The Sleep Between Snoozes

{I thought I saw you painting a house the other day. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I couldn’t look away.

The boys recalled a memory of you- but once it hit the air, it dissipated-  as memories always do.

We clung to this one, with a collective sigh and let it linger, strangely, none of us asking why.

Until someone turned up the music or shared a silly joke. We’re masters of distraction now, you know?  It is only on our silence that we choke.

I had a dream last night that you were here.  I ran into your arms and we fell over- laughing and crying.  I woke and ran downstairs. I dusted off and hung up your picture. There’s been a heaviness in the air -I think it’s time to reconsider…

I thought it would pass us over, as it has before, but things seem a little strange today and I find myself wanting to want you more.

You’ve been around here lately, haven’t you?  Returned from a battle with all the old players- demons and angels and monsters and men… You headed home leaving flames and dust behind you, hanging shield and sword beside you. You walked along a familiar path- tall grass and gentle rapids.  But you came home. You came here out of habit.

“Well don’t just stand there! Come inside. My mind’s made up – You’re staying for at least the night.

Come in and take a seat!  Close your eyes and breathe in deep. The table’s set. Dinner will be ready soon.

Take off your shoes and relax your gaze. There is only warmth and love in our space.

Be still our hearts while you tell your stories- of keeping us safe in other worlds and how there’s no need to worry. We’ll hang on every word with bated breath!  Oh! The kids will be so happy to forget your sudden death!  I can’t wait to tell them- ‘Boys! Look! Look who’s here!’

I’m sorry I’ve tried to carry on without you. You and I know there’s not another besides you.  Please come in and belong with us here. Please don’t leave again, I can’t live in that fear. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. I hung up your picture, see? Everything’s alright….”}

I wrote this down a day ago and when I woke up this morning, I knew, ya know?

I fell asleep in the shadowed crook of your arm and when I opened my eyes, you and everything that was, was gone. I lumbered downstairs and remembered once more.  I know how this works, I’ve been here before.  I brushed away the tears and tried to move on.  I thought you would stay with us here where you belong.  First there’s the anger and then the regret. I can’t live in this place, I’d rather forget.

There’s no such thing as justice when you come in and take another piece of me. I took a deep breath and begged for you to just release me.

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Do I have it in me?

When you start putting the pieces together and it takes so long and you’ve crumpled the instructions up so many times that you can’t even decipher the words.  When you keep going, putting pieces where you think they should go, inserting parts from other projects and using chewed gum to hold them in place because glue costs $3.00 and you only have $10 for the week.  When you wake up in the morning and swear you’ve given it all you could and yet somehow find yourself back at it an hour later. When you know it takes blood, sweat and tears but all you have left is an exacerbated sigh.  When you ask your friends to tread lightly because the whole thing might fall, but they forget and it shakes under their careless feet.  When you finally look up and see your reflection but you hardly recognize yourself….

When you finish, will it matter that everyone you thought would stick around has long since gone and the only one to say “well done” is you?  Is your voice going to be encouraging and soulful enough at the end of it to make you believe it was worth it?  Will you be satisfied with yourself even when no one else cares?

I surely hope so because the crowd is dwindling and your candles have all burnt low. Time to quiet your screaming voice and save your energy  in case you ever build that fucking thing. Everyone else has left the building and the only conviction you have is yours alone. 

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A Casualty of Death: Friendship and the woman I loved like a sister

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I have this friend…or had this friend. She was beautiful and spontaneous and alive with philosophy and theories and spiritual prose. We knew each other when our kids were really young…when we were really young, actually.  And we weren’t alone. There was a whole posse of us single moms-raising our kids on a dime, buying clothes from thrift stores with minimum wages from whatever-job-we-had-at-the-moment, having drinks at the beach while our kids played in the shallow waters.   By all accounts, this friend and I, despite the fact that most of our interactions/in depth conversations were had with a drink in hand, we kind of lifted each other up. We expected more from each other than the other single mothers our age.  Maybe we felt like we had made some bad choices along the way but we knew we were smart enough to beat the odds.  Maybe we thought that if “she did it, I can too” and that was all the reason to keep trying. Or maybe we were both just great pretenders….

Regardless, we had been through just about everything two friends could go through.  We saw each other love and lose it and love again. We congratulated each others’ children as ardently as we did each other on accomplishments, and we embraced when family and other friends were not as present or understanding.  Above all we always, always recognized the strength we had as women, as friends and as mothers to overcome whatever muddled situations we’d put ourselves in. We vowed to each other we’d rise to the top and not only achieve our respective goals but we’d look good doing it.

We had lofty goals and expectations for each other.  We would get nice jobs with benefits and feed our kids organic food from Farmers Markets and philosophize and talk about art projects. We would contribute in a real way to the community. We would travel and show our kids the world!  We would be old friends in wheelchairs chasing old men with canes at the Sunnyside Nursing Home. (We loved to joke about how that would play out.  Old and wrinkled but still young at heart. Chasing tail as earnestly as we had chased our youthful dreams.) We would be real, good, and true.  We would overcome together- Always, somehow together. Sisters of the slums we’d put ourselves in.  And perhaps that was the difference between us and the others. We had embraced the struggle. This path, for us, was somehow escapable because we were never really meant to be there in the first place. But the sad truth is that we never really made it out…not together, anyway. Somehow we failed at the end and it feels like something bigger than the death that tore us apart. Leaving her where she is, feels harder than watching him float away.  The man I loved died but the woman I compared myself to is still there is still there, clinging to that ledge.

This friend I had once was beautiful.  Did I say that already? Well it’s so true that it should be said twice. Her beauty radiated so brilliantly that I never really questioned her. Someone that beautiful and knowledgeable and charismatic could not possibly have malice or delusion. She was after all, nicknamed The Truth.  And that’s how I knew her once. True. Honest. Real.

After all those years together- those pee-our-pants laughs and “aha” moments, and cheers for each other and hugs and kisses for our children….. My dear friend became lost to me.  It could possibly be my fault and it could also have nothing to do with me at all, but she began to fade away the day my boyfriend died.

She held him for a long time. He was already dead, but they were sort of stuck together –her treading water, clinging to a ledge, trying not to give him up to the current, trying not to let him go. HIM- this dead man she clung to for a long time.  I think she held on for me. I think she held on for my children.  Because that’s how close we were. We would have done anything for each other.  Blood sisters. Prick our fingers, jump in front of a bus.  As long as you’re ok, I’m ok.  Best Friends. And we would have done those things because everything we had, we had struggled together to acquire.  So while my other son, a child she’d known since he was just a baby, struggled to find his way out of the current, with my dead boyfriend in her arms, a man she’d watched me slowly but surely fight to fall in love with, she prayed and begged God or the Universe or whomever/whatever she could channel.  She pleaded with the sky “not do this to her” and I have no doubt that her desperate, genuine pleas for my son to live helped him find his way out. There is not a moment more real and more true than her terror that I might not be ok if my son didn’t make it out. There is no other friend who could possibly have understood what the loss of my child -whom she’d essentially helped me raise-what his death -could have meant to me and therefore no greater plea I could have asked for than hers in those moments.

After Jason was taken away, minutes and hours and then days and weeks passed with our fingers intertwined.  Watching me through windows, across a room, through puffs of endless cigarette smoke, she waited there, treading water.  She was right there.  She was with me as I tried to learn to breath and crawl and walk and run again.  The honest moments, the tried and true friendship, the concern for our families and our goals and our sanity. The Truth was still there….but I think barely. Faintly.  She was holding on, but the rocks were starting to get slippery and her grip was beginning to loosen.  She was clinging to something that had quite possibly died a long time ago- something that was extinguished by the same water she treaded in. As we began to crawl out and away from the waterfall where he died, she was was somehow still there in those waters. Still there with him dead in her arms.

I don’t know what happened after the third month. It’s probable that the more I started to run from the ledge the further I ran from her, from my past.  It’s possible.  We were all changed. We were all running a little. Trying to make sense of it all in our own way, yet still- always, together. But there was something not quite right about her anymore.  She was so vigilant that she was almost paranoid. So zeroed in she was almost unaware of anything but those final few moments on the rocks and in the water. After seeing it was possible to lose something – someone- some life- every moment and every anchor…she sort of seemed to let it all go.  And I was so consumed by finding myself again that maybe I let her slip away.  She was right there but it’s possible that her Truth and mine no longer made any sense.  And you see, it’s equally possible that I had no choice but to let her fall behind.  There was no room for self doubt in my world. I was alone with two kids now. I couldn’t start my day without vomiting at the thought of it.  It was just me left to carry them up over that ledge and I had to trust that the direction I was leading them in made sense to me. I had to trust in my own truth.  And as I discovered what that meant to me, the more blurred hers seemed.

One day, she’d fabricated some story about me sleeping with her fiance. She’d said it repeatedly to me via text, but would never have a conversation over the phone or in person. It wasn’t true. Not even close to true. But I think she did it to get away from me too- from herself, from her past, her own truths.  She blocked me from her social media.  She cut me off, completely. This friend of mine, this sister, this truth I knew, told me to go away- made up a lie and I was forced to accept it.  And my need to mentally overcome this loss and rebuild my family took precedence over my need to clarify and shake her and smack her and TELL her to be ok- for us, for her, for me, for everyone else.  My need to survive this left little room to fight her while I moved forward.

She has become a casualty.  And it’s not because she couldn’t make it.  It’s because she’s violent and vicious and a liar and we’re all a little too fragile to make her understand.  The Truth I once knew, is now knotted and hurtful and cruel and angry and …. a lie.  How ironic. And the cruelest part about her now is that she stands where he lay dead in her arms and she thwarts every attempt we make to climb away.  She’s down there in those muddied waters, screaming and hurling mud at every one who passes by. Telling stories, fables to anyone who will listen.  Making claim to a person and their feelings post mortem.  She’s clinging to a ledge he would never want her to hold in the first place. She holding a solitary, painful truth in her hands and it’s slipping through her fingers and it is as fluid and dirty and real as the mud her treading, tired, feet will never touch. She holds on to this place and gnashes and gnarls her fearsome teeth.

I feel that as she held my dead lover in those final moments I will forever hold her dead truth. And because she held him and because I loved her once, one day- when I have my strength again- I will go where other people won’t.  I will go back there and unloose her wrinkled hands, and her tired, treading feet and I will calm her gnashing gnarls and I will tell her that she can do this. I will show her that I can and so she can too. Because she is only stuck there on that ledge.  This can’t possibly be my dear friend’s fate.  We will laugh about this and philosophize and dream in sync…this friend I had once.

My only truth now is that we all make it out together. And she’s still in there. So one day, I will have to go back.

The Reckoning

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I don’t know when I started to lose control but it was just around the one year mark when I realized it had happened and I was shocked at how hard it hit me. I had been so strong for so long. For most of the year I had been open and honest about my feelings. I was frequently checking in with the boys- who in turn seemed to be honestly and commendably expressing themselves.  I was determined and people said countless times how strong we were. I was validated. 

By December, I was writing, running regularly, losing weight and feeling pretty independent and capable. Yes, I might have been drinking a little too much and there were plenty of sad, drool and snot filled cries on the kitchen floor..  But I was also dancing in my kitchen at night and felt proud of the grip on reality we had developed. We had survived. We had faced something terrible but it wasn’t beating us.  But the strings that were holding me together unraveled without my even noticing. As the one year mark approached, I became more and more unbalanced and started feeling the weight of my entire body and I began to droop-like a sad, lonely puppet. All of it- the running, the healthy food, the sex, the “holy shit, we’re actually doing this and doing it really well” -All of it was erased from present consideration and became, very clearly,  some part of “the first year.” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I had been held up by my will to be ok, to make this ok for my kids…and then all of a sudden, without notice…all of my weight fell to floor with the strings, mocking the term “widow” in a loose web out around me.  Productivity had been replaced with anxiety and anxiety was now replaced by anger and self loathing.

Some days I could barely get dressed.  I sleep in yoga pants a lot, so I’d roll out of bed and throw a dress on over my pants, straighten my bangs, throw some crap in the lunch bags…and we were off for another endless day. I’d become addicted to the sleep between snoozes. It felt to me how I imagine heroin feels…dozing in and out of consciousness…coddling the newly developed disdain I had for following structured time. The only belief I held firmly to was that time wasn’t a thing I cared about anymore. It didn’t apply to me and my life anymore. I was falling asleep at my desk at work.  The phrase “I’m depressed” started sneaking out from my lips in casual conversation with family and friends and once I became comfortable with the sound of it in close company it was as if the words were jumping from a sinking ship or out of a burning building. I started using it in casual conversation with parents and coworkers. “I woke up at 4 am and just laid there awake…I think I’m depressed.” “I started smoking cigarettes again…I think I’m depressed.” “No, I can’t make it tonight, I’m too depressed.” There was no hiding this.  And really, I didn’t want to.  I’d become the sad stories I’d heard about over the first months: The wife who’s husband died and she couldn’t get out of bed. The mother who was never really there for her kids. The friend who couldn’t listen to anything but her sad, lonely heartbeat at social events. Everything was noise to me. Laughter was a cheap thrill- Escaped breath exuded by unwitting fools. But I’d developed my own cheap thrill… completely freaking people out when asked how I was doing.

I’d been asked this question a lot over the span of months- “how are you?”  It had been used as kindling for a thousand conversations in both earnest and passing encounters. In the beginning, I was so grateful that people cared and thankful for their support that I never really paid much attention to the question. There were only a handful of times my reply was anything other than a thoughtful, albeit, cautious…”Ya know? We’re really doing ok.”  I guess I always thought the second half of that reply was obvious: “… Considering my boyfriend drowned in front of us and my other son almost died, himself… I mean, the fact that I’m not in a straitjacket and they’re laughing and playing means we’re really making it work, right?”  (check out: https://wordpress.com/post/84570752/20/) Right?…..But everything was a little different now. I would get a little giddy when someone unknowingly stumbled into my black widow web with that peppy little question – “How are you doing?”  My eyes, widened and the hair raised on my arm… “Well Susie, not fucking great, to be honest. Between my kids, the bills, my damn dog and having to carry her bags of shit up and down the street EVERY SINGLE time she has to crap…things are really not going well for me. There’s that job I hate (check out: https://wordpress.com/post/84570752/41/), summer camps to pay for and parent teacher conferences that only I can attend.” And just as they’d start to leave, I’d seal the deal so they’d never ask me that stupid, Betty Crocker question again.  “I’m fucking exhausted. Susie. I need to sleep for a month. I need one day in your cookie cutter life where your biggest problem is that the crazy widow lady scared you speechless when you asked her how she was doing.”  People stopped asking, started avoiding eye contact, quickly clearing space for me to pass.  I wanted it that way. “Back off.” I reveled in the thought that maybe I was their worst nightmare. Someone who made them all hold each other a little closer at night. Black eyeliner, black nail polish, black dress over black yoga pants…paint it black. Paint the fucking town black.

That resolve I’d had for so long to make it to a year was waning as the year was coming to a close. Everything was happening backwards. This wasn’t how I was supposed to feel at a year. This should have been happening in the first few months.  Moping and going way too long before showers. I had completely grown out my armpit hair- and everything else with it.  “What’s the point?”  Along with my health, my nearly non existent social and sex life, the laundry became the main casualty- with baskets stacked at the end of the bed and piled at the bottom of the stairs and crumpled on closet floors. Our diet was strictly frozen food, sprinkled with packaged cookies and whatever fruit was on sale at Shaws. The bills, the dog, the recycling. In a short time, my life had become a Shel Silverstein poem. “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out.”  And why the fuck would she? She was depressed. Bitter glares at couples walking down the street and sad, long stares out my window at the river…feeling my ass grow and fit the shape of my chair at work…when I bothered showing up.  I had started taking a day off a week. Sometimes sleeping until noon and sometimes driving an hour to have really dirty (50 shades-of-widow-grey) sex with this guy I’d met online. I was spending money I didn’t have on cigarettes and beer. I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Just a few days ago my boss, and friend, asked how I was doing. I like her so instead of trying to terrify her I told her I really didn’t want to get into it. She pressed with “well, how are you doing as a single parent?”  My bottom lip quivered and my scary, bitter, too-young-to-be-a-widow mask started to wash off my face. My tough girl facade smeared and collected in black, smudgey stains on my shirt. After all the time I’d spent applying it, it was a little unnerving to see it so easily wiped away.  I cried through explanations of past due bills and anxiety over summer camps and rent and the recent loss of sanity, security and hope. I NEVER do this. I may not like my job, but I respect the fact that it’s employment and haven’t broken down like that at work…well, ever. I left and went home. curled into a ball, in the middle of the afternoon and cried myself to sleep. I woke up an hour later, panicked, trying to understand how- after 369 days, I didn’t have a better grip on this.

I mean, really what had changed? The past few weeks, people have been reaching out, trying to help me-aware that this time might be difficult-even when I didn’t see it coming.  And they’re the same people who have been there all along. My kids are struggling and muddling through their emotions, but that’s nothing new and really, not exclusive to “children of grief”–that’s part of being human and growth.  Yes, we’re going to start therapy, but I kind of knew in my heart it would take them this long to get to a place where they needed different tools for coping and moving on.  My job hasn’t changed-maybe my desire to be there and the realization that life’s too short to loathe 8 hours of every day, but the job itself hasn’t changed. The bills are the same, I’m just tired of being in debt. And that question- “How are you?” That’s been there from the first few hours after Jason died and it’s weaved it’s way through a myriad of conversations and yielded a variety of responses and reactions. So what has really changed? Why was I losing it? 

The answer was simple and clear to me when I finally let go of the facade and put down the black paint. When I finally voiced that I wasn’t happy -not with something that had happened to me. Oh I had become very comfortable with expressing the loss of the person, the father, the friend, the love. I had done everything I needed to do with the unhappiness of circumstance. I had owned it and smashed it against a wall and I had wallowed in it. I had defeated it and It wasn’t mine anymore.  But now it’s not about my grief or the shock of it all.  Without knowing it, all these months of moping, I was scared of myself.  All of the decisions and plans-they are no longer ours.  And the time for being sad about the loss of it had come to an end and I can’t blame the state of my life on the loss of my love or my dismembered family.  Beyond the loss of a person and the sadness that that evokes, I was unhappy with a choice I had made and stuck with for years. My job. My path. My life choices before and now after “grief.” The decision to move forward and how to do that was mine and I couldn’t blame the results on anything other than my own motivation or talent.

I’m changing but in order to do that, I have to say goodbye to the grief. So… Adios grief-you saucy betch. It’s been real. It’s time to put you down and take ownership of my life. I have to step up my game, go to work, make money where I can, and start putting energy into what I want to do with my future and my family. It’s time to write 🙂

40 days in: Letter to Jason

We were so happy. Every time I tell the story of June 7th, I always start with “we were so happy.” Moments before you died, I was having a conversation with Miles, as you know, about how we were all going to live until we were 110. An hour before you died, Ruth and I were remarking on the beauty of quiet pools and winding rivers. We were so lucky. Five hours before you died we were talking about how amazing it was that our kids were so amused by Lyrik you said you were” grateful that they had different men in their lives.” The morning of June 7th, I woke up before you, which you know is a rare occasion, and I looked at your sleeping face and Elvis lips and I smiled and… I was so happy.

The first couple weeks, I stood only when someone held my hand. I spoke only about what we had been through -staring blankly, terrified when conversations turned to what the three of us would be walking into –without you. I moved, but only because I had to. You were dead, but I was alive and so I was breathing, blinking, crying and feeling…but only because I had to.

The last two weeks have been more of a solitary journey for me. Friends and family still present, still checking in and helping, but when they leave or the call ends I can stand for longer periods of time by myself. And the time I’m alone with the kids or alone with my thoughts, doesn’t feel as endless and haunting as it did in those first 30 days.

It’s so strange, but 40 days later the ache in my heart is so much deeper than it was just days after June 7th. Maybe it hurts more because I allow myself to wish — to hope that you and I can sit down at the end of this and laugh and cry about it together; to wish you were here to help me comfort the boys- to give both heavy heads a place on your shoulders and to cover their whole backs with your hands when you pulled them in; to wish you were here to tell us it is all going to be ok; to wish we knew with certainty that you were ok.

My dearest wish, Jason is that you might stick around in this world for a little while just to see what our little nugget children are up to…their accomplishments, their love for each other, their laughter over farts and only you know what else… Miles is keeping up with the older kids at camp this summer. He rode a school bus for the first time! He’s drawing and he’s getting really, really good! He says, “you know who would be really proud of me? Dad.” And I know he’s absolutely right. Chase has been Miles’s protector during summer camps and when he sees one of us crying he’s right there rubbing our backs and then quickly making jokes to cheer us up. He’s swimming in the deep end at the pool this year and jumped off the highest diving board-no fear! He’s the first one to tell a story of you and the most insistent that we never forget-even when it’s hard to remember. And I hope these things you see.

40 days later, when I am quiet and the day is almost over- I allow myself the most selfish wish of all- that when you told me “you love me so much that when you die you want to come back and be with me all over again” that that love holds some weight with the Gods and you could choose this life- right now–not the next life or the life after that. That I might keep you here in some way- a balloon floating above us, tethered to the wrist of a young girl too afraid to let it go… that I might wish it hard enough and one day I’ll find you there, still swimming in the most beautiful place, on the most beautiful day, when we were so happy…that I might never let you go…

But when I allow myself that wish, my love, everything around me fades to a cold, colorless grey and the sorrow that follows the realization that you and I can never be again the way we were that day or those years, brings me to my knees. And so my love, I beg you watch over the boys and pray to God they feel you there for as long as you will stay. But I ask that you forgive me as I work to untie the string around my wrist. I hope you don’t feel forgotten when I turn up the music and dance and laugh and sing. I pray you don’t feel frightened that your life with us is forgotten when I smile as new memories are created. My love, my heart, my strength- my most selfish wish must now be that you’re not saddened by my relief when I unloose the knot and someday, set you free.

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Starting from scratch

I’ve started this blog over a hundred times.  Handwritten notes crumpled on the kitchen counter, email drafts at work, various google doc drafts- all saved for a day when I can piece them together and make sense of the story I’m trying to tell. I’ve had a difficult time finding a place to start when it’s all happening around me.

So maybe the best way to start this is to begin with who I am in this moment and in this moment, I’m a newly widowed, single mother of two boys ages 11 and 6. Today marks the 8 month anniversary of the death of my boyfriend of nearly 8 years. Jason and I met in March of 2007. My oldest son, Chase, was 3 years old at the time. After a little over a year together, we had our younger son, Miles- born on the same day, at the opposite time as Chase. They are almost exactly 5 years apart…

Jason died on June 7th, 2014.  He drowned in front of us at a local reservoir and waterfall.  Sucked in by the undercurrent of the falls, he was bashed against the rocks and emerged moments later, floating face first down the river, toward Miles (age 5 at the time) and myself. My son, Chase was also sucked into the undercurrent of the falls and spent over 30 minutes fighting to save himself, not knowing his stepfather had drowned next to him.  Friends of ours were there that day with their daughter and daughter’s friend. They fought with us, for us and for their own lives, as well.  There’s much more that happened that day and the days following and posts about those first few days and months will come. For now, I have to be satisfied with just an introduction or else I’ll get lost in every detail and if I let that happen, the past three paragraphs will join the rest of the unfinished blog posts I’ll never have the time to piece together…

Ultimately, this blog isn’t about that day, anyway. This blog is meant to be about how we rise together. How my children and I move on, clinging to and then staggering from the ledge where he left us. This is an expression of our struggle to find peace in the face of tragedy and hope against all odds. This is about finding our smiles. This is our story.

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