What Short Stack Gets, Part 2

Some idiot widow (widiot?), grieving the most minor kind of celebrity loss, thought it would be okay to show her 5-year-old the Thriller video.

Last year Short Stack and I spent a lot of energy on what is “in this world” versus what is imaginary, focusing on monsters in the dark and all the goofy denizens of Scooby Doo. I talk about this in my post about my daughter’s grief/learning curve. She’s mostly clear on the boundaries, although the other day she inspected the box for her Disney Princess scooter and pointed out the blurry amoeba of the “copyright” sign next to the Disney script. “Maybe that’s Tinkerbell’s magic wand?” “Uh, I guess it could be,” I prevaricated. “So fairies are real!” she concluded happily. At this age, I don’t expect all the seams to be tucked in.

And as I describe in that previous post, I haven’t told her what graveyards are for, although I’m pretty sure she gets the basics, thanks to Samantha who buried her cat in the backyard (and, uh, thanks for debunking Santa, too, sweetie!) and the pervasive icon of the tombstone, even on a pizza commercial. It’s supposed to be pretty terrifying to kids up to some age that people are buried in dirt, because kids don’t quite believe that you can know for sure if the person is really, really, really dead. So monsters -- check, but zombies? Let’s just say they are transitional. I’ve sort of explained it and she sort of understands it.

But this year we’re taking several more steps in the ladder that separates fantasy from reality. She’s seeing more, and I’m letting her see more. The main conflict at this level is how to tell what is real when some things are drawn and others are photographs. (Never mind that photos always show something in the past, when they look like “right now,” and all the time confusion at this age; or that her father, an artist, often worked in a quasi-photo-Realist mode. Those issues add only a little fuzziness to this picture.)

Still, I had not remembered that the Thriller ghouls claw their way out of the dirt in vivid color. As the few escaped the moonlit plastic graveyard, I hurried to explain that this movie is pretend, even though it looks completely real. “Those are dancers and actors wearing costumes and lots of makeup to make them look scary, they are not monsters and zombies for real.” “… and they wearing wigs?” She was interested.

“Is this a hand-me-down movie?” she asked. I was a little offended... “on-demand” is not exactly free TV. “No, I mean it’s pretty old, but… what do you mean?” “Is like it drawed?” Oh! Animated. “Yes, they made this movie by mixing photographs with drawing.” “They drawed them together?” “Sort of, it’s called ‘special effects.’”

As we watched the rest of the video she pointed out which elements she thought were drawn. She didn’t seem too scared, watching it in my lap, and when it was over we started to play with her new hair-do Barbie. I was reassured. Good mommy, nice mommy, responsible mommy.

“Could that movie ever come true?”

“No, it can never happen in real life. It was all pretend and imagination. Even though it looked real.”

“But Mommy, dreams do come true, for real!” Who wants to burst that bubble?

“Yes, good dreams can come true if you work really, really hard, but bad dreams cannot come true.”

“What if someone wished really, really hard, over and over again?”

Winging it: “No sweetie, those monsters and that scary story, and bad dreams that people sometimes have, cannot ever come true in real life, no matter how hard someone wishes for it. And good dreams come true but you also have to work to make them happen in real life.” She seemed satisfied and we started to clip the 6’ scale purple braids to Barbie’s head.

What will Short Stack think when she’s older, when she hears how MJ lived in a fantasy land all his life? How he morphed his supple, beautiful dancing body and became a mere shell filled with soul. I showed her the early Jackson 5 stage appearances on YouTube, holding my breath lest she ask why he looked so different. I guess to her, adulthood brings so many radical changes (she’s extremely upset about my large pores, which she insists are wrinkles) that his new nose wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

Wouldn’t it be great if she could grow up without understanding why someone would wish to change the color of his skin, or erase the signs of his father in his face? She’s rarely seen someone smoke and I don’t think she’s ever seen a fur coat.

Our children force us to see that the world does change. Michael Jackson -- who I did truly love as a fan until about 1986 -- will always be an example of the tragedy it is to not find your satisfaction and joy in this world. In my own childhood I learned that dreams can help you stay sane when this world is not interested in who you really are. My daughter reminds me every day that it’s never too late to play. Any reality can include some flight through imagination.

But if you hear those hellhounds on your tail, ask a friend, anyone, to pinch you. Will yourself awake with all your heart before the demons can break through to this one blessed, lovely, real world.

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Mr. Fresh: A Father’s Day Sketch

Mr. Fresh has been overwrought all week. He's been working feverishly on a demanding project, hastily planned, on which the company's future seems to depend. The June 30 deadline is tight, and we have a houseguest showing up immediately afterward.

Like me, Mr. Fresh can get a little intense. Unlike me, he’s dedicated to his job (he works from home). Every morning he gets up at 6:30, works a bit, does that day’s part of his extensive weekly workout plan, and works until 10 or 11 p.m., pausing only when nature calls. He’s been a ghost at dinner and I’ve tried to expect little from him around the house. Tense, with a bad stomach, he’s had trouble with sleep lately. Every minute has been occupied with the project and his doubts about the future of the economy, the company, the product he works on, and his career.

On Saturday he realized what he was making was rather brilliant; he had figured out some steps that make the product really innovative and useful, beyond the original outline. So, let's ramp up both excitement and pressure. I support him and try here and there to provide fun or perspective (we’re working on “not globalizing”), but mostly I’ve left him alone just as I would if two kids were fighting over a toy.

On Saturday he reminded me of a household chore I’ve committed to doing before June 30. “Yup, it’s on my list,” I figure 8 days is plenty of time for putting away a few dozen pieces of junk.

On Sunday I tried to get him out for a Father’s Day dinner but he was too tense to be social. He could barely look at our little girl. After a beer he was able to pick at the platter we were sharing but couldn’t get his head together enough to choose from the menu of his current favorite restaurant.

I'm not willing to let him "kill himself" by working, to me it seemed he'd turned a corner where that seemed possible. I resolved to talk to him later, at a quiet time.

The evening settled down to grown-up bedtime. Mr. Fresh announced with pride that he had just finished the last component. I was pretty surprised. I’d barely followed his updates all week, since I don’t really have the tools to “get” what he does. “Remind me again when John arrives?”


“This coming Tuesday?” I started to put things together.

“Yes. Two days from tonight... and I just have these things left to do...”

“Hang on a sec. Did you think this is the last week in June?”

“What do you mean ‘did I think?’”

But I did not want to shatter his world, at least, not without being sure; we both believe in playing by the numbers. I went down to the calendar. That day, Sunday, was Father’s Day, and signs taunting “Father’s Day is June 21st” had seemed omnipresent for weeks. I made sure the calendar was on the right month as I checked off the little boxes three times, counting forward from our last weekend away (last weekend, at his parents’, a trip that had been planned early) and backward from July 4.

There was no doubt… he’d left out an entire week. I held my iPod up to him so he could see today’s date from an objective source.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that. I mean, I had to stay up late just to finish laughing.

(To his great credit, he laughed very hard and almost as long.)

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A Widow on Father's Day

Milestones can bonk you in the head pretty hard, especially if you run into them without looking. But if you stand back far, enough, you start to see the long line stretching through the landscape.

We hit one today: my daughter rushed after Mr. Fresh after he dropped her off at preschool to make sure he’d gotten his present: a little keychain and an “I LOVE YOU” card with a necktie on it. We’ve let her drive what she calls him and his family, and overheard her telling a friend what a stepdad is a few weeks ago. But this is a big step, at least a big symbolic one.

See how easy it is to turn a really horrible milestone that is the bane of widows all over the country into a positive one?

(Wait a sec. Finding a suitable man and marrying him, and changing everything in our lives, was not easy. But it looks that way from this milestone. See all them big rocks off in the distance? They used to hurt, too.)

How to Help a Young Widowed
Mom or Dad on Father’s Day

Here is what you can do right now:

1. Think of a parent who has been widowed in the past several years. It doesn’t have to be this past year; holidays hurt after many other things have healed. It doesn’t have to be someone you are super-close to. Many widows report that their closest friends and family keep some distance after a loss. The reasons are complicated but suffice it to say, you can’t assume someone else is taking care of them on this day.

2. Call them and say you are thinking of them and their family. The most common reasons people don’t reach out are, “I don’t know what to say” and “I don’t want to remind them of their loss.” A widow will be glad you called even if you bumble a little, and she has heard it all: there really is no right thing to say. And she never escapes reminders of her loss, you will not be the problem. Just be honest and listen. Use “I” statements. It’s okay to have feelings, to cry, to be awkward. We are human!

3. Before you get off the phone, offer to:
-- Bring by a bag of groceries (if they have a list, great, if not, do it anyway).
-- Run an errand up to $20 without expecting to be reimbursed (just makes it simpler).
-- Come by with coffee, a treat, or a meal. Keep them company or leave them with it if they prefer. Make sure they don’t feel they have to clean up. Say “eh, looks just like my house” and then, DO NOT STARE at the piles of toys. You don’t have to “cheer them up,” and they may want to share memories. Just come as you are and listen as they are.

If you really want to be a superhero, offer to perform some ordinary household chore, especially something they would not be comfortable asking for. Most in demand for widows? Cut the grass. Widowers? Bring beer and help them fold clean laundry some evening.

4. Promise to keep in touch and do it.
-- Repeat a similar favor as above, any time, holiday or not.
-- If you come across an old picture or a memory pops up, do share it with them. E-mail or snail mail is fine, but use it as an excuse to get together if you can follow up.

What's in it for You?
If you were close to the loved one, you will find that doing this helps you heal as well.
If you didn’t know them, you may be making a good new friend at a time when she is rethinking all her relationships.

Important Note About Protocol:
Widows are not very good at returning calls or e-mails. If you don’t reach them, do leave a message but also call back or try another medium (e-mail, Facebook). Be persistent. Don’t worry, they will tell you straight up if you are being a pest.

About Taking the Kids:
As desperate as they may be for time off and as much as you may associate this holiday with a spa or golf trip alone, a widowed parent may not want to let go of the kids. But you could offer to go somewhere or invite them over to your place, or if you have kids too, arrange a playdate.

Holy Crap. Is it Monday Already?
Did someone in your family have a nice Father’s Day? It’s not too late. Take the same steps, it will be just as appreciated.

Other ideas? Success stories? Leave a comment. I’m working on a much longer piece on “how to help,” so I want to hear about your experience.

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The Third Anniversary, Part 2

It’s never simple, is it? Just when I decide there was nothing dramatic associated with the third anniversary of my husband’s death, Short Stack gets a high fever in a strange town and I have a full blown, true, fantastic spastic panic attack.

My foundation had slid away in a tenth of a second. In the depths of the attack I said to myself, “I’ve never felt this before.” But after all I’ve been through, I’ve always been able to cope. How many times have I called 911? How much bad news have I taken in? I’ve had trouble sleeping, trouble eating, but never lost my moorings. Lately I tell people that I got close to falling a few times in the past 5 years, but this felt worse than a fall.

Even at my lowest, I’ve always been able to take care of my child. Her needs always revived me.

Not tonight. Whining that her back hurt, her fragile arms radiated heat before I even touched her. I woke Mr. Fresh up and said, “Shortie has a fever and I’m totally freaking out. I don’t know what’s going on.” I lay down in this new agony, without any anchor.

No, not falling; fallen. LOW, paralyzed, airless.

My therapist always says, what does it remind you of? I remembered the moment I learned Gavin was going to die. “Oh honey. It’s cancer.” (Did you know I was a writer/editor specializing in cancer research in September 2004?) I knew it was the end because it was in a lymph node. Part two of many cancer stories starts there. I felt it was the end, and look, I was fucking right. I looked back with magical thinking: I’m so powerful. Maybe I can predict shit. It happened once.

Her back hurts. Shit. What if it’s meningitis!?

Even as I thought about moving, taking action, I felt completely helpless. And I really sort of was: I had no thermometer or kid medicine with me. I didn’t know the area. My girl needed my arms for comfort and I had to think and act, too. Task #1: Breathe. Task FAIL.

I felt alone. Where were the in-laws? Sleeping with old ears. I was alone. Almost.

I heard Mr. Fresh say something about medicine. Slowly I started to feel the floor under my back. I proposed smashing up a grown-up Advil and mixing it with a spoonful of honey. He played along with a groan. She looked at the lumpy concoction with disgust but tried, throwing it right up. He put on his pants and shoes and drove off. She screamed at me to snuggle her and I said, over and over, that everything would be okay once the medicine got here. My freakout subsided as we listened to 1:30 a.m. birds, an owl hoo'ing gently. I recalled the comfort I took nursing her for the 6 months after our loss. Flesh works, this body is all we have.

Mr. Fresh strode back into the nightlit bedroom and cheerfully tossed a little white bag at me. “The clerk said, ‘Huh, you’re the tenth parent in here tonight, there must be something going around.’”

“Mmmmmm! Deee-licious cherry syrup!”, she oozed, licking every last bit from the see-through graduated cuplet. She was already cooling off.

Poor Mr. Fresh was the only one who wasn’t back firmly asleep an hour later.

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The Third Anniversary

How did I remember my husband on the third anniversary of his death? While my daughter was at daycare, I set up a shrine with my favorite picture of him, candles scented like his favorite plants, cooked his signature Thai chicken red curry, and cracked open a Rolling Rock to toast him. It was a sacred ritual of remembrance of which I will be forever proud and I felt his spirit was truly present.

How did I make time for my precious self on this date? I took a hike in the foothills of the Sierras, received a luscious spa treatment, and reread old journals, remembering how far I've come. I ate bon-bons and watched gardening shows. Then I had my Broadway debut. The crowd showered me with roses, from which they had considerately removed every last thorn.

Yeah, right. That was total bullshit. IRL, I had lunch with a girlfriend, went to the post office to ship off a $350 book of his that I’d sold, and bought two white shirts at Target and two pink ones for my girl. I mentioned the anniversary in simplest terms to my Facebook friends and Twitterverses. Those 24 hours were nothing special.

But during the two weeks surrounding the anniversary I also: imagined that Mr. Fresh was due for a heart attack, took to my bed for 3 hour naps, and believed I needed a CT scan to detect a fantasy brain tumor. I had several major headaches, the usual fatigue, and miscellaneous cramps and aches.

Sad anniversaries, for me, are marked by murkiness, muddy thinking, and emotions that lie in ambush behind fog. Around the time of the anniversary of my husband’s death or diagnosis, his birthday, and sometimes around my father’s birthday or death anniversary, I take special care to drive carefully and avoid making decisions. I want to stave off any disaster that is cruising for me. But I’m always surprised when I can’t think well or when an emotion leaps out and grabs me.

I think I need to hear to my own advice: “Listen to your body. Grieving is physical and inevitable. The body knows.”

This muddy feeling and lack of articulation about everything (which led me to not be able to write anything more than 140 characters) must be my brain, unable to read the feelings. The body goes on, processes, moves, and grows, and my heart is healing, but my brain can’t deal with it.

But grieving isn’t rational. It’s not just intellectual or emotional learning -- it uses everything, just like life does. And it’s not a weakness, you can build your strength to any degree and it will still be there. If you don’t want it, it’s happy to hide for a while. It’s not penance, you can’t pay it off with 72 Hail Mary’s or a novena.

Grieving becomes you. It changes as you do, but it never leaves. Several times a year I forget this, and sublimate, and stay safe. I might pray or pick flowers or apply special ritual band-aids. But each anniversary is still real -- the shadow of something that sucks but isn’t happening now.

Maybe it will look at me straight if I invite it out from behind the curtain. Perhaps, like the Little Prince’s fox, it can be tamed. I’m not sure. If I'm smart, next time I’ll be looking for something dark gray, not a warning sign. But I’ll still stick to the speed limit.

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