Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My Funny Valentine

Madeleine's angle for why we should move in together, was so that we could have time together after our dates when we weren't arguing. We would often start arguing on a date and not resolve the argument until long after, on a phone call. This was years before I learned the term "anxious-attachment style." It just seemed normal, romance between the daughter of an attorney and a woman headed to law school.

In the early days of reeling from losing Madeleine, in those months when it hurt to breathe, when I looked back on the issues we had just transformed in our marriage and those we were planning on working on next, what gave me peace was knowing how hard we had worked and how far we had come. We had earned credit with one another. We knew we were good for it.

The twenty years we had were a good start. We were partners living life at full speed when cancer crashed through everything. We wanted 40 years together. I think about the 20 years ahead of us we will never have. I have wondered how we would have worn those years, wondered if those years would have worn the clanking edges off of us.

And then I read the words of Isaac and Rosa Blum, who met in a war ghetto, survived the Nazi Holocaust, and lived to argue with one another for over 75 years:

“We have a different point of view, but somehow we’ve survived,” she said. “What keeps us together are the quarrels. That’s the cement of a marriage.”

“I love him in spite of all his defects,” she said. “It’s not so easy, but I wouldn’t change him for somebody else.”
Photo credit: Lea Clark, 2008

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Uphill Both Ways, and In The Snow (Love Will Come To You)

The woman who was once our marriage counselor is now my grief counselor. I recommend marriage counseling. May I give you a head start and confess that there is economy in those three short words, “You were right.” You win twice if you’re married to someone who says that to you, and you can refrain from saying, “I told you so.” 

On my way to grief counseling, the words to an Indigo Girls song I haven't heard in years were going through my head, and I sang them over and over as I drove uphill: 

And I wish her insight
To battle love's blindness
Strength from the milk of human kindness
A safe place for all
The pieces that scatter
Learn to pretend 
There's more 
Than love 
That matters…

I walked into the counseling office waiting room with Hannah, a dog I named after my wife's grandmother. Hannah walked up to a woman who welcomed her, and the woman told me she also had a dog named Hannah. Then we realized we knew each other - she had been Madeleine's hospice nurse. She nursed Madeleine in our home through her dying. She cared for us after Madeleine died. Now she pet Hannah and said, “how are you doing?” I looked around the counseling center’s waiting room. I thought about the horror of the months behind me, the comfort of my present moment, and the abyss ahead of me, and I said, “I’m getting counseling.” 

I was born under the sign of Cancer... (love will come to you)
Like brushing cloth, I smooth the wrinkles for an answer... (love will come)
And I'm always closing my eyes
And wishing I'm fine
(Even though I) Even though I'm not this time

That night I went to the wedding of my friend and his beloved. They had planned on a longer engagement but after this presidential election, they decided to get married before the political climate changes. So they stood in their freshly painted living room, surrounded by the love of family and friends, and gave their vows in their new home on top of a hill. 

The wide world spins and spits turmoil
And the nations toil for peace
The paws of fear upon your chest
Only love can soothe that beast...”

Madeleine and I had been married by our own vows and the blessings of our family and friends, four years after our first date and 15 years before it would be legally recognized in our home state. Our community had our back, and when one of us thought of walking out the door they got out ahead of us, too. She cared deeply about marriage and wanted our friends and family members to be married by someone who cared deeply about their marriage, so she became an officiant. She loved facilitating conversations about partnership and love, and I suspect she found something slightly subversive about being licensed to help so many people obtain legal recognition for their unions where we could not. I became a booking agent of sorts because with uncanny frequency people would spontaneously tell me they needed someone to officiate their marriage. We were good partners. 

Going to weddings without Madeleine hurts twice over. I miss the pleasure of seeing her joy, and I’m at a loss when she is not here to share my joy. My heart reaches for hers the way your foot might move forward for the next step on a staircase only to find the ground gone beneath you. So much of grief is turning to share something with her, and falling into the abyss.  

For two decades we magnified each other’s joy. One of our favorite ways to multiply joy was to bring people together with a comfort food potluck. We invited friends to bring their favorite comfort foods and friends. First we agreed to make the party an annual event, and then we argued over which date to set. Madeleine lobbied hard for the Saturday closest to Valentine’s day. I balked under the pretense that I believed people would rather be with their sweetheart somewhere romantic that weekend, but I let go of my position when I realized my primal motivation was a fear left over from childhood that I would throw a party and no one would come. 

Madeleine insisted that the right people always show up to the party. I let go of my unfounded certainty about the future and realized that we could throw our party on Valentine’s weekend and only then would we know what the turnout would be. The turnout was a home full of warm, happy, comforting people. Every year for over a decade we held the party on the weekend closest to Valentine’s day, and Madeleine never said, “I told you so.” 

She died in January 2015, after three heartbreaking months of intense and loving care. I had been getting by on tenacity and fumes, burning the candle at both ends with the ferocity of wanting to save her life, or clear the way for her and die with her. 

I did not want to survive her. 

After she died, I felt combustible. Our family was too spent to sit shiva. And so one month later her family and friends gently adapted our annual celebration of love and comfort into her first memorial on February 14, 2015.  

Our friend had met his sweetheart just the night before, on Feb. 13th, 2015. 

After their wedding ceremony, he invited me to step outside. We stood on the front porch of his new home and he told me that in February 2015, he had tickets to fly to some place sunny and warm, but he canceled his reservations and changed his plans to be at Madeleine's memorial. The night before her memorial he went to a bar, met a beautiful man, and fell in love in the falling February snow. He had pulled me aside to tell me that meeting the love of his life felt like a gift from Madeleine.

Madeleine, my love, wherever you are - you were right. 

...And my words are paper tigers
no match for the predator of pain inside her. 

And I say love will come to you
Hoping just because I spoke the words that they're true
As if I offered up a crystal ball to look through
Where there's now one there will be two.”

Note: Thank you to the grooms for permission to share a part of their story. Congratulations!

If you would like to help marginalized people find “A safe place for all/ The pieces that scatter,” please consider contributing to the support network formed by over 200 people in rural Indiana, Pennsylvania: http://welcomehomeindianapa.weebly.com/our-mission.html

You can also support the network by buying some of the (punk/ adult) art created by artist Darcy Trunzo, who initiated the network: https://www.etsy.com/shop/Snatchelorpad?ref=l2-shopheader-name

Monday, November 28, 2016

In Keeping

When my wife died of lung cancer, poems landed around me in the ruins like ashes after a forest fire.  

Raymond Carver’s last book, A New Path to the Waterfall, was rested gently against my door. 

He died of lung cancer, too. 

Her downturn was so sudden there were ways in which we never got to say goodbye, ways in which we never said, “thank you.” We broke a thousand times and I cared for the pieces while my wife as I knew her was gone to me and I fell in love with her again, again and again. 

I wanted to trade my life for hers. I failed. I never quit. 

I am the adult who wanted to care for her out of love for her and the child who wanted to get it right so she would never leave me, get grief right so she would come back. 

She lived her life according to her values, investing deeply in relationships in which she gave hundreds of people her undivided attention one massage appointment, one park walk, one art date, one phone call at a time, over decades. Her last chemo treatment was the beginning of the end. Nothing meant more to her than connecting with these people. Housebound in a western Pennsylvania winter. Neuropathic pain, cold-induced nausea, medicine induced hallucinations, a body that turned night into day and day into night. We put a visitation calendar where her massage appointment schedule used to be, and filled the book with appointments to visit.

One day she woke to find a friend in her room, and she came out to find me to complain about how weird it was to wake up to someone staring at her. 

One morning she woke in the early dark, the house empty, and she wailed, “I need something to feed my heart.” 

Friends come, and she is awake, and when they join her in our bed she relaxes into their presence and falls asleep. 

She switches back and forth between our marriage bed, and the bed she had set up in her favorite room in the house, the room in which she used to practice massage. When hospice sent the bed to the house, she had them put it in the massage room and she renamed it the day room. She loved to work while she watched the western light pour in through the window and blush across the wall as the sun set.

On the winter night she began to die, I hurried to text the friends who weren’t there, but could be. I missed one. I’m sorry. She died in her favorite room, filled with family and friends. I can’t go after her. I’m here in the ruins of the last gathering we hosted together. I was true to my word, in spirit and in keeping. I failed without quitting. I have this going forward, and I shine this as a beacon into the ethers, into the void. She is not coming back. 

I remember one beautiful summer morning years before, in Georgetown, as we walked in warm sunshine to have brunch at Cafe Napoleon. She said she thought I would lose her possibly another way, to Alzheimer’s. She thought she would lose me, failing to see me in plain sight. She said the only thing that stood in the way of her ending her own life in this event is that first she would want to say goodbye to me, but if she said goodbye to me then she knew I would stand in her way, but she couldn’t leave me without saying goodbye. So we stood in glorious sunshine on the sidewalk of Georgetown, stood facing one another, looked each other in the eyes. We said, “I love you.” We said, “Thank you.” We said goodbye. We held each other tightly there on the sidewalk in glorious sunshine. We kissed. We walked to brunch. 

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.” 

Friday, September 30, 2016

My Wife Died of Lung Cancer

I'm waiting for her to come home so I can go to bed.

Today I emptied the dishwasher, took the dogs to the park, went grocery shopping, did a load of laundry, took over the kitchen table to do a few hours of legal research for a friend. It could have been any day from 2010, 2011, 2012.

But this time of the year in 2014, we did not know that we were two weeks away from the chemo treatment that would cause neuralgia and the beginning of a quick end, a nightmare from mid-October to mid-January. And whether I'm awake or asleep I'm living that nightmare, except for the times I forget and I'm doing what I'm doing, waiting for her to come home.

This keeps being impossible.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

One of my elderly family members is in the hospital, so I go to his apartment to pick up more comfortable clothing. He lives in a Jewish-run assisted living center in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood. As I sign in at the front desk, I notice a woman who has passed the time where guessing her age would be polite. She is petite, less than five feet tall, with short white hair swept away from her face. She wears a denim jacket and talks to the woman at the front desk about how much she enjoyed having breakfast in the garden with her daughters. Arthritis has reshaped her hands and she wears no wedding ring. I didn't know there was a garden in the back yard. I live three hundred miles away from my mother. We had been talking on the phone at breakfast time about her plans to celebrate Mother's Day when I received a text message saying yes, thank you for your offer to bring things to the hospital, please pick up a blue tee shirt and a pair of his eyeglasses but not the ones from the 1970s. This woman, with her warm presence and sparkling intelligence, reminds me of my mother. 

We meet again at the elevator. I move past the three elderly gentlemen on board, to the back. She commands the front, asking each gentleman for his floor. There are three more floors and someone calls out for each of them. A man with a thick head of silver hair and the chiseled cheekbones of a model wears aviator classes. His hands are elegant, unturned by arthritis and perfectly manicured. If not for the way he leaned on a walker, I would expect him to fly our plane or pose for the Banana Republic catalog. He walks into the elevator last, and does not turn around to face the door - the walker is too bulky to maneuver in such a small space. 

We reach the second floor, and he pulls out backward, followed by the other men. She calls out after them, "Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow." 

They shuffle onward, and I wonder if they heard. 

The elevator doors close on her performance, and she turns to me and says, "No one ever knows the words of The Great Bard, Shakespeare." She has sized me up and deftly returns the conversation to her daughters' visit. I wish her a happy Mother's Day. She asks me if I am a mother, and in my pause she answers, "No." There is so much space between the second and third floor of this building. I pause a moment more and to meet her in this conversation I tell her, "I would like to be. I hope one day I get to adopt." 

The doors open.

Something shifts in her. She squares her shoulders. With a concise lift of her head she says, "That is very necessary." 

I am trying to make sense of the almost imperceptible shift in her, this woman who may have fled a place of pogroms, lived through a time of hiding, distributing, shipping children to safer shores. Or she might have lost one of her own children in the distribution of babies that flowed from our eastern seaboard during the early years of the Baby Boom. In the confines of polite conversation I have no way to turn these images around into appropriate questions. The moment has passed - ever agile, she is gone. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Looking, Leaping & Longing

Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky has a beautiful post about the encouragement given to a young girl as she crouched at the edge of the high dive. She walked down off the board, returned later to take the leap, and propelled herself off the board into the cold water below. (But you should still read the blog post - the writing is wonderful and I promise I haven't ruined the story.)
My father in law grew up playing stickball on the streets of New York City. Someone hit the ball onto an apartment building rooftop, and he went after it. He got as close as he could - the rooftop of the neighboring building. As he stood there, looking across the chasm between the rooftop he could climb and the rooftop that held the small rubber ball, so close yet out of reach, his friends shouted - JUMP! JUMP! You can make it in TWO JUMPS!   
The little boy had climbed, surveyed, considered the advice, and reconsidered his original plan. He came empty handed to his friends who had counted on him to retrieve the ball and save the game. I don't know if they played another game that day, but the history of stickball in New York suggests that eventually they found a new ball and played more games.
I'm glad for the little girl who listened to her gut, respected herself enough to back away from the edge, reconsider, return, and leap into blue skies and cold water. I'm glad for the little boy who thought better of advice given by people who couldn't see the flaw in their plan, glad that he didn't feel compelled to sacrifice himself in order to save face with his friends. 
Kudos to the people that cheered on the little girl, who shouted encouragement when they could have shouted anything - could have soured the opportunity with taunts or jeers, or left her alone with her fears in deafening silence. I tip my hat to those long-ago children who gave their best advice and welcomed back the little boy who didn't take it and came back empty handed. 
How many times do I say "tell me what to do to get this to work out" when what I really need is: tell me that I can come back empty handed and still be okay with you, remind me that I can still play with you. Help me turn down the howling wind of this fear so I can better listen to my gut, sort out my own mind, consider feedback and the options and not feel rushed to step back from the best and scariest vantage point here at this edge.  "Leap, and the net will appear."


I've had a Rumi quote taped first to my kitchen wall and then to my office wall for more years than I can remember: 

"Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

For years his words landed with me as a re-minder to have my prayers be my practices. I got the gratitude part, but I knew I was missing something. 

Tonight in a moment of otherwise unremarkable ceiling-gazing, the meaning of the quote slipped into focus. 

"Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
It has been easy for me to know what needs to be done - pay bills, fix squeaky wheels, answer emails, vote, feed the cats - but I have been dragging around this idea that there is Something Significant I am supposed to do with my life, to make my life worthwhile and to have my time on the planet amount to Something. Significant.

And I have been counting on some powerful feeling or sign from the Universe to tell me The Thing.

As if. As if there was only one big Something. And I would know what it is. And I have to do it, and when I do it my life will have Turned Out.

I've been trying to do The Right Thing for The Right Reasons in The Right Order and in Good Time.


There is so much love, so much that moves me, so much unruly potential. So much possible. 

I've just been worrying about getting it wrong, missing the window. Like that scene in I Love Lucy when Lucy and Ethel work at the chocolate factory. They set out to wrap individual pieces of chocolate candy in paper as they move down a conveyor belt, but the belt runs fast, their timing is off, they wind up shoving candy hand to mouth rather than let a piece slip by unwrapped - there's candy flying everywhere and it is mayhem.

Lucy says to Ethel, "I think we're fighting a losing game!"

Ethel can't say anything, because her mouth is full of chocolate. You couldn't hear her anyway, because the audience is laughing loudly at the spectacle of these women being overwhelmed by having so much chocolate in such a short span of time.

Sometimes life is like a box of chocolates, and those chocolates are flying past you faster than you can neatly wrap them for public consumption.

I want to work my best, side by side with people I am proud to call "friend," shove chocolates in my mouth, laugh with the glee of freedom, and marvel that there are so many opportunities that some slip by untouched. 

I am going to pursue what calls to me and watch the results shake out in their own good time, worry less about doing in the right order, the right time frame, or whether I get to do it all - because there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.