Friday, June 23, 2017

The club you don't want anyone to join

The finish line!
Shortly before dawn last Sunday morning, I finished my fourth Out of the Darkness Overnight walk.

Some of you have loved and supported me through nearly losing my dad in 2007, and his death in 2009. You've been with me through my first, second, and third Overnight walks.

The back of the shirt says, "I'll be up all night for" and then you fill in the space below.

Before last weekend, of course I was acutely aware of who I'd lost, and the importance, in my mind, of keeping this from happening to others. But I wasn't focused on the simplicity and gravity of walking dusk to dawn in memory of someone.

It is hard both emotionally and physically. I always cry at the opening ceremony, where people share experiences and talk about who they are honoring with their walk.

Second Lieutenant USAF, Travis Michael Jordan
This spring I asked my cousin Mike and his wife if I could dedicate my walk to their first-born son, Travis, who passed away on May 5, 2016. I felt so humble asking, because it struck me what a tremendous privilege that it is to walk in someone's honor.

My father was mine, as was my uncle, who left no one but us behind. I tell you that my uncle believed he was alone in the world, and his funeral was standing room only.

But I never had to ask anyone about them. And I didn't contemplate the gravity of it.

This year, I also offered for people to give me a name to put on my shirt. If you wanted to add a loved one--or, in some cases, more--I would be honored to carry them with me all through the night, on my shirt and in my heart.

(In previous years, I wrote names on pieces of beautiful paper. I don't know why I didn't think to open up my shirt. Which sounds like I was flashing people. Which I most certainly was not.)

This year, on my shirt, I had an awful lot of names. Mothers, fathers, teenage boyfriends, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, friends...

People gave me what felt best. Initials, first names, full names. One friend gave me initials but emailed me the full names, so I would know them in my heart. This felt right to her.

One long, long-time friend, who supported us through very hard times with my dad, and was very private about her dad, gave me his full name for the shirt. The import of this struck me hard, and upon reading, I burst into tears.

It still crushes me now, all the names, all those we love and miss.

This year, I raised a shocking (to me) $8,425 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I felt proud to do this in my cousin's name.

When, at the walk, they talked about the millions raised for research, I felt hopeful. My kids are half me, after all, and depression and suicide are on both sides of my family.
Team SOLOS!
This year, I also joined Team SOLOS. I will walk with them again next year, and the year after. I will always be grateful.

Many SOLOS teammates have been walking together for years. They've formed friendships through walks and volunteer efforts. Our teammate Connie walked the halls of the Capitol doing advocacy work the week of the walk.

The long-time teammates know each other really well. These walks are a reunion, and odd as it may sound, something to look forward to annually.

They're kind and loving and supportive. They welcomed those, like me, new to the team. They were immensely supportive of first-time walkers.

They hug. They're funny. They bake for the walk. One of them made these muesli chocolate balls. They are dense, heavy balls. There was some worry of them becoming moist in all the humidity. Stacie's balls became a running joke.

This year, with this team, I really felt connected to the walk, in a way that I hadn't before.

In April I told my acupuncturist that I cry a lot while fundraising for the walk, because it keeps the topic of suicide and loss at the forefront of my mind.

She asked why I do it. And she didn't buy my answer of raising money for research and outreach. She said, "You have some reason you do this for yourself. This is hard and upsetting. You need to figure out why."

In April, I didn't have an answer.

Now, after last weekend with this team, I do.

Because the walk is healing. Because I need to feel like I am doing something positive. Because I want to honor my loved ones. Because I like being with others who understand the crushing terribleness of losing someone you love to suicide.

Because it is a relief to talk about some terrible details and know you are not describing the unimaginable, because we've all, in one way or another, lived through the unimaginable.

Because it makes me feel less alone.

My lovely friend Laurie, who I met when we both performed in This Is My Brave in 2015, joined the team as well. This was her first walk, and I was so glad to walk together.

Laurie and I met up with our friend Jenn, the founder of TIMB, who volunteered at the walk.
Mini Brave reunion
I don't know about the aftermath of other types of loss, but for me, my dad's death by suicide felt very isolating. I wanted to talk about it all the time, but didn't feel like I could.

I wrote about it. Weird as it sounds in this public space, that felt safe. But I didn't discuss it with most people. Some people I knew for a fact knew about didn't ask or offer condolences.

I knew why. I wasn't mad, but I knew it was different.

After some time the hurt became manageable, so I wasn't just a giant walking wound. But with time you just have to wait, and wait, and wait.

It turns out that time really is the longest distance between two places.

(It also turns out that if you wear a flashing safety bracelet in a port-a-potty, it's like being in a tiny disco in hell.)

Three years ago, Nick asked me very gently if I thought maybe there was something wrong with me, or if I needed some extra help. Because my dad's death was still a near-daily topic for me, and it had been five years. He worried that I was unusually upset.

He didn't say this unkindly. But the implication was that five years was long enough. I should be done.

Five, as it turns out, was the year that I finally realized that I couldn't save my dad. That I hadn't failed him. That helped more than anything.

It was also the year I also understood that there is no "long enough" for your grief. There is no particular point where you should be "over it" and moving on.

When I was small, five was the biggest number I could imagine. I would say to my mom, "I love you five!" Because there was nothing more vast.

Five was big for me. Eight, where I am now, is an even better place to be. A man I met, who'd lost his 26-year-old son, told me he's in a much better place now that it's been 12 years.

Grief is not linear. It loops and doubles back, and just when you think you're fine, it punches you in the stomach.

Birthdays hurt. Death days hurt. Every single year.

It doesn't matter how many years go by. It hurts to lose your dad, your twin brother, your baby sister, your husband, your son...It hurts and hurts and hurts.

Other people, even close friends and family members, get tired of your grief. One woman voiced this. Another shared her similar experience. And another.

I hadn't heard this from others before. It resonated.

The walk itself was physically hard, my hardest one yet. I think mainly because the humidity was at approximately 100 million percent.

And I am a person who embraces heat and humidity.
So tired, so sweaty, so ready to stop walking
By mile 16, which turned out to be close to the end, I was desperate to stop walking. My legs were tired. My feet were sore. I was exhausted.

Our team all started out together, then we lost each other for three or four miles, and then grouped back together.

One of the members was in his military camouflage. This made him easy to spot in the sea of blue, although, even with his boots and 50 pound pack, he was generally way ahead of us.

My dear friend Amanda dropped in to walk for a couple hours, just as she'd done on my first walk. And then, when we were on Capitol Hill, Kris and Megan texted to say they'd seen some walkers at a rest stop, and where was I?
Lovely friends! And gelato!
Turned out I was just down the block.

Kris treated me to Pitango gelato. I got the cardamom flavor and it was basically a cup of magic.

You walk through the night, and arrive in the dark before dawn. Your path, and in this case the steps of the Lincoln memorial, is lit with luminaria, which are paper bags that participants decorate to honor their loved ones.

While you walk, volunteers fill them with tiny lights, so they glow from within.
Luminaria
I made two: one for Travis and one for my dad. Laurie made one for her son, Nathanial, who had just turned 24 when he passed away. When we got back, Laurie and I looked and looked. But we couldn't find Travis's or Nathanial's.

The bottoms of some of the bags had disintegrated in the humidity, and they'd blown away in the breeze. We wondered if ours had.

After about half an hour searching, we sat down, exhausted and disappointed. And then Laurie said, "I hope the two of them floated off together and are having a great time."

That comforted us both.

On Friday night, the man I mentioned who had lost his son said, "This is a great group of people. But it's not a club you want anyone to join."

This will forever be true.

If you have lost someone to suicide, the walk, and being immersed in a group that really understands, is immensely healing.

I never want you to join my club. I really, really don't.

But if it happens that you do, we will embrace you with arms and heart wide open.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Winds of change

Some of you are in-person friends of mine, and the truth is, I've been instructed not to point this out. I risk letting you in on a little secret.

But I've decided it's a risk I'm willing to take. Because I love you all so much, and this just needs to be out in the world.

So.

You know that game where you each get a number and you get to pick a present out of a pile, and then you steal from each other, and the person with the highest number gets the best choice?

That game stressed me out until I realized that honestly, there's nothing I need. If you put something hilarious or nice it with the thought that you're giving it away, and you're interested to see where it goes, but you're not overly invested in getting something, the game is way more fun. For me, anyway.

Nick's office plays this game every year at their holiday party. It's where he got the fuzzy blue bodysuit.

We used to spend Christmas Eve at Pat and Phil's house, and we always played this game.

One year, this tissue dispenser was the most hotly contested item. It was stolen and restolen. My dad coveted it. I coveted it. Everyone but Betty wanted it.

Our friend Byron wound up with it.


I thought of it off and on over the years. I googled it a couple times, to no avail.

But life goes on. You cannot stay hung up on a tissue holder forever.

A few weeks ago, we attended Pat's memorial service.

I have to tell you one woo woo thing that happened, because Pat was my woo woo person. Nick and I drove separately, and after I parked my car, I checked my phone for the time.

Facebook was open. And the message on my page was one of those friendship reminders with a whole bunch of photos. It said that Pat and I had been friends for 8 years.

Naturally, this meant I cried all the way down the block and into the church. One of the ushers asked if I was OK.

I like to think I could be a spy but man, I can't even play poker.

The service was beautiful and funny and sad. The music was gorgeous. The speeches were intensely personal.

I cried a lot. I wore a dress with pockets that turned out to be perfect.

Why don't all dresses have pockets?

And then afterwards, Byron approached me. We hugged, and he handed me a bag and a note. The bag contained the coveted object, which he was giving to me.

He wrote that he remembered that my dad had coveted it, and he was now ready to pass it on to the daughter of the original coveter. It was a double, even triple gift, in this way.

He suggested putting it in a bathroom used by guests. The reward, he says, will be a loud laugh.

"If there is no response,  you might want to question the sense of humor of your guests. You might also want to question their continued presence in your life."

It's not yet been put on full display, in that I have to figure out how to mount it on the wall. It's currently on the counter, and too subtle. I need Nick to help me with this.

I'm not saying it's a perfect test. I'm also not saying I'll be loitering outside the bathroom door.

It is allergy season, however.

So come on over.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Eight year anniversary

Eight years ago today, May 15, my mom called at noon and said Dad was gone.

Most of me knew that we would never see him alive again. He was not likely to survive a seventh suicide attempt, when the prior attempts nearly killed him, and the last one diminished him greatly.

His body was frail. His spark was gone. His smile was forced, barely a pull-back of his lips. His eyes were flat.

But a tiny piece of me held out hope. We'd saved him so many times. He was excited about my first baby; surely he wouldn't leave us with just three months to go.

I needed him to meet my baby. I needed him.

Surely he wouldn't go when I needed him so much.

---

We got Dad's goodbye letters out of the blue, a year after his death.

They'd been sitting in some file in the 3rd District Precinct.

A kiss with a fist.

---

It took me five years to stop obsessing about my dad's suicide.

I'd wanted to secretly microchip him, you know, so I could always know where he was. You're not allowed to do that.

It took me five years to understand that not only could I not save him, but it wasn't my responsibility. None of us can save anyone else, not long term. No matter how hard we try.

The instant I understood this, I felt absolved.

---

Eight years later, I still cry sometimes. I get sucked into the ugly "what-ifs" even though intellectually, I know they are pointless.

---

I still wonder if Dad died on the 15th or the 16th. His death certificate says the 16th, but I learned recently that the time of death is determined by when the DC official sees the body and records the death.

Did he walk around DC one final time? Did he have any hesitation? Both days were spectacular, drenched in sun, luxuriating in azaleas.

I remember after my mom called, looking at the riotous blue of the sky, the kiss of the sunshine. And I thought, Dad couldn't choose today. It's too beautiful a day to die.

So was the next day.

---

For a long time, I was angry. How could he abandon us? How could he do this to me? Didn't he love me enough? Didn't he want to know my baby?

And I felt so guilty about my anger.

Now I tell people to allow themselves feel whatever they feel. All your feelings are valid. No shame.

---

If you can forgive, you will feel better.

You might need to forgive yourself. If you do, start there. 

---

I've decided that if you are someone who can see the bridge, sometimes it looks so easy to just step off. Coming back from that point and living is what's painful and hard.

I have heard the mermaids sing, each to each.

Living every day on a semi-even keel, when you're not a semi-even keel person, can be exhausting.

---

Laughter and hysterical sobbing are not so far apart.

It's shockingly easy to swerve back and forth in grief.

Always run with laughter, no matter how inappropriate it might feel.

---

I know that Nick doesn't understand why my dad's death is still a big topic for me. He's not outwardly critical--to the contrary, he's supportive--but I know he genuinely does not understand.

I'm not vying for the worst loss award. But suicide is different.

---

It's a relief for me to be with others who have lost loved ones to suicide.When I do the Overnight walk, it's a crowd I'm at ease in, no matter how few people I know.

---

The other day Betty said, "Maybe you can finally stop writing about death."

I said, "I don't think so."

---

Some days are better than others. Most days are better than others.

Some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers.

What?

---

I have a dear friend who annually sends *hugs* on this day. It is perfect.

He is one of my heart people.

I would never have met him if I hadn't started writing about depression and suicide.

---

All loss hurts.

I selfishly want those I love to live forever. Or at least longer than me.

Whatever I feel is valid. I should allow myself to feel it, be honest, and let it go.

---

After years of lying when saying, "I'm fine!" I am honestly, actually fine.

---

Anniversaries are hard.

And that's OK.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Mother's Day, Pat

Dear Pat,

Sunday is Mother's Day. I have my mom, and until last Sunday, I had you.

You were my second mom, my other mother.

You liked to tell the story of how when your kids and I first started high school in Delhi, someone suggested to Shannon that he ask me out. And he said, "Gross! That would be like going out with my sister!"

Exactly!

Your boys were and are dear to me, and always more family than friends.

I hope my kids are lucky enough to have a relationship with an adult like I had with you. Someone they love, who they know loves them. Who they can trust and confide in and turn to for advice. I hope they have someone who tells them they can do it, whatever it is, and since the person is not their biological parent, who would say that stuff to them even if she were lying, they can believe it.

When we spoke, you focused, truly focused on me. This kind of attention is uncommon, and it feels like sunshine. I always felt so considered, so heard. I can't count the times I asked for your advice. You were always certain, gentle, kind and nurturing.

Everyone whose life you touched feels they have lost someone important, someone great. You were generous with your time, your love, your kindness.

Your door was always open, as were your arms.

My parents were always there for me, except when they weren't. Maybe they were living in South America. Maybe my dad was in a rough period, or in the hospital. Maybe my mom was too exhausted, or out by the creek, unreachable.

You were solid, a constant.

How many times did I move in with you guys, just for a bit? Sleep over? Leave my stuff while I took off on an adventure/hid from my life?

I recognize now that I needed a lot, and I received from you more than I gave.

I had the privilege of being there when you took your last breath, for which I feel grateful. Janie told us you'd said that you saw my dad reaching out his hand, ready to welcome you.

How many people have such generosity of spirit to give a gift even as they are leaving?

You were there, and then you weren't. I knew it was coming. And still, I was unprepared.

I do understand that this is the way life works, and I must say, I don't like it.

Naively, despite much evidence to the contrary, I thought my dad was always going to be in my life. And then one day he was gone. Lou was, for me, another mother figure, another always person, who slipped away. Peggy left us way too early.

Your loss pulls up a rush of other losses. I'm heartbroken in a sea of lost loved ones.

I hope you all are having an amazing reunion.

A month or so ago I listened to you and Betty talking about your Peace Corps life in Kabul. You laughed about how you made things like marshmallows and donuts, because you wanted them, and anything you wanted, you had to figure out how to make with what you could get. Betty sewed your wedding dress, and it was blue, because that was the only beautiful fabric available in the market in 1963.

I love all these stories.

My earliest memories are of Bangladesh. I probably spent as much time at your house as at ours.

I loved Christmases with your family and the Ciszewskis in your fabulous sunken living room, with the same tree, dug up and replanted every year. Who else was there? Surely Dallas, who made me laugh so hard.

I have vivid memories of your swimming pool. Would we swim with the frogs now? I think not. My dad made up a bedtime story about the Humph that was stuck in your pool and scared us all night with his HUMPHS! until we buttered the pool around him and enabled him to slip out.

Your mango trees were great to climb, but gave your kids hives. I got hives from the caterpillars. Pepper had such cute puppies. 

Just recently you brought up that terrible first Christmas in Delhi. This was the first time you ever  mentioned that you were (of course) in a terrible spot, having to move Jordan mid-year, because my dad was too unhealthy to handle a teenager. I wanted to tell you, but didn't, that back then I wished I could get out as well. It was a brutal time.

You loved my dad even though you'd lived with his worst. I loved him even though I'd lived with his worst. And his worst was ugly and destructive and cruel. Toxic. Still you forgave, and stuck with us.

I was always thankful for that, and I never told you so.

I guess actually, you know all of this now. I'm the one who feels the need to say it.

You and Phil came every time my dad disappeared. The two of you held us, made phone calls, drove around with me following lies and false leads.

I remember in 2001, when I in introduced you to my new boyfriend Brad in the ER. You shook his hand in greeting, then hugged me said, "We've got to stop meeting like this!"

Under a decade later, we stopped meeting like that.

You were with Betty that awful afternoon in 2009 when Nick and I brought the news we'd located Dad at the morgue. I will forever remember you two in front of the house crumpling into each other.

The azaleas and dogwood were blooming. It was a gorgeous day.

You and Phil were among the first people to greet my Jordan, my boy, my joy that my dad never met.

My Jordan was due on my birthday but born on yours. Another Leo.

One birthday--either before 7th or 8th grade, you gave me a pair of yellow jeans, saying every Leo needs yellow pants. I took it as a rule. I wore them for a long time.

People still talk about the eulogy you gave at my dad's memorial service. You were always a beautiful writer, and really, a stage performer. I loved that we had Emily from Our Town in common, and every time I used a quote from it, you commented.

You and Phil came out with us on Nick's sailboat to scatter my dad's ashes on his birthday. Who closer, more fitting, to help us release him?

A few years ago, your Jordan slept over one reunion weekend. In the morning he walked into the kitchen, plopped down with my kids and said, "Hi, I'm Jordan." My Jordan's eyes got wide and he said, "Jordan? I'm Jordan!"

I've always been able to recite the history of our families, kind of like kids know the alphabet: My parents met you and Phil in Peace Corps training,  and you moved to Afghanistan together. You and Phil got married in Kabul. Betty sewed your wedding dress. Jordan was born and named after us, (except before I was part of the us).

I have known these things my whole life, just as I have always known the four of you. And you leaving us, even when you were sick, was never a real possibility. You were one of my always people, so your not being here was inconceivable.

This means what I think it means.

Maude said that she likes to think of your energy and your exuberance, which has now been released into the air and spread across the world. It's like sparkles of sunlight on dewy leaves, a bright shimmer through the trees.

We all get to revel in it, in you. For this, we should celebrate.

I've lived with grief long enough to understand that my grief is all about me. I'm the one mourning what I've lost.

You, you are sparkling in the breeze, shimmering on the water, glittering in the clouds. 

As the Stage Manager said, "There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being."

I am lucky you were my other mother.

I love you and I miss you.

Happy Mother's Day.

Lisa

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Today you are five!


Dear India,

This is you this morning. Today you are FIVE!

You are so five. Going on 15. You do this celebrity pose that you surely learned on Barbie--one hip stuck out to the side with your hand on it, elbow crooked. You roll your eyes. You sometimes have A Tone.

I put together this stroller last night because your dad is gone this week. Initially I had two extra pieces and both wheels kept falling off. And then one of my friends helped me on the phone, and now only one wheel falls off.

I think it's because the metal rod is supposed to have grooves on each end instead of just one end. Your dad thinks that it has something to do with the extra pieces, which incidentally are still extra. I keep telling him that I think he needs to saw a groove into the other end when he comes home.

If it were just me, I'd glue the thing on. However. I'm willing to wait for him to check it out.

For the time being, you're strollering very gently.
You're so full of energy and enthusiasm and certainty. You rush full speed at everything you want to do. You love exuberantly. Sometimes you drive your brother insane, but you love the tar out of him.

The other day you were so determined to do the monkey bars. You got up and fell down over and over until you could get to the third rung.

I admire you.

One of your teachers was endlessly impressed by the fact that on a stormy day you said the sky looked "ominous". She must've made a big deal of it, because now you regularly ask for words that most four-year-olds don't know.

Obstreperous is a word I've suggested. Because boy howdy are you.

And yet, you're extremely kind. You're gentle with younger kids. Your teachers told us that there's a child in your class with delays, and you're unfailingly patient and sweet with him.

Speaking of school, you recently told some of the kids in your class that for time out, we send you to the bathroom after your daddy poops. I had to tell your teacher this is absolutely not true. She laughed and told me that one of the boys was all, "Wow, I thought I had it bad!"

I was, I must admit, impressed with your creativity.

We've recently been discussing body hair and puberty and menstruation. I can only imagine what you've shared with your class in this regard.

You call yourself a fashionista. Your dad rolls his eyes at our shared enthusiasm for clothing and footwear. Some of your outfits are truly surprising but also incredibly refreshing. You love to put on my boots and prance around.

I deliberately don't talk about size and weight, instead emphasizing strength. You see me work out regularly, and sometimes you join me. You talk about how strong you are, about the physical things you can do. I hope this continues.

You hate food lately. Meals are generally torture. Despite this, you consistently like broccoli and you've become a huge fan of asparagus. You also like figs, which I'm kind of fixated on right now myself.

Sometimes I look at you think, how did I get so lucky? I say this to you. How am I so lucky that I get to be your Mama?

We are on spring break and we have had a lot of together time. Last night I hit my limit, and I said I needed a time out. You started to cry and followed me. So I invited you to join my in my time out. We snuggled in the chair in the back room. Because Jordan called it the "background" when he was very young, we still call it the background and I don't think we're ever going to stop.

You pronounce the fourth floor the floh floh. I'll be sad when that goes away.

And you still say, "It's glad that..." I'm so charmed by this that I never say "I'm glad" to model the correct form. I just agree with you.

You are wonderful company. I love spending time with you. I love when you put your small hand into mine.

I so often stroke your cheek and tell you that you are my joy, my treasure. Sometimes in the morning you do the same back to me.

Sometimes you come up to me and kiss me on the cheek over and over. Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss.

These things crack my heart wide open.

It's getting harder and harder to pick you up, but I will keep doing it as long as I can. You wrap your legs around my waist and your arms around my neck. You put your head on my shoulder, and I can feel your soft skin against my neck. Sometimes I feel your eyelashes flutter.

This is one of the unexpected pleasures of being your mother, something I have come to love most. One day you will be too big to fit or too old to want to. I hope it takes a long, long time.

I love you love you love you,

Mama