shining star

J died in the month of September, almost a full moon after his 42nd birthday.  He wasn’t ready to go, but he also knew that that was no longer up to him.  He understood that his time was approaching quickly, and it was important to him to have his family around, even if he was in too much pain to enjoy them.  The plan was for me to fly up from Madrid to Haslemere on Wednesday night.  I got a text message from him on Monday asking when I was coming, and I responded that I would be there in two days.  Based on the fact that J had been slowly deteriorating for the last several months and the deterioration had been exponential in the last few weeks, I knew that I was going into a very delicate situation, but it wasn’t until J answered me back that I realized just how precarious things were.  J’s message said “wish it were sooner”.  My parents had already been there for a couple of days, and I wondered if maybe I needed to be there, too.  I called him immediately and asked him if he needed me to come up before, and he laughed, filling his voice with typical J bravery, “No, come Wednesday, it will be great!”

J and I had been especially close in adulthood. Gone were the days of screaming at one another in the backseat of the car, driving our mom crazy while J poked and prodded me as I scratched and spit at him.  Six years my elder, J had plenty of physical and intellectual advantages over me, so in the heat of battle, his game was led by strategic taunting, while mine simply used whatever was leftover.  Growing up, we were often the classic image of the big brother standing next to his baby sister, hand resting on top of her head to steady her at an arm’s length away, while she swung her flailing fists in front of her, aiming for his belly, her arms not long enough to actually make contact.  Truth was that we adored one another even then, but he was the oldest and I was the youngest, and we played our roles out to perfection.  His favorite game was the one that went like this:  “bet you can’t get me a coke in 30 seconds”.  Not to be told what I couldn’t do, my response to him would naturally be “oh yes, I can!” and I would, of course, prove it to him by getting him that coke in only 23 seconds…  Things began to change when J went to college. He was stunned to come back after only a semester away to find that I, in sixth grade, had started wearing a training bra.  I remember secretly taking in the look on his face when, after greeting me with a warm hug, he turned to my mom and whispered to her, “is she wearing what I think she is wearing?”

When I was sixteen, J was home again for the holidays.  Conversations naturally began to change, and teasing was replaced with dialogue.  J and I didn’t always agree on everything, and I swelled with pride the day he retorted after a long debate, “when did you become so opinionated?!”  He grew to appreciate the fact that I had an opinion, and our discourse was often lively and animated.  Even in the most heated of discussions, though, J always won:  he approached everything in life with humor and he had the ability to turn even the most serious of topics into the absurd.  In the end, no matter what we talked about, we would always end up laughing.  In my early twenties, it was clear:  I adored my big brother, and he was the light that guided me in what sometimes seemed like long periods of post-adolescent darkness.

With the option of doing graduate work at Columbia University’s Teachers College on the table, I elected to attend the far less well-known University of Hertfordshire in Watford, England, so that I would be closer to J.  That year was one of the most miserable of my academic life – the program was not what I wanted, the weather was horrible, I endured a long distance relationship with a very insecure young man, and my anorexia started to come back.  But my time with J was priceless.  Once a month, I would meet J in London and he would take me out for a pizza.  And toward the end of the year, I spent nearly every other weekend at his house in Wimbledon.  I had been so often, I could almost take the three trains blindfolded.

Leaving England was the best thing for me, but having been there for a year elevated my relationship with J to a place that only the luckiest of siblings find.  J and I began to talk about one another as though we were soul mates.  We joked with family and friends about how we would marry one another in our next life (because clearly in this one, it wasn’t allowed).  Several years later, after marriage and babies, I got divorced.  J had always been my protector, but as he watched his baby sister go through the pain of separation, taking care of me took on a whole new meaning.  J knew that he couldn’t make it go away, but he did everything in his power to make me happy and feel good about myself.

Unsurprisingly, when J announced that he had cancer, we were all devastated.  J had always been the cornerstone in our dysfunctional little family; he was the one who made it all okay when things got out of hand.  He had the franchise on managing our temperamental father, he could always get a giggle out of our mom, and he was the link that made it so that our estranged brother was never too far away.  He was the king of his own roost, with his own wife and two daughters.  And for my kids, there simply was no better uncle.

During J’s last summer with us, we all watched as the cancer took over.  He could no longer hide the pain, and his smiles were fewer and further between.  His most peaceful moments were either on the hammock or in the pool, where he could lie almost weightless so that the pain was less excruciating.  Though his body weakened, his spirit stayed strong, only occasionally giving way to a curt word or complaint founded in physical distress.  He was a star.  There was no other way to describe him, in fact, there really hadn’t ever been any other way.  He could light up the darkest corners of anyone’s universe, and he could disperse the grayest of clouds with his laughter.  He had always been a star, and so it seemed the least I could do for him was to name a star after him.  For J’s 42nd birthday, I went to the star registry online and named one of the stars in the constellation of Canis Major for him (after all, he was kind of the “big dog”).  I later found out that within Canis Major is Sirius, which allegedly is the brightest star in the sky: it couldn’t have been more perfect.

A couple of weeks before heading up to Haslemere, J and I had a long talk on the phone.  He had just been fast-tracked for a mobility scooter through the national health care service in the UK and he was telling me about how he had been able to test drive the different scooters.  We laughed at the image and he promised me a ride on his scooter when I arrived.  We planned my trip, deciding on the ultimate “date”:  a ride on his new scooter, and a swing on his brand new double hammock as we looked for the star that carried his name.  To top it off, I would stay with him in the playroom, where they had set up a medical bed for him, complete with the back that went up and down at the touch of a button.  We referred to it as “the slumber party”.

When I arrived on the Wednesday night, I found a man who looked a lot like my brother, but who was frail and weak, and with dark, dull eyes that had only a faint hint of the bright green of before.  Amazingly, his voice sounded the same and his laughter still rang.  He was very brave, and very firm, and he resisted a nurse for two nights because he wanted to have that slumber party with his little sister that he had promised.  So I slept in the same room with him, and was up with him all night both Wednesday and Thursday, when the pain would kick in and the coughing would start.  After a lifetime of being my guardian, J let himself be taken care of, and though I know he hated for me to see him like that, he allowed it because he knew I needed to take care of him for a change.

For weeks J had teased me.  Knowing the end was near, I would wake up in the morning and send him a text asking about his night.  He would respond “still hereJ”.  This is what I expected when I heard my cell phone sound off on Thursday morning.  J, ever the joker, would be trying to make me laugh, no doubt.  On this particular morning, however, the message was different.  Despite our superficial role reversal, J remained, until the last moment, my protector.  His message said “Not too long now.  Hang in there.”

On Friday night, the night that he died, I didn’t stay with him.  Thursday night was so bad that the medication was increased dramatically throughout the day on Friday and that night, a nurse stayed with him.  I spent some time with him, doing what I could to assist the nurse, and holding his hand as much as I could.  Eventually, 48 sleepless hours demanded that I get some rest so I said goodnight to him and then went outside to smoke a cigarette.  True to our promise, and despite the fact we never got to ride the scooter or lie in the hammock together, we did look for the star during my visit.  But we had yet to see it.  That Friday night, as I inhaled the smoke, my mind almost completely blank from exhaustion, I looked up into the sky and then, there it was: his star.  It was indeed the brightest star I had ever seen and it hovered, almost as though it was waiting for something.  J died just a while later.

The next night, my parents and I headed back to Madrid, knowing that we would need rest before the funeral.  As the plane took off, we found ourselves taking in the most incredible sunset we had ever seen.  And as the spectacular colors were replaced by darkness, J’s star emerged as brightly as I have ever seen it, and accompanied us all the way home.

There is no death.

There is no death. Only a change of worlds.  Native American Proverb

After many turbulent years of physical suffering and emotional distress, my dad finally bid farewell to this world on August 15th.  Summer’s end brought with it the gentle calm that settles in after a long thunderstorm.  These are the words I shared with those friends and family who joined us to remember my dad exactly one month after he passed away.

Things you probably know about my dad….

He loved his work, he was ambitious and headstrong, he had a wonderful sense of humor, a powerful voice, he hated to lose, he adored his family.

Things you might not know about my dad…

My dad loved Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Marvin Gaye….  His favorite artists were Renoir, Miro, Botero, Modigliani and Zuñiga.  He collected all kinds of things, from stamps and coins to artwork, masks, yokes, canes, and keychains.  He loved all sports – baseball, American football, soccer, golf, tennis, formula one racing, but he was most passionate about basketball.  He would walk into a high school or college gymnasium, and he’d step back in time, hearing the crowd go wild as he dribbled down the court and sunk a three pointer.  He was most at peace sitting outside on the front step in the dark, talking to his dogs.  His grandchildren were his pride and joy.  He loved action films and always watched them with the volume way up to maximize the experience.  He could go anywhere in the world and make friends with the waiter, the concierge, and the maintenance man.  He was a master griller.  He played a mean game of foosball.  He was a handyman and could fix just about anything that was broken around the house.  His loved the story of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, so much so that he dedicated a whole room to them in his home.  He was afraid of almost nothing:  he once climbed a ladder that rested on a chair that sat on a table, which sat on bigger table, just to hang something high up on the wall.  When I was a little girl, he was larger than life, and undoubtedly the most handsome man in the world.   He was a wonderful dancer, even though he heard a different beat than the one I heard.  But if I could just forget the music and let him lead, it was almost magical.   My favorite memory of my dad is going fishing with him when I was a teenager.  We sat on the logs that lined the edges of the Willamette River in Oregon, the sun not yet risen, and we said nothing.  But nothing was everything.  My dad had a tattoo of a dove, which he got when he was 55.  And, coincidentally (or not), he died on August 15th, which in Spain celebrates the Virgen de la Paloma, or the Virgen of the Dove.  

When the time came, my dad was ready to go.  He had lived a full life, and he was ready to move on.  I will always cherish the fact that, in the end, we had some time together, and we were able to say goodbye.  That he knew it was his time and he embraced it has given me a lot of peace.  I’d like to close with the poem, Looking for the Sunrise, by Albert Simpson Reitz

I’m not looking for the sunset,
As the swift years come and go;
I am looking for the sunrise,
And the golden morning glow,

Where the light of heaven’s glory
Will break forth upon my sight,
In the land that knows no sunset,
Nor the darkness of the night.

I’m not going down the pathway
Toward the setting of the sun,
Where the shadows ever deepen
When the day at last is done; 

I am walking up the hillside
Where the sunshine lights the way,
To the glory of the sunrise
Of God’s never-ending day.

I’m not going down, but upward,
And the path is never dim,
For the day grows ever brighter
As I journey on with Him.

So my eyes are on the hilltops,
Waiting for the sun to rise,
Waiting for His invitation
To the home beyond the skies.


on becoming a parent

This week I became a parent.  I have three children and three stepchildren, but it wasn’t actually until one of them became a typical teenager that I entered parenthood.  Everything up to now was just nurturing.  Nurturing is soothing their aches and sores, making them chicken soup when they are sick, buying them shampoo and toothpaste and deodorant and making sure they brush their hair before school, teaching them good manners, keeping them on schedule, chasing them to do their homework, not letting them fight too much and occasionally punishing them for crossing a line.  But that’s not really parenting.  Parenting starts when you are so angry at your child that you want to tell them to go to hell.  Or when you threaten to send your child to military school because you can’t imagine that any punishment you could give them at home could ever be strong enough.  Or when you have to leave the room after your child has disrespected you – to prevent yourself from hitting him.   Parenting is when you realize that you can’t actually send them away, throw them out the window, slap them, or tell them to go to hell.  Parenting is when, after all of those emotions subside, you realize that you simply have to deal with them.

Being a teenager is not easy.  For your parents, life is very clear – and everything depends on something else.  How can that be that there are no clear answers and that everything has a context?  For a teenager, it’s all very simple… black and white.  And why is that you have to learn a lesson from everything you do?  There is a certain moral code that parents seem to live by that clearly doesn’t match your own teenage code.  And when your parents tell you things like “family first” you think to yourself “I don’t even like my family, so how could I possibly put them first?”  Your parents try to act all sympathetic, saying things like “I know this is hard for you” but they don’t know squat.  You think your parents must have been born adults because there is no way they could ever have been teenagers.  They are clueless. 

As a parent, what your teenager is going through is vaguely familiar.  You remember the pains, the drama, the absolute horror when being grounded for something meant that you could not go to so-and-so’s party.  Everyone else was going, and it simply wasn’t fair that you couldn’t go.  Nevermind the fact that you are grounded because the last party you came home from a little late, and a little drunk.  Nevermind the fact that the party happens to be on Monday night and you have school tomorrow.  It’s just not fair.  I can remember storming out of the room screaming “you guys are so MEAN!” when I was about 16.  But as parent, I’m continually surprised by adolescent defiance, deceit, the need to be with friends, the way academics will so easily take a backseat to “chilling”.  I’m sure I must have gone through that, but I can’t remember it so clearly.  When I see our teenager going through some of the same things, I begin, slowly, to understand some of what my parents went through.  Everyone has a different style, a different approach with their kids, and some are more effective than others.  I’m not so grown up yet (even at 38) that I don’t still hold my parents responsible for some of my aches and pains, even in adulthood – who is, really?  But I’m figuring out that my parents did the best they could with what they had, right?  And that’s all we can do right now.

I have to have faith in the thought that this will pass.  Kids don’t stay teenagers forever.  And while right now I’m not sure that anything I say or do gets through to my 17 year old, I have to have faith that, despite the emotional suit of armor that he wears, and the 18-inch thick castle walls he hides himself behind, something we say, somewhere along the way, will get through.

all hail King Liam!

Dave and I had been married for only about two weeks when we found out we were going to have a baby. Well, we weren’t really going to have a baby; Dave’s oldest was going to move in with us. We may as well have been pregnant – we had only a few short months to plan, and during that time, we experienced everything from indulging in comfort foods to going to bed extra early to having long talks about how life would change dramatically for us once Liam arrived. At the same, we were excited about all of the ways that having Liam with us would enrich our lives. When we told Nacho, Emma and Marco that they were going to “have a big brother”, they were naturally delighted. For several years, every extended holiday had been spent with their step-siblings, and it was always like summer camp, regardless of the time of year. We were lucky that the kids all got along so well. With the six of them packed together in a smallish house for a week or two at a time, vacations were always crazy, but fun. Nesting instincts kicked in for both of us a couple of weeks before Liam arrived: we spent hours working on his room. The wallpaper wasn’t yellow and white and there weren’t baby books and stuffed animals all over his room, but there may have well been, for all the energy we put into it! No, the room had lots of books on medieval history, and instead of yellow and white, the color scheme ranged from tans to browns and blacks – perfect for a teenage boy.

 Going from parenting children under the age of 9 to suddenly having a 16 year old was, in itself, a challenge. Not that I didn’t have any experience with teenagers; I am a high school guidance counselor. But it’s one thing to interact with them at work everyday and it’s another to have one living in your home. Sixteen is a strange age, too, because they are caught in a messy, murky place where one minute they are almost adults and you find yourself having lively conversations with them about history, politics or religion, and the next minute they are upstairs playing medieval warrior with the younger ones. And they don’t really do either all that well. The conversations are often idealistic and lack depth, and one of us gets bored quickly. And more often than not, while playing war with the younger siblings, the elder sibling will eventually get in trouble for having taken the game too far… the little guys have developed a pretty incredible vocabulary thanks to their big brother, complete with words like dictator, tyrannical, minions, subjects, a few lesser swear words like hell and damn, oh, and that most important phrase: “all hail King Liam!” And of course there are the other more typical things that teenage boys have to deal with – acne, temptation (girls, parties, substances) and school to name just a few.

For Liam, getting to the teens has been more painful than for most. His decision to move in with us came after many years of being treated as an outsider. Liam has always been a little different from his peers; he is generally more sensitive, more caring, and more emotional than most. At the same time, he is awkward, sometimes to the point of discomfort (for those around him). To top it all off, he has always had some learning difficulties which have made being in a traditional school environment very difficult for him, so he went through a string of alternative schools. And everywhere he went, he was bullied. Liam took a lot of abuse for a lot of years until he finally grew tall enough and strong enough to stand up for himself. But the effects of the bullying were far reaching. For years, Liam used to round his shoulders over toward his chest, almost hunching over, as though to protect himself. His body language reflected a total lack of self-confidence. Even though he learned to defend himself against the kids who picked on him, Liam has also always been very hard on himself. Though he could justify defending himself, he would also always find a way to kick himself for what he had done. Liam has a very well-developed sense of right and wrong, too, and this could wreak havoc on his own freedom to grow and make mistakes.

His family struggled for a long time trying find the right diagnosis for Liam. He went from one psychologist to another, but the results were never conclusive, and never the same. When he arrived in Madrid last January, he had just been put on the autism spectrum. On the one hand, it was helpful for us to be able to do some research about autism so that we could both understand some of Liam’s behaviors and also work with him. On the other hand it made it difficult for us to figure out whether we were dealing with characteristic traits of autism or just plain teenage awkwardness. After a while, we stopped trying to “figure it out” all of the time, because what we found was that Liam was changing. In the last 10 months, Liam has gone through a kind of metamorphosis. He goes to a great school for kids with a range of different abilities; it is a college-prep program and he is gets mostly As and Bs. He has discovered hiking, and takes to the hills and trails behind our house every chance he gets – in it, he finds peace. He has overcome his disdain for psychologists and is working with one now who not only understands him, but who inspires him to work hard (translation:  she is very pretty). Liam has made friends – true, fun, interesting, teenage kids who have introduced him to Madrid at night (help!). He is mastering public transportation, and he is learning enough Spanish to get around on his own. There is even a girl, and he is slowly learning that cell phones don’t recharge themselves, that text messages cost money and allowance only goes so far. Liam has even become a little cocky and he‘s experimenting with back talk… and though I wouldn’t admit it to him, it’s almost endearing.

Whatever spectrum Liam was put on – autistic or otherwise, this is what we know: He is awkward. He has strong ideals and argues for them with conviction. He goes from overjoyed to sullen in a matter of minutes. He is content to hole up in his room all day and have minimal contact with his family, only make an rare appearance, say something annoying and then disappear again. He is smart enough to know better yet still gets himself into trouble sometimes.  He does most everything with a delightfully goofy sense of humor.  Liam’s condition?  Yeah – TEEN.  Oh, and those hunched shoulders of before?  Gone.  Today, he walks tall and proud (and we are so proud of him!).


clearing my mind

I sometimes wonder about meditation. Lots of people seem to find peace in it. My ex husband used to meditate all the time. Not that I’m all that inclined to want to do anything, really, that my ex husband used to do, besides, he used to envision himself floating up over the room and looking at himself from the outside, and I’m not sure how I feel about all of that… I mean, I’d probably look at myself and see the rolls of fat on my sides, and then I’d be back to square one. But I suppose, if I were trying to be objective about it, I might see that there is some value in being able to clear your mind completely of all the thoughts that fly in and out, connected or not. I am an intense person; it’s part of my charm. I’ve always been intense, and in some good ways, my intensity has made me feel things differently than others. I admit I am extreme – when things are good, they fill my soul. When they are bad, I ache to the core. When I am angry, my blood boils; when I am in love, I love with my whole spirit. It’s just who I am. But with intensity comes a lot of pain, too. I can put things to rest in my heart, but my mind will keep turning them around, and around, until the anger bubbles up again – for what? Having a clear mind, controlling my thoughts – these would never take away the simple fact of having to deal with particularly difficult days, emotions, people, but perhaps they would help to simplify my approach. Take it down a notch from very intense to just passionate. Realistically passionate. Or better – passionately real.

I’ve tried to meditate.  I just tried it a few minutes ago. I began by sitting on the sofa in my office (yes, I have a sofa, a black leather one, it’s wonderfully luxurious), my legs not crossed because I’m wearing high heeled boots, and let’s face it, I really wasn’t all that committed. I opened my arms out, like I’ve seen them do in the movies, and I began to breathe deeply. It’s amazing how hard it is to breathe. I think that we humans take so many things for granted – even breathing is involuntary so we don’t put a whole lot of effort into it. I focused on my breathing, taking air slowly in, counting to 5, then expelling all of the air I could from my lungs, again, counting to 5. Try doing this for a minute. I learned it in therapy as a form of relaxation; a strategy for calming myself before facing a challenge that would previously have me terrified and shaking. As a one-minute relaxation exercise, the breathing, if you can master it, is a gift. But people can do just about anything for a minute. Beyond that, here is what happens to me: breathe in…two, three, four, five… breathe out…two, three, four, five… breathe in, two, my eyelids keep fluttering, maybe i should close them hard, three, four, no that hurts, I can feel my contact lenses, five… breathe out, two, three, oh that feels good, four, did I lock the door of my office?, five, oh, yes, I did…breathe in, two, I’m breathing really loudly, I wonder if someone can hear me outside, three, four, I’ll try to breathe softly, five… ok now I’ll try it without sound, breath out, two, three, four, five, no that didn’t feel right, I’ll have to do it again… breathe in… two, three, four, this isn’t really working all that well, five… breathe out…two, three, this is really boring, four, five… breathe in…two, I feel like I’m going to yawn now, three, four, yes, I used to yawn a lot when I did Pilates, five… all that good oxygen going into my lungs… breathe out…now that was relaxing, two, three, four, five… breathe in… two, maybe I should do Pilates again, three, four, I really suck at this, five.

I mentioned to my husband yesterday that I would love to be able to meditate, to have real peace of mind. But I also admitted that if I did, I probably wouldn’t have anything to write about. And to be honest, writing has in some ways become my own personal form of meditation. Sometimes I have a lot to say, sometimes, I don’t. But for now, as long as the thoughts are in writing, they are no longer in my head. So with that, Namaste.

a place to belong

I was baptized when I was 26.  I was looking for something, and I thought I would find it in the Church. I was in a taxi going through Harlem on the way to the airport after spending a few days with a friend, and I remember seeing an abandoned cinema.  There was something in the emptiness of that building that resonated with me, and I decided then and there that religion was how I’d fill that space.  I had some faith.  I had always “kind of” believed in a higher power, though I admit to having said, once upon a time, that people believed in God because they didn’t believe in themselves.  When my grandmother died only a few years before, I wanted to believe that her faith, strong and true, had sprinkled itself among those who loved her.  I wanted to believe that a larger cluster of sprinkles fell on me.   When I met the man who would later become my husband, I was inspired by his faith; he felt so secure his beliefs.  I would go to mass with him and watch the people’s faces as they lined up to take communion.  How lucky they were to know something so pure!  What did they feel?  Did they truly understand their good fortune?  I watched as one after another, with absolute trust, opened his or her mouth and accepted the body of Christ.  Whether they knew each other or not, every single one of them was part of a privileged community.  Wherever they went, whatever they did, whoever they were – they belonged.  I yearned for that. 

When I met the young priest who was my husband-to-be’s dearest friend, a man from Nicaragua who was delightful, funny, and who loved to dance salsa and drink rum, I thought – yes, this is definitely a religion I can belong to!  Suddenly, it all seemed so accessible to me.  No longer was I a lost soul standing on the outside of the circle; I was being invited in.  For weeks we worked together to prepare my baptism.  Our priest taught, questioned, challenged me.  Even confession was enjoyable… it felt amazing to open up and know that I would be accepted regardless of what I had thought or done.  It was unconditional love.  Finally, I belonged. 

It was supposed to be so simple.  But even faith comes with strings, and I found myself confronted by conflicts that weren’t supposed to exist in my newfound community.  When, where and how to baptize the children, arguments over godparents, guilt trips for a missed mass… little things began to taint the perfect Technicolor dream that religion had been for me.   I had been so desperate to belong, that I had blindly accepted things that simply didn’t make sense.   But my life began to reveal a growing crevice between faith and religion that could not be reconciled.  And as I moved away from religion, I also found myself pulled away from faith.  When my husband and I divorced, years later, I sent a letter confessing my deepest darkest secrets to our friend, the priest.  I waited for months for his words of acceptance and encouragement.  They never came.  My faith was gone.

“People believe in God because they don’t believe in themselves.”  I was only 16 when I spoke those audacious words.  I don’t know that I completely agree with the girl who said it, but I admire her bravery.  She honestly believed that, at the core of everything, one has to have faith in oneself.  No community, no religion, no family, no club can ever fill the void that is created by self-doubt.    When I stood alone again, for the second time, feeling rejected by a club I had tried so hard to be a part of, I realized that religion had not failed me.  I had failed to believe in myself.  Over time, I have learned that I cannot seek acceptance from others in order to feel good about myself.  I have learned that I am solely responsible for my health, my happiness, my wholeness.   That doesn’t mean that I am not occasionally insecure, wishing for that armored knight on a white horse to save me, but more often than not, I find that the masked hero is actually a heroine, and the face looks a lot like mine.  And though there are days when I may kick myself for a thought had or a thing done, my acceptance of myself is steadfast.  This is not like the seemingly unconditional love from before – this is real, accepting, true love.  And I finally know where I belong.

the magic of J

Words written for J upon his death, September 2008

The first thing J’s surfing coach ever told him was “learn to love your wipeouts”.  How appropriate!  Because that is the way J always lived his life.  He IS a survivor in the truest of ways.  When we first found out that he had cancer, we all thought – if anyone can beat this, J can.  But J taught us what it really means to be a survivor.  It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  No matter what giant wave threatened to crash over him or the people he loves, J always knew how to stand up, look it in the face, and laugh.  J was never consumed with the final outcome – what was always important was “Did you do your best?  Did you have fun?”  And for J, if he was smiling, he was winning. 

As a big brother, J has been my beacon.  The lighthouse I looked for to find my way home after falling off track.  He has been my friend, my protector,  the source of my courage, the love of my life.  He taught me how to be strong, how to have fun, how to laugh, how to love.  He taught me to see through drama and find humor in the absurd.  He told me once “life is not complicated, people are.”  He taught me that attitude is everything.

For my kids, he has always been the coolest uncle in the world.  He could turn a swimming pool into a roaring ocean and, with a boogie board, teach the kids how to ride 15 foot waves.  He could turn a boring afternoon into a game where the challenge was to find words that rhyme with “tiger”.  Most of the words were made up, but that was always the fun part.  He could invent definitions to made up words that were so convincing, even the grown ups questioned how much we really knew.  He changed the words to songs, invented new names for animals, and he gave everyone nicknames that were far more appealing than our real names. 

For everyone in our family, he is music.  He taught us that each and every one of our lives has a singular, unique soundtrack, and that the coolest part is that you get to pick your own songs.  Music is everywhere, it defines everything.  It pumps, it soothes, it is an expression of how you feel, of who you are and what you want to be.  When you feel lost, all you need to do is stop and listen.  

J is and will always be many things to many people.  He has touched so many lives in so many ways – he like one of the stones he once threw into Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, years and years ago when we were kids.  The one that skipped a couple of times before it plunked into the water, sending ripples across the lake all the way to the other side.  His smile, his laughter, his voice, his wisdom, his words, his music – it all reaches father than any one of us can imagine.

J taught all of us to love life.  Breathe it in, soak it up, sing it, play it, dance to it, ride it, share it.  When we are able to get past the sorrow of his physical absence, I know that we will all come to feel J in everything we do, and he will continue to fill our lives with joy and wisdom and the truest love of life – always.


on losing Balto

This time it was for real. The other day had been a warning, though we hoped that the danger had gone away. When I saw the turtle floating on the water, completely motionless, refusing to respond to any of my prodding, I thought for sure he was dead. But luckily, by the time Nacho got home from his Kung Fu class, the turtle had moved a little, and Nacho´s dad, knowledgeable in the ways of fish and turtles, confirmed that he was most likely just hibernating. His movements were very slow, and Daddy had said that, even though the turtle hadn’t exhibited the signs of hibernation so obviously before, this time it seemed to be the case. And so Nacho went off for the weekend with Daddy, relieved that Mommy had overreacted, and that his beloved turtle, Balto, was still very much alive. But this time it was different. Daddy had warned us that when turtles die, one of two things will happen – either they will sink to the bottom of the tank because they have released all of their oxygen, or that they would begin to float, tilting sideways. Balto was indeed tilting sideways, and nothing that I did would bring him back. I watched him for a long time before finally calling Nacho into his room. Though he asked all the right questions, he knew just by looking at him that Balto was dead. He held himself stoically by the window, as far away from the tank as he could be in his small room, and I could see that he was aching inside. I went over to him and knelt down beside him, putting my hand on his back (as if to steady him, though I was really steadying myself). Nacho said weakly “I must have done something” and I responded adamantly “Nacho, you didn’t do anything wrong!”

Nacho’s whole body began to shake as the tears, without warning, poured out. He tried so hard to breathe, to control the emotion, but it overtook him. He moved himself slowly, holding on to the posts of the bunk bed as though he would fall, and he sat on the soft mattress. I talked to him, speaking all of those meaningless words of wisdom we extract from the deepest places of ourselves when someone we love is in pain, and he sat there, sobbing. In a brief moment of calm, he looked straight at me, and asked “why does everything I like the most have to die?” I asked him “Nacho, what do you mean?” He lowered his head and as the sobs returned, he answered “first Uncle J, now Balto.” My heart broke then, for the thousandth time since J died only a month before, and for a moment, I could say nothing. Then, I took a deep breath, and told him what I really thought: “I don’t know.” I sat on the bed with him and together, in silence, we stared at the turtle tank, wondering what to do next.

We eventually got it together enough to realize that we needed to do something with Balto. So my youngest two helped me find a box in the garage, and we cut out the top so that we could lay Balto inside. Nacho found a couple of things that he thought were appropriate to bury with him – a Pokemon rock that had a picture of a turtle-like creature on it, and another action figure he thought appropriate. He figured that these were things he loved, and this way, Balto would take a little bit of Nacho with him to the next world. We lined the box with some cotton, and then gingerly took Balto out of the tank and placed him inside the box. In the meantime, Dave set to work on the garden, thinking that we could not have a proper funeral in a doggie-poop laden garden. He moved Lady’s doghouse, and prepared the ground underneath it to dig a hole just the right size for the Balto’s casket-box. When it was all ready, we went outside, and Nacho took care of the rest. He knew just what to do – he placed the box in the hole, and then asked Dave if he could cover it. So Dave gave him the shovel and Nacho slowly covered the box with dirt. After we were done, Dave and I took the younger ones inside, and we gave Nacho a minute to say goodbye. Somehow, this private ceremony gave Nacho the peace he needed and he was able to keep moving.

He told me some time later, “I miss Balto a lot, but I think I’m really okay.” In my own heart, I knew that at his tender 8 ½ years, he had a great deal more wisdom than many of us. Nacho hadn’t grieved outwardly for J until Balto died. As painful as it was to lose the turtle he’d had since his second birthday, and as unfair as it seemed to lose the coolest uncle in the world well before his time, Nacho somehow instinctively understood that losing both Balto and J was part of life. In my own grief for J, I have tried very hard to follow his lead. I am so proud.

on coming home

Revisiting the past is difficult. The untainted memories of yesterday can coexist with the grown up reality of today as long as the two don’t mix.  Sometimes, though, you have to go back to the past in order to continue to move through the present.  The journey back through time can shed new light on the now, and, more often than not, it helps you appreciate even more what you have right in front of you.

Since my husband moved to Spain three years ago and set up house with me and my kids, he has had to basically adapt to what was already there.  We add to the house together and have embarked on our own projects created and designed solely by us, but I often wonder whether he ever feels that he is missing anything because there is almost nothing in our immediate surroundings to show that Dave ever had a life before us.  I knew that when we were in Toledo, where Dave grew up, he would finally be able to go through the boxes he has been storing in his mother’s basement.  He has often talked about his books, how he wished he could bring his books over, and there were probably other things, too, that would help our home feel a little more like “his and mine” than just “mine and ours”.  Chances are he didn’t really feel the desire quite in the same way that I did, and I suppose the need to have more of Dave’s stuff in the house was mine, but nevertheless, it was one of those things that made the trip important.  He did get through his boxes and ironically, he ended up throwing away a lot of the things that represented his life before us.  Even the coveted books didn’t seem quite so important as he repacked his things in the three boxes that he would send back to Madrid.

As newlyweds, this trip represented a lot of things.  Not only would Dave be able to pick up books and such that he had wanted to bring home, but we would also go through some of the rituals that are so important for the newly married:  we would visit with family, stay in his mother’s home, and go back to all of those places that were so important in his memory so that I could see where he really grew up.  The imagined settings of all of the stories that I had been told would finally be replaced by real places. On a single morning, we drove all over town to visit house after house and school after school.  It was an incredible trip down memory lane, but each stop carried with it its own share of disappointment and heartache.  Not so much because of the memories that each place held, but rather, because of the great expectations that Dave had for each of the places we visited.  In his mind, the house in the woods was alive – when he closed his eyes he could still see the vibrant colors, feel the warmth of the fireplaces, smell the food being cooked in the kitchen.  He could even feel the fear in his gut has he climbed to the roof of the barn to fix whatever his stepfather had asked him to fix.  Instead, we rounded the drive to find a house that was old, tattered, and unloved.  And his voice revealed the disappointment in his heart as he said to me again and again “it wasn’t like this”.  The house where he lived in when he was a young boy was no different.  We had ample warning – the short drive through the country that once held corn fields and now had been overgrown with trees and bushes should have alerted us to the changes.  But there was no way we could have known that the house itself would have gone from being the most beautiful house on the street to being a redneck wonderland.  Dave couldn’t conceal the very obvious contempt he had for whoever was now living in that house.  There is no way to describe what they had done to it – let the image of beer bottles lying next to the charred remains of a sofa set ablaze, a waterless pool with paint peeling off and a broken down fence give a minor glimpse into the travesty that had become the house where Dave had once lived.  He walked around the house, hands on his waist, shaking his head.  It was not only the house that was different.  Everything had changed, and he couldn’t understand – it was as though the gods had poured some magical shrinking dust on everything to make it smaller.  

Back at my mother in law’s house, we mentioned to her some of the disappointing sights we’d come across.  She told us that she tries never to go back to the past because, inevitably, things aren’t as she remembered them.  True enough.  I do think, though, that our tour of the old schools and the old houses gave Dave a new perspective on his life as it is now.  Several times after visiting his roots, he mentioned that he was ready to “go home” – our home.  Maybe revisiting the past was a good thing after all.

when you know she’s the one

It is strange to me when Marco asks if Daddy ever lived with us. And I have to remind myself that Daddy moved out when Marco was 1. Granted, he was just a few months away from his second birthday, but he was, in fact, only 1. And he is amazed to think that I have been to the place where he and his brother and sister go each summer in the north of Spain with their dad. He can’t picture me there, even though there are pictures of me, clearly, there. Marco has grown up in a home that is slightly different from those of his friends. We live in a community where divorce, though not uncommon, is not really all that common, either. Catholic country that it is, Spain has more unhappily married couples than divorced ones. So it was strange for Marco when he started kindergarten last year, his friends all talking about what they did over the summer, and Marco fielding hard questions like “why do you spend part of the summer with your dad and part of it with your mom?” and “if the guy who lives with you isn’t your dad, who is he and where is your dad?” I realized at some point that because his dad was gone by the time Marco was 2, we hadn’t ever really had THE talk. I finally sat down with him one night as he was getting into bed and I asked him if I had ever told him why mommy and daddy don’t live together. When he shook his head, I knew that the talk was way overdue. When it was all said and done, Marco’s attitude toward a lot of things started to change. He went from acting out in confusion (throwing things, for example) to talking about things and asking questions. I also think he slowly began to realize that he could actually have a relationship with his step dad without jeopardizing the one with his real dad, and this made a huge difference for us at home. He became much more affectionate with both of us, and he went from being hot and cold with Dave so much of the time to being mostly warm, and for Dave, warm has been a whole new world. Marco’s take on life and love has been a little different than most six year olds at school, and he is a special young man for it all.

This brings me to Abby. Abby is this beautiful, sweetheart of a little girl that Marco has known for the last couple of years. Since they first met, Marco somehow just knew in his great big little heart that Abby was the one for him. I think Abby may have noticed Marco before he noticed her – boys can be a little slow in these things – but on his 5th birthday, Abby arrived at the party place wearing her most beautiful dress, and smiling her most perfect smiles, and really, who could blame him? She was a vision. Not long after that, he came home one day from school and said in a very matter of fact way that she was his girlfriend and he was going to marry her. And that was that. Abby became a part of our everyday conversation. “How’s Abby today, Marco?” “Oh, she’s fine. We played at recess.” Marco insisted on buying her a present last summer and we invited her to the pool so that he could give it to her. She played with Marco’s big sister the whole time, but he was content just to have her there. See, he just knew. He didn’t need to work too hard or try too much, because it was very real for him – he would marry Abby. She was the one. Kindergarten got a little exciting – mommy got a note one day from Marco’s teacher saying that he was caught kissing a girl just around the corner from the playground (of course, we knew who the girl was). Both Marco and Abby were given a little bit of a talking to about more appropriate playground behavior, and Marco came home a little bit shamed. Abby’s dad joked with Dave about how we needed to keep our little guy on a leash. We told Marco that he probably wanted to cool it on the kissing thing, that he had plenty of time for that, and he was okay with it. He stopped talking about Abby all of the time, but when I asked about her now and then, they were still “together“. It was for better or worse, even surviving the drama when another little girl wanted to “befriend” Marco midyear. But Marco resisted the little temptress and stayed true to his Abby.

And then about a week ago, we got the news that Abby is moving away. Abby’s mom told me at a birthday party. I casually thought, that‘s awful, but Marco is little, his friends come and go all of the time, he’ll be fine. So I threw it out there over the dinner table a couple of days later. I have never so wished that I could take words back as I did when I saw the look on Marco‘s face. Complete and utter shock took over , and when he realized his eyes were close to tearing up, he smiled, embarrassed, and changed the subject. It was only a couple of days later that he started asking questions. I knew he wanted to talk, because I heard him pacing outside my bathroom door, whistling and tapping on things to make himself known. I had just gotten out of the shower, and when I dried off, I asked him if he was okay. He pushed the door open and said he had two things to ask me. The first: “will Abby ever come back?” to which I answered “I don’t know, sweetheart, but I’m guessing probably not.” The second: “does this mean that I have to get another girlfriend?” I explained that he doesn’t have to right now, and that maybe he would rather wait for a while and just enjoy all of his friends. This confused him. He answered, almost with tears in his eyes, “will I have to live alone?” When I realized he was talking about when he grows up, I sat down with him and explained that in life, many strange and wonderful things happen, and that having a girlfriend now doesn’t in any way mean that he will be alone or not when he is older. He might find that he is really happy without a girlfriend one day, and suddenly someone that is really special comes along and knocks him off of his feet. I told him that maybe even someday he will be a grown up and he’ll come across Abby of all people on the street. He opened his eyes wide and said quietly, “she won’t remember me”. I said “Marco, are you worried that Abby will forget you?” and he nodded in response.

We will see Abby one last time this coming weekend. She will come over and play with Marco and they can say their “hasta la vistas”. And Marco has prepared for her the most beautiful picture of himself in an adorable little frame of a car so that it looks like he is in the driver’s seat. Down the line, when she is in her new home, in her new room, we hope that every now and then she will look at that picture of Marco, driving his car toward her, and know that here is a little guy who loved her about as much as any 6 year old can. It may be that Marco decided somewhere along the line that if Abby was “the one” then he would never have to go through what daddy and I did. I don’t know how to feel about that, other than to wonder in amazement at how deeply things affect us in ways we never even dreamed they could. I will say this – though it hurts his heart to know that she is leaving, I suspect that Marco will have left his mark on little Abby, just has she has on him. If there is a lesson to be learned in this, it is to never – despite the confidence you have in your love, your future, your fate, your life – never take anything for granted.