Dialing up some courage


Among my favorite movies of all time is the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.  Of all the characters in the story I’ve always understood the Cowardly Lion the best. Despite being told that I was courageous for going into architecture without knowing how to draft, completing college as a single parent or not losing my mind after Gus’ passing, in my heart I’ve always felt like a coward.  It never occurred to me that any of these accomplishments required any courage on my part; I was sure I could figure out how to draw lines; being in a bad marriage seemed a waste of my time and I had no choice but to accept Gus’ loss.  To me courage meant only one thing – facing my greatest fear – insecurity.

For most of my life I tended to shy away from anything that made me feel vulnerable. While I can be perceived as a loud mouth, I don’t like speaking in public.  Expressing my opinions makes me anxious because I am afraid of being disliked.  I refrain from asking for help because I don’t like to feel indebted and above all I hate to be dependent on anyone for anything including my husband.

I always balked at the idea that losing one’s child is somehow different from losing one’s parent, spouse, sibling or friend. I maintained that a loss was a loss.  It occurs to me now that I was likely saying this to remove attention from myself and the implied sense of awe that I was surviving our loss.  Losing one’s child is different however, not just because it defies a sense of the natural order of life but because it exposes the limits of our ability to perform the most basic duty of parenting – protecting our children.  We work so hard to nurture and provide for them that it feels like the universe’s greatest betrayal to snatch them away from us in ways that seem unconscionable.  The only blessing in this kind of grief is that it makes all other fears appear small and insignificant.

In the last five years, I’ve been chipping away at my insecurities one by one.  I’ve spoken in public on a few occasions; expressed my thoughts on politics and church law, and allowed myself to be helped by my family and friends.  This year it was time to tackle my biggest fear yet – allowing myself to become dependent on my wonderful husband.

For the last twenty-two years I have been a full-time employee at the same place.  While I’ve enjoyed the work, there were many times I considered quitting to be a full-time mom but did not because I was terrified of being fully dependent on my husband.  What if the economy turned? What if despite all evidence to the contrary he suddenly decided not to work? What if we didn’t work out?  What if we didn’t save enough for college?  The “what ifs” were interminable not to mention that it was empowering to contribute to our household finances. It must seem counter intuitive to change my working conditions now that I have no children to look after but this is no longer about being an at home mom – that ship sailed long ago.  This is another step (if not the final one) in learning to let go – to trust that my husband and by extension the universe will always take care of me.  So as of this week I am no longer a full time employee….. I am part-time.  WHAT? I said I was a coward…..but I am starting to get better.  LIVE – LAUGH – LOVE!


What do you do on the 4th anniversary of your son’s passing? You get a tattoo.

smiling but not happyDo not be fooled by my cheery disposition or attempts at connecting with the universe through positive talk and action, at the core I am damaged beyond repair.  I run out of the room silently cursing under my breath during childhood cancer awareness commercials in May – yes thank you I am very aware;  I blink back tears when asked if I want to donate to St. Jude’s research hospital anywhere I shop during the month of November – of course yes just add it to my bill; and I turn on the radio and pretend to sing along when my brain wants to replay Gus’ last twenty-four hours on the anniversary of his passing in June. Every single day I am at odds with myself, one side going about her business in a state of peaceful acceptance the other saying over and over again that the happiness is false, a tenuous coping mechanism at best that will eventually crumble – just you wait and see.  I loathe this persistent emotional conflict, it has turned me into what I never wanted to be – sentimental.

I had a single fictional hero growing up – Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. I wished more than anything to be like him – calm, rational, logical.  Unfortunately, I was born with a heightened sense of justice that was easily offended not just for myself but for everyone else making me quick to rant and rave about unfairness and inequality.  The only way I thought I could make myself more “Spock Like” was to avoid becoming overly emotional about certain aspects of my life.  I promised myself that no one would ever break my heart, that I would never regret a single thing I did and that I would always barrel forward much like a bull in a china shop – heartache, remorse and nostalgia were all illogical. If a romance dissolved, even when that was my first marriage, it was my pride that suffered not my heart.  I acknowledged my actions impassively and barreled forward without looking back, my mind always on the next goal. Even when my first two sons were infants I was already preparing for them to leave me and then when I married my best friend and saint of a man, I kept some distance in case it was for “now” and not “happily ever after”. Gus changed everything, he wrapped himself around my heart so tightly that his passing broke it, my helplessness during his illness filled me with regret and I can’t help but long for days past.

Terrifying illnesses and injuries alter our bodies, leaving scars that announce to the world that we’re survivors, that we’ve gone to the brink of the abyss and come back to tell the story.  The most poignant struggle of my life however, would leave no visible trace, nothing to show that I have kept moving even though my feet are encased in concrete.  I knew I needed to get a tattoo, it would be my mark of survival, but of what and where? Earlier this year my husband was doodling on a pad when it came to him, he drew a heart with Gus’ name within it like lightning bolts, it was perfect.

Gus TattooOn June 24th, after that day’s yearly routine of early morning mass, visiting Gus’ niche and breakfast we drove to Broken Art Tattoo in Silverlake, a place my sister suggested if only because it sounded like “broken heart”.  I was nervous, unsure if it would hurt too much or just turn out badly. After sizing it on the inside of my left wrist and selecting the colors, the inking began.  I could feel the tiny little stabs as my tattoo artist (I now had one) traced around the heart and Gus’ name but it did not hurt and when it was done I realized it was better than I could have ever imagined.  There is a comic book quality to the colors and shading that remind me of the emblem of a superhero (Gus), the bottom tip of the heart points to the main artery that goes to my heart and having placed it on the inside of wrist gives me the ability to either conceal it or flash it – like Spider-Man throwing his web or Wonder Woman blocking bullets. It is at once irrational and overly emotional, much more like Jim Kirk’s approach to a crisis than Mr. Spock’s. I suspect this was part of Gus’ mission, to force me to narrow the distance between myself and those I love. Is there space for me to still channel Mr. Spock?  I certainly hope so, until I find out may you – LIVE LONG & PROSPER….

Grateful for happiness?

Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving was at our house this year and in a sense it was the most relaxing one yet.  This is the first year I wasn’t stressed about making the turkey since taking over that duty from my mom, more than a decade ago.  My sister and I have tried to make it a bunch of different ways but slathering a mixture of butter and herbs de Provence between the skin and the meat makes the juiciest most delicious turkey so we stick with that recipe.  My broccoli gratin was made in advance and the rest was potluck so while twenty-eight of us would gather around the table this year, I spent the day taking a walk, watching football and generally just waiting for the turkey to be done.

Thanksgiving day was warm, sunny and stunningly beautiful.  My California sycamore seemed to glisten in the sun even as the leaves dropped gently to the ground.  It was the kind of day Gus would have been running around the yard, kicking at leaves, agonizing over how long much longer he’d have to wait to dive into the turkey.  I imagined his legs, which would have been by longer now, draped over the end of the couch as we watched the football games or episodes of Twilight Zone. I imagined I would have been trying to capture the family Christmas card picture while none of the boys cooperated. I willed myself not to cry.

Each year, before sitting for dinner, we go around the room taking turns expressing something for which we are most grateful for that year.  Over the years, this tradition has taken on a life of its own as I imagine all traditions do and going around the room has been taking longer and longer because everyone seems to want to make a speech.  I decided I would limit everyone to a single word this year.  To make sure we were all listening to each other, I would ask that each person first say the word just said by the person next to them before adding their own and that we try not to repeat any sentiment or object of our gratitude already expressed.  It would be a wonderful exercise in listening and being concise.

As the time neared for me to start off our expressions of gratitude I wondered what feeling or thing I would choose and if I could mean it. Grief can be unpredictable and devious and so while I thought I had somehow learned to co-exist with it, it has turned around and poked at me with much more ferocity than I expected this year.  I have been missing Gus terribly this holiday season. I feel constantly sad and on the verge of tears most days. Another holiday without him, another year gone by. I reminded myself that Gus would not want me to be sad or make others sad and so when it was time, I slapped a smile across my face and gathered everyone around the table.  After thanking everyone for joining us again, I said I was grateful for happiness and I began to mean it.

Allowing happiness to enter into our midst has been as difficult as the loss itself.  Being happy seems wrong somehow as though it is an act of betrayal or a sign that we are “over it”.  There is no getting over your losses, I still miss my grandmother now deceased thirty years, I miss my grandfather, my mother-in-law and I can’t imagine ever not missing Gus but I have to make a choice. I can either to wallow in the sadness or bask in the sunlight of happiness.  I choose happiness because that is the best way to honor my baby boy who was always happy even when he was sick.  The truth is there is much to be happy about, lots of “upsides”.  I have great friends, an awesome family, a wonderful husband and two amazing, talented, funny older boys.  I have lost weight and feel great about myself.  I have extraordinary parking karma, finding a spot near where I need to go even when the lot is full. I have a job a like and I am taking a shot at doing what I always wanted to do – write. I am finally in a book club through which I was introduced to incredible books and authors. We have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel this year.  We skied in Utah, visited my sister in New York, cruised through the Panama Canal, partied in Vegas a couple of times and next week we will head to Seattle to watch the Seahawks take on the 49niners.  We must be happy because everywhere we go, Gus is with us. Our most recent and obvious encounter with him was when we stopped in Cabo San Lucas at end of our family cruise.  Of all the places we could have chosen to stop for breakfast we just happen to pick the one restaurant that is permeated by the image of a figure with outstretched hands in a sign of victory much like Gus’ memorial picture.  Thank you Gus for giving us happiness by your life on earth and from above in heaven.

Gus' memorial picture

Gus’ memorial picture

Gus image on chairs

Gus image on chairs

Gus image on base of sinks

Gus image on base of sinks

Gus image on the window outside.  Gus with his brothers again.

Gus image on the window outside. Gus with his brothers again.


The Scream - Edvard Munch

The Scream – Edvard Munch


No really (hahaha), No really (hahaha), No really (hahaha)

Tap-tap-tap,  Tap-tap-tap

Woohoo,  Woohoo, Woohoo,  Oe-Oe, Oe-Oe

I am being attacked by sound and no matter how much I tell myself that  “I am the one giving the sounds meaning” or to “breathe and just ignore them” I can’t help but feeling like the man in the painting.

I toil away at my computer in a cubicle within a pod of six cubicles on the sixth floor of a mid-rise in the middle of Los Angeles.  My station is at the corner of the southwest side of the building facing the window so that except for when the afternoon sun streaks directly towards me forcing me to close the shade, I enjoy an unobstructed view of the city.  I begin the day by practicing gratitude.  I am thankful to have a job, my view, my health, my family and for the the love I got from my little boy Gus.  For a few hours every morning I am in a place of peace and euphoria and then the rest of the office shows up.

Across the way, separated by a few black file cabinets sits a nice enough man who drinks coffee from a metal cup that he clinks on his desk all day.  In front of him sits a young girl who tap dances away the day; her feet tap, tap, tapping on the plastic mat under her chair.  AND, next to me is a woman who either has friends with extremely scandalous lives or is easily surprised as far as I can tell by how often she says “no really and then laughs”.  I accept that noise is part of the cubicle world and I am not troubled by most conversations or regular noises just these – they grate on me like nails on a chalkboard.

Having survived work, I drive furiously to the gym where I work out my grief trying to leave it and these petty annoyances behind in a pool of sweat.  That is unless “woohoo” girl shows up like she did last night. Then I am subjected to “woohoo” or “oe-oe” every few minutes for the hour spin class. I spent that hour yesterday fighting the urge to just get up and go, telling myself that “she” should not get to disrupt my workout. The question is, why am I so annoyed by these particular noises? Why did woohoo girl sit next to me in a room full of empty spin bikes? Why am I suddenly so bothered by noise?

The house was empty and dark when I got back from the gym last night and with my husband out of town and the older boys getting home much later I knew I had nothing but time to be alone in the silence.  I thought about what it would have been like if Gus was still around.  The two of us would have been together and while I made dinner, he might have been playing x-box in the living room.  From across the house I would have heard him “woohooing” at his kills on Call of Duty. Then, when I called him for dinner, his scooter would have “clinked” along as he rode it from the living room to the kitchen. While we ate, his feet would have been “tapping” under table as they so often had and we would have gotten into “no really” wars as we told each other about our day. I realized suddenly, why of all the noises in the world these in particular got to me – they all reminded me of Gus.  It is then that I understood what A Course in Miracles meant when it said that “you are never upset for the reason you think” , it was not the noise or the people I was upset at but the loss.

As a sit in my cubicle this morning, the noises have subsided or at least I am not as focused on them today now that I know what they mean. At the very least I don’t have the urge to put my hands on my face and yell “silence!”  At least not yet….

Twenty-four months

Gus - Where are you?

Gus – Where are you?

I’ve been contemplating the difference between months and years this past week, deciding that there is a certain infancy implied in “months” that is lost in “years”.  Consider a two-year old toddler, saying they are 24 months old still says “baby” even if that “baby” walks and talks.  So as the second anniversary of Gus’ passing neared, I decided it would not be two years since I last held him but a mere twenty-four months, since I last rubbed his feet and kissed his face. I would be slowing time this way, artificially shortening the distance between when he was last here and today.

As the day got closer, my husband worked later and later as much to keep up with work as to avoid coming home. He felt bad about this, apologizing constantly for leaving me “alone” but I was not hurt, I had my own distractions; like purging the house, reading, writing and exercising, anything to keep from having too much time to cry. Early yesterday morning, shortly after when Gus would have taken his last breath those many months before, a curious thing happened.  My husband came to bed late, about 1:30 am. He was tired but could not sleep, the weight of the next day starting to settle on him. I was asleep but restless, my dreams retracing the last twenty-four hours of his life trying to find the point where I might have saved him from his fate.  We sat up from our various places to the sound of footsteps, two feet were clearly making their way from the boy’s rooms towards ours, stopping just at the entrance to our room.  My sub-conscious mind called out “Gus!”, recalling the many years Gus had done that, walk from his room to our room stopping at the door to call to us before jumping into our bed. My mouth however, operated by my conscious mind that knew it could not be Gus, called out “Frankie?”, as unlikely as it was that we could not see a 6’1, 22 year-old man standing at our open door.  My husband scrambled for the light, hoping we wouldn’t find a stranger crawling into our room, instead finding our dog “Girl” staring at us with a look of sympathy and understanding.  Never mind that Girl knows better than to come upstairs and on the rare occasion that she does, her steps do not sound like feet.  They sound like paws with little nails click clacking on the wood floor, slip-sliding on the rug in the hallway.  We let her lay down next to our bed, knowing that Gus had brought her to comfort us.

We still cried at the mass we dedicated to him the following morning and as we placed flowers, a bag of his favorite hot cheetos and a snicker’s bar at his niche but the phantom steps of the night before stayed with us, assuring us that as the months turn to years he will always be with us.

Girl - Gus never got a chance to name her so she is just "Girl"

Girl – Gus never got a chance to name her so she is just “Girl” – by the way Girl stayed downstairs the following night.  

Gus did have a chance to meet her via phone.

But he did have a chance to meet her via phone.










Our Camino 2013 – March 28th – 30th

Gus was in “remission” Easter of 2012. We celebrated the promise of that “new beginning” with an Easter egg hunt that had the kids solving mathematical clues and riddles to get to the big prize, a money filled golden egg.  We took pictures of our three boys as usual, Gus there in the middle of his two much taller brothers, all smiles.  I took a tentative breath and thanked God for another miracle.  This time the miracle would not give us eight more years but just a few more months.  Soon he complained of leg pain again.  Soon he was back in chemo.  Soon he was gone.

We planned to start “Our Camino” on Easter of 2013 not only because we could not bear to be home but because we were in-fact starting anew.  Not all beginnings are happy and bright we’ve since discovered but they are beginnings nevertheless.  A beginning we chose to greet with a saddened smile but a smile still in his honor .  The following is a chronicle of our journey last year as originally posted privately to our closest family and friends (minus the grammatical and spelling errors).  I hope it helps someone.

WE ARE WALKING – March 28, 2013

In just a few hours we will embark on “Our Camino”.  We are likely over packed and under-prepared but excited and anxious.  Why walk?  After the year we’ve had why not just sit on a remote tropical island beach, staring off into the horizon sipping on fruity drinks? Because we can’t. In one of his first sermons after being elected Pope Francis said “Walking, our life is a journey and when we stop there is something wrong”.  So we will walk.  We will walk to try to move away from the pain of so much loss and towards the promise of our reunion.  We will walk to honor the physical challenges that Gus endured without complaint or bitterness.  We will walk to know that moving forward does  not mean leaving him behind.  We will walk because if we stop, we may never get up again.  How appropriate that our “Camino” begins Easter Sunday.






Gus & His Nana – Both lost to us in June of 2012




DSC_0130Gus & his Great-Grandfather Juan who followed him to heaven in February of 2013.





WAITING TO WALK – March 30, 2013

Funny thing to say “waiting to walk” but we are.  After almost twenty-five hours of planes and trains we arrived in Sarria (pronounced “sorry-uh”) early – very early Saturday morning. The train station, a smallish building that kind of looked like a house, was encased in fog just like in the movies.  We were surprised to discover we’d been traveling with a number of other “pilgrims” who immediately took off on their journey.  For a second we were a little embarrassed that our backpacks were inside the two enormous bags we dragged while they carried nothing more than their backpacks and that we were headed straight for our hotel while they hit the road after the long journey from Madrid. However, a quick whiff of myself got me over that bit of humiliation only to be replaced by the even bigger humiliation of just how loud two rolling bags can be over cobble stone streets.  We are happy to report however that we do not appear to have awoken anyone (at least no one yelled at us) and that we were immediately given our room despite arriving far too early for check-in (no doubt they got a whiff of us too).  We were able to take a nap, shower and eat before heading out to look around town and purchase our pilgrim shells.  We will commence walking tomorrow because we intend to start walking refreshed and looking good!