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!


This Lent let there be steak!


The Los Angeles Archbishop announced last Friday that in accordance with Canon Law he was granting a dispensation from the obligation to abstain from meat for St. Patrick’s Day because it happens to land on a Friday this year.  It seemed like the Universe was providing me proof that the rules are so arbitrary that I was right in deciding to let myself off the hook once and for all and stop feeling guilty for failing to faithfully observe the many (or any) religious rules and obligations .

While I’ve never questioned the existence of God, the structure and beauty of the world evidence enough of a remarkable creator at work, my faith has been at odds with the tenets of my religion since I can remember.  The internal battle between religion and faith began early. In second grade, I rejected confession as a humiliating and unnecessary experience because the surly overweight priest who clearly did not like children threw me out of the confessional for fumbling through one of the prayers.  In the fifth grade, I rejected some forms of prayer and most of the Baltimore Catechism because I did not think prayer should be physically painful (kneeling during the rosary) and because I thought it was a complete lie that God would send a baby to purgatory simply because it had died without getting baptized.  When I divorced my abusive husband in my early twenties, I refused to get the marriage annulled because it seemed ridiculous to attempt to get my horrible ex-husband to cooperate in a process to determine whose “intention” fell short of the requirements for a “Catholic” marriage. Finally, while I really did try going to mass most Sundays (mostly out of fear of divine retaliation), the time spent in a cold church staring at a crucified man while contemplating how I’d failed as a person, how miserable my life might be, how I should refrain from asking God for anything but obedience and how much I could look forward to in death left me feeling frustrated, sad and uninspired.

When Gus was first diagnosed with cancer, I worried that God had finally judged my lack of religious discipline and was punishing me. Adding to my anxiety was that well-meaning people said things like, “God doesn’t give you things you can’t handle”. Did this mean that God thought I was strong enough to handle a child with cancer and/or that I could have avoided the struggle if had I been weaker?  Or, “Everything happens for a reason” What possible reason could there be for a two-year old to have cancer?  I became resentful and easily irritated when people gushed over how “blessed” they were when things were going well but did not decry that they were “cursed” when things were going poorly. Shouldn’t God get blamed for the bad as easily as we gave Him credit for the good?  The more I questioned, the more I felt guilty. The more guilt I felt the more I tried to cling to my religion finding yet more questions and even fewer answers. Somewhere along the way I discovered Harold Kushner’s book, The Lord is My Shepherd and whether it was the intended message or not, it helped renew my belief in a good God that did not give cancer and therefore did not take it away but rather held your hand during the process.

For the eight years that Gus remained cancer free I was primarily concerned with making the most of each moment for the simple reason that I wanted to be happy knowing that sadness had a way of sneaking up when least expected. In ceasing to concern myself with my religion however, I accidentally stopped listening for God completely. In late August 2011, I was at a retreat for an organization I volunteered for when the presenter began talking about Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd and remarkably Kushner’s book. It was my Mexican mysticism more than my Catholicism that caused me to pay attention.  It seemed clear that it was more than a coincidence that a book I hadn’t thought about since the first time Gus was sick should come up just when we were waiting for results of an MRI to determine why Gus’ legs had been hurting although no one including his oncologist believed the cancer had returned. I knew immediately that God was trying to get my attention because he had news about Gus and it was not good.

I always thought that God’s message to me that day was purely in preparation for Gus’ loss but I have since reached a different conclusion.  God was training me to listen more carefully so that I could find Gus when he was gone. Perhaps it is because I am so intent on looking for Gus, finding him everywhere we go, that I see God (whom I now call the Universe) so easily.  I am more aware than ever that the Universe has always been good to me and that my life is what I intend even as I miss Gus everyday.

In December, I found myself attending mass for the first time in over a year.  It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the mass was being celebrated on a school campus that includes an elementary and a high school.  Being familiar with that priest’s affable nature I allowed myself to listen to the sermon that day.  Surrounded by six to eighteen year-olds he talked of Mary’s courageous choice to accept God’s plan for her and dared the children to be open. I was congratulating him mentally for the positive message when he added “but when you follow Jesus be prepared to be tested and be prepared for pain.” Who in their right mind would say yes to that?

I am aware that Pope Francis is trying to change the church to be more inclusive and forgiving and less rule-centric (perhaps).  I concede that I may have a child’s understanding of the Catholic religion having failed to read the bible and the writings of various saints. I accept that there are some wonderfully positive messages within church teachings and amazing priests that deliver them but my point is that a relationship with God should not require a degree in Theology or hunting across the globe for that one great priest saying that one great mass.  I like tradition and ritual but do we not deprive ourselves enough of good sense to add giving up irrelevant food items during Lent?  This Lent I return all doubt, pain and guilt as it serves no purpose.  No longer will I deprive myself of the simple pleasures in life just because the church says so.  This Lent let there be steak….


My Favorite Day

img_42891In spite of the persistent ache of another Christmas & New Year without Gus, I eased into this past holiday season intent on being “present” instead of rushing through it and skipping town as soon as Christmas Day was over.   I sprinkled the house with all of the holiday decor I had not given away and even resolved to watch some of my favorite Christmas movies as I’d always done.  I watched two from my holiday collection, It’s a Wonderful Life – my best-loved “be grateful’ flick and The Polar Express, a bittersweet reminder of my absolute favorite day.

When we set out that sunny and crisp Saturday in early December, (December 4, 2004 to be exact) I had no idea the day would come to overshadow our wedding, giving birth to my children or any of the other days I previously thought to be among my best moments.  It was one of the first “free” Saturdays after a very long physically and emotionally exhausting year of intense rounds of chemotherapy, operations, a stem cell transplant, radiation and seemingly interminable hours at the hospital and cancer center. If I were a reasonable person I would have stayed home, let everyone take a nap, especially our baby who had just been through hell but I am not and was therefore itching to make a good memory; to do something “normal”.  After brunch, the five of us headed to Griffith Park so that Gus could ride a pony like his brothers had done when they were small. I am sure that being only three, Gus had never expressed an interest in seeing much less riding a pony but I had the sense it was something he just had to do.  After he’d ridden the ponies we turned our attention to the mini-train a short distance away.  We did not mind that it was almost too small for the rest of us or that it went in a giant circle to nowhere as we climbed aboard. When I was sufficiently satisfied that maximum fun had been reached at the park we took a leisurely drive to the movie theater to watch The Polar Express.  It was one of Gus’ first times at the movies and he was transfixed by the music and larger than life characters on the giant screen. We ended our day with a belly full of pizza and smiles on our faces.

There is no question that I packed so much into a single day to somehow make up for the year of torture his little body had endured and although we’d go to the movies many more times after and have even greater adventures in the following years, I’ve often wondered what it was that made that day so unforgettable to me.  As I watched the movie this year allowing myself to be fully immersed in the memory, I finally realized what it was – freedom.  On that day so soon after finishing treatment but still too early to know if his remission would hold I had no choice but to exist somewhere between fear and hope.  It was obvious that if I gave in to fear I’d be paralyzed but could just as easily be crippled if I gave in to hope.  It was liberating to recognize that there was no one to blame for Gus’ illness; it had not been caused by a poor lifestyle choice nor was it a consequence of neglect, accident or evil intention; and since I was unwilling to believe it was some kind of divine test of faith, I easily relieved myself of the responsibility of trying to figure out what demonstrations of faith were necessary to cure him. I was struck by the idea that I’d been witnessing a miracle my whole life without knowing it. What an amazing feat that cells knew when to become a nose, a mouth, a finger or a tree! The miracle was that everything didn’t go wrong more often than it did.  I suppose I adopted the “life is too short” philosophy that day. The guiding principle that has challenged me everyday since to say yes to every opportunity and to find the happiness in each moment knowing that tomorrow is not guaranteed.  While I must admit that at times it has been difficult to sustain this new-found perspective,  I’ve been most surprised to discover that it is then that my faith takes over. It turns out that I never needed to find much less prove my faith in the universe (God) as it has always been there just below the surface like an electric current waiting for me to plug-in and keep witnessing the magic.  Gus, I miss you terribly, know that I can’t wait to see you again because I got your hot chocolate!


Hot! Hot!
Ooh, we got it!
Hot! Hot!
Hey, we got it!
Hot! Hot!
Say, we got it!
Hot chocolate!

(From Gus’ favorite scene in The Polar Express)

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….

Answering the world’s most difficult question.

confusion2Many years ago, I read a book by Dennis Prager entitled “Happiness Is A Serious Problem” It asserted that we had a “moral obligation” to be happy or at least not to impose our pain, foul moods, or complaints on others. It counseled to be happy until something made you sad instead of waiting for something to make you happy. Happiness, it warned, required hard work.

I used to think I was a pretty good practitioner of happiness. I “worked hard” to be grateful, hopeful, and positive in the face of all the adversity that came crashing into our lives in the hope of keeping “unhappiness” at bay. Even now, when nestled in the cocoon of family and friends, I thought I could successfully maintain my attitude through an unspoken code imbued with understanding and encouragement. When asked “How are you?” I assumed it meant “How are you (under the circumstances)” and when I responded “Great”, I trusted they knew it meant “Great (considering)”.  I had no fear of burdening my family and friends with my pain because they had witnessed it.

Meeting new people however, made me panic.  My heart would start beating rapidly, my hands got clammy, perspiration ran down my neck and back.  I begged the universe to withhold the question but there was no way of avoiding it.  At some point I was asked the most difficult question in the world. The only question with the power to force me to betray my obligation to be happy and make me impose my pain on others. That question – how many children do you have?

At first, I was careful to avoid the subject of children all together by focusing on career and travel, but it made me feel shallow to avoid talking about their children in an effort to mask what had happened to mine. Then, I pretended I was being called away – “oh look my husband needs me” – it was dismissive and rude – not me. I attempted limiting the conversation to the two older ones but that left me feeling like Peter denying Christ.  In my last foray into this awful question, I blamed the questioner “Well, since you’ve asked, I had three boys, two living”  I thought it was a fine answer until I noticed the hesitation on their face. My answer had generated another question, “How did he die?”  It was not something they asked, but I could sense their curiosity, children don’t just die, something happens. I reluctantly added he had cancer and steered the conversation away from the sadness as tears threatened to burst forward.  I was secretly congratulating myself for handling the matter well when I began to fret about something else – had I been smiling when I spoke of my loss?

I understand now that I was momentarily paralyzed by what I believed to be mutually exclusive positions. While I did not want to impose my pain, I also did not want to judged as being “too happy”.   The fact is that I am too happy and too sad at the same time. I am the happiest I’ve ever been because I am finally learning what it is like to live free of fear and I am the saddest I’ve ever been because my greatest fear came true. I had lost friends and acquaintances my age in childhood and prayed never to experience the pain of those parents. I worried about my kids, most often worrying that I wasn’t worried enough. When the unthinkable happened to me, I woke up the following day and took a breath, then a step followed by another. One day I found myself smiling, then laughing. I realized that although I had every reason to be unhappy, sad, angry and bitter, happiness was possible – I simply had to choose it.  What I never expected is that the choice would have its own reward, evidence of Gus’ presence and unstoppable love.

We do have a moral obligation to be happy but not for others – for ourselves.  Others benefit from our happiness sure, but in the end they must also make the choice.  The next time someone asks me the most difficult question in the world – I think I will answer – “I have three wonderful boys, one of them is an angel”.