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….

A Happy Foo Fighter Birthday

Happy Birthday Dave Grohl from me, the family and my angel!  As I mentioned in my previous post, the Foo Fighters are my husband’s favorite band on par with Metallica, perhaps they are his most favorite band now.  As a result, our boys have grown up listening to, singing and now playing (second son fancies himself the future Dave Grohl playing the drums and guitar) their songs.  I cannot say I have been a “fan”.  I liked all of their songs just fine, they were catchy and the words I could understand (when he was not screaming) seemed kind of nice but since I’ve never thought of constantly nodding as a particularly good dance move, I never paid close attention … until after Gus passed away.

Even now when I listen to “The Best of You” it is Gus’ voice I hear belting out “Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you” but it was only recently that I heard this verse.

“Has someone taken your faith?
Its real, the pain you feel
The life, the love you’d die to heal
The hope that starts the broken hearts
You trust, you must

And although I included the following two Foo Fighter songs in Gus’ memorial video, I had never paid close enough attention to hear this verse from “My Hero”

“Too alarming now to talk about
Take your pictures down and shake it out
Truth or consequence, say it aloud
Use that evidence, race it around
There goes my hero
Watch him as he goes
There goes my hero
He’s ordinary”
or this one from “Times like these”
“I am a new day rising
I’m a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight
I am a little divided
Do I stay or run away
And leave it all behind?
It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again
It’s times like these you learn to love again
It’s times like these time and time again”
Over the weekend we attended the Foo Fighter concert, I am convinced Gus wanted me to hear about as a birthday gift to his dad and I watched in amazement as people of all ages, cultures and walks of life congregated to listen to them play.
What a true gift to bring so many people together and fill them with such joy.
For you Gus…. Our Hero

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.

Dia De Los Muertos

Dia de los muertos 2I have long thought that it is a miracle that the vast majority of us are born perfectly fine and live well into old age.  Somehow billions of cells (I have no clue how many cells are actually in the body but it seems like a lot) combine to form perfect human beings with the correct amount of toes, fingers, eyes, ears and limbs that usually function pretty well for an amount of time that defies explanation.  How does a nose not wind up in the middle of your body or an ear on your elbow?  Why can one person who smokes like a chimney live and die of old age while another person who never smoked die of lung cancer? I am grateful for the eight additional years we got with Gus by the efforts of those who fight to cure cancer but I often wonder if we don’t struggle too much to hold on to our youthful lives as though continued medical intervention and making our faces and bodies appear young will somehow fool death into passing us by. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t welcome death, it is tragic and painful but only for those of us left behind, the souls of our departed are in the spirit world without pain or worry.

The Dia de Los Muertos is not intended to be a somber reminder of loss but an affirmation of the cycle of life so we can live it with more meaning and awareness. Elaborate altars are built for our departed in their memory and to lure them back to us with offerings of their favorite food and drink in deference to a belief that the soul lives on after death. Since Gus’ passing I have adopted this tradition in earnest, building an elaborate altar which is up from the beginning of October to November 2nd and hosting an ever growing party at which our family and friends add pictures of their loved ones to our altar.  The result is that although Gus is still the main star, he is now surrounded by many angels. I am profoundly grateful for this tradition as it has become a wonderful way to give thanks to our friends and family for their support and share the joy of life as we remember all of our loved ones together.

My grandfather loved the following poem by Amado Nervo. He would recite it at the top of his lungs at family parties when I was young.

“At Peace” 

Very near my sunset, I bless you, Life because you never gave me neither unfilled hope nor unfair work, nor undeserved sorrow. Because I see at the end of my rough way that I was the architect of my own destiny and if I extracted the sweetness or the bitterness of things it was because I put the sweetness or the bitterness in them when I planted rose bushes I always harvested roses Certainly, winter is going to follow my youth But you didn’t tell me that May was eternal I found without a doubt long my nights of pain But you didn’t promise me only good nights And in exchange I had some peaceful ones I loved, I was loved, the sun caressed my face Life, you owe me nothing, Life, we are at peace!

May we all find peace in and with our lives…








Gus you are forever the source of my joy!

In My Place – A Mammoth Forgotten

Gus passed away in the early hours of a Sunday towards the end of June.  At first we went home and tried to sleep. Then we tried sitting at my parent’s house only to find ourselves staring at the walls. Then we realized it was only 9:30 in the morning and we could make it to Mass.  So we did.  That is what I remember concretely.

Then I, who’d just a year before rejoiced that he’d been in remission for eight wonderful years, retreated to a place within myself and went quiet.  In my place was a strange woman able to evaluate choices, make decisions, sign papers and even produce a memorial video with music. What a fraud. Who was that woman pretending to be me?  She accomodated those that wanted him cremated as a final act of revenge on the body that failed him so miserably; those that wanted him buried quickly so as to not prolong the torture and those that needed to celebrate his short life.  I could not have done those things.  I was in shock…numb.  I had been deceived by a medical team who failed to predict this terrible turn and a God that dangled his “cure” in my face just to pull it away. I was not there.

She did pick a beautiful urn, I noticed.  A rectangular stone box with the sillhouette of a what looked like a little boy dancing who then transformed into a bird and flew away.  Although the precise niche she picked was hurtful.  Didn’t she know that I made the arrangements to place the Jesus statue on that niche base? And then installed the skylight over it to protect it? That is what I DO at the Archdiocese.  Gus would have thought it was funny though, to be placed there behind Jesus so he could tug on his robe.  Then, just a week after racing his dad across the parking lot of that hospital who swore he’d be cured if he was in remission for five years, the woman picked up Gus’ urn from a sun flower laden table at the conclusion of the private family service. Cradling him in her arms, she processed across the parking lot into the vibrantly lit atrium and gently laid him in his niche with the promise that one day he’d be flanked by his parents and grandparents in eternity.  I do praise her for leaving his favorite X-Box controller in the niche with him so he’d have something to play with and the signed pictures of the family so he’d remember us.  Is one even allowed to put extra things in niches?

A few days later, during the standing room only public memorial mass, a friend offered my family their house in Mammoth for a few days and this woman accepted.  She, my husband, my two older sons and even the girlfriend (I would have never allowed that) climbed in the car, the same car where Gus dropped a nickle in the front passanger window that still rolls around to this day and drove eight or so hours north.  The pictures suggest that she walked in the woods, had a decent meal and may have even followed the car’s GPS through a mistaken but memorable trek through clearly un-driveable areas amongst the trees in search of some ever-elusive craters.  I was glad that I was not there because I would have noticed that it was summer and that all the vacationers seemed to be families with ten year old boys.  I would have been offended that the girlfriend sat where Gus would have been sitting.  I would have noticed their return from the Mammoth trip was on a Sunday.