More lessons in perspective — two scenarios:
1. My first great love committed suicide when he was 28 and I was 34. After coming out of the first fog of grief, I developed what I call “disaster thinking.” To explain: Say a situation is looming on the horizon. I imagine one of the potential disasters that could be unleashed by fate or circumstance and believe it as if it has already happened. Sometimes, I even come up with an imaginary scene, and it seems so real, and the possible disaster I conjure so plausible, that my emotional reaction is often as painful as if it had truly occurred.
This way of thinking was verified when my Irish husband killed himself. It also confirmed what I suspected — that you’re not granted immunity if you survive one unthinkable tragedy. You’re just as vulnerable as the uninitiated to the subterranean world of grief and loss. Simply put — lightening can and will strike twice.
In the macabre and, I like to think, only realistic response to this life, my son Patrick labeled me “The Black Widow.” He wrote up a contract for my current partner, Tom, when we first began dating. It read succinctly, “I promise not to kill myself while I’m with your mom. Signed ___________.” My son was half joking. Half not. He did get the signature, and I have to say, so far, so good.
You Can Go Home Again
2. Tom and I have come down to Redondo Beach for a couple of months to get out of the snow and the cold. But, it’s also a chance to spend some time with my parents, now in their late eighties. We’ve been able to help them, and they need it and appreciate it with an aching sweetness. What we’ve been able to give them most of all, is time. Just coming by with coffee and sitting for awhile has meant so much to them that it’s the highlight of their annual letter to friends and family.
Time with them means just as much to me. I know how lucky I am to have both of them still, in not great — but decent — physical and mental health. Being back home has caused me to remember a lot. They’re still living in the house in Rolling Hills Estates that I grew up in, now with a caregiver who truly lives up to that description.
They’ve lived in our family home for 53 years. And, given my own vagabond life, it has been vital to know that I can go home again. My room is still waiting, though my mom no longer manages the vase of roses from the garden she put there faithfully for so many years. The trees in our front yard are hundreds of feet high, but I know they’re the same trees that were once our living Christmas trees.
I know my way around the peninsula and Redondo Beach with my eyes closed, it seems. Home is a refuge providing safety, meaning, love. The looming disasters are pushed to the edge of the picture for now.
On a recent Saturday my son, Christian, two of his sons, my dad, and Tom are walking on the beach. The men stop to talk while Michael (10), Thomas (7), and I search for multi-colored shells left by the high tide. I tell them about the time when I was their age, and my family was staying on Balboa Island. I tell them how my dad made a treasure map and we rowed our way in an inflatable raft to a deserted island. We took the treasure map and our shovels and buckets and found the place to dig …
”Did you find treasure?” asked Michael, “I don’t remember, but I know we found something,” I said.
He looked into the distance at my dad, and squinted his eyes. I imagine he was sizing up the old man who had one time engineered such a beautiful adventure.
On the way back, I walked with my dad and I mentioned the “treasure island” adventure. “I’d forgotten that,” he said. Then, he smiled, “Yes, we did,” he said. And, he got to relive it; I was able give him that.
The rest of the group was out in front of us. “Four generations,” he said. “This has been a wonderful time.” Then, after a pause, he pointed to Thomas, the small figure out in front of us. “I’d like to be him,” he said.
One scenario is loss, the other hope. At least that’s how I see it now. This brings to mind one last scene: after David died, my friend Stacy — a singer, song writer wrote a song called “The Good Ones,” in his memory. She had an outdoor concert with her band. I remember sitting on the grass on an unusually sunny Oregon day. She introduced the song to the audience — many had known David — and she began. “The good ones reach out their hand to you,” she sang.
At the time, just a couple months after David died, I’d been having trouble knowing how to remain in this world. And, save for my 14-year-old son Patrick, I don’t know if I could have managed it. I stayed in my own twilight world, because I thought if I joined the world of the living, I’d leave David behind. Conversely, if I stayed in this liminal space between the living and the dead — I could still be with him.
My friend Stacy’s song, The Good Ones, and the image of David reaching out his hand to me, which I saw vividly, brought me to tears. My son, who was up the grassy hill, hanging out with his teenage friends must have seen me. Because the next thing I knew, he was sitting next to me, his arms around me as I cried into his shirt.
Most kids that age would’ve been embarrassed to leave their friends to comfort their mom, I think. I will always remember what Patrick did for me that day. Sometimes the good ones aren’t those you lose. They’re, very simply, the ones you love, who are there for you on a sad and sunny day when you thought you were alone, and you find out how wrong you were.
So, in the end, I choose hope.