My friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

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Celebrating a friend with too many birthdays to count

Happy belly-button day, Carol.

It dawned on me early this morning that this old recovery expression is necessary for a life like yours. The day you came into the world is a birthday, but one of too many to count.

Your life was an expanse of birthdays that surprised like the painted skies at sunset that captured your imagination.85814E1B-243E-41C6-A6AA-C0F238A1928D-2682-0000048BFA8DC5E8

When you braved that first day of kindergarten and realized it would all be OK. The day you met your best friend and became so inseparable that for the next 15 years you moved as one, like starlings in flight. The slumber parties, first crushes, sneaking out at night, sticking up for each other when boys were mean. Every time you discovered something new in yourself, whether strength, or joy or pain, was a birth — or perhaps I should say re-birth.

You were reborn on the day you became a mother — each time — devoted Lauren, adventurous Jack, stalwart Lexy.

A new light shone each time you bragged about “the monkeys” or told the story of some misadventure, or worried about them– each time they crossed your heart.

When you planned their birthday parties it was up for debate who anticipated the events more, your children or you, with your detailed plans and child-like impatience to unwrap their happiness.

You had a gift for making each experience feel like the first time: when you sought your parents’ advice, confided in your sister, reunited with sorority sisters, or picked up a friend at the airport after months apart. Every time you said, “I love you” it was new.

You were born again when you discovered wit and humor and laughter and their healing power.

I recall the night when we kicked back and stared up at the stars on the old Arkoe road. Mind you, we were looking through the windshield of my parents’ station wagon, which you had crashed backward into a ditch after a 360 degree spin on ice. We landed with the front end jutting straight toward the sky like a rocket ship awaiting launch. You sobbed, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!” But we both giggled when I said, “Hey, look, there’s the Big Dipper.”

Over the years we would laugh our way through worse predicaments.

You were renewed every time you laughed–and when you made all of us laugh.

Especially your capacity for finding humor in dark places, when you didn’t know if you could go on. The laughter that brought moments, days, weeks of healing, helping you loosen your grip on a life that demanded more from you than was fair.

There were sobriety birthdays when you found reprieve, and a deeper kindness. The first day you asked  for help was a new beginning as was each moment of grace that followed. And those courageous re-birthdays when you shouldered massive decisions to stand up for yourself and start over.

The times when life abused you and knocked you down were relentless, but you were reborn, sustained mostly by a love that was more relentless–for your children, your parents, your sister, all the people blessed by your playful, generous spirit.

Today is the first time that we celebrate the anniversary of your birth since you were taken from us. A band of your high school classmates are gathering to celebrate the day and all those unmarked moments that created you. Facebook posts are calling out to you. Phone lines are connecting your friends.

However, we haven’t seen your last birthday. They will continue to come too fast to count.

When your children remember a surprise party or an adventure with a mom who never forgot what it was like to be a teenager, you will take on new life. When someone shares a piece of advice from you, hard-won wisdom, it will be like lighting a candle. Even now as we grieve, you are vivid and alive in the tears and smiles, in the way we miss you. We long for the celebration we experienced when we were with you.

You came alive last week when I told the story of how loud you screamed when I donned a ski mask and tapped on your car window with an axe after a night watching horror movies. And again when your friend shared with me your last breakfast together, what she had learned from you and how you held your mother’s hand in your final days at the hospital.  When your friends gather and inevitably remember a night on the town, or a Royals game, or a simple “no hair, no shower” breakfast between two friends, there will be more reasons to celebrate your endless births.

Happy belly-button day, for now, my friend. Until you are born again tomorrow.

 

 

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.

A young man of joy: Every bit his father’s son

10847786_10202447971635249_8284351797113282319_nIt’s been a day since my cousin Brian found his son Jacob unresponsive on a bathroom floor.  I feel bleary, heavy, trying to grasp such sudden and gaping loss. My imagination won’t leave me alone, circling the way it happened.

Brian and I grew up together and I don’t remember ever seeing him sad. His laugh bounced around and exploded like a sneeze. I remember once Brian was helping me move and he peppered my brother and me with dirty jokes in the cab of the Ryder truck. Brian’s jokes were terrible, but  his giddy laugh incapacitated us. To say it was infectious is like saying a tornado is breezy.  I couldn’t see the road and my stomach cramped. More than once I slowed down, considered pulling to the shoulder until I could sit up and see straight.

This weekend, at the moment of Brian’s greatest heartbreak, I imagine my cousin’s capacity for joy in all-consuming contrast, turned upon himself in bottomless sorrow and roaring despair.

10556354_10154943450570722_6181797544446628608_nJacob was his father’s son. Almost every testimony on social media recalls his infectious laugh and irreverent humor, his knack for sensing when people needed kindness, a talent for making everyone around him feel good, all gifts of his nursing parents.

My experiences with Jacob were originally on the soccer field, where he and my son, the other Jacob Madden, formed an aggressive and intimidating defense at LeBlond High School. Due to his physical play, I recall Jacob among the league leaders in Yellow Card warnings, each of which he accepted with a smirk. Jacob played with a grinning  recklessness and devil-may-care style that was true to his personality. Jacob and I shared some of the same struggles over the years. I kept tabs from a distance, pulling for him and quietly celebrating his successes. Like others with these struggles, he was filled with passions and a desire to take care of others. He likely surprised those around him with sudden expressions of concern or encouragement.

Jacob was his father’s son.

Brian has always felt deeply, laughed with all his heart, and carried an infectious joy to those around him.  I hear over and over with pride that he is among the best nurses, filled with compassion and tenderness — and always laughter.  I remember in a junior varsity basketball game, Brian’s coach assigned him to guard me. As I brought the ball up court I heard the familiar giggle. I fell apart laughing. My coach yanked me and yelled, “What the hell’s your problem!” All I could say was, “That’s my cousin.”

Now, in his own words, Brian’s heart is broken. All the glory of his infectious laugh and famed compassion is now sorrow so deep that one wonders if he can stand and hold the pieces of his heart together.

It is time for Brian — and for that matter Julie, Jacob’s mother, his sister Nicole, his grandmother Connie, and his Aunts Linda, Beth, Debra, and Michelle– to recognize that suffering is every bit as infectious as laughter. As hard as I laughed in the cab of that truck that day, or on that basketball court, that’s exactly how hard I hurt for my cousin. As incapacitated as Brian’s laugh left me, so it is with his grief. The reach of Brian’s heart was just the beginning.

Jacob was his father’s son.