My flawed tattoo: A reminder that letting go may be the only way to hold on

The artist wasn’t accustomed to creating imperfect tattoos, but I asked for imperfection; a single word scribbled on my forearm like a IMG_0902note from someone – a note too someone.

No computer font, so precise and formal, or florid script, so graceful and expressive, would do. I explained why my tattoo should be flawed. As artists are want to do he found meaning in my request.

He went to work with pencil and talent and returned with something perfectly imperfect, precisely imprecise.

My dearest friend died recently. Her body gave out and for the final two weeks her only response to doctors and family was a strong heartbeat.

I called from 2,000 miles and a friend placed the receiver to her ear and promised that she could hear me. I sang Bob Marley, off key.  Don’t be afraid I said, I love you, it’s ok to loosen your grip now. Then I joked that she was never much good at letting go.

In our marathon conversations we often talked about the word, now as permanent to me as addiction.

I promised that after our final farewells I would get the tattoo in honor of her and how hard she tried, but also as a warning to me. My friend died because she was sick, but her illness was a wild animal feeding off fear, more aggressive as her trust in the taming power of the word faltered.

The cunning baffling demon – our shared peril – conquered her because she thought she could conquer it.

It’s Ok to go, I told her again — we will all be fine. Your fight is ended.

I have to believe that she came to understand. As her heart weakend, she became resigned to her fate. She finally let go; somewhere beyond the silence, her ragged breathing and failed body, she accepted the blessing.

She was powerless and her life had become unmanageable.

Now we who love her are left to find our way through the over-analysis, guilt and regrets of grief. Or we can find acceptance in all that she was: vibrant and ill; strong and weak; engaging and lonely; a beautifully imperfect person who sought — too often — to please everyone she encountered, blinded to the impossibility of such a feat.

I must not be deceived; I look at the word on my arm to recognize the arrogance of believing I had the power to save her, to prevent her suffering and death.

She and I used to joke that people who are able to drink in moderation have a superpower. They might as well be able to fly, because we can do neither.

My tattoo is fresh and new today, the single word is simple and rough-edged. I remember my friend and long for one more phone call, to laugh and cry and learn answers to unanswered questions.

I try my best to reconcile her struggle against life and escape from herself with the liberation in death from all fear and torment. Maybe the word, so elusive to my lost friend, will provide me with faith, or maybe not.

I look at the tattoo and one thing is certain.
For today, “Surrender” is my superpower.

Advertisements

Sneaking back to Church

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic ChurchThe toll of Sunday church bells clears away the fog of early morning. A zombie, wearing slept-in basketball shorts and stained T-shirt, I shuffle in flip flops to mass at the the church a block away.

I look at my feet and wonder what is happening as they take me across a hushed street, up steps and through a Spanish archway. I’m late so I crouch into the nearest seat. My interruption is covered by organ music. Maintaining my irreverence credibility I slide my butt back and forth like a toddler on a pew polished smooth by decades of pious asses. 

I feel slightly dizzy–unmoored–like when I forget which direction I’m going. Can’t remember when  I last attended mass and I’m unclear about what I expect. I guess something other than burrowing in a dark room for days, torturing myself over what I could have done different, how I didn’t see it coming.

This colorful, spacious church is different from the stoic, small-town brick house of prayer in which I grew up– but oh so familiar: the smells, the music, the cadence of prayers.

 I like the pastor immediately. His voice makes me comfortable. It’s his last Sunday. He is retiring. He speaks easily and unsentimentally to the parishioners he’s served for 20 years about turning over his ministry to a new priest.

Having no expectations begins to feels like freedom, less self-conscious. Freedom is a new experience for me inside the formality of a Catholic Church, I realize, not listening to the lector reading from the Epistle of Paul.

Long lapsed and out of favor I ease back in my seat during the kneeling parts, still remembering the words. Comfortable with the mystery of doubt, I’m agnostic about what they profess.

I’m experiencing the beautiful buzz where holiness and heresy meet.

But like the alcohol that killed her, this high won’t last and it won’t wash away the pain..

“Who do you think I am?” Jesus asks from the Sunday reading.

I settle in. I enjoy playing amateur biblical scholar.

It’s a trick question, I interpret on the fly. The Apostles’ answers don’t matter. Jesus, a man, a teacher, a friend has done his best; he has no expectations or claim to what comes next. What they do with his teachings and his name — spread peace or wage war, open hearts or close minds– is beyond his control.

Who do you think I am? he asks, knowing what they will seek in his name: whatever they most desire.

I don’t wait around for the bread and wine forbidden to me by church law

Grace has found me.

 

 

Anne Lomott: What to make of God

Let’s settle this God thing once and for all.lamott_rect-620x412

God, or no God?

Who on earth knows?

Any proof, either way?

None, except for Bach, foxes, forgiveness, elephants, bulbs and my dog Lily, may she rest in peace. Also, the fact that someone like me could have 28 years without alcohol or the non-habit-forming marijuana I smoked on a daily basis for 15 years. Also, ripe peaches, books, and Mr. Rogers.

There is Infinite good and beauty and heroism and artistic genius everywhere we look. Is this proof of God?

No, because there is also infinite evil and madness. I am not going to name names.

What do we even mean when we use the word “God?”

For the sake of argument, let’s say we mean a Higher Power–a power greater than our thinky thoughts, good ideas, grudges, positions and opinions: a divine Mind, a benevolent intelligence of some sort, some kind of bankable Love energy. Something that hears us and cares, when we cry out in our pain and mortification. I also like the Deteriorata’s definition of God as the Cosmic Muffin.

But what if the most illustrious atheists and agnostics hear that we actually believe this?

It’s none of your business what they think. To plagiarize from my book, it is like worrying about some guy wandering around the Mojave in a wet suit, reciting the poetry of Edgar A. Guest. People get to think and believe what they think and believe. You will never change them, or they us. Surrender: lay your weapons down. Let me make you a nice cup of tea.

What if they say you are ignorant, and a danger, in public?

It would have nothing to do with you. Maybe they are having trouble at work, or a spastic colon.

So do you actually believe that the soul is eternal? That death is just the end of dying, not of life?

Yes. Also, that there is a dessert section in heaven, and that it in fact makes up most of heaven, except for the ponds, and gift shop.

But we still die, correct?

Of course, and the question we ask ourselves, is, How do we live in the face of that? How alive are we willing to be? Why do we keep hitting the snooze button? What will it take for us to stop squandering our time?

Well? What’s the answer? What does it take to get serious about this life we’ve been given, even if we don’t know if God gave it to us, or chance?

Usually either a terminal illness or a DUI.

Is it legal to believe in evolution and all aspects of modern physics, yet also believe in a personal god, a Beloved, a sacred dimension to our lives?

Yes, in some states.

I shared this without consent of Ms. Lomotte, but she’s a really cool woman so I hope she won’t mind. And it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

The Flinch: Startled by your forever absence

I am startled

It’s the same jolt I would feel if you snuck up behind me.

It’s not your sudden presence that makes me flinch, but the absence, forever absence

IMG_0728Grief isn’t overcoming me in waves, leaving moments between surges to gasp for air

Like some warped science experiment, it’s forcing me to relive the shock. Im afraid to breathe

Again and again I hear the sudden news that you are gone — forever.

You passed away, you transcended, you’re with God now

Comforting words, they feel like a trick, setting me up for the next bolt of pain

You are dead. I say the words out loud and fumble for acceptance, while my hand longs for the phone

I need to talk to you; we weren’t finished,  not even close

I love you, I’m  proud of you, you don’t have to be afraid,  be kind to yourself, you made me a better person, we can work anything out

The flinch snaps my head back; a sharp pain travels from my eyes through my face into my shoulders and chest. It leaves me nauseous.

I’ve lost you again

I would much prefer the waves

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Dear Friend: You are courageous, no matter what the disease says

The back home area code was curious, then your mom’s voice, which I hadn’t heard in more than 20 years. 

People like us protect ourselves with a skill tested under fire: denial. As quick as a fright it clicked into place, like armor, when your mom said you were in the hospital. That’s not unexpected, but I’m sure she’s fine, I thought, ignoring distress signals from my brain.

“It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.” 

A jolt like Everclear blurred everything. You are on life support. Our shared peril will not bind us for much longer. Oh, my friend, why didn’t you call, like so many times before, before succumbing to the cunning, baffling, powerful demon that possesses us.

You always ask, brightly, genuinely, How are you doing? How’s you’re beautiful wife? You listen. And you are gracious enough to allow me to listen, to suffer with you, as you suffer with me. 

Our conversations are open and raw and challenging. And I hope healing. Together we have clung to sobriety, shared parenting advice, cooled one another’s anguish, gushed about children and voiced our deepest fears. Mostly we laughed.

Over the past year there has been a quiver in your voice — fear, desperation, even panic. Every time we talked I reminded you that none of us has to do this alone. Many people want to help. As always you apologized for bothering me. As always I told you to stop. And as always you told me over and over how good a friend I was, that you know I will never turn my back or judge. You said you appreciate that I am a straight shooter who tells you the truth even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

 I am looking at a photo, you know the one, our handful of high school friends, arm in arm, smiling into the camera, just after graduation. Often, people look back at photos like this and wonder, What was I thinking at that moment? I don’t have to wonder. I had firm plans for later that night, to get drunk for the first time in my life. It had dominated my thoughts all day. It would dominate my life for the next 23 years.

You don’t seem to remember that I was a drunken disaster that first year at college, it was you who never judged or turned your back, no matter how belligerent or sloppy I was. You were the straight shooter, giving me the honesty I needed. You accepted apology after apology and took care of me when I passed out on your couch. Then, the next morning, you forgave me again.

So I am sorry, so very sorry for what I put you through. I am fortunate that you are my friend. I can’t say it enough; you have done so much for me.

A couple of decades later I stopped drinking, or more accurately, many people helped me stop. Not long after that, you courageously called and through tears asked me how I did it. I introduced you to a lot of people who fell in love with you and helped you do the same.

You have struggled so much with this. It certainly hasn’t helped that along the way some people you cared about have hurt and betrayed you, but you kept trying against all odds. You have never stopped fighting a terminal disease, praying for the remission that I have today, a remission with no guarantees. Through it all you never stopped loving. Loving with the passion of a great romantic poet– your children, your parents, your sister, family and friends. I’m honored to be on this list. And we all love you in return.

In our talks you told me that you felt like a failure, unworthy of the love of so many people. Especially during relapse.  I tried gentleness. I tried the raised voice of a coach. I begged you to see what I see, what we all see. I shook you from 2,000 miles away, trying to make you understand. Like a child, you asked if I was mad. Please, always know, as I have told you countless times before, that is an impossibllity. You recently called me at 3am and asked me if you were calling too late. Of course you were. Not because you woke me, but because I was worried that you were up at that time. In our previous phone call we had joked about how nothing good happens after two in the morning.

 Dearest friend, once, following a relapse, you wept and told me that you had thrown away all the time that you had been sober. 

I’m going to say this again, for what appears to be the final time.  Not only no, but hell no! You are wrong. Those moments, hours, days, months, years all counted. They mattered. The measure of your courage is how you continued to pull yourself up in the lonely darkness of despair.

We never had a chance against addiction until we surrendered and admitted we were powerless.  Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel we both love, said, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Regardless of what this disease made you believe, you are courageous.

Today, my dear friend, I am suffering mightily. I am not “handling this,” as some might say. 

I wish you had called. I would have asked you to rest and let me carry your burden for a while. I would have told you to stop apologizing. I would have told you that you have helped me as much as I help you. We have been in this together for a long time. I would have said once again that I could never be mad at you. I would have told you not to be afraid.

I would have said I love you.

I told our mutual friend yesterday that I feel like I’m driving without a steering wheel, veering between weeping and some facsimile of composure.  Of course, you know that she told me to talk to my sponsor. Risking reprimand, I told her I don’t have one right now, haven’t even been going to meetings much. I have, however, attended regular meetings since the heartbreaking phone call from your mom. I don’t speak up much because I’m not sure I can hold it together. I think I’ve been looking for answers but I leave puzzled and angry.

I met a man recently who told me about a philosophy exam he took in college. He was confronted with an essay question that simply asked, “Why?” He answered, “Why not?” and walked out (He received an A).

That is my question right now. Why not me instead of you? To say I am blessed by God implies that you are not. For me that is personal heresy.

In recovery we talk a lot about accepting life on life’s terms. I have a feeling I will be trying to renegotiate these terms for some time. I weep not for my loss but rather for the loneliness of  those days before your family found you.

When your mom called she said she knows I understand. Honestly, I think at best I know that you have come to this place through no fault of your own. You came here at the end of a brutal, terrifying, lifelong battle against a disease that most of us don’t survive. 

But understand? Today, more than ever, I must admit, I don’t think I will ever understand this disease.

The Monster who steals souls

basquiat 01Volunteers at sunrise lifted by the gift of giving

Laughter and stories of meaningful moments

Suddenly hushed by a lonely announcement

The Monster left a corpse in Starbucks

Another in the street near trash bins

Another and another and another emptied and discarded

The Monster came from the East, stalking the forgotten

As silent as a sleepless night

The volunteers recognize one they know among the lost

Whisked away in the brief release of freedom

Her jail cell held the monster at bay, but he waited

Patiently. Doing push-ups in the parking lot

 

 

Jacob’s reminder to dance

Yesterday I wished my cousin Brian happy birthday on Facebook.

On his page I saw a photo of a younger Brian, but the photo was too natural, not like the posed senior picture’s of the 1980s. It was Brian’s son Jacob. I sagged at my computer. Father and son shared a birthday.  Jacob leaned easily against a brick wall, tattered jeans and flip flops. He didn’t appear to have a care in the world

The tears surprised me.

Jacob died a little over a year ago after a struggle with substance abuse.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know Jacob as well as I would have liked.  We talked when I ran into him at the grocery store where he worked and we occasionally joked around during the time he played soccer with my son.12631559_1224193100928116_8414144582599671273_n

He never knew about my strongest bond with him, a longing from afar to reach out and help, to let him know I had been there. I fantasized that he might see it in my eyes, or feel it in my passing presence.

I wear a red band on my wrist with Jacob’s name on it. It’s also inscribed with the words, “Forever laughing,” a reminder of a young man who glowed with humor and irreverence.

Tugging at the band, I realized the sudden tears were for loneliness.

Jacob was alone when he died. His father was alone when he found him. Loneliness can swallow entire families.

I remember the depths when no one could reach me. I was alone in a room full of people who loved me. No matter how many reached out to me, it didn’t matter until I decided it was time to reach back. No one could have lifted me up until I was ready to be lifted. Then there is the loneliness of the ones who strain and long and ache to help, and are filled with fear and regret and helplessness. 

That is the great terror of parenting. My kids are grown and I can try to teach all the lessons I have learned from horrible decisions. They have witnessed some of my worst. But they must make their own way and their own mistakes. They must solicit my advice before they will receive it.

No matter how much we love others, they must want help. That can be a paralyzing proposition. Our peace depends on staying in the moment, doing the next right thing, neither regretting the past nor agonizing over the future.

The red band reminds me of acceptance.

Khalil Gibran wrote: “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

From what I have heard and witnessed, Jacob lived his life with a reckless charm that drew people to him. I’m sure only those dearest to him knew his fears.

I try not to let fear govern my days and I often fail.

I must find a way to live like my cousin Brian who, even in the aftermath of the greatest tragedy a parent can endure, still smiles and bursts forth with a laugh that must ring truer than any to grace the ears of God.

There is an afterlife, right here and now. Our loved ones walk among us in the stories we tell.  Jacob’s friends are still posting photos and jokes Jacob would find hilarious, and stories of his exploits still make the rounds. No doubt he still breathes life into water skiing trips, holiday dinners, and family milestones.

The red band reminds me of joy.

I remember as a child, I used to find comfort at funerals. Even though it was a time of haunting sadness, there was something sheltering about the way my expansive family set everything aside to turn its sympathies inward, like a huge canvas tent in a purple storm. It is good to know we are not alone when we are lonely. Even if no one can truly reach the depths of our pain, it is good to know that so many want to suffer with us. Priests called it the Paschal Mystery. The Buddhists simply say “Life is suffering.” God didn’t want us to suffer, but he showed us that we could find some semblance of meaning in it. We can stay in the moment and hold those we lost close. Someday, someone will ask us for help, and instinctively we will be ready because we have suffered, because  we have lost, because we have mourned.

We will be ready because we have been there before them.

The red band reminds me of compassion.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott

Like so many people, I long to reach out and ease my cousin’s pain. I am content to know that he is sheltered by a great tent. I hope that he finds strength in family and friends. I hope he remembers that many people want to help carry his burden even when they cannot possibly understand the depth and breadth of it. And I know that he will repair his injuries by caring for others.

The red band reminds me of healing.

Jacob was a special young man and one doesn’t ever recover from losing someone of his character. But imagine how Jacob would laugh to see his dad dance.