Finding my way without Joe

I haven’t been writing my blog since my dear Joe died on April 20. I will be writing more – about life and the spirit – but not right away. I’m still grieving. And healing. A deep part of that healing was writing this post.  It’s taking courage to share this, to hit the “publish” button. But I pray in some way these words may be healing for you as well.

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I once knew where things were. In my days. In my life. I used to know where Joe was. In his house, waiting for me to visit on weekends or during the week.

Then he died. Without warning. And I lost him. I lost my life.

I can’t seem to find myself. I amble around in my small place, repeating his name. He’s gone. He’s gone. I want to fill that ache, that void – the pervasive grief – with anything to make it go away. But this sorrow is all part of the love I tell myself. I have to feel it all. I don’t want to. I want to be numb.

I loved Joe. We had a unique relationship. A friend once said: “You probably have a better relationship than most marriages.” I don’t know what others have. I only know what we had.

He was my best friend. We knew intimacies about each other that no one else knew – or will ever know. We sat at the dining room table at breakfast or on the phone every evening and talked for hours. About politics. Sports. Religion. Discussed how our childhoods made us who we are.

We lived an hour apart but for 14 years we made it work. Our days were filled with the ordinary stuff of life, grocery shopping, dinners and movies. Many Saturday evenings, I’d read a book on the couch while he did the Inquirer crossword puzzle, both of us settling into the comfortable space of being together.

We traveled — to Newport, RI; to Williamsburg; to Cooperstown; to Stone Harbor, NJ. We went to Phillies games. He loved sports. He was over the moon when his alma mater, Villanova, won the 2018 NCAA basketball championship.

The last time I saw Joe was on his birthday. We almost delayed celebrating because March 29 fell on Holy Thursday. Joe decided we’d have dinner anyway. It would be our last supper as well.

I remember inspirational speaker/author Leo Busgalia’s story about the woman and the red dress. She had wanted a special red dress, hinting to her husband what a beautiful gift it would be, from him to her. He kept putting it off, telling her that some day he’d buy it for her. Some day. Some day. Then she died. And he buried her in the red dress.

I buried Joe in clothing I had to choose. I stood in front of his closet, paralyzed, my heart ripping open. What would he like? How could this be happening? After the funeral, I looked through old photos and saw that on one of our first dinner dates he was wearing the same clothing I chose for his burial. Did some part of my soul know then?

I’m thankful we had dinner on his birthday and didn’t postpone it. After our meal, I couldn’t finish my cheesecake and shoved it across the table to him. He ate it all and asked if he could lick the plate. I said I’d disavow knowing him if he did. He was witty, smart, funny, kind and good. He never believed those things of himself, though. But he was.

I went home that Saturday after his birthday weekend. For 14 years, as I’d drive way, he would stand on the front lawn, waiting, offering a small wave. This time, he didn’t. He looked back, went inside and closed the door.

In hindsight, something felt off. Something felt final when that door shut. Had I truly listened to my intuition, I would have heeded the urge to “go back” one more time. But the feeling didn’t make sense. So I didn’t.

Now, I sit with my grief. I’ve written about grief before but never had I experienced it. Now I write from truth, from a gaping space in my soul that swallows me whole. Grief wants its way with me and I must allow it. To deny it means I never loved.

At the funeral, before the open casket as we said our goodbyes, I placed my hand on his heart and whispered, “I love you. I’ll always love you.”

Friends keep telling me: “I’m sorry for your loss.” What they don’t realize is, it’s not just the loss of the man I loved, but the loss of a life I had. Of my home. Joe was my home. I am homeless.

In the end, life is about losing things. People. Our direction. Our way. Our home. But it’s also about finding. I’m still finding my way into this new space without Joe. It will take time. I want to honor the process of grieving.

And I’m not sure what I’ll find along this path. For now, I’m discovering glimmers of gratitude for friends and family praying for me and supporting me. I’m finding a new appreciation for the present moment, for each breath.

And I’m finding tears. Many.

When I was upset or sad, Joe used to listen with patience, then say, “Go ahead and have yourself a good cry.”

I’m crying now, dear. A good one. And you’d be glad for it.

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Hard wired to love

Right now the snow is falling in thick, lazy flakes outside my window. All is hushed. That’s what snow does. Quiets a restless world. Invites us to a deeper peace when the distractions of this time of year or our personal lives pull us elsewhere.

Snow gives us permission to catch our breath, do nothing. Nap. Write. Read.

Now I sit with the dog and the companionship of a friend. I am in wonder at this snowfall, even though I have seen many. And in awe how this world unfolds in its own natural timing and beauty if we allow it.

Yet, it seems anything but this. Read or see the news, travel the threads on Facebook and we discover a world in turmoil.

While this snow descends peacefully, in other parts of the globe — and in this country — we find political strife, women being abused, the potential for a nuclear war and countless refugees fleeing their homelands to find security, survival and hope.

Has it always been this way? Will it always be?

We were given a great gift as humans — free will — and I often ask myself: When we will use this gift to create peace? Lasting peace. True love of each other so that we will live on the planet as was intended. An earth ripe with blessings, that provides all that we need if we only consent to partnership with each other to do what is right and good.

And yet. I have hope.

The other day, I was at the grocery store and bought about five items. No express lane in this store. The woman ahead of me also had a few purchases in her cart. But the woman in front of us had enough groceries in her cart to last a month.

She looked at the African-American woman ahead of me, then at me.

“Why don’t you both go ahead?”

“Really?” I asked. “Thank you,” we both said in unison.

When I got back home, a package was waiting for me from a family friend. She had said to be on the look out for it and I had no idea what it might be. A book on caregiving arrived and I was extremely touched by her act of thoughtfulness. She took time out of her day, to buy it, mail it.

On Facebook, more videos are being posted of the extreme good being done in the world. The woman who was so moved by the homeless man who gave her his last $20 after she ran out of gas that she started a fundraiser for him, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars. He is taking that money in turn and helping others.

Or the man who ordered online items — socks, coats, food — for the homeless. He had the products delivered to those in need right there, on the streets.

Small gestures? Perhaps. But how can we ever measure how this good ripples out and multiplies in myriad ways we may never see or understand?

Yes, we hear much today about divisiveness and hatred in our world. But that’s not who we are. I believe we are hard wired to be kind and loving. In other words, it’s in our DNA to be good.

God, or the Divine or whatever name you wish to give the great source of love, is in our genes.

When we don’t allow that good to express, we short circuit. Humanity goes awry and we lose our way home. To each other. To love.

The late author and spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen encourages us that “we become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life… all our life.”

As the snow falls, I am reminded that each snowflake is unique in design. And beautiful. So are we. We each have a special gift to give the world.

In most instances, that gift will not be grandiose, but a small, simple offering of our presence to one another in our daily lives — with a smile, a kind word.

When we share those gifts, we are like the gentle snowfall outside, quieting our world into peace. We become beautiful. We become what we are hard wired to be. Love.

 

A little love at Christmas

At this time of year my life can feel like the scrawny, humble Christmas tree that Charlie Brown buys in the perennial favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. He tries to make it beautiful, but instead the branches limp over in defeat.

The season can do that to us. The pressure of commercialism, buying gifts, doing everything we feel needs to get done can leave us empty and exhausted.

Or, perhaps the holidays trigger dysfunctional family issues, grief over the loss of a loved one or beloved pet, or remind us that we are alone and don’t have the perfect romantic relationship as portrayed on the Hallmark Channel.

It’s a Wonderful Life is another Christmas movie that speaks to what seems to be failure. Most of you know the story. Poor George Bailey can’t seem to catch a break. He wants to leave his father’s banking business and travel the world.

But he falls in love with Mary, marries her, follows in his dad’s footsteps as bank president, and is stuck in his hometown of Bedford Falls. Some sneaky business dealings place the bank in trouble and George is driven to suicide.

Until Clarence his guardian angel appears and saves George. He grants George’s wish: What would his life be like if he had never been born?

When Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she is to be the mother of the Christ, she is in fear. What will happen now — and how? Her heart must have been troubled as she traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth to share her news.

But when Elizabeth affirms Mary by declaring, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!” Mary’s fear leaves her.

Only then is Mary able to proclaim the Magnificat, a grace-filled prayer of praise and thanks. An angel couldn’t evoke Mary’s powerful words. But another human being could.

Sometimes we fail to see the power we have as humans, how the smallest of acts can be life-changing and blessed for others.

Charlie discovers, with the help of Lucy, Linus, Snoopy and his friends, that his tree is not so scrawny after all, but filled with beauty.

And George discovers the impact — no matter how insignificant his actions — he has had on many lives. He just never knew it. Mary finds her fear at “what happens next” disappearing when her cousin affirms her as a channel of God’s grace.

We can find ourselves somewhere in each of these stories.

I know when my life feels like a scrawny Christmas tree, or I feel like George and my life seems to have little meaning, or like Mary, I feel alone and afraid – I can open up my heart to receive the love and support of others. And I can love myself.

The point is, we matter to each other; we need each other. As Clarence tells George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”.

Your life may feel like Charlie Brown’s scrawny tree, but Linus knows better. He tells Charlie, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” 

A little love. Sometimes that’s all we need – what we can be for each other.

What greater gift is there?

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Goodness in dark times

Sometimes small gifts of love and kindness show up in life. They give me hope, especially during these days when the world seems shrouded in so much darkness. Here are two stories.

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My birthday promised severe thunderstorms. Windswept rain, lightning and hail. My celebratory dinner at 5 p.m. would now become a late European-style meal at 8 p.m. My friend and I could do nothing but wait out the weather until the roads were safe.

The rumbles of thunder grew distant and with skies clearing, we left for the restaurant. On the way, a rainbow splashed itself across the half-darkened sky, an artist’s palette of vivid and rich indigo, violet, red, orange, yellow, green and blue colors.

The child in me smiled. A gift from the heavens. For me. Today.

At the restaurant the waitress seated us near a table filled with 10 people. They were an African-American family including children, adults and grandparents and their joy was contagious, as they laughed, talked, drank and ate.

I overheard someone say “birthday” and then the waitress brought out a huge slice of cake with a candle to one of the men at the table.

“It’s his birthday, too,” I whispered to my friend. “What are the odds I’d find someone here, born on the same day?”

When we finished eating, I told my friend I was probably going to embarrass him, but I was going to wish that man a happy birthday. It was a risk. A small one. I walked over to him and the family turned from their food and looked up at me — all ten of them — with curious but welcoming expressions.

“Is today your birthday?” I asked the man.

He smiled and nodded.

“Mine, too.”

Without warning, the energy of the family burst into confetti-like joy and they all began to sing boisterously at the top of their lungs. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you ….”

My friend stood aside, smiling and laughing, and the entire restaurant stilled to listen, reveling in our common joy.

I was in tears at this family’s goodness and generosity, but even more so when the man stood up, hugged me and said repeatedly, “Have a blessed year. Have a blessed year.”

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This afternoon I stopped by the Dollar General for a few items. I stood there, watching as the man ahead of me, perhaps my age, was having trouble paying with his credit card. The machine kept telling him it had expired even though the card itself had a valid date.

The cashier struggled, trying everything to make the card work. The line grew behind me as we stood and waited. The man pulled out some bills from his wallet, but he didn’t have enough cash for the goods in his bag.

He decided to return some of the items, placing them on the counter, asking the cashier to deduct them from the total cost. I was about to offer to pay the difference when a woman behind me, with two small children, spoke up.

“How much do you need? Here.”

She reached into her wallet and pulled out a $20 bill, waving it across me and at him. The man protested. Adamantly.

“I can’t accept that. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” she countered. “Here. I do this all the time. It’s my good deed for the day.”

The man would not take the money as I stood there, in the middle, watching in wonder at this exchange of goodness, of giving freely. The woman, still smiling, dug into her purse and pulled out a $5 bill.

“Well, you can least take this.”

The man bucked at her offer and finally reached out to accept it.

“Thanks. Listen, I work at a local supermarket. Meat department. Steaks. Come by and you get one free.”

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We hear much today about hatred. Divisiveness. Racial tensions. The darkness of our times.

But I’ve seen goodness, kindness and love twice these last few days shining in the small, daily moments of life.

The African-American family and the gift they gave me has lingered in my heart. There was no color at the table when they welcomed me, no animosity, no judgment, no hatred. Only love.

This, I tell myself, is who we truly are, in our hearts and souls, people who yearn to share and give love — as well as receive it. No matter who we are. No matter our skin color, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or religion.

Right now the storms may seem fierce in our world, the darkness overwhelming and sometimes, we may want to give up and drown in it. But don’t.

We are so much more than that. At our core, we are good.

We are that rainbow painted across the world’s dark skies — filled with the rich colors of love and beauty.

We can take any moment and spread goodness in the blackness of this world. We can. We can.

 

 

 

 

An unexpected Christmas post

Blogger’s Note: I’m re-posting this blog from last year. And yes, in many ways, Christmas still feels hard to me. But thankfully, dad is still here to celebrate another Christmas, a reminder for me to stay in the present moment.

May we have times of celebration and stillness, solitude and joyful festivities during this “holy” season. And may we open our hearts more deeply to the greatest gift of all — love.

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I hadn’t intended to write another blog post until after the New Year.

Then, this one kept calling me. It’s about how hard this Christmas feels to me. Not soft around the edges, or even warm or cozy or jingly. I got to thinking that this might be the last Christmas with my dad.

For those who may not know, he had a stroke almost three years ago. It’s been a rough, long three years.

heart in snowIn many ways, his care is something I thought I could never do, the endless medical appointments, the physical and compassion fatigue, the sadness of losing the dad I once knew and learning to love the new dad I now have.

As to this being his last Christmas — I know, I know. Stay in the present moment. I try. Still. He is 88. And the thought of no longer having dad next Christmas lingers on the edges of my mind and heart.

And then, there’s what to buy him. Why is it so hard this year? Didn’t I buy him something last year, and what was it? He can’t have the things he once enjoyed like his thick-rolled cigars (although I hated them, the stinky things) or his Bailey’s Irish Cream or even his spiritual CDs because he wouldn’t comprehend them.

So I sank into a heap of despair this past week, all that weighing on me.

Then I ran into a neighbor who lost her husband two weeks ago. I saw her in the driveway, loading up the back of her station wagon with cardboard boxes. I asked how she was.

“Oh, I bawl my eyes out, but I keep going. Right now I’m packing up a lot of his clothes to give away.”

I listened a bit more, watching the sorrow seep out of her eyes. Her grief triggered my own anticipatory grief.

Sometimes it just seems like there’s too much sorrow in the world and not enough happy, especially during this season designated as the “happiest time of the year.”

And yet, while at the mall the other day, I saw a child’s face light up like an angel’s at the sight of the red-suited man himself, and her peppermint-striped leggings and pink cheeks made me smile.

And I thought of a woman who has become a friend, a speech therapist who helped my dad while he was in the hospital. She gives of herself with love, always asking to be placed where she is most needed. Her goodness touches me.

Then I had the thought: Is it possible to hold the sorrow and the happy at the same time?

Yes. Of course it is, because this is the paradox of life itself, to accept the sadness and the joy and everything in between. It is the exquisite price of admission to this journey we call human.

So I finally asked dad the other day: What do you want for Christmas?

Sometimes — despite his lack of cognition and inability to speak coherently — he said:

Your love.

I clutched his hand and caught my breath.

christmas-heart-treeSome things in life we can’t wrap in shiny paper or put a big red bow around them. But when the sadness of life comes calling, sometimes we need to remember — as The Little Prince said:

“It is only with the heart one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

And when we see “rightly” then life isn’t so hard. In fact, glimmers of joy spark through the sorrows.

So, dad, it may be a pair of comfy sweat pants this year, but the “real” gift will be the one you asked for. You’ve always had it.

This Christmas. And forever.

 

 

Angel in flight

Here is one of many stories — slightly revised from memory — that my father used to tell. Sometimes we are sent a messenger, unexpected and not from this realm. May you find something here that heals, encourages or helps.

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My father had been flying home from one of his many inspirational and spiritual lectures.

He had traveled across the country, speaking to others about the greatness of God and how they, too, as children of God, were born for greatness. Why settle for less?

Because dad was always so open to the Spirit working in him, miracles often happened. People were healed of past emotional hurts and sometimes, physical pain.

darkness-to-light1As dad settled into his airplane seat, he was exhausted. Perhaps it was that fatigue that made him remember some of his own past hurts. As a first-generation Mexican American, he had worked hard to bring himself up from poverty and to create a successful career in broadcast engineering.

Still, while working at a TV station in South Texas, he remembered a fellow worker, an Anglo, who despised him.

After work one day, with the ruse of talking to him about a problem, he pulled my father into an alley behind the building and started beating my father, breaking some of his ribs.

“This is what we do to filthy Spics,” he screamed at my father.

It took some time, but dad forgave him from his heart. In fact, many of his talks were about forgiveness and how it was essential to our own happiness and well-being to forgive others.

Still, as dad opened that mental door to how he had been treated, other slights began pouring into his thoughts. He had just been lecturing and speaking to hundreds about letting go of the past and giving it to God for healing and there he was, feeling sorry for himself and all he had suffered as a Mexican.

As he sat waiting for the plane to take off, a woman slid in the seat beside him. She was quiet at first, but dad, always interested in hearing people’s stories, began talking to her, asking her questions about her life.

She was an older, attractive woman with a worn face and gentle smile. She told him she was Jewish.

flight of an angelThen she paused, as if debating whether to share something personal, and finally said, “I was in a concentration camp during the war. I survived. My family did not.”

She went on to tell him about the horrific conditions, about the emotional and physical pain — of the relentless hunger and cold.

“But I learned to forgive,” she said. “It saved me. And I prayed — to the one God who loves us all. Prayer is more powerful than people understand.”

They finished their conversation and dad, pondering her words, fell asleep. With the plane mid-flight, he roused to find the woman gone. Perhaps she had gone to the restroom, he reasoned.

When the captain announced the plane was landing, and the woman still had not returned to her seat, dad became concerned.

As they deplaned, he inquired about the woman. The flight attendant said she knew of no such woman — that no one of that description had been on the plane, nor had anyone been seated next to him.

Surely the attendant was mistaken, he thought. He had not made up this woman or the conversation. He insisted she check the restrooms but no one was there. He even waited by the gate — as the last members of the flight crew straggled past him — to see if she still might appear, but she never emerged.

Years later, dad told me he felt she was an angel, someone sent to remind him that no matter how much we suffer, we need to be thankful — for the precious gift of life.

healing energy handsThat we can respond to any given situation with love or hate. That we can grow from pains and hurts or we can choose self-pity. That we can rise above our individual and global hurts and with the grace of God, learn to love as God loves.

Did dad really see an angel?

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the message, one we need to hear again and again, especially in today’s troubled world.

Forgive. Pray. Love.

Yes, most of all — love.

The courage to love

“God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” ~ Hazrat Inayat Khan

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“My heart is sore.”love notes from the universe

A good friend spoke those words many decades ago about the horrific flooding situation in Venezuela. She had lived and worked in that country as a missionary for almost 30 years. She knew the people. Their hunger. Their thirst. Their poverty.

Now, to see so many dead, so many lost, devastated her. So when I asked her that day how she was, she answered, “My heart is sore.”

Her choice of words still rattles around in my brain. They have brailled themselves on my spirit and I have found myself asking: “How often do I allow my heart to be sore?”

For me, my heart continues to be sore as I watch my father decline, a man who once communicated from his soul, helping others, now unable to speak coherently. For others, that heart-tenderness may be an illness, or a death, job loss — some life crisis — that will present a choice, either to harden their hearts or to allow them to be sore and cracked open.

At first, we many defend and protect our fragile hearts. Shut them down. To allow our hearts to feel to the depth of “soreness” means that we have to be vulnerable. And that openness can be downright frightening. And for a time, perhaps we need to honor the walls around our wounded hearts.

But eventually, if we are willing, we can allow our hearts to crack open. To grow into our authentic selves, we must give our hearts the space to feel the depth of genuine and mature love.

And along the way, we will discover this harsh truth: Love will demand much of us. Loving is difficult. Just as author and psychologist Scott Peck wrote in  his spiritual classic The Road Less Traveled that life is hard, I believe, too, that loving is hard.

Genuine love demands sacrifice and often challenges us to move beyond our comfort zones. And this can hurt. It can make our hearts sore. And who wants to do that?

Thankfully, if we are blessed, we have been graced with some wonderful teachers and way-showers on our journey toward love. They have loved us in small and yet unconditional ways so that we might shine. In other words, they have stepped back into the shadows by virtue of their love and self-forgetting so that we might step forward into our own brilliance.

In my own life, there have been many — my father, mother, good and gentle friends. All have encouraged and supported me. At times when I have lost hope, didn’t think I could go another step, was not loving myself, they were standing at my side, encouraging me, “You can do it.” Or they have consoled, “Everything will be OK. I know it.”

heart you are hereBut even beyond words, they have backed up their love with actions. And therein, I believe, is the heart of love.

I remember my father heading off to work before daylight so there would be food and shelter for our family. I recall the times we took vacations and day trips when he could have used that time to rest. I can still see my mother cooking breakfast and packing lunches and plowing through endless mounds of wash.

I bring to mind a high school English teacher who taught us more about life than literature. Instead of discussing “The Scarlet Letter” one day she scribbled in chalk on the blackboard: “What is love?” and then asked us to share our thoughts. And I recall a dear friend who had enough love to challenge me to see my failings when I couldn’t see them.

In hindsight, this type of love implies one thing — movement away from self and toward the other. This is the self-forgetting of love that is so difficult. Many parents know this kind of love. So do those who are challenged into caring for an aging parent, relative or partner.

When this type of love is extended, we truly are like God, like the Divine who loves us all. Love is, at its heart, spiritual. And radical. I think Scott Peck defines love best:

“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth … love is an act of will, namely both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

When we choose to love, our hearts indeed become sore. But just as soreness fades after exercising, renewing the fatigued muscles and making them stronger, so, too, do our hearts become stronger each time we are loving. Each time our hearts are cracked open in love, they grow and expand to a depth that enriches us and others — beyond all measure.

But it takes courage. And only we can make that choice.