An Ode To Whiskey, My Feral Cat

95245506_576559859627968_5793190092302450688_nI never intended to be a Cat Lady.

I got my first cat in college–isn’t a pet on everyone’s first apartment checklist?–an ugly calico I named Temerity. Soon afterward, Timidity followed–a black longhair Persian mix, she lived to be eighteen. When Temerity died, Charlie followed.  Charlie was gray and white, a misanthropic, fastidious cat who put thumbtacks in Greg’s shoes and lined dead crickets up neatly on our pillows. When we moved from our mobile home, Charlie was dismayed; when we began foster parenting, he moved under our bed and descended into madness. (Seriously.) This was in the early nineties, before mood-medicine-for-every-species marketing, and the vet eventually insisted the most humane thing to do was put Charlie down–so we did.

For a decade, ninety-three foster children made cats an afterthought–but a move back to my hometown proved a Catpalooza. Abby, whose first word(s) was “kitty cat,” and April, were both delighted, and since our family had been permanently altered by cancer, cats offered welcome solace. Mostly, we were a clearinghouse for kittens–people would drop them off, and eventually, other people would pick them up.

We ended up, finally, with:

  • Sophie, a brain-damaged cat (when she was a tiny kitten, the Bassett hound had helpfully carried her–by her neck–to us)
  • Loretta, whom we’d rescued from an azalea bush
  • Luna, our outdoor cat that a stranger offered April (he then–true story–followed her home from the college–and, yes, the police became involved)
  • Luna’s kitten Pumpkin (aka “Baby”), who became our most costly cat after Greg accidentally ran over her on Abby’s birthday

For years, these were our main cats–Sophie and Pumpkin lived inside; Loretta and Luna were outside, and, although we occasionally fostered kittens, we certainly weren’t Those Cat People.


94351753_161833961870727_5403553725815980032_nFour years ago, our hometown officials decided it was time to criminalize feeding feral cats on others’ property–condemning the colonies behind Big Lots to slow starvation and essentially giving each resident of my neighborhood three feral cats. First to make the 1.4 mile journey was Ichabod, a solid black male; he was followed a few weeks later by Lemur, a white,  ringtailed Schmoo-like seventeen-pound blob of a cat who was fascinated by nature–on sunny days, he hopped around our yard chasing butterflies. Even in drizzling rain, he sat and smelled flowers and watched bugs. (It sounds like hyperbole, but it is truth.)

The last to arrive was a grizzled fat-jowled gray lumberjack of a cat whom Abby named Whiskey–he looked like he took it neat. Unlike Lemur, who was determined to bring us peace and joy, and Ichabod, who at least understood that we were his meal-ticket, Whiskey regarded us with disdain. Not mere suspicion: outright disdain.

94366518_3263743073659729_5877978184154087424_nWe had to feed him beneath the van–even for tuna, he refused to emerge. He stood deep in the dark of the van’s center, and I slid bowls of food behind the front tire, then scooted out of his line of sight.  We did this for months. It takes over a year to earn an adult feral’s trust–to go from seeing their shiny eyes under a bush or shed or car to actually touching them, feeling their fur for that fleeting second. (And then they’re savvier–and incensed–so the next attempt takes another month.)

It took a year and a half to touch Whiskey.  It was, as my grandmother would say, “a banner day.”

It was the purest of satisfactions.

 


95266046_159087392180411_5462361865436790784_nFeral cat-keeping is bizarre. I don’t know if it’s a hobby–because it’s certainly not fun–but it does take time, money, and energy. For months, every time we walked into the garage, a creature (or three) fled.  They had their own codes and quirks–Lemur, who was rejected by the others, initially had to be fed at the foot of the driveway. Luna, as the first cat and the only female, got to eat out of the “best” dish. Whiskey slept atop the Mercury’s hood; Luna slept on the van; Ichabod stopped by only to eat. Lemur liked Abby. Whiskey only trusted me–if anyone else tried to touch him, bap-bap-bap–he would hit them three times with his front paw.


Two years in, we could get near them all–and, need be, if our nerve held, scruff them.

Hard freeze warnings required courageous teamwork and precision maneuvering–because the ferals had to come in for the night. We would first shut the housecats in the master bathroom. Then, in the bitter cold we would fetch cats. After each one was caught, he was put in the carefully-prepared second bathroom, where three food bowls, water, and a litterbox offered respite. Like a contestant on the oddest of gameshows, one of us would shove the cat in through the crack in the door while the other tried to keep the rest from escaping. And how they yowled. 

(As time passed, the cats reached a truce with us–if it was nineteen degrees or below, they would come in fairly quietly. If it was twenty or above, we would recognize that they were animals with fur.)


94330865_314588282836981_3917821708022579200_nLemur, Ick, and Whiskey came for our doldrums. They first appeared around the time of my granddaughter’s stillbirth. They were here for two of my husband’s three cancers and for my father’s suicide.

They were here when the sorrows overwhelmed, when the only thing that I could think to do to survive the day was, at its end, drag a quilt beneath the Japanese magnolia and lie and look at the trees and sky, They orbited around me, always just out of my reach and usually equidistant from one another.

One sunny afternoon, I looked up from my reading because all four cats had swiveled their heads in perfect synchronicity. Traipsing across the yard was the cat-food-loving opossum. (“Don’t mind if I do! You all keep enjoying the sun.“)

My own comic strip under the mimosa trees.


95013103_241104083923530_1398523372568051712_nWhiskey was, according to Abby, a Viking cat. A warrior. A tomcat, he disappeared for weeks at a time, returning limping and war-torn. Once, his leg was injured so badly that we were able to get him into a carrier–he was too weak to fight. We took him to the vet, where he was regarded with astonishment by the staff. “This is a true Tom! Look at those jowls! It is a miracle he has lived this long.

The best thing, of course, was to have him neutered while his leg was repaired. Even the vet seemed saddened at the loss of those magnificent “stud jowls,” which, along with his aggression, would disappear after the surgery.


We have owned more than twenty animals, and I have never seen an animal change like Whiskey did. He stayed close to home. He was more tolerant. And he fell in love–with Ichabod.


94303661_1463382577175381_6800312944862167040_nIt seems absurdly written for effect, but Ick and Whiskey were the feline David and Jonathan. They walked abreast, shoulders touching, a conjoined beast. They lay, foreheads touching, on the warm concrete path beneath the crepe myrtles. They shared a dual feeder, heads bobbing in sync as they ate.


About two months ago, I opened the door and Whiskey walked in. Pretty as you please, like it was part of his regular routine–and it became so. He’d come in and wallow in the catnip with the indoor cats, then sit under the marble coffee table. Sometimes, he’d sneak off and eat the “good” Iams catfood from Loretta’s dish, but, really, all he wanted to do was sit and be with us.

It was the simplest delight.


On March 26, the postman delivered a package from China. Inside there were three cat collars–purple for Luna, pink for Whiskey, and black for Ichabod, all three embroidered with our name and phone number, making things official.

Luna was incensed.

Ichabod was indifferent.

But Whiskey was thrilled. He was positively strutting. Abby called to me from the yard, her voice childlike and satisfied, “Mom, he says, I’m a pet.”


Three weeks later, a neighbor stood at my door. Wasn’t my cat gray? Didn’t he have white paws?

Yes. Yes.

She was sorry. So sorry. But we needed to come to the edge of her yard.


Abby walked ahead–oh, how that girl tries to protect me from the too much that is my life.

Mom, let me look.

Mom, it’s him. It’s Whiskey boy.


My neighbor says that after Whiskey was buried, Ichabod went to the spot where he had lain, that he sniffed the street where he’d been hit.

For ten days now, I have listened to Ichabod lament. He walks into the house, the most feral of all our cats, now, too, on the red rug, and screams for his friend.

He howls at the loss,

And I listen.

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A Table in The Wilderness: The God Who Goes Before

90851726_540718123240541_2458000592270786560_nSince my granddaughter Stephanie Grace ‘s 2016 stillbirth, I have been a member of a Facebook anencephaly support group. The women in this online community have endured heartbreaking losses after carrying their doomed children for months, knowing that there were no medical miracles, no last-minute rescues to be had. Under the worst duress, with their imagined futures freshly destroyed, they have gone toe-to-toe with doctors. They have each said, “I will carry my baby to term.” They have made very private decisions public.

In a country where 660,000+ babies are aborted every year, their decisions are stunning.

For my daughter, April, the decision was instant. Usually quiet, she was fiery with her NO that day: the brusque doctor who first said anencephaly and then said medical termination was talking about her baby. 


Six years ago, when I had never heard the word anencephaly, I was drawn to the story of baby Shane Haley whose young parents made his bucket list after his diagnosis. His story had the hallmarks of a human interest story: people trying to make the best out of bad news, searching for the bright side from deep within a pit. They were young and cute and looked like a couple to whom bad things should not happen. The Haleys beamed adorably for TV cameras as they resolutely visited the places they would have taken their son had he lived.

I followed –for no real reason–Layla Sky, another anencephalic baby. Hers was just another story in the media, another “follow” thoughtlessly clicked.

One November, I even called a hospital in Tennessee, where an anencephalic baby (who had unexpectedly lived for days) was not receiving proper medical care because her young, indigent mother did not speak English. I spoke sternly to a nurse manager, and for good measure, called the nearest TV news station.

I did these things. For no reason.


Oh, the hindsight.

How clearly I see the laying of the table.

I knew nothing, but I would need to know much. So, God set a framework. He showed me love. He gave me a bit of knowledge so that I could stand on that March day when my knees wanted to collapse, so that I could talk clearly to the doctor, so I could help to gather and guide my elder daughter.

Sometimes, when a new mother joins the support group, I wander back through her Facebook wall. I see her long-ago posts, posts I am sure that she has forgotten about.

Posts where, years before this diagnosis, she declared that she would choose life.

Where she offered words of comfort to others who were bereaved.

Where she posted inspirational videos on overcoming, persevering.

Where she talked about standing, then standing some more.

In these old posts, I see the table is being set before her. Her spine being steeled. I see the strengthening for the onslaught that is to come.


We can’t know the future.  Inherent in most tragedies is the element of blindsiding, of having been overtaken by something that simply does not belong, that is unjust and wholly wrong. The undeserved–barrelling down upon unsuspecting innocents.

I have been there when worlds buckled. I have held the just-widowed. I have closed the blinds, blocked out the sun, offered bites of chicken and rice.

I have sat in that silence.


But there is also goodness, still; there is the beauty in the world.

In the past four years, amid horrific despair, wrongs piled in my life, more hurts and pain piled atop incompletely healed traumas, break upon break in the charred-wood of my heart, once again friends faithfully reached out. Brought coffee cake. Irish stew. Pizza. Mailed jigsaw puzzles and laundry detergent and even Dr. Pepper. Offered awkward words of comfort at the copier. Stood in my silence beneath the drake elm.

Our kind-hearted friends and extended family consistently wandered by our solitary, unknowable table, so far from theirs–so different, too–and said, “We see you sitting here . . . You’ve been over here a while, haven’t you? We’re so sorry you keep getting put at this dark, cold table. We’re going to play a song to cheer you up. Let us feed you some good, hot food–and here’s a candle to bring a little light.”

They could not stay at our table–there was no space, and we were too tired to talk–but they knew we are there, and that was, somehow, enough.


This semester, I have worked with a new group of people in a different department–at the high school, with its large staff, meeting everyone is a near impossibility; I am sometimes fortunate to see even my best friends. (One of the science teachers and I count the number of times we see each other each year–last year, it was only six.)  My “new” coworkers and are building our relationship while busily working with students–so there’s not a lot of time for intimacy or chatting.

One day, after the bus-loading, I mentioned this blog–probably saying something along the lines of “I don’t watch TV–I play Scrabble and do a blog.” And I tossed a coworker my phone, telling her to read a draft.

And that was that.


I didn’t know, then, that God was in that instant–that He was setting her table. That what we thought was meaningless, end-of-day filler would become full of meaning. Would give her breath in the days ahead.

That day, I’d tossed her a blog about surviving tragedy–about floating in the flotsam, trusting God when all seemed destroyed. And that afternoon, although we didn’t know there were dark waves behind her, that she was about to feel the shifting of the seabed and taste sorrow’s salt in her lungs, God did.

In those five minutes, in His mercy and grace, her table was quickly set so that she was not hurled headlong — but when the waves crashed, when she first felt herself fall, she could feel Him there, holding her hand.

 

 

 

A Place Past the Wind

84708730_609268432980177_2378729214112169984_nI was muddled in the middle of class –I was explaining the sequence of the day’s tasks, and for just a second, I couldn’t get the words right. The students were patient. There was no teeth-sucking or eye-rolling. They just waited, and I was so thankful.

“Guys,” I explained, “It’s like there’s a third of my brain that is constantly thinking about trauma–wouldn’t you like to think about trauma?–a third that is thinking about how much I wish this room had windows, and a third that is teaching you.” They smile. Such a good little class, a morning blessing.


At 8:15 this morning, I had them in the hall playing a game I called, “It’s Too Early For This.” The kids stood in a line spelling bee style, and I peppered them with vocabulary questions. It was one of those times that teachers and kids both like–no grades are being taken, there are no high stakes, but “learning is occurring,” so the boxes are all checked.

A class of seniors walking past cackled as I explained, “We are playing ‘It’s Too Early For This.'” Once, they had been my students. Played highlighter basketball, watched the live panda cam, eaten birthday chicken tetrazzini.

They knew who I was.

And, for that moment in the hall, I was her again.


That’s what is most stunning about the aftermath of my father’s death by suicide: how, in his saying goodbye to his life, so many of us also said goodbye to our own. We were as quickly changed. We were forever altered.


I had said goodbye to my life before, so many times.

When adoptions failed.

When I had miscarriages.

When Greg got cancer the first time.

The second time.

The third time.

When our granddaughter was stillborn.

Every time something was stripped, something was torn, something was taken, I grieved–fully–and then restructured. Reframed what I could. After a point, I didn’t try to make a positive; there was no attempt to rebuild; there was not much of a mission past endurance and survival.

Although I have given up seeking mountaintops, I have stayed steadfast in my search for a liveable space.


There were nineteen months between trauma–between cancer’s “six-surgeries-in-one” and open-heart surgery. (I suppose Greg and the girls might argue that the first few were consumed by recovery and should not be included in the count.)

They were not special months. I went to work, then I went home.

But I knew how to appreciate “the magic of a boring evening at home.” I could walk a few miles while the sun set; sit and read under the drake elm; water the bougainvillea and watch the bees in the wildflowers; pet the feral cats; enjoy a Sausalito cookie at the end of my day.

These were no days of riches.

If you had asked me, “What if this was taken away?” I might have asked you what this even was.

But there is always something to lose.


83876064_1272750986268081_9128714346380132352_nThe peeling away has most clearly taught me this: we are never grateful enough, we are never mindful enough, we never appreciate what it is that we have.

Even if we try, we cannot be.

Because the things the human heart does in the place of loss, in the place of the taking, in the place where things are gone, gone, gone, never to return–well, that empty space is somehow bigger than the place that the beloved initially filled.

There’s an alchemy to it with both things and people: I loved you x, but I miss you 500x. 

This is nothing new, this is cliche: absence makes the heart grow fonder, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Same old, same old.

But this is different, too: because for those of us who suffer much, who endure continual loss, the looping of sorrows reveals, once more, the need for a Savior, the richness in the promise of heaven.


When I was in high school, I memorized scripture. Not for awards or gold stars or even to please Grandma.

I could say the words of Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.”

Once, I could say them. Now, I can believe as well. The wind has passed over me, taking much–and it will come again. But  I can say with the conviction of the Psalmist: there is steadfast love everlasting.

There is a place past all this wind.

 

 

A 2020 Resolution: To Lose (my) Hope

82141398_2039554759523830_1921538234739851264_nMe, to Abby: “How would you start a blog about hope?”

Abby [crocheting]: “I guess I would get some hope first . . . I’m funny, huh?”

We are a family who knows what we have and what we do not–and we are not afraid to name those things. Right now, we most lack hope, patience, and energy.

It is not as if we are particularly concerned about lacking these things, either. We have been without them before, and we can do without them now. I was crying in the car one day and Abby turned to me and said simply, “I am sorry you are distressed, and I wish I could help you.” We are honest in our recognition of our powerlessness.


This morning at church, the greeters gave everyone two index cards. During the sermon, our pastor asked us to write one thing we wanted to see happen in 2020 on one card; on the other, he said to write something about 2019 that we wanted to leave behind, to forget about forever.

And the thing I wanted to forget about, to put entirely behind me, to give up on, the thing that I wrote on the card was HOPE. 

I showed the card to my seatmates with a wry grin, and they didn’t even bother to admonish me.


I hadn’t been to church in a few weeks. We didn’t go to Christmas Eve service anywhere;  we didn’t load in the car to look at holiday lights; Greg didn’t read us the nativity story–he just went to bed; at 11:00 PM, Abby came home with her boyfriend and demanded, “Am I going to open one present and an ornament, or have we given up entirely this year?” so she and I at least did that.

But I decided that church is going to be optionless in 2020–it is going to become a “thing I do,” like grading papers or going to the YMCA. There’s not going to be any choice. On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights, I will be there. (On most Wednesday nights, I will be at the YMCA doing yoga.) I will grit my teeth and go alone and be among people and listen to the music and hear the Word, not because I want to, but because, to survive, I know that I must.

Today, I took a cookbook with me. I suppose it’s rationally indefensible, but I guess I grabbed it because my brain cannot be allowed to idle–though, really, it will not idle, since October 23, it is always thinking at least three things simultaneously, one at a low hum: “myfatherisdeadhekilledhimselfhediedalone.” I cannot allow my brain to shout that truth, because then it may also shout the others:

mygrandadughterwasbornwithoutherskullsheneversawtheskyorfeltakittensfur

mydaughtersbothlive1000milesaway

myhusbandhashadcancercancercancerheartsurgeryheartsurgery

weareallsosad

It is not denial that keeps me tamping these truths. These are too much right now–if they are stacked near my father’s death, if Stephanie Grace’s death touches his, well, that is an edge of sorrow that I choose to avoid.

I will not think about my father’s solitude in his office. I will not think about my sweet granddaughter’s footprint. I will look at pictures of chicken instead. I will carefully consider the ingredients of “whoop whoop soup.”


82130887_527182108007295_5360198105432064000_nAfter I wrote “hope” on the index card and my friends and I chuckled, I crossed it out, and I started thinking–why was that my instinct? Why not write “my father’s death” or “our financial and marital struggles” or “the doctor’s mistakes”? Why not start fresh in one of those areas?

There are, I think, two reasons.

The first is this: I believe that our losses count. That they are valuable. That our testimonies of loss and restoration build others’ faith. And, so, if I forget the pain of my father’s death, if I forget what it felt like to see my granddaughter lying lifelessly on that hospital chuck, I cannot look into your brokenhearted eyes and say, “God will get you through your sorrow.” Therefore, I cannot put these things behind me–but neither can they be always in front of me.

The other is this: it may really be time to give up on my hope. My hope may not be His hope. My hopes–for a happy home, financial stability, a healthy husband, a pain-free body–may hinder His plans.


I sat in church and thought: what if I am only whole enough to persevere? What if that is all hope looks like in my life?

What if I don’t get better? What if I only get stronger?

Is there value in my testimony if it is only one of the valleys? If I never again see a mountaintop?

I do not understand this seven-year season–but I trust Him. The Bible tells me that His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways; that His thoughts are much higher than mine; that now I see through a glass darkly; that now I see in part, but I shall someday see in full. (Isaiah 55:8; 1 Cor 13:12)

God is with me–and my family. He is so very close to us in our distress. We know this. We know we are not abandoned. We know we are not abandoned.

And we believe we will someday see. In full.

Things God Did For Me on the Day My Father Died by Suicide

This is a Facebook status from October 27, 2019. I am posting it on my blog because I think it is an important part of my father’s suicide narrative.

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Things God has done for me in the past five days, in order:

  1. Every part of this testimony hinges on this very first thing: I was in town on the day my father died by suicide. I was supposed to drive my husband to Jacksonville on Wednesday–he had a doctor’s appointment to find out if he needed a second surgery. He called me at work on Monday and announced that he was going to drive himself. My first block heard us squabble about it–I didn’t want him to drive with his eyes so bad, but I also have no sick days– and when I hung up, I told the kids, “Something’s going to happen on Wednesday.” I even added, “By Thursday, we will know if this semester is just in the toilet.”
  2. Wednesday morning, one of my students told me that her brother, a favorite student and long-time classmate of Abby’s, was in surgery having an emergency appendectomy. It sounds bizarre just say that this might have been used by God, but, like I told his mother, it kept 10% of my brain occupied most of the day–there was a thought I could go to when everything else was too much, another place for emotion to go.
  3. I did not answer my brother’s phone call. I looked at the caller ID for at least 15 seconds and really considered it, told myself, no, and went on with class. I learned that my father was dead via text–it sounds like the worst way possible, but it was 100% my merciful and loving Father watching out for me. If I had heard my brother’s anguish, I would have become hysterical, and my students would have endured that–and my daughters would have as well. Instead, I calmly said something along the lines of, “Guys, that text said my father just died . . .” and I stepped out into the hall.
  4. My administrators did not reach me. They were coming to break the news–and, honestly, the team was impressively made–and when I saw them coming down the hall, my heart was just so grateful that they had not made it to me. If they had, the high school would have become a place of trauma, and my friends/co-workers would have become part of that trauma, and what it is to me (a place of contentment) would have been forever destroyed.
  5. My childhood choir director, who is like family to me, was nearby. The administration firmly told me that I was not going to be driving myself anywhere, and I was adamant that I was not getting in a car with anyone whom they offered me. (By now, I like to orchestrate the details of Terrible Days of My Life.) We were able to locate her, and she swooped in and got me.
  6. My daughters are strong. My brothers certainly got gold medals in parenting for the ways they told their children, but I just broke my girls’ hearts with one sentence from 1,000 miles away. April was with her fiance, while Abigail was totally alone, leaving class–but I knew social media was going to get to them before I could if I wasn’t both quick and forthright.
  7. People offered to buy plane tickets for my daughters, and they got at least one of them to me. I cannot imagine going to that funeral without Abigail. (Greg’s heart rate and blood pressure have been elevated since my father died, and we felt that he could not safely go to the funeral.) I was so grateful to have my baby girl there. I am also grateful that April is strong enough to miss the funeral–it takes a special kind of fortitude to make that kind of decision, and she has it.
  8. I say a good good-bye. Teaching Julius Caesar for thirteen years taught me the value of “a parting well-made.” My co-workers will say I am better at good-bye than hello. Former students will tell you that my Friday and holiday good-byes are thorough (since weekends/holidays can be dangerous). One Friday, as I started my good-bye speech, a new kid asked, “Is something special going on this weekend?” and a long-timer said, “No, it’s just Friday, and she does this.” I’m so glad I do. My good-bye with my dad on Friday, the 18th, was loving and warm, and that gives me some peace.
  9. God allowed me to discover the song “There Was Jesus” and use it to get myself in a place of stability before this tragedy. A former student’s death the week prior to my Dad’s–stacked on the top of everything else, all the other losses–left me desperately sad, and I listened to that song on repeat for hours.
  10. My inner circle showed up (and every outer circle did, too). Four adults watched me slowly eat a sandwich, and the house filled with people who wanted to see my face, and I needed that solicitude.
  11. God has allowed me to read about suicide for more than twenty years. I understand things that I am certain many people do not, and there is so much grace in that. (See the previous post on my wall with blog links–the subtitle of the blog is “Why you should just shut up” because, truly, you should.) There is a peace in knowing that there is nothing any of us could have done. (There is also a world of pain.)
  12. Finally, I have full confidence in the mercy of a loving Father who sees Jesus when He looks at me and when He looks at my dad. I know my father is with Him.

Standing in my classroom last Wednesday, what it came down to was this: my faith is either real or it’s not. He’s either who He says He is or He is not. And I think God did an affirming work in me right then, and He spared me more dark sorrow, more anguish, more wailing and despair. And I am so very grateful.

Teenage Boys and Christmas Gifts: The Power of a Handwritten Note

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One of the stellar young men I taught (He is not mentioned in the blog, but gave permission for his photo to be used.)

It was an incredibly difficult semester for me–in just 55 days, my husband underwent two heart surgeries, and my father died by suicide. And 87 high school students watched me endure it all.

I could not have done so if they were not wonderful–and they all were, truly–but I particularly appreciated my first block.

Because they were a small class of twelve, I initially joked about calling them “the disciples” and getting them t-shirts, but then we grew by two. They were sleepy teenagers who, at 8:15 a.m., would rather have been in their beds than reading about the surly Greek princess Antigone or contemplating Shakespearean sonnets. They were not apathetic, but they certainly weren’t lively, and their passive compliance allowed me to start each day in a low gear, saving my energy for the more taxing classes ahead. They were also helpful and kind–sensing my heartbreak, a few came in each morning and asked if I needed anything done, and then they did those things. They made my mornings better, which made my days better–allowing me to survivemy trauma and also do my job.


Nine years ago, when I first came to the title one public high school where I now teach, my primary outreach was to listless, visionless boys. I am not an optimistic person (thus the title of this blog), nor am I a cheerleader (if I say anything remotely enthusiastic, it sounds fake, and teenagers hate fake). What I am is a plodder, a trudger, a goer-oner, and I try to get my kids–particularly those enduring trauma–to also continue to walk. To try to find their way “up, out, and over.”


About seven years ago, entirely by accident, I wrote my first life-changing Post-It note. I took a kid, a huge fellow, out in the hall, and I told him, “Listen, you’re going to hate yourself at 45 if you don’t get it together now and quit acting like this.” And, still irritated when we went back in the classroom, I wrote that on a Post-It note and handed it to him.

Years later, when he was a senior, days before graduation, the same young man came up to me, stood with me outside my classroom’s back door, looked at the sky and offered, “You know that Post-It note you wrote me? I hung it on my bedroom wall, and I looked at it every day.” 

I was dumbfounded. He just chuckled.


After his confession, other students said, “Yeah, I kept mine.” They laughed at me, too–an English teacher who didn’t know the power of words.


A few years ago, I had a class that was wild–not just one block, but the entire group. Sophomores are challenging to teach because the kids start driving and “feel grown.” With those first freedoms, they are sometimes reckless.

It gets scary if you have a front-row seat. Scarier still if you are powerless, as I was.

They were imploding, these sixteen-year-olds with their still-developing frontal lobes, and I spent my weekends worried and praying that I would see them all on Monday.

Finally, after learning of one weekend’s harrowing misadventures, I went to the school on a Sunday afternoon, gridded out some rough boxes in Word, and typed something like, “Make wise decisions because I love you.” I angled the text, handwrote a crude heart around it, and signed “Mrs. G” with a small heart beside it. I printed out thirty on pink paper and taped the hearts down with clear strapping tape, so they could be there all year. I wanted the kids to remember, daily, that they mattered.

That Monday morning, the kids came in, saw the hot pink hearts dotting the room, and immediately had questions. I explained that I thought their behavior was really scary and we had one of those chats that are the hallmarks of my classroom–life is long; decisions matter; don’t break your mother’s heart; don’t let the boy you are now destroy the man you could become.

That day, when the kids got up to go, more than half of the hearts were gone, too. I asked one of the stragglers, “Where did all the hearts go?”

“Oh, we took them . . . because we wanted them.”

That night, I made ninety more hearts.


Years later, I saw one of my macho young men in the hall, now a self-assured senior. I told him I was proud of him, and we shared a laugh about how terrible they all were at sixteen–before they grew up a little.

With a grin, he said, “Hey, Mrs. G, look,” and unzipped a small jacket pocket just above his heart. He pulled out a weathered piece of paper, unfolded it, and showed me. It was my hot pink heart.

“I take it everywhere,” he said. He folded it neatly, zipped his pocket up, patted it twice and sauntered away smiling.


I sat at my desk last Friday, my last Friday morning with these fourteen teenagers who had made my semester so smooth, had ensured that one thing in my life went predictably well.

I looked at them in their circle, and I was so grateful. To each of them.

I asked them, “Who needs a love note?” Several hands went up immediately, a few hands shyly, later.

As they worked on exam review, I wrote them little notes on artist’s trading cards I bought at Hobby Lobby. Just a few sentences. “Thank you for being consistently kind. You made my days better.” “I can see you as a businessman in a $$$ suit. Keep working hard to make that happen.” “You should be a professional voice over artist.” It took twenty-five minutes.

I handed them out en masse, careful not to make eye contact–the most important thing to remember about teenagers–always–is that they are embarrassed to be alive– so I handed them the notes as if they were nothing.

Like they didn’t matter at all.


In town that night, I bumped into the mother of one of the kids.

“I saw the note you wrote,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, that’s something I do sometimes,” I explained.

“He has it in his phone case. It’s a clear case. He has it there where he can see it, every time he looks at his phone. That means it’s important.”


On Wednesday morning, right before the final exam, I absentmindedly said, “Oh yeah, troops, I need you to turn in your phones. Throw them on that desk over there for me.”

They did.

And when I wandered past the desk later, what I saw broke me: my words stared up from the boys’ phone cases.

My cocky, kind, hilarious boys were thrilled with the simple fact that an adult noticed them. An adult said, “You are doing a few things right. You are going to make it.” An adult offered affirmation.

And an adult wrote it down–so it must be true.


This Christmas Eve, think about the young men in your life. The things about them that make you smile. The first time you held them. The funny things they said when they were three. The times now that you are just so proud. And capture your heart’s smile on paper, in words.

Your affirmation, your acknowledgment, your written truth–these are the best gifts you could give them. And the ones they most want.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The Grocery-Store Spectacle: Grieving my Father’s Death by Suicide

This blog was begun on December 19, 2019, and finished December 31.

In early October, you couldn’t have told me that it could be like this. You couldn’t have told me that there was another realm of suffering: that past holding my lifeless stillborn granddaughter, past all the other suffering my little family has endured, there was an even deeper grief. You couldn’t have told me there was more.

But today, I was wild-eyed in Ganas Pecans–the decision between pecan pieces and pecan halves too much for me. I can barely order eggs at Cracker Barrel or choose an exercise band at the YMCA. I cannot decide anything.

Instead, my body wants to flee. I have been bathed in adrenaline for weeks now, a pure, steady flow that made me grateful to catch a virus, for two weeks of respiratory weakness to tamp this constant fight or flight.

I can feel the hollows in my forearms, empty spaces yearning for movement. My head aches constantly behind my left eye–my neck and shoulders tight and immobile, jaw clenched, my facial muscles now individually known to me. My nose has muscles, I know this, too–suicide has brought them to me. Even just sitting in a chair demands my entire concentration. (It’s so amazing, really fascinating, how much sitting in a chair requires of those deep in grief.)

I didn’t know how fragmented attention could be. That I could forget to make a phone call–remind myself, then forget again–a dozen times in one afternoon. That I could open Facebook messages to send a note, forgetting to whom and for what in that brief second.

I did not know that a fifty-year-old woman could cry the despairing wails of the four-year-old. (I also did not know that, when the fifty-year-old cried, no one would come.)

There is so much I did not know.


There have been so many times in my life that words have been useless to me. (In the early blog’s about Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly, I did not use English in the titles because there were no words that fit.) But here, at this time, when my father has abandoned us, left abruptly, firmly closed the door, well, there are truly no words at all.

We are not people drowning in grief, occasionally coming up for air and seeing sunlight. There is no screaming of hopeful words over cresting waves. There are no motivating life preservers flung just out of reach–not is there a distant, but reachable, shoreline.

We are crushed like acorns. We are small, and we are broken into tiny pieces. We are stomped-upon and powerless. There is no possibility of reassembly.

Our lives will never be the same. There will be no return to baseline, no new normal. The word “normal” will never be used to describe us again. We are a grocery-store spectacle, the gossips’ pitiful feast.

We are “those poor, poor people.”


But we are not only pitiful–we are mad, too. There is anger that we can tap on the days when we refuse tears.

It is an anger unlike any other I have felt. It is not rage–because rage takes an object, and my father is gone.

It is not annoyance, that mild daily anger at long lines and stubborn traffic lights. It is certainly not the helpless anger so familiar to those of us who watch our loved ones self-destruct.

Neither is it the perpetual, disappointed I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life anger known to those of us who got the wrong LaLa Land ending, though that is the anger it is closest to.

The anger is something akin to “what’s the point” or “why even try”–and it’s both cosmic and earthly–both with the universe and with my father.

82068945_477541166456581_5676904703166775296_nIn my carport and my sitting room, there are Rubbermaid containers filled with memorabilia–forty-year-old amusement park photos, elementary school report cards, “World’s Greatest Dad” trophies, letters from summer camp, tiny plastic Cracker Jack toys, greeting cards that all say, over and over and over again, “We love you. We appreciate you. You are wonderful.” And I look at that–all that written attestation, all that Crayola-ed love, and I think, “It wasn’t enough.”

That’s the source of the anger, really–the fact that none of us will ever truly know one another, that sometimes, there is no way to reach past the pain. Our ultimate impotence makes it seem pointless to even attempt to reach across the chasm–but love demands that we try.


On the last day of 2019, Abby and I took a five-hour road trip. The two-lane roads were littered with dead animals–I don’t understand how, sometimes, there are so many. Amid the dead possums and raccoons, there was also a dead Yorkie and a tabby cat.

In Milledgeville, we were driving in a pack of about six cars when one ran over the carcass of a dead hawk, and matter splattered on my windshield.

I just wailed. Just wailed and wailed.

 

 

Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

25 Things I Do To Survive Really Bad Days

78950667_441755543206868_8212969989649465344_nSix weeks ago, I joked with a friend that I wanted to write a blog on 25 ways to survive a bad day. We agreed that it was “too morbid” for South Georgia–small towns being what they are, no one should ever admit that, sometimes, simply enduring is difficult. Now, of course, with my father’s death by suicide, people can think what they will.

I am happy that I now have a “toolbox” of things that I know will work to help me find my way out of a funk. It took me a long time–and a lot of research–to get to this point. 

These tips do not depend upon my family members–they have been enduring the same traumas, and they cannot throw me life preservers. This fact used to make me sad, but now I see it as part of the traumas themselves.

None of these may work for you–just know what does work for you and take the time to do those things without feeling guilty.  (This includes getting medication if you and your doctor agree you need it. Not you and your spouse. Not you and your great-aunt. Not you and your pastor. You and your doctor.)

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This is my list:

  1. Getting outdoors and getting quiet. I decide where to look, what will help me most. If the wind is strong, the pecan tree will be the most beautiful part of the yard; if the bees are in the wildflower patch, the patio may be where I want to be. If the sky is blue and cloud-dotted, I will flop on my quilt and make myself look at the clouds float by. And long-time readers will know that the drake elm is, of course, always healing. (Looking at trees is research-based, by the way.)
  2. Taking a bath is a good thing, always. (Sylvia Plath famously said, “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”) One of the first things my husband does when we move in a house is defeat the tub’s overflow valve so that I can fill it to the brim. (And, truth be told, the hot water heater is also set a little higher than it should be.)
  3. Making the bed. For me, clean sheets are a front-loaded reward for an anticipated bad day. I will wash sheets and make the bed before a hard day of long drives and doctor’s appointments. Homecoming is that much more wonderful.
  4. Getting on Facebook chat. There is always someone just a click away, and I take advantage of that. Whether it’s a new anencephaly mom or a former student, someone is usually up for small talk. (Wednesday morning, Abby and I Facebook videochatted with a friend from Arkansas for 38 minutes. Today, a friend from Nashville and I traded recipes.) Seeing a smiling face is often all the antidote I need.
  5. Vegging out–Instagram triplets, pregnancy reveals, and cat videos will get my mind out of a loop every time.
  6. Listening to “Hallelujah Chorus.” (On one particularly bad diagnosis day, I sat in the darkened den and listened to it while eating tres leches cake, and those ten minutes diluted some of the horror of the previous eight hours.)
  7. Watching familiar movies. Grease if I’m sick. Notting Hill if I’m sad. Silver Linings Playbook or Lala Land if I’m nostalgic (but never if I’m sad). Manchester by the Sea if I’m feeling honest. (Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, confesses of his pain, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.” It might be the most honest moment ever in a movie.)
  8. Inviting myself over. I have several friends who have an open-door policy for me. I’m allowed to come over in my pajamas and sit on their sofas and watch the Braves or pull up in their driveways for a pep talk. And, on bad days, I do.
  9. Listening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and singing along, loudly.
  10. Looking through my “treasure box.” I only do this about once every four years; I save it for the worst days. In my nightstand, there is a purple striped box filled with comic strips, notes, and mementos, generally of my life before All of This. Younger Me is, of course, gone, but there is still power in visiting who I was. There are both comfort and validation in remembrance.
  11. Reading poetry. Poets have an ability to perceive things that others miss, so on sad days, seeing through their eyes can be reassuring. (Carrie Fountain has helped Abby and I survive entire years.)
  12. Going to the YMCA. I started going this summer simply because I was emotionally unable to sit in my sad house any longer. I gave myself absolutely no choice, and almost every entry in my Under Armour Map My Walk journal is dismal. Initially, had an awful attitude and hated every step–now, I have new friends, go to classes. and can carry a 42-inch screen TV alone. (Also, the gym is a societally authorized place to be, especially since I am overweight–everyone is always glad I am  exercising; no one can tell me that I shouldn’t be, and so I can go as often as I’d like.)
  13. Visiting the nursing home. Everyone there is always happy to see me; I can sit and do a word search or a jigsaw puzzle with a content companion; I always leave grateful for my home, my mobility, and my pets.
  14. Taking the dogs on a road trip. If I’m posting pictures of the sunset from Swamp Road, it’s a sure sign I had a terrible day that I’m redeeming the best way that I know how. Good music, happy canines, a sunset, and some Bubble Yum will keep me from hitting rock bottom every time.
  15. Listing to music on Alexa–buying an echo dot for $22 and getting Amazon Music Unlimited has been more life-changing than I care to confess. I am not technologically inclined, and being able to say, “Alexa, play Zach Williams’ “Rescue Story,” and then say, “Repeat that,” without ever having to make a playlist has been wonderful. (This also works with Lady Gaga’s “You and I.”)
  16. Reaching out helps–whether I make a coworker some banana bread or write a little note to a far-away friend, I usually feel better. (This is based on research as well.)
  17. Petting a cat or dog. We have three indoor cats, three outdoor cats, and two dogs, all of whom found us, and these animals bring us more daily comfort than anyone can know. Abby jokes that Edgar and I might as well be “surgically attached,” and Baby is rarely out of Greg’s reach. Pets have health benefits for their owners, and I know that they improve our lives daily.
  18. Accepting social requests and attending community events–even if the rest of the family stays home.  Getting out of the house does me good, even if I sometimes have to force myself. If I’m invited to supper or a former student’s kid’s birthday party, I will go. If we haven’t ever talked but once in the grocery store, I will still meet someone at Rodeo with a smile. I have never regretted saying yes to an invitation.
  19. Watching a church sermon I missed. My pastor always challenges distorted thinking and reminds us of the goodness of God, and his sermons are only a Facebook click away.
  20. Doing yoga. I like Amazon Prime’s “Beginner Yoga: Morning Stretch and Flow.” Drinie Aguilar is not too perky, and the first routine is better than any chiropractic session I have ever had. In her spiel, she says something like, “Good for you, starting your morning doing something to help your body,” and I always think, “Yeah, Drinie, good for me.”
  21. Writing. Obviously, this blog helps me–anencephaly, three cancers, two heart surgeries, now a suicide–it’s way too much to keep internalized. I have over 100 non-published drafts–but the thoughts are down on paper.
  22. Talking to a friend who is going through something worse or more interesting–listening to someone else unload will often stop my spiraling. Several of my friends will say, “But why am I telling YOU this??? You have it worse!” without ever knowing how helpful they are being in sharing their own stories.
  23. Meditating with the free app called Headspace. I don’t do it enough, but that app has calmed me down quickly several times–it is so soothing.
  24. Crying. One of the kindest things Greg ever did for me was read research about crying aloud to me for the last thirty minutes of a long drive. It is so beneficial biochemically that I no longer try to stop myself. The benefits of a “good cry” are felt for weeks afterward. (And yes, there’s tons of research. I am only linking one.)
  25. Remembering that “His mercies are new every morning.” This verse from Lamentations 3 has been true in every trauma. Every morning is better. Every morning He is there, with me. And that assurance continues to comfort me through these dark nights.

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All artwork by Tori Press @revelatori. Used with permission.

The Grand Mistake; The Minor Miracle (Cancer Number Four: Really???)

IMG_20191111_094530Last Saturday, I went to the mall, and as I was leaving, I bumped into a former student and her mother. They are the kindest of people, and I was wild-eyed and sad–it was just sixteen days from my father’s death by suicide and thirty-six hours before my husband’s second heart surgery in eight weeks. It was just too much, and they could tell.

“How can we help you?” the mother asked; I mumbled that I didn’t know, that there was vague talk of a fundraiser and that we had a Boston butt–I’d just eaten some for breakfast, in fact.

“We do food,” the mom said. “I’ll bring you a frozen crockpot meal later–that way, you can just pop it in whenever you want.”

I can’t even be sure I was appropriately grateful–tired and overwhelmed, I was mainly just glad to live in a town where people will feed you if you don’t even know their first names.


On Monday, Greg had his surgery/procedure–we had been told it had a 50/50 chance of working, so when I saw the cocky strut of the surgeon’s assistant, I was relieved. It took two plugs, but his heart was not going to be a problem anymore.

They moved him to a room overlooking the water, and we prepared to settle in for a quick overnight stay. I was hoping for an overdue lunch and a catnap–I had only slept two hours the night before and, worried, been unable to eat much that morning.

But then the nurse said, “And you have had ————recently?”

We were confused–and then she added something like, “For the ———- cancer?”

Met by silence and sputtering, she showed me the record. She pointed to his name and birthdate, she pointed to the name of the cancer–he had cancer in a vital organ. It had not metastasized–I remember being grateful for that. My brain jackhammered simultaneous thoughts, over and over saying, above all the others:

Cancer #4 has been here for weeks? And we hadn’t been told at all?

We have wasted so much time.

Cancer #4 is here.

Shaking, I immediately called his oral oncologist and left a message–I thought that the OSCC would have gone to his brain, not traveled south–that was my only stopping point, the only hinge holding me: I’d never read that it could go where it evidently was. I called the hospital’s patient advocate, got no answer; texted my cousin, a malpractice attorney, and even called the hospital’s attorneys–because someone needed to get in Greg’s room and answer questions.

Because it was there in print. He had cancer.

We asked for the charge nurse, and a cluster of people gathered–all appropriately concerned. My lawyer cousin called, and he made me laugh in the way that cousins do, offering colorful language and good advice, suggesting an X-ray.

Greg, still required to be immobile, lay on his bed. “I had an X-ray in October,” he said, “Can you look at that X-ray, too?”

They did. And, in it, his vital organs were intact.

There was still so much confusion–but there was enough relief that as the X-ray tech arrived, I said, “I’m going to dash down and get something to eat.”


I stepped off the elevator, my mind flying–we still had ninety minutes in the business day–a lot of time to pursue answers. Greg had told the nurses that he would have answers before he left the hospital Tuesday–we were not waiting until Wednesday and then driving back to talk to so-and-so–we were not going to be patient or polite. Cancer #4 left no time for that. I was strategizing–who would best help us? Who could sort this out?

Then, halfway to the cafeteria, I spied them–in resplendent businesswear, tags bearing credentials I liked: there was The Powerful Person (TPP), involved in conversation.

And it wasn’t rest that hit me, but there was an immediate sense that now, the puzzle would be sorted.

I took a second to calm myself, tried to remember my cotillion skills, stuck out my hand, introduced myself and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I can assure you that the most important thing going on in this hospital is happening in my husband’s room right now. Can you please come there with me?”

And The Powerful Person did.

On the elevator, I gave them the litany of medical tragedies, the testimonies of Greg’s stoicism, the story of my father’s death–and I said, “We have to know if this is cancer #4.”


TPP stopped at the nurse’s desk, then went in and met Greg.

Even now, I just remember how much better I felt: there was an authority present, someone who could help. TPP said the right things, shook Greg’s hand, distributed business cards. Cared–and took control.

So, I left to go eat.


The end of the story is simply this: he didn’t have cancer. A machine or a human had erred. (We still aren’t clear which.)

As people do, our friends and family tried to figure out the why behind this happening: what were we supposed to learn? Was it so we could pray for the person who did have cancer? Why allow us to be shaken so?

I know, of course, that there does not have to be a reason, that things sometimes just happen. That this will one day be just a bad memory, a cosmic joke.

Then, I will testify that in a short 55 days in the fall of 2019, Greg had open heart surgery and complications; he had a second, chancy procedure; my father died by suicide–and, to top it all off, we were told that cancer number four had said hello.

I will remember how awful that felt–that the fear and the powerlessness were overwhelming.

And I will also remember how it felt to hand things over–to let go, to walk away, to say to someone else, “You fix it,” and feel absolutely certain they would.


Tuesday, as we left the hospital–after adding more business cards to our collection–I got a text. It was the mother, checking in–she would being dinner the next day,


I stayed home from work on Wednesday. I was still too shaken and exhausted by ourScreenshot_20191117-205144 near-miss,  and Greg was back on restrictions–couldn’t lift, couldn’t drive. I lay in bed until 11:00 AM then forced myself to do chores. Our normally tidy house was no longer so–I couldn’t do it all: work, grade, tutor, exercise, cook, and clean. I vacuumed, noting that somehow the antique marble coffee table was in the middle of the rug. I washed sheets and the duvet cover, going outside midway through the drying cycle to ensure that the duvet was not eating the sheets, not wanting to deal with that.

I tried hard–to rest and to clean. To keep a balance. I needed balance.

So, later, when I opened the dryer to find that the denim duvet had, in fact, eaten the sheets, I just brought the ball of linens in and set it on the kitchen table. I tried to unknot it, but I was getting nowhere. Greg came over to offer suggestions since he could not help pull. The knot only grew tighter–and, since all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed, and I had to have sheets to do that–I felt the frustrated tears threatening: this was all so stupid and unfair.

On top of everything else, I couldn’t even make my bed.

That instant, the doorbell rang.


The student’s parents stood on the stoop, bearing a frozen pork loin, some cranberries and green beans. Their car was running in the driveway. They smiled up at me, offering the food.

“I’m going to need you to come in here and move a table and help me with some sheets,” I said bluntly. (I hope, now, writing this, that I thanked them for the food, Please, Lord, let me have thanked them for the food.)

“A table??? Sheets???” they smiled gamely, confused. The husband went to shut off the car, and then we filed in the house, where, right after we made polite introductions, her husband helped me move the coffee table.

The sheets were still on the kitchen table. My voice quavered as I talked about them–I was still so upset–and then the wife said her husband was great with knots, and he was. Four grown adults stood there looking at sheets with such satisfaction.

As they left, I stood outside with them in the drizzle and tried to convey my thanks, the marvel of the timing–it overwhelmed me that the doorbell had rung just when it did. I ended up crying in her arms, as she murmured that it was all “too much, too much for anyone.”

I would have been embarrassed, had I not been so tired, had I not been so humbled at God’s grace and power.

He had shown me–in less than 48 hours–that he was in the Big–but he was also in the Small.

In that is my rest. In that is my strength.

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Please: Don’t Ask How I Am (When You Know)

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(Note: This is not to step on toes. This is to help me survive the grocery store. And any tragedy survivor’s inner circle should always ask–multiple times a day.)

Five weeks ago, after Greg’s open-heart surgery, when he was housebound and didn’t really feel well, I would pick him up after work and we would go sit at Ruby Tuesday’s and share an appetizer. It worked to fight cabin fever, and sometimes, sitting across the table from each other, I could feel the trauma start to slip away, could glimpse the people we once were.

One day, on the way back to the house, when I thought he had also briefly remembered, “Oh, I used to like her,” I said, “I think it would take more than a month on an island together to recover. More than a month. I’d need two weeks of just pure silence.”

And he agreed.


Of course, we did not get that. My father died by suicide days later, leaving us–once again–completely unmoored.

(If you have joined this blog for the suicide segment, but have missed the preceding anencephaly and cancer segments, you need to know this: the members of my little family are all too fatigued/wounded/calloused to comfort one another.)

Beyond encouraging one another to eat and suggesting, “Perhaps a hot shower would help?” we have little to offer in the way of assistance.

We can offer you little as well.


My father’s death has me exhausted by the simplest of questions: “How are you? I am asked this a hundred times a day by the kindest of people. It is, after all, the all-purpose American greeting.

It seems rude, then, to suggest this, but I believe that perhaps after tragedies that question should remain unasked for a while. These days, I can feel “fine” and five minutes later be weeping in my car. Everything is confusing; my emotions are ajumble–do I want to go eat with a friend, or do I want to lie in bed with my cat? Right now, I can’t decide between Mr. Pibb and Coke without crying–so I certainly can’t tell you how I am.

Saying “fine” after a tragedy is easy, but it’s a lie. Not only have I lost my father, but I’m watching my daughters and brothers struggle from hours (upon hours) away.

Saying “awful,” while more honest, necessitates a conversation that neither of us may really want to have–and it’s not entirely true because there are still bits of joy in each day.

Saying “sad” might make you pat me on the shoulder, and then, depending on the depth of affection we share, I might collapse crying in your arms at school or at Walmart.

And you know all this: you know I’m not fine. You know I am awful. You know I am sad. So, maybe just take a break from asking for a while.

Just say, “I’m glad to see you.” Then–maybe–smile.

In the days right after a tragedy, just be glad that the survivors are coming through the door at work or are seated next to you at church. Acknowledge their presence, but don’t question it. It’s one less answer they’ll have to search for, and they will be grateful.

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