Musical Monday: Life Every Voice and Sing

A song I found particularly moving this past Sunday in church -- while it's known as the African American National Anthem, the poetry, the tense changes and dramatic pacing might speak to anyone who's been through hardship, and above all, there is hope in every word.

Apologies for scratchy warped sound -- I thought it was worth it to hear Queen Aretha today, rather than any of the dozens of versions of this song recorded and on YouTube...


Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
Funny I don't have any problem with theism when there's any hymn in the air. I guess I can always believe someone is hovering when a melody takes me...

And prayers to you, Aretha, for enriching my life in so, so many deep, useful, and changing ways.


Healing after Loss by Martha Hickman (Book review)

[Read my intro to Good Gifts for Widowed People, with the complete list of reviews]

A helpful, accessible book, with one major limitation for readers who don't believe in a Judeo-Christian deity. 

I was grateful to have this book at my bedside every night. Marie, the first young widow who appeared to me, left it in my mailbox one afternoon (she was usually the "trashy paperback fairy," and those were helpful, in their own way). Because the book consists of small, dated snippets — generally one quote, and one other meditation-type thought — it's good for folks who have no attention span. If one day's items are unhelpful, it's easy to skip ahead; if you "fall behind," no one gets hurt, and it's easy to catch up, if you care to.

This book has one major drawback: it was my introduction to the "stealth" use of religion in grief support. Many have commented that they are "turned off" by Hickman's assumption that you share her religious convictions and practices, which I'd categorize as generic Judeo-Christian (It's not evangelical, and not specifically Christian). I didn't find this a problem, because each entry is so brief —  I'm my own individual snowflake and all, so I wouldn't expect 100% of any book to work perfectly for me. I would not have purchased a book that was one bit more Christian than this one, but in my experience of this book and as I used it, the religious content didn't much detract from the comfort it provided. It did, obviously, diminish the book's ability to provide inspiration -- something it does try to do (and achieve, if you agree).

I DO have a problem with the fact that there's no mention made in the cover material or marketing blurbs of the religious orientation: I think all Americans who consider themselves religious should be offended any time support is offered with the assumption of faith. In this book it's one thing, but it happens over and over again in books and organizations that target grieving people. The last thing you need when you've suffered a major loss is to have someone try to sell you a religion. Note to religious leaders: soft sell works better anyway.

I'll write more about this at another time — I feel quite strongly about it (surprise!). But for now, I'll say that a mild but hidden religious message is the only thing that mars this otherwise excellent book. If you're considering a gift to someone who is really uninterested in the Judeo-Christian tradition (loss tends to shake even many people who are pretty devout) you might avoid this book, or give it with a note saying, "I've heard this is a useful book despite…"

Especially for: Anyone living with grief, Families living with child loss, Widowed people of all ages, People with short attention spans, Men.

Spiritual orientation: Non-proselytizing, faithful Judeo-Christian, but religious content is not always obvious.

Available editions: eBook for Kindle, paperback.


Seasons of Solace: by Janelle Shantz Hertzler (Book review)

[Read my intro to Good Gifts for Widowed People, with the complete list of reviews]

An insightful, beautiful, accessible set of reflections on living through loss of a partner. 

A few years after her husband was killed suddenly, Janelle Hertzler found herself taking photographs of nature and writing poetry, though she had done neither with any intention before. Seasons of Solace shares her experience, her ideas, and her changes along with beautiful photographs in an honest, unpretentious way.

For me, the most skillful aspect of the book is how she captures the appreciation of dark and light that comes when a grieving person reaches a turning point. Her words are often emotional, sometimes angry, but never sentimental or maudlin. Hertzler has a young child, but the poetry touches on parenting only briefly.

I don't know Hertzler's current spiritual direction, and I don't need to. She and her husband went to Thailand as Mennonite missionaries, but the book will speak equally well to the devout and to the uncertain (or sure agnostics) alike. Because many widowed people question their faith and seek solace there at the same time, the book's openness makes it uniquely supportive.

Seasons of Solace is a book full of questions. The enticing, deceptively simple images of leaves changing, of frost, or empty shells, suggest answers, but not easy ones. The images instill in you the certainty that each day is real and the next one will be different. That concrete quality is so big a part of coping with loss.

Hertzler has managed something very masterful here: a book that is deep and honest about the experience of loss without being limited to folks of one spiritual persuasion or with one single lifestyle. Because it's so well put together — and because it's comprised of short, varied pieces — it's a good gift for nearly anyone coping with grief. 

Especially for: Anyone living with grief, Nature lovers, Widowed with a child, Widowed with a baby, Widowed while in another country, Younger widows and widowers, Loss in car accident, Sudden Loss.

Spiritual orientation: Deep but generic, not restricted to those of any one faith.

Available editions: Inexpensive hardcover.

Intro: Good Gifts for Widowed People

Woman readingIf you're trying to pick a holiday gift for a grieving friend, you're probably stumped. If you're a widowed person trying to pick through the hundreds of titles that might help you navigate through your new world, you're probably in even more of a crisis. Both of you, prospective shoppers, feel you're walking through a minefield, but let me say, you're kind to think of a gift for them (for yourself).

I've reviewed a few of the titles that have been released in the past year (and a few others) along with my "take" on them as reading for grieving people to help you find not only the right gift, but to give it at the right time.

It's pretty close to Christmas to publish a gift list for widowed people, but books ship fast (eBooks instantly), and I'll bet these gifts will be appreciated late...  Perhaps billing them as "New Year's Gifts" would work better? (And remember, the Twelve Days of Christmas are supposed to START on Christmas... they will be happy you're not sending a partridge, right?).

People who have lost a partner are tired of platitudes and usually aren't helped by bland encouragement, so the average "gift book" that occurs to you may backfire. None of the books I'm discussing sugarcoats the experience of grief and loss. All were written by people who've "been there" (lived through a significant loss, most of them were widowed). This is important because while it's hard to grab the attention of a widowed person, and they are pretty skeptical of "experts" (rightly so), they often warm up when learning they're not alone. No book will be helpful if it goes unread, but listening to the words of a writer who has lived through something similar can be like finding a sister or brother.

I'll also try to give each book some grief-specific categories  — a great many grieving people, particularly in the first few months, don't have enough attention span to read anything longer than a page or two. Even the brainiest widow may find her taste leaning away from professional journals or Malcolm Gladwell's latest and toward People magazine. Hence, some titles are labeled "especially good for newly widowed people." I hope the other labels are self-explanatory.

List of reviews that follow:


Elizabeth Edwards (3): Dying at home

Elizabeth Edwards was sent home to die, and I felt pins of jealousy pricking into me. My husband died of cancer after two years of fight: you might expect I'd hear echoes of the last days and of the loss. But no. The hurts were petty, many, and sharp.

Because Gavin couldn't die at home, the way he would have wanted. And it was because of me.

And because of those nurses in the ICU, loving and kind to me and my little girl, who wasn't supposed to be allowed in, but they saw how his numbers jumped when she entered his windowed area of the ward. How his face would light up, so it was worth breaking any rule, despite the risks to her and him and me. After all, it was a temporary transgression: no one stays in that ward long.

Adela, my favorite, the head nurse ("Adele" had been in the top 10 names for our daughter), was the one to really work on me. "You say he doesn't want to die in a hospital. You need to work on getting his discharge as soon as you can." (Discharge was tricky because our oncologist didn't have privileges there; she couldn't reach anyone she knew, because it was a holiday weekend: Memorial day.)

I'd always heard that inpatient hospice was hard to get into. "We'd really prefer to take him home for these last few months," I said hopefully, not knowing they were thinking weeks (it turned out to be just days). Adela danced delicately around it, but within hours another staffer was more direct: "You can't handle having him at home."

But I'll have help. We have wonderful friends. 
Won't hospice offer volunteers? 
Look what we've been through already. 
I can do what's needed. I can do what's right.

He died 4 and a half years ago and now I accept what they were saying: I couldn't have handled it. With a small child, his senile mother, and insurance paying for nearly nothing… the brutal truth was I could not have changed his diapers in addition to my toddler's. It stung to hear it then, and still to say it, but: I hated being a caregiver, even to someone I loved who I desperately wanted to live. And it would have been more dangerous.

But deadliest of all was to stay in the ICU. They really wanted us out of there. And he knew they were treating him differently, that they'd given up. Instead of being the most-well person there, I think my husband picked up on the fact that he was starting to fit in. "The ICU is not a place for extended dramatic intervention. People just don't last here. It's for emergencies. When there's nothing more to do… well, it's not a good place to spend your last hours."

I just thought maybe they could make an exception and allow more visiting hours. It wasn't a bad place… look how attentive they were to me. What came across as care for me was really their strong desire to persuade me to save what was left of my self and family by getting him into hospice.

To Gavin, the ICU was a neglectful lonely place. His veil was starting to lift: he saw what was really happening. I am sure he was willing to go to hospice before I was willing to sign the papers. I said it was just so he could recover some strength, and I could have some respite, and then we'd bring him home. The timeline was rather Hallmark: months of adjustment, designed by my mind for my own emotional convenience.

None of us had any control over the timing, of course, not even Adela. All the staff, the hospice experts, everyone was off by weeks. He died four days after transfer. He'd been fighting that hard all along and he took the rest he was offered.

I was a zombie with a job: I told visitors to "please tell him that you'll take good care of me and Short Stack and Frances, and that it's okay to leave if he needs to." I was choking, and I was also saying, "it's good for him to hear that, you know, just in case."

My chief regret, my advocacy, is that we didn't start hospice sooner. We could have recognized that this disease in this man at this time was just too powerful. I know that living with denial is actually a good idea when you're faced with a terminal illness, but regrets have nagged me all this time. I like to blame Gavin and the endless positive fight at all costs, but a lot of the resistance must have been coming from me. I pulled over on the parkway to cry in angry helplessness on the way over to that appointment. In the end, I signed the papers out of sheer duty.

I was frustrated that everyone thought — knew — I couldn't have handled him at home. Finally, now, I accept that they were right. I give myself permission — that old me, the one who hadn't seen anyone die — to be an imperfect caregiver. I know my family is better off because Adela got through to me.

I was envious that Elizabeth Edwards had the chance to go home to be with family when my husband didn't.

But death laughs at all our petty jealousy: before I had the chance to write a blog post (never mind three!) she was gone. A woman who'd advocated for hospice didn't get much time to enjoy her loved ones outside the hospital. Her courage, her honesty, earned even her just the barest bit of peace.

We all deserve more than that moment.


Elizabeth Edwards (2): The Estranged Widowed

Rose "Elizabeth Edwards"

One of the most destructive grief myths is "the deeper the love, the greater the grief." John and Elizabeth Edwards had, no doubt, a complicated relationship. He'd had an affair, another child, and the couple were separated, but stories tell us he moved back home to be with Elizabeth and their two children recently, as her condition worsened. So I anticipate that despite this late, public transformation to devoted family leader, there will be lots of talk about John Edwards' transition to widower and likely, lots of judgment of how he grieves based on how he "should" feel.

(Widowed people just looooove to hear things like this when they become part of public conversation. Did you know we have punching bags in our basements? Funeral homes ought to give them away as bonuses, along with the special kleenex and a year's worth of massage therapy.)

Some of us buy into the myth that big love results in big grief. We long to be told our love was "special," we romanticize our loves when they end in death, and we naturally idealize those who are no longer around to act real and challenge our glistening memories.

But it's not true. As we adjust to our life after loss, and the drama subsides, widowed people learn that there are no formulas for grief, no number of tears to shed per year of marriage, no tricks, no shortcuts, no system.

I've had the honor of sitting alongside hundreds of widows, hearing their stories, watching them adjust over time, in person and online through my social media outreach. I've known dozens who mourned partners who died during divorce proceedings, after affairs, during separations, and even years AFTER divorce. These spouses (and former spouses) feel the same type and degree of pain, and experience many of the same adjustments, as the widows with storybook marriages (both real and imagined). These souls deserve the title of "widowed."

Why would anyone want to be called a "widow?" We often say, "welcome to the club that no one wants to join." But it does matter, because unmarried couples are routinely turned away from receiving support after they lose a partner. Because inconsistent acceptance of marriage by LGBT people means that they are nearly always taken less seriously by those who have sympathy for widowed people. And as little institutional and social support there is for grieving people, it's important that everyone who needs it is included.

My own experience of marriage and the many stories I've heard make me doubt that relationships that are "difficult" in public are all that different from more private or easier ones, especially below the surface. Any long-term partnership develops organically. Each union is as different from another as one animal from another. Their triumphs are often formed in compromise; even when a couple gets along easily, outsiders can't tell what's going on inside each individual or inside their life together. My friend Malena translated a Spanish proverb to me once, as "No one knows what is in the soup but the spoon." It took me a while to figure out what this means: not only can you not tell what makes a relationship tick, but sometimes a couple that seems unhappy meets each other's needs perfectly. (My parents seem to have used this recipe.)

"Happy marriages" aren't always what they seem, either, and you should be especially mistrustful of the rosy glasses of a grieving person. Spouses tend to "saint" their loved ones the moment they die, no matter what happened before. And there is an old saying that one should "never speak ill of the dead." 
Imagine the burden this puts on widowed people who find out about former lives and loves, drug abuse, or "love children" after their partner dies.

The guilt John Edwards may suffer as part of his grief may be stronger than that of a more faithful partner, but one never knows. Guilt is a natural part of most grief experiences — most of us fantasize that our loved one would still be alive if we'd acted differently: taken a different route that day, spoken up to a doctor — and we bear this with us until we come to forgive. The guilt is so magnified that it hardly matters what the irritant is: there's simply no math that will tell you how someone may feel after a loss.

I'll wager that it won't matter that John and Elizabeth Edwards had a difficult relationship. His grief won't be lessened or increased by the fact that they'd been separated. Now the children's experience… they are old enough (the youngest is 12) to talk about everything they've seen. The challenge for John Edwards will be to be as honest as he can with them, about the good times and the bad times, to honor their relationship — and his — with his co-parent.

Unlike a child, grief is an elemental, animal set of feelings and experiences and it doesn't understand the details of any story. A different grief is borne by each person: our emotions vary in size, shape, and color. But it is always the same weight: 100%, and it can't be fooled or outwitted by any system, no matter how hard we beg.

Estranged, separated, divorced, unmarried, the death of someone you'd planned a future with is always a huge loss. We should call these losses by the same name: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

My dating posts (rerun): My first online relationship.

I thought people could use a little humor, and I have boatloads of completely new readers who will never (I hope) wade through my archive, so I'm rerunning my dating posts from 2009 (which I "lived" in 2007). Old stories x 2. You can read the old posts in order if you prefer starting here. 

* * *

My first online relationship ended with phone sex.

In August, seeing that flamenco dancer, and with encouragement from Lil and a dare from another woman in group, I swore I’d dip my toe in. Within a month I was drenched and it was up to my neck, rapidly rising. How did I get there?

Around my birthday I placed an ad on Match.com, a little more elaborate than the one on Plenty of Fish, but same punchy attitude and honest simplicity. It was a big room to play to: Manual laborers, lawyers, investors. Idealists whose jobs I wanted more than their bodies. Losers who wanted to “feel they lady’s breasts.” There were guys who were way out of my league. Fellows who pointed out that they wanted an "HONEST woman for once." Some winked. One asked for a picture "that shows you below the neck" (it was hard to find one -- I was always squatting at kid height).

I was totally a teenager: gawky, awkward, flirty, without perspective, fresh, unaware what guys my age liked. Not sure who I was or why anyone would like me. My personal brand? My story? No fuckin’ idea. This was the story I knew. I held it close during those weeks:

I held an almost-religious faith that I would find someone else, remarry, and live a happy chapter two (or three?). I credited Gavin with this. That first night after diagnosis --- my first birthday since having a child – we drank a bottle of wine and I waved my finger at him saying, "I just want you to know, if I find someone else, and if I want to, I’m going to get married again. You know, on the off chance you don’t make it."

So generous, Gavin looked at my rage and confusion and clarity. “That’s terrific – I want you to be happy!” Two years later in my young widow/ers' group, I heard I was the only one who’d had this conversation at all. Well – after the first few months that practicality wore off and we were in and out of the land of miraculous healing, surrounded by the moat of denial, until it was too late. I suppose chapter two was an appropriate belief, since Gavin was much older than I. But I entered dating grateful that we’d had that conversation. I thought of that faith, mine and his, every day.

So you can see why nothing was working well.

Except – that it sort of was. One of my earliest winkers developed into a slow and mellow conversation. His ad quoted Groucho and pictured him leaning back with a glass of white wine, petting one of two twinned pugs. In the picture, he was talking. Then some of him on flyfishing adventures and on a boat. A man with a yacht would talk to me? Me?

I was so insecure but tried to be honest: “… I'm not even sure if these are the types of things that would make me seem more (or less) interesting. Knowing me, I should probably be trying to convince guys I'm *less* interesting. Though being 40 means being more comfortable in my own skin and less likely to compromise -- right? I suppose I should put some more pictures up. You wrote a very good profile but I still don't have much of a ‘feel’ for what you're like.”

He was relaxed, and he could deal: “… Do you really want to attract men who are attracted to a less interesting you? For that matter, do you really think you can make yourself less interesting? Seriously doubt it. I wouldn't have responded if I didn't think you were really interesting! As for me, well I'm a pretty direct person and I wrote my profile to convey that. But, I'm also REALLY interesting. I'm just not going to give away all the goodies in my profile. What would we have to talk about?”

It was scrumptious. When he expressed confidence that we were going to have coffee some day, I was beside myself. I was pulling up the bucket from the well of horniness and it was running over. I felt flushed with hormones from head to toe. At the same time, there was a lush sadness coming up. It affected my entire body at exactly the same time as the desire. I was complete and full with the conflict.

Short Stack was in toilet training. Over and over, day in day out, I kindly said, “Listen to your body, honey…” One of my challenges is to treat myself with the same loving care I give to my child. At the time, I’d heard a statement on Oprah* that “Our children learn not from how we treat them, but from how we treat ourselves.”

I started to hear what I was saying. Listen to my body. (Maybe someone else would like to listen to my body?). "My body is saying it is sad and horny." Yeah, weird, but it sounds human enough. I told YachtGuy I was flooded with sadness corresponding with him and it didn't freak him out. He said, "Take your time. This is supposed to be fun."

Now hang on a minute, I said have a body? I do?

Oh yes. Yes, honey, I do.

[White lettering on blackscreen, arousing your ire:]


Part 2. Dating Episode 1.0: Really Virtual

Maybe a week after he assured me we’d meet in person, my “relationship” with YachtGuy escalated to talking on the phone, which was richer and more wonderful. We had rapport, we laughed. I called him “French” because he shopped each day for that night’s dinner; I could hear his playful sneer when he threatened to hang up.

I nearly pee’d my pants laughing when he told me he was living on his yacht, hours from work, since the separation. We told life stories, compared marriages, talked about our dysfunctional first families. We had a similar level of intensity but I was insecure; he was gracious, reassuring, and patient, a southerner raised by bohemians, who facilitated complex accounting transactions.

Perhaps for some women “settled charges resulting from an SEC investigation” might raise a red flag. I found out that I am not one of those women.

During my work day, I’d think of him, or exchange an e-mail or two, and that sorrow and lust would rise in me again. I sought and clung to this deliciousness.

I was still scared to have a date, even coffee, even with him. Finally I allowed that I could get together for coffee in two weeks – enough time to visit the woman who kindly but firmly disciplines my hair a few times each year. I could at least prepare on the surface.

Wow -- my first date.
I wouldn’t even call what I’d done before Gavin “dating.” This was fresh territory and I only had rusty tools, though I guess my compass was strong. I warned YachtGuy that I would cry when I met him, no matter what. He warned me that he would kiss me, no matter what. I melted into an even more tangled ball of tension and pestered Vivi and Lil until they consented to chaperone the coffee date. Lil told Vivi, “Don’t forget your fake glasses and nose so we won’t be recognized.”

There were some other difficult things going on in my life – the subject of a long, separate, widowhood-related story – and they came to a head the weekend before our date. I vented to YachtGuy by e-mail and we made a date to talk by phone that evening.

As I look back on it now, after so much else has happened, I know I was a tinderbox. I couldn’t contain my excitement at any stage so far. I drank half a bottle of wine before I got him on the line. Perhaps what happened was pre-ordained. Destiny or kismet or drunken dumbness, it was a fucking total blast.

The next day I had to process with the girls:

Viv: Three hours! What did you talk about?
SDF: Um…. We only talked for one hour...
Viv: Oh my. Was the hour of talk before or after?
SDF: Before. We were pretty spent at the end as you can imagine.
Viv: Was it just dirty talk or….
SDF: The latter. So here’s how I foresee Sunday: I’m sitting across from him saying YOU'RE the guy I fucked?????? and laughing my ass off. PLEASE chaperone!
Viv: What are going to wear, and for the love of God, have you had your hair done recently? You totally have a boyfriend. I NEED DETAILS.
SDF: I do NOT have a boyfriend. What details do you want?
Viv: Basically, um … the transcript.
SDF: Transcript: First hour is like, how was your day and what do you think you want in life and let’s just have fun. He tells me how relaxed he is and how he can see the stars from his bed. I do the same except I say I can see the TV from here on the couch. He tells me some things he likes about women and what he likes to do to them. I tell him how much I enjoy those things. Things escalate to a lot of heavy breathing that cannot be heard very well and some descriptions of what we imagine we are each doing to the other except probably not accurate b/c hard to keep track of what’s sposed to be where when, breathing gets faster, I can hardly hear anything and have to keep checking if he’s still there, heavier breathing and some imaginative descriptions, exclamations and exhortations and some cursing, I hang up about 3 times (chin pushes handset buttons, or switch phones because battery dies) and one of us has to call back, then there are some louder noises. I hang up by accident again. He calls back. We make appropriate small nice talk for a while and then we say goodnight. DOES THAT HELP?
Viv: Well… it sounds almost romantic.

After phone sex, coffee had to be a piece of cake, right? I still felt that real physical contact, even the threatened kiss, would be more than I could handle easily, but at least I had some basis of recent experience with some kind of partner. I sure felt different, and people at work kept asking me about my “glow.”

Four nights before the date, just after finishing story time, I opened my inbox:

S –

Lots of thoughts in recent days. Three significant points pertaining to you:

1.  I don't want to meet you yet. In fact, I've decided to drop dating (the in-person type) altogether for the time being. Very personal reasons having nothing to do with the wonderful women I have met, you included. Sorry, but must postpone coffee for a while.  For some reason I think you will understand without explanation...at least I hope.

2.  I am strangely attracted to you. I am simultaneously troubled and intrigued by that.

3.  The other night was amazingly erotic. I want to fuck you tonight. Please call.


Sent from my iPhone

My dating posts (rerun): Pregame. Perfume, Window Shopping, and Flamenco

I thought people could use a little humor, and I have boatloads of completely new readers who will never (I hope) wade through my archive, so I'm rerunning my dating posts from 2009 (which I "lived" in 2007). Old stories x 2. You can read the old posts in order if you prefer starting here. 

* * *

We went around the circle in grieving group. What happened in your life this week? I was all a-giggle. “I BOUGHT PERFUME! Here smell this!” I oozed manically, extending my cleavage to Viv.

I’d never bought a perfume before. Sure, I used to wear sandalwood or musk oil, smearing it through my hair before martial arts class. But I’d always been skeptical that the marketplace could come up with a fragrance that really suited me, me, me, and it seemed that every perfume I tried smelled like my Grandma, mostly half-rotten lilies, at least on me.

I had lost a man. I had a child, a job, and a graduate degree. Maybe I could admit I was a woman in the marketplace – the perfume market at least. I could, I thought, settle on a single product, or two or five, and let go of my artists’ dream of inventing my perfect personal fragrance (which might take till after my death). Maturity meant dealing with reality and the limits of the mere 1,000 fragrances that are manufactured commercially. Enough perfectionism, let’s dance.

I asked girlfriends how they had selected:
“My friend who picks my haircolor told me what to buy… and ze men love it.”
“I’ve always worn White Shoulders, I don’t know why.”
“I had a hip aunt who wore this and I wanted to smell like her.”
“My grandmother told me Chanel means you’re classy.”

It was not useful and I was scared of the lilies. Then one week I sat so close to a cute Jewish lesbian at church that I joked I could smell her perfume. (Yes, it was a flirt, but given my state, she would know I was not serious). She said, oh, do you like it? She schooled me about the fragrance families. Yes, of course I like vanilla, musk, woods, spices. Must be an Oriental amber.

Tried several at the MegaBeauty on the way in to work each day. They were all so powdery – it was just wrong -- I am not a dry person in any sense of the word. Sniffed around and decided Oriental Spicy for sure.

Opium smelled fantastic at first but faded to a soft smell of Gillette shaving cream, definitely not what I was after. Went through 10 more, at least, many of which completely disintegrated on my skin.

But I fell in love with my own arm the first day of Versace Crystal Noir. “Oh man,” I told Emma, “I smell like a cake, HERE” – a vanilla cake made mostly of gardenias. Gavin and I had honeymooned in Oaxaca where they sold gardenias from the zocalo for a peso, there were always some in the room. Each day I stopped at the store and respritzed; I couldn’t stop sniffing the crook of my elbow. And it got better, peppery and floral with none of that old-lady lilyness I so abhor. Faded to something that was still seductive, even to myself. While I was sniffing I noticed, hmmmm… that arm tans rather beautifully, and has a little tone left in it… and oh the other one. Quel arm! Nice.

Sixty bucks later it was mine and I was its.

I’m pretty sure that was when I started to think of myself as a single woman and not so much as a widow. All of a sudden there were men in the streets, and in cars, and even in meetings with clients. They looked at me. I looked for empty ring fingers. (How strange to be on the make after 15 years.) Friends said, “you look great, have you lost weight?” and “what a great haircut.”

It would be another 5 or 6 months before I had my hands full of flesh, but now I was moving through air that had been charged. It wasn’t just the “aerial notes” and “headspace of gardenias” (with a touch of clove and vanilla) but those were a constant subconscious reminder of where I was and where I was headed, if slowly.

* * *

Lil and I were sitting in her SUV outside a senior’s home after grieving group. “OH MY GOD!!! I can’t believe he said that.” We giddily scrolled through replies on her phone. She had posted an ad on an online dating service a week or so before. She’d had a few winks, and some brief conversation, and was now exchanging innuendo-laden phone calls and text messages with a young divorce in a somewhat-distant suburb. I was pretty sure texting was too sophisticated for my cheapass phone.

“I’m sure Dan is thinking, ‘who is this woman?’” Lil said of her late husband. An introvert, she’d been married many years, contented, devoted, a good Mom.

There was no picture in her ad, and she was fierce about keeping her intentions from her teenagers. It’s the neighborhood pool, she said. There is so much gossip – I just know they would make mincemeat of me. I hear about everyone else, so I know…

But we were totally high on it. It seemed a little scandalous: me, feeling still married, and with a 3-year-old, with an estate to handle -- I could flirt? Then again, I’d just selected a fragrance. Could I really do it? Was I ready?

“Why can’t you go online and browse? It’s free and it really gets you revved up. You can at least see what is out there. That’s how I got started.”

It seemed possible. “Well, I do like shopping online… I suppose it can’t be that bad.”

I started on Plenty of Fish. My, there were a lot of men out there. Several of them might have been incarcerated… they’d say they were "on assignment" and would return to the area in 18 months. But you could search the database using all kinds of screens… marriage status, age. Many were clearly older than they said. Probably one-third had photos they’d taken with their phone held out at arm’s length. Or in the bathroom mirror. Shirtless. They were not hot. The literacy level on POF was low.

“It’s like window shopping at Wal-Mart," I told Lil. “But even Wal-Mart has some good things if you look hard enough.”

I decided to post my own ad. Who was I? More importantly, who was I not? I didn’t want to have to screen out too many guys who’d hate me. There were thousands of men there.

A direct approach would suit my brand: “Wiseass brainiac widow, 41, with one kid, seeks coffee and conversation. About me: No one thinks I'm boring and I am not fat. My kid insists I'm silly, although most people don't get my jokes. Please tell me that you read real books and aren't into smoking or drugs... I'm not overly concerned about politics and I love to dance.”

My pseudonym would be "Lynnette" (The result of my taking a “Which ‘desperate housewife’ are you?” quiz).

I had dipped one toe in. How deep could it get??

* * *

This will be, sort of, my last post about pre-dating. The next one on this subject starts with the best sentence I’ve ever uttered.

But this short story describes the last step before I could really “put myself out there.”

At our church in the summer, services are organized by members. This August Sunday the service featured a gorgeous flamenco dancer on the hardwood of the choir loft, in two of the intervals in which we normally would have just music.

She transfixed all of us. We looked to the choir loft fastly. She stamped her declarative feet. She held dramatic poses, Spanish arabesques. There was as much pause as guitar and those silences held us rapt. The music was plaintive and joyous, her dancing was full of life. Her belly showed, gorgeous chocolate skin. She knew exactly how beautiful she was.

How often do you find a single point around which other aspects of your life have turned? The lever or wedge, the first slow domino?

That could be me, said a voice. During her second number, it said, HANG ON, that is me. I can move. I can strut. I can command attention with a slight curve of my pinky or a thrust hip. I can be subtle and I don’t mind making a statement.

I remembered Marie’s search. Who am I? What do I like?

The flood took me by surprise. I ignored the sermon, responding to the wave:
I love fuchsia and red and black.
I love the shawl I bought at Teotihuacan.
I love music, I love to dance.
I love my perfume.

Through the hour it swelled:
I love my child.
I love my body.
I love beans.
I love dark chocolate and all kinds of wine.
I love talking late into the night about intense and light lovely topics with someone cute.
I love to kiss.
I love watching the leaves fall, and my hammock.
I love to read.
I love Dave Eggers, though he doesn’t deserve it.
I love the New Yorker and This American Life.
I love a good movie.
I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I love yoga.
I love that I can do anything when I start with a chopped onion in olive oil.
I love the equity in my home.
I love creating art and mixing materials and gazing at what I’ve done.
I love the feel of wood.
I love the smells of metal.
I love my pointy black boots.
I love rice...

I can do it. I knew in my heart and I felt it in my feet and my belly. The next evening after storytime I looked for all the flamenco classes I could find. Maybe that would take too long; I looked up salsa meetups, but those people were young. Then I realized if I was out learning to dance I could as well be out flirting with boys instead of just browsing at them. And some of that might lead somewhere. I already had a sitter every Thursday for support group; if she could handle another $28 a week, my kid would not suffer.

I was off.


Elizabeth Edwards (1): Talking around death

What a trigger it always is when a public figure battles cancer, especially when the cancer wins. It hurts less and less each year (each month even, moving at a fast pace as I approach five years after my loss), I'm less and less called to shout out to their partners, to cry in the streets, to feel it in my own bones that there will be another small emptiness somewhere in the world soon.

But I still feel it, and I still want to respond as an authority — to laugh like a disrespectful teenager when a newscaster asks, as above (earlier today, before she passed): "What does that mean, to say that 'further treatment would be unproductive?'" It means they're dying, you simpleton. Did you know, anchorman, that people are meant to age, to lose hair, to wrinkle? But we need an explanation. It's not enough to say, "they are dying," or as I would tell my child, "their body is starting to slow down and doesn't work as well any more." It's got to be concrete, physical, specific, and not use any trigger words like "death" or "dying." That's not enough: nature's not enough. We have to explain, and understand, and take it one step at a time.

So Dr. Gupta talks about fluids building up and so forth.

Why is it not enough to say, as they have, "she's at home among family and friends"? That would be enough to make me totally jealous, of both John Edwards (as myself) and of her (in the role of Gavin).

I didn't know any better either, though I wasn't on the news, and my crazy hair had nothing to do with that. I remember the last hospitalization — the week he spent in the CICU before "we" were sent to an inpatient hospice. Here are some ways the ICU doctors and nurses tried to explain dying to me in their own concrete, observable, ways:

  • Yesterday afternoon he lost the ability to walk over to the toilet in his room [it was ten feet from the bed]. Sudden loss of strength is a sign that someone is dying. 
  • He's getting discouraged. 
  • From him: "Just get me out of here. Anything, just to leave here." 
  • His body has been fighting really hard for a long time. 
  • Actually, his heart function is higher — at 40%. This often happens as the other organs get worse, like a rallying. But the heart function doesn't change the picture at all. 
  • So, he's been through all the treatments that are customary for this cancer? 
  • Whole brain radiation is a brutal therapy. I don't think there would be any benefit to it in his case.
  • I'm not his doctor any more. On this ward, we only supervise cases for 24 hours unless there is a positive change. Unless you want to start an aggressive treatment?… which I think I said I didn't recommend, when I was on his case…? 
  • This is a bad ward to be in. More than two thirds of patients who are here die. You said you don't want him to die in the hospital… you have to get him out of this ward soon. 
  • These infections he's fighting off… they mean he has no immune system left. [It seems so vicious, counterintuitive, petty, impossible to be felled by a fungus or a yeast infection after two years living with giant tumors!]
  • More antibiotics wouldn't make a difference at this point. — His organs are shutting down. [I started to hear it]
  • His body is showing color changes that indicate the dying process has begun.  [I got it.]
It's a damn good thing they don't keep bricks lying around in ICU wards.

I understand the need for science-based medicine, for diagnoses based on observation. I know I wasn't listening at all. I don't fault anyone for anything they said. I loved the care Gavin got in that CICU, as bad as the staff (wonderful people!) kept trying to tell me it was for him. I am even trying to forgive myself and my ears for trying to protect me.

I have a dream that I am part of a culture where we can hear the words, "he's dying," and not disassociate. Where science is wonderful, but the words "he's at home, among family and friends" send a clear undeniable message to us all. When I will be changed too, as part of this change; and I will be able to live and die in this brave and humble world.

But the newsmen still annoy the hell out of me. Just a little.

Dear Peter and Susan,

Dear Peter and Susan,

I have before me a Christmas card you sent to me and Gavin in 2006 from your home in Italy. While it was addressed partly to me, you'd never met me, and Carolyn, I'm not sure Gavin had ever met you. But I feel obliged to write you, anyway, and to be familiar.

You see, widows do the strangest things. For some reason, your red card, "Buon Natale," has been asking me to respond for nearly five years. I don't know why; It isn't that different from many of the cards we received the previous year, and most of the cards from 2006, I responded to right away.

Yours, I've held onto as if it mattered, and as if I could do something about it.

But your Christmas card from 2006 arrived six months after Gavin died. There was one other person who didn't know, one other holiday card inquiring, GAVIN HOW IS YOUR HEALTH? I had the heart to answer neither; but at some point, she received one of my many memorial emails at a defunct address and gently we talked it through with less drama than I'd expected (she was always dramatic: her notice I really dreaded). Yours was the only "regret to inform" letter that remained. If I could have found you easily online (still can't… what am I doing wrong? Or is your life really idyllic?) I might have said something sooner.

It's very hard to have this duty, and yet, harder to discharge it.

And why? Other than your bright card, I know nearly nothing of you. You were friends before Gavin and I met. I know you, Peter, are handsome, happy, easygoing, and brilliant. You work(ed) in communications and I had a fantasy you could straighten my career out. It's a frail image. The main picture that comes is a fantasy of the Italian mountains, wine, and good friends in the golden light: Gavin and I really hoped to come visit you in your semi-retirement, in Italy. It was going to be lovely: it was a "someday."

And now that I've no thread to you, I suppose that dream is dead, too. Perhaps keeping this glossy red rectangle on my desk, in a pile, lost with a hundred other things that may or may not be of tremendous consequence (I didn't know when I saved them "special," or lost them, which of those two I was doing — and I still don't) was my way of trying to keep that line open, to keep alive some little hope of someday being invited to your home in Piemonte. Or perhaps it's my perverse way of holding onto the mere memory of having once dreamed of five days outside (is it?) Torino.

(Did Gavin ever tell you of my follies, that for many years I manufactured by hand, in my own artist's garret, the Socks of Turin?)

Yes, I feel some guilt over not "telling you" (doubtless you knew by now, somehow, even across the ocean?), over failing in my widowly duties. But I'm also proud that as many jobs as I've neglected in five years our daughter, our most important "someday," is alive and well, and learning to read.

And so it is without the slightest desire to cadge an invitation from strangers, even to Paradise, that I am writing to connect with you around the loss of our own dear Gavin.

I'm very sorry for your loss, and very sorry to be introducing myself in this cowardly, moved-on new life way. These letters should be written by the proud but broken wife of the departed while she's still in her weeds, so she can take a humble tone but stay a little bit official. In both my old and my new lives, it seems I hardly ever do things the way one should.

I am very active online — as is Gavin's career — and would be happy to stay in touch, as long as it's okay with you that this feeble hello from a stranger is something only barely connected with Gavin's widow, but more from a new person who had a good friend in common at a different time. If there's anything else we share, it will all be a surprise.




Wordless Wednesday: 19 nativities and me

Clockwise from upper left: cluster of 8 sort of neutral colored ones inherited from Frances;
white soap nativity I used to make and sell by the dozens; menorah; teeny tiny,
itty bitty nativity from Puebla, Mx., with tapemeasure for scale
(poultry are invisible, do not know why Jesus and manger are separated);
scattered up from lower center is a big Mexican one we gave Frances;
Salvadorean one painted on bean cross sections;
red roof nativity and last loose bits nativity, mine from Mexico.
Plus misc. Mexican sheet tin angels, insufficient quantity of Hanukah candles
and the grave of a broken Chinese goldfish ornament made from a real eggshell.

Not even counting the nativities on the tree, the two that are sort of invisible in the picture, and two more types that I used to make and sell by the dozen (in addition to white and clear soap sets):

These were big hits. I sold at least 100 of each, for $25 (sardine cans) and $12 (matchboxes). If I'd stuck to it, I'd be the very young grandmother (perhaps auntie?) of the Crafty Bastards and this whole postmodern craft thing. It was a PITA, making our own market before Etsy, hell, before the Internet... we did it and loved it, but it couldn't be more than a hobby, at least, not the way I saw it then.

So, given my obsession: Do you believe me when I say I'm not a Christian? Do you think there's more to the nativity story? Does 8 years in infertility explain anything? A craving to repeat innocence? I see it as adoration... all loving through the eyes. But to say I understand it, or that it makes sense... does art need to? Does magic need to make sense at all? (Do only Christians believe in magic? Or innocence?)

I still love these, and looking over my vast empire, 19 tiny Bethlehems all on an endtable, and our decked out white glistening tree, it just makes me want to make things again.


To Engage... or Not?

Click on the image to visit Engage with Grace…. But read the below first.
The other day I got an email from Christian Sinclair, one of my favorite people online. Dr. Sinclair (he is an MD in hospice) asked me to participate in a project called "Engage with Grace," which uses a simple set of questions to share your wishes on your end-of-life care with family and friends. The project includes suggestions on how to open the conversation and stories from families on why such conversations made a difference to them. As part of its focused strategy Engage with Grace suggests that families devote a few minutes of our holiday get togethers — while we're warm with gratitude — to the important, heart-strong topic of how we do — and DON'T — want to be treated when the time comes. It's simple, powerful, and I think it could be pretty effective.

Education (and appropriate paperwork) about end of life wishes is a cause I support 100%. When my husband was in hospice, unable to speak, I found out that advance health care directives (often known as "living wills") have their limits. While Gavin's documentation laid out basic guidelines on his eventual care, the number of medical situations possible was too complex to really use the paper as a strict guide. I was protected by the document but it was most helpful to also have had many conversations through the years — and to have been through many, many junctures with him where a decision in cancer treatment was necessary — to really interpret and make decisions on his behalf. (He also had a living will, which in our state is more limited in scope, and I was his health care proxy, which is a tool that gives me power to make decisions when he can't). (You can read more about the evolution and limitations of these very important documents on Wikipedia here).

(Which all maybe reads as pretty funny when you consider I've spent the better part of my time in the last four years bemoaning how little thought we gave to his eventual death: no paradox, he'd had all this drawn up when we got married because he had had life-threatening heart problems in the early 90s. The conversation post-cancer is the one I fixate on, for better or worse.)

And I loved participating in Engage with Grace, the "blog rally," last year. (Plus, there were jokes.)

This year I just couldn't.

My resistance made me stop. Why is this year different? I realized that what I do online has changed so much in that period. At Thanksgiving last year, I was just just a month or so into the support activity I do on Facebook. That community and its development is another long story, and one I intend to tell, but it's relevant here to say just: last year I didn't know how many people I touched. I was 3 years out from my loss, and my blog was all about ME. Yes, there was a community aspect, but it wasn't very… vivid to me. Today I've been through nearly a full year of hearing from widowed people — many fresh in the face of their loss — about EVERY DAY. About their hurts, their triggers, their traumas. Yes, it's wonderful to have created a space for them to share, to be validated, to find their own ways in helping others grow. But I never expected to be doing that type of activity on Facebook at all, and certainly not to devote so much time to it or for it to take the shape(s) that it has.

But the fact is that now, I know really vulnerable people are listening. They care what I think, and I hear that the holidays are the trigger and trauma to beat all others. I have heard them winding down as the light has fallen all autumn long. Through the interwebs I can smell their anticipation of the laden table, the loaded question, the family member who "doesn't get it" and wants them "to move on, already."

Widowed people are powerful advocates for Hospice, end-of-life planning, grief literacy, and other areas where our society is changing quickly. But most of the people who respond to my widows' activities online are just concerned about surviving the holidays. They are -- they need to be -- in one-day-at-a-time mode.

Many of you are scared and hurting. I just can't throw this in your face and ask you to participate this year. I can't avoid all triggers (I'm not really all that sensitive) and many of you expect me to handle tough topics, but it just didn't feel right to engage this full-on this year.

If you want to click through, you're welcome to. Engage with Grace is a loving and accessible way to discuss end of life care with family members at the holidays. I strongly recommend it.  And of course, I know not all my readers are widowed people. But the ones who are on the edge, ARE.

I still share my own experiences, and because I'm anonymous I can be uncensored in those. I believe you'll respect these horrors and delights as sharing.

This year this community is a different one than it was, and I am a different sort of advocate now.

And for that — and for all of you — broken wide open and present for each other EVEN NOW — I am so very thankful.


Blog makeover

How do you like my new look? (Be nice. Still needs a bunch of widgets.)


Wordless Wednesday: Of course he knew

Gavin took this snapshot on our next-to-last vacation, a trip we took to the mountains just before he found out he'd need spine surgery. This was after a fairly peaceful summer of chemo, opiates, and naps, before the catastrophic and fast and bumpy ride down.

He was known for drawings of chairs and tables with no people in them, and often worked from snapshots. This chair is looking out at the golf course, just off the lodge patio.

I found it after he died, and now, I think when he shot this, he must have known.


How does Mr. Fresh feel about you calling yourself a widow? Other people ask me all the time, so one day I asked him: do you mind that I continue to do widow community activities and occasionally (when it’s appropriate) I still call myself a widow in public. We’ve already discussed his comfort at being surrounded by so many of Gavin’s things, including his artwork — he knows that stuff is never going to the Salvation Army — and about raising Gavin’s daughter. Those were dealbreakers early in our relationship.

But is my ongoing widowhood an irritant to him? Is it annoying to be married to someone who does widow things all the time? Does it bother him that most of the people I hang out these days with have shared this experience?

He hesitated just long enough to get the right relaxed confidence in his voice: “No.” It was going to be a man’s answer. “If you had fought in a war together, and twenty or thirty years later you mostly socialized with your combat buddies, the folks who’d saved your life, no one would think twice about it. If you felt closest to people who’d been in your division, if you spent afternoons at the VFW, and visited battlefields on vacation, we wouldn’t blink an eye. We’d call you veterans.”

So you really think losing a spouse is like fighting in a war?

“It’s pretty much like that, yes. For veterans, even after the war is over, it’s still a vivid series of events for you, probably the biggest thing that happened to most of you. It required huge adjustments and helped form who you are. Your loss is part of you. Just like with a veteran, your war years can be incorporated into your life without disruption. And if you were working in the field, you’d just be career military; many people are, our country relies on them.

“I have nothing to be jealous of.”

How grateful I am for a partner who takes life and loss seriously.

And thanks for fighting by my side, friends. Let’s raise a glass to many years of peace.



The little prince is walking towards the golden snake which he'd asked to fell him, trembling a little, and comforting his friend in the desert:

“You understand… It is too far… I cannot carry this body with me. It is too heavy.”

I said nothing.
“But it will be like an old abandoned shell. There is nothing sad about old shells…”

(St. Exupery) 

* * *

How can there be nothing sad about an old shell?

Or perhaps you hate and fear slugs -- you might disagree: an empty shell means another horrible snail has gone to feed a songbird. Old shells could make you pretty damn happy.

Shells totally make me sad.

* * *

"Art is the empty shells we leave behind," I wrote once in a fit of post-adolescent poetry. I was understanding for the first time in my life (How old?!?) how much more wonderful it is to love and listen to people rather than their creations.

Then I bound my life to Gavin’s, he was an artist, too. His works pale, scrubbed pencil, indelible and eternal despite ephemeral materials and their textures of shell, of egg and glass. Never of skin or soil, what I loved best: muskless but perfect, and kind, and thoughtful, with a calm clarity that warmed my every morning.

Art is always empty, and always “always.” Vita brevis, ars longa. Now I finally understand what Wallace Stevens meant: death truly IS the mother of beauty. The flower is only beautiful because it will fade and dry and return to the soil. I could stare at a dahlia forever, but it won’t let me. A wax one? A quick glance is all I need.

* * *

As I watched Gavin on his last day, on his way out, he was so clearly just a shell. It was quite a day. He wasn’t speaking any more. I’m not sure I saw his last really coherent words because as the only ride for all of his and my families, I was there late. They told us to get there as soon as we could.

“There are signs that he’s beginning the dying process, some changes in his body,” she said. The manager reminded me so much of our superthin, professional, pale fertility doctor. “… Color changes.” I could see what she meant: when we got there his hands were mottled with blue and black. He was half a corpse. The evening before I was feeding him lychee flavored ice cream for energy. I was holding the spoon. He got one or two little nips of it before quitting for the night.

NOW. What a word, now. It says so little a time like that, a time I would have had recede forward into the future forever and ever. This frail thing lying on the bed, blue hands, unresponsive, was all that was left of him. I flashed family pictures from my iPod in front of his now-sightless eyes. I played Appalachian Spring (I don’t know why I didn’t think of Patti). We applied wet Q-tips to his lips. (Q-tips were his secret drawing tool, the secret behind the light he gave to paper. Shhhh!!!)

Around noon one of his labored exhalations halted, returned and then turned into my name. “Ohh…. Supa…”

I knew right away what it meant, or what I thought it meant, even though he couldn’t say it. He was telling me, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to do this to you.” I knew he wished he could stay, but he could see at last there was no coming back to here. It was another seven hours before he stopped altogether, but there was nothing left. I didn’t want to stay, didn’t care if I was there for the “sacred job” of seeing him out. The vigil of waiting for the last breath… I’d heard of it. I had a kid in diapers. Once I knew there was no way out, or rather no way back, it’s not that I wanted to leave him, but I would have really loved to have an excuse.

And it wasn’t HIM any more. That body is not my husband. I’m not sure when he really left, or what it was that escaped, shaking, but that solid object there, porcelain and pure, is not him. I’d missed the ritual, invisible, secret, and private, of his passing. The last little bit wouldn’t be the hard part and wouldn’t matter, and definitely not to HIM. 

As it was, my little girl was sent home with my sister babysitting. My mother, his mother, one of Nana Margaret’s five adult daughters, who happened to stop by, and a neighbor couple, old friends, who had brought their dog by for “therapy,” craning around the bed like characters in some Dutch painting as his fate wound itself out. The air was tense and white; we were mostly frozen, some holding hands. There was no way out for us either.

I touched one of his elbows above the blanket we'd placed to conceal the macabre color of his paper-sensitive hands. At 7:07 he was gone. His noontime lament had been, or I read it as, an apology and a goodbye, a last call out to a partner who might or might not prove "stronger than you think."

The departure should have been a relief after the breakneck pace of deterioration we’d lived through since autumn.

The knowledge that my husband would die had been dawning for days. Even at that pace – 2 years since we knew? One? A month? (So many things happened those 22 months.) He was in hospice four days, not quite – at that slow pace I was too overwhelmed to even feel sad on that last day.

All there was to do now was to rest.


Untitled (Cancer Drawings), 2005

I didn’t want these works in the show, really. Please take something else, anything else.

They're just not representative of his work.
They were personal drawings, never meant for public exhibition.
I don’t think they’re really very resolved.

That’s not it.

I fucking hated these drawings.

Left to right: 1) With cancer, 2 + 3) getting better, making the cancer weaker, 4) without cancer.

They’re not successful.
That fourth drawing. Maybe the cancer’s gone, but so are YOU. I can’t look at them.

He was doing meditation and visualization exercises. He conjured with line and color. He’s an artist, for chrissakes. And if this series worked? He would die. That fourth drawing doesn’t show a body any more. It’s a vapor, a wisp, a spirit. Perhaps something living, but nothing solid, not an ounce. And he was losing so much weight at the time. He was vaporizing in front of my eyes. At one point that winter he got below 100 lbs. He didn’t tell me till he’d gained it back, in the early spring. Sometime in January he’d lost the use of his right arm. AN ARTIST. He wasn’t writing me phone messages — he’d tell me, and usually forget to. I didn’t know that his actions were to prevent me seeing his handwriting. But that was it: tumors blocking nerves.

So I hated these drawings because they were a failure, they were supposed to show him getting better, but they showed him dying, and as art is always magic, they would work and I could at last blame him. I could relish my rage with him no longer around, but I couldn’t stand to see them. People saw them when they visited the studio those last few months, and at my Day of the Dead event. 

It was a year or two later when the curator mentioned he must include these moving, powerful pieces in this show, this big retrospective of the organization where we met — where I worked for five years, where Gavin had served on the board for six. I wasn't happy about his choice, but it was hopeless to persuade him to take something else. They gave him chills and he insisted they needed to be shown.

I had the better part of a year to get used to the idea of people seeing the four drawings, nearly the last ones Gavin touched. On the way to the loading dock I opened the portfolio and laid them out on my therapist's Aubusson. She looked them over with a gentle smile and a nod. “He knew he was dying,” she said.

The sky above the sea opened up. “Yes, I think he did.” The drawings had been a personal statement and his way of telling me, that I didn’t want to hear. The dance was over at that moment: the tension of what we couldn’t say, wouldn’t share, of his body departing. I’d been hoodwinked, but not really. He hadn’t LIED. He just didn’t say it directly. He didn’t push me. He didn’t want to leave. But he knew he’d lost power over staying.

I mean, why else a horizon line? There’s no horizon line if you’re going to live. It’s infinite, a glimpse of the divine, hope and hopelessness mixed up, but no joy, no physical body. The weather changes over this sea but there’s no sunlight. Gavin’s light always came from within. 

And he hadn’t said, I don’t think, that drawing four was himself, cured. It was the cancer, gone. He knew it before I knew it: of course he did. He had to. We couldn’t look straight at it. It was how we got by.

But knowing that he knew the end of his story, at least during the hours he worked on these drawings, makes it possible for me to see their loveliness and depth. Accepting what they were — how their failure was all in me, and not in his intention — enabled me to drop them off that afternoon, to look forward to showing them to you, to knowing I could tell this story without doom or pity, and that I could go back to admiring his eye and hand again, as it should be. The works were re-imbued with the normal mystery that it needs to hold your eye, once my rational distaste had left.

So I stood in front of them last night, in my Mexican shawl and good boots, and shared with strangers: “My husband the artist made these drawings when he knew he was dying. They were hard for me to look at for a long time, but four years later, I can accept them and understand what they were saying. I just didn’t want to hear it then, but denial helped me stay sane, and I’m okay now.

"Yes, I’m doing well, thank you.”


Grief, Loss, Tragedy and Community on the Internet: Audio from Panel @BlogHer10

Left to right: Cecily, Kim, Loralee, Anissa, and Peter

Finally, the audio file from the Grief panel that took place in New York at BlogHer10 on August 8, just a few hours before I did my presentation on online grieving at Camp Widow in San Diego. One of the goals of my show was to have a good back and forth on Twitter between the two panels, but spotty internet at both sites foiled my plan. UNTIL NOW!!! Well, if you have the proper equipment ... considering how hard it can be to get a lapel mike, time machine is probably going to be tough.

The panel featured Cecily Kellogg from Uppercase Woman, Peter and Anissa Mayhew from Hope4Peyton and FreeAnissa, and my wonderful friends Loralee Choate from Loralee's Looney Tunes and Kim Trimble from Live from the 205.


Don't call it closure.

I don't know if I've mentioned how similar Don, the fellow who just died, was to my Gavin. But he was. They were both artists, both intellectuals, both thin to the point of gaunt with angular faces and very short hair. And I found something rare, several synchronicities maybe, where these losses collided.

I drove up to Don's second memorial service last night, the art world one that he would have wanted, in the same city as the hospital, the hospital where Gavin was treated, and the trip brought back some memories and I got lost and it was dark and it's a fairly scary quaint little city. As I walked in late, a poet friend, who I'd reconnected with at Don's first memorial, was telling this story:

"A few years ago Don's good friend and mine, Gavin O'Shaunnessy, died, and at his memorial service, I wanted to read a poem, 'A blessing,' by James Wright. I didn't do it, because I thought I'd give other folks their chance, and they had other things to say, but after the service Don and I were talking and he mentioned there was a poem he'd wanted to read but hadn't [Don did get up and speak, but conveying a message from someone else]. The poem he'd thought of was the very same James Wright poem.

And I'd like to read it now for Don.

A Blessing
By James Wright*

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom."        

The crowd of art world people let out one of those fawning gasps they do, sated, like clockwork, after every profound conclusion. I might have let out some air too: I was being touched deep within.

What justice, what finality, that I was able to hear that poem last night at last, to eavesdrop on this distant conversation between two friends with whom Gavin had such rapport and such shared priorities. We never say closure, and frankly I don't buy it, but what a gift that was.

Then I got on stage and shared my own funny little memory of Don and how he tied his necktie one day (he and Gavin were both anal retentive, but Don would win in any showdown), and how kind he had been to Short Stack and I after our loss. How we stopped by once after seeing the Nutcracker nearby, and they'd connected, him looking so much like her Daddy and conquering a brief spell of fear of male strangers. How the last I remember of Don was my daughter's little feet padding after him down that long hallway. A fond afternoon at the time of day when a child can be so fragile, but she looked up at him with trust and interest.

The hallway where, three years later, as fate would have it but I didn't mention it, he lay alone, breaking down, for two whole days after a stroke.

Thank you, Don.

And when I sat back down the woman next to me mentioned she'd lived in the apartment just downstairs and had heard those small footsteps that day and wondered.

It was an evening of blessings.

* (Poem is totally copyrighted)



My Day of the Dead: We’re not religious

If we aren’t religious, why did I sort through seven boxes labeled “holy objects” to get this smorgasbord? Looks like my faith vomited on the ofrenda. But it’s history and relic and color:

Top table, starting from 12:00:
  • Stenciled virgin of Guadalupe on tin paneling, Christmas card from 80s by artist friend, Mark Clark
  • Flanked by two ceramic virgins (local types) from the Aguilar sisters studio near Oaxaca, which we visited on our honeymoon
(Center) Otomi embroidered placemat (folded) from one of Gavin’s 70s trips to Mexico, which holds:
  • Tiny lady of sorrows in black wood frame set up by Gavin for one of our home offerings
  • Portrait of Gavin from my desk at my last job
  • Gavin’s baby moccasins, Navajo, from when they lived in Albuquerque
  • A special stone from his desk
  • One of Frances’s many rosaries, this one in a neat little zippered leather pouch
Continuing from upper right corner:
  • An important book
  • Black Oaxaca vase, Gavin earlier trip to Mexico
  • Tin fish which was our “kitchen god” from our first apartment together
  • JFK pencil sharpener that used to live with the kitchen god on top of
  • A cheat sheet with chords for all his old band’s songs
  • A bronze award from a photo club in the 50s with red candles in it (used to be on kitchen shrine in our first house)
  • Salt from Albuquerque salt-and-paper
  • His yarrow sticks wrapped in some decorative Asian paper
  • (Back to the left corner) Pepper
  • Buddha
  • Angel pin by Gavin, hand drawn on Shrinky Dink material
  • Black Oaxaca pottery mug, earlier trip
  • Shiva
Bottom table, from 12:00:
  • Worry object I made in infertility treatment, red beads and milagro of baby
  • Note I wrote to call baby
  • Photo of him and his mother at one of her many October beach birthday parties
  • Our enormous silver wedding rings we wore during the ceremony and reception, by artist friend Linda Hesh
  • Two miscellaneous rubber duckies (Gavin had a “thing”)
  • Male and female sake cups from Gavin’s desk
  • Broken antique clock from Gavin’s desk
  • Two lucky Chinese cats
  • One of five paper mache skulls painted by little girl
  • His daily wear wedding ring by Linda Hesh
  • Another skull
  • A lock of Short Stack’s baby hair
  • My daily-wear ring
  • A cup with a surprise duckie in it (art)
  • Marigolds
  • Another skull
  • Another small black Oaxaca vase
  • Arm milagro, one of scores of milagros from different countries
  • Suede pouch (Frances) with a modest Navajo raw turquoise necklace in it
Arranged by my daughter, who believes in symmetry, even if it means the wedding rings are on opposite sides of the offering and the salt and pepper have divorced.

Still need to find something to represent my grandmother, something to represent Goldy (did I mention…?), and the skeleton crafts, two sorts, that we made over the weekend from Kim Go’s instructions. Something for Amy. Something for Don. And the Christmas lights from the attic.


Parenting your grieving child, #4: Q&A with the founder of Rainbows, grief support for children

In this post, my friend, Suzy Yehl Marta, founder of Rainbows For All Children (LINK), answers real questions from widowed parents who I know from this blog, from several Facebook pages, and from Twitter.

Suzy originally agreed to write four posts, one for each Tuesday in October, and this is the last of that series. Tell me: would you like to hear more in this format? Has this been helpful to you? Do you have a question to share? Let me know via a comment (below), email (address at right), or on Facebook.

Suzy is the author of “Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope.”  She has been working with grieving children for nearly 30 years. Rainbows has programs for children and teens, ages 3 to 18, in all 50 states and many international sites. Find a program near you by calling 1-800-266-3206. Please see my note at the bottom of the post for details on how you can take a minute or two this month to "vote" online and gain financial support for Rainbows.

* * * 

I have a girl age 8 and two boys age 6 and 4. For myself I have noticed an extra set of emotions not that it is coming up to the one year mark, Do kids experience this too? I know time can be a hard concept to grasp at these ages.

The anniversary of the death of a loved one impacts every family member. While your kids are all young, your 4-year-old might not understand the permanence of death at all. However, kids are perceptive and pick up your emotions and listen to your tone of voice or your conversations.

Have you planned a celebration of their Dad on the anniversary? Gather everyone together and ask what they would like to do on this day. Face it head on. Perhaps a dinner of Dad's favorite foods, rent his favorite movie, or a trip to the cemetery to give him "gifts"...pictures they drew, cookies, etc.. Maybe they would like to write a note to their dad, tie it to a string of a helium balloon (you do one also) and together let them go up, up in the air. This can be very symbolic and healing. Let the kids be creative in designing the day.  

My son was 10 and my daughter was 6 when my husband died. They are now 12 and 8. My daughter seems to be doing ok. My son however seems so unhappy. When he is at school with his friends he is happy but when he is home he is so unhappy. How can I help him? He misses his dad so much. They used to do SO much together. I know therapy would be good and he's willing to go. He seems fine after church. So I am trying to go to church every Sunday. But my heart just breaks for him.

The death of a parent is such a searing pain to youngsters. Keep in mind, it takes years for children to wind through their grief, as the loss is reopened at their various benchmarks of maturity. It seems as if your children are handling the death in their own ways. While your daughter seems okay that does not mean she is not still struggling with the death. And your son has real reason to be sad.

As parents we want our children to be happy and enjoy their childhood. But sadness is also part of a healthy range of emotions and it's important for them to understand that these feelings are normal. While therapy could be helpful for both of the kids, a good first step is to find an outlet to meet with their peers who have had a loved one die and the opportunity to talk about their feelings and concerns in a comfortable setting.

You may find it really helpful to all of you if you can talk with your children about the death - separately and together. Perhaps you can call it "Daddy Time." As the parent, you will want to learn as much as you can about what they are feeling, believing, and needing. It is a rare child that will say they want to talk about their parent's death, it is our responsibility as parents to open the doors of conversation.

In my book, “Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope,”  I devote an entire chapter to conversation starters and activities you can do at home with your kids or riding in the car. It is most helpful if you are able to take the sting and fear out of talking about the death, the loss you share, and the all the feelings associated with it. Once you become comfortable with the discussions, they will too, and while it will still pain you to see them hurting, you'll also see them grow.

Your son and daughter both may also benefit from having another adult to hang out with. Think about family members, neighbors and family friends you can ask to do some of things he and his Dad did. Some single parents find this kind of support through their church or with the parents of their child's friends.

* * *

How you can help support Rainbows programs
Rainbows For All Children is participating in the Pepsi Refresh campaign. From Oct. 1 to 31, log on to the Pepsi Refresh web site and vote for Rainbows every day. And please help spread the word! There are just a few days left.

With $250,000 from the Pepsi Refresh Project, Rainbows will:
  • Provide emotional support to 2,500 youth through 100 new sites nationwide
  • Help children and youth strengthen problem-solving and coping skills
  • Improve communication in their families and peer relationships
  • Prevent destructive behaviors including violence and substance abuse.


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