Friday, December 9, 2011

How We Met

So beautiful a day in June
and to know it would end so soon
would have seemed insane.

We wed and traveled the world
made babies and danced and twirled.
Was it all in vain?

We lived as fully as we could.
But a year for a day I would
trade to see you again.

"Hi John, how are you?"
"Hey, what's up?"
"What are you doing Saturday?"
"I dunno.  Probably just gonna stay home.  Maybe read. Maybe just watch TV."
"You should come out with us.  Some of us are going to a party."
"I don't know.  I was kind of thinking of just staying home."
"No, come out with us.  It'll be fun!  It's a surprise birthday party for a friend's ex-girlfriend."

Silence.

"It'll be fun!" she continued.
"I think I'll just stay home."
"My friend is coming.  The three of us could go out to dinner together."
"Friend?"
"Yeah!  I think you'll like her. Come out with us!"

That's how it all started.  A set-up.  A blind date. I met my beloved on a blind date.

Except that she just wasn't my date...

I was 33.  Single.  Again.  An early 20-something divorce, a serious live-in relationship and a couple passing relationships along with five years of therapy led me to this place.  A walk-up apartment in a chi-chi part of up-and-coming Arlington, VA, sprinkled with young couples and singles trying to change the world.  I had just taken a big deep re-examine-my-life-breathe when a good friend called asking me to go to a party with her and a friend I had never met.   It had taken me a while to get comfortable in my own skin.  And maybe for the first time in my life felt okay.  I mean really okay with myself.  And staying in on a weekend, once a clear mark of looser-ness or loneliness, was something I kind of looked forward to.

But who was this 'friend'?

Intrigued, I said yes.

My friend, Alev, lived just a few blocks from me.  We had been friends for a few years and we tended to look out for each other.  We've drifted apart over the years, but I still love her as a friend.  There is a word for brotherly love, but not one for sisterly love.  Too bad.  That would fit.

Anyway, I got ready for the night.  Dressed casually, but cool.  Jeans, black t-shirt, untucked and unbuttoned oxford.  It worked in college and it still worked.  I walked over to her apartment.  I was  nervous.  I took a deep breath.  I knocked on the doorbell and the door opened.  There was the 'friend'.

You know that moment when you first see someone?  From across the room and everything else fades away?  You feel that instant connection and you just know?

This was not that time.

*Sigh*

For a moment the thought dashed through my mind: "Sorry, not feeling well; tried calling; thought I'd walk over instead and let you know that I just can't make it."  But no.  That would be too dick-ish.  And I didn't have the balls to pull it off.  We exchanged pleasantries.  Where we work.  How we know Alev.  Small talk.  And I began suspecting she experienced the same expectation failure as I.

We went to dinner.  I nice mexican restaurant in the building next door that has menu items such as "Benitos Platter" and "Gordos Enchiladas."  They bring you chips and salsa right after you are seated and you are obliged to drink a frozen margarita or a Dos Equis with a lime wedge stuffed in the bottle.

More small talk.

We ate our dinner and it was pleasant enough.  But it was time to move on with the night.

In fact, we had a deadline.  The party.  The birthday party for a friend of a friend's ex-girlfriend was at a nightclub and if we got there before 9:00 pm we got a $0.25 rail drink.  My friend had coupons! Okay!  This was news.  And good news at that!

So off we went.  I was a passenger, with a belly of mexican food and frozen margaritas anticipating a nice drink.  Something with scotch I fantasized...

Studebaker's is a B-minus night club attached to a Courtyard Marriott in Tyson's Corner, Virginia.  If you don't know the area, close your eyes and imagine suburbia and strip malls run amok trying to be cool.  That is Studebaker's.  At least that was Studebaker's in 1999.

The three of us parked and went in.  It was early.  Too early.  Throughout the cavernous pitch black dance floor blared the latest club music.  Strobes flashed and green lasers scanned the floor.  Red lights illuminated the too-hip DJ as he held one side of his headphone to one ear and queued up the next song for the crowd of, of, well, of no one.  It was completely empty aside from a small clutch standing off to the side near the bar.  We made a beeline to the bar and dutifully ordered our $0.25 drinks.  We added ourselves to the circle that now numbered about 12.  We stood there.  A few spoke.  There was nervous laughter.  We tried to gently dance to the music, but not obviously.  We studied our drinks.  I was transported back to one of any of several non-descript, uncomfortable high-school dances.  It sucked.

As my eyes adjusted I found myself standing next to a young women.  I don't remember if she had been there the whole time or had just appeared.  Petite. Dark-hair, best I could tell in the light. Skirt. Nice legs.  And there we were.  I mean, who shows up at a night club at 8:45 p.m. anyway?  Losers, that's who.  Or those of us with a $0.25 drink coupon.

I was looking for anything.  Something to pull me out of this.
"So," I started, "I guess you here for the twenty-five cent drinks?"
She turned to me. Her eyes lit up.  "Yes!"
She was equally interested in moving past this discomfort.
"Yes - I am here for the twenty-five cent drinks.  And speaking of quarter-drinks," she continued, "have you seen the new quarters?"

The new state quarters had just been issued and Delaware had just come out!  What a line.

"Yes!"
I had something in common with her.  It was quite the stretch but anything, ANYTHING, to get out of this awkwardness. "Yes," I said, "I have seen the new quarters!"
And we talked about the quarters for a bit.
"And have you seen the new twenty-dollar bill?"
"Yes, I have!  And what is the deal with Jackson's big head."
She laughed and said something.
I laughed and said something back.

And we were off.  We talked about everything and nothing.  We got drinks.  Shared stories.  Laughed some more.

And danced.

Madonna's Ray of Light had just came out and when the DJ played it she grabbed my arm and we ran to the dance floor.  It was wonderful.  She was beautiful and sexy and fun.  And a great dancer. I remember that moment like a scene from a movie where the camera pans around the couple in the opposite direction of their spinning.

I was dizzy.  I didn't know it at the time but I was falling in love.  After we danced we talked some more and I asked for her phone number so I could call her the next day and ask her out on a date.  Which is what I did.  It was a wonderful first date.  Followed by another.  And eventually we got married on that day in June.

We danced for just over ten years.  Along the way we settled into a comfortable rhythm.  We added two young dance partners.  We were traveling the world in time and space. We had our moments, but we mostly had fun.  And we danced up until the end.

I mentioned to a close friend recently that you never know when a dance is to be the last dance.  You just never know which goodbye or hug or love making will be the last one.  And how could you?

I'm glad for the memories, bittersweet though they are.  And now I hold onto my new moments and memories maybe a little more tenderly as they are each so precious.  And I never know which one will be the last.










Thursday, November 17, 2011

Moments in Time


I

A momentary embrace now locked in Time’s cold crystal like a bud in amber forever preserved.  Never bloomed, the imagined flowered fragrance, musky and sweet, lingers.  Lingers in the nose as a dream memory.

Holding the amber gem, they see what was, not what could be, but can they not mourn the loss? Like so many other.

Time.  She never looks back and wonders.  Forward, unceasing, she plods.

II

They walk, hand-in-hand, through the grove of cherry trees as a warm evening breeze separates the last petals from their buds. Moonlit, they flitter back and forth like snow and blanket the earth to which they return.  He is afraid.

III

Soft rain settles in to the thirsty soil. 
Brave new shoots reach to a tentative sun.
You embrace me and lift me up.
Tender roots stretch.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Celebration of the Dead

Here is an excerpt from my sermon from the October 30th Celebration of the Dead service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring.

If you take the beltway south to Route 210, Indian Head Highway, to Accokeek, then to Bryan Point Rd, you’ll eventually come to Piscataway National Park, part of the National Capital Parks-East.  If you then turn onto Mockley Point Road you’ll follow a dirt road. You'll drive past a farm then to the bank of the Potomac where an old Red Cedar tree grows.  This land is sacred land to the Piscataway Nation to which they have special access.  And it is here, each November, that they have their Feast of the Dead ceremony.  It was last year at that place where the boys and I were privileged to attend.

The day was chilly and breezy, but perfectly sunny.  Enough so, that we could feel the sun’s warmth on our faces but there was no doubt it was November.    About 200 hundred gathered.  We wrote the names of those who had died on red ribbons and gave them to Chief Billy Tayac, who is the hereditary Sagamore, or leader, of the Piscataway Indian Nation.  Then we all walked across a large field about a mile, back to the farmhouse we had driven past earlier.  At the farmhouse we assembled into a loose line. Near the front, four men held the four corners of a deerskin stretcher fashioned from young tree branches.  The ribbons with names were spread out on the stretcher.  Several others, banging drums and chanting, led us back, in slow procession, to the red cedar tree.  We paused four times along the way. Each time we faced a different direction.  East, then South, then West, then North while someone gave a prayer to each direction.

At the cedar tree we gathered in a semi-circle, on blankets, on camp chairs, on benches, facing the tree and Chief Tayac.   From the stretcher Chief Tayac would chose a ribbon and read aloud a name.  Whoever wrote the name was called forward to hold the ribbon and say something about the person.  Then the person would tie the ribbon to the red cedar tree.  Then Chief Tayac would call out another name.  When Amy’s name was called, the boys and I walked forward.  We stood with the red cedar tree behind us and the assembled in front of us.  The boys clutched my legs as I spoke through my tears that Amy was my wife and the mother to these boys and had died 6 months before.  We turned to the tree and the boys helped tie the ribbon to the tree.   It was then I noticed the scores of other ribbons, faded from wind and rain and time, clinging to the branches, tied there last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.

After the last name, Chief Billy Tayac led us in prayer.  The wind, he said, would carry our prayers through the branches and the ribbons and to heaven where the spirits of those who had died would hear them.  There was then singing and more drumming, and mingling.  We made new friends and we hugged.  We walked along the Potomac and the boys threw rocks in the water.  We gathered again then drove to a nearby elementary school for a potluck dinner.

It was moving and profound.  Speaking aloud Amy’s name on that chilly, sunny November day, on that sacred land on the banks of the Potomac across, literally in line of sight from Mount Vernon, created a connection to something both greater, but also simpler.  I was aware of the immense span of time before and beyond my own life.  I was aware of the strong and eternal connection to the Earth.  It was important and necessary that we were there.

In Thomas Golden’s book on grief, “Swallowed by the Snake,” he writes:

“Joy and grief are brothers in a way, and if you experience one fully you will probably experience the other in its fullness.  If you deny either one, you will limit the other to the same degree.”

There is comfort in those words.  They allow me to reflect on the joy Amy and I had as my grief raged through that first year, and still flares up from time to time.  In his book, Golden then moves from that thought to the importance of honoring our grief and honoring it specifically through ritual.  The ritual may be something built into a culture or religion, or it may be something very personal.  For example, our family lets go of purple balloons on Mother’s Day.  Ritual provides something constant or stable in what is the chaos of grief. And provides for a way to sample our grief in manageable bites in an ongoing way.  Golden describes many different faith’s and culture’s approach to ritualizing grief after death.  In our culture, however, sanctioned grief rituals are not so prevalent, and, to some extent are abandoned and lost.

Golden says our modern western world has moved far way, too far away, from the direct experiences of death and grief.  Not so long ago the family and the community were much more hands-on, literally, in the attention to our dying and then the anointing, preparation and burial of our dead.  Over time, Golden writes,

“we have been gradually dealing out all of our ritual responsibilities to professionals. From making a casket to the delivery of the oratory at the funeral, we have given out our death-related duties. Given them to funeral homes and funeral directors, doctors and medical professionals, florists and Hallmark. We have lost touch with the body sensation of having death near to us. Grief is in many ways dependent on death as its father.  Without a connection to death, grief becomes more of a mystery then it already is.”

I found this very true for me when grasping for some sort of traditions or rituals to hang my grief on.  A few existed, like the quilts that hang here in our sanctuary on which the names of those who have passed are embroidered, but others we created.  Some very much in the moment, and not planned.  An others like letting go of balloons on Mother's Day, writing, gathering with others, splitting wood in my back yard, and sewing Amy’s name into the quilt behind me.  And also creating this service with Robin today.   I admit, perhaps selfishly, that standing here today is very much about my own grief.  But I hope that in creating this day to join together and honor the lives of those who have died before us, we can each be present with our own grief in our own ways.  As Golden remarked about the relationship and inter-dependency of “joy and grief,” so too, I believe is the interdependency of life and death.  We are unique, as animals, in our ability to both comprehend our own mortality, but to also revel in and celebrate life.  Let us then, celebrate life.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Visitation


As I sat there I became aware, strongly aware, of her presence.  My mind must be playing some trick on me I first thought, but the feeling was undeniable.

Shortly before, you should know, I had passed through the tunnel connecting the academic building to the administrative building where I now sat, in the adjoining chapel.  And for those who don’t know, it is in this tunnel – tunnel sounds dark; it’s really an underground hallway – it is in this tunnel where the fresco “The Healing Spirit” lives.  This is the fresco the artist Woong-Sik Chon created back in the late 1990s after his youngest child died from SIDS. Originally to have been a representation of a passage from the Gospel of Mark, Chon transformed it into a visual of his personal journey through the deepest grief possible after his youngest child died from SIDS.  It is a most powerful piece of art.  And for me, that day, I felt a connection, a deep connection, to the artist as I lingered through that hallway.  Then, shortly after, I am in this Chapel at a small Methodist seminary and the radiant energy of Amy fills the space around me.

Tears fill my eyes and roll down my cheeks as I to my best to keep up with the worship service.  "Are you really here?"  I almost ask out loud.

There are times, for me at least, when I am presented with the supernatural, the awe of God or the sense of something “else.”  And for some of those times, many of those times really, I shake my head and reach back to some more logical, physical explanation.  Rainbows really are only a matter of optical physics, after all.  And the sensations of spirits or ghosts are just the proper alignment of neurochemical reactions triggered by some emotional need or fear.

This time, as her presence washed over me, those scientific beliefs did not crowd out what I was experiencing.  She was light and flowing literally filling the space.  Not happy nor not sad but content, she was.  And she stayed with me for a while.  A few minutes perhaps.  A sad peace began to fill me. The service was continuing and I was standing now for a song I don’t remember.  And then the most remarkable feeling of all:  She hugged me.  I could feel her all around me in an embrace.  Warmth and gentle pressure.  She wrapped around me as when a child I’d stretch out a big quilt on the floor and roll  up in it, and then stand.  It felt like that.  And a stew of emotions – sadness and longing, love and peace – nudged my silent tears into quiet sobs.  For a moment I was in another dimension embracing her, and she me, just on the other side of the veil of this reality.  I sensed she wanted to tell me she was okay; that it was okay.  That I was okay. I wanted to hear it but wasn’t exactly sure I did, but I sensed it.  And then she left.  I wanted it to last but somehow knew it was time for her to move on.  The sounds of the worship service returned and I was back in the present.

I wiped the tears from my face.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jobs' Advice


“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
- Steve Jobs, 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.
Karl Neiswender, my high school calculus teacher, taught us how to program in Fortran on an Apple IIe.  I learned of Steve Jobs's death while using the facebook app on my iPhone.  I'm typing this now on my MacBook Pro.  A curious symmetry. 
I'll not try to improve on Jobs' words by commenting.  Click here to see his entire Stanford commencement address.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Passing Time


We huddle and I turn my back to the defense.  On my left palm I trace out the straight line route with my finger. “On the count of three, go long.”  We break huddle and approach the scrimmage line where the defense, a single nine year old, awaits.

“Ready set - Hut 1, hut 2, hut 3!”

Off runs the receiver, my son -- another nine year old, and with him, step for step, the defender, as if anticipating the “go long” play.  Someone hesitates and the receiver gains a step and I loft a pass just over the defender’s outstretched hands into the receiver’s.  Touchdown!  Except we aren’t really counting touchdowns.  But it’s still a touchdown!

We switch every four plays.  As Quarterback, I mix up the play calling each time tracing the route on my left palm with right forefinger.
“Go out 5 steps then turn left.”
“Go our 3 steps, stop, turn and I’ll fake it, then go long.”
And there is always at least one “go long” each set of four plays.

And so it goes as the game swings back and forth with my older son and neighborhood friend.

Going long is always my favorite play.   It’s the riskiest, and least complicated at the same time.  And if successful, it’s the remembered play.  The plays involving “running to the left, touching the fence, then cutting across,” and so forth, may seem like they’ll be cool when called, but rarely are executed properly.  And even if successful, are only noteworthy for their complexity, not the beauty and simplicity of a well-thrown and caught long ball.  And when playing one-on-one football with Dad as steady QB, “just go long” gets called a lot.

And on we played. . .

Walking from the field after the game I stopped in my tracks as memories of similar games fired through my neurons.

Was it really 35 years ago I was on the receiving end of those thrown balls from my Dad?”  I said to myself.

And there I was, as if it were yesterday, in my child-hood front yard, catching passes from my dad as my neighbor played defense. And just like that, three-and-a-half decades were compressed into the fleeting moment it is.

They say your life flashes before your eyes the moment before you die.  Who needs to wait until death for that to happen?  It is happening all the time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Redemption?


“Do you go to church?” he asked in his deep, West African francophone accent.

I paused.  Then turned.

“Yes, I do.”
“What church do you go to?”
“The Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring.  Do you know it?  It’s up New Hampshire Avenue.”
“Mmmm, yes, I think I know that one.”
“Do you go to church?”
“Yes, yes.  I go to a Christian church.  A protestant church.”

And we talked about church for a while.  That we both grew up Catholic.  His aunt, he thinks, goes to a Unitarian Universalist church and he attended a couple times and liked it – good people, he said.  And he asked what do Unitarian Universalists believe in.  And I tried my best to explain:  Inherent worth and dignity of all humans; the interconnected web of life.  That we are all seekers of our own truths on our own paths and the community draws from human wisdom in all forms, from many faith traditions, to inform our journeys.  Some find it through the teachings of Jesus, some through the example of the Buddha, others by being close with nature.

“But what about redemption?  What about the redemption of mankind?” he asked, now with more intensity.

Silence.

“We all want to do good things,” he continued, “but it doesn’t always happen that way.  We make mistakes; we do bad things.  Why do we do that?”  He went on a little more then stopped.

“What is it that will happen after I die? “ he finally asked. “That is the question.”

Then breathed in and breathed out audibly. “Indeed. That is the question,” I softly replied.

I told him this question weighs heavily for me; that my wife died a little over a year ago; that it is a confounding question.  I told him that after she died some would say God had a plan.  And I said I cannot abide a God who plans that way.

His countenance changed.  He did not know and was so sorry.  He looked me right in the eyes. And though his face showed sadness, his eyes gleamed.  His eyes smiled at me.  He quoted scripture – the bad days of the past will be returned as so many good days in the future.  Someone will come into my life and continue walking down the path.  He said he’d pray for me and that I was blessed.  Tears blurred my eyes as a warmth filled me.  We hugged and said goodbye.

Driving away I realized he was a messenger; a prophet.  The man installing the new HVAC system in my renovated house demonstrated love and compassion and brought me The Word.  It was only a moment, but an authentic human connection with another.

With the shadows of the past decade enveloping, I became aware of a chink in its dark armor.  Perhaps there is a way out.  I felt awake.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Temporarys

We just moved.  We are renting a house in the next neighborhood over from where we live while our house undergoes major renovation.  Our rental is a cute little post-war brick rambler in the middle of a middle-class neighborhood.   I’m sure the real estate listing would include the word “cozy” in its description. We’ve been here three weeks.  I’ve met a couple neighbors so far.  Nice folks.  Here is how we meet:
“Hi, I’m John.”
“Hi, I’m Alex.  Did you guys just buy that house?”
“No, we are just renting.”
“Oh.”

Pause.

“Yeah, we are here for a few months while our house is renovated.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah.”

Pause.

Then come a couple questions and details about the renovation, how long have you lived here, a couple pointers about the neighborhood, etc.

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood!”
“Yeah – thanks, um, Alex.  Right? See you around!”

It’s all friendly and not pretentious but there is tonal deflation as the conversation unfolds.  First they realize we rent and this may not be a permanent thing.  Then my admission that we are here less than half-a-year confirms it.  And it’s during that second pause that I imagine each of us performing the same calculation: is this someone I really feel like making a commitment to get to know?  Become friends only to leave?

There is a practical aspect to this.  We modern Americans with our busy lives contain a fixed quantity of time and whatever our social circles are, big or small, are what they are.  Adding to the circle will necessarily push against the walls of our time containers.

But maybe there is something else.  When we join together as friends, or neighbors, or more – as lovers and partners – we tend to operate on an assumption of permanence.  Intellectually we know all things have beginnings and endings, but moving that intellectual knowledge to emotional awareness creates hesitations.  I hesitate to take the energy to make the new friend when I know, with certainty, that it will end. And the impermanence of a temporary rental calls the question.  There can really be no doubt, no emotional doubt, that we will say goodbye.  Even to just move less than a mile a way.

I imagine for many of us this sensation (fear?) creeps into other relationships, or prevents others.  Looking back, I recognize this in myself early on.  Those first awkward, tentative, steps towards dating in high school were hampered by this internal fear.

“I want to ask her out, but we are already really good friends.  What if she says ‘no’?”

A lens of 30 or so years brings this whole dynamic into a different focus and my unconscious reasoning of the risks is very different.  That is, risking a current friendship for something more intimate vs. keeping that friendship, as is, and risking not having intimacy.

And though I calculate those risk outcomes differently now, those core fears still linger, (must not they?) as most fears do, rattling around somewhere inside.  And what is that fear exactly?  Loneliness? Losing someone? The expected pain of grief?  What if she does say ‘yes’ but then we break up later?  That pain is to great to face, better not get too close, and so on.

Having experienced the true searing, white hot agony of grief, (not just imagining it) dragged along a better appreciation of grief’s inevitability.  And I like to think of myself as someone, now, with little to loose and it is better to risk intimacy than not.  Far better. And yet, even in small ways, like the potential to make a new, though temporary, friend, I hesitate.

Still more miles to walk.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Progressives

About two and a half years ago my pair of super-trendy unbreakable titanium rimless wireframes broke.  I went to the suburban mall eye exam and frames store to get a new pair.  Having been more than two years since an eye exam, I needed an exam to confirm my prescription.  If you wear eyeglasses or contacts you know the drill.  If you don’t it’s not really that different than any trip to any health care provider.

I filled out the forms, answered the questions, gave them my insurance cards to photocopy, and waited.  Not too long really, before I was called back to one of the pre-exam-rooms where a female technician performed a preliminary exam.  I rested my chin in a device that puffed air onto my eyeballs to check the pressure and if I had glaucoma.  Negative.  I looked into a set of binoculars attached to a giant machine that displayed different patterns and colors. Depth perception vision normal and no color blindness.  Then the technician led me into the examination room.
“Doctor Yang will be right with you”
I sat in the big chair in the middle of the room and gazed around.  In front of me sat another, larger binocular looking eye exam machine with all the many lenses.  A chart with different sized letter “Es” facing forwards and backwards hung on one wall.  And the doctor’s desk with some folders, a magazine, and a 3-D model of an eyeball.  All the normal doctor stuff.  After a few minutes a young man walked in.  Another technician? Shit, when will the real doctor finally come in?

He extended his arm and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Doctor Yang.  Nice to meet you, sir.”
Doctor? Sir?

It was one of those moments.  One of those coming of age moments.  My first time with a younger doctor.
“Uh, hi Doctor Yang,” I hesitated then quickly glanced for the diploma I failed to note earlier.
And the exam began.  I looked through the big binoculars and answered his questions.
“Left eye.  Is the number 1 lens better, or is number 2 better?” as he flipped levels and switches to dial in different lenses.
“Number two.”
“How about now. One? Or two?”
“Two.”
“How about now. One? Or two?”
“One”

And so on, until he dialed in a crystal clear combination of lenses to calculate my new prescription.

“So,” he continued, “do you leave your glasses on when you read?”
“Well, yes, I think,” and I went on about how sometimes I take them off, especially at night when I’m tired, but when I’m at a computer, it depends how close I sit, and so on.”
“How old are you now?”
“Forty-two,” I responded.
“You might be a candidate for bifocals,” he continued.
“What?”
“Yes, you see at your age your eye muscles start to deteriorate and it is harder to focus on close objects.”
“Bifocals?”
“Sure, you see at your age they can help with the near vision that your regular glasses can’t accommodate.”
“But don’t they call them Progressives?”
“Yeah, yeah, progressives, bifocals, they’re the same thing. But at your age, bifocals can really help”

And let’s be honest.  When we are talking glasses, progressives are to bifocals what adult contemporary is to easy listening.  Or smooth jazz is to muzak.  It sounds hipper, younger, trendier.  But it’s just a clever re-branding for an aging population.  They are bifocals.

But bifocals? Bi-focals!?!  I am NOT getting bifocals from some young doctor boy who thinks he knows what is what, especially at his age!

And I didn’t. I stayed with my single vision glasses albeit a new prescription and frames.  Maybe it was irrational.  But who wants a reminder of getting old?  Of body parts aching longer, of strength diminishing and eyesight weakening?  Of course, it is a component of the great mystery; it’s what comes with the unknowable time we are given and the question of what to do with it.  Pondering grand existential thoughts during that eye examine, I was not, but that was the essence of my resistance.  That fear of growing old. Of parts failing.  And what’s next - of dying.  And at 42 I wanted no reminders.

And so it was a couple weeks ago I was back at the same suburban mall eye doctor store with another pair of broken glasses.  And since more than two years had passed I was due for an exam.  And we went through the same routine of forms and insurance, and then there was the technician that puffed air into my eyes and checked for depth and color blindness.  All normal.  And I was led back into the main examination room and a few minutes later young Doctor Yang entered.

“Hi, John, good to see you again.  What brings you in today?”
“Hi Doctor Yang.  Well, my glasses broke and it was more than two years since my last exam.”  And so he started with the exam.  Left eye, then right eye, calibrating the lenses on the giant binoculars until we had the clearest set of lenses calibrated.  Then the questions:
“Do you read with your glasses on?”
“No.”
“And how old are you now?”
“Okay. I’m 44, which isn’t ‘old,’ and you are going to try selling me bifocals aren’t you,” I sneered as I finger quoted in the air around the word “bifocals.”  Well, yes, he said and patiently explained the pros and the cons of bifocals.  And the truth is, I can’t read at all with my glasses, nor sit in front of the computer.  My glasses typically rest on top my head.  And the near/far threshold has gotten to the point when I lift up a forkful of food or a cup of water I have to start with my glasses on, then lift up the frames with one hand as my other hand approaches my mouth.  It’s pathetic really.

And so I got bifocals.  Except they are called progressives.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Keys

I lock myself out of my house, on average, once every three months.  I realized this as I was standing atop a ladder trying to (unsuccessfully) break into a second story window of my house.  It was the 4th time in one year.  It was the 4th time since Amy died.  We used to have a spare key, as most do, for such occurrences.  Now I don’t.  Not because I don’t think it’s a good idea.  It’s a very good idea.  But this is one of those small, seemingly trivial chores that Amy took care of.  She took care of it for a decade.  One of countless little tasks we unconsciously divvied up.  There were the bigger tasks like cooking meals, taking out garbage, cleaning, picking up and dropping off the kids.  Those tended to have an owner but required ongoing communication and negotiation as timing and schedule conflicts arose.  But there were those other tasks: buying birthday cards for relatives (Amy), making the morning coffee (John), replacing the old phone book with the new phone book (Amy), watering plants (John), and returning the spare key to the hiding spot in the yard (Amy).

Beyond the frustration and annoyance of being locked out was a wistful memory of this one seemingly small task that Amy handled that I barely noticed.  It was her house – she had bought it before we met – so she had found the hiding place for the spare key.  And then I showed up and she shared her house and the hiding place for the key.  In the past when I’d lock myself out, I’d dig up the spare key from the hiding place and let myself in.  I’d later tell Amy and she’d ask where the key was.  I would tell her and some time later the key would magically return to its hiding place.  I was hardly aware that any of this happened until the next time I’d lock myself out and I’d retrieve the spare key.  “Yes, there it is!  Just as it always is!”  I actually recall the first couple times it happened being really excited that the spare key found itself back to its home!  I didn’t have to do anything.  Then it happened a few more times.  Then I got used to it, then expected it.

And so it was about a year ago that I locked myself out, dug up the key, let myself in, pocketed it or otherwise laid the key somewhere and forgot about it.  Only some months later – about three I estimate – did I lock myself out and not find the spare key.  Goddammit!  Of course, I thought, it’s not there because Amy is not here and I have not compensated for that fact in this seemingly small way.  It took two more lock outs and another year to take action and find a new hiding place for a new spare key.

I can’t decide if a year is a long time or a short time to take responsibility for something like this.  I imagine if a friend told me he had locked himself out of his house four times before taking some positive action I’d be incredulous.
“Really?  You are that distracted or that busy?”
And if I were asked that question I’d probably say, “Yeah. Kinda.”  But another way to answer the question is to talk about the small things that go missing and lost when someone dies.  The big things are obvious.  A person is gone.  A wife, a lover, a mother.  That is crystal clear.  Who picks up the kids, cleans up, buys new clothes for the kids, keeps track of the daily schedule, laundry, and so on.  Those questions get answered fast.  It’s obvious and there are few options.  But the spare key?  I was barely aware of the maintenance and management of that key.  At least not until I was standing there at my front door with no way in.

Someone said, "It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe."  At some time it is about the details, the small things.  Now seems a good time to remove pebbles from my shoes.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Public Hell

Dear friend,
I feel I live in hell.  Not some euphemism, but I truly wonder if it is not this world that is, in fact, hell.  Sometimes I believe the most insidious type of hell would not be one where we are condemned to eternal fire, or frozen up to our necks in ice, or some other perpetual torture.  Those hells are static – never changing.  Just unceasing agony.

This hell is the hell where beauty and wonder are dangled right in front of us and as we reach to touch them, they are destroyed.  It is the hell where we search for companionship and love then find it and have it snatched away.  That is a dynamic, living, and vibrant hell.  One that provides hope, then replaces it with hopelessness. One with powerful grief and episodic loneliness and pain.  One with death and annihilation. One where the playground bully taunts us.

“Hey, John, do you want to play with us?”
“Sure!”
“Psych!  How’s it feel to want, pussy…”

Cast out.  Like Adam and Eve.  The paradise was dangled in front of us then taken away.

That is an insidious and unpredictable hell.  And it is my hell.

I no longer wonder if I will loose someone I love, or something I love.  I expect it.  I wait for it. And when a neighbor’s 7-year-old son dies, as happened last week, I shed tears, but am also numb and resigned.  For it is what happens in this hell.  He was a sweet and beautiful child.  He was the embodiment of hope and the future.  That his life was taken so quickly, that his parents must suffer the worst pain of all pains, is an abomination - an inexplicable abomination.

“The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away,” someone said that week.  Really? If I believe that then I believe in a trickster God.  One with the conniving sense to bless a man and woman with a beautiful child, possess in them the power of the ultimate love that a parent feels for a child, endow in them the promises of re-birth and future that a newborn represents, then take it all away.  Just like that playground bully.  I cannot abide that God.

So this is the place from which I start.  And I ask myself: How do I construct meaning and purpose and sense in this hell-ish place?  How do I manifest desire and hope and promise?

There is perhaps one way.  Represented by my two boys, and the neighbors son, may they not live, or die, in vain.  If there is a way through and out of this hell, if there is a path at all, it is embodied with them.  If they live to love, and others like them, live to love then we can beat this trickster God and overwhelm his hell with our love.  It may take millennia, but it is only through human capacity to love that the force of love is generated from where there was none.  As the swirling atoms came together they first had no capacity to love, but as gravity worked its magic and pulled the elements of life together, and the life force was breathed into them, the capacity for love sprang forth.  I wonder if not the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is misinterpreted.  Perhaps it was the fruit of The Tree that also endowed us the ability to love.  So when God realized we acquired the power to overwhelm him through love, He banished us for all times from his so-called paradise; from his playground. And now our duty is to overcome the chaotic randomness of this world and drown it with love.

This is no new pronouncement – many faiths preach of this.  But I wonder if the message was confused.  God is love?  Maybe it is humans that are love.  Maybe that is our calling.  To evolve to a potentiality that is nothing but the emanation of love.  What other creatures or elements are so capable?

I like to think I have the thoughtful energy to apply this, to teach and nurture those boys to emanate love but my energy store was completely drained a year ago.  Completely drained.  I have been able to recharge it enough to function, most days, but it is below capacity and some days runs dangerously low.

Sounds like I am making excuses, and I guess I am.  But I’m just trying to provide a context.  I feel tired and weak some days.  Molding those two boys takes time and energy.  Time I am trying to create.  Energy I seek to restore.  Right now, though, I feel the need to rest. The soil has been turned over and lies fallow so its fertileness can recover.

My head hangs heavy as I gaze down to my blistered, upturned palms. Red clay obscures the cracked skin and deep folds.  Dirt and sand and dried blood press under my split nails.  It has been a difficult and tiresome season.  And like the soil, hopefully well prepared, I lie down to rest.

Love,
John

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Year Later


April 29, 2011

Dear Amy,
A year ago we said goodbye, but did not know it was forever.  A year ago we danced and made love but did not know it was the last time.  And a year ago you were my wife and I your husband, until death parted us. Parted as only death could.  And with Time’s cold and unceasing passing the echoes of grief ripple through, vibrating in my soul.  The fabric of our time rent, I am tugged forward by Time.  

Time: Merciless, compassionless, loveless.  Without hate, sadness, and joy.   

We talk of the mystery of life and why we are here and what is our purpose.  There are moments when I push against the membrane of understanding, too opaque to see through, and feel close to clarity; of knowing some truth.  I lower my shoulder and lean into the membrane, then slip, lose my balance and fall. I wonder if you now know some truth only knowable after passing through that membrane.

Fate selected us to experience death younger than many, but not all.  I have brief moments when I nearly understand this beyond the unfairness and see that we were selected to go near the front of the line.  You to the beyond and me to, well, to live on without you.  Was it for some reason?

Meanwhile, I go on searching…

Friday, April 15, 2011

Soft Butter

The knife slips through the soft butter in the ceramic dish on our kitchen counter.  It’s been just warm enough, just long enough, for the “room temperature” to rise from the upper 60’s to nearly mid-70 and the butter has softened noticeably.  We eat enough buttered toast to leave the butter out.  There is no risk of it ever going rancid even in the warmest summer days when room temperature is closer to 78.

Today our soft butter transports me in time to when last it was this soft, sometime last summer when our grief was so near the surface that the softest of breezes would set it afire like a bellows would a kiln.

Now last summer‘s anguish echoes as the waves of grief softly reverberate back through us, each time slightly less than the last, but still there, until it settles into the forever background noise of our lives.  With both hands I lean against the counter, head down. Tears fill my eyes, yet I do not cry like I would have, easily, just a few months ago.

I inhale deeply, then exhale.  I spread the soft butter on the toast then sprinkle one with cinnamon and sugar then spread another with strawberry jam and call the boys to breakfast.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Holding Smoke

There was a time, when driving to work, say, I’d hear a story on the local talk radio about some tragedy. A fire, or accident, or a murder, and my mind would wander to disturbing and horrible fantasies. What if that happened to me? What would I do? Could I get on with life?

Then I’d shake the thoughts out of my head – ludicrous. “John, you can’t obsess like that,” the little voice scolded, then continued, “you can’t dwell on such low probability events - just live life.” I’d change the station and drive on.

And then it happened. And reality slowly answers the questions posed by that horrible fantasy.

I don’t listen to the news so much anymore. But news still finds me. And when it finds me, I don’t wonder “what if.” I wonder “when.” When will death come?

This may seem fatalistic and dark, perhaps depressing. But as I reflect on it, I'm not depressed. It's more a resignation, perhaps a vague shadow of acceptance. Maybe.

Life and death: Without one, the other ceases; with one, the other is guaranteed. And approaching a year since Amy’s death, it’s unfamiliarity and abstractness seem only to grown with my own mortality coming into view. Finding a meaning in this life, and in my death, feels both more urgent and destined to folly.

Thousands of years of many religions and countless philosophers wrestling with this paradox comforts me. Some. And though some may find solace in some definiteness from those sources, more often I hold my comprehension of life and death like smoke.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My Girlfriend's Dog

Dolly is new to our family.  Dolly is a dog.  Dolly is my girlfriend’s dog.  Which also means I have a girlfriend.

I’ve struggled with the word “girlfriend” nearly as much as the concept of a “girlfriend.”  Which is to say that being 44, having been divorced and widowed with two boys, I don’t really feel like anyone’s “boyfriend.”  I’m not a boy. I had a “girlfriend” in high school for a few weeks.  And I “dated” someone in college.

For a while I would introduce her, Lori, as my “’new friend’ Lori,” emphasis on the "new."  I think everyone knew what I meant. Then after a month or so, she was no longer “new” and become just “my ‘friend,’ Lori” during introductions.

One morning as I walked the boys the half-block to the bus stop, I told them “my ‘friend’ Lori” was coming over for dinner that night.

“Daddy,” my 5-year-old started, “you don’t have to call her your ‘friend’ Lori.  We all know she is your ‘friend.’”

Of course.

But what do I call this person in my life?  A person I am intimate with, whom I have fallen in love with and want to continue to be with for as long as we can?  ‘Girlfriend,’ she is much more than.

I try not to worry about what others think but I can’t help myself.  It’s just there though I hope less than in the past. Something about the death of a life partner strips away a lot and leaves much raw and bare.  Being worried about other’s feelings or judgments is one that seems faded.  But naming someone a ‘girlfriend’ less than a year after the death of my wife conjures that worry, some.  And when I talk about Lori with others, I do get the occasional advice to “go slow” or that it may be “too soon, that first year is really the worst,” and so on.

And I get it.  The odds are, for men especially, who marry less than a year after being widowed, to wind up in divorce in large numbers at some point.  I get that, intellectually.  And she does too – or at least she says she does – and I believe her.  We could both be deluded by the strong feelings we have for each other, and I have to be honest – it patches the hole of loneliness.  But here is where I say – so what?  I think I felt similarly when I met the other primary women in my life, two of whom I married.  Not the same, but similar.  We were all deluded, at least a little, at some point, and Amy and I had a great life together.  A perfect life in fact.  Perfect in its own way that we thought was perfect.  And its gone but for the memories and photos and the continuous love for her I have which manifests as a longing for what we created together.  It will be there always. After this first year and the year after that.

Which is all to say that naming someone my “girlfriend” feels awkward for more than just because I am a 44-year-old man.  It is also because of own self-consiosusness of where I am – recently widowed.

This past weekend end Lori attended a professional conference out of town and the boys and I became the fortunate sitters of Dolly, the dog.  And I mean fortunate. We love Dolly.  Dolly is a five-year-old, female rescue dog, part Pit and part all sorts of other things.  She is a sweetheart, very well behaved, and my boys love her, which means I love her too. I did not appreciate the value of a dog for my boys.  Truly did not.

So we are house sitting which means walking the dog so she can do what dogs do.  Run and go to the bathroom mostly.  And I’m out walking Dolly in my close-in DC suburban town with cute circa World War II brick cape cods and colonials with lots of kids and dogs.  And I start getting the question – “John, is that a new dog?”

“No,” I'd hesitate, “it’s my girlfriend’s dog.”

And the universal response has been, I almost hesitate to say, variations of joy.  And it is a manifestation of the amazing love this community has and has shown me.  The neighborhood men mostly move to admiring the dog, and Dolly is a dog to admire.  The women's responses range from genuine smiles, to long and tearful embraces.

And so I guess this solves one problem – how I introduce Dolly to friends.

She is “my girlfriend’s dog.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Buddies

Grief, my new buddy, walks alongside as Time nudges us along. Time stops, looks over his shoulder, and mockingly laughs, shaking his head in contempt.

"Keep up you fuckin' pussies!" he yells like the drill sergeant he is, then laughs to himself.  Grief nervously laughs too and mutters with no originality, "yeah - fuckin' pussies!"

"But, what time is it?" I ask.  Beads of fatigue and desperation dot my brow.

"What does it matter?" is Time's indifferent reply.  He turns back and moves on. "Fuckin' pussies" he mutters barely audible under his breath. No remorse.  He is such the prick, but do I dare say it to his face?  No.  He is one of my best buddies.

How long before I get to die, I momentarily muse.  Then shake out that thought like the creases in wrinkled clothes.  Grief just rolls his eyes, smirks in bemusement, and sighs and we continue to stagger, arms around each other, like two drunks after a night of too many single-malts and stories.  Time, ever the cocky one, leads us into the evening mist, looking for trouble.

My two new best buddies.

I hate them both.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Trip to the Gym

I’m driving to the gym after work and it just comes from nowhere.  I have GOT to talk to Amy.  I panic.  I have to talk to her.  Right now!  I don’t even know what about, really.  It consumes me and I become wholly disoriented for a moment.  She is dead right?  Jesus, fucking, Christ!  What the hell is going on, I wonder.  The thought convulses through me as if I’m connected to some electrical torture device and the dial on the brass box at the other end of these wires attached to my head, chest and testicles was just spun from zero to all-the-way.  Thoughts sweep through me in a wave.  I go from driving and listening to the radio to this rush of thoughts, emotions and panic in a moment.  I’m reminded of those times from my youth.  I drank too much and too fast and in a matter of moments I go from having fun, life of the party joking, to eyes tearing, nose running, vomiting in the toilet.  The transition from happy to shit-faced puking just happens all at once.  Sometimes you feel it coming from somewhere.  Sometimes it rushes up from nowhere.  This was from nowhere.

I’ve had plenty of moments when I feel the need to tell Amy something

Can’t wait to tell Amy, she’d find that funny, or amusing, or annoying…

But this felt new, different.  And I might as well be puking in the toilet. I start crying and screaming as I drive.  “Where are you?  WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?”

I wipe the tears to see where I’m driving.  I turn into the gym parking lot and just let it come.  This is not one of the sobby cries I sometimes get which just pass, but one of the fuller throated moaning cries.  The one that starts down low in the bowels. I park.  I throw my head down as I clutch the steering wheel and let out wails and tears and mucus and saliva and let my whole body shake.  I scream - Why did this happen to me?  Why, why, why?  The “whys” trail off and as the moaning cries return and drown them out. This goes on for a few seconds or a minute or two.  I don’t know.  It subsides some.

“Why did this happen?”  I whisper to myself and to god and to the universe.

I become partially aware of who might have walked by in the parking lot.  It’s dark out and I doubt anyone would see me.  Not that I care that some random soul sees me cry, but I fear, just a little, that they’d want to help, or that my pain would somehow pass out of the car into them.  This thought slowly tugs me out of it.  I breathe deeply.  Heavily.  Slowly.

I sit and stare at the dimly lit concrete wall in the parking garage in front of me.  I can see the small imperfections.  The small holes where an aggregate rock dislodged or an air bubble formed as the wall was poured.  Then the faint and fading wood grain impression left behind by the plywood forms that where built to hold the curing cement.

Amy is now light and dust and someday shall I be as will this concrete wall.  But right now we occupy different spaces and times. And I cannot see into her space nor be in her time.  Sometimes I accept it.  Sometimes I can’t.  I then think this is just how this will be.  Just driving to the gym and the discordance between my time and space – the time and space of the living -  and Amy’s time and space – that of the dead - reaches inside my soul, grabs me and slams me hard to the ground.  It is just how it is and how it will be.

I inhale deeply and let out a long sigh – “fuck.”

Each motion becomes slow and deliberate as I restart. I grab my gym bag, I open the car door, take the key out of the ignition, get out of the car, breathe again, close the door, lock the door. Turn and begin to walk.  I breathe again.  I take a step.  And another.  And a third.  And so on.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Changing Seasons

I love the change in seasons.  It really doesn’t matter which one, I love the transitions and am happy when the next one season approaches.  This week Spring briefly teased us with 70-degree weather, clear blue skies, and southerly breezes.  For mid-February in the mid-Atlantic this is not unprecedented, but a welcome break, and a sign Winter is loosening her grip.

Normally I anticipate spring’s arrival: The cliché’s of robins and daffodils and baseball and riding bikes in the street, but this year comes with a different anticipation, hesitation really, almost dread.  This past Thursday was the warmest day so far.  Thursday was also a full moon, or so it appeared.  This Thursday’s blue sky and warmth and people out and about brought back memories of another warm spring day, a Thursday with a near full moon, when Amy was killed.

I can remember nearly every detail of the hour before I was greeted by a DC police officer.  I remember sitting in the conference room in the earlier meeting. I was bored.  I look at my iPhone, sent texts and checked email instead of paying attention.  All the while not knowing the world is turning inside out.  It’s like when the sun finally explodes and we continue blissfully for a few minutes before being consumed.

The meeting ends and I walk to a snack bar in an engineering building and buy a large diet Pepsi, answer a call on my iPhone, and respond to an email as I work my way back to my office where a 3pm meeting awaits.  I review the agenda in my head.   But instead of the meeting, I am shunted into a colleague’s office.

It’s a beautiful, sunny, spring day and the shock waves rumble through me.  In my mind’s eye I see those old black and white films of atomic bomb tests.  There is one with a stand of trees. The trees bend over, then recoil back just as a second wave incinerates them into dust.  Then nothing.

I remember each little meaningless detail of that final hour on April 29 and then time stops and my memory is fragmented.  Seemingly random fragments and images connected by dizziness and nausea.

This past year, I welcomed the change of season from Spring to Summer then to Autumn.  And even with the holidays looming, of Autumn to Winter.  But Spring?  I’ll acknowledge your new green leaves and daffodils and robins.  But you are different this year.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Spelling Words

"Daddy?  How do you spell 'mom'?"
"M - O - M."

"Daddy?  How do you spell 'died'?"

Heavy sigh.  I swallow hard,  "D - I - E - D."

And so began our after-dinner family activity.  Homework for the eight-year-old and some quiet activity like reading or drawing for my five-year-old.  Tonight he decided to write a message and transports us to another time.

Mom died on April 29 I did not no that and then we ate. A piece of pizza and then we watched tv.

Tears welling in my eyes, I gently query my five-year-old. "Really, we ate pizza?"  I had no recollection.
"Yeah, Daddy.  We ate pizza after we stopped crying."

I guess that's true.  I was being eaten whole by grief and don't remember the moments after my boys came bounding home and I had to tell them the apocalyptic news that mom died.  I don't think I ate, or drank, for a couple days until friends forced food on me.  I lost 12 pounds in two weeks.  My boys logged hour upon hour of television and wii time.  We slept together every night. Sort of slept.

My memory of those early hours following that sudden and inexplicable moment are fragmented like some horrible swirling nightmare from a childhood fever I now, as an adult, vaguely remember.  And it's a five-year-old that conjures it forward from his memory as he learns to spell words.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine's Day Letter to My Sons

Dear Boys,

It was Valentine's Day 12 years ago that your mother and I went on our second date.  It just worked out that way.  We met at a restaurant in Alexandria, VA for dinner, then returned to my apartment in Arlington.  We watched The Simpson's Valentine's Day special.  I bought her a small box (4 piece) Godiva chocolate sampler and a Bart Simpson Valentine's Card, perhaps like one a classmate gave you today.  It had a butt-naked Bart with Cupid wings and bow and arrow with the caption, "Will you be mine, man?" Your mom loved it.  It was understated but romantic, and a little silly.  I can't tell you how long I agonized over what to get the woman whom I just met for Valentine's Day.

We talked that night.  A lot.  And about you.  Not specifically, but in more than just theoretical terms.  As we chatted and gradually exposed to each other whom we were, we shared about our previous relationships.  How was it that you, I wondered to your mom, seemingly quite a catch, was 30-something and single?  Well, your mom explained, the person she was with before, among other things, didn't want children.  Your mother, of course, did.
I remarked, "that's a coincidence, the same thing happened to me."
"You mean you don't want children?" she asked nervously.
"No," I hesitated, "my girlfriend didn't."

We paused.  We stared at each other.  For a while neither of us spoke.  Our second date.

We covered a lot of territory that night.  Easily three or four date's worth.  We discussed love and family and our respective plans for a future.  It felt easy.  It felt new and exciting.  I didn't know it in the moment, but I had fallen in love.

It's bittersweet recalling that night.  And it seems strange, in some way, that your mom and I didn't really make a big deal about Valentine's Day over the past few years.  Of course there would be some flowers and cards, and we'd almost always retell that story to ourselves - "can you believe it was only our second date when we talked about children?"

And so it was.

Why do I share this with you?  I don't know - I guess it's part of our family history, the beginning in fact, and I want you to know it.  And I also want you to know about the love your mom and I had.  Still have.  And how much that love existed early on and was behind and a part of us wanting to come together. To create a family.  To create you.  But perhaps more than that, I want you to know of love.

You'll probably come to a point in your life and wonder, like we all wonder, if you are "in love," or not.  And how do you know if you love someone, or not?  Is this the right person for me? And so on.  They are questions with no answers.  At least, no answers that someone else can satisfactorily give.

However you come to understand your love for another, know this:  Love will scare you.  And it will scare you for many reasons.  But one reason it will scare you, if you are at all like your daddy, is because you will be afraid, once you have it, that you will lose it.  Falling in love is to risk losing another.  And the greatest loss is the reflection of the greatest love.   You need to find your way through that fear.

There are several variations of the Saint Valentine story, but we generally understand that he was martyred, beheaded perhaps, for marrying Christians a long time ago, which, believe it or not, was a crime in Rome.  He accepted the ultimate risk in the name of love.  Was he afraid of dying?  Maybe.  I don't think we'll ever know.  But that didn't stop him.  He believed in something bigger than he; bigger than Rome.  He believed that when two people truly love each other, they should be together and that joining together be sanctioned publicly.  He died because he believed in love then acted on it.

When I was young, in my teens and twenties, and even early thirties, I was afraid to act.  I was afraid to act because I was afraid to lose.  Recalling those days conjures the dull grief and aching suffering of loneliness.  I look back through a different lens now and have a measure of compassion for that young, fearful boy.  I probably wasn't too different from my friends, though I felt different.

And now I again experience grief and suffering.  This time it is the searing, white-hot stabbing pain from the grief and suffering from losing my beloved.  My dad, your grandpa, was right when he quoted Tennyson at your mom's memorial service - it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved.  I say that having experienced both.

I hope some day you each will wonder about the nature of love.  I pray for you that some day the fear of loss does not prevent you from enjoying the grace of full love.  And while love may not come when you want it, or even with whom you think you want it, always remain willing to love.

And be willing to lose.

Love,
Dad

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Forty-Three

I met Amy shortly after her 31st birthday.  She told me her birth date and I dutifully remembered it.  Incorrectly.  Somehow January 20th stuck in my mind.  One year I asked what she wanted to do for her birthday this coming Saturday. 
"Saturday?"  She queried.  "My birthday is on Monday.  You DO remember my birthday is on the 22nd, right?" 
"Yes, yes, of COURSE I remember," I lied.

And then one year I renewed our benefits and slipped again by filling out the paperwork with dependent information and the wrong birthday. Amy noticed this when getting a prescription and was denied coverage for she was the wrong Amy with a different birthdate.

Luckily, Roe v. Wade day is also Amy's birthday.  She would sometimes joke that people always protested in front on the Supreme Court on her birthday. So from time to time I did what any normal person would do to recall her birthday:  Google "Roe v Wade."

Saturday Amy turned 43.  We released purple balloons at the Middle School like we did on Mother's Day.  And then the boys and I ran down and up the big hill nearby.  It was very cold, we wore ourselves out and I tweaked my achilles.

There have been billions of January 22nds even before January existed. And billions more will come.  Yet this is our first January 22 apart since being together.  The Sun and Earth will conspire again and again to create more January 22nds.  And nothing I know stops that.  And nothing stops the love you gave us, nor the love I hope you received.  That I will never forget.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Soap Bubbles

It's the small things, really.  I used to see her everywhere.  In the clouds, the trees, the rain.  But now I see her in the medicine cabinet and on my tax return form.

Qualifying Widow(er) with dependent children
The other day I opened the medicine cabinet and there she was - woman's daily multi-vitamin, birth control pills, and benadryl for sinus headaches.

I used our last bar of soap.  The soap she liked and would buy on sale.  I think about this as I hold the last dissolving sliver in my hand. Then it foams and disintegrates as it washes down the shower drain.  For a moment I wonder, should I have kept it?  I cry as hot shower water runs down over me.

Like soap bubbles we join together as foam then dissolve back into water.

Friday, January 7, 2011

In Mortality

Despair and loneliness emerge to fill death's vacuum.  Rushing together they implode into a blinding light:  grief's vain attempt to fill the void.  Next to me she walked.  Coerced, I bid farewell to the life partner with whom new life was created.  In death, as we vowed, we part ways from the physical.

I gaze into the mirror and the refection of my own mortality stares back.  Generations past and dead hover under the reflected skin waiting to emerge.  A new wrinkle.  A freckle.  Is that my grandfather I see, or his grandfather?   I too shall die, return to dust, and join them.  Will it be tomorrow?  Next year?

A meaningless question.  Unanswerable, I hope.  So I hold on.  Hold on well to that new life.  New life with a boundless capacity for love where before, long ago, existed nothing.   Life again.  Love again. Random carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen now embrace, become life, and are anointed by love and commanded to love.

Because just as certain as death, is life.  And life begets love.  And thus we prevail.  In the end is the end but it does not end.  Perhaps not in me, but through me.  For we are commanded to love.  Two stars are attracted by gravity and one is destroyed.  Gravity ceases.  Without one, gravity is lost.  Two lovers come together and one is destroyed yet love continues unabated.  What other force of nature can make an equal claim to continue, to become stronger, once it's source is vanquished?  Gravity, I thank you for holding my feet to Earth, but what else are you good for?  Love, you on the other hand, create yourself over and over again.  You hold me up. You lift me higher.

Ashes to ashes over-simplifies.  In between the ashes we love one another and sow and reap new love again.  And again.  And then again once more.