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.







A Christmas Miracle

DSC_0087I try to be used to it by now – Gus’ persistent absence, the silence, the ache but I am not and the pain still creeps up on me when I least expect it.  Most days, the daily routine blunts the sharp edges of his loss so I can’t dwell on it. I focus on being present and looking forward more times or at least as many times as I look back.   Lately, I had even been able to talk about him without welling up (so fast), but this holiday season was brutal and it took all of Gus’ angelic power to save Christmas.

This tale begins last January when in the midst of replacing our deteriorated driveway we decided to build the two story garage/office/recreation room we dreamed of when we bought our house nearly twenty years ago.  Despite my many years in construction, I allowed myself to plan for an unrealistic mid-fall completion. Cramming the contents of three storage sheds into two, as though it was a life-sized game of Tetris, I placed the holiday decor at the very back convinced the garage would be done well before I needed to get to them. Unfortunately, due to rules governing the “historic” zone in which we live, construction did not start until August and we would be lucky to be done by late January (so far so good).  Since it did not make much sense to empty the sheds in an effort to get a few trinkets out, I decided to forgo the “decorative” part of Christmas altogether.  What a mistake!

Thanksgiving weekend was spent pouring over construction budgets and completion schedules instead of swathing the house in holiday cheer while watching “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” as was my custom. Without a single thing pointing to the impending holiday except for the dying wreath I had picked up on a whim at Costco, all I could do was dwell on what I wouldn’t have this Christmas.  No twinkling lights, no tree, no million presents, no older boy (working), no middle boy (in Hawaii with his girlfriend) and especially no baby boy (even though he would have been fourteen). My house felt particularly empty and cold (no heating either).

Just days before Christmas, although we’d managed to find inspirational gifts for the nieces and nephews (“smile” socks and sweaters), my holiday “spirit” was still nowhere in sight. I attempted to focus on how organized I would be when the garage was finished but that only made me think about whether I should store all of Gus’ things or start giving them away. I was in the midst of considering getting stickers made to place in his books before donating them (see below) –

Fina1- Gus Logo Label

when the idea that I needed to ask my extremely busy husband to draw a picture of a hummingbird came to me. I had no specific reason for wanting it, I just felt I had to ask.

Sadness took over when I arrived home however, and I could do nothing but miss Gus. Four years had passed since our last Christmas morning together and it broke my heart that he’d only gotten to ride the bike he’d received that year once before passing on. By the time my husband got home, I was lying in a heap of misery watching Purple Rain, a poor holiday movie choice made worse by how terrible the movie actually is (why I loved it as a teenager is lost on my adult self). With eyes swollen from crying and nothing to say, I forgot about the drawing and went to bed.

Christmas Eve morning, I summoned a modicum of seasonal cheer by tossing a poinsettia here and there to make the house seem more festive. When my husband returned from work about mid-day, even before he could set the bundle he was carrying down, I requested my drawing. When he said nothing, I quickly added that he did not have to feel pressure to do it any time soon because it wasn’t urgent and I was aware of his load at work. Nodding in relief (or so I thought) he shuffled away while I got ready for the rest of the day which included visiting Gus’ niche, having lunch, and watching football games before heading off to Christmas mass and dinner.

The next morning – he gave me my present.


As it happens, the same day I’d been inspired to ask for the drawing, he’d been inspired to draw it. He was actually carrying it in his arms having just framed it when I made my request. There is no explanation other than we’d each heard Gus’ whisper, his way of letting us know that he is always with us.  Thanks you Gus for this Christmas miracle, it made an otherwise miserable day very special.




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.

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

Ghosts of Christmas Past & Future

Another Christmas without you.

Another Christmas without you.

Christmas is especially difficult after losing Gus. Whereas I once relished the season, sprinkling cinnamon scented cones throughout the house, cramming every nook and cranny with a Santa or some other kitschy decoration, and draping the house in garlands and lights, for the last three years I’ve approached  it as if I was ripping off a bandage from an open wound, quickly while holding my breath.

This year more than ever I felt like a Christmas spectator than a participant; as though I was out on a cold, damp, dim street looking through a window at a warm, happy party I could not join. Everything hurt me this year; the mention of the birth of Christ at church, the long lines of kids waiting for Santa at the mall, the request for two front teeth on the radio, and even the Facebook news feed that peppered me incessantly with pictures of kids I used to see regularly, older now, swathed in the colors of the season. Just setting up for Christmas was torture as each of the few Christmas decorations I had retained through The Great Purge held special meaning. The glittery cone precariously glued on its end gingerly placed on the coffee table had been carefully constructed by our oldest son in first grade, the beautifully framed splattering of green paint right next to it, a Christmas gift from our middle son in second grade, and on the mantle, a red, white and green construction paper garland that Gus made in kindergarten. But it was the Christmas tree that finally drew blood, each ornament we unwrapped and hung; the giant red, white and blue Mickey ears from our last family trip to Disneyworld, the ones that commemorated the kids births, the unbreakable ones purchased when Gus was a baby, the ones we picked up on epic trips around the country and the one we had made in his memory stabbed at our hearts until we were emotionally wrecked.  For the first time in my life, I was Scrooge, face to face with the Ghost of Christmas past.

I thought December 26th would be better, if I could just power through the days leading up to and including the 25th, I could stop pretending to smile and smile for real, perhaps even take a breath. I nearly did or thought I had until the Ghost Christmas Future showed up growling at me pacing back and forth around the house between Christmas and New Year’s until I matched its steps and took on its persona.  I used to race towards the future, I had a zeal for leaving things behind.  I liked running away from mistakes, worries, circumstances, even people.  I was the kind of person that tore up ex-boyfriend’s letters and pictures, that dropped the baggage at the door of the last year and stepped into the new year without hesitation.  Since Gus’ passing however, I’ve had no interest in the future. The future no longer held any promise for me other than further loss.

I began wondering if I was a fraud.  If I had ever believed there could be “upsides” to grief or if all of it, the working, traveling, reading, writing, “positive” mental attitude were things I was saying but did not really believe.  The peace I thought I had gained was not real if it could evaporate by the changing of a single digit.

Sunday the 18th of January will be my husband’s birthday and while I hadn’t come up with a great gift idea yet, it seems that Gus had.  Yesterday, I was heading home after getting a body wrap to squeeze the unwanted water from my pores when my sweaty hand hit the wrong button landing me on a radio station I rarely listen to. It was playing The Pretender (hmm) by the Foo Fighters so I left it there.  All of my boys (husband and Gus included) are huge fans of the band and have been aching to see them in concert but the show this coming September sold out in seconds and now the tickets were ridiculously priced. Although I wasn’t really paying much attention to the DJ, I thought I heard him say that the band had just announced a “secret” or “surprise” show at the Forum on Saturday with tickets going on sale within a few hours. I scrambled home to tell my son who coordinated with his dad and by the time the evening was over they had secured a bunch of tickets for us and a few friends.  Saturday is the 10th, a number of great significance to us as Gus’ birthday was the 10th of August and he was ten when he passed away.  I choose to believe that Gus meant for me to get us to that concert as a present to his dad.

Without an ability to hold onto the past and with a fear as much as a reluctance of the future, I realize now I have been grabbing onto the present for dear life.  While it is important to make the most of the present, to be “in the moment” precisely because we don’t know what lies ahead, it is a little like staring at your feet while walking. You are bound to walk into a pole. Life must also be lived with intention and intention is all about the future.  While the ghosts of Christmas past may go by many names and hurt me each year they are released from their translucent graves, the ghost of Christmas future has a single name, peace.  I can follow Gus to that future if I listen closely enough because in the end it will lead me straight to him.  May you find peace in 2015.

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.

Spirit knows best

As seen from the couch.

As seen from the couch.

Last week I got uncharacteristically sick.  Oh, I get a cough and sniffle occasionally, but I don’t get dropped to the ground by viruses and bacteria, I am too strong for those pesky micro-organisms, or so I thought. Despite attempts at visualizing myself well, something or likely everything turned me into a body aching, feverish mess that did nothing but lay on the couch.  I am a terrible patient because illness makes me angry. I growled around because I had things to do, books to read, ideas to write down, and I had a great party to go to on Saturday that I had to miss!  I had no choice but to do what any normal terribly sick person would do – watch T.V.

On my worst “sick” day, one of the cable channels was playing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and I watched it sideways from beginning to end.  At first it reminded me that I planned to start reading the series to Gus when he turned eleven.  Up until then, he’d only dabbled in reading, a Percy Jackson novel here, a partial try at the Hunger Games there, and he picked up the middle book in the Lemony Snicket’s series (who does that?) and quickly put it down (phew!).  Reading bored Gus or as he said “it made his eyes tired”, the only thing he every really got through was the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Bone graphic novels and anything that I read to him.  That fall was going to be different though, I had great aspirations, no more graphic novels, no more tired eyes, I would lead him to the Harry Potter holy grail and he would love to read on his own, I’d done this before.  As I drifted towards sadness a new thought gripped me, the good world had spared me from marring an otherwise wonderful memory.

The Harry Potter series is a cherished memory from a time before Gus.  Back then, I had two little boys, oldest aged 10 and little one 8, who didn’t bother to dabble they just hated reading.  I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone out of desperation. I declared it a new nightly ritual to replace the half hour of cartoons they were allowed only if and when they finished their homework. The first time I picked up the book, they nearly fainted from the idea that they would have to sit there while I got through the very thick book. To distract them from its length, I offered to limit the reading to a single chapter a night. They leafed through the book and seeing that the chapters were not too long reluctantly agreed. Within a week the boys were asking for “just one more chapter” and then moaning and groaning because I had to close the book for bed time.  We flew through the first three books this way and then had to wait a year sometimes two for the next one.  It was a magical time although it wasn’t until the movies came out that we realized I read some of the names wrong like Hermion – instead of Her-mi-o-ne (sorry I’d never of heard of that name) and Hay-grid instead of Haa-grid.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the first book they wanted to read on their own. I bought several copies of the book and we each read our copy sprinkled around the family room. We read the next two books the same, discussing it at the dinner table and teasing each other with the next surprise. The boys were in the middle of high school when the last book was published and they read it at Boy Scout summer camp while I read it at home. I was sobbing when I closed the book but not because of the book but because I knew my time with the boys was coming to a close.  They would soon be off to college and the rest of their lives.

It is tough to bridge back to happy memories when everyday is a reminder that we are making new memories that Gus is not there to share in.  Particularly difficult however, is to go back even further to the time before Gus as though failing to limit my memories to only the time with him is some kind of betrayal, but as I lay there watching the movie I was grateful to the Spirit for keeping the Harry Potter time safe from the sadness of loss. The Spirit always knows best…..



hummingbird-garden-hoverHummingbirds are not a strange sight especially in California where the weather is warm and all the native plants seem to have been created just for them.  And yet, these little birds have taken on a new meaning in our lives recently.

Just a week before Gus’ untimely passing, he celebrated Father’s Day, with his grandfather, dad, brothers and cousins at the local trap range.  No, we don’t have a shotgun at home, but yes my husband taught him to shoot one a few days after birth (o.k. a little later), a carryover from the family roots in the mid-west.  With Gus gone, the trap range was the last place my husband wanted to ever visit again.  This place where he’d spent much of his youth with his own father was now the last place he’d been with his son and he was afraid the grief would overwhelm him. We’d made a commitment though, to face our grief head on by going to those exact places, attending those events and being with those people who reminded us most of our time with Gus and therefore caused the most pain.  And since my husband had already been to his school and even taken his friends to the Big Time Rush concert  that Gus had been looking forward to, he headed to the trap range to meet his dad for dinner.

DSC_3452-1Parking at their usual spot, he looked out to where Gus had taken his last shot.  He’d been trying to remember how many Gus had hit that day or if he’d hit any at all when he became aware of fluttering outside his window.  The tree he’d parked under a thousand times before was swelling and contracting with the greatest quantity of hummingbirds he’d ever seen in one place. How he wished Gus could have seen it.

We knew nothing about hummingbird folklore at the time but the experience was such that my husband wanted to share the story with friends over dinner later that week. The four of us had begun as parents with children in the same class and ended up as parents with children in the same cemetery.  They had lost their infant son to SIDS months before Gus and their eldest son started kindergarten. They shared that in the wife’s Korean culture, the hummingbird was thought to carry the soul of the departed. In fact, they said, a hummingbird had followed them around for days shortly after their baby’s death. It was a sweet to think that Gus might have been buzzing about his dad’s car that day and we joked that he’d needed so many to get his attention.

Since then however, the hummingbird makes a regular appearance every where we go.

IMG_0049_5405-1After Christmas, on a short trip to Sedona, Arizona, “it” was in a store devoted to the work of local artists.  I’d gone in there to clear my head after an emotional breakdown and come across a series of hummingbirds pictures which I thought would make a great gift for my Korean friend and keepsakes for us.  I had forgotten my purse so I had to return the following day as we were heading out.  The store clerk that day just happened to be the artist herself who was only there one Sunday a month and as it turned out had also lost her youngest son of three many years before. Meeting her was remarkable not just because of the hummingbirds but because I had been struggling with the concept of time, the idea of moving away from him as time marched on.  She told us that the Native Americans believed that the hummingbird was a messenger from the “other side” and in a sense the hummingbird had brought me to her to confront the passage of time, like the hummingbirds had made their presence known at the trap range.  It had been more than forty years since she’d lost her boy and while she still ached for him, the tears had slowly become less.

h-bird-1 edited h-bird-2-1

This spring a hummingbird made its nest on the mariachi hat of my wind chime on the back porch. Despite the many years I’d tried to lure hummingbirds with an assortment of specialized feeders, it was the first time one made our home its home.


Later, on a trip to San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) in May, this hummingbird mosaic found its way into my hands.  Walking through an organic market, I met an American woman who’d moved there and then “accidentally” founded an art school for children, when children just wouldn’t leave her house after giving them pencils and paper. She was most excited about one particular boy’s art, “he makes the most amazing mosaics” she said.  After assuring us that all proceeds went to the school, she asked if we’d be interested in buying something. Turning to retrieve the piece, she lost her footing and as I caught her and the multitude of pieces she toppled over, she shoved “it” into my hands.  Of course a hummingbird.

Then, at my husband’s family reunion in Iowa this summer, one aunt had a hummingbird on her door while the other wore a hummingbird t-shirt to the reunion and finally on our epic family cruise, we came across a hummingbird drawn on a leaf as we walked ashore in Costa Rica.

Like the “Love You More” sign, drawings and bands we find when we least expect them, the hummingbird has become another sign that Gus is all around us…




Magical Gus

Smile - I'm Fine

Smile – I’m Fine

It occurs to me that we spend a great deal of time in life thinking about what happens after death. If the movies are any indication, we seem to have come to the consensus that the only way our spirits can linger on earth, if they linger at all, is as attacking, angry, torturing, evil presences. Otherwise the “good” spirits are supposed to have gone to the light where they roam about in vast fields awash in vibrant colors as the most beautiful version of themselves just waiting for us to join them.

It doesn’t seem fair that only evil spirits would have the power to make their presence known.  Shouldn’t loved and cherished spirits have the power to conquer all including death? As a Mexican-American I believed the spirits of our loved ones are always there to guide us; we need only be open to the signs. In my own life, when I was most anxious, worried and afraid, I had the sense that my grandmother came to me. Just as I started thinking of her, her favorite song (a very old one) played on the radio or she’d come to me in a dream.  But most often I felt her near me in the dead of night. I’d be jolted from a deep sleep by the smell of cigarettes (none of us smoke). The specific scent of her Lucky Menthols lingering far into me becoming fully awake.

The night Gus died I thought I felt his weight against my arm as though he had slipped into bed between us as he had done nearly every night since birth. I hoped to feel it again the next night and the night after that but the feeling never returned. I was beginning to think that it was only wishful thinking that had kept my grandmother around when we went to see AJ Barrera.  The reading suggested a spiritual awareness though that was far beyond what I ever imagined.  When we left, we resolved to be more open to the spirit, more specifically Gus’ spirit.

We left AJ’s house and headed to a Hallmark store for a gift.  Since Gus’ passing we’ve walked into a million stores carrying those painted wood signs with inspirational sayings.  We even bought the one with the quote by Wilfred Peterson, that says “Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it…” The sign we saw that day was different. It appeared like a personal message sent from above coming so soon after the reading.  It simply said:


This was our thing with him.  A nearly daily verbal war that was never resolved.  He’d usually start with “I love you Mom or Dad” and we’d say “I love you more” and then he’d say “I love YOU more”, and we’d go around and around until something else diverted our attention.  In typical Gus fashion he was getting the first word, foreshadowing Gus’ alternate presence in our lives.




For my birthday that year, his art teacher and a dear friend to me was wondering what to give me when she found this drawing he’d made on a rare day he was at school that last year.


My friend swears the box in which it was found had been emptied the previous fall in advance of the new fourth grade class and gone through a number times.  She was shocked to pull it out as an answer to what I should get for my birthday.





For father’s day a month later, my husband and older sons decided to go golfing at the last minute, getting one of the last few tee times at a course they’d never been to. They arrived to discover that a fourth man had been added to the group who walked up to them and said “Hi, I’m Gus!”.

Then later on the Fourth of July, a day Gus loved because we’d spend the entire day at the beach lighting sparklers well into the night, we found this:


A band he’d likely made at his last cub scout camp out. Could we have really overlooked it each time the car was cleaned out for over a year until it appeared in time for one of his favorite holidays?




His prayer card (shown above) says “Smile. I’m Fine”.  It is what he said to me each time he could see that I’d been crying.  I tried desperately not to cry in his presence, but sometimes I could not help it, the tears streaming down my face as much in grief as in anger that my precious boy was in crisis again.  AJ said Gus’ mission was to help us; to remind us to smile because we would be fine on earth as we are in heaven.

While I wish everyday he was here in the flesh, I am amazed at the many ways he continues to be present in our lives and how the spirit moves to answer and address the questions and concerns that affect our hearts.

Love you more……