Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

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.”

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Life in Balance

There was a lot of talk among my widow friends about looking for a “new normal” after our husbands died. When Mat died, every last thing about my life changed: how I slept, ate, and spent my time, where I went, who I talked to, what I read, what I dreamed about, even what I wore (more on that in another post).

It’s harder to think of things that didn’t change than that did.

I’ve been looking for this new normal for a long time now and haven’t quite found it. For one thing, I don’t really want to accept my life the way it is so I don’t want to call it normal. For another thing, life is a never-ending series of smallish gains and losses. Take my kids’ development. I lost the adorable babies I had when my boys became toddlers. I gained bright, inquisitive, elementary school children at the same time that I lost impulsive pre-schoolers. The sensitive fifth grader that I knew how to relate to has been replaced by a teenager who sometimes is sweet but sometimes is a monster.

What if there is no normal?

My friend Corey asked me this question the other day. What if the second we think we’ve found our footing, the ground shifts under our feet again? Maybe it’s not a 10 on the Richter scale, but there’s enough of a tremor to threaten our balance.

Since the big one, there have been lots of other big and small gains and losses in life: a new car, finding a hilarious new friend, a vacation in Hawaii with my brother, inadvertently straining a relationship with a friend with a careless comment, unexpectedly struggling with faith, the end of a once-hopeful new relationship.

Welcome to life on a balance board.

A balance board is a deck, very much like a skateboard deck, that sits on a tapered cylinder (inexplicably called a rock). The goal is to balance on the deck as it sits atop the rock -- remember this is a round object that rolls back and forth -- constantly making the small adjustments necessary to keep from falling over. Mat was a snowboarder, and his balance board helped him stay in shape during the off season.

Theoretically, as you improve, you can use the tapered ends of the rock to practice snowboarding moves like toe turns and heel turns. And jumps and spins and ollies.

I wouldn’t know, because just standing on the balance board takes all the concentration and leg and core strength I can muster. I suppose if I were able to find the exact center of the board and keep my body perfectly still, then I could rest on the board. Stand on it without having to work.

But this is not the way the world works. There is an exact center, but the rock is not a stable object. It rolls back and forth, and there is gravity, and I can’t stay perfectly still, and so I have to constantly slide the deck over the rock from one side of the center to the other, always going through the center but never able to stay.

If life is a balance board, then looking for normal is a fool’s errand.

If life is a balance board, then the only thing for it is to develop some serious core strength.

Sunday, June 01, 2014


I’m afraid it speaks volumes about my (lack of) spiritual depth that I so often find profound meaning in pop songs. There was “The Fighter,” by Gym Class Heroes, and “Keep Your Head Up,” by Andy Grammer. This morning while I was jogging it was “Pompeii,” by Bastille.

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

The topic of why I connect so solidly with a song about the destruction of a great city is for another day (OK, month).

But the trend really had me worried, so I started to think.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about a woman looking for her keys under a streetlamp. Her brother, who has been visiting from Utah, offers to help, asking, “Is this where you lost them?”

“No,” she replies. “But the light here is best.”

The approach seems patently ridiculous. “Look for your keys where you lost them, you dingus,” my brother would say to me.

I’m often searching for things. Usually answers to questions like, "My city was beautiful. Why did Vesuvius erupt and destroy it?" and "How am I supposed to be optimistic when there's still lava seeping through my streets?" and "I miss the old Pompeii. The new construction is going really poorly. Can we get some beaches and mountains in here, and a food truck that serves chocolate 87 different ways?" and "What's the secret to getting ash stains out of my whites? Hot water doesn't seem to be doing the trick." 

I pray for answers to these questions, but truthfully I usually feel like I get no response. "Why is s God ignoring me?" is another question I often have.

So I look wherever I happen to be. It may be at church or in a verse of scripture but more likely it’s in the suds of the dishes I’m washing, or the leaves I’m raking in the yard, or the sprint I’m making from work to school to pick up the kids to home for dinner to the baseball field for the Little League game. Or in the pop songs my kids select on the car stereo.

Is God ignoring me, or is he so desperate to speak to me that he'll use whatever cheap medium is available?

“Ask [anything], and it shall be given you; seek [anywhere], and ye shall find; knock [on anything], and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matthew 7:7)

Monday, April 07, 2014

In Search of a Spoon

Can I be honest? Of all the things I miss about Mat, I miss his body the most.

I take that back. Let’s not be too honest. But let me just say that in our not-quite 13 years of marriage we spent a lot of nights sleeping together. We had a king-size bed that felt big enough for us each to have our own zip code, but always started the night curled up together in some configuration or another. Eventually I would get too hot and retreat to my side of the bed, but not before some seriously satisfying spooning. I miss it.

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s desperate for this kind of human touch. I was out to dinner last night with some of my widowed friends, and this topic came up. Elaine, a mom of three girls, has been trying to teach her five-year-old daughter Kate how to spoon with her. She described the scene: she’s trying to arrange Kate in spoon position, and she’s getting stiff resistance. Legs are not properly tucked, body is twisting, and arms are flailing.

“Mom, I don’t want to lay on my side! I can’t see the TV that way! Why do I have to lay on my side?”

Poor Peter has it worse. His kids are both teenagers, and even the thought of a bedtime snuggle would be met with icy stares. He’s never dared to bring it up. Like most of us, Peter is having a serious dispute with God over how his life is turning out, and he was making cracks about going to see his priest to try to work things out. Someone said, very inappropriately (it wasn’t me, I swear), “Just be careful you don’t get molested by the priest.”

His response? “I don’t care if I get molested as long as I get to spoon afterwards. I haven’t been spooned in two years!”

“Too bad I didn’t drive my minivan,” sympathized Elaine. “Otherwise we could head out there right now.”

Likewise, I am desperate. I spend most of my time scheming how to get my kids to snuggle me. Or, as Bev Goldberg on our favorite TV show The Goldbergs puts it, trying to get snuggies.

Ian is 12, almost 13, so this is tricky. I have to play it cool, or I will scare him off entirely. When I’m lucky, he comes to me. He might jump into bed with me for a minute in the morning while he’s waiting for the water in the shower to heat up. The house is cold, my bed is warm, and it’s right next to the bathroom. I bite my tongue about the wasted water and go in for the snuggle.

More often the best I can do is very subtly sidle up for a hug. Sometimes when I’ve made Ian’s favorite breakfast (French toast), or helped him pack his lunch, or unexpectedly done the laundry for him, he’ll throw his arms around me. Those are good. I make French toast almost every week to try to get one of those hugs. I’m careful not to hold on too long, though. I want him to come back for more.

Colin is an easier target. He’s a delightfully squishy 9-year-old who likes nothing better than to snuggle with his mom. This is mostly because he likes to sleep in my bed, which is more comfortable than his. And inevitably, he gets to stay up later when he’s in my room. He reads or draws while I wind down for the evening, and then it’s a full-on snuggle fest.

The downside is that after he falls asleep, he elbows me in the back, kicks me, takes the covers, talks in his sleep, and rolls to my side of the bed, leaving me with a tiny sliver of mattress. There’s nothing restful about it. But it’s worth it.

Occasionally Colin will use snuggies as a bargaining tool. It works. Last week he wanted a new junk ball bat, and he started pleading his case. “Mom, can I have a new bat? This one is old and dented. It doesn’t work anymore!” There’s nothing wrong with his bat, so I ignored him. That’s when he started making offers.

“I’ll give you snuggies for an hour!” Tempting, but I was on the phone, so I waved him away. He persisted. “Two hours!” Still no response, so he upped the ante. Finally, at five hours of snuggies a day for a week, I hung up.

“Deal,” I said.

Sometimes I get a two-fer. Our favorite family activity is watching TV and movies together. I don’t care if you think this is lame, I get snuggies out of the deal. I make popcorn and we head to the basement which is unheated, and we huddle together for warmth. Heaven.

I realize my luck will run out. My day will come. My kids will both be teenagers. They will stop telling me things, stop laughing at my jokes, stop thinking I am even remotely cool. Worst, I suspect they will stop wanting to snuggle me.

But in the meantime, when’s Colin getting home from baseball practice? I could use some snuggies.

And he still owes me four hours and forty-five minutes.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Love Doesn't Die

Colin and his friend Eli, both 9, were in the back of the car a couple of weeks ago.  A song came on the radio called, “Love Doesn’t Die.”  Eli and Colin started discussing the lyrics.

“Everything dies,” Eli said. “Plants die and pets die and people die. Love dies too.”

“You don’t stop loving someone because they die,” Colin informed him.

“Well, you love them and then you could get married but only until you die. If they die then it’s over,” reasoned Eli.

Colin didn't hesitate. He said, “My dad died and I still love him. He’s still part of my life.”  

He spoke with authority and conviction and the conversation was over.

I make a lot of mistakes. But I must be doing a few things right.