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….

Ripping off the bandage.

bandaged heart


Our deep cut could not be stitched closed so it was gently covered in a heavy-duty bandage. We knew all along that one day the bandage would come off; that the wound would have to continue healing on its own without so much protection.  We didn’t know when that would be but when the moment came we closed our eyes, held our breath and just let it happen…

When the 2015 class graduated last year, while acutely aware that it meant Gus’ class had advanced to the 8th grade and would spend the next year anticipating new firsts as they experienced many lasts, we could not imagine what we’d feel when “it” (graduation) actually happened.  We assumed we’d experience it as just one more occasion that Gus would be absent from and in our ignorance blurted out that we wanted to host the graduation party when asked how we wished to be included that year.

Busy with work and the construction of a new garage for the latter part of 2015, around February we eyed the now fast approaching date as nothing more than a home improvement deadline. The graduation party had been the perfect excuse to finish those nagging projects and repaint and redecorate the interior of the house. It was not until we began to hear about the high school acceptances in late March and April, that the gravity of what was happening set in.   We suddenly realized that the class had been acting as a bandage. Gus was not really gone as long the class was together, their unity keeping him in the present. But as the day got closer, an image formed that threatened to crush our already heavily damaged hearts. We could visualize him standing among his friends in the green graduation cap and gown of his school, but when they turned to walk out into their futures, we saw him left behind at the altar like a jilted groom. Graduation meant Gus was the past, his only hope for a future in memory.

We began to fret that instead of the heartache of loss we’d grown used to feeling we’d be uncharacteristically bitter and angry.  Those emotions surfaced every once in while especially when happening upon pictures of his friends having fun together or engaging in school events Gus would have loved. We acted on those occasions batting the irrational feelings away by imagining that he might have not been there anyway – that he would have been with us someplace else. There could be no ignoring graduation however, and all the events that lead up to it; the graduation portraits, the final field trip, the Baccalaureate Mass and luncheon. Adding to our sense of anxiety was the knowledge that our offer to host that final class party had not been met with unanimous enthusiasm.  It broke our hearts to know that we had been the unwitting merchants of discord, however small and brief when class unity meant so much. We were tempted to pull out of the entire mess.  Why bother with any of it?  We decided to go on an emotional offensive, to thwart the burgeoning sense of grief with love and gratitude. At the insistence of the majority of the class, it was decided that the party would still be held at our house and while we were invited to various events we opted to limit our attendance to the graduation itself.

On June 3, 2016 we arrived at the church with our older sons and took our seats to the left of the altar.  Although it was not our intention to cast a pall over the happy occasion, we had requested a few moments to address the class. At the appointed time, Gus’ best friend spoke about their classmate, presented us with the class yearbook lovingly dedicated to him and yielded the podium.  As our sons distributed our gift to each student,  my husband and I stood before his class praying that we could make it through without tears and delivered our prepared speech. (2 016 Class Speech & gift pictured below )


While we did make it through with just a pause to collect ourselves, our tears flowed freely during a touching tribute to our son in their class video.  Then, when all the awards had been handed out and all the speeches concluded, the class stood as one for the last time and exited the church.  We sat there for a little longer surprised that we felt nothing but peace. The bandage had been ripped off and while the wound was still red and raw, it no longer needed to be covered. The wound was developing its own protection, it’s own path to healing because we had been wrong, Gus was not being left at the altar that day, little pieces of him were being carried off by his friends.

Two days later, on a clear June night, the class and their parents descended on our house.  Together we danced, laughed and celebrated their futures without tears or sadness. I am sure Gus was there because he was always the life of the party.







The sounds of my silence.

Quiet Me-2I have been silent even while my mind was not.  I refused to put pen to paper or rather fingers to keyboard until I could orchestrate the cacophony of thoughts and feelings into a symphony of happiness instead of the “emo” noise that seemed to be characterizing my posts. My goal in starting this blog was to talk about the many ways I am finding happiness in spite of the loss of my precious boy and yet looking back at some of my entries I feel I was beginning to sound pretty pathetic.  Yes, I miss Gus and think about him daily but I am happy, healthy, in love with my husband, in awe of my children, grateful for my extensive network of friends and family and just plain in love with my life. I’ve stopped worrying about the things I can’t control and focus on being open to the next adventure.

In the spirit of this refocused intent, I’ve decided to make a few changes.  First, I’ve changed the title from the “Upsides of grief” to “Live, Laugh, Love”.  There is a story about this title which I will share in my next post but for now it is enough to say that the new title best describes what I am all about – living life to its fullest, finding any and all opportunities to laugh and loving everyone like it is going out of style.

If I ever start to sound too sad please drop me a line and remind me to “smile” because Gus is fine.


Meditation – An Introduction


This is not me.  I do not sit crossed legged, hands gently posed in “gyan mudra” listening to myself breathe.  I don’t just struggle to meditate, I writhe, kick – internally judging myself and every thought I have until I forget what I was doing and give up exasperated.

I decided to turn to meditation as a way of quieting the movie that went off most nights as soon as my head hit the pillow.  It was a short film that began with me taking Gus to emergency a day after his last chemo and concluded with us watching him take his last breath and slip away from us.  Sometimes I was watching from up above, looking for alternate paths I might have taken.  Other times I was just reliving the entire day.

A few months after meeting with AJ Barrera (find out about our reading in Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Parts One-Four) I received an email from his office announcing a workshop to “meet your spirit guides” and develop “communication with other side”.  While I did not believe that I had the “gift” of mediumship (if that is a word), I was hoping to meet my “guides” to lead me to what I was supposed to do now that I was no longer required to shepherd my last child through high school.  So, I signed up, paid my fee and showed up on a sunny day in November to a hotel in West Covina.

I arrived early finding a few women already sprinkled around the room. I sat away from them in the center of a long empty table.  I doodled on a small yellow pad that had been left at each seat to avoid eye contact and any mutual judgement. Within a short time, the room filled and as it did I could overhear people swapping tales of communicating with the other side. I scoffed and then felt ill and panicky. All these women couldn’t have “abilities” could they?

At ten on the dot, AJ Barrera introduced himself and urged us to allow the “spirit” to connect with our inner beings.  The spirit he explained is always ready for us to be open to it.   “OK” I thought “I’m ready – communicate with me”.

AJ began the session with a guided meditation.

“You are walking down a staircase….” (Interesting, my staircase looks like the escalator at the Grove.  Wait! I am supposed to be on a stair case.  Well just stop the escalator.  Ok that is better).

“The staircase has lead you to a tunnel at the end of which you see light.” (You are doing good Cec, just keep following the tunnel. I know what kind of tunnel this is, the kind that opens up to a….)

“Beautiful valley” (football stadium! What? Did he say valley?  Great I am in the wrong place. Valley, valley, valley, what does a valley look like – Oh I know like Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Ok.  I am back in.)

“You see an animal there. It is your personal animal spirit. What is it?” (Oh this is exciting, what is my animal? Tiger? Lion? Bear? Is that a rabbit?  Are you kidding me? My spirit’s animal is a brown rabbit?  Ugh… that’s disappointing.  No! Don’t judge!  So its a rabbit – follow the rabbit.)

“You follow your animal through the valley, getting calmer and calmer, breathing deeply letting him lead you where?”  (I can’t be calm, the rabbit is hopping along.  It is annoying. Ok Cec just breathe. Let it go!  Go with it!  Am I at the football stadium again?  What is it with me and football stadiums.  Forget it – this is stupid.)  I kept my eyes closed but I was out – meditating was just too hard.

When the meditation was over (5 excruciatingly long minutes later) the exercises to increase our “spirit” communication commenced.

Exercise #1 – Cold reading.  In this exercise we were supposed to sit with another person and tell them whatever came into our minds.  Like the worst athlete on a school playground I was the last to find a mate.  Fortunately for me, my partner also did not believe she had any powers and was only there to accompany her two children who she was sure did.  Still we sat across from each other and while my mind was blank, she asked if the number 10 meant anything to me.  I said no but it did. (Gus was 10 when he died and his birthday was August 10th.) 

Exercise #2 – Reading what was inside a sealed envelope.  We were instructed to gather in a circle with our table mates and pass around an envelope that contained a picture of a person that we were told had passed on.  The women around me wrote furiously on their pads for one minute and then when directed shared the results.  I again had nothing but the women around me had consistently written, “male”, “older”, “curly hair”, “mustache”, “heavy set”.  I initially thought they had all lost their minds until the envelope was opened and not only did their description match but other tables matched the contents of their envelopes with even more specificity.  The table that blew my mind had accurately described an image of Michael Jackson down to his profession.  The “spirit” had even had the presence of mind to cause the envelope to find its way to the one girl who had an image of MJ tattooed on her arm that no one saw until the big reveal.  (Ok – maybe something IS going on here).

Exercise #3 – Blindfolded reading. AJ and his assistant removed a few volunteers from the room and asked the remaining people in the room to switch seats.  Everyone was then blindfolded and his volunteers lead back in the room. We were asked to raise our hands if anything that was said resonated with us.  A woman I could not see mentioned a child who’d passed over recently. I raised my hand and AJ told the woman who was blindfolded to continue.  She had nothing else.  (Getting kind of close).

Exercise #5 – Volunteer readings. What happened to exercise #4 you ask?  Well it was supposed to be a musical chair type of reading where two lines of chairs faced each other and we would move over a space after a two minutes of exchanging quick readings (like speed dating) but that exercise was quickly abandoned when it became obvious that the young lady with a broken ankle and currently sitting a wheel chair would not be able to move in any direction. (A huge relief to me knowing I had nothing to say)  Instead AJ decided to have a few volunteers attempt to communicate with whomever made their presence known.  The first volunteer talked about a farm, a male, passing over from a heart attack.  It seemed to make sense to a woman in the audience although it seemed kind of vague to me.  The second volunteer I seem to remember was better but what she specifically said has now escaped my memory because it was the third volunteer that touched me deeply.

A tall woman with a splash of pink in her hair was the final volunteer of the day.  She had been quiet all day but the pink in her hair or just her manner had caught my eye since early morning.  Whereas the rest of the volunteers had been coaxed and prodded to speak, she strode to the front of the room like a woman on a mission.  She turned before AJ could say anything and asked the room (looking straight at me) if anyone had lost a child to cancer.  It is boy she said, about eight or ten.  I nearly fainted.  Raising my hand, she looked at me and said that he had been with me the entire day. She said she had “seen” him next to me first with a bouquet of balloons during the chair exercise and then with only two balloons one pink and one blue that he was offering to her for me.  He is “fine” she said, using the word that I most closely associate with him as he always told me, “Mom, don’t cry I am fine”.  “He just wants you to know he is always with you” she said as I burst into tears.

I went home shaken but moved,  somewhat less skeptical and more open to finding the “magic”.  It is in life’s “magic” that Gus dwells, making himself known to me (us), through song, by his name or even his image (I will talk about this one next time). I am still not very good at meditating, but I’ve been trying nightly ever since. I recently purchased a guided meditation that promised to introduce me to my guardian angel.  The woman who speaks…in,,,a,,,halting…and…annoying…manner promised that when I was ready my guardian angel would identify him/herself.  The other night I clearly heard “Tommy”.  (Tommy? Really? First a rabbit now a Tommy?) I highly doubt that my guardian angel’s name is Tommy but what was curious is that I have always been told that I do have a male guardian angel – so why not.  I am also not sure that I am closer to finding an answer to “what now” but I can tell you that the movie plays less frequently now. Sometimes it is even replaced with the physical sense that Gus has slipped into my bed and is resting comfortably in my arms.

50 Shades of Red


A few weeks ago middle son informed us that he was “going away” for Valentine’s weekend with his girlfriend of more than a year.  As a consummate planner, I appreciated the heads up so that I could get him his traditional valentine’s gift before he left.  Last week, I dropped in on SEES’ candy between errands and bought my boys the traditional small box of candies, a tiny gesture of my affection that I hope is obvious to them every day of the year.

In truth, I don’t like Valentine’s Day, it implies a certain kind of giddy, silly love I don’t particularly care for.  Love to me is serious, profound, and always life altering.  Notice that the color of love is red, its shape a heart, its flower a red rose.  Red is also the color of stop signs, blood and fire; the heart is the singular most important organ in our body and the rose is as prickly as it is beautiful. Love to me is present in the smallest actions; in the cheerful manner we greet each day, the gratitude with which we do our jobs, the enthusiasm with which we listen to each other’s stories, the attention we give to each other and the space that surrounds us.  Words and gifts to me are meaningless if not accompanied by the daily actions that make the sentiment irrefutable.  The “intention” to love is not enough, there is no lasting evidence of “intent” but the smallest daily action will stamp love all over your heart and soul forever.

Gus was in the habit of leaving notes for us everywhere. I love you dad is scribbled on an orange metal bucket he had in his room and on a piece of foil that was once used for now indeterminate purposes.  Sometimes, when we came to bed, we’d find a note on our pillow filled with his love and gratitude for all we did. Upon arriving from work daily, he’d ask me how my day had been and then sit with me while I made dinner. He attached himself to his brothers as though he was another appendage, draping a leg over each of them as he sat between them in the car or on the couch. Gus’ ten years were packed with so many little gestures that spoke of a love so strong we can all still feel it even in his absence.


I did not buy my boys (men) cards this year because when my office moved to another floor late last year I remembered seeing Valentine’s Cards that I had bought one year as I was likely planning for the next.  It broke my heart to pull them out yesterday as I prepared to write the notes that would accompany their candy, I discovered that I had bought them when I still had three boys living not just two.


My notes and candies were left on the hutch yesterday so that middle son could take it on his trip, just in case we did not see older son over the weekend and for my husband just to be fair.  I don’t wonder if I will receive anything in return because evidence of their love for me is everywhere.  Older son dusted the family room the other day, middle son did the dishes and husband works tirelessly never forgetting to squeeze my hand when he finally ambles into bed long after I’ve been nestled in.  I don’t need 50 Shades of Grey when I have 50 shades of Red.

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!