest to check for skeletons.

Almost to the end is the gap Molly regularly slipped through when she was little – a short-cut to her friends’ house or down to the track across the street. While now overgrown from lack of use, I managed to crawl through dragging the electric cord behind me rather than walk all the way around to get to the outside.

Even with the little step stool and throwing myself across the springy-bulk, I couldn’t quite reach the final stretch of it. But I did what I could. And I thought about the different meanings of  ‘hedge’. What I did was enough.

Forgetting and Remembering a War

UN helmet

Excavating memories of Bosnia, I stumble on buried sadness and shame. Since my husband’s death there is no one who shares this time of my life with me, no one who understands – and so I can forget. Even when the Balkan war was raging, like any war that’s not yours, it was more than most can fathom so questions do not get asked, stories are never told. But the recent conviction of Karadzic and the new novel by Edna O’Brien – The Little Red Chairs (beautifully reviewed here) launched me into emotional archives.

I arrived on New Years eve and heralded in 1993 by drinking too much beer with British and Danish soldiers in the basement of a hotel-turned-UN base in Kiseljak, just 20 miles outside of Sarajevo. UN Peacekeeping seemed like a chance for me to make a difference – an idea quickly squashed by hopelessness and a murky mandate. I followed orders and stuck to the rules like a good neutral, well-paid international civil servant.

My job was to take notes at meetings with now-convicted war criminals. In bombed-out factories and airport hangars, freezing schools devoid of students, the men smoked, drank slivovitz and monologued about ancient grievances. On the way to one meeting, we passed burning houses, doors open, laundry flapping – the people fled – or worse. As I watched the thugs suck on their cigarettes, it was the smoke of the village that made me cough until tears ran down my face. The reports I wrote up were received on waxy paper that faded within weeks. At night, when I hid under my covers listening to the HVO (the Bosnian-Croat army) moving through the streets and thought of the violence of neighbor on neighbor, I wept and felt guilty for being there and doing nothing, ashamed for being part of the human race.

Whenever I could I spent the night with my husband-to-be at the Holiday Inn where he lived with the rest of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I envied them the good work they did, delivering tangible results – reuniting families, bringing in relief supplies. Neil brought cigarettes to prisoners and did his best to make everyone laugh. A natural rule-breaker, he looked to save lives, smuggling people out of the city more than once. I fell for him because of that and for the laughter. Also at the hotel were the many journalists who passionately exposed atrocities and relentlessly pushed for the world to see what was happening on their doorstep. I was quiet at these dinners, not wanting to identify myself as part of UNPROFOR – the Peacekeeping Operation regularly under fire by them – for me – doing nothing. I felt a fraud.

On one snowy day, I sat in the back of the armored car driven by the sweet young British soldier who’d been assigned to drive my boss. The 5 ton vehicle strained to get up the winding hills over Sarajevo. The view was incredible –  the hills from where the Serbs lobbed thousands of shells into the city, torturing their former neighbors for more than 3 years. One big gun erupted – as if shot for our benefit or warning – just as we passed. The massive car lifted and we continued up the road deafened, to the well-fed town in the hills above the city they were strangling.

My boss and I sat across the table from him and his wife and between bites, chatted about their work as psychiatrists, the time they spent in my old neighborhood not far from Columbia. She made some comment about New York being a good place for psychiatry. He mentioned the poets Charles Simic and Kenneth Koch as if they were friends. He asked how the food was where we were based. Only after the crumbs were swept off the table did he discuss his map – getting up with a toss of his hair to point out his version of the future – using the word ‘cleaned’ in referring to entire area of Bosnia and into Croatia. Cleaned. Of the many men I met who did terrible things, he was most clearly evil.

Perhaps forgetting makes sense for what is there to do with such guilt? Who do I ask for forgiveness? So I bury it and wait for the discomfort, the sickening feeling to fade. What is to be gained by remembering? Or what might be lost in forgetting? There was little I could have done – but I did so little.

Carrying Air to the Lungs

I’d been thinking a lot about breath lately, trying to breath better – if you will. Which is why getting hit with bronchitis feels like some weird message from the cosmos. What do I need to pay attention to? Am I going about this all wrong?

My mornings begin with at least a few minutes of meditating. I focus on my breath in between thinking about going back to sleep, what was my dream, or what do I need to do today? If my mind is particularly squirrel-y, I count and perhaps pause at each inhale, exhale. During the day, I do my best to breath from my diaphragm not my chest.

Being so conscious about my breath, I feel WTF? about getting this diagnosis. No cold, no sniffles, no flu – just all of a sudden a weird sensation of wheezing and a cough as if I smoked – and I never have. What am I missing, universe?

I know I need to do it harder – to more vigorously exercise beyond my preferred yoga – to make myself breathless. Aerobic exercise increases the body’s need for oxygen and the benefits to the body AND brain have been impressively proven, etc. etc. I try to walk sort-of fast around the track with my friend although we’ve been slacking. Still, I rarely sweat. I never run and I a haven’t ridden a bicycle regularly since before Molly was born.

Now that dear Tetley is gone, I must intentionally go out to walk. Without my dog companion I feel naked and am missing so much in my little hood: the up-close view of bluebells in bloom on my neighbors’ lawn, the glorious full moon glimpsed only while driving, fresh morning air of spring, the early, the late light of day as I trail after his wagging tail. Oh, don’t get me started on how I miss my little guy!

I told you last time how I listened to him dying, counting his last breaths but leaving him be because somehow, I felt he wanted to be left. And what could I do anyway? We die alone and I think, dog or human, it is rarely easy. I sat, respectful and moved by being witness to his death. And oh, the beauty of my uncomplicated grief! He loved, was loved and now, he is missed. Terribly. But even the sadness, feels rich and dear.

I am not used to uncomplicated grief. And breath feels profound for me – my mother died of lung cancer at 64. Diagnosed in Spring, she died the following Autumn. My husband chose to end his life by halting his breath. I cannot think long about breathing, the finite-ness of our inhalations and exhalations without launching into such musings, loaded like my bronchial tubes today, sticky with grief.

So what is there for me to learn here? Perhaps to not approach breath with just reverence, but to expand my lungs, thus brightening my brain, pumping my heart. This sounds so simple – exercise? Then why do I feel almost moved to tears by the notion of pushing myself beyond where I am comfortable, beyond my calming breaths, that there’s something more, something I have been missing and now it’s time to make a run for it. Or something.

How’s your breath? Any suggestions?

Tetley: Love Letter from a Reluctant Dog Owner

Neil fancied himself a Doctor Doolittle and if he had his druthers. would have made our house into a menagerie. Although I was never a cat person, he persuaded me to adopt a total of 3 in our first year together in Croatia. During our stint of living in Italy, he once rescued an owl from a barbed wire fence, and regularly welcomed ratty dogs to our villa until he could find homes for them. I found this endearing until we moved to Connecticut and I struggled to pay the bills. A full grown Golden Retriever needed to be spayed and ate weird things then left putrid puddles that as the early riser, I always got to clean up. After someone told me about a friend who spent $10,000 on their Retriever for surgery after it ate socks and a Brillo pad, I nixed this Golden – and any more dogs. Anyway, we had Katty who’d moved in on us when we first arrived back in the States. No dog, we agreed. So I thought.

tet and katty

On a December night, second grader Molly sprawled across the foot of our bed watching television. I was reading, propped up  against my pillows when Neil, blustered into the room, just home from work, his coat damp from the snowy night. I knew he was hiding something. After a quick kiss, Molly turned her attention back to her show. I peered suspiciously over my glasses and he opened his coat revealing a tiny gray dog. I couldn’t believe it. “No!”, I mouthed, gesturing for him to go downstairs  so we’d be out of Molly’s earshot.

molly and tetley

Neil handled the tiny, bedraggled puppy to me. “I’ll take him back if you want.” But he knew, he knew that as soon as I held that little beating heart to mine, I’d fall in love. We went back upstairs and presented Tetley to Molly who burst into tears of joy. Neil trained him brilliantly and this sweet Cairn loved us fiercely. Our corner plot surrounded by a hedge was his kingdom. I have lived in this neighborhood for close to 20 years and Tetley lived for 14 and I wager, more people know his name than mine.

tetley

He’s been gone 2 weeks and still I expect him to greet me when I come home from work, I look down, expecting to see his hopeful gaze as my knife hits the chopping board. My feet search for the warm lump of him at the foot of my bed. I think I hear the clicking of his nails against the hardwood floors. I leave time in the morning to take him for his walk before going to work and in the afternoon, I look out the window forlornly, missing our jaunt up the hilly streets, him proudly strutting beside me. What will I do without my guy?

Tetley faded fast. Molly and I had been bracing ourselves for years – we know loss well and this time, hoped to be prepared. He’d stopped eating his own food 2 weeks earlier, swallowing only the most savory treats: a rotisserie chicken was a big hit, steak, bacon – everything drenched in beef broth. He still loved a walk – even as he barely managed to step over the threshold, he wagged his tail furiously and announced himself to the squirrels with a few barks. But eventually, it was all he could do to toddle drunkenly into the yard, take care of his business before collapsing in exhaustion on the damp lawn.

Molly came down from college to spend the night that Sunday, knowing it would be her last opportunity to hold her beloved dog. When I returned home Monday afternoon, he still lay in his bed – the egg and bacon I’d left him in the morning, untouched. With my fingers, I offered a tidbit but he turned his head away and I knew this was the end. Molly and I had agreed that if he became like Katty – unable to even stand, I would bring him to be euthanized. The thought of his terror of the vet, the coldness of the metal table and scrubbed floors, made me ill. I didn’t want that to be his lot. Kneeling before him weeping, stroking his sweet head, I pleaded with Neil, gone 12 years this May, “He’s yours now! Please take our dog, please take him, Neil, please take him!”

With night, his breathing grew more labored and I thought – this is it. Finally, life is about breath. I counted his. In the early hours of the morning, I woke to hear him making his way under my bed so lifted and held him, smelling his fur, his now knobby spine against my chest. After a few minutes, he seemed to pull away, straining to get off the bed so I put him back down and again, he dragged himself as much under my bed as he could.

As a child, I loved a series of books about Collies – and recalled reading how the dogs knew when it was time to die and disappeared into the woods, under houses. They hid, wanting to be alone. Remembering these stories, I resisted the urge to hold him, to touch him, to let him know I was there – that’s not what he wanted. Instead, I listened to his inhales and exhales until there was silence. Then, I sat and said a kind of prayer, filling my own lungs, counting my own breaths, and with every beat of my broken heart, realizing his absence. And I thanked Neil for taking as he brought to us, this beautiful creature, finding comfort in imagining somewhere, somehow, him with the little Cairn and perfect love he delivered into our lives one snowy December night.

Wondering About Belief

 

gardenia

As people flock to catch even a glimpse of Pope Francis during his visit to the United States, I wonder about faith. The lackadaisical religious training of my upbringing (4 years of Catholic School) is long gone but I love this remarkable spiritual leader as he rejuvenates the conscience of the church, of all of us, demanding we pay attention and act against injustice, poverty. How can we not be moved? He gives me belief in humanity – a good place to start.

Because of too many recent deaths, I have been in different churches celebrating and grieving lives of those gone. It’s good there are places to do this. I flailed after my husband’s death – not knowing where or even how to hold a service but thought it important to have one for my daughter, for me. I remain ever grateful to the Unitarian Minister who guided me with poetry in his beautiful church. But it was mostly him that drew me – the congregation was too white and wealthy to become my community.

To some extent, I envy the assurance of my wise friends of faith. They know where to turn to make sense of the world, they find comfort believing their loved ones are welcomed by a benevolent God after death. It’s a beautiful story but I don’t feel that belief. During prayers, I bow my head in quiet reverence and appreciate the hum, the music, the silences of the faithful I stand with and envy the ready community to be found in a church of shared faith. But I don’t share it.

And I wonder – how others feel so sure in their belief and why I don’t. I joke about being a recovering Catholic and that recovery takes a lifetime. But even that gives more weight to the impact my early childhood religion had on me. I was done early. I went to Catholic school until 3rd grade and in 4th or 5th, had the misfortune of encountering a mean priest in confession. Other than funerals and weddings, my family no longer went to church nor did we ever pray or discuss faith. It didn’t stick.

Even as I join with others in church, knowing I am welcome, sure my questions would be embraced, I feel a foreigner who doesn’t quite understand the language. I’m glad for the visit, sometimes, even exhilarated by the energy, the force of many voices raised together, the easy support they give each other, the love offered. I listen carefully and sometimes join the prayers waiting to be moved, for them to feel like anything more than a recitation and –  am not. So there you have it.

Yet, walking home from a love filled memorial service in a beautiful old church yesterday evening, the moon appeared huge and bright on the horizon. My heart filled and I felt the wonder of the earth beneath my feet spinning through the universe.

Into Every Life Some Rain Must Fall

blue skies

Night is the only time the sun stops shining here in Connecticut. Summer has been perfect – unless you’re a plant or a reservoir.

We need rain. Leaves rustle too crisply in the smoke scented breeze. I fill the bird bath twice in a day.

I’ve had a longtime crush on California – imagining myself living where days are mostly bright and Winter means wearing a sweater. But these relentlessly dry days make me think about the long drought out West and I’m re-evaluating my fantasy. How terrible to live under threat of fire the likes of now in California, Washington and beyond.

No one has told us to curb our usage around here and I’ve watered the Peach trees and Hydrangea bushes to keep them alive – although this one may not make it.

hydrangea

For no particular reason, I’ve sacrificed this pot of Pansies and this Petunia.

petunia and pansy

I’ve ignored the plants out front – too far to drag the hose and anyway, the earth is so parched, water just flows down the slope into the street.

slope

 

I definitely am neglecting the lawn. I don’t fertilize it so our grass is never our neighbors’ envy. Whatever. We’re not a golf course.

lawn

Without nurturing, beloved plants quickly wither in these summer days so glorious we exclaim to each other in agreement how great the weather is. I miss summer storms.

Without clouds, without root soaking rains, life fails.

I see this as a metaphor for my own life. I’ve prided myself on my abilty to move-on past shitty times as quickly as possible, for being adept at pulling my socks up and scurrying quick to brighter days. I don’t get depressed easily. I don’t cry much. I’m good at detaching from unpleasantness – something someone recently suggested to me might be masking denial. What is sacrificed  when we fail to acknowledge, to sit in the darkness with sadness, to really feel pain and loss? Embracing emotional darkness and clouds can provide as much nourishment as the rains — allowing us to experience everything more deeply. We need these roots to feel the richness of love and joy. Without it, everything turns to dust and blows away.

Some days must be dark and dreary. Let it rain.