Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pregnant Widow Shutting Down

Tatiana clings to me, her legs wrapped beneath my 9-month pregnant belly, while the other Marin Day School toddlers push balls, rakes, miniature vacuums, and each other around in the outdoor play area of the preschool.

Primary colored toys are scattered everywhere—many of which Erik had cleaned only two months before, when he donated his time to Tatiana’s school to make some “minor repairs.”

Erik was supposed to fix a couple of loose locks over a weekend, but the teachers returned to a new garden of potted flowers, re-stained benches and sandbox, and a large rainbow play-structure that had been flipped and scrubbed from bottom to top.

When he walked through the metal gate to bring Tatiana there the next day, the entire staff gave him a standing ovation. "Look, Honey!" he said, as he showed me the thank you card made out of red construction paper and a dozen one-year-old hand-prints. "Can you believe they did this for me?"

And now, at Marin Day School, there is still story time, singing circle time, and “tick-tocking” clean-up time, but something has changed. Now there is a solemn understanding between all of us.

It could have been any one of those toddlers' daddies. Any one of those daddies could have dropped dead on the kitchen floor, but it was Tatiana's daddy, the man whose flowers continue to grow, who had his life cut short.

The teachers huddle around me and Tatiana, their tears bringing tears to my eyes.

“I don’t know how I’d survive any of this without you,” I say, as I pass a resistant Tatiana to her primary care-giver, Dani.

Dani’s long, straight blond hair reaches to the bottom of her back. “Whatever I can do. Whatever any of us can do,” she says. “You know how much we love Tatiana. Let me take her after school, over-night if you want.”

Still trying to sort out the details of Erik's death, I could use the break, but the thought of being away from Tatiana too long is unfathomable to me.

“I think she’d freak. But I am so grateful to you. This is the one place she seems happy, unless she’s with me. The routine is good for her.”

When I leave, Tatiana reaches through the gate, smashes her face against the black bars, and screams, “Mama, Mama, Mama.” Her screams are like pin-pricks, sharply threading their way down through my swollen ankles. I hear her wails, again and again, as I pull away in my dark grey VW station wagon.

Sometimes when she cries, it’s like watching Erik fall in a graphic flashback—like I am right there, feeling everything. The blood on the side of his mouth. The pain of his un-medicated amputation from our lives.

Just one month after he died, Tatiana lay on her back, on the kitchen floor, in her purple butterfly dress, and started to shake. She looked all around the room. Then she let out a choking sound. She flipped her head from side to side, the back of her curly blond hair sliding against the white tile.

It took me a minute to realize what she was doing—that she was reenacting what she had watched happen. My 18-month-old daughter was sorting out her daddy’s death.

And now, anytime I lie down, Tatiana says, “Up,up, up,” in a panicky tone, as if she thinks I am going to die, too.

I am not getting sleep because the doctor won’t give me anymore sleeping pills and, at night, my feet itch like I’ve stepped into a huge mound of fire ants—an itching like none I’ve ever felt before. Nothing can stop this itching. Not scratching with my nails, not the pumice stone. I even tried one of those special callous shavers, so I could remove the top layer of the skin. I scrapped and scrapped at my feet until I bled and, still, the itching remains.

So, after I drop Tatiana off at her school, I drive to Diane’s house. Diane is my friend and incredibly gifted massage therapist, who I have been seeing once a week since Erik's death. The grief counselor helps, but Diane gives me something different, something that I can’t get from talking. She gives me her calming touch.

Touch is what I yearn for. I yearn for Erik’s touch. I yearn for him to hold me, for him to curl up behind me in our bed and spoon me one more time. That is what I miss the most. I miss his touch.

Diane knows things about me, about what is going on inside of me, even before I do. She is trained in intuitive therapy and, as long as I stay open to her insight, she has a way of revealing things of which I am not yet aware.

I curl up on my left side, on her massage table, and look up at her wavy brown hair, her green eyes. She has such a presence about her, a universal connection, and I aspire to be as aware as Diane throughout my grief process. I hope to manifest the strength to be a good mother to this unborn child of mine and to continue helping Tatiana through her loss.

I tell Diane about the itching in my feet, about how I can’t sleep.

She stands at the end of the table, holds onto my feet with her soft, powerful hands, and says, “I’m getting that the itching is from your nervous system. Your nervous system is on overload, understandably, and it wants to shut down. Your organs are fighting too hard to stay functional.”

“And that’s making my feet itch?”

“Yes, this is a really hard time. You need to be very gentle with yourself. Your body wants to give up . . . but I know . . . I know you won’t let it.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Do you mind if I take a minute to re-balance your energy?”

“I’m open to anything, if you think it will help.”

“Just close your eyes, now, and feel only love and healing.”

Her hands grow warmer as they make their way, without hurry, from my calves, to my ripe stomach, to my temples, and then, finally, to my chest.

I can feel my heart beneath her touch. The blood pulsating. An echo bouncing within her palms, as if there are things being said, things being resolved.

My breathing slows. My muscles relax.

Tears come. A release.

I am safe right now.

The itching. It isn’t there.

How did she do that?

I stay in that healing state, not a word spoken, for at least five minutes. I feel like I am swimming under clear blue water, tropical fish caressing my naked skin. We circle one another—angel, rainbow, and clown fish—as they effortlessly guide me to the surface.

My eyes open. I notice Diane’s dangling, multi-colored earrings. “I can’t believe how much better I feel,” I say.

We share a respect for the healing, in silence, while a nurturing energy floats between us.

Then Diane says, “Good. Good.” Her hands hover near my belly button. “And, well, the baby . . . Keira . . . she . . .” Diane hesitates.

“What about Keira?”

Is she alright?

“I’m getting the sense that she wants me to check in with her.”

I look into Diane’s eyes. “You can do that?”

“Yes, well, I can connect with her energy, and see how she’s doing, if you don’t mind.”

I feel more peaceful than I’ve felt since Erik died, amazed at my friend’s ethereal powers. “No, I don’t mind. I really want you to. Anything you can sense into would be very helpful to me.”

Diane stretches her arms to her sides, palms up, fingers spread, as if asking for wisdom.

Then she places her hands carefully on my womb.

She speaks in a whisper. “It’s alright, you know. It’s alright that you don't feel connected to the baby right now.”

How does she know?

Tears push themselves down the sides of my face, seeping into the lavender-scented towel.

I want to feel connected to her. I do.

I listen intently, knowing that, somehow, Diane can feel what is going on between this grieving mother and fatherless child.

She continues. “Keira is an understanding, compassionate soul, who will be just fine.”

Guilt overcomes me. During my pregnancy with Tatiana, I always felt close to her, but, now, with Keira, I just feel like an emotional collision.

Diane lets out a slight laugh. A laugh of realization. “Erik is here. Erik is giving her enough love for both of you. I can feel him here, right now, loving her. It’s amazing. Truly exquisite. He is loving her all the time. And loving you . . . and Tatiana.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

11-Year-Old Boy Tries to Save his Father

Erik told me about his dad, Hayden, when we first started dating. We were both 20, both students at Florida State University. Erik majored in computer science while I studied creative writing. Within days of knowing one another, it was obvious that Erik's rational, organized side would compliment the artist in me.

Erik spoke slowly, with quiet intensity. “We were on vacation.”

I sat cross-legged, on Erik's bedroom floor, soaking in the masculine whisper of his words. My attention was focused entirely on him.

He stretched out on his back and put his head in my lap, his eyes directed at the circulating ceiling fan. “We were on vacation, at the beach . . . I was eleven. It was just me, my mom, and my dad. My dad had brought me out windsurfing for the first time. I kept falling off the board.”

He laughed, more to himself than me. “It was a really great day.”

“Sounds like it.” I kissed Erik’s forehead where the peach-colored candelight reflected off of his skin.

“They had just come back from a walk . . . my mom and dad . . . and I was digging a big hole in the sand.”

Erik closed his eyes, pausing for a few seconds, like he was there, like he was re-living that day. “My dad sat down in his chair and then he . . . he just . . . he just fell over in his chair. He just fell over in his chair. Out of nowhere. He just fell over . . . right near the hole I was digging. He wasn’t breathing.”

“I can’t even imagine.” I ran my fingers through Erik’s thick black hair. “I can’t even imagine.”

“My mom lost it . . . she told me to run for help . . . so I did. I ran as fast as I could. My legs were burning."

I saw Erik in my mind—this innocent, dark-haired little boy running as fast as he can, fine grains of white spitting up all over everyone’s beach blankets. He’s running and screaming, looking for help, not knowing what else to do.

"My mom was hysterical. She already had one husband die of a heart attack, but I . . . I did the best I could. I couldn't have run any faster."

"Of course not."

"It was Miami, you know, so I was able to find a doctor right away, but it didn't matter."

"You did everything you could do."

"My dad was turning blue. Nothing worked. They were pounding on his chest."

I wanted to help that little, out-of-breath, 11-year-old Erik. I wanted him to know he had run fast enough. That it wasn't his fault.

Erik started to cry. "It was supposed to be our vacation. I just wanted him to sit back up in his chair."

But his dad never did sit back up in that chair, and Erik spent the rest of his life wondering if his father would still be alive if he had just run a little faster.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Father and Son's Ashes Scattered Together

I give Troy the burgundy velvet bag that contains Erik’s ashes. “Do you mind holding them? I may need to run down to the beach by myself.”

“I’ll put them in my back pack.” Troy rests the gray sack by his feet and slides the ashes in. He starts to zip up the backpack, but pauses. “Jeanette, I might be able to fit yours in, too.”

Jeanette hugs her pine box closer to her chest. “No, I want to hold him. Hayden’s fine right here.”

My mother-in-law, Jeanette, has held on to her husband’s ashes for 17 years now.

When we talked about scattering Erik’s ashes, she said, “We’ll scatter them together. It’s never felt right to do it before, but it feels right now. Erik can be with his daddy. They can finally be together.”

And now Jeanette’s eyes are glossy with the tears she has been unwilling to release for decades.

I think of my pain—this pain from losing Erik—and know it cannot compare to hers. Two husbands and her youngest son, all dead. If a heart is broken into pieces, how can she have anything left?

Jeanette has never been to therapy, never gone to spousal loss support, never been willing to talk about her losses. Maybe she thinks some things are inexpressible. I imagine all of that grief stuck in her body, crawling through her limbs like a poisonous snake, and I want to reach inside of her and pull it out.

I look at her and vow, to myself, that I will deal with my pain. I will take hold of my sadness, wrestle it if I have to, letting its wild head hiss at me, so that I can come out on the other side more capable of being an example for my baby girls.

I do not want to be broken into pieces. I want to be broken open. I want to find love again.

“It’s a two mile hike, you know,” I tell Jeanette.

“Don’t you worry about me, sweetheart. I’ll be fine.” She nods down at Hayden's box. “It’s not like he weighs very much.”

We all begin to walk.

Jen says, “I brought hot tea for afterward. Gonna be even colder by the water.”

“That was thoughtful of you,” I say, but I don't really care about hot tea. I don't care about anything other than making sense out of things. But, how do I make sense out of Erik's death? Out of the fact that I am here to scatter his ashes? How? Why?

The pressure in my chest is unbearable--a grief-filled hammer repeatedly pounding against my ribcage.

There is so much to figure out. Do I stay in California, amongst my memories of Erik, or do I move back to Florida to be closer to my family?

Everyone has an opinion, but I need to silence their words. Silence everything. I need quiet so that I can let the answers come to me, but I am afraid. Afraid of trusting myself. Afraid of messing up Tatiana and Keira. How can I be a good mother when I feel too damaged to take care of myself?

Erik would know what to do. Erik could fix anything. He had a way of holding me, of comforting me, of taking care of me, and now, now there is no Erik. Now I must do this without him.

I do not want to feel the clawing of my emotions, so I quicken my pace into a slow run.

I run ahead of Troy, Jen, and Jeanette at Tennessee Valley, my feet pounding out aggression on the orange dirt trail. I turn back to them, for a brief moment, and yell, “I’ll meet you there.”

Troy shouts, “We’ll see you soon.”

"Do your thing, girl,” Jen says.

Jeanette says nothing, but I know she understands the feeling of needing to be alone.

Running is my way of coping, a form of meditation without sitting still. Sitting still means feeling the entirety of my emotions and that I am not ready to do. So I run and move my body to shed the angst. Without exercise, I want to rip off my skin.

Not even three weeks after my c-section with Keira, I started doing this hilly two-mile run again. My five-inch incision was red, but without stitches—the healing showing signs, but not nearly there. Throbbing pain and all, I had to push my way, ever so slowly, through the valley and down to the beach.

And, now, Keira is two months-old and my pace has quickened. My body is getting stronger from running, from lifting weights with a trainer, from lifting babies. I am determined to get healthier everyday and, already, want to rid my body of its excess baby weight so that I may attract men.

But, who will want me? Who, at the age of 29, wants a woman with two babies? I feel insecure. Fat. Ugly. Unworthy. Erik is not here to tell me I am beautiful. Erik is not here to say that I am an amazing photographer or the best mother in the world.

This was not the plan. This was not the way things were supposed to be.

Or maybe it is the way things are supposed to be.

Maybe I have somehow manifested it all.

I look back at the trail. I am alone, running, and no one is in sight.

I need you, Erik. Help me find my way.

The wind tosses my hair in all directions, slapping the brown strands against the front of my neck. Every few strides, I stoop down to scoop up rocks, and slip them into my waist pack.

This is where it all started. Tennessee Valley.

The day after Erik and I moved from Florida to California, we visited Tennessee Valley, and I was immediately filled up with the power of a universal force that I had never experienced before.

I will never forget that first time I spread my arms out to the powerful Pacific Ocean. Such a sense of clarity and euphoria. My soul was consumed by a spirit much greater than mine, and I felt, without a doubt, that my life had deeper purpose.

Never could I have imagined then that Erik's death would be a part of this universal plan. That I would be here, just eight years later, asking the Ocean for answers to such unfathomable questions.

Today, Tennessee Valley is veiled by thick fog. There is no sun shining on my face.

On my way up the mountainside, I want know why. Why did this happen to me? To us? To Erik? He was so happy and had it all taken away. Why?

I bend down to pick yellow and purple wildflowers. Flowers for my Erik. This is one time, I am certain, I will be forgiven for taking from the earth.

Drops of sweat slide down my neck, into the crease between my breasts. The sounds of ten-foot waves slam against protruding boulders.

I hike up to the old army bunker in the side of the hill that I have visited many times before. It is dark in the cement bunker and there are no people around, but I assume it is safe, as I normally do, and decide to step in.

Pathetic streams of foggy daylight illuminate the graffiti-like words that have been written in chalk, crayon, and lipstick on the gray walls. I walk to the corner, where my favorite words are written in red, and squint to read them.

And we will find that wherever we step, the path appears beneath our feet

Now, more than ever, these words speak to me. Wherever we step, the path appears beneath our feet.

From the opening of the bunker, I look down to see Jeannette, Troy, and Jen beginning their trek up the mountainside.

I am grateful for the few minutes I still have by myself.

The rocks slip underneath me as I climb up the rest of the way, where we have all agreed to meet. I get to the top of the mountain and sit crossed legged next to the edge of the cliff.

I toss a piece of wood, watching it fall eight-stories down to a deserted beach.

This is it.

This is where we will scatter the ashes, where I envision Erik and Hayden will soar off the mountainside, into the Pacific Ocean. They will swim with the kelp, the sea lions, and the occasional whale.

I hear a rustling sound in the bushes and turn around, suddenly worried about the rumored mountain lion.

Instead, two deer spring down the hillside ten feet away.

I plant my palms in the red dirt, the jagged rocks making indentations in my skin.

Probably too close to the edge

Not the most stable person these days, I scoot back six inches, ever aware of orphaning my girls.

My waist pack feels tight and heavy around my belly, so I unhook it and take out the rocks I have collected along the way.

Be with me, Erik.

Now a foot away from the edge of the cliff, I lay the yellow and purple wildflowers down with a handful of rocks on their stems.

I imagine myself on our wedding day, holding two dozen tightly wrapped white roses as I walk towards Erik, down the grand marble staircase. He stares at me with certainty.

Erik's fingertips connect with mine, beneath my bouquet. He is a handsome vision in his black tuxedo. This is the beginning of submitting to happiness, of letting myself be loved in a way most people will never experience.

I hear Eriks' voice. Deep, soothing, authentic. His wedding vows surround me:

I believe that I know love because I have known you. There is nothing more complete than the thought of you as my wife, as the mother to my children, as my best friend.

I set the rest of the rocks down, one by one, in deliberate formation. The experience of forming these words is surreal. Slow. It’s as if I am removed from my own body, hovering above it all. Instead of being in it, I am watching myself.

Floating above, I take in this scene of a young woman who is leaving flowers and a message to her dead husband. It isn't me. It can't be me.

The widow forms her words in black and orange rocks.


This is my way of coping, so that I can do what I am here to do.

I am here to scatter Erik’s ashes.

Another pushing through.

I hunch over, crying for this widow and her two babies. I mourn for the 29 year-old man who was yanked away from everything he had ever wanted.

But, again, I am numb.

My tears are on automatic.

I am detached. Staring at nothing and everything, all at the same time.

The words are blurry, the wind and the waves are white noise.

“How ya doing?” Jen says.

I am startled back into my body when I realize that Troy, Jen and Jeanette stand only steps away. “Oh, um, you made it.”

Jen squats down next to me. “You need a sweatshirt?”

I use my index finger to wipe beneath my eyes. “No, I’m alright.” I don’t really want to look at her.

“We don’t have to do this today, if you’re not ready, you know.” She strokes my hair.

“Jeanette will still be here for another week. We can come back another day.”

“No, today is the day. It’s just . . .”

“Fucked up?”

“Yeah, any way you look at it.”

“You just tell me what you need, and I’ll make sure you get it.”

“You’ve already done too much, Jen.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“I do wish it wasn’t so, um, foggy out. I was hoping for a sunny day.”

“Now, that I can’t help you with

I stand up and wave to Troy and Jeanette to come over to us. “I was thinking we could do it here. What do you think? Look like a good . . . scattering spot?”

“It’s beautiful,” Jeanette says. “They’d like it here.”

“I thought we could toss them off the side so they can be in the ocean.”

“Hayden loved the ocean.” She starts to cry, too.

I hold Jeanette in my arms, Hayden’s scatter-box pressed between both of our chests. I want to take care of her the way she has taken care of me and the girls the past few months.

Jeanette pulls away, determined. “Well, I think 17 years is long enough to hang on to your ashes, Hayden.” She sits down and undoes the twist-tie around the protective plastic bag.

“Troy, can I have Erik’s?”

He hands me the burgundy bag. “Already got them out for you.”

I sit next to Jeanette and take Erik’s dark brown scatter-box from its velvet cover.

Flipping up the wooden lid, I peek inside. I haven’t looked at his ashes before. They are in a clear, plastic bag, inside the wooden box. They look like fine white sand.

For a moment, I wonder how I would really know if these were Erik’s ashes. I didn’t see him get cremated. Last I saw of him, he was in his casket, and then the funeral home gave me this box full of sand.

No, it must be Erik. Why would the funeral home do that to me?

I pull the plastic bag out of the box and set everything else aside.

Jeanette now has her hand inside of her bag. “Mine don’t look like yours.”

“No, they must have cremated differently back then.”

“It’s almost like I can feel some bones in there.”

“Yeah, it looks like they only put the fine particles in Erik’s.”

Jeanette and I stare at each other for a while, both of us knowing the unspoken impact of this situation.

“Well, are you ready?” she asks.

“Do you mind if I take some of Hayden’s, too? I want to scatter some of them together first.”

“That’s a beautiful idea.” She holds Hayden’s bag out to me. “I’m not ready yet. You go first.”


“Now, sweetheart.”

I reach deep into her bag with my right hand and pull out a fistful of Hayden’s ashes.

Jeanette is correct. Hayden's ashes are much coarser than Erik's. It makes me a little sick to my stomach, holding what I know are nickel and dime sized pieces of my father-in-law.

I keep my right fist tight around them while I let my left fingers wrap around Erik’s soft ashes. Some of Erik’s ashes slip through the cracks, into the wind.

“Here we go.” I step to the edge of the cliff, peering over my running shoes, at the Pacific Ocean.

My hands are filled with father and son, two generations that are now together in some other world.

I tuck my fists into my chest, my elbows pushing at my belly.

“We love you, Erik,” Jen says.

“You’ll always be with us,” Troy says.

I raise both of my hands to the sky, making a ‘V’ with my arms. “I’m sorry I never got to meet you, Hayden. I know I would have . . loved you. And, Erik, I don’t even know what to say. You have given me so much . . . and I can’t believe you’re gone. But it makes me feel good to know you’re . . . you’re with your dad. And . . . I love you. I wish I could tell you how much I love you, but I hope you know. And the girls love you. We will always . . . love you.”

I clasp both of my hands together, mixing their ashes, and fling them off of the cliff side.

The wind blows hard, a massive gust with purpose. The ashes are lifted away from the direction of the ocean.

They do not soar down to the sea lions. Instead, they whip right back into my face.

What remains of Erik and Hayden is all over me--in my hair, on my clothes—and I cannot help but laugh. I laugh and cry, and then laugh some more.

“Whoa, that was intense.” I breathe in the cool air.

“They’re all over you.” Jen dusts off my face.

“Take some.” I shake my whole body out. “Everybody take some.”

I feel exhilarated.

“Maybe you want to try scattering towards the valley,” Troy says.

“I don’t mind them on me.” I laugh more deeply. “You know it’s Erik playing tricks on me. Jeanette, you first. It feels really good to let go.”

“If you say so.” Jeanette digs both of her hands into Hayden’s scatter bag. “But I’m not getting them in my face.” She turns towards the Valley, careful not to fight the wind. “Be free, my love. Be with our son.”

Jeanette's ashes saunter down the hill, settling near the spot where I had just seen those deer, and a sliver of light pierces the fog.