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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Fit of giggles and happiness

This past week, my mom had the boys enrolled in a day camp a few miles from where she lives, an hour away from me. I had a whole week to myself!  I’ve spent the past year redefining what kind of parent I am on my own.  This week was a rare opportunity for me to rediscover what I like to do on my own-not as a mother, but as a woman. It took a few days to decompress completely and wrap my head around it.  I was still working but I had the evenings and mornings to myself.  It was glorious!  I went for runs, long strolls into town for no other reason than I could, swimming in the morning and at night, watched TV whenever I wanted, had friends over, stayed up late and ate left over pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By Friday night, I could tell that my breathing had slowed down, my pace had changed to a sauntering stroll, my whole attitude was centered in a much more peaceful place. I had finally had a chance to completely recharge! It felt great!

I couldn’t have it all, though. Oh no, not this girl!  A full week going by without a problem coming up just doesn’t happen for for a gal like me.  Something always, always pulls me back and grounds me.  While the kids were away,  I ran into some serious car trouble that will likely leave us without transportation for at least the next few weeks. That combined with the fact that in order to fix it, I’m going to be completely broke (as in negative bank account, as in make the food last as long as we can) could have been bad. By the time they’d returned home on Sunday, I’d resigned all of us to a couple of weeks of biking where we needed to go.  While it was frustrating, to say the least, I couldn’t help but see the silver lining in all of it.  Maybe this was who I was now.  The week of recharging had changed me! Perhaps I’d been through so much lately that a problem with an actual solution was enough to keep the skip in my step.  {This wasn’t so bad.  I’m a peaceful, happy person now. I can totally make this work!}   When relaying my plans for the upcoming weeks to the boys, I found myself saying things like “We could really use the exercise anyway!” and  “It’s supposed to be fairly sunny for the rest of the week, why not enjoy the weather?” “I’ve been meaning to check out the various meals we can make using Ramen Noodles!” (I think there are over 100, btw!!)  Thankfully everything we need (my job, their camp, grocery store, etc.) is all within a  two-mile radius and we live in a town in which biking is a completely acceptable form of transport.  My peppy pep talk to the kids was met with long, blank, stares and a few grunts and moans, but I skipped right through it and moved along, using words like “team” and “bonding” and “namaste.” (No really- I bowed out of the dining room, while my younger son looked on amused and perplexed with his hands in prayerful pose as instructed, as I repeated Namaste until I was out of sight.)

As positive as I was trying to be, I admit, I had some seriously sobering moments of panic that could not, no matter what, be squelched. {What if we wanted to leave and go somewhere else for a weekend?? Everything outside of this place is at least 45 miles away!! What they hell was I thinking? I hadn’t even checked the weather! It could totally rain the whole time and then what?!  I pull up to work on my 5 speed, drenched and freezing all day and then have to turn around and bike 2 miles to pick up my equally wet and frozen children from camp?!}  But the most terrifying thought was: {What if this whole thing never ends and this is it?! This is how we get around now-the biker family….”there goes old widow Ashley and her poor children….biking through the snow…”}  The more I thought about it, the more terrifying the whole deal seemed to me. It wasn’t just the car, it was the financial worries and eventually every bad decision I’ve ever made.

So I stopped thinking about it. The reality was that we didn’t have a choice. This was just what we had to do and we could do it and feel good about it or we could do it and be miserable. I chose door # 1.

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Sunday night we were fortunate enough to accompany a friend to a small little theater situated at the edge of an enchanted old farm, with rolling hills and picnic tables and perfectly lined stoned walls.  It was beautiful and such a unique place to celebrate theater!  As we waited for the show to start, I looked around and wondered how we could possibly be upset about  obstacles in life?   We were so lucky to be in this little place!  I leaned back in my seat, grinning from ear to ear, so proud of myself for having chosen door #1!  This night was validation that good things can happen as long as you commit to happiness!  Ahhhhhh..  A quick glance over my shoulder to share this moment with the boys but when I looked over, they were gone.  Still calm, I thought “they must have gone to the bathroom.”

I scanned the length of the tiny barn, turned theater and found them blocking the entrance and in the throes of some barely audible, but clearly very intense battle over a sweater. People were skirting around them with annoyed glances at one another or requests for them to please move. All of which had no effect on them whatsoever. I couldn’t hear but when I squinted to get a better look, I noticed one had a cup of water and a crumbling cookie that he was clearly intending to use for ammunition against the other if the sweater wasn’t released.  The little one caught my eye just as the cookie hit his cheek and  let out a wail so loud that almost every head in the audience turned to see what was going on. They made their way back to me but it didn’t end there so I had to sit in between them.  It calmed down for a moment until a little hand made its way behind my back and slapped his brother’s head so viciously that a shout escaped.  Ordinarily I would have taken them outside and unleashed my usually very effective speech in which I threaten to rid my house of every electronic piece of equipment.  But we were trapped in such close quarters that I had to resort to whispering potential consequences through gritted teeth until the lights dimmed and a pianist began the play’s introduction. By this point I was so hot from embarrassment and angry from trying to control them in that barn that my bangs were stuck to my forehead and my mouth had never been so dry. I tried to find the brochure to fan myself off but couldn’t, which just made it worse. When I finally found it, crumpled up in my son’s sweater, I was so angry and frustrated at the whole situation.  I held up the crumpled remains of the brochure along with the sweater and with my lip stuck to my teeth and my eyes bulged out of my red face, I proclaimed to both of them, in a sinister, throaty voice :  “It’s mine now.”

I was clutching the sweater so tightly that my knuckles were white and my fist was shaking.  I held their gaze for a full 30 seconds.  My face must have looked completely psychotic.  Upon receiving my preposterous declaration and holding my alternating glare for as long as they could, it occurred to all of us how ridiculous this was. I looked like the Hulk, head moving from side to side, sweat pouring down my face, arm raised with a miniature piece of cloth hanging around my wrist. I had made one last attempt to hold my happy place together and all I had to show for it was a sweater and a crumpled brochure. The facade was cracking and we all knew it.  My older son bit his lip to stop himself from laughing as his brother’s hands flew up to cover his own mouth. By now, the curtains were opening and we’d all completely lost it. The first half an hour was spent stifling laughter as random parts of the play would remind one of us how ridiculous I looked.  All it would take was a sigh or twitch and we were, all three of us in stifled, uncontrollable, hysterics, heads down with the biggest smiles on our faces and tears rolling down our cheeks. We eventually had to excuse ourselves and return collected.  By the time the play ended, I was in the middle, their heads on my shoulders and we were breathing in sync, trying not fall asleep.

I don’t know how these next few weeks will go. I imagine much like the first few days. I foresee some unavoidable inconvenience and struggle but I hope those things are mixed with pep talks and great fits of laughter that lead to nights cuddled up on the couch together.  When we make it to the other side of this, I don’t want a trophy at the end. What I want is to be given another night like that. I want a chance once in a while to appreciate and savor the moment with my two boys.

By the time we left that old barn, turned theater, I felt like I had the richest piece of chocolate melting in my mouth and I didn’t care that the euphoria had allowed to me to laugh when the chocolate dribbled down my chin.

You can be whatever kind of boy you want to be

My 11 year old was walking around in my heels for about a half an hour. When I glanced over, I gave him an amused smirk and asked what he was doing. “What?! They suit me!” He proclaimed over the click, clack of wood heel on wood floor.  As he left the kitchen and headed toward the couch to play XBox, still wearing my stilettos, he threw an “I like it!” over his shoulder to which I replied, “whatever you need to do, man.”

It may seem like an offhanded response, but this was a careful reply and an attempt not to pay much too attention to it.  My first reaction was to tell him he looked silly and ask him to take them off. “Heels are for girls!”  However, it occurred to me that telling him not to wear those shoes contradicts the message I’ve tried to teach him up to this point. It tells him the ponies he played with when he was three, the easy bake oven he asked for for Christmas when he was four, and the general understanding that “he can be whatever kind of boy he wants to be” are wrong.  It tells him the Legos and trucks he likes are acceptable, but anything that comes painted pink and purple or requires a spatula or brush and and change of clothes are NOT for him.

I know it was just a pair of heels and really, it means nothing other than he was trying them out. But it opened my eyes to how easy could have been for me to confirm stereotypes and validate lasting gender specific prejudices. The confusion of gender in this country doesn’t exist because we allow our children to have options. The confusion about what it means to be a boy (or girl) in our ever evolving, yet frighteningly stagnant culture comes from a child knowing there are options and being told without reason or rhyme that they’re just not allowed to chose them.

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Saved by Science

My 6 year old asked: “Mom, can I have some more of that delicious fruit?”

I was astonished that my picky eater -who typically only wants seconds of anything that’s orange and glowing so brightly it can be seen from outer space- wanted more of a healthy snack.  I enthusiastically (and maybe a bit frantically) started cutting up another piece of fruit!

6 yr Old: “Who made Kiwi’s, anyway?”

{If I say something like nature -as in the earth -as in it’s good for you, will it deter him? Think fast-what would my mom have said?}

“Hmmm.. God,” I say with a little smirk.

Pointing to the seeds, he says, “God? God made these? Where did he find these tiny nuts?” 

My 11 year old, sitting in the living room remarks, “God?! HAHA- I’m going with the Big Bang theory on this one.”

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Guilty pleasures

I don’t know what’s possessed me, but I’ve decided to spice things up around here and secretly wink at each boy individually whispering “favorite” while pointing to him. Hahahaha!! They each blush and smile and eventually one tells the other that their my favorite and they fight over it! They buy it every time! I need a hobby! Freud would have a field day with this :/

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Meanwhile….

…..In tweeny, book report, twilight land:
Me to my 11 yr old son: Ok. I’ve reviewed your rough draft.  You should be proud of yourself! There’s a lot here you can use! I did make some corrections and just a warning, this is not a copy and paste scenario. You will have to develop more of your original thought where you see an asterisk.
Him- blink blink
Me-a little red star
(still staring at me)
(I start again- slowly and clearly) You know?  I didn’t write everything for you. It’s not all grammatical changes. My notations are prompts for you to embellish what you’ve started writing.
Him- I don’t understand.
Me- You. Will. Need. To. Think. And. Add. More. Words.
He rolls his eyes and walks away.
I crack a beer and mutter “good talk” while I finish dinner.
That’ll do Merica. That’ll do.

fao schwartz

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 🙂

One year ago today

I popped on facebook to check out “one year ago today”-something I rarely do. This was my post a year ago today :

May 6, 2014 · He said, “I love you so much, I want to marry you and after I die I want to come back and do it over again.”
And this is today’s response:
Some times it doesn’t feel real. But what does that even mean now? These days things like time and words like reality feel completely foreign to me. Explaining this to people who live with these things fastened to their wrists or on vision boards or in “small talk” conversations on sidewalks or over coffee …I don’t know how to relate to them, most days. I live in a different world. I remember the morning you said this to me. I remember your arm around my shoulder, my head against your neck-the pulse beneath your skin. We had just moved a week prior to this morning. It was sunny and warm and we were taking our time. I remember how the rough edge of your hand brushed my cheek when you moved my hair out of my eyes to tell me this. And I remember thinking what a complex person you were. You looked like you could tear a tree down with your bare hands but you loved in such a gentle, impossibly kind way. The roughness of your hand on my skin followed by the sweetest words and softest kiss. I remember my reality a year ago today and it was a lifetime of mornings like this with you. I recall it being so real and clear and impenetrable. I remember that a year ago today I promised you forever. But a month and a day later everything changed and fate tested our little vow. I can’t believe life will ever again be as clear and safe to me as it was a year ago today. I can’t hold up my end of our promise because I have to keep moving in this world- between clarity and fear —-and yet still somehow hope—-the hope that if you could you maybe just wait for me…we’ll have a chance to do it again.