What Short Stack Gets

I am often asked what Short Stack remembers of her father, and how much she understands about his death. Family and friends sought reassurance and I didn’t find much authoritative material on toddler grieving, so I thought I’d, as usual, share.

Grieving is complicated even for grownups; it's deep, lumpy, unpredictable, sticky (“Non-linear” is such a genteel way to put it). I've written about the unanticipated feelings it can stir up and about how death is such a common topic for me that I can laugh like a loon. But a post by Snickollet reminds me how much mining I have to do here -- even superficial excavations turn up ore.

Phase 1. Short Stack was 2 and a half when Gavin died. For a week or two, she asked, "Where Daddy go?" because he'd been in the hospital, and then in hospice, for several weeks before he died. First thing in the morning, and several more times, every day. I’d remember how just a few days before, the answer had been, “Daddy is in a special hospital where special doctors can take extra-good care of him.” But now. I'd say, "Oh honey, Daddy died. He went away and we can't see him any more."

"Want go visit him!" she'd say. "Oh honey, we can't, Daddy died. His body got very, very, very, very, very sick. The doctors gave him very, very, very, very, very strong medicine but it didn't cure his sickness and so his body broke and we can't see him any more." "But I want to see him." "I'm sorry, honey, it makes me very, very sad, but we can't go see him. Your Daddy loved you and me and Grandma very, very, very much and he didn't want to leave us. But his body broke and his body had to leave us." (Then I would start to cry, and she would flip out a little, "DON' C'Y, MOMMY!" "Protocol" says not to shield your kids from your expressions of emotion... but it was too heartbreaking to see her little face fall apart and reassemble with adult concern. So on this, I ignored the experts until I saw signs she could handle it.)

Some things that happened during this time:
-- (Looking out her bedroom window): "Mommy, look! I see Daddy in dat tree over dere!" "What's he doing?" "He smiling." (she laughs).
-- (To Gavin’s mother, one of her key caregivers): "Gramma, where Daddy go?" I break in: "Honey..." "No. GRAMMA!" "Honey, your Daddy had to go away." "What he doing now?" "Honey, I don't know, but I think if he could see you right now he'd be smiling."
-- (On a trip out of town) "I want go home! I want my Daddy come home!"

Phase 2. "Why can't I go see Daddy?" (Same story). "But why he body break?" "The sickness was very, very, very, very, very strong and he went to see many, many, many doctors and they gave him a lot, lot, lot, lot of very, very, very, very, very strong medicine. But the medicine could not fix the sickness and so after a long time Daddy's body broke. Your Daddy did not want to leave you, he loved you and me and Grandma, but he had to leave us."

For a while she insisted that he lived in "our other house." I don't know if this is some natural thing because kids this age don't understand permanence, or whether it’s because he was well known for drawings of suburban houses. I would say, "No honey, we don't have another house, Daddy's body died and we can't see it anymore" but she was pretty confident she was right.

Phase 3. "Why did my Daddy get sick and die?" "No one knows why someone gets that kind of very, very, very, very, very bad sickness. It’s very different from little sicknesses, like when someone sneezes or coughs." (Repeat earlier themes). Around this time it was growing less painful for me to look at snapshots. Family pictures and artwork were on my iPod and around the house.I experimented with bringing him up casually: “Your Daddy’s friend Cathy made this picture just for you when you were born.” “Your Daddy loved chino pants.” “I bet your Daddy would be so proud to see you using that fork so nicely.”

Phase 4. After daycare one day she told me, “My Daddy got a crack in his butt so he die.” I don’t know where this idea came from, but definitely from the peer group. I mean, I get the "body broke" part but does she know about plumbers' crack already? I was worried about the horror-movie image she in her mind, but she seemed pretty calm. I briefly tried to reframe what had happened but she was adamant so I let it stand.

(I don't think I ever understood how important it is to "choose your battles" until I had a kid.)

Phase 5. As I came to terms with loss and widowhood and single parenting, I resolved to find a resting place for his cremated remains. Looking around his studio for a few minutes, the idea brightened. On the first anniversary of his birthday after his death (he had a birthday RIGHT after he died, so this was one year plus a little later) I placed the powder in an Acoma pot that his grandmother, who raised him, used to burn palm leaves in during thunderstorms. He’d always said this was the one valuable Indian thing his family had, except that the (Catholic) palm soot had probably ruined it for collectors. I was proud to place this reliquary next to the Buddha's head in his unchanged studio.

And Short Stack knew, somehow. One day she came out with: "Where Daddy body go?"

Deep breath. I can do this. “Well, after Daddy’s body was already completely broken and his spirit and memories and feelings weren’t in it any more… people do a special process where they send the body to a special place and it gets turned into powder.”

“What they do to he body?” I knew not to talk about fire. That’s supposed to freak kids out. That, and being buried in the dirt, you’re not supposed to mention till later. (When? I don’t know yet).

“Honey, they did a special thing to it, kind of like magic, and his whole body turned into a special powder.”

“Magic Powder!!!! I want some!”

Hoo boy. Yeah, that went well.

Phase 6. During her fourth year, Short Stack was gaining awareness that other people had died, and meeting kids who’d lost a pet, or a grandparent. She’d always been pretty articulate about her feelings (I overcompensated for my own deficient upbringing) but she still was taking great leaps in understanding them. Once in a while we’d talk about Daddy or death but I couldn’t see dramatic shifts in her awareness and there were no remarkable stories. Her ideas seemed fuzzy but they were changing.

One day for circle time, her Sunday school class read 2 or 3 age-appropriate books about death, dying, and ways to remember someone. Afterwards the teacher took me aside and told me how articulate SS had been and how she had been okay, but she wanted me to know in case further questions came up. She described it so clearly: Short Stack shared that her Daddy had died. That he can never come back. She was clear that she would never see him again. (This was the first time I’d heard this.) She also mentioned his artwork and the pictures of him as ways to remember her Daddy.

Phase 7. This area of inquiry is a bit fuzzy for me during her fourth/fifth year. She was learning tremendous amounts at preschool, where she was also learning letters, numbers, dinosaurs, insects. She was able to play on her own more and blossoming in many ways. Bringing ideas home, bigger ones, faster, with more kids to test and talk and listen to and in a more consistent, challenging, structured environment. I was dating and then settling down with Mr. Fresh. She adored him. The crisis was over. I was tired, and probably not listening as closely.

Mr. Fresh and AA’s Dad took the kids apple-picking (both age 4.5+):
AA: Short Stack! I’m really happy that you got a new Daddy!
SS: He’s not my Daddy.
AA: Yeah, but because your real Daddy died, isn’t it great that you were able to get a new one?
SS: (Nothing).

Phase 8. Lately Short Stack is asking much more mature questions and death is one of many interesting topics. She's not fazed when characters on TV die, and if they come back to life, she understands that it’s for pretend. (Lots of questions around age 4.5 concerned what is “in this world” vs. what is “only in movies.”) She adores Scooby (Dooby) Doo and doesn’t seem threatened by ghosts, Frankensteins, talking skeletons, or witchcraft, even though the etiology of zombies that I provided was probably too cautious. I suppose these TV scenarios are not very scary (especially since 70s clothes seem to be permanently back in style) since the spook is always exposed as a jewel thief or an old man trying to get the oilman off his land. Nonetheless monsters do seem to provide some training in ideas about mortality. How many adults do you know who have a much better handle on this stuff than Shaggy, Daphne or Velma?

She’s starting to understand age (even though she still thinks “fifty-five sixty-six one thousand” is the largest number there is) and sequence. "Mommy, you going to die before me?" "Is Gramma E.R. going to die before you?" "Am I going to die before Noma (her best friend, 2 years younger)?" I know it’s a cliché, but you really can see the little wheels turn around in her head.

-- She clearly remembers her Dad, not just as sense-memory – I believe she remembers more than the feel of his hug.
-- She is beginning to understand that these huge forces exist.
-- She seems not very interested in the spiritual aspect, but that could be the way I color our conversations.
-- She is strong-willed and imaginative, as she is in all things.
-- She asks questions, but is pretty sure she already has all the answers.

And last week I overheard this:
SS: Noma, you know what a stepdaddy is?
Noma: What dat?
SS: It’s if someone has a Daddy who dies, and then they get another Daddy, then they will be that kid’s stepdaddy.
Noma: (Nothing).

If you listen, and if you wait, the heart does begin to heal.

I received some practical advice and guidance from these books: Helping A Child Cope with the Loss of a Loved One and Guiding Your Child Through Grief.

(Read part 2 here).

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Dating Episode 7: A Climax of Sorts

The fire dance had inflamed my resolve but it was clear I needed some direction, if not some serious HELP. Marshall, a mutual friend of Wekka’s and mine from ye olde martial arts days, heard my tales of woe and offered to meet and chat about dating. It meant a dinner with a man; how could I say no?

He’d been traumatized, too. With the same zeal with which I was developing my “baseball scores” date into stand-up material, Marshall had polished a quirky story about bailing out his younger son. He worked a lot and was in a serious international relationship. Marshall was still flummoxed by his wife abandoning him, burnt by his sons’ difficult teenage years and discouraged that none of them were doing anything worthwhile.

Over margaritas, we shared stories and caught up on gossip about our circle. I was a more frustrated dater than he was, having not been a whiz back when I was single. We talked about men and what they’re looking for. I was finding that in their 40s, divorced men who responded to me were mostly looking for a second home. They’d been hurt, some felt financially exploited, they missed their kids, and they wanted someone to accept them. I liked these men. But I didn’t feel I could take it so slow any more.

“So what are you looking for?” he asked me.

Well. At first I figured I had to look for someone to join our household, someone to co-parent Short Stack with me. But now I know that I have to burn off a bunch of energy first before I start looking for anything serious. In some ways, I’m enjoying shopping for men, except that… Well. It has something to do with grieving, the hormones are overpowering. I’m so horny I can’t think straight.

I know what that’s like, he said. He stared at his enchiladas.

But I have to be careful and safe because I’m a Mom now.

You’re definitely in a tough situation.

I feel like I have a widow cherry. I just have to get rid of that second virginity, get past that barrier, before I can really deal with anything else. I’m hot and free but super responsible. I had to be to get through the past few years. And I’m skittish. I know it’s going to be intense the first time. Not anyone can handle that, and certainly not someone casual.

Marshall had ideas. I could look at “adult dating sites,” although they are probably not so good for safety. I could consider married guys in open relationships. They’re more common than you think.

We were drinking a lot and I took a break to powder my nose. As I walked back to the table I caught his eye. Marshall was at ease, leaning back and laughing a little.

What are you laughing at? I asked, feeling the sway in my hips as I sat back down.

Bad thoughts, he said.

Oh, good. That’s good. I like that. I need to hear things like that.

He ordered another round.

So, your turn… what are you looking for? Marshall was weary of adventure and drama. His current relationship was not going to last. This girlfriend wasn’t providing home or any peace. She was exciting but needy, destabilizing areas he’d built back up after divorce.

Hmmm. I’ve never understood women like that. I guess I’m low-maintenance -- is that the right word?

He liked his bachelor pad, even though it had zero personal touches. When there, he was self contained, with a world-class gym and a grocery store that sold beer in the building. After years of domestic chaos, he was comforted to come home from every trip and find everything just as he’d left it, no drunken teenagers lying around, nothing broken. It looked like a hotel, one without even any pictures hanging.

Oh. I don’t think I could live without my stuff … we have so much art and so many memories. But it does sound like it has been a relief to you.

His needs were simple. He’d eat at restaurants, or frozen meals, stock up on deli for lunches.

I said, we’ve been eating a lot of frozen food for a while, but I’m looking forward to starting to cook again. I can’t eat like this (pointing at plate) every night. My cholesterol has gotten kinda high, and I cook a lot of stir fries, so it should settle together nicely. That is, once I get this other thing out of the way.

Marshall said it was important for him to feel that someone had his back, was helping to keep him safe. He liked to take risks, and then return to something solid. Family life hadn’t been like that in a dozen years. Single life was better than being responsible for a bunch of slugs, but there wasn’t much upside.

Huh. I know how you feel. I keep my home life stable, but I’m super social: even with a kid I still like to go out dancing and have dinner parties and stuff. But it’s more rewarding to have a consistent companion no matter what’s going on.

We finished our meal with many awkward silences.

After I dropped him off at his door I turned on the radio. My first boyfriend greeted me singing “You can’t always get what you want…” Why, hello, Mick. You don’t sound like you mean that, I thought.

“But if you try sometimes, you just might find…" The classic words built to a crescendo, paced with percussion, and the angelic choir came in on a swell: "you just might find... you get what you need.”

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An Old Friend (Two Coincidences)

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(1) Gretch has written about how widows sort of appear. I certainly found they came out of the woodwork for me. Now that I’m in a “mature” phase of widowhood I understand their motivation: we know our experience has been so rare and so isolating that we must reach out and offer the comradeship that transformed us.

Years ago at HippieCollege I had a friend who, like me, didn’t quite fit in. We were a little bigmouth, even “considering,” and often dissatisfied with the liberal party line. She had worked as a cocktail waitress one summer, a contrarian occupation for our type (I am pretty sure the job description included shaving her legs) but I was blown away to hear about the tips. She and I weren’t close but we moved in the same circles. We were a bit odd – a rare two among our cohort who ended up responsible for two sister student-run dorms. Unlike my sophomore self, she was able to handle it.

Like me, Andrea Volpe married an artist 20 years her senior.
Like us, Sam Walker and Andrea were well-matched, surprised and satisfied by each other, generally happy for many years.
Like mine, her husband received a stage IV cancer diagnosis one day.
Like me, she was fated to grieve while caring for a small child, her only.

When Gavin was diagnosed, Andrea was the first person I contacted. Already five years out, she shared advice that is still unfolding as true. I remember her telling me with clarity and force that I should expect to be surprised by who could handle Gavin’s illness and that my friendships would reorganize themselves. Like others who showed up, magnetic, to guide me, she pretended she wasn’t sure I’d end up a widow like her.

She has written a lovely personal essay about several stages in a conversation between her husband and one of his fellow artists, and herself after his death. I’m also reminded about my life-long connection to correspondence art, which will surely be post numero uno on my social media blog (to come).

(2) What is really weird is how we were connected when I was first selling used books on Amazon. It was early 2000 and I had just heard that Sam had died. I started to set up Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God, a textbook from the Midrash class I took the same semester as printmaking with Sam.

Strangely there was a very old check inside it (I bet some of these whippersnappers don’t know why we call them “bookmarks!”[Never mind what a “check” is]). It was from Sam, for $7.42, reimbursement for a copy of Lynda Barry’s Big Ideas which I’d bought for him over break at Printed Matter in NYC back when small press books were hard to find. (I suppose I’d skipped some reading if I hadn’t deposited the check back in 1986.)

As I looked for comps to price the Wiesel book, I saw the Amazon “new” price: $7.42.

Typical for me, mixing the flip, the silly, the profane,the drop dead serious -- Big Ideas contains an important cartoon I found helpful as a griever, which postulates that if “these letters appear on the back window of your car (‘WASH ME’),” a dead loved one is probably trying to get in touch with you. Surely "7.42" was some sort of message from the other side?

That spooky assemblage -- book, check, and Amazon printout -- is still waiting up in the library, which I've sworn to clean out before we move. Back in 2000 I wanted to send them together to Andrea but wasn’t sure if that was a fair “grieving” thing to do.

Now? I’d laugh and send it. As I do, now.

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Dating Episode 6 [November 2007]: Dancing Around It

Each evening after story time, I’d slouch at the black Mac and shop for boys, or stretch out on the futon couch I’d always hated and screen them by phone. I get a bit manic when I’m busy and this entire autumn when I reentered the dating world, many areas were percolating.

I was restless to get into my studio, to cut, to stitch and glue: I was tantalized by materials left when my 103.5-year-old grandmother died (earlier that year). In my imagination, scraps of lace and ratty fur and costume jewelry would mingle brutality with mannerism, murder with vitality. My hands, my eyes, were hot with impatience.

Male attention was giving me power and energy. I had long held the idea of a Day of the Dead ritual for Gavin, a more personal memorial than the one we did at church, and that time of year was approaching. I was sure that doing something would help to bind and settle “things” for us. I love playing hostess, so, a party; the most stunning spectacle I could imagine was to have my old roommate, Wekka, perform one of her original low-tech supersexy fire dances.

Plans came together strangely but surely. I opened up Gavin’s studio and set up a big offering of his materials, relics of our life together, hospital bracelets, amulets, and his baby sweater. It was as big a party as our housewarming – 75 people and lots of kids. Wekka was electrifying in a brocade coat, stripping down to a metallic leather (thong) bikini in the freezing cold. She danced with candles, swords, and swirly flame things. A 5 year old repeatedly whispered on a lap: “Mom, I can see her BUTT!” I served only beer and water, the left loudspeaker died after the second piece, and at the end a guest pointed out I’d allowed dozens of candles to be lit a few feet away from a gallon of mineral spirits. Kids, artists, neighbors, and friends from support group took home the intellectual, Zen souvenirs (blank bits of drawing paper) I made. Friends burned offerings, close friends thanked me for the chance to say goodbye.

“That was something else, but what did it have to do with Gavin?” someone asked.

Wekka and I exchanged looks. We had no idea, really. Wekka had done several shows in our backyard and loved us both. I’d invoked Eros and invited people from all my communities. I made something and invited people. How to say? “It was a celebration of life.” It was insufficient. The blank piece of paper said it better.

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Dating Episode 5: Checking it Twice.

I was discouraged, energetic, and too smart for my own good. I swore I’d learn from my experience with YachtGuy: the road to perdition was paved with extensive emails and fantastic phone rapport. I needed a new M.O. -- I’d get to the in-person meeting as quickly as possible.

As I looked back over my wishlist, the 99 men started to seem like the losers I’d already met (or disgusted) and I crossed dozens out with an imperious mouseclick. But someone who I’d been gently putting off suddenly looked really good: a super smartypants wonk who sold himself as a “gentle sensual intellectual.” In my imaginary world, the waiters at the coffee place were starting to look askance at me because I’d brought in a different man every Friday afternoon for several weeks in a row. In line with shaking things up, GSI and I decided on a dim sum lunch.

I’m sure I was talking about my loss in the first five minutes after we’d ordered so I suppose what he did was no more awkward than my posture as a widowed dater. Perhaps his action was karmically appropriate: he kissed my hand.

It lasted a long time. He used both of his hands to hold mine, and kissed the knuckles gently. It was as if the back of my hand emitted a delicious fragrance. And he could not tear himself away: even after the food came, he’d take up my hand again and relate to it with the intensity he clearly applied to everything. The timing of his capture was unpredictable, but half of our time was spent in this position.

Later I demonstrated on a girlfriend and she pulled her hand away in horror, glaring at me. YUCK. Why did you let him do that?

I literally did not know what to do. It’s strange and disabling to lose the use of your right hand while you’re eating. The gesture’s intimacy was undermined by its extreme courtliness. I felt like an unprepared tourist observing the native customs. I didn’t want to be accused of being a snob but I also didn’t like him thinking he could have his way with any part of me. Perversely I felt my resistance would come across as sexy, a “no” that didn’t mean “no.” I didn’t want to communicate, I wished my hand would convey infinite neutrality.

The spoken part of our conversation went on with hardly an interruption. We were in a public place and I knew I was safe. (I did basic security checks on every guy before sharing my real name.) Maybe I wanted to see what would happen next. “Sounds like it aroused your inner anthropologist,” said my friend John.

At home a few days later I scoured GSI’s Match ad, trying to decode what my friends had found so disgusting and yet I’d tolerated. He sounded so good on paper… clever and sharp, with perspective and modesty. But he used the word “sensual” three times in maybe 100 words (concordances can be very revealing). He alluded to giving and receiving massage, fine things in life, excellent wine.

I added another essential to my list:

(6) Must enjoy penetration.

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Dating Episode 4: Making a List.

Clunk, clunk, clunk I perambled through the hallways of Match.com, my heavy feet mostly unheard in the crowd. Two of those last four guys were selected almost solely on the basis of being widowers and two of them weren’t up to meeting me in person.

At least I was in the game, I could see the nookie at the end of the tunnel, and I was having a blast sharing the stories. It was a bit gratifying to see happily married friends excited as teenagers to hear about my adventures. Like me, some of them had been matched up for so long that they were titillated by the thought of online dating. Even as I was encouraged by these friends, gaining points among fellow little-kid parents, I couldn’t romanticize this set of dates, especially the ones that hadn’t happened. So I sought advice on the playground.

Bryan’s Mom and Dad told me how they’d both had unhappy first marriages, returned to the dating world, and then found each other. BD wrote up two lists: desirable qualities and dealbreakers. BM pointed out that she didn’t meet several of his “good” criteria and BD reminded her that the lists were only tools and you have to be sensible. (Excuse me? Would you repeat that last word?)

I started the list in my head:
(1) Must make me laugh.
(2) Must read real books, there will be a test.
(3) Must love women.
(4) Must enjoy sex, the “in person kind.”

A cute Jewish Ph.D. economist and I had some fun phone conversations. He sort of engineered that he’d join me and a girlfriend at a dance. As I found out, he was a tremendous avoider and this was one of those ways to not have to commit to asking for a date.

We met at a Cajun dance event in an open pavilion on a frigid night. There was no one else there under 60. When he showed up I found out that while his ad said he was 5’9” he was shorter than me (I’m 5’8”). That explained why the pants hung baggy in one of the pictures. He was very fit, with a runner’s physique. I felt like a draft horse standing next to him. We hugged ourselves in our coats and watched the oldsters lining up, hoping I suppose that something would happen somewhere.

I knew he was amusing, I could always pretend we were on the phone... We asked him about his two broken engagements. He didn't know what had gone wrong; perhaps he mentioned that women can be confusing. Somehow a pleasant convo led to this: Once a girlfriend asked him to “talk dirty.” He had never heard of it, but was game (and in the act) so he said, “I’m throwing dirt on you! Dirt, dirty! Now you’re getting muddy!” The woman said, “No, dummy! Say something really filthy to me! You’re supposed to curse! Come on!!!” So he said, “Cock! Cunt! Cock! Cunt!”
I raised my eyebrow, not sure if I should believe him. “You’re joking, right?”
“No. Those were the filthiest things I could think of.”
The eyebrow elevated a bit more and my hands went to my hips.
“I’d never heard of it. What, was I supposed to have done research already?”
Now my whole body was skeptical. One hip dropped to match the other eyebrow. “How long ago was this?”
“Last year.”
The second eyebrow went way up. “I guess you’ve probably learned something since then?”
“Well… I don’t usually sleep with a woman until we’ve been dating for a while…”

My face fell. Okay, well, I think we’re about done here. But hey, it’s not like either of us had any other prospects in the room.
“I’m not sure that girlfriend really was good for me, anyway. I mean, she never noticed that I wanted to do it while watching sports.”
Oh no, I thought. Not the baseball scores thing. Early in my sex life a college boyfriend told me how he would recall vintage Yankee statistics to last longer. He was 21. I tested: “You mean you have a better, um, time if you’re partially distracted?”
“Yeah, but she never seemed to notice why I preferred sex in front of the TV, on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday evenings.”

He was 45.

Ten p.m. on a Saturday, it was too late for another party and it didn't make sense to pay the cover at the excellent, popular, post-Gap-ad Swing dance party right next door. My girlfriend and I drove off in her Jeep, and I called out to him, “Hey, enjoy the game tomorrow!”

I went home and updated my list:

(5) Must have age-appropriate understanding of male sexual function.

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Two Stages of Denial: Another Crappy Analogy

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A few months ago, I watched everyone around me and everyone in town open their eyes. Shit -- this economic thing was not going away. It was real. Change hit us like a sack of bricks and people seemed distracted, off-balance, and not very bright. Perhaps even sad, thinking of all that would be left behind. The denial that had existed was pretty benign: we weren’t pretending, we just weren’t looking very hard.

And after a time we sort of got accustomed to “things.” People spoke of “matters” indirectly: “things,” “changes,” “uncertainty.”

Now we’ve hit a second patch of something. Seems to me my circle (which includes NPR) is in a second level of denial -- we understand that the first shift happened, but we just don’t think it will get any worse. In fact, everyone’s talking about positive signs.

(In some ways we don’t want the crisis to end yet. Everyone thinks it’s good that we’re prioritizing time with family, saving, sufficient sleep, conservation, and even conversation over material things. There is a major movement of folks finding their true direction in life -- or at least, a more socially-valuable but lower-paying way to spend time [how many of them are actually jobs?]. So don’t end this thing yet. I’m planning a mid-life crisis, can I just tuck it in with this whole restructuring-the-economy dealie? [My personal favorite is that as we green and cut costs we are required to treat ourselves to $500 phones because they are now part of our increased efficiency! Even if we’re not, um, working right now. (Well how do you expect me to get a job without one?)])

Major flashback to dealing with cancer.*

First you have a giant shock -- diagnosis. Important advice: Don’t drive for the first 30 days. You’re a space case. Wait till you adjust to dealing with the inevitability of death as an everyday matter. You can handle it. Sure! Thousands of people do it every year. Even worse! Heck, people live in Sudan! We’re very resilient creatures.

So you make a way to keep going. You can even be happy. You say you’re living in the present. Wow, you sure say it a lot. But things keep happening. And they keep sending test results no matter what. You have to keep spirits up because healing has a huge emotional component!

The cells in this second period of denial are malignant. This stage is qualitatively different -- this denial hurts, maims, and kills. You are watching your loved one dying, or it's your own face wasting away day by day. It’s high stakes to say anything. Everyone’s already oversensitized and if you name it, you create it. It’s funny, the doctor might be trying to tell you something, but you had to get used to tuning her out in the first stage. And God, you do not want anything to escalate. So keep quiet.

But no, it’s a crappy analogy. The economy is not a human body and it isn’t destined to die.

It’s not like the U.S. has a midsection full of unproductive lumps or poison-spewing organs. It isn’t as if we were ignoring those sections for years whiel they weakened and dragged others down. It’s not a situation where a few cells were actively robbing the entire body of nutrients. We didn’t try to limit the spread through surgery, and it's not like we forgot that the hip bone is connected to the leg bone. No, with our economy, we’re fully aware that all the parts work together, bankers, banks, and bank customers. Plus, I mean, it’s a rule that home prices go up and up forever. It was true for our parents and we deserve it too. And that is not the equivalent of thinking you will live forever. And there’s nothing organic about an economy.

There’s also totally no parallel when patients and families expect big daddy Pharma (or Dr. God) to take care of everything, and damn if they can’t, it was their job to prevent it and they screwed up! (Huge institutions are super-useful when you’re pissed. Ask any ex-Catholic.)

Just forget I said anything, it was a superficial comparison from the get-go. As Miss Litella would say with her small syrupy smile: “Never mind.”

* Of course I’m speaking of experiences like my own, with my husband’s terminal diagnosis -- not situations where there are actual non-miraculous chances at 5-year survival, and excluding the pussycat cancers like the one Lance Armstrong had. Every cancer is different, every patient is different. (Didn’t Tolstoy say, “but every denial is the same?”)

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Dating Episodes 0.8, 2, and 3: The “In-person Kind”

What a different place I was in a year and a half ago when I was dating. Maybe this is why it’s so damn hard to write up these experiences. I feel arthritic -- it’s painful, even on rewrite, and the words seem calcified and foreign -- nothing like the hot waterfalls of “update” that I poured into my girlfriends’ ears each Monday morning.

My encounter with YachtGuy was confounding but transformative. I was free, safe, and satisfied. Absurd, modern, whatever, phone sex was a step toward taking good care of myself, something I’d aspired to for a long time.

There were other dates, some of them real, and a few even provided me with decent material. I had an outlet, of sorts, but I knew YachtGuy and I would never get beyond “friends” IRL (after our second phone encounter he told me he’d never use a condom. Dealbreaker!).

Now I was in a hurry. I knew what I wanted and had a sense -- perhaps for the first time in my life -- that I could get it.

Episode 0.8. Wade in the Water.

I met a widower early on, on Plenty of Fish. His wife had died shortly after giving birth to their son, now 4. We talked on the phone sporadically for several months. I wasn’t sure how compatible he and I really were, but he was considerate and gentle. I felt it would be stressful to date him because he worked in law enforcement, at a high level, and I am your classic big mouth liberal artsy chick. My idea was, I guess, to just try to talk to a man and be friends. There was nothing intense but our backstories and there was at least as much hesitation about meeting from his side as mine.

Finally we made a date for coffee during the workday. He canceled the night before: “It’s too much.” He’d scheduled to meet me on his son’s birthday (and therefore the anniversary of his wife’s death, too). I was sympathetic but a little pissed. Soon afterwards he went West to see family for Thanksgiving, and was talking about moving back there in the very near future. I wrote him about my nice Thanksgiving and sent him my nutty gratitude list (“I am thankful for onions…” etc.). No response.

I am pretty sure he still lives on this coast. It just took him a while to realize I was too weird. (He didn’t get out much.) Maybe he was playing it the same way I was and didn’t think there was much chemistry, either. Or perhaps, he disappeared into some clandestine “op.”

Episode 2. 2Good 2BTrue.
After my “experience” with YachtGuy I was desperate to actually meet a man in person. I found 2Good, a fellow HippieCollege alum, on Match.com. He was 38, beautiful, clever, and funny. He had a dream job and recognized the obscure reference in my username. He was fresh out of a bad marriage with a truly crazy woman, in love with their new baby. He was burned, with lingering open wounds. 2Good repeatedly described the divorce settlement as "gnawing my own arm off to save my life." Eager, green, and dumb, I enticed him to join me for coffee. “Maybe we can help heal each other without being too serious,” I toyed.

I was not playing fair. Nonetheless we had a pleasant two hours at coffee and walked back to the train in the rain. He said he’d like to see me again. With glee I tried a goodbye hug, but it didn’t take. Over the next few days I sent him two emails and three voice mails. On Monday 2Good sent a “I’m really busy with work right now, have a nice life!” email.

He’d been humoring me all along, or, more likely, thought I was as loose as my game. This story shows me as stupid and sad as I actually was, but it’s part of the tale.

Episode 3. Still Water Runs Shallow.

I flirted with a widower on Match. He was very into me and wrote a long ode to my small square portrait photo. His ad named some smart books and showed him in front of Big Ben. We had coffee and talked about work, widowhood, and his passion for Irish Set Dancing. He followed up with some romantic poetry about how he wished he’d kissed me in the rain as we left. For my first second date ever I met him for dinner at a Latino fusion restaurant near me. Although half-Cuban, he did not know what “salsa amarillo” was. Hmmmm… I drew him out a bit. The “last read” in his Match profile… had been audio books. He referred to the “uppity” kids at the State College. And all of a sudden I discovered I couldn't ignore my dates’ politics.

I sat still, across the table from him in the warm half-light. The picture started to come together: this guy was just plain dumb.* His poetic emails must have taken hours to write. And I’d looked up Irish Set Dancing; it was the most boring crap, a style of co-oed Morris dancing.

Even though I knew there would be no third date, we walked arm in arm in the freezing cold. I kissed him several times in an architectural niche on my own initiative. I didn’t talk much because that was all I wanted.

“WHY did you kiss him?!” my friends asked me, exasperated.
“Because he was there!” I couldn’t see what the problem was.

Had I ever dumped anyone? I couldn’t remember. Two days later on the phone I tried “it’s not you it’s me” and several configurations of the widow card. “I’m really messed up… I’m not ready for a relationship.” After two freakin’ hours I was down to “okay, it really is you.” He wouldn’t listen. He said he wanted to see me three more times, “no wait, two… purely for selfish reasons.” No shit. I tried, “I’ll only end up hurting you.” He told me that he always got his heart broken after a few months. I told him I couldn’t volunteer to play out that game. He quoted Felix Unger: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” It would have been comic but he was dead serious.

I suggested we both take a week off and then decide about the next date. My friends were sure he was psycho (the poetry), that he would stalk me. But my gut told me, with uncharacteristic confidence, that he was just sad and deserved one more respectful contact. I figured if I told him I had herpes that would get rid of him. I rehearsed my lines and waited out the week.

A few hours before the “deadline” he sent me a note saying that because he valued me so highly and because he was so hot for me -- he stated specifically how -- he knew he must tell me right now -- he had herpes. My patience had helped me dodge a bullet.

* I thought of the Seinfeld where Elaine is in a relationship with a guy who's hiding something... a wife? Way worse: he’s poor.

* Read the next installment in this series! *

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Witness: "Meeting" Our Needs

Skip ahead to the next dating-related post!

I "witnessed" at church today as part of our budget drive kickoff. As communications chair I was filling a gap -- we needed testimonials about personal giving decisions -- but I also discuss grieving and receiving.

Good morning. I’m a New Yorker, and I don’t know how I survived the first 21 years of my life without the phrase “you all.” “You,” plural, just doesn’t cut it.

You all have heard me speak up here many times at Joys and Sorrows, and at other times. You all listened as many things in my life went down: My husband got sicker, and sicker. He received the first miracle drug, then the second. He got even sicker. I faced parenting challenges. I had difficulty at work and with finances. You were here for me when he died. And you were here for the memorial service, as well as when I coped with the decline of my mother-in-law over the next year and a half. And then, you were here for me when she died.

And you all were also here for the upswing, which was also slow and muddled, although no one will ever tell you so: You listened when I started dating, you heard my wacky dating stories. You heard me as I coped with my daughter’s severe food allergy, and transitions to day care and then preschool. And then when I married.

You all offered something appropriate at each step – and often it was something surprising, that I wouldn’t expect. You listened, you let me cry and sing. You cooked or cleaned or let me off the hook. You provided a playdate on a rainy day. You kept an eye on me and my daughter. You gave me advice – mostly solicited – on parenting, eldercare, dating, even on what to do with my hair (I didn’t really listen on that last one so much).

I thought of myself as very needy. But that wasn’t it. Now that I’ve come out the other side I can say that I was learning to ask, and to receive. I had been afraid to need, but need led me to abundance, community, and love.

Now I want this church, also, to learn what it’s like to receive – what it’s like to not struggle and work hard all the time. We shouldn’t have to cut back on our dreams because of dealing with the day-to-day.

Yes, it’s about “needs.” Needs are things that are necessary, but they are also met – satisfied, fulfilled, full. “Meeting” means so much. Many of us in this room have met. And we all hope to find a helpmeet, a partner, someone fitting our lives, to work with side-by-side.

If I think now about those heavy times I went through, what was the fulcrum, what turned the switch and transformed needing to receiving?

It was the ASK. This church is learning how to ask, just as you all taught me. How does one ask? I found it is essential to be specific. I’m a practical person and I like numbers and visuals. I find it handy to refer to this little chart and line up my income level with how I feel about this beloved community. I can see what a suitable gift would be, one that meets the needs. This guide was so helpful, as I’d never been a member of a church before or made this kind of gift. And I think the first year we made a very small one. But as I understood the chart, I planned to move onto it, and I did.

This year I lost my job, but I plan to still stay on the chart. It’s based on percentages, so even at a lower income I can maintain or even go up a level.

Please think about what you, too, all of you, have received here. Think about the proportion of your love that comes in the door. What this time means in your week. Would this place be here for you if you had stronger needs? Has it already helped? Maybe you were able to make a difference for someone else. Listen to your heart, and then see what you can do to get on that chart. Respond with the generosity you’ve seen in this beloved community.

Thank you!

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"... Only Trouble Is -- Gee Whiz"

I dreamed about my dead husband last night.

This probably doesn't seem very weird but I haven't heard from him in more than a year, and I'm sure it's a (true, old-fashioned, pre-blogging) meme. In recent weeks I've read of 1, 2, 3 instances in my immediate blogging circle plus one other spectral appearance.

I was back at HippieCollege, as I often am in dreams. For once I did not have an unfinished paper or a mid-term for a class I’d forgotten to attend ever. A man walked by who looked exactly like Gavin when he was well, perhaps age 50, perhaps earlier. I called out his name knowing it wasn’t him. When Mr. Fresh and I went to reunion this past May, he commented that although he only ran into one person from his time there, all of the “types” were present. He felt like he knew them, their names would be on the tip of his tongue, but no, different long-haired ultimate-playing biologist or superhot-supercrazy city girl. So I felt that this was a Gavin-type, not him.

To my great surprise this thin, bald man looked straight at me with his perfect real smile and said hello. I am not sure he recognized me. He wasn’t treating me like anything special, just being happy in his way.

I squinted, looking carefully for vampire teeth* or stray worms in humus falling out somewhere. Only a slightly sweaty -- living -- neck above his clean, almost threadbare gray-pink Calvin Klein t-shirt. I was not really happy to see him, except that he’s generally a nice guy. A minute more and I knew I'd start thinking “I don’t want to go back!” and feel angry, or confused, or betrayed, but I still didn’t believe it was him.

To make sure it was not a ghost, not a zombie, I wanted to see his torso -- to check his scars. First (open heart, titanium valve) surgery? Second (nephrectomy)? Third (spine, never quite healed after radiation, severe and probably still icky)? (I’m not counting the defibrillators and their replacements and battery changes. Those almost show at the neckline of the t-shirt.) I’m not sure I got as far as asking, or pulling up his shirt.

I woke up thinking how odd it was I could date him like a tree. It was night in my room, and he’d been gone almost three years. Time had truly passed. We had 300+ people at the memorial service. I speak about him all the time as someone who’s gone. Not long ago I attended my 25th HippieCollege reunion. Short Stack is looking forward to kindergarten soon.

Mr. Fresh’s legs were warm and powerful and I pushed against them as I fell back down, content.

*In real life, Gavin had pretty long canines, which would have been ferocious on someone else. On him, you’d see them when he smiled, but the rest of his face would be lit up with a pure and honest joy. As he got sicker and smiled less often, I’d see them and remember the eyeteeth were really his skull showing thru.

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