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grief

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Rememberance

Six years ago today, on a Friday morning full of promise, my wife, her best friend and I had just left our home en route for Florida to visit Maria and Cristina’s childhood friends. We were less than a mile from home when my cell phone rang. I was in the backseat with Lucy, our squatty white labrador-dachshund mix. It was my brother, George. I answered cheerily and cautious. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my father or stepmother for two days before. I had called my brother in tears just 24 hours ago. I had a terrible feeling and I wanted to speak to our father. But he hadn’t heard from him either. And now my big brother was telling me in a croaking voice full of sorrow, “Dad’s dead.”

“No way,” I responded as my world went from sunny and light to gray and bleak in a matter of seconds. There was no possible way that my father, 61, healthy, loving and wonderful, could be gone. I choked on my own air that I was gasping in far too fast as my brother explained what he knew: that it appeared he’d had a heart attack while his wife, our stepmother, was at the barn checking on their horses. He’d died alone. That crushing new knowledge bent me over. George said he was headed to Athens, and we hung up, exchanging “I love yous” as we always did.

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What happened next was unbearable as I looked up at my wife and Cristina and said that my father had died and could we go back home. It was an absurd request, but I wasn’t thinking clearly, that of course my wife would be turning the car around and driving the half-mile back to our home and that Cristina would get on the phone to try to fly back to New York while I curled myself into a crumpled ball of hideous heartbreak on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, unable to do anything but moan as salty tears soaked my cheeks, meeting a runny nose, connecting to the saliva pooling at my open mouth, jaw slack.

My wife came and checked on me but there was nothing she could do. My world had come crashing down and I was shaking from the shock and the grief.

In the week to come while we took time off from work and life to grieve at my father and stepmother’s home in a lake community outside of Athens, my brother and I bonded more than ever before. We were already incredibly close and now this – the loss of our shared hero – had left us clinging to one another in a state of devastation. Every year on Oct. 3 since my father’s death has been difficult as I remember the punch to my chest of the shocking loss. But every day without him has been far more challenging. Every time something big has occurred, like my wedding or the launch of my own magazine or the birth of my twin sons, I’ve wanted him there to celebrate with.

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My dad never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud he was of me, and it meant the world to me to have a parent like that. And when things have gotten rough, as they often do, like when my mother disowned me or I found out I had a life-threatening genetic heart disease or I watched my brother suffer in a hospital bed for 14 weeks before passing away from organ failure at age 36, or when my son was diagnosed with autism, it would have been soothing to have my dad to lean on. And then the lazy, normal days, when there’s nothing going on but an ambling walk on a dirt road, surrounded by eager, wet-nosed dogs and our precocious sons my dad never met, sunlight glinting through the green-leafed oak trees, my heart hurts for him, then, too. Sometimes I just want to call him up and say hi, and hear him say again in his sweet Long Island voice, “Hey, darlin’. I’ve been thinking so much about you and what you’ve been up to. Tell me everything.”

 

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Blog, featured, healing, loss, pain, the vivid life

I believe in angels

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My dad may have left this earth five years ago, but I am positive he is still here with me now. I’ve often thought I felt his presence, but it’s easy to dismiss that and tell myself that I’m just feeling my love for him and wishing him near me. But this year, the year I’ve dubbed “The Loss of George,” my dad has been cradling me and he’s made sure I’ve known it.

When he passed away suddenly on October 3, 2008, we were all shocked. He was 61, a strapping handsome man who took care of himself with just the occasional sneak of a cookie package from his work vending machine. He had just started running again, he fished, he worked in the yard, took long walks with his dogs in the woods, he rode his horse, he loved his wife and family. He did a lot of living. And the face smack of his dropping dead for no apparent reason was life altering for me. The rosy world I knew became an awful shade of gray, and life’s meaning withered. As I was crumbling in my father’s and stepmother’s home the week after his passing, I happened to ask my stepmom about a small barn owl in the kitchen. She said in her sweetest voice that my dad had placed this owl in this very spot because he felt like it was his mom looking over him throughout his life. She passed it to me and said you should have it now so that you can feel your dad watching over you. I took the little taupe owl, no taller than 2 inches, detailed with feathers and a rounded head as a small slice of solace, offering a weepy thanks in return. My dad’s owl found a new perch on our mantel, and I often kissed it as a way of passing my physical affection on to my father, wherever he might be. “Hi dad,” I whisper almost daily, giving the little owl’s beak a tiny peck.

The end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 has by far been the most challenging time of my life as I spent nearly 15 weeks by my brother’s hospital bedside as he lay dying from severe acute pancreatitis at 36 years old. It was an emotional roller coaster that I couldn’t help but be on, and it was alarming when that ride crashed to a deathly end, dumping me out on the side of the rusty cart with little faith left in anything. As I walked out into the foggy gray February morning shrouded in George’s death, I was almost broken. And I’ve remained that way this year. Though my wife and sons bring me so much joy, anytime I got a rare moment alone, I’ve just broken down sobbing, wondering where my dear men are. My heart aches harder than I ever knew possible. It never helped that I felt like a complete orphan, having been also deserted by my biological mother. She’s a distant memory now, but the raw pain of losing my father, brother and mother all in one swoop of five years has been quite the cross to bear.

Soon after George passed away, I announced to my wife, Maria, that it was time for Operation Fold-in. I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t have a huge place in my heart and who I felt didn’t hold me in theirs. And it was very telling after George passed who cared the most. These precious people are on my team in life, and I feel very much finished with doing any people-pleasing for the ones who just don’t matter as much. In this short lifetime, we only have a certain amount of time every day to spend our precious hours doing things that matter, and to me, that means spending time with the precious few loved ones I have left and making a difference in this world. I am now realizing that those two actions are intertwined; I only have to look to my two shortcakes to see how I can make an impact on this earth. During Operation Fold-in, I haven’t spent hours on the couch in a gray, depressed cloud. But rather I’ve chosen to make the most of every day with my children, wife, family and friends. This has meant declining social invitations where I knew I’d be in an empty fog listening to random people prattle on and on about small things. Small talk has no place in Operation Fold-in. As I said no to more invites, they dissipated on their own. As usual, after a certain amount of time has passed after a traumatic event, the music starts back up and people get on with their lives. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to jump back into the party or dwell in solitude, nursing your wounds.

So when my friend and PR maven Jamie invited me to a soiree at her home in August, I said to myself, “It’s time to join the party.” Jamie also has lost a brother, so it seemed like a safe, nurturing place to begin my journey back into the social fold.

Jamie’s party showcased several small business owners she was introducing to the media, including a medium named Jennifer. She was doing private readings throughout the evening, and though I had not initially planned on having a reading, I was swayed by all the praise people were singing for her. Not just from the readings that night but from long-term relationships elite members of the media had with Jennifer, who had been dead-on with her predictions and connections with spirits. So I made an appointment to have my 20-minute session.

Jennifer was sitting quietly in Jamie’s bedroom waiting for me. One of her first sentences after welcoming me was that if I wanted to know about anyone living or dead that I just needed to tell her their first name. And so after a short time of getting her predictions of my own future, I asked her about George and Bruce. She told me first that they had both “crossed over” and they were together. Jennifer told me that George had died from something with his stomach, but that he’d contracted a virus in the woods that was undetectable by the time he’d gotten to the hospital. This made complete sense to me, and it left me feeling peaceful. George’s girlfriend had been told almost the very same thing a week ago from her psychic reading, and this was all without prompting from either of us. I had agonized about why George had pancreatitis, knowing most of the typical causes didn’t apply to my brother. Jennifer said that George was watching out for his two children and that he was at peace with his death. By this time, tears were running down my cheeks.

We moved onto Bruce (my father, but I didn’t mention this). Jennifer said some really lovely things about him as well, and it made me incredibly happy to hear that she felt like he was doing well in the afterlife. As we were wrapping up, I asked Jennifer if she believed that spirits visit us as butterflies, as I’d often heard. She said that sometimes that’s true, but that spirits will find a way to communicate with us in a way we’ll most recognize as a sign from them, something special and shared. For example, smelling a strong pot of coffee, when none is brewing, or feeling a warm sensation of heat enshroud your body as a spiritual embrace. I left the meeting feeling at peace. As I talked to myself in my head, I said even if that was fake, it felt good, and really, isn’t that all that matters?

As soon as I walked into Jamie’s hallway and several media friends looked into my tear-filled eyes, Jamie swooped in, looped her arm in mine and took me out to her deck to talk. She wanted to check on me about my grieving and be there for me in an empathetic way that’s just not possible from someone who’s never lost a sibling. As we were talking in the early dusky evening, something caught my eye over Jamie’s shoulder. It was a barn owl, perched on Jamie’s detached garage about 15 feet away from us, and he was staring directly at me. I said, “That is a gorgeous owl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real owl outside of a zoo!” Jamie swiveled her neck, her red tresses swinging with her. And we both silently stared at the woodland creature so clearly out of his element on a busy city street. As I looked into its eyes, I felt more comfort than I ever have since my father was catapulted out of his physical life. Jamie and I both sat still, savoring the moment, which lasted at least 3 minutes. Maybe 10. Time wasn’t a factor in this generous visit. A friend of ours stepped out on the deck, caught a glimpse of the owl and went to grab Jamie’s camera for us. As she motioned for it, the owl dipped down off his roost, expanding his wings in full glory and soared away. Motionless, I sat. Once I gathered my feelings as much as I could, I told Jamie about my dad’s owl at home. It was such a gift to both of us to share in this moment together, and one I hold very dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

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How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.