Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ordinary Day

It’s an ordinary day. The boiler didn’t work this morning – I forgot to have it serviced this fall, just like last fall – so I shivered at home while I waited for the plumber to come. Then the high school evacuated at 10 a.m. because of a bomb threat. Ian was happy to have a day off from school, but I had a good 30-minute panic attack. Colin had no such reprieve from school, and checked the porch every half hour after he got home to see if his new manga books had arrived. Later in the afternoon Ian’s basketball team won their game. 

At 7 I went to a play, Nice Fish, at the ART, about two friends ice fishing in Minnesota in March. It was a good play, although I dozed off and missed one character entirely. I particularly liked the monologue about the bologna sandwich with the bite out of the middle.

Mat would have liked it too. Not just the bologna sandwich part, although he would have liked that, but also the ice fishing, because he liked to fish, and the two main characters, and the absurdist nature of the play, and especially the bit at the end (spoiler alert) where the two friends transform into an old married couple and are lifted off the stage in their underwear by giant fish. 

When I ran out of ideas for what to buy Mat for Christmas, I would buy him theater subscriptions. We spent a season at the ART (our favorite by far), and one at the Huntington, and another one at the New Rep in Watertown. I bought Mat another subscription just as he was quitting chemo, in the fall of 2010. It was a vote of confidence, I suppose, that he would live through another theater season, although I’m quite certain I didn’t feel confident at the time. 

Or maybe it was a command: “Mat, we have theater tickets in March. You have to live long enough to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” 

He didn’t cooperate. Maybe I should have picked a more compelling spring play. 

I wonder when I will stop seeing my life through the lens of Mat’s absence. As in, Mat would have really liked the BBC series I just finished binge-watching, Broadchurch. And, I would have called Mat about my morning bomb-threat panic attack and cried instead of holding it together. And also, Mat would have played basketball with Ian, and taught him how to dribble, and he would have liked Colin’s manga drawings even more than I do. 

Now I’m home and it's almost time to get the kids to bed. 

It’s cold out – well below freezing – so the cat thinks about going outside but changes his mind and stays in. Until I start practicing my flute. Then it doesn’t matter that it’s cold. By the time I get to my E flat major scale, about one minute into my practicing, he’s pawing at the door and yowling, anxious to get out. I stop practicing long enough to let him go.

Mat would have saved me from getting a cat.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Hero Factory

Colin, my 10-year-old, went on a four-day fishing trip with his cousins and uncles recently. When he got back, his Uncle Zach texted me:

Thx for letting Colin go on the trip. He is a very good kid. He has good ethics and compassion for others.

It turns out that Colin’s cousins spent a lot of time fighting and making each other cry. Colin unfailingly sought out the victim to see how he could help. Usually it was to persuade his cousin to join him in his latest obsession, a game of Magic the Gathering.

I’m not surprised. You know those stories of people who run into burning buildings to save someone? These heroes more likely than not have survived a disaster or trauma. My kids are no exception. They may not have made a dramatic rescue, but they can see where they are needed and they step in. They do not ignore people in pain.

I hate everything my kids lost when their dad died. A cheering section, a skateboarding buddy, a tutor, a driving instructor, a guitar teacher, a basketball coach, a driver, a confidante, a career advisor, a spiritual guide, a grandfather for their children, a friend.

But they gained some things too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Love and Butter

I dated plenty before I got married, so my ineptitude 15 years later -- four years after being widowed -- surprises me. But in the last 18 months since I “got back out there” I’ve learned that I share a problem with 13-year-old boys: the social acceptability of my behavior in a relationship is in inverse proportion to my level of interest. I can be charming, witty, warm, and flirty if the stakes are low. When the stakes are high, I am overeager at best and creepy at worst.

I re-entered the world of dating with Jeb, who I knew from my first job out of college. We had been great friends, and when he turned up divorced and interested I thought he had to be The One. We lived in different cities, which covered a lot of my faux pas, although I texted too soon and too often and stayed up too late waiting for him to call. 

About the time I finally admitted to myself that Jeb just wasn’t that into me, I met Michael. I was charming and flirty because he already had grandkids, and as a mom to grade-school kids I couldn’t envision myself with him.

I tried online dating and met Pablo, who was nice, but I didn’t feel enough sparks for a second date, so I was attentive and warm. Patrick had also lost his spouse, and I was funny, empathetic, and supportive, but trying to make the schedules of two solo parents mesh -- no every-other-weekend availability -- proved to be impossible. With no opportunity to self-destruct, I remained in the plus column. 

Then there was Nathan. He was a brooding starving artist type with no car, but I inexplicably found myself wanting his approval. Unfortunately for both of us, we lived in the same city. No faux pas cover for me, no protection from borderline stalking behavior for him. 

True to form, once I decided I liked Nathan, I was not warm, or funny, or flirty. I was weird. To start, after a couple of dates I sent a poorly timed and ultimately unrequited effusive email.

Awkward, but possibly recoverable.

But not for long. We had a mutual love of food, and I had confided that if happiness for Linus is a warm blanket, then mine is an entire rack full of chef’s knives. His, he said, is a freezer full of butter.

I understand this. It’s impossible to predict when a batch of cookies, some scones, or a pie crust will be needed, but these situations will certainly arise at least weekly. So I bought him six pounds of butter.

In retrospect, perhaps saturated fat doesn’t express affection and a sense of “I’m not totally crazy” quite as well as I thought it would.

His response?

“Uh …” And then, “I’ll take the butter, but don’t buy me anything else.”

This went down so much better in my imagination.

At this point it’s difficult to prove that I have even once had a rational thought, but bear with me. Four years ago I lost the best thing about my life -- a devoted and deeply satisfying relationship. Of course I can’t get back what I had, and I know that. I really do.

But on some level, if I catch a glimpse of something that looks like what I had, I do go a little crazy. I am desperate. Not for the current Mr. Very Unlikely to be Right, but for everything I miss about my old life.

And I can’t seem to stop myself from chasing it down with butter.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


I spend a lot of time sitting in bleachers watching sports.

I'm not the first, though. I sent Mat's mom some photos of Ian playing basketball, and she wondered whether bleachers would be any more comfortable when Ian's kids are playing basketball.

I doubt it. Some things change (the length of basketball shorts), but some things never do. I suspect I'm just as uncomfortable as Mat's mom was, and the next generation won't have it any better.

It's kind of nice that some things don't change.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The stupidity of bikers

Getting hit by a car while riding a bike -- and wearing a sling to prove it -- starts a lot of conversations. The prize for the best one goes to a guy I recently dated. Very briefly.

You'll see why in this text conversation. Things start out fine and then take a bizarre twist.

John: How are you? I was thinking about you this week. ... I hope you are OK.

Me: I'm doing OK. I got hit by a car riding my bike a few weeks ago but survived. I didn't even have to spend the night in the hospital.

John: Sorry to hear about the bike wreck. You are always so daring.

Me: I don't know how daring I was being, I was just crossing the road. I take it back. Bike riding of any kind is daring.

here it comes ...

John: Yes, bikes are dangerous and yet the laws make it so bikers can do whatever they want and car drivers are liable even for the stupidity of the bikers.

Me: Well, think of it this way. If a driver makes a mistake they probably have a dent or a scratch. If a biker makes a mistake they probably get to go to the ER. So they learn fast.
John: Bikers want to be cars when it is advantageous to them and pedestrians when it benefits them as well.

Me: This stuff is great. But you should probably save it for someone who hasn't been hit by a car in the last month.

A pad of Post-It notes has more empathy.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The truth about bike accidents

Selfie with a slightly misshapen shoulder.
I recently discovered that I like to bike to work. I’ve been trying to get on this bandwagon for years, but my old mountain bike is heavy and slow, and the brakes are out of alignment so they rub against the rim of the tire. I try to tell myself the extra resistance is making me stronger. It’s true, but it’s not much fun. And I get tired of being passed by pre-school children on tricycles.

Everything changed when Ian turned 13. I’m not sure how much Ian wanted a new bike, but he had outgrown his old one. It also did not escape my notice that a bike that fit Ian would also fit me.

So I got “Ian” a bike for his “birthday,” and I was off.

I totally drank the koolaid. I started riding with friends on Friday mornings, to my therapy appointments, and to work every chance I got. By fall, the air was crisp, the bike path was a tunnel framed with brilliant red, orange, and yellow leaves, and I could climb that last hill right before home without stopping.

I knew riding a bike is dangerous, so I tried to stick to the bike path wherever possible, but there are some missing links in the route between my house and work, and I hoped for the best.

And then one especially pretty afternoon, riding my bike home from work, I was hit by 2001 Honda minivan.

I was hit on my left while crossing the main road through town just after a confused thought, “I thought he was stopping! He’s not stopping!” and then thrown onto the ground, hard, onto my right shoulder.

I lay writhing on the ground, trying to assess the damage. My hip hurt, my knee hurt, my head hurt, my shoulder hurt. My shoulder really hurt.

Things blur from there. I’m tangled in my bag and my helmet and my bike and another biker is helping me and the police are there and an ambulance is there and somehow I’m freed from my bike and my bag but I don’t remember how and people are telling me not to get up but I’m trying to get up but then I look down at my shoulder and it’s not at all the same shape that it used to be and it’s not at all the same shape as the other one and suddenly it seems like a good idea to go to the hospital.

I start to panic a little. How am I going to get my kids? For the gazillionth time I curse the fact that Mat is gone. I can’t think of anyone who can help me with my kids because I just can’t think. I can remember my name and my address and what day it is and who the president is but it does take me a second to come up with those facts.

And then the EMTs are explaining that they’re going to lift me onto the stretcher by my pants. The kids will have a field day with that. Atomic wedgie!

In the ambulance I am finally able to clear my head enough formulate a plan. Very unusually, Ian and Colin are both at after-school, so I call the director, Michelle, and tell her what happened. She’s impressed because she’s never been called by a parent from an ambulance before and says she will keep them at after-school until the boys can be picked up by the boys’ Aunt Hanna. I’m still not thinking clearly and am trying to keep the call short because the EMT is glaring at me, so I don’t have the presence of mind to tell her to tell the boys what happened.

At the hospital, I get a text message from Ian. “Why is Aunt Hanna picking up me and Colin?” His question is direct and short.

Predictably, Ian and Colin are worried about the news that Aunt Hanna will pick them up. Aunt Hanna never picks them up.

Ian, bless his heart, has his phone with him. He hasn’t had his phone with him for a month because it’s always plugged into the charger, always charging but never being used. And he will never have his phone with him again because the next day – literally the very next day – he drops his phone and it breaks in pieces and the battery falls into the sewer. But that day he has his phone and so he texts me.

The boys do not know what has happened, and without the details they are imagining the worst.

I text him back immediately even though the nurse who is helping me has said he wishes he could destroy all cell phones because they’re annoying. I text him back because I need to reassure my fatherless children that they are not also about to lose their mother.

I think but do not say to the nurse, ‘Kids these days text, that’s what they do, that’s all they do, they text and can you understand that the fact that I can text my child at this moment is a gift from God?’

I text Ian back and say, “Little bike accident. I think I dislocated my shoulder. I just have to get an x-ray and then I’ll be home. Always wear your helmet, my young Jedi.” I look at my helmet later and it has a very long scrape on it. My 13-year-old is not impressed because 13-year-olds are hard to impress.

I text him for awhile longer, making light of the situation even though it’s hard to move and my neck is in a collar, but I’m slowly realizing that there are at least as many body parts that don’t hurt as that do and probably more.

The next day an after-school teacher apologizes to me. She says, “I’m so sorry Ian was texting you yesterday when you were at the hospital. I saw him on his phone and I thought I should tell him to stop texting, but I didn’t quite know what to say.”

I think to myself again, do you not know that Ian’s ability to text me at that moment was a blessing? I try to explain that I was happy to be able to reassure him and even though I hurt all over because I just got hit by a car my fingers work fine and it was taking my mind off the long wait because two cardiac patients came in ahead of me.

Later Michelle said that when Ian was done texting me, he went straight to Colin and said, “Colin, mom got hit by a car.” And Colin started to panic and said “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”

And Ian knelt down by him and said, “Colin, it’s going to be OK. Mom is OK. I just found out. She just hurt her shoulder so Aunt Hanna is going to pick us up. She’ll be home later tonight.”

Ian knows, even if adults don’t know, that children need the truth and the truth is comforting even when it’s terrible. And this particular truth is not so terrible, because later that day we were all in the king-size bed together, as we are every Wednesday night, watching our favorite TV show, even if I kept yelping every time the boys bumped my shoulder.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Manitou magic

One day in August I drove three hours to Oakland, Maine. I stayed about an hour, and then drove three hours home. It was the best seven hours I’ve ever spent.

I was picking up my boys from their week at Camp Manitou Experience, a camp for grieving boys. I could have sent them home on the bus, but I wanted to see the camp for myself.

Good call.

Since my two boys lost their dad three and a half years ago, I’ve tried to help them get the help they need to process their grief without a lot of success. We do some things that work well, like declaring dad’s death anniversary a family holiday every year and spending the day skiing. We talk about dad a lot, usually in casual ways: “Look, I’m folding my pizza in half to eat it just like dad.”
We have also tried some things that haven’t worked well. Twice-monthly support groups, which I have seen open the world for some children, haven’t worked for us. My peer-conscious teenager, Ian, sees them as something that makes him even more different from his friends than his lack of a dad. “I feel like if I have to go to a support group then there’s something wrong with me,” he said. He added, “It’s like this hour where I have to be sad.” His younger brother Colin kept getting hit by the boy sitting next to him during circle time, so he was happy to drop out.

But the boys need more than just me, and quite frankly even my own attempts to help the boys sometimes misfire. Ian especially needs his peers and other adults. The Big Brother-like relationship for the boys I’ve been hoping will spontaneously develop has yet to materialize. Perhaps a youth leader in our church congregation, a scout leader, or a teacher would take a special interest in the boys? It turns out that these things can’t be forced.

The boys both have good friends, but can they talk to their friends about their dad? Not too long ago Colin pointed out a picture of his dad to a friend who quickly said, “Don’t talk about it. It’s too sad.” Ian’s friends are older and therefore more sensitive but they also don’t get it.

So, no.

The boys have made a lot of progress, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. Colin, then barely six, spent the first month after his dad’s death building a cocoon. He hid inside his shirt, pulling in his arms and his chin, and wrapped himself in his blankie. We took a trip to New York shortly after dad died and I cringed at the filth being collected on the blanket as Colin dragged it around the city. I spent the trip tucking his protective armor around him and into his shirt and pants to try to keep it off the ground.

Colin has come out of hiding since then, but he has a long way to go. He’s only 9, and Ian is 13, and they still don’t fully realize what they’ve lost: dad’s presence at high school and college graduations, at their weddings, career advice, advice about fatherhood. How could they?
Camp Manitou Experience was my last-ditch effort, and the boys went with some trepidation. What if it was a week-long support group? But from the minute I stepped foot on the camp to sounds of cheering boys -- the UNH team won the week-long college league competition! -- I knew we had hit the jackpot. 

Far from the suffering and downtrodden demeanor you might imagine from 120 or so kids who have lost someone close, usually a parent, they were a happy and confident riot of boys at the end of a week-long celebration of boyhood.

It was a week of all the usual camp stuff on speed -- roasting s’mores, boating, scavenger hunts, stirring chocolate milkshakes in huge vats with lacrosse sticks, fireworks (fireworks!), mini-golf, and a pudding slide. Added to that were daily circle times, activities that connect boys to the person they lost, and a final campfire designed to provide space for sharing emotions and memories of their missing loved one.

It's the combination of the two -- the swimsuit portion of the Mr. Manitou competition and the campfire sharing time -- that makes the difference. It's about the fact that despite grief, and maybe even because of it, life is great. The boys developed camaraderie, and then friendship, and then the brotherhood that comes from sharing their deepest feelings.

After Ian was home from camp he said, “You know, I liked the boys in my cabin, but I wasn’t really good friends with them until the last campfire.” He paused for a minute. “It’s amazing that you can be talking about something sad and then 20 people can be hugging you and you can feel so great.”

Ian was able to talk about his dad with a group and have it be a good, supportive, healing experience. For the first time ever.

Ian wasn’t the only one whose life was changed by Camp Manitou Experience. At the closing ceremony, a hastily assembled but remarkably good natured and talented a cappella group, the Manitones, sang “Change in My Life” to their new-found brothers:

A man gets crazy when his life is all wrong,
And a heart gets weary when it doesn't belong.
When the road gets rocky, Lord, you've got to keep on,
Let the new light come shining on through.

I've been lonely, I've been cheated, I've been misunderstood;
I've been washed up, I've been put down, and told I'm no good.
But with you I belong, 'cause you helped me be strong.
There's a change in my life since you came along.

The chanting started as soon as the group finished: “That was awesome!” I was too busy wiping the tears out of my eyes, a lucky fly on the wall of the gathering of boys in the camp amphitheater. I wasn’t the only parent there who started rifling through my bag for a tissue.

Then a group of 14-year-old boys finished me off. They presented the camp with a beautifully painted wooden tree showing words that tell how they feel about the camp and about each other, and explained the choice of each word:

Invisible strings. Family. Phantasmagoric. Confidence. Growth. Bonding. Unity. Connection. Hope.

Later, Colin and a crush of other boys had an impromptu dance party to “Singing in the Shower” in the middle of the cafeteria, deliriously happy to have found each other. Then an announcement: “51 weeks until next year!” and more cheering.

Many boys do arrive at the camp lonely, cheated, and misunderstood. But once they arrive, they are transported to a magical land where they’re not different. Where every single person can say, "I know how you feel," and mean it. They have the rare experience of being completely comfortable.

The camp doesn’t cost the boys or their families a cent. Even the daily canteen, which stocks candy bars, sunglasses, and necessities like toothpaste, is free. And, mindful of the fact that many boys’ families are financially as well as emotionally impoverished as a result of their loss, the food is good. Really good. I’m talking about lobster rolls (Ian ate five) and barbecue ribs for dinner. And for the carb-starved: mac and cheese in a bread bowl.

Angels on earth made this happen, mostly volunteers who spend their vacations as camp counselors and their free time doing the endless planning and organizing that makes this happen. And people like you and me, who make Manitou Camps Foundation their charity of choice on Amazon Smile, or write a check. Or both.

Like Ian and Colin, each boy at Camp Manitou Experience has a huge hole in his heart and at camp, they help heal the edges of the hole for each other. That they come out changed is immediately apparent. After a few years at camp, the boys have emotional IQs that are off the charts. They come out equipped to go through the rest of their lives helping other people come out of hiding, helping to heal their broken hearts.

I walked away from Camp Manitou Experience camp with this thought about our family: "We are going to be OK. We might even be great.”