Monday, December 27, 2010

A "Voice of God" moment

I have come to believe that God speaks to us all the time, and that people who are looking for affirmation of this will find it. Ron’s suicide was just the sort of bone-rattling chaos that made me seek this affirmation.

Once tuned in to the “divine communication” frequency, however, there’s a trick to its interpretation. Messages with that “special resonance” can sometimes conflict with one another. I experienced this over the recent holidays.

The first time was at a Christmas party for a bunch of insurance salesmen. (I know—yawn.) I went to support my husband, who is new to this field, but I didn’t despair—you just never know when a special gift might be sent your way. And because I was looking for one, I found it: in the form of a man with an open, friendly face, and a sweep of thinning gray hair. He made his way around our table, shaking hands and introducing himself. His name was Peter. Yes, he was an insurance salesman, and networking, so I assumed he’d move past me soon enough (there’s no insurance in my line of work whatsoever).

But what was that interesting accent? Yorkshire, he told me—and the conversation opened.

He asked me what I do. I was immediately drawn to him and hated to lose his favor so early; these guys are all about the money, as the evening’s award litany illustrated.

“I’m a writer.”

“What are you working on?” (I liked him even more for not asking, “Where can I buy your books?”)

I answered, “A memoir.”

“My mother wrote her memoirs when she turned 50,” Peter said, his face animated. “It was the best gift she ever could have given me, and her grandchildren.” He then tapped my arm with his index finger, to make sure that within this crowded room he had my full attention. “If you don’t think your life is worth recording, you aren’t taking your life seriously enough.”

He left me with that thought. Its positive message was enough to get me through several draining days of writing that challenged me to recall, in great detail, the final years of my first husband’s decaying life.

But by the time I finished writing, the day before Christmas Eve, I wasn’t in the best shape. My current self was mourning for my younger version, carrying on in those final days unaware of all she had already sacrificed, unaware of all that was still to come.

I had to call my mother about Christmas and worried that I wouldn’t be able to disguise my emotional fatigue—an actress I’m not. So when she asked me how I was doing, I answered truthfully. “I’m okay.”

“Just okay? What’s the matter?”

“I wrote myself into a bad place today while working on my memoir.” [I realize that in alternate universes, this might be a reason for a woman to place a call to her mother. You know, for comfort.]

Absolutely sure of the truth of her stance, she said, “That’s why you shouldn’t be writing a memoir. Always look forward, never look back.”

These words had resonance because I’ve heard them before. It is the motto of her life; her way of coping with a difficult childhood that came with its own bag of horrors.

Voice of God recap: You should be writing a memoir; you shouldn’t be writing a memoir. Each speaker bringing a message of which they are most sure. One a stranger, one the woman who raised me.

If one of them spoke with the voice of God, how do I tell which one? I have a few thoughts on that, which I’ll share in the next post, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Ring of Truth

Weeks of engagement ring shopping later (catch up with this story here), I was trying even my own patience. Dave had asked me to marry him in March, and we were coming up on May. Telling people I’d gotten engaged had been fun, but the “Let me see your ring” part, followed by an embarrassed silence, was getting old. I began to see a “setting event”—or two, or three—in my future.

Luckily, Dave actually dug this about me—my search for meaning, my perseverance, my recently discovered, don’t-settle-for-second-best attitude. Made him feel special. Plus, with his two natural children, two adopted foster children, and a divorce that registered on the Richter scale, he’d been engaged with his own search for meaning. “You’ll find the right ring,” he said. Note the “you’ll”—even he had dropped out of the search.

I finally stopped in to see the local jeweler, from whom my first husband purchased my engagement ring. I’d hoped to avoid the location (reference breaking old patterns, in my last post), but short of daytrips to larger cities, which my schedule would not support, my options were running out. I ordered a ring on spec—a round diamond surrounded by a gold swirl that required a matching band. It was a little different, a little artsy. I convinced myself it would be just fine. Since the first ring had been bought there, the jeweler even offered to give me half of the original purchase price with a trade-in.

But I had settled, and the relief of calling off the search wasn’t enough to keep that knowledge from eating at me.

That night a friend from church, also recently engaged, told me about the place where her fiancĂ© had bought her ring—a location that had somehow ducked beneath my radar. Slapping on a smile to brighten my voice, I told her that I had no need to continue shopping. I already had a ring on order; I was done looking.

“Go to Engle Jewelers,” she said.

Hadn’t she been listening? I said, “I just told you I ordered a ring today.”

“Go to Engle Jewelers,” she repeated. There was a resonance to her tone I couldn't ignore, like Moses channeling God.

When Mr. Engle unlocked the next morning, he found me waiting at his door. I scanned his display—by now, all rings were blurring into variations of the same half-dozen styles. And then I saw it, in the back corner of the case.

I immediately recognized what I’d been looking for all along: a braided band with strands of yellow, rose, and white gold. A symbol of a blended family. I hadn’t seen anything else like it. The matching engagement ring had an oval cut solitaire.


Once I’d found it, everything about the purchase was easy. Mr. Engle offered to let me borrow the wedding band for a week, wear it, and make sure I liked it.

"Really?" I said. "How much money do you want me to put down as collateral?"

"Just take it. I trust you."

I insisted on producing my driver's license for photocopying, just in case I could be held legally culpable for taking advantage of a kind and generous jeweler.

At dinner that night, I showed the ring to Dave, and explained the meaning it held for me. When I asked him if he would wear a matching band, I think his answer held as much emotion as mine did when I said I’d marry him.

Then, another bonus. When we placed our order—not the following week, but the very next day—the jeweler honored the full purchase price of my first engagement ring as a trade-in. This was twice what the jeweler who had made it had offered! When I mentioned this, Mr. Engle assured us that the value of diamonds and gold did not diminish with time. I admit it was hard to part with my three-stone ring; I had loved it so. But there was meaning in that, too.

My ring still reminds me that in order to move on with our lives, we must take the best of the old and keep weaving it in with the new. So when Dave and I did marry, there was one aspect of my first wedding I did not change—my best friend, Ellen, once again served as my only attendant. She has been an unconditionally supportive witness to my flawed yet ongoing search for what is real and true. In church that day, it was she who handed me the colorful threads of gold that I would place on Dave's hand, to match mine and symbolize our union.

When we hear those "important" messages, how do we know their source? I had a few conflicting messages arise recently about the writing of my memoir. More about that in my next post. Until then, Happy New Year! May you take the best of the old and weave it in with the new.

FYI: Regrettably, Mr. Engle retired and closed his wonderful jewelry shop.

How do you know if it's "the right one"?

In recent weeks, television viewers have been inundated with jewelry ads. They have failed to move me. As far as I'm concerned, Jared can keep their chocolate diamonds (too hard to digest), and Kay can keep that idiot who rewards his girlfriend with diamonds for being afraid of thunder (next he'll feed her when she begs for food). And as much as I loved Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, when I look at Jane Seymour's open heart designs, I can't help but see glittering fishhooks.

But I'm picky—ask any of the owners of the jewelry stores within a two-hour driving radius of my home. I visited them all after Dave asked me to marry him almost eleven years ago. Some might say I was as unforgettable as the feel of grit on sandpaper. I didn’t set out to earn a reputation. I’m simply a person who struggles to find meaning, and since there isn’t an occasion more meaningful than a wedding, I struggled a lot. In public.

Perhaps the jewelers would have been more empathetic if I’d told them the whole story—that I’d done this all before, eighteen years ago. That it hadn’t ended so well. That my new beau recognized me as a potential life partner right away because of the newfound honesty with which I expressed my vision for my life—a vision that almost word-for-word echoed thoughts he had written down himself, years before. With that knowledge, certainly anyone could understand my need to find the perfect ring, right? I mean, past childbearing age, why remarry at all unless the union adds meaning to your life?

Since the average length of each store visit was already pushing the one-hour mark, I spared jewelers the narrative and picked my way through dozens of rings that any less demanding woman, they’d quietly inform me, would be thrilled to own. Dating again had offered a similar quandary—it’s hard to find the right one when you have no idea what “the right one” looks like. The ubiquitous answer: you know it when you find it.

I had loved my first engagement ring, a round-cut diamond with two smaller stones on either side, and kept finding myself attracted to similar rings. But wasn’t this why I’d undergone therapy in the first place—to break the habit of seeking out the same old relationships? I forced myself to look at styles to which I’d never before been attracted—marquis and pear cuts, unusual shapes that required a matching band, estate jewelry, different kinds of stones.

While shopping for rings that spring, one exasperated chain store owner told me to come back later—much later, in July—for his setting event, when he would have at least a thousand different settings to choose from. “It’s your only hope,” he’d said, a smirk on his face. But Dave and I had planned a September wedding, and I’d been hoping to feel engaged, complete with ring, for longer than two months.

“If only you could describe the ring to me,” said another jeweler, pulling out a pile of catalogs. If only. I half-heartedly flipped through the pages. These rings looked so...flat. I knew one thing—I wouldn’t find what I wanted on paper.

In fact, I didn't find what I wanted at all until the voice of God spoke to me. More on that in the next post.

Have you ever recognized something as "right" the moment you saw it? I'd love to hear your story.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Light in the midst of darkness

Last night, for the first time, I participated in a longest night service at church—a service for those who need extra emotional support at the holidays due to a loss of one sort or another. It was lovely, and included harp solos and two songs by the Doylestown Comfort Choir, a group of women who will come sing at the bedside of people nearing the end of life's journey. They sounded like angels. When the time comes, if I could have the privilege of crossing the threshold from this world to the next ushered by their voices, I'd choose it.


For last night's service I wrote a prayer. I remember how hard it was to pray in the early weeks and months after Ron's suicide, because I couldn't find the words. If ever in my life there existed a need for prayer this was it, but I didn't know what I was asking for, or from whom. My girlhood prayers had been a bit like lists delivered while sitting on Santa's lap, and now that I was grown, and paralyzed with horror and shock, I didn't even know what I wanted.

Maybe I did: I wanted to feel less profoundly alone. I remember sitting still with my hands upturned, hoping that all those extra sense receptors along my fingertips and palms might literally feel God's presence. And while I didn't feel anything like Santa taking my hand, I did feel a golden presence fill my body. Light coursed through my veins. It was beautiful, wordless prayer and I knew I was not alone.

Now that I have reconnected with my words I hoped to share something of that with those who came to Doylestown Presbyterian Church last night. I share my prayer here for those who might need it. I began with an introduction:

Friends,
The winter solstice is wedged between a holiday in which we give thanks and a holiday in which we give gifts. But as we gather here on this longest night, many of us recognize that we don’t have a whole lot more to give. I want to assure you that you have found respite from all that giving within this sanctuary tonight. Tonight we are here to receive. Our God is glorious, our God is merciful, and our God can restore us. As we now bow our heads together, I encourage you to place your hands on your lap, palms up, to receive God’s love. Let us pray.

Heavenly father:
We gather before you, on this longest night, in a posture of surrender. Some of us feel used up. Exhausted. Broken, from the burden of loss. We pray for healing, for ourselves and for those we love.

We remember Christmases past, and how easy it was to be thankful for the gifts that came in beautifully wrapped packages—for gifts that smelled like freshly baked bread, that tasted like chocolate ice cream, that sounded like laughter, that felt like sun-warmed sand.

We’d rather not accept the challenge of gifts that arrive in less desirable wrappings—for gifts that smell like fear, that taste like defeat, that sound like trouble, that feel like loss.

Lord, restore our faith that while gifts with such wrappings are not immediately appreciated, or easy to open, you have the power to hide within them gifts of spirit that bring us closer to one another, and closer to you.

So often we have prayed to you, our hands tightly clasped, hoping that if we are grateful enough for the loving gifts in our lives, they will never be torn from our grasp. Tonight, help us to let go enough to accept the greater wisdom of your will.

Let our upturned hands feel your presence in this room. Keep us safe as we grieve our losses fearlessly, that we might honor the love we have known. Help us to leave some of our burden here at your altar, on this longest night, for we can no longer carry it alone. And as the nights grow shorter in the coming weeks, help us, with returning hope, to reach again for the warmth of the rising sun, in faith that all things come and all must go, and that this is as it should be.

We feel closer to you when we recall that your greatest gift—the gift of redemption through Jesus Christ—was ultimately wrapped in torture and sorrow. You too have suffered. Yet still, you loved. Tonight we ask so very much, yet nothing more than what you promised us through the sacrifice of your own son: we ask that you grace our upturned palms with your healing love.

In Jesus' name we pray,
Amen.

I wish you all meaningful moments of reflection this holiday season, and as much peace and love as you can handle.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What have you done with your gift today?

Every now and then, to slap myself out of complacency, I read stories with headlines like the following, that I pulled today from Google:

Dec. 4, 2010. Virginia man kills estranged wife, self.

Dec. 4, 2010. Ohio man kills estranged wife, self.

Nov. 22, 2010. Georgia man kills wife, self.

Oct. 17, 2010. North Carolina man kills wife, self.

Sept. 27, 2010. South Florida man kills wife, stepkids, self.

Aug. 13, 2010. Chicago man kills wife, self.

July 30, 2010. Hyde Park man kills wife, self.

June 12, 2010. San Francisco Bay area man kills wife, self.

And I remind myself that I'm safe. My kids are safe.

So many headlines testify to the fact that many men who feel my first husband's brand of despair take their families to the grave with them. The corporal in charge of the Special Emergency Response Team operation on the day of his standoff told me as much: once a man loses his appreciation for the sanctity of human life, he becomes a dangerous and unpredictable creature.

They don't send dozens of armed troops to your house or dispatch a helicopter from Harrisburg if you aren't in grave danger.

They don't whisk you from your home one at a time, under armed guard, reconvening the family at a remote command center, if you aren't in harm's way.

They don't make the decision to barricade roads and bar people from their homes and make the local elementary school cancel recess and afternoon bus routes on a whim.

The media doesn't swarm to your remote farm, or slap photographs and maps of it on their front pages with headlines like the above, if they don't think there's a story that impacts the community.

Our reality: The day of the standoff, Ron had ample opportunity to hurt the boys and me. Yet because he chose to kill only himself, I have to believe that he was trying to release us from his private hell and his disastrous choices. That isn’t exactly the way it turned out—the repercussions of his act extended much further into the community and further through time than I suspect he imagined—but he obviously wasn't thinking so well.

Is this an odd post for the holiday season? I don't think so.

I'm alive. My kids are alive.

There's nothing like tragedy to tip you into a posture of gratitude. At this time of year, wedged as we are between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’m thankful for the simple yet extraordinary gift of life. We take birth for granted—who doesn't? What do we know of its circumstances, at the time? But my sons and I were spared—passed over, you might say—at a time when we were aware that it could have gone down another way.

What an opportunity my sons and I were given. And I am driven, every day, to make the most of it.

If you did something special with your gift of life today, please share it!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Where is Ron?

If you've been following this blog you may recall that last week I introduced a fundamentalist Christian friend who had a few firm opinions about my plans to remarry. That wasn't the first time she'd shocked me with her outspokenness.

Soon after Ron’s death, when I was expressing fear for his soul, she told me there was no question at all as to where a suicide victim would end up. He’d gone to hell.

My first thought: It’s amazing how sweet and compassionate people can be when you are grieving. But I quickly moved beyond that.

Why? Because at least she was talking to me about it. Suicide is a difficult topic to broach. People don't want you to cry. They don't like feeling helpless. This friend, on the other hand, walked beside me—literally. We became walking partners, sharing our beliefs and philosophies and good books while traversing the hills of Berks County, beginning at 7 a.m. most mornings.

She was never less than honest. Even I had a question as to the whereabouts of my husband’s soul. Isn’t extinguishing your life a big "f@¢k you" to the Creator who bestowed it?

After much thought I have chosen to believe that God suffered along with Ron, recognized his addiction as illness, and when Ron was too weak to take one more step on this earth, met him at his collapse with arms strong enough to carry him home.

This obviously was not my fundamentalist friend's opinion.

Yet.

She changed her mind when not a year later her twenty-year-old son died of a heroin overdose (my son Marty referred to the incident in his lyrics for "Know What I Know" at a previous post). Her son's death certificate stopped short of saying “suicide,” but like me, she realized that in terms of deadly weapons potential the difference between the words “needle” and “gun” might be semantics.

She "knew" the truth espoused by her church. But try as she might, she could not envision a God who would condemn her son to hell for his actions. She knew her son was with God, in heaven, and that his pain had been relieved. She felt this in such a way that she knew it, body and soul.

She left her inflexible church for one that believes in the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That message is simple: God loves us all.

Is there life beyond our physical existence? We can’t know, for sure. My friend and I have covered a lot of ground on that one, literally and figuratively. Who ever would have thought we'd have so much in common.

This is what I do know. Heaven and hell exist right here in the physical realm, and that barring certain mental ailments, choosing one or the other is within our power. Ron and I lived on the same farm, one we both loved, yet I lived in increasing peace as he lived in increasing torment.

What about you--do you give much thought to the notions of heaven and hell?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Wedding Guest

As common as it is in our society, remarriage inspires controversy, and I appreciate the comments people have left about it after my last post. On the day of our wedding, Dave and I didn’t pretend for a moment that we stood at that altar free of the baggage that metaphorically surrounded us. It was important to us to be in that moment with as much honesty as we could muster, and that included honoring all of the life experience that brought us there.

So we wrote this poem together. Our friend Trish MacCubbin read it at our wedding in her inimitable breathy, soothing voice:

The Wedding Guest
by Kathryn Williams and Dave Craft
8/3/2000

Divorced man
and widowed woman
look back on life’s
unplanned challenges
unwelcome forces
unpredictable events
unstoppable changes
and reflect in gratitude
that God,
whose plan was greater
than their limited vision,
has brought them here today.

This powerful, silent witness
left ample room for soul struggle
cradled them in their fear
patiently received their surrender
and bestowed courage when
quaking hearts
recognized a new life
in each other.

They stand here today
imperfect humans
full of joy
humbly inviting God
to their wedding.

May God live at the heart of this marriage
and create a sacred connection.
May He carry this new family in His hands
and nourish it from the bottomless well of His perfect love.
May this couple never forget that God has
called them here today to fulfill His vision for their lives,
and may they always find peace in His presence.

After the vows we had our children get involved. We placed two bouquets of loose flowers on the front pews on either side of the aisle. As my sons' music teacher sang Steven Curtis Chapman's "Love Will Be Our Home," each of Dave's four children took a turn getting up from their seat, selecting a flower to represent him or her from the bouquet on the groom's side, and placed it in a new vase on the altar; likewise, my sons each took a flower from the bride's side to add.

By the end of the song their combined flowers had created a new arrangement. It stood on the altar, like a gift. It was moving and meaningful and few eyes were dry.

One of my sisters, however, got up and walked out.

She came to the reception later but did not come through the line to greet us. She never lifted her eyes to meet mine nor offered a word of congratulation.

An explanation for this would have to wait until Dave and I got home from the honeymoon, but since I've never been one to tolerate the "elephant in the room" for very long, I asked her about this when I returned the choker and earrings I'd borrowed from her for the wedding. Her perception: that I was trying to erase Ron from the family's memory with the flower ritual.

Metaphor is tricky that way, because everyone brings something different to it.

To her "it had only been three years" since Ron's death. To me it had been "three long, hard years" of therapy, reading, journaling, contemplation about the suicide, and continuing to address its ramifications. I grieved intensely because our survival as a family depended upon it. The life we lived every day was the one Ron no longer inhabited.

My sister's life, which never included Ron on a daily basis, gave her plenty else to think about. She was less motivated to pick up a topic as ugly as the suicide of a family member to study it deeply. So her grieving hadn't progressed at the same pace. I may have been ready to move on, but she was not ready for me to do so.

The ritual worked for the Craft-Williams clan, though. No family life is free of problems, but our new family unit—further symbolized in Dave's and my wedding rings of interwoven yellow, white, and rose gold—has never doubted our loving commitment to one another. We have prospered from it.



Monday, December 6, 2010

"Till Death Do Us Part"

I’ve thought about the above words a lot since Ron lifted them from our wedding vows and scrawled them, at a dramatic pitch, at the end of his suicide note. That act alone is an attention-getter, but in addition, his suicide note comprised the largest outpouring of feeling I’d ever received from him.

Then he disappeared from this world with a single shotgun blast, spattering the words with drops of his blood.

I still have the note. I do not have him to discuss this with. So I chase his spirit in my writing—Turn around! Talk to me! Hear me!—hoping to milk what meaning I can from his choices and actions.

With his postscript Ron was referring to the fact that despite vowing to love him until death, I had, some eight weeks earlier, begun divorce proceedings. Alcoholism had obliterated what sense of fiscal responsibility he’d had, and since he wouldn’t seek help for he drinking or our marriage or the spending, I needed to protect our children and me from any further harm in this regard.

He chose to pre-empt the divorce on his own terms—he’d wanted to live on the farm together as a family until he died. He did so.

Three years later, I was ready to make that same vow again.

A fundamentalist Christian friend voiced a strong opinion about this: Dave and I were not free to marry. You gotta love a woman who speaks her mind, you know?

According to her beliefs, I was free to marry Dave because my husband had died. Dave was not free to marry me, however, because he had divorced.

I couldn’t play that game. I knew in my heart my marriage to Ron was over and could see, in retrospect, that the difference between divorce or death in my case was only a matter of timing.

It never ceases to amaze me, since we all worship the same Creator, how differently we believers choose to draw boundaries between right and wrong. Luckily, not all Christians are as rigid as my friend. Dave and I found a pastor who believes, as we did, that God will forgive choices that result in no-win situations because God loves us, expects us to grow, and challenges us to bring good things into the world.

So I imagine Ron might be as surprised as my conservative friend to hear that I believe, as Ron did, that what God joined together, I did not have the power to put asunder. I see that as a separate issue from enacting my legal right to extricate myself, to the extent possible, from the consequences of his choices. But I remember the soul connection with the man that I loved, and even beyond his death, Ron will be with me for the rest of my life.

So I was never “free” to marry Dave. Yet I chose him.

And I guess he wanted me, ghosts and all.

More on that, in Dave's and my words, in the next post. What do you think—are we ever truly freed from our choices?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Memoir bigamy



I am married to two men. One is alive...


...and one is dead.

I married Dave three years after my first husband Ron’s death. He was pretty brave to do so. At the time I met him, a cursory look at my relationship qualifications might have gone something like this: “Over the course of 15 years she drove her husband to drink, and then when she told him she planned to leave him, he killed himself. Bonus: two disillusioned sons entering adolescence.”

That’s not an ad most men would answer.

But Dave's a special kind of guy. Early on, he told me: “I know Ron’s suicide is something you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.” Considering that’s the exact same term Dave expects to spend with me, I guess he knew what he was signing up for.

Or did he?

It’s no secret: lately I’ve been spending a lot more time with my first husband than I had ever planned to. The memoir requires that I remember what I loved about Ron, and why I wanted to start a family with him. I’m re-immersing myself in some of the most precious times of my life, none of which included Dave.

On any given morning I might have spent hours writing a scene about my life with Ron on the farm, hearing the horses whinny, smelling the manure—only to hear Dave call up to tell me it's an hour past lunch time, do I want soup? Sometimes I fall asleep beside Dave but spend the night with Ron, who visits me in dreams that I share with Dave when I wake up.

A friend of mine, in a comment after a recent post, described my memoir writing as "periodically pulling back the curtain" to share my reflections. I thought that was beautifully put. At times, though, the curtain between my two worlds is as thin as gauze, and the suddenness of such time travel can be discombobulating.

I asked Dave if the time I spend with Ron bothers him. He said that he knows I still have questions, so does he, and he encourages me to keep searching. Dave does love a good mystery. But he also admitted: “I have been jealous a few times. Especially about the dreams. I guess I wish you might dream about me every once in awhile.”

First let me just say how cute I thought that was.

But when he said that, it made me think: I believe Dave is in my life because I did dream of him. Despite all I went through with Ron, the loss of that relationship left me with a vision of marriage that I still hoped to bring into my life. And when Dave arrived, it didn’t take long for me to recognize him.

Truth is, I don’t need to dream about Dave. For the past ten years he has been my rock-solid reality. And when I need to talk with him about something, he’s always there, ready to listen and share his own feelings.

Beyond the first few years of our relationship, I’m not so sure Ron ever listened to me, although he liked to hear me talk. And he rarely shared his feelings with me.

And so, thirteen years beyond his death, I continue to chase him.

Was I even “free” to marry Dave? There are those who think not—including myself. More about that in my next post.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The List, reframed

On the 10th anniversary of his suicide I found a list Ron wrote before he died. He had tucked it inside one of my journals. For three years since I've held the mystery of that list in my consciousness. He wrote:
1. Withdraw from family life.
2. Don’t pull my own weight with Kathy and kids.
3. Ran up large CC bills, didn’t share with her.
4. Didn’t communicate with her. Didn’t listen to her, she has been worried and concerned for years.
5. Do fun things not just work.
6. Alcohol—When at home have 2–5 drinks in evening. Don’t seem to drink when not home.
Why did it take me ten years to find this list? Because I have never been the type of person who reads her own journal pages.

Now, while writing my memoir, I must. I read not only to steep myself in the facts of my life at an earlier time, but to fully appreciate the ways my journal pages functioned in my life. Now I can see:
  • the way I partnered with these pages as Ron slowly withdrew from our lives.
  • the way I steeled myself to take on his duties as well as mine in all aspects of our farm and family life.
  • the way I’d work through my fears about our financial jeopardy as the clues slowly emerged.
  • the way I'd air my feelings because for years the pages were the only place I would be heard.
  • the way I’d fantasize about travel or doing something fun outside the demanding routine of our everyday lives.
  • the way my fears about Ron’s decline slowly added up to a conscious concern about alcoholism.

Hmm. Look at those two lists. Remarkably similar, aren’t they.

It occurs to me now that just three weeks before the suicide, when I returned from a weekend away, Ron admitted to having read all my journals. This shocked me. Not because I feared his awareness of their content; I'd been trying to share these thoughts and feelings with him for years. No, it shocked me because in our fifteen years together I only remember him reading one slim volume, while on vacation in North Carolina—Master Electrician—and my journaling at the time had spilled into more than a dozen spiral-bound notebooks.

Unfortunately, his newfound curiosity about me arrived too late.

I remember asking him what he found in those notebooks. He answered: “Hope.”

You may recall from my last post that ten years later, I too found hope in reading Ron’s list, for in awareness lies the seeds of wisdom. I thought the list was a gift from Ron showing that he was aware of the problems in our marriage. Tucked as it was inside the pocket of one of my personal journals, that list felt like an apology. That he wrote it at all made it seem like an action plan.

I'm sharing this story here because it reveals so much about memoir writing. The digging for clues. The surprises.

And the huge potential for erroneous conclusions based on point of view.

My recent re-examination of the facts leads me to a new conclusion, one you may already have come to: Ron wasn't devising an apology he hoped might reach me across time any more than he was he drafting an action plan. He was taking notes. He cribbed that list from my journal entries. Parroting, not understanding.

And within this new awareness lies an important clue as to why I have thrived in a way Ron could not.

It is my nature, not his, to analyze until I identify problems. It is my nature, not his, to seek answers. It is I, not Ron, who believes that the seeds of wisdom take root in awareness. I misunderstood that list for so many years because it is my nature to not only look for gifts from the universe, but to expect them.

I see myself as a small character in a grand, epic story, yet I don’t use that as an excuse to accept my insignificance; on the contrary, I see this as an opportunity to create a ripple effect. I have embraced the opportunity to co-author, with the help of God, the development of my own character.

I am a believer.

I think Ron was, too, but in a much different way, and it was the source of his undoing.

I fear his belief system was so small that when he began to sink it couldn’t possibly continue to hold him up. The commandments he internalized could not save his soul. Written on a yellow slip of paper, they were gleaned from a much more personal bible, and they fed perfectly into the cycle of self-condemnation caused by his alcoholic depression.

By the time his life imploded I fear Ron only believed in one thing.

Me.

Heaven help his tortured soul.

[Later that day, after writing this post, I heard a nun say on Oprah, "If we don't believe in anything larger than ourselves, we'll never do anything larger than ourselves." Coincidence?]

Monday, November 22, 2010

The List

October 20, 2007: The 10th anniversary of Ron’s suicide, and because the boys are both off to college, the first anniversary I won’t see either of them. Yet the date seems significant, so I decide to drive up to the cemetery and spend some time alone with Ron.

I take my folding chair from the car, the one I’ve taken to countless soccer games over the years. I'm more thankful than ever to be setting it up, once again, on the sidelines. I try to remember if I bought this chair before or after his death. This is how I divide the timeline of my life now—before, and after—but the division is getting as frayed as the edges of this chair.

I sit down and flip through my 1997 journal, the one I was writing in at the time of his death. I am finally considering writing a memoir, but first I want to steep myself in the details of my life at the time. Some entries make me laugh, some bring instant tears.

I pull out papers stuck into the notebook’s front pocket and leaf through them. Among them are copies of letters the boys wrote to Ron. Tears again, they are so touching—I decide to ask them if I could use them in the memoir. We’d read the originals aloud nine years ago, and burned them right here on his grave.

I find a few printouts: an e-mail I’d sent to my friend Ellen on Valentine’s Day—the date stamp says it was eight months before Ron’s death—in which I admitted the sad truth that I could no longer connect to any romantic feelings for my husband. A “Virtual Flower Bouquet” Ellen sent to cheer me, just five days before Ron’s suicide, that says, “Don’t ever doubt that it’s right to believe in love, in yourself, and in the possibilities.” Another e-mail from Ellen written five days after his suicide, that begins, “I’m sitting here trying to imagine how it will feel for you—returning to your office, where although everything remains the same, somehow everything will undoubtedly feel different."

Everything gains new meaning through the lens of hindsight.

Then I find something that proves that even from beyond the grave Ron has the power to shock me: tucked into that same pocket, among the other papers, is a list. I haven’t seen that handwriting for ten years but I immediately know it to be Ron’s. Not the quick scrawl I’d find on a note left on the counter—“Animals all fed,” I’d eventually decipher—but the quirky mix of cursive and printing he’d use when attempting legibility.

I do not recognize this list. I don’t know how it ended up in my journal. But it feels like a gift.

It reads:
1. Withdraw from family life.
2. Don’t pull my own weight with Kathy and kids.
3. Ran up large CC bills, didn’t share with her.
4. Didn’t communicate with her. Didn’t listen to her, she has been worried and concerned for years.
5. Do fun things not just work.
6. Alcohol—When at home have 2–5 drinks in evening. Don’t seem to drink when not home.
By the end of his life I did not believe Ron self-aware enough to make this kind of list. Yet of one thing I was sure: the last person to touch this piece of paper had been my husband. And as I sit here at his grave I feel he is reaching out to me across the years to tell me he was more aware than I thought.

The list leaves me madly resorting facts and suppositions. Had I found this list before his death I would have seen in it a glimmer of hope: If you can identify problems, you can search for solutions.

I guess this isn’t true of everyone.

More about this mysterious list in my next post.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Boys, Harry Potter & Me

In honor of tomorrow's release of the film that represents the first half of the last book in the Harry Potter series, I thought I'd post this essay, formerly online at Central PA Magazine. It marked the first time I'd written publicly about Ron's suicide. My sister Nancy read it and said, "That sounds like the beginning of a memoir." Thanks, Nance.


It was the summer of 1998, and we'd heard the buzz: Harry Potter was coming. It had been only months since my first husband's suicide, and my boys and I were slogging our way through grief work so thick it choked our vision of the future. Looking out across the next ten years overwhelmed me: Jackson was 10, Marty only 8. But pick up Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone and read it to them? That was something I could do.

In a house now much emptier, reading aloud provided an excuse to sit with my sons pressed against me, one on each side, for the hours it would take to work our way through the book. As a bonus, we'd immerse ourselves in a world of witches and wizards whose conflicts were so different than ours.

We soon found out, of course, that they weren't. After Harry discovers that his awkward differences were really the source of an unrealized power, he studies wizardry so he might vanquish the evil that caused the early loss of his parents. The boys and I desperately needed to know that, with the help of his friends, Harry could overcome this loss and triumph in the end.

With one son looking at the book over each of my elbows—and then eventually, each of my shoulders—my boys grew up alongside Harry and his friends, whose Hogwarts hijinks provided a timeline for our own memories. In the beginning, my mind absorbed by weightier concerns, we strained to finish one chapter at a sitting. By book three, the more intricately plotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we could no longer limit ourselves to our daily ration. One school night we undertook a sixty-page sprint to the finish line. Approaching midnight, huddled together beneath the covers in my queen-sized bed, my boys and I prayed for the snow day the weatherman had anticipated. The next morning we awoke bleary-eyed, relieved that our prayer had been answered.

There was the year the boys couldn't switch sides periodically, as was their custom to avoid cricks in their necks, because Marty had broken his arm and had to prop it up on pillows with an ice pack [picture]. There was the year we read while vacationing in northern New York, where thanks to the heat and humidity I kept falling asleep while reading. We ended up taking three chairs down to the beach and setting them in the spring-fed lake. The cool water on my feet helped keep me awake—and when I would start to yawn, I'd simply dip down into the water to splash my face.

By the time we read Order of the Phoenix, I had married again. Dave, an early riser, would end our late night reads by kicking us off the bed so he could sleep. There was the year reading Half-Blood Prince when, due to my own study of fiction writing craft, I couldn't get through the sing-song rhythm of Rowling's adverb-studded dialogue attribution and kept giggling. Marty would elbow me in the ribs and tell me to cut it out, I was ruining the story. We loved the introduction of Dobby, the house elf, who I loved all the more for Jackson's falsetto rendition of his dialogue.

Is it like that with everyone who has read the Harry Potter series as a family? Sometimes I can believe Rowling wrote the series just for us. As with each of the books, the last in the series began its tale just before Harry's July 31 birthday, which Marty (and J.K. Rowling) shares. In the last book, released this summer, Harry had quit school to undertake his ultimate quest; Marty had just finished high school and would soon head off to college. Everything felt right: this summer we would see Harry through to his final chapter, together.

Due to conflicting work schedules, however, the boys and I had limited access to one another. We read a chapter whenever we could steal an hour, reassured we would have a stretch of time together at the lake to finish up before Jackson returned to college. As August reeled past I felt a growing sense of urgency: just as I have always sensed the possibility that stepping on cracks might break my mother's back, I felt a karmic relationship between my boys' fates and that of Harry Potter. Like Mrs. Weasley, I had adopted Harry as one of my own. I needed to see him through his trying adolescence, and I needed my sons to see it, too. And we needed to do so before September first: that symbol of summer's end, the date the Hogwarts Express whisks away its new charge of students, just as mine would be whisked from me. September first was also, by the way, Jackson's twentieth birthday.

We had a lot of reading ahead of us. By the time we left for the lake the book was still much thicker in my right hand than in my left. Then, the blow: Marty, still in the throes of post-graduation hoopla, decided not to come to the lake for the whole week. He would drive separately and join us in a couple of days.

Our time potential withered.

It was silly, my need to do this. Impossible, really; we would have only two days with more than 380 pages to go. But I am no stranger to undertaking projects that become much larger than I first anticipate—say, the decision to read aloud what would end up being, over the series of seven books, 4,100 pages. Or writing sixteen drafts of two novels. Or raising two sons after their father killed himself. Just tell me I can't do it.

With only two days, we mounted our broomsticks and flew across the magical countryside of Rowling's imagination, reaching for closure, that elusive snitch that brings peace. We laughed, we cried, and we headed into final battle with He Who Must Not be Named. We took breaks only when the bodies now pressed beside mine—when had they become men?—caused hot flashes that required my stepping away for a spell.

But that second day, we finished the book in time to cook dinner, take the boat out of the water, and winterize its motor by daylight.

Harry had J.K. Rowling to guide him through a plot line rife with conflict; the boys have had me. After their father's death, I watched Jackson and Marty run the gauntlet of adolescence, a ten-year race that is at once marathon and sprint, and no easier to understand than the game of Quidditch. They are now young adults, and ready to author their own lives.

Of course the name J.K. Rowling will go down in publishing history, but her story of a young boy persevering against all odds has contributed in a quieter way to the salvation of my family. It brought us through a tough time by dangling a promise that is as true for me as it is for my sons: Growing up is hard, but you aren't alone in your fear of it. Make of your life a good story, and share it with those you love. It will be a story full of pain and conflict, yes, but the sharing of it will hold all the magic you could wish for.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Random act of... culture

The theme of this blog is healing through writing, but for my sons and me, a whole lot of healing has gone on through other arts as well.

Ron didn’t have that.

He wasn't able to communicate with me about the kind of pain he was in. If he could, I think my family's story would have gone a different way. The right words could have created a bridge so he wouldn't have felt so profoundly alone. Perhaps addiction ate away at Ron’s bridges. Perhaps his bridges were never properly constructed in the first place.

Those of us left behind will never know, really. We can only look back and hunt for clues. This is what I do know: the arts have an amazing way of creating community, and community helps us understand our innate connection. We are all part of something greater than ourselves.

Let me set the stage, and then I’ll show you how that can work.

October 30, 2010: The grand court at Macy’s in downtown Philadelphia, during one of the daily 45-minute organ recitals. The music is routine but exceptional: this isn’t just any organ.

Set up on the second floor balcony and open to the court, the Wanamaker Organ is the largest operational organ in the world, with 6 manuals (keyboards), some 370 stops, and over 30,000 sounding pipes. Below it, people mull around, shopping. Among them are hundreds of “plants,” many of whom are from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The rest are vocalists from clubs, colleges, high schools, churches, and professional choirs.

One of them is my son Jackson, who lost his father to suicide at the age of ten but who, in a school essay six years later, would write, “I want the world to be different when I’m gone, better somehow.”

And that’s but one small backstory from among 650 performers (what are their stories?) who will connect with a throng of shoppers—and already more than one million You Tube visitors—through one of the most glorious songs of praise ever composed.

Think of that as you watch this video. You are about to witness a random act of culture!





Haven’t gotten enough? Me neither. In honor of my love for dance, musical theater, and joyous public spectacle, I’ll include this one too. It was filmed last year in Antwerp, Belgium, but the language is timeless and universal.





Thanks for reading, for watching, and for being part of my community.

Note: To protect your privacy, enhanced settings will prevent You Tube from storing personally-identifiable cookie information from the playback of these videos.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Finding Meaning in Tragedy

Ron would not live to see our first-born son, Jackson, reach 9th grade. That's when Jackson came home from school to tell me the news that would change the course of his life.

Weeks earlier Jackson’s junior high choir director had urged him to try out for county choir. Hundreds and hundreds of students from Berks County had auditioned; only one hundred would be chosen. The results were in.

Jackson leaned against the kitchen counter with his hands in his pockets, a posture I’d come to recognize as his casual way of breaking big news.

“Did you make it?” I said.

“Well, keep in mind that this was my first time auditioning. I think I did okay, you know, considering.”

“Well?”

“I’m first chair in Bass II.”

With those words, everything shifted. Jackson's other interests dropped away as music usurped his every waking moment. We signed him up for private voice lessons with Tammy Black. The rest of his high school career was studded with accomplishments including multiple appearances with county through state choirs, performances with every vocal group and orchestra at school, a European tour of six countries with Sound Of America Honor Band and Chorus, and parts in school and regional theater musicals.

Instead of high school gym, which would have interfered with his full load of advance placement and music electives, Jackson got a waiver to sub in aquatic exercise at the YMCA, for which he got up at 6 a.m. three days per week. Instead of a high school graduation party, Ron's little slacker opted to learn a challenging hour of music in several languages so he could perform a solo voice recital for his family and friends, followed by a reception.

In classical vocal performance Jackson found his calling. He is now a 23-year-old graduate of Westminster Choir College and a member of the chorus of the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

One could say he was driven to make the most of every opportunity that came his way.

In earlier posts I shared the way my younger son Marty has expressed feelings about his father’s suicide through his life choices and songwriting. Now, it’s Jackson’s turn.

His words are from a 10th grade English essay. Jane Stahl, Jackson’s teacher at Boyertown Area High School, put together an annual spiral-bound compilation, After the Rain, Rainbows: Surviving to Live, Thriving to Grow, that she would distribute to disadvantaged and abused children as a ray of hope. In her note to the reader she wrote that her students “are better people because they’ve suffered, and they know it.” What an amazing sentiment, and a very meaningful project.

The contributors wrote of displacement, health obstacles, sports challenges, tragic accidents, the death of loved ones, alcoholism. The essays are riveting: in directly addressing that which was difficult and life changing, these students accessed impressive inner wisdom.

Jackson wrote about his father’s self-destruction in the following essay, "Finding Meaning Through Tragedy":
“Son,” she said, “It’s about as bad as it can get. Your daddy’s dead.” Needless to say, I was not prepared for this news. At the time I was only ten years old. My father, an alcoholic, had locked himself in his woodworking shop all day threatening suicide. My brother and I stayed at our neighbor’s house while this was taking place. The police had taken my mom to the fire station for protection. I didn’t seriously consider that he might kill himself; I just thought that tonight it would all be over and tomorrow would be just a normal day. I was wrong.
Over the next few days, I lived at my grandmother’s house. I didn’t go back to school yet. I didn’t feel ready. After that the days turned to months, which turned to years. These years felt almost normal compared to my life before.
Looking back on those times, I realized that I never really showed much emotion, I cried when I found out, but that was all. This lack of feeling made me feel like a horrible person, like I was forgetting about what happened, but that is not the case. He was never really there for me. He worked almost all day long, and nobody ever got to see him. Even when he was home, he was always working on something. He was always very distant. After his death, things were almost the same.
This realization struck me. I don’t want to be remembered that way. I don’t want to be someone who was never there. I want the world to be different when I’m gone, better somehow. I want to be someone people could go to with problems, someone who could help. That’s how I want to live my life. That’s what I want.
Too many people in the world today are content to see life pass them by. They are afraid to make a difference in other people’s lives. I don’t want to be that kind of person. If everyone would just try to help other people instead of satisfying their own selfish interests, then the world will be a much better place.
In my next post: a most amazing performance.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Moments before the standoff

October 20, 1997, 8 a.m. Ron drove up the driveway and when he got out of the car he was obviously drunk. Eight-year-old Marty ran out to the car; I followed. Marty was a linear thinker: if his father drove drunk he might kill himself, therefore he had to get those keys away.

Jackson stood on the porch, frozen in indecision. A more conceptual thinker, he took in the picture before him: Just as it was time to head down to catch the morning school bus, his family life had devolved into a brawl with a drunken father. Two years older than Marty, and already a martial artist trained to avoid the fight at all costs, he wasn’t so sure that adding into the fracas was the best choice.

Ron, Marty and I stood beside the car’s open door with our hands balled around the keys, locked in a war of wills, when Jackson called to me.

“Mom, what should I do?”

“Call 9-1-1,” I said. Inside the car I could see an ice chest, large bottles of whiskey and sweet vermouth, strewn cigarette packs—and leaning against the front seat, a shotgun. I knew what it was for; Ron had already threatened suicide once. “Tell them you need help and that your father is trying to drive drunk. He has a gun.”

Jackson disappeared into the house.

My point here isn't to tell the story of the standoff, what led up to it, or how the boys and I forged ahead once Ron was dead. That's the purpose of my memoir. Here I simply want to set up Jackson's role: it was a ten-year-old boy who turned a domestic dispute into a full-day standoff at our farm. Because Jackson carried out his task perfectly, the help we needed arrived in full, mightily armed force.

The police safely removed us from the property, avoiding what might have been a more grievous disaster—once a man has lost belief in the sanctity of his life, the police would later tell us, he is capable of killing anyone.

Suicide will challenge anyone’s innate optimism. In the early months after the suicide I worried if the boys would ever recover from this. Then, as we slowly regained our equilibrium, I wondered if somehow, with time, Jackson and Marty might make a positive contribution to the world because of this experience. They were both bright kids. Maybe one day one of them might discover a cure for depression, or alcoholism.

Okay, I was projecting—the interest in medicine is my thing. They would each find their own paths.

By the time of the suicide Jackson already showed signs of becoming a performing artist. By the age of four he had memorized all the songs on his Raffi tapes and would sing them while strumming a pink-and-cream plastic guitar—when I threw Ron a surprise party one year Jackson wouldn’t go to bed until he’d performed for Ron’s friends: “Baby Beluga,” “Down By the Bay,” “The More We Get Together.”

While Marty earned his father’s admiration for dutifully contributing to family projects like our 20-hour autumn leaf-raking extravaganza (sound fun, right?), Jackson’s attention would skitter away like a dry leaf and he’d soon head back inside to write an illustrated book about geology or a Star Trek script.

Ron feared Jackson was a slacker, which pained me. Jackson was just a different kind of worker—a self-directed creative—and as such worked harder than most kids his age. We'd signed him up for Tae Kwon Do because by first grade he'd taught himself how to do a cartwheel by watching the Power Rangers on television; by the age of ten he was already a deputy black belt. He began violin in third grade, and constantly drew pictures and read books in his spare time.

Ron would not live to see the day in ninth grade when Jackson came home from school and told me the news that would change the course of his life.

More about that, and some writing from Jackson, in the next post.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Healing Through Songwriting


I am not the only one in our family who has found healing through writing after Ron’s suicide. In my last post I wrote about how my son Marty got involved in a Straight Edge hardcore band, for which he has been writing lyrics.

In an online interview at the "Where it Ends" blog, Marty, 21, explains why he wrote this song:

“We had just played [a show], and it was in a Polish Club with a downstairs bar. [This girl] was clearly pretty drunk and was talking to a friend of mine. He said something about us being an edge band and she laughed about [that] and said it was dumb. So I wrote a song about why it isn't dumb to me. I've seen drugs and alcohol do a lot of fucked up shit and I don't want that happening to me.”

Know What I Know
by Marty Williams

You think that straight edge is a joke
That’s what you said last we spoke
I hope you heed the words I said
If you don’t, soon you could be dead

If you only knew the things that I knew
If you could only see the things that I’ve seen
You’d know how drug abuse is wrong
And how my edge has become so strong

The boy down the street with everything in the world
Never would have guessed how his life has unfurled
Found by his family dead in his room,
Heroin introducing him to his tomb

A disgruntled neighbor didn’t like what his life had become
Tried to drown it away in a bottle of rum
That didn’t work, he wrote a suicide note
Then put a bullet in his fucking throat

If you only knew the things that I knew you’d be straight edge too,
And you’d understand why I’ll always stay true

Marty didn’t reference his father in this song. He refers to other events in our neighborhood: seven months after Ron’s death his friend's twenty-year-old brother was found dead from a heroin overdose. The sad irony is that his fundamentalist Christian parents had home-schooled him to keep him away from such influences; later, from his journal, the parents learned the boy had first used cocaine in the basement of a friend’s home while his family was playing a wholesome game of volleyball at a picnic outside. Marty also mentions our neighbor, who in a freakish juxtaposition with the anniversary of Ron's death two years and two days later, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the house next door.

So Marty saw messages all around: Pay attention here. Death was no longer a distant concept; it was an imminent danger. He covered the topic of his own father’s self-destruction in an earlier song, whose title bears Ron’s initials.

RJW
by Marty Williams

At 8 years old my eyes were opened up wide.
My father said he loved me and I knew that he lied.

The only love he had was for the bottle.
Got home from work and drank alone

Passed out, slept till three
An alcoholic was all he'd ever be

Cut off from the world sinking into depression.
Blew out his brains to escape this world's oppression.

Suicide's not a way out. It's a way to show you're not a man.

I'll never be you
That's why I have this X on my hand


Lyrics copyright 2009-2010 by Marty Williams. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Take a stand—if you DARE

In response to his father’s drinking, my son Marty embraced a Straight Edge lifestyle. Straight Edge is a subculture of hardcore punk music that embraces the philosophy of staying clean and sober, and often extends to eschewing sexual promiscuity. It is often represented by the symbol “XXX,” which signifies no drinking, no drug use, and no smoking. Throughout high school and college Marty has been a bass guitar player in several Edge bands and is now the vocalist for the band Agitator. (One uses the word “vocalist” because hardcore is more screamed than sung.)

In between school and work obligations, Marty and his bandmates have a blast touring the country in a cheap van, sleeping either on the floors of their concert sponsors or in the van in a Wal-Mart parking lot, to perform for small but passionate crowds in basements and churches and record stores. Their upcoming December tour will cover so many miles that Marty pointed out that in the middle of it they’ll need to get an oil change for the van.

By touring Agitator has gotten quite a following, and even when they perform in towns in distant states they find people in the audience who know the lyrics. Just click on this link if you want to understand what a feat that is, because Glee this is not. You can see in the video the way Marty displays the black X on the back of each hand, and further announces his lifestyle choice with his tee-shirt.

What else you will see in this video, if you dare to open it: raw rage and confrontation. I have posted it on Halloween for a reason. It’s scary. Yet even in this I find hope.

Marty was daddy’s little helper, just eight years old on the day of the standoff that ended in Ron’s suicide. At that young age, with only a few sessions of D.A.R.E. (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) under his belt, Marty was already made of such moral fiber that when he realized his father was drunk he raced from the house to help me physically battle Ron for his car keys. He already knew that drinkers shouldn’t be drivers, and bore the pinch marks and scratches of that rectitude for several weeks after Ron’s death.

Children look to their parents for the unconditional love and support that allows them a safe place to form their own definition of self. Marty’s father cut out on him that day, physically and emotionally and completely, and I can’t imagine the rage that might cause a young man who is already hormonally predisposed to fight.

And I don’t have to. Thanks to his songwriting and hardcore performances, I can see and hear it. Marty doesn't keep that darkness bottled up inside, where it could gain control of his actions, hurting others and destroying self. In hardcore Marty has a way to express himself that allows those dark feelings full expression, and in a way that other young people can relate to. Funneling rage into one’s art isn’t necessarily healing in and of itself, but at least it’s an honest first step.

I know from my own experience that anger is a necessary part of the healing process, because it is only in identifying what boundaries were violated that we can truly forgive. We need to forgive for the health of our own souls and I hope that both of my sons are heading in that direction.

In my next post, Marty will share his decision to embrace Straight Edge in his own words: he’s allowed me to post the lyrics to one of his songs.

Happy Halloween, everybody. If he had lived, today Ron would have turned 68, and seen the amazing young men his sons have become.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Zero Tolerance

“More than a decade later, the sound waves from that one shotgun blast continue to ripple through time.”
~from my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place

It stands to reason that Ron’s suicide continues to have ramifications in our lives. Perhaps one of the most obvious and immediate influences it had was on my policy concerning teen alcohol use.

I said to my sons: “If either of you comes home smelling of alcohol before you graduate from high school, you are not taking what happened to your father seriously enough. If I smell booze on you once you are going into 30-day inpatient rehab, no questions asked.”

Sound extreme? Good. I was feeling extreme. Was it even fair? Probably not—I went to beer parties when I was in high school. At one, the driver of the car I arrived in got so drunk that her wild dancing sent one of her wooden clogs flying from her foot through the side of a big expensive fish tank. Kegger over. The house emptied as quickly as the tank. Fish flowed helplessly from from it to flop around on the soaked family room carpet. This same girl drove us home, pulling over to the side of the road once so she could throw up.

Problem was, we suffered no adverse consequences besides the basic confusion that we called this “fun” when it made us feel ashamed and sick. We got home without a car accident. We got away with sneaking into our houses past our curfews. We lived to drink underage again. As a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the past twenty years, I cringe at that thought of what might have happened. But it didn’t.

Now that I was a mother I had to act on the best possible information. That included a slew of drinking and driving statistics from MADD and other sources. And thanks to the events of the final eight weeks of his life we now had the information that Ron had an incredible tolerance for alcohol. He could drink as many as a dozen shots of whiskey in an evening—enough to put most of us into life-threatening alcohol poisoning—before becoming visibly drunk. At the time my kids were teens, research suggested this to be an inheritable trait. And until science reversed itself on this issue, or until my sons were mature enough to make a responsible and legal decision, I didn’t want them messing with liquid fire. They would not become addicts on my watch.

My sons got through high school without me having to invoke my zero tolerance policy. My first-born may have stories to tell me about that some day, who knows.

But not Marty. He was developing a zero tolerance policy of his own.

More on that in my next post, set for Ron’s birthday: Halloween. Some will find its content frightening.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Memoira Interruptus

As reflected in my spotty writing at this blog, I interrupted work on my memoir this past year and opted to funnel my writing in other directions.

These are the reasons I wish I could give you for turning my back on the examination of my own life:
  1. I finally got life all figured out.
  2. Because I moved from the farm I never thought about Ron, or what happened there, again.
  3. Life in Doylestown has been a non-stop string of welcome parades, tea parties with the rich and famous, and HGTV interviews.
  4. Against all economic odds, my editing business took off at such a rate I'm still adjusting to the G forces.
  5. Oprah called me and said that despite the fact my novels haven't yet been published, she read my mind, loved my ideas, and booked me for her show...and the rest is history.
Okay, okay, by number 5 I know you realized the entire list is fantasy. I'm still clueless; while at the lake this year I truly missed Ron for the first time; my life in Doylestown has felt like a constant string of attendance at book signings—for my friends' books; my editing business was as affected by the economy as the next person's, leaving plenty of time for writing; and I've continued to market my novel because I know darned well you can't possibly get published if you leave your book in the closet.

So what did cause me to abandon the memoir project, especially after going so far as type all the notes into a computer document and play with several different versions of its structure?

Surface reasons: I didn't want to expose others while sharing my truth. I didn't know the best way to structure the story. Agents told me the story would be easier to sell if I novelized it, because I could make it better. This last split into further problems: a) Life is life, and since I'm not God I can't really figure out how to improve on it and still suss out its truth; and b) I haven't found a novel all that easy to sell so I don't know what the hell they're talking about.

A deeper reason: That constant voice in my head, saying, Why do you think anyone wants to read about you? What can I say? Maybe I used up all my courage in the aftermath of the suicide: the voice won out.

The activities I engaged in instead may have been diversions, but they still required risk and perseverance: I continued fine-tuning and marketing my novel and renamed it yet again. I got situated in my new community and started a new writing group. After a particularly vivid dream suggested a viable story arc I began a young adult novel. I supported the goals of my fellow writers by chairing one writers conference, for which I maintained a biweekly blog, and contributed time to the smooth running of another. I consider all of that meaningful work. My point is I made different choices—choices that didn't seem relevant to the theme of this blog.

Writing about it now, I wonder if there might have been one more factor putting off the memoir. Did you see that little clause up in the third paragraph: "while at the lake this year I truly missed Ron for the first time"? It sure caught my attention. To avoid miring my memoir with angry rant, I required the distance of time and perspective. Maybe I just wasn't ready yet.

Now, ready or not, here I come. When I showed up to restart this blog in my last post I asked if the universe was listening. It was an answer more than a question: the universe asked the question of me first. In my next post, I'll share the incident that ended my waffling and returned me to the task of writing my memoir in earnest.

Instant clarity

In my last post I promised to share the reason why I returned to my memoir project.

On August 30 I was up at our lake house, typing away on a young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old boy who seems to be the only one who sees something in his grandfather's odd behavior beyond a neon sign flashing "Alzheimer's", and is willing to bust him out of a locked memory ward to find the answers.

*Ding*: I had mail.

The note was from Deirdre, Ron's first wife. Deirdre and I became pen pals for one extraordinary reason: in the early months after Ron's suicide, she reached out to the widow and young children left behind by the husband she had quit so long ago. In one amazing handwritten letter after another, Deirdre offered me the one thing I couldn't possibly conjure for myself: context. To all appearances, Ron's suicide was in direct answer to my intention to divorce him, and to that notion Deirdre's precious gift of backstory created an emergency roadblock: as I moved forward, any access to the path of guilt would be denied.

The reason for Deirdre's August 30th e-mail: after a full year of symptoms, she had been diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The one and only time I met Deirdre face-to-face, several years ago (an event memorialized in the photo, above—Deirdre is on the right), it seemed that I was the one with the big life challenges. She had a happy late-life marriage and a touch of sciatica. Then BAM. It doesn't get a whole lot more challenging than ALS. Like any story with an epic cast, life is a continual compounding of scenes in which our roles are always changing.

Because of my experience with Ron I wasted only a few minutes dispensing the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. Instead I focused on the parameters of our relationship: she lived in South Carolina, I lived in Pennsylvania, and our time was limited. How could I best use that time to honor what she'd meant to me?

And I thought, what if it were me? What if I had drawn the ALS card, and only had a limited amount of time to keep writing? Would I keep working on this YA novel I enjoyed, that would have some emotional resonance and that I might even be able to sell, or would I write the memoir that will surely help me construct context and meaning from the chaotic events of my life?

I returned to the memoir the next day and have not allowed that voice that insists on second-guessing me to again gain purchase.

Here's why: whether other readers will be interested in my life or not is no longer my concern. Deirdre is my audience. My audience of one. In my return e-mail, I told her as much.

She wrote back:
You are such a funny bunny. You want "desperately to do something meaningful" while you are here on this earth and you have, my dear, you have. Think of those lovely boys/men you raised in the midst of a murky, twisted marriage with an emotionally stunted person. I could never have done that, never!
If Deirdre only knew how much she had to do with that. Her letters freed up energy I might have spent beating myself up so that I might best help my sons get through the ordeal of the suicide's aftermath.

I mean to tell her. As a way of honoring the huge gift she gave me 13 years ago, with that series of letters she has given me permission to reproduce, I am writing that memoir.

And since she's on a deadline, so am I.

One more thing. While Deirdre and I are both big readers, I learned from her bookshelves that time we met that our tastes are are quite different: I am an omnivorous reader, Deirdre is not.

She likes the truth, hard up and artfully expressed.

The only genre she reads is memoir.

Revivification

Hello blank page, I'm back. (Is the universe listening?)

Nothing like reviving one's blog with one of those words that's so long you must pull it apart syllable by syllable to figure out it's meaning, right? Re-vi-vi-fi-ca-tion. Welcome to my world, for that's what a writer does to breathe new life into her work: pulls apart words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes, constantly questioning their components for meaningful expression and relevant inclusion.

As my temporarily abandoned readers already know, I have used this blog to explore the way writing helps us address issues of healing. Life questions that got me journaling instigated that journey for me some eighteen years ago; my first husband's suicide spurred it on.

The 13th anniversary of Ron's suicide was yesterday. Because Dave and I moved to Doylestown last December, this is the first anniversary of Ron's death I did not spend on the farm where he killed himself after a day-long police standoff. I thought I'd commemorate the anniversary by powering up this blog again.

Truth be told, I've missed writing about my life. A memoirist uses perspective like a sieve: you drop in the events of your life, shake them around, and allow the drab to fall through so that you might more closely examine the bits that glitter with meaning. I'll show you what I mean by applying that same process to my blog.

Sifting back through my last several posts, I saw some sparkle of meaning beyond that which I purposefully applied to the page.

Sunday, March 22: Blessed detachment
Monday, March 30: Scene and Sequel
These two posts exemplify the yin and yang of my writer's life. Networking/holing up, crafting/learning, reflecting/living, dreaming/enacting, producing/marketing, responsibility to others/responsibility to self: these sets of dueling needs are a fertile source of conflict in the life of the writer who's in it for the whole wild ride. Just when I've figured out how to tame my schedule to encourage that elusive notion of consistency, one of these duels heats up to wreak havoc. Turns out we are all characters in an unpredictable story. Hallelujah!

Saturday, June 6: While I was underground
Writer or not, if you plan to live fully, you must play the game in a ready stance—you know, like in tennis: knees bent, weight over the balls of the feet, racket at the ready, eyes scanning the horizon for opportunity and peril, weight shifting back and forth to propel you in the direction of the next shot. You gotta try. But watch: it's often when you're fully committed to your forehand that you'll feel the ball zing past your backhand side. This feels unfair—I was ready!—but such reversals are a necessary part of a great story.

Saturday, September 19: What he left behind
Our legacies will define us for future generations. Ron left a legacy of shock and horror. If I choose to write it, my memoir can leave a legacy of perspective and hope. The written word trumps the echo of trauma, paper over rock. For me this post also exemplifies the energy required to boost myself beyond the forces that could have kept me in orbit around a traumatic event. In terms of personal growth, that is rocket science.

Monday, September 28: The illusion of control
Healing is not "getting a grip": it's the opposite. Healing, for me, has been reassembling that flexible ready stance I mentioned above, body part by body part, and regaining the heart to face whatever comes at me next.

Tragedy need not define my life. My role as dance critic defined my relationship with a larger community even as the foundation of Ron's life crumbled beneath him—on the very day of the suicide standoff, for example, my editor at The Morning Call was awaiting a story I was writing on choreographer David Parsons in conjunction with his upcoming performance at Lehigh University.

Saturday, July 10: My lemon crosses America
The blog posts and essays and book-length material that comprise my memoir work, with its theme of how to carry on in the face of tragedy, is as serious as it gets—yet to become whole again one must honor one's whimsical side. Her move across the country was very stressful for my sister, but documenting the lemon's journey was a running gag that afforded much in the way of healing laughter. I can even find meaning in the choice of a lemon to exemplify my sister's journey: its sour taste doesn't mean it isn't good for you.

Forehand or backhand, ready or not, meaning whizzes past us every day. Writing about my life allows me to capture it on the page so I can mine the little stories for the big over-arching story. Finding the structure in that bigger story is in itself healing; what once seemed random is now architecture.

Please check back often, as I hope to update this blog three times per week. In my next post I'll explore why I temporarily stopped writing about my life.