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.

 

This House, This Home

 

tree top

Armed with addresses of houses within our budget, I’d drive-by properties to take a look on my own. Pulling up to this sweet place for the first time, the atmosphere seemed to change and I felt like I’d gone back in time. It was late summer and the white cape dwarfed by trees with a hedge setting the property apart from the quiet street, called to me. This one, I told Mary Lou, I want to see this one.

An old woman named Mrs. Henderson lived here before us. Her only son lived down south and somewhat reluctantly, she was moving to be closer to him. She’d lived in the house for 45 years. We quizzed her about the yard – Azalea shrubs, a Dogwood (that has long since died) Forsythia and a long bank of Peonies. She and I sat on the porch together. With every breeze, the leaves seemed to applaud. It’s been a happy house, she told me as she watched Neil lead Molly across the lawn. I knew she liked us and wouldn’t dicker about our lower bid. Charming Neil and earnest me with our darling daughter, almost two. They will be happy too, she must have thought.

living room

This 1938 Cape with charming glass doorknobs and a fireplace, hardwood floors badly in need of refinishing and a water tank barely able to accommodate one of Neil’s hot baths became ours. The place needed a lot of work but our budget was limited so we did little to improve it. The year Neil died, I somehow managed to put a new roof on.

When I fantasize about winning the lottery, I don’t imagine buying some fancy joint, I’d finally fix up this one. I would put in a new bathtub, finally refinish the floors, replace the drafty old windows, maybe add second bathroom on the first floor. And I’d definitely tear down the garage of such sad history and replace it with a sweet live-able studio.

house in snow

At times, I wonder about remaining here – mostly because of money, doubts about whether I can do it all myself, but also, because unlike Mrs. Henderson’s years, on our watch, this house has seen great sadness. Within a only few months of moving in, money began disappearing, Neil started sleeping all day, losing jobs and ignoring home responsibilities including his wife and daughter. Finally, I learned of his addiction. Years of struggle followed – cycles of hope and despair until he ended it all here at our home. Someone else might have moved away but I never blamed this house and memories fade with time. Somehow, we always come back to joy here because, there is our love, Molly’s and mine. One I dreamed of.

chair window

My journals written in my twenties and early thirties are full of longing for a home, a craving for a place, for love. And even with sadness, old and new, this place has been that. Next year Molly and I will have been here 20 years. Our home, this house, remains rich with the most profound love I have ever experienced – for my daughter who I have raised within these old walls. And this is her home as well as mine, this house where the floors have never been refinished, where the old pipes leak and that cast iron boiler just better hang on for at least another winter.

I have spent these last snowy days inside this shabby, beloved house watching the light change through the hours, sitting in the warmth of sun pouring in the windows. Later, I will light a fire and finally, climb the creaky stairs to bed and with sweet old Tetley curled at my feet, I will sleep. And I think, this is a house of happiness. In fact, sheer joy. And when Spring comes and the leaves come out, I know they will applaud again.

Sparks of Joy, Embers of Sadness

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo is a wildly popular little book that has been sitting on the bestseller list for a few weeks. It’s a bit wacky and wonderful, and somehow, incredibly motivating. Basically, the author suggests that you get rid of anything that does not spark joy in you. I confess, I’d read only a few chapters before launching full speed ahead into sorting out the joy from no-joy in my closet. Doing this with Winter clothing was easy — especially after this year’s grueling season. I was all too happy to give a heave-ho to my woolies and packed up 3 garbage bags.

Hidden in the behind my clothes was also something I’d been ignoring for 11 years – since my husband’s death. An oversized blue duffle bag full of papers documenting symptoms of his demise including collection letters, bank notices, recovery books and saddest of all, his return plane ticket to England for May 5, 2004.  He never got on that flight, instead, in the early hours of May 1st, he chose to end his life.

I’d held onto this bag of sadness for more than a decade. Why? To remind myself of what a lost cause our marriage had become? Proof I had done what I could? I don’t need that kind of reminder any more. As the years have passed, it’s gotten easier to remember the wonderful things about the father of my daughter, the man I’d once been wild about. The funny, warm, generous guy he was before addiction swallowed our marriage and eventually, him. Time has delivered healing, allowing me to better remember the laughter, adventure and love we shared. On a recent balmy night – too warm for a fire, I sat in front of the fireplace feeding the flames with sad history, sparks flying up the chimney into the night sky.

If Only…

The beach was almost deserted on this spectacular Saturday morning. The tide more out than in – no lapping waves. Only an occasional gull broke the quiet. I joined a yoga class on the sand, stretching, inhaling the beauty of the spot, savoring the gentle breezes, the coolness of the morning air, the sun’s warmth – life. Focused on breathing, the poses, then resting on my back, sand running through my fingers, I relaxed into a dreamy joy.  And then, I remembered AW’s death. She will never feel a beach breeze again. Every moment since hearing this news on Monday, there’s been a hovering dark cloud on the sunniest of days.

But she was not my daughter.  For me, the pain will ease, the sad fog will lift within weeks, becoming a terrible memory. Not so for her family. How long will it take for them to feel any kind of sustained joy again? My heart breaks for them.

Protecting our children is any healthy parent’s strongest impulse, in some ways, our very reason for being. The cliches: ‘we’re only as happy as our unhappiest child’, ‘they cut, we bleed’ — are all true. The thought of losing a child a worst nightmare. I am afraid to even imagine the pain.

A blogger who writes movingly about depression (here) noted about Robin Williams, “He died at the age of 63 after a lifetime of depression… his age was testament to his tenacity.” This beautiful line comforted me the other day, even 10 years later, thinking my husband made it to 48 with all his anguish – that was something. And, it guts me to think of AW only 25 years for her.

We no longer can be delighted by her goofy, infectious laugh.  Did she not know how we loved her and basked in the warmth of her kindness, her disarmingly clear and beautiful gaze? When we worked together, my impulse was to protect her. Sometimes I found myself warding off the men who might mistake her universal kindness as interest. She seemed so vulnerable.

Suicide strikes a chord for any of us who have experienced loss in this terrible way – like a gong – triggering memories, feelings. But the reverberating toll of this has cut me close, this sweet girl’s death. We were not much more than work friends — but of course all of us felt more so because AW did not do superficial. Even knowing better, I engaged in magical thinking — that I might have been able to do something. If only. Just the week before, I’d almost sent her a text – wanting to introduce her to my friend’s daughter — going so far as pulling up our last texts from more than a year ago – to continue a conversation, make contact again. And then, did not. In my mind she was well settled into a life she’d worked so hard to create for herself. Succeeding. I didn’t know.

Robin William’s death, like other beloved celebrities before him, brings suicide out of the shadows, if only for awhile, and this spotlight is welcome. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention runs walks around the country – Out of the Darkness Walks where the community can come together to comfort each other and raise money for the cause. While we will never end suicide but we must try to save lives – even one. How I wish that it could have been AW’s.

night waves

 

 

The Grace of Ten Years

The calendars of our lives become checkered over time, marked by anniversaries of wonderful joys or terrible sorrows. A certain day, once just another measure of 24-hours is ever-after associated with the thing that happened. May 1st is such a day for me. It was ten years ago on a cloudless, strangely bright morning, that I found my husband dead. This year, May 1st was shrouded in fog and I was glad for one less trigger.

Grieving after suicide is complex. Rarely do people kill themselves completely out of the blue. Addiction and depression lived with us 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 as the policeman confirmed what I knew – that he was gone.

My daughter and I were recently discussing the awkwardness of telling people what happened, how we feel we must 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 remember how frightened we were as addiction swallowed him. Our day-to-day lives were so unstable and his behavior so erratic, that we could not help but feel released from a terrible insanity. We have made our peace and now, we remember mostly the good. Ten years of healthy love and a peaceful home have given us that grace.

The anger gripping me for years has been replaced by forgiveness and a desire to understand what damaged him. His military experience – about which he was uncharacteristically mum? Surely almost 20 years of cocaine use destroyed much of his brain, but I am certain he was self-medicating – for what? Every mental health professional he encountered failed him – and us. Even as the years pass, I want to understand what destroyed this good man.

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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, always the center of attention, he made sure of that with well-told (if rude) jokes and crazy antics. What amends was he making, what demons were kept at bay as he helped to save rather than to kill people in a terrible war? Being in this role in the center of constant crisis worked like a fix for him for awhile. He thrived on what traumatized me, seizing every opportunity to save someone – and in doing so, for those years, he saved himself. He was at his best there.

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I am glad for the grace of ten years – to feel a simple sadness, for the chance to remember him so, on a date I can never forget.

The Light of Venus on a February Dawn

There is a bright glow in the dawn sky on this cold morning. At first I think it is the light of a plane passing and I imagine the sleeping passengers heading home to loved ones or departing on adventures. I watch, waiting for the plane’s glow to disappear across the sky but instead the light remains, slowly rising away from the horizon as the earth turns towards the sun and fading only as the morning light moves in. Venus.

venusglobe

The planet Venus, named for the goddess of love, after the Sun and the Moon, is the brightest planet in the sky. Only slightly smaller than Earth, and with densities and chemical compositions similar to ours, Venus’ surface is so windy and hot, speculation is that any water once there, all boiled away. Venus is sometimes called the morning star. That’s what I thought, this early morning when I realized I wasn’t looking at a plane. Maybe it’s a Nova – one of those stars that burn so hot they explode. Like people sometimes do.

It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s kids I can’t stop thinking about. The older two are about the same age Molly was when her father died. A tough memory from that nightmare blur of a morning, when I told her that her father, who she’d been watching a movie with before she fell asleep, was dead. How? She wanted to know. Rather than tell her that he’d put a noose around his neck, I said: drugs. She knew about his drug problem – we’d been living with that struggle for years and she’d known for at least this last one. Tough stuff for an 8 year old. That morning it seemed liked ‘drugs’ inferred an element of accident rather than stating the truth of his intention to die.

Besides, I wasn’t lying. His addiction did destroy him. It took me years to finally step away, to stop trying to find a way to fix him. Eventually, to even let go of hope. That was the hardest. I rode that roller coaster of hope and disappointment until it was one too many times. Yet even in deciding to finish the marriage, I harbored a touch of magical thinking that in doing so, I was giving him the ‘bottom’ – the wake up call he needed to finally get clean. I still deluded myself I might possess that kind of power. I still hoped.

So I look at those kids and I think of mine. And, I think of their mother, his partner, and remember myself. I remember the dark months, weeks and days leading up to my husband’s end. I lived for so many years with lies, sometimes even knowing I was making a choice to believe them, as if that might make them true. Did she do that? What ultimatums did she give him? Did she feel relieved when he moved out of their home, feeling that bitter relief of not having the risk of drugs in the house, of being better able to protect their children from being with him when he was high?  Of, while heartbroken, relieved not to have to wonder why he wasn’t coming to bed yet? Or worry why he was still in the bathroom? The not-knowing. Ever.

After all, if this can happen after 23 years of sobriety. Once there, even if for a glimpse, how can we ever trust our addict is clean? Our addict. We all have at least one addict that is ‘ours’ because we love them. They can never really be ours.

And we wonder why? Why our love, why the love of our children provides no cure? As much as I learn about addiction and accept that it’s a disease, there will always be that tormenting truth that nothing I ever did was enough. So yes, as the death of yet another celebrity throws a spotlight on addiction, I welcome the attention being paid to this complicated issue, although there are no answers here, we have to keep asking the questions. The heartbreak continues, with only a terrible comfort in the knowledge we are not alone. The loss of this great actor and good man saddens me too, but it’s those kids and their mother that I think of as I watch the morning star of love fade away at the break of another day.

The Not-So-Small Club: Children Left Behind by Suicide

I drove Molly back to college on Friday. We laughed much of the drive, happy to be on this road trip on a fine, bright day, enjoying the landscape and each other’s company with a soundtrack acceptable to both of us (Amy Winehouse Pandora station). Occasionally I turned the music down to better hear Molly’s stories about friends and random school anecdotes including this one that put a lump in my throat.

A buddy recently asked her advice – cautiously – with the caveat that Molly needn’t answer if she didn’t feel comfortable. Oh, no, Molly thought, what weirdness will this be about? The friend wanted to know what she could do for a friend whose father had just died. She said, “I just feel so awful!” Molly, relieved not to hear anything weird, and not in the slightest bit uncomfortable, gave her friend great advice.

“Remember that this isn’t about YOU. It doesn’t matter that you feel awful or that you’re sorry. It made me mad when people told me they were sorry. Why were they sorry? It wasn’t their fault – why should they say they are sorry? What was I supposed to say to that? There is nothing you can say that will make it better for someone. Just let them know you are there. That’s it. Just don’t make it about you. And don’t tell them about when your hamster died!”

Molly’s understanding of grief impresses me – although it will always make me sad she acquired it so young. She gets it that grief is a place unto itself. There is no rescue possible – not at first. I credit her understanding and the roadmap to peace, largely to The Den for Grieving Kids where she realized that there were plenty of other kids her age who’d lost their parents, some, also by suicide. She learned early that she wasn’t alone and how it is possible to talk – or sometimes not – about loss. (More about The Den in this post.)

Today’s New York Times Magazine has is this fine piece by a woman whose mother committed suicide. The author was just 2.  Unfortunately, she lacked Molly’s support system and instead lived unnecessarily with her sad secret until now. Imagining the child she was breaks my heart. Here from Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s lovely essay: “...I’ve told this story a few times since then. Sometimes I like to entertain the grandiose notion that I’m doing something noble by telling it, teaching the world’s silent orphans an important lesson about openness and connecting with others. But the real reason I tell the story is that I still need to hear it.

Yes, we must let the light in on secrets. We need to tell and hear each other’s stories because there is comfort in knowing we are not alone.

Time Makes Room for Joy

This year marks a decade since my husband killed himself. My daughter was a month shy of 9. At the time Molly was convinced that all of her friends’ lives were perfect. Why did this happen to her. I agreed it wasn’t fair. But, I explained, no one’s life is ever perfect, certainly not forever. Her friends too, would experience sadness and loss. In her world she may be the first – but would not be the last. Extremely empathetic even as a toddler, Molly soon absorbed this and was a happy kid, offering comfort to her friends in their tough times.

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These days, our shared memories of N usually make us laugh. For years he held off the black ocean of darkness that destroyed him in the end, by being outrageously funny. A genuinely warm and generous man, for a time he effectively channeled his craziness into endearing antics and even acts of heroism. For Molly and I, those good memories of him are now stronger than the frightening, bitter ones.

Our perception of our story has changed over this decade. Time makes room for joy. 

No Solace in a Secret

I’m not one for secrets. (Don’t worry, if you’ve told me yours I’ll keep it.) But I prefer to not shut troubles away in the dark. Light brings clarity and that’s where, having lived with my share of shadows in the past, I choose to be. Thus, David Sheff’s passage, “The Peril of Anonymity” from his chapter on Alcoholic Anonymous in his book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedyresonated with me.

Sheff acknowledges that the proliferation of AA is partly, given the stigma of addiction, because of the promise of anonymity. He agrees privacy should always remain a choice but points out that this very requirement reinforces shame and isolation for the addict. But Sheff makes the point that “The history of other diseases shows dramatically how closely linked openness and health are.” He cites the power of AIDS activists and ACT UP’s Silence = Death slogan in so effectively drawing attention, funding and research to AIDS that an HIV diagnosis became, in a remarkably short time, no longer a death sentence. Until addiction is brought out of the shadows, choices and solutions will continue to elude us. Dangerous failures like “The War on Drugs” will persist.

In Japan in the 1980s, I used to meet doctors at a hospital for English conversation classes. One evening, a young woman doctor choked back tears as she told me she had broken a rule of the Japanese medical profession by telling a patient they had cancer. At least at that time, (I suspect this has changed) it was believed that to tell the patient the truth about their cancer diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence – that knowing their disease would destroy their will to live.  And (this always got me) that they would feel ashamed. Seems archaic, doesn’t it?  But think about it — how is this so different from our attitude toward addiction?

Some will say, “it’s a choice!” To my very core, I know all sides of this debate as does anyone who has lived with an addict. We have all wondered why they do not stop? Why do they risk everything – job, friends, family, their very life – for a drink, a pill, a line?  It’s difficult to understand and accept that it’s not about ‘choice’.

Do you know a family, do you know anyone who has not been affected by alcoholism, by addiction? Tell me readers, that you cannot speak to at least one experience of struggle with this disease first hand or with a loved one? Still, like the unspoken cloud of fear and shame that hovered over cancer not so long ago, secrecy remains sacrosanct by the very groups offering up hope and successful stories of sobriety. I agree with Sheff that it’s time to open up, let the light in and reject, to rail against the stigma. Perhaps fewer will then end like my husband — never finding a way out.

We Did It

Children fidgeted on the miniature furniture, a few strained against their parents’ grip, trying to make a dash for the door. Many wept on that first day of kindergarten. Not my daughter. Her perky-pigtails pointy straight up like two exclamation marks over her bright eyes, she comforted her new classmates. Unlike these timid ones, she wanted me to leave so she could get on with this new chapter of her life. Without me. Already, she was in command of the situation, sure of how she might fit in, ready to lead the way.

I was the one who wavered, lingering at the door not quite ready to separate. She offered a quick hug and wet kiss and turned back to reassuring the inconsolable blond boy next to her. I walked down the long hallway and out of the school. In my gut, my aching gut, I knew that in some huge way, she was no longer mine. In my car, I put my forehead on my steering wheel and sobbed.

It wasn’t like this separation business was new to us – she was in full time daycare from the age of two. But kindergarten, her first day in mandated school, felt different. She became part of the education machine that would define her, arguably, in as fundamental a way as me. Bereft and with tears still flowing, I drove away from what would become, her beloved elementary school. Her world without me had begun.

Well, not quite. Waking her up, making breakfast, lunches, homework, studying, play-dates, violin lessons, plays, sports games, concerts — the requirements an endless list of juggling and challenges over the years. Still, I was a stage hand, providing the behind-the-scene assistance for the Molly show. And she was a star throughout the years.

Last week she graduated from high school. Her name in the program followed by real stars marking her achievement. I’m terribly proud of her of course, but I also feel a sense of accomplishment of my own that surprises me. While she is pretty self-motivated, I get to take a little credit, too, don’t I? After all, she might have turned out so differently.

She was only in second grade when her Dad and I told her the reason behind his erratic behavior and our terrible battles. Certainly, this was a young age to learn your father is struggling with drug addiction. Then, just a month shy of her 9th birthday, to know it killed him. After his suicide, Molly and I, with our precious dog, Tetley,  forged on with our fierce love, determined to seize joy.

We found that joy and more as our net of love expanded to friends and neighbors who became our family. Then, after a little more than a year, R joined us, bringing support, laughter and more love to our little house. These beloved ones, also get to share credit in steering Molly through this major stage of her life. She gets to move on now, sure of the support, laughter and love of all of us who stand behind her still. We did it — we grew a delightful child into a remarkable adult. And as usual, she is ready for the next stage.