Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pushing Through Grief

How did the happiest day turn out to be the saddest day?

How do I go there? How do I tell my story—our story—when I must feel so much pain to tell it completely? Sitting still long enough to write about it means acknowledging the ache, the low-grade hum of this relentless grief. It is a hurt I have never known. Yet how do I describe such pain without describing the happiness? Without that happiness, I would be left with nothing.

I moved the girls to Florida, to be closer to my family. This house is mine, I think. This skin holds my body, but this body does not feel mine. To feel my body, this house, would be to feel reality and, this, I am afraid to do.

Today, for the first time, I woke up looking for Erik next to me in my bed and, of course, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to hold me or make love to me or tell me that this was all going to be OK. And, now, I am afraid of getting close. I have pushed everyone away. I am afraid of getting close to anyone for fear of losing what I love the most.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Easter Sunday, April 20th, 2003, Turns to Prayer for Life

Jen didn’t speak. Her face was blank.

Something was wrong.

“What?” I said. “What’s the matter?”

“Erik?” Jen called out.

“Erik, you OK?” Troy asked.

I quickly turned around to see what they were looking at.

There was my Erik, his back against the kitchen cabinets, sliding down to the floor. As he fell, his hand gripped the silver medallion he wore to ward off bad energy.

“Erik, this isn’t funny,” I said. “Quit playing.”

Then I noticed the blood. Blood. There was blood. There was blood seeping down the side of his mouth. A line of red that will forever be painted into my memory.

His body lay on the kitchen floor, his head tilted up against the bottom of the oven door. He let out a choking sound. Then a gasp. His eyes rolled inside themselves.

“He’s choking,” my Mom said.

Oh my God.

I don’t know who got up first among the four of us. Was it my mom? Troy? Jen? Was it me? I do know that we all reacted immediately and worked together with as much control as anyone could have.

Jen said, “Somebody call 911.”

I was already on my way to the phone. “I’m calling.”

“There’s blood. What’s the blood?” My mom asked.

Jen rubbed my back. “He just slid down the counter. He just fell.”

I was on hold with 911 for a few seconds, but even that seemed much too long.

Pick up the phone, damn it. Somebody pick up.

“We’re here, man,” Troy said to Erik, as he leaned down to Erik’s mouth and checked for breath.

“He must have bit his tongue when he fell.”

“We’re all here.” My mom knelt on the other side of Erik.

“It’s gonna be OK, honey. It’s gonna be OK.” Did I tell him it was going to be OK because I needed to hear it? Was it for me? For him? For Tatiana, who was still sitting in her green high chair watching her father’s face turn colors on the kitchen floor?

Please be OK, Erik. Please be OK.

We all needed him to be OK.

“He’s not breathing,” Troy said. “Come on, man, breathe!”

“You have got to be kidding me.” I started to cry into the phone.

This can’t be happening.

My Mom tilted Erik’s head back. “Check his throat. Is something in his throat?”

Troy searched Erik’s mouth, down his throat. “Nothing’s in there. I’m starting mouth to mouth.”
“It’s his heart. I know it’s his heart.” I clenched at my stomach, just over my blue maternity shirt.

Please don’t die. Please don’t die.

Erik had been back to the cardiologist only five days before. He had been concerned about the intensity of his heart palpitations, concerned that he would die the same way his father died, so he had returned to the cardiologist, even though the doctor had made him feel like it was all in his head. Erik had promised he would always take care of us and he meant it. He had asked the cardiologist to run more tests, at least a stress test, but the cardiologist had told Erik that he needed to ‘get over’ his heart palpitations, plenty of people had them, that nobody had ever died from what he had.

Tatiana pointed to her Daddy. “Uh, uh, uh.”

“It’s gonna be OK, Tatiana. It’s gonna be OK.”

I could not let her watch any more. Erik would not have wanted that. I called out to Jen, “Take the phone. Talk to them ‘till they get here. They’re on their way. I can’t let Tatiana be in here for this.”

I cannot recall the details of my phone call with 911. I do know that I gave them everything they asked for and that, in between my sobs, and watching my mom and brother work to resuscitate Erik on our kitchen floor, I kept it together the best that I could have.

Tatiana and I stood outside the house so she didn’t have to see any more.

I heard the siren finding its way to us, its way to save my husband from what could not be happening. He couldn’t die. He couldn’t. He had to be OK. I couldn’t do it without him.
I held Tatiana close against me. “Look at the pretty lights, sweetheart.” I felt dizzy. My skin was burning with adrenaline.

“Uh, uh.” Tatiana gripped me tighter, an obvious attempt to make sense out of everything she had just seen. Her Daddy’s sudden fall to the floor. The red liquid coming from the corner of his mouth. His choking. His gasps for air. The tears from Mama. “Bubby” holding Dada’s head. Uncle Troy blowing into Dada’s mouth. The panic in all of our voices, our faces. How could Tatiana, not even one-and-a-half years old at the time, make sense out of something that would never make sense to any of us?

We can’t lose him. We can’t.

“They’re coming here to fix Da-da’s boo-boo,” I told her, as the ambulance and fire engine pulled up in front of our house. “They’re going to make it all better.”

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Death Turns to Birth

I had everything I had ever wanted . . . right up until our Easter Sunday dinner when my then seventeen month-old daughter and I watched as my amazing husband, Erik, slid down the kitchen counter and died. He was 29 and I was seven months pregnant with our second child. One minute he was laughing, and thirty five minutes later, he was proclaimed dead. Just like that.

Needless to say, it was unimaginable.

Six years have now passed since Erik's death and, again, I have everything I have ever wanted. After pushing through the ups and downs of spousal loss and unexpected single-parenting, I'd like to think I have earned this right to happiness. I put in the time. Endless hours of Post Traumatic Stress therapy. Journaling. Eye Movement Desensitation Reprocessing. Hypnotherapy. Chakra work. I figured the only way to get over Erik's death was to go straight through it, as painful as every step would be, and that the more time I spent healing, the sooner I would feel capable of being a good mother again, and eventually, a good partner to someone else.

Of course, what I didn't know when Erik died was that grief is not something you ever truly 'get over'. Grief is like a newly given birthmark on your face, eternally staring back at you in the mirror.

Erik's funeral was followed by a catered 'celebration of life' on one of George Lucas's soundstages. Erik was a rising star in technology management at Lucas's special effects' division, Industrial Light and Magic, and his unexpected death was high on the richter scale for thousands of people. I will always be grateful for the outpour of love and support from the Lucas employees and my incredible photography clients.

I remember when one of my ex-boyfriends arrived at the funeral chapel, how I wondered if he would end up being the next daddy to my children. Even in my black maternity outfit, it was as if Erik was sending me a message, telling me to find love again. Sure, I admit that I started dating way too soon according to most people's ideas of grief etiquette, but I have no regrets. Feeling desirable was all a part of my healing process, and there was this biological yearning, a screaming inside of me, "NEED FATHER FOR CHILDREN." The idea of being a single mom to two baby girls was inconceivable, but I was not willing to settle for anything less than the happiness that I once had.
Six weeks after my second daughter, Keira, was born, I did an online search for other young widows, and found myself on for the first time. Men and women of every shape and size. I scrolled through to see if there was anyone, at the age of 30, who could relate to my situation, someone I could talk to, but I ended up searching through all the men—widowed or not. I needed to connect. I needed male attention. But, who would want me? Who would want a young widow with two babies?
Next thing I knew, I was member, typing up a headline for myself.
“Add water, will grow.” My catch phrase.

Then I wrote and rewrote my profile, which finally read:

“There is a place where happiness overwhelms you, where you feel you might burst because it feels so good. I have been to that place. I have been there and tasted its richness and I know that I will return there once again. I have to believe that those capable of loving with such intensity, of living each moment completely, must deserve to love again. Successful, charismatic, intelligent, attractive, energetic, confident, athletic, talented, great sense of humor (sounding pretty good, yes?) looking for a friend with potential. Someone who is unafraid of their feelings, of delving deep, or getting dizzy in the rain. Someone who knows how to see the joy in the most difficult of times. Someone who wants to live life to its fullest, who puts love above all else. Most importantly, someone who adores children. I love movies, dancing, running, singing, playing pool, writing, getting dressed up for a night on the town and dressed down for a long hike, scrabble, backgammon, late night talks, afternoon naps, the ocean, the mountains, travelling, moments where you don't have to say anything. I am a self-employed Baby/children's photographer with world-wide publications. My job is awesome! I get to blow bubbles and roll around on the floor with little ones all day. Right now, I am taking time off from my business to write a memoir and cherish the precious moments with my two baby girls.”

In the morning, I checked my emails. Ten different men, a couple of them even good-looking. My first night on and I had received ten emails! I was a hit—already on my way to feeling less like a young widow, less like damaged goods.

Time passed, and after a couple of six month relationships, two years of workshopping bits of my memoir, and the eventual resurrection of my photography business in California, along came the serendipitous email through Along came Evan.

My girls, Tatiana and Keira, were 2 and 3.5 years old when I brought them to the soccer field and introduced them to Evan and his 8 year-old son, Jason. The connection was instant between all of us. Within a year, we moved into a house together in Northern California, with the most incredible view of San Francisco, and Evan asked Tatiana and Keira to start calling him daddy. The girls were elated.

Before Erik died, he promised to always take care of us, and I must admit that, for a while, I was upset with him for dying, for not being there anymore to take care of us. I know that there is no rational thinking in being mad at someone for dying, but grief is not always meant to be rational.

The day after we told the kids that Evan and I were getting married, and that he would be legally adopting them, Tatiana nuzzled into my lap and asked, "Mommy, do you think Daddy Erik sent Daddy and Jason to us?"

I stroked her long, curly hair and said, "Yes, sweetheart, I think he did."

I believe that. I believe that Erik sent Evan to us, that this was his way of taking care of us, the way he promised.

And I even wonder about our new baby, the one Evan and I conceived, Julian Erik. He is 16 months-old now and the happiest little boy. Is it possible that Erik has recycled his soul into Julian's body as another way of forever being a part of our lives?

Evan wants me to finish this memoir, even though I am struggling to find the time with four kids and a photography business. He has given me the weekend off to write while he takes care of the wee-ones because he knows how important it is to me to make something beautiful out of my experience, to remind others to cherish love and not compromise until you get everything you want out of life . . . even if you have to do it twice.