We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming

I was supposed to talk about how, today, I planted some of my late husband’s ashes with a new elm tree. But it’s not my day. A young mom in my church community was killed in a pedestrian-car accident. The younger of her two sons had his first playdate with my daughter, who’s a little older, two years ago. He’s a ball of joy and talked about going to "Shortie's house" for weeks. Her husband gave me some important dating advice. They both did. We weren’t close friends, heck we tangled sometimes, but we were part of the same church family.

Holy crap. She organized the childcare for my late husband’s memorial service, which took place at church. That makes it hit home. I will never forget the warm honest hug she gave me a few weeks later when things slowed down. Almost four years ago.

No matter how many times I hear about a loss, now matter how much I tell others “what to say, what to do,” or how much I really do help widowed people and their friends and families, it doesn’t get any easier for me.

I think of all the other accident widows and widowers I know. Two people in my local support group lost spouses as pedestrians. If I take a step back, I can wonder at the shock when we all know that driving is the most dangerous thing we all do. But then, I am still transfixed and befuddled at how I faced my dying husband every day for two years without really seeing him. Some information just can’t soak in, it just isn’t right for it to be understood, we say we want it to make sense but it can’t. And I can’t take a step back from this one, yet.

The friend who told me, as I started to cry on the phone, mentioned briefly not wanting to tell her daughter what was wrong, why she had been crying reading her email. “Something really bad happened… uh…. with a meeting Mommy went to,” she joked.

No way, I would be honest and age-appropriate. My daughter is learning a little at a time and she’ll empathize, in some way, with a kid losing a parent. Crying, I went in to the bathroom. My girl was in the tub, doing some kind of mermaid rocking. A rivulet ran nearly to the doorway. Crying, grabbing at towels and throwing them on the floor, I told her the sad news.

It didn’t go the way one might expect. I should have known, we’d just talked about it the other day. I didn’t involve her in the ashes thing yesterday, I treated it very casually, because she’s been indifferent to death lately, uninterested in talking too much about it. Maybe it’s the same protective mechanism that we adults use every time we get in the car or smoke a cigarette.

My crying sounded, to her, like laughter. In trying to cry in front of her, an activity I used to avoid, I sounded like I was laughing. Same blubbering, wiping of eyes, only with my head down instead of back, I suppose.

No, no, I am crying, it only sounds like laughing.
But… I never seen you cry, Mommy.
Yes you have. You used to tell me to stop when you were little. It was very upsetting to you, so I used to hide my crying from you, but it’s healthy to cry and you’re old enough to see it now.
Oh yeah. Now I remembering. You are crying.

A minute later we were both laughing. The emotional extremes are so close together. She turned her back and started drawing on the back wall of the tub with a green soap crayon.

Why did she die? My daughter asks, from the tub. Do they have pictures? Did her body break in two pieces?
Honey, we don’t talk about things like that.
But what happened to her body?
The police might take pictures but they will only show them if there is a way to prevent someone else from having the same accident. We don’t look at that kind of pictures.
(I know, it’s normal. She’s learning how the body works.)
Nobody can ever look at those pictures, I’m sorry if you want to, but we can’t do that.
(What happened to open, honest, age-appropriate?)

Death is always going to be a morbid business, even if we're open about it, even if it's part of the cycle of life. Not that I care about any of that today.

As she put on her pajamas, on her own, like a big girl without me, I cried for being a widow, for enjoying reaching out to people in pain, for being able to deal with it most of the time. But not now. All I could imagine was the two little boys and the man, bereaved, numb, receiving casserole upon casserole upon bouquet. And imagining them in the heat of summer, their feelings starting to come back. A bereaved Dad facing the questions from his little one, the same questions I've heard from mine.

There's no way around it. It just plain sucks a giant rotten egg every single time.

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The only one.

This is the only picture I have of my daughter from near the time that Gavin died. I think I took this the next day, or two days after we all left the hospice facility, broken, relieved, disoriented. June 2006. Of course I know the anniversary, but not exactly when the picture was taken because, of course, the digital camera calendar was a few weeks ahead, or behind, or somehow mixed up the entire time.

I looked for this picture for a long time. There are a few others from that year but none that were memorable, and this one, only because I’ll always associate the moment this shutter clicked with my desire to preserve one still moment in the blur of everything the days and weeks before and after he died. I was happy to forget the few months leading up, when a few pictures had been taken of him weak, lying on the futon in the living room, and a few bland shots of Christmas we sleepwalked through.

There are pictures of the trip she and I took right after the memorial service, and some from her first days in day care, later that summer. Most of that time was lived in a fog, some of it with others around, most of it alone, overheated, praying someone would take a nap, wishing I were paralyzed. These pictures tell some fuzzy story about loss and then short tales of change, trying to escape, new experiences. This one, I remembered, was the only one to simply record a moment of life, an actual mood or memory.

And I wanted, increasingly as I got stronger, to remember what I’d felt like, how we’d lived then. It was easy enough to share some narrative: one about the loss (horrible, inevitable, sad in the proscribed way), the second about how we were learning new things (positive, brave, led by a secure child). The stories were sociable and appropriate. I wouldn’t learn anything from seeing the pictures of those days.

Any picture of her at age two and a half would help validate me as a survivor. I craved that proof. I mean, she’s wonderful, but we were alone in hell: grieving, the diapers, no naps, the heat of summer, the fights to get into the carseat… did it really happen without any visual record? I needed it but didn’t have the energy, I suppose, to find it.

I browsed, almost aimlessly, wondering if I’d imagined taking this single candid, looking in vain.

About a year later I was doing much more sophisticated things with iPhoto and paying more attention – and in a generally more awake state. I spent days cataloging, editing, and titling the scans I had made from Gavin’s lifetime portfolio of more than 1,000 drawings and paintings – actually using the application as it’s intended, at last, I opened a tab in the menu. The year “2006” was unchecked – toggled “off.”

I checked the box. A minute later all of 2006 – only 20 or 30 pictures – came back. Had I turned it off on purpose?

And here she is – the only picture of my only child, my little girl, coming in from the sun one summer day. You can see meaning in it, or a slice of one day. With gratitude at finding it, I choose the latter.

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A Prayer for Califmom from an agnostic UU Mom also widowed by cancer

(Read Califmom's blog and tweetstream)

Once upon a time, it was considered “profane” to invoke a deity if you didn’t have faith. These names should only be issued when you really mean it. A non-believer doesn’t own both “sacred” and “profane” expressions, whether he says “J*sus” or “f*ck,” he’s using profanity. (This is without even going into more complicated theological constructions such as “Holy shit.”)

But our everyday cuss is uttered casually, in rage, in shock. We might use a curse word to provoke, to insult, to demonstrate contempt, or to avoid saying something much more serious. We curse when we’re together, aroused, and when we feel most alone, in awe or completely confused: “WTF?” Hence the double meaning of “swearing” or using an “oath,” archaic terms which have given way to the definitely negative “cursing.”

So any prayer for Califmom, who has been helping her husband “fuck cancer in the ass,” from me, an agnostic contemplating seminary, is by definition profane. She deserves no less.

My prayer for Califmom

Here is what I wish for you, inspiring woman, true voice, brave Momma, hilarious warrior, sister widow, friend I’ve never met:

May you find peace
May those who love you allow you room
May your children continue to teach you
May your “before” world remain bright and clear
May your friends listen and hear your needs
May you find company and not conflict in your grief
May you keep your lovely world close and your kids well
May you keep first things first, and fun things fun
May you listen to your grieving body
May someone else be willing and able to handle the paperwork, hereafter to be known as the Dreaded Bureaucracy of Death (DBoD)
May you be kind, generous, and patient with yourself
May you find righteousness and a bitchin’ great story in Chapter Two
May you find peace.
May you find peace.
May you find peace.

(Also? Did you ever notice that "refrain" means both the phrase you repeat after every verse AND "stop it?")

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Sesame Street “When Families Grieve” special

Meet Jesse, a bright seven-year-old, with the cutest pink pigtails and a fuzzy blue face. She’s Elmo’s cousin, and her father died almost a year ago. Yes, the newest Muppet is a bereaved child. “When Families Grieve,” a one-hour special from Sesame Street, features her family and Elmo’s. With help from Katie Couric, herself a widowed Mom, and from Elmo and his friend Rosita, Jesse shares her experience of loss in an accurate and age-appropriate way. I know because I am mother to a grieving and fatherless little girl who is nearly that age now.

The show is compelling, compassionate, and reassuring for viewers of all ages. The goal of the program is to encourage conversation about loss and grief, particularly between parent (or uncle, as in the case of Elmo’s father, who lovingly engages Jesse) and child, the first and most important step in beginning to cope. It tells kids they’re not alone, and that while their emotions can be big and hard to understand, having feelings is natural and normal.

“When Families Grieve” is a great resource to advance grief literacy, reducing stigma and providing basic tools to open conversations. By illustrating real families and fuzzy ones sharing their feelings, the show demonstrates that talking about it really does help, and listening can be powerful.

If you’re one of my core readers, you probably already know these basics, but watching will validate some of your feelings and experiences. But if you’ve been afraid to talk with your kids, or too numb to do so (even after years – you wouldn’t be the first!), you’ll come out reassured, with some new, creative ways to remember your loved one. Most of all, the dialog and stories remind viewers that life goes on, that loss doesn’t ever completely disappear, and that there is no right way to grieve.

As for age range: The kit includes support materials aimed at kids ages 2 to 8, including a sweet storybook. My daughter, now 6, wanted me to skip (the preview DVD) ahead to the sections with Muppets, but older kids will be more interested in the 7-to-teen real kids whose families are interviewed in some detail. The oldest boy shown was 13 or so. Older teens MAY be able to gain something. Because childrens’ grief is progressive and developmental, kids experience the loss anew at each developmental stage, and ask new questions, or ask the same questions in different ways as they learn. So it’s possible that a teen who experienced loss at a younger age may be able to put himself in his old (smaller) shoes and gain something, or identify with the older kids and skip the Muppets. Leave the room and hand them the remote.

Of the four families, three lost fathers, and two of the losses were military-related. The producers didn’t take any easy ways out: one of the military deaths was a suicide after a soldier returned home. “When Families Grieve” is part of “Talk, Listen, Connect,” a program which supports military families living through deployment and other challenges. Spanish language materials are available.

In a brief segment, Couric interviews the featured widowed parents about what helped them and what didn’t, but it’s not a comprehensive view of the sequelae of grief or the complex problems facing these parents. There are no divisions: the show is neutral on politics, society, and medical, mental health, and pastoral care, and doesn’t touch on any of the supports widowed people need outside of their households. I didn’t learn much about life for military families after loss, who often live behind a wall. But for what it does – the most important goal of providing basic facts and reassurance -- this show is wonderful.

I cannot recommend this generous, entertaining, truthful show more highly to families learning to live with loss and to their friends and others who wish to support them. I’m grateful this program was put together and hope it opens dialog between many people about living with grief and learning from each other.

"When Families Grieve" is available online and a free DVD kit is available on request. There are two versions, one for military families, one for civilians. The NEW web site also includes short clips matched with activities and discussion guides. Working through these can be a better way to introduce the topic with younger children, since the full program runs for an hour and includes information parents may wish to absorb in peace.

The full program is, however, *appropriate* for all ages, even grown-ups, and you don't have to be bereaved to learn from and enjoy the show. My FB friends suggest that parents review the full program before showing it to their kids.

* * *

I was honored to be invited to a screening of the new Sesame Street special, “When Families Grieve,” at the Pentagon. Every loss recalls every other, and brings back our first loss. It’s impossible to go to the Pentagon without remembering that I watched the plume of smoke rise on September 11. The bus shelter I waited at was dedicated to those who lost their lives that day. Helicopters buzzed overhead, it seemed for ambiance. Wonderful clouds that looked like baroque draped silver curtains couldn’t be photographed because of security restrictions.

A highlight of the presentation was the banter between Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen with Elmo, Rosita, and Jesse. A baby in the audience (Adm. Mullen’s grandson) exclaimed with pure joy when Elmo appeared from behind the podium, and Elmo’s 3-year-old self responded honestly and spontaneously.

Of course, laughter turned to snuffled tears, wiped away with medaled and camo'ed cuffs, as the packed room watched the families onscreen share their stories of loss and living.

I was, I think, the only civilian press in the auditorium, and the only widow aside from those featured in the film (we were asked to stand). Despite security phalanx, I felt welcomed and as if my little blog was worth a listen.

I needed the confidence. I had a mission on this, my first visit to our nation’s military headquarters. Not just to watch (I’d already seen a previous preview online) and to ask questions if the chance arose (of course not – it was very official) -- I had a message for Elmo.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you do,” I told Kevin Clash, the man behind (really under) Elmo. He was pulling down masking tape that held his script inside the podium, wearing an elastic headband that I’m sure stabilizes the Muppet or audio gear somehow. “I have to tell you how grateful I am to you for keeping my toddler entertained after her father died. All I wanted to do was lie down on the couch and nap, and I could, while she watched you. Thank you for making this terrific program, it was accurate for the age, I can testify, and really wonderful. But mostly, thanks for your role in our survival* and even for many moments of joy during that numb time.” I meant every word, and I managed to keep eye contact with the puppeteer, not the puppet.

Then, I got my picture taken with Elmo, who, I stressed to Short Stack’s friends at the bus stop, was the real Elmo, NOT the one that’s just a guy in a suit, who gets paid to walk in parades. I posted the picture on Facebook and kvelled over and over; I was glowing all evening, my husband didn’t want to interrupt, and my daughter asked me to please not talk about it any more, please.

This morning my husband said I looked a little spent from my time with the little red guy. “You have no idea,” I taunted him, “how much worse this would be if it had been Grover. I mean, Elmo didn’t even exist when I was a kid.”

That shut him up right good.**

* (I did not tell Mr. Clash that I was pretty sure Short Stack would think Barney was her Dad after that first summer, just the two of us and the TV.)
** Not really.

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Wordless Wednesday: Pentagon Bus Stop

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Crack whore

People say that in some ways, having kids is a good thing when your life falls apart. Being a parent forces you to get up, make breakfast for somebody (even if you don’t feel like eating), and depending on their age, may get you out of the house, encourage you to keep a schedule, or give you built-in friends through your kid’s relationships, school, and other activities.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to parent when you’re grieving. But having a dependent CAN be a force that keeps you going, reminds you that life goes on (even when it totally sucks), and provides you with motivating moments of surprise and joy when your own mind can’t find any. Because a child’s needs are non-negotiable, caring for one (or more) serves as a kind of discipline in a world where few of us value that quality.

Even if you feel unloved because your partner has died, your child looks at you with absolute love. You are reminded of this powerful and universal force, and that you do still have a heart that pumps even when bruised, behind the sucking chest wound of need that you feel you’ve become. (At least, that was how I felt at times.)

When I went to my young widows and widowers support group every week, I’d get congratulated on accomplishing, at least, the job of taking care of myself and my child for the past seven days. "But I’m not getting anything done," I’d whine. “It counts!,” my cheerleaders would insist, sitting on overstuffed chintz loveseats at the seniors’ home.

I laughed disrespectfully at these, nearly my only supporters, who thought I deserved credit for these minor acts. “It doesn’t count,” I’d say. “I mean, I love her, but I have to do it. What choice do I have? To become a crack whore?” I didn’t think I could possibly get any lower-functioning.

I’m an asshole, even to myself, sometimes.

I told this story to another of my supporters, someone who knows me pretty well.

“And where, exactly, do you think actual crack whores come from?,” she said.

Uhhhh………… there were some little lights going on in my head. God doesn’t make any crack whores. I have heard stories, on the street, in fiction, in documentary, of downward spirals. Many did start with some kind of death or catastrophic loss, fire, accident, or illness. What does happen to people when they lose their whole life? Are those people – the homeless, nutjobs, the lost – fundamentally different from me? Broken, sleepwalking, lazy me?

I thought about hard drugs, which I really only know from movies. Drugstore Cowboy. Trainspotting. What a delight it would be to let go of the pressure, the duty, the responsibilities. The mortgage, the lawyer, the mother-in-law. There was a baby in Trainspotting. Crack whores have kids, too. They could be women my age, with my background, my talents, my storyline, even my child.

There but for the grace of God go I, I thought. And I started to gain a little compassion for my own sad self, living this life, using all my tools to stay afloat. Even if life is pass/fail, I would take credit for getting through.

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Widowed from a May-December Relationship

Gavin and I had a “May-December” relationship. I always resented this term. It made me sound too fresh and green, when I was sticky, black and mean; and cast him as so close to the end of the story, when in fact, he was just out of a band and doing drawings that befuddled the critics. I’d think, couldn’t we at least call it “a June-October relationship?”

Not that I cared very much what anyone thought. We were in love. I was mature for my age, with a lot to learn in his strong areas: people, politesse, the power of listening. We surprised each other with our affection and our commitment, as it grew.

Sure, there were 20 years between us. I used to say, “our age gap is not quite up to Hollywood standards.” But it didn’t matter. We loved all the same bands. We both felt moved by minimalist and conceptual art (though he always accused me of spending more time reading the labels than looking at the art). Appreciated the splendor of the mundane. Alternated between goofy and overly earnest.

A few friends cringed, a little, at first. Those on his side could see, I’m sure, that I was ripping him from dotage with his elderly mother and the fate of dying alone, of avoiding fatherhood. Others saw Daddy issues. He didn’t really like having folks ask our infant daughter who her nice grandpa was. But it’s a post-Viagra world, people. Age is nothing but a number, or in our case, two of them.

We were happy. We had, for the most part, a good balance in our relationship. Our skills and strengths, to some degree, were complimentary. (I really wish he hadn’t been a pillbox about dinner parties. We were at our best as hosts, minglers.)

But one of the great lessons of widowhood, at least for me, has been that, fuck you, love is NOT enough. Maybe some people could see in us how we’d end up, that I’d be left behind, that it was inevitable he’d die on me.

Mr. Fresh says, “You didn’t ask to be widowed at 39. Maybe at 59, when he was 79, but no one would have expected it when you had a 2-year-old.” He has a point. As much as I’ve been an old soul, even as a child, I always felt I’d start life in a new, much better direction at age 50. I thought the most beautiful women always have silver hair. I do have several relatives who’ve lived past 100.

That doesn’t mean I had to find my match outside my peer group, but I did spend a lot of energy looking to a future as an old person. Would Gavin be part of that later life? I didn’t think we’d be the cliché on the porch in rocking chairs, but who was I to quibble when I loved him? “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

I don’t feel the same way anymore. I’ve played out the endgame of the May-December relationship. I don’t really have much advice or anything profound to say.

I just don’t recommend it.

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