Monday, December 17, 2012


I recognized something in a man's eyes today. Weariness and fatigue pressed down, dimming most of the light in his beautiful blue eyes.  It was all there in his face, the bags under his eyes, the dullness of his complexion, the inflammed watery eyes revealing a chronicity of poor and inadequate sleep.  Oh how I've seen that face in the mirror, looked in those same blood shot eyes.  That old school-ground taunt, "takes one to know one" was never more true than today.  This man's wife is dying.  After five years, she is nearing the end.  

This recognition came about because I walked up to introduce myself and make a comment to him after hearing him speak.  I had wanted to encourage him to follow through with writing something he'd spoken about so passionately.  He'd said, almost in passing, that he'd probably never get around to writing it.  It was as I shook his hand and gave my encouragement that I looked him full in the face.  The details of how we got from point A to point B don't much matter but we were soon sharing our stories and I immediately felt a deep compassion for him.   We only spent about 5 minutes together ~ talking and understanding and holding each others pain.  Two total strangers, empathizing.  Bennett came over and joined us for a few minutes and as I introduced the two of them Bennett immediately connected to the man and shared some kind words and a tear.  It was a beautiful and powerful few moments.

The rest of my day was nothing if not routine.  I cleaned up the house and fed the kids. The Steelers lost a gut-wrencher of a football game in OT.  I got cranky and was more short-tempered with the kids than they deserved, truth be told.  We talked it out and hopefully we learned something for next time.  But for a while today, against the backdrop of our very grieved and confused society, I met a stranger and we connected over pain and heartache and weariness. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I'm Not A Zombie

For the longest time the whole appeal and lure of zombies were lost on me.  I chalked it up to getting old and figured this was yet another sign of the times; that I was not the demographic the pop-culture mavens were trying to reach.  Then the most fortunate of tidings befell me when a friend recommend I watch "The Walking Dead".  Not only do I understand zombies now, I'm one step closer to sympathizing with those folks on the fringes of society (mentation?) who feel driven to stockpile supplies and ammunition against the zombie apocalypse.  To be perfectly clear here, you won't soon find me building a silo in my back yard like some of those wing nuts.  However, in the event I ever find myself surrounded by a bunch of walkers, I'd be down with having some skills in the whole silent-assassin-cross-bow area.

Now if you're honest, I'm guessing you'll cop to what I'm about to describe.  You sit down to watch an episode of a show on Netflix or Hulu and because it's so damn good and there is an entire season at your fingertips you just keep on watching.  Episode, after episode, after episode.  Eventually the sun comes up and you realize you've got shit to do or perhaps you should get some sleep or maybe think about eating or emptying your bladder or some such thing.  Am I right?  All I know is this: I managed to put a whole season of "The Walking Dead" under my belt in a shameful amount of time.   And honestly, there is no better way to watch three seasons of "24" then back to back to back.  When it comes to cliffhangers, I have no willpower! I can't pull myself away.  And it has to be said that Netflix has completely ruined watching real time television forever.  I'm sure if I tried to watch anything in real time I'd become as petulant as a toddler having to wait a whole week for a new episode.  Perish the thought!  (Again, shameful I know, but hey, it's been a tough year and TV has provided some serious balm for my aching heart.  But I digress).

Getting back to "The Walking Dead".   After the last jag I went on I had an epiphany of sorts about what I enjoyed so much about this show.  It has nothing to do with the zombies or the dystopian elements of the story line.   Rather, I empathized with something in the characters at once.  To a one, they are living each day, each moment in a state of heightened awareness and vigilance.   There is a clarity with which they see what is important and necessary ~ everything that is unimportant is literally left by the roadside.  I recognized that kind of living immediately and I was surprised to find that I miss that quality in my life, that razor sharp quality to my days.  I had to watch the entire season all at once - it was exhilarating and gave me that feeling.  Maybe I just sound crazy.  Maybe you understand.  Who knows?

I'm not saying I want cancer and all the turmoil of those days back, of course not.  But waking up each day knowing exactly what I needed to do, knowing exactly what mattered and why, knowing in my bones how much of my and everyone else's lives around me were filled with superfluous shit that could be jettisoned and not missed for a moment was so liberating and defining.  The days since Phil's death have been fuzzy by comparison.  I am reminded of a lecture I went to when I lived in Washington about methamphetamine abuse of all things.  The lecturer said that one of the worst things about meth use is the damage it does to sobriety.  The way it stimulates the brain is so powerful and it's high is so potent for addicts that it makes sobriety almost unbearable by comparison.  This is what makes being sober so difficult.  Sobriety isn't just boring, it's painful.  

I get that, boy do I.  My new found "sobriety" lacks a certain clarity, it lacks precision and a singleness of purpose, an edge.  To compensate I've populated my horizon with Steeler games, my kids school activities, and "the next big thing" on the calendar to give me a sense of purpose and meaning I long for.  But it still falls short a lot of the time.  It's a temporary solution while my brain resets itself I guess.  I have been through a crucible after all.  

In thinking about all this, I know one thing for absolute certain.  I don't want to become the walking dead, like the zombies I see all around me.  People asleep at the wheel, people going through life's motions with no emotion.  People for whom sobriety is painful or worse, for whom sobriety is so hard they have to pretend to be happy when they aren't.   People who are unhappy and don't even know it, who are hiding from themselves.  I won't ever do that.  I've been through hell and back, and although sobriety doesn't look the same anymore, I'll be damned if it's going to be painful.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks 2012

Thank you to everyone who commented on Bennett's previous post.  He really appreciated each comment and encouragement regarding his writing.  I also enjoyed reading them and my mother's heart swelled with pride seeing all the accolades sent his way.  That piece of writing was from a school assignment that just happened to come along during the anniversary week of Phil's passing.  His teacher had been giving the students one word starters for narrative stories to begin from.  Bennett had worked with the words "help" and "hurt" previously and fate brought him to "loss" the day he posted on my blog.  He told me about having written about his dad and cautioned me against reading it, not wanting me to get sad.  But I loved it when I read it and I wasn't sad at all.  I remain very happy about the progress he's made and his ability to share his feeling both verbally and in written form.  I am most proud of the incredible insight he's shown into his inner life.  It bodes well for his future.

A year ago today I was in world of hurt.  Phil had died a little over a week earlier, I had just thrown together a somewhat hasty memorial service due to the impending holiday season and the long siege of his illness and the culmination of the days and weeks and months of fatigue came home to rest on me with a surreal finality.  My best friend from Washington, Tricia, had stayed behind to mop up and take care of me and the kids and we had chosen to eat out instead of  cook.  I was way beyond spending anymore time with my family or  friends and we thought eating at a local restaurant would be easiest.  What a nightmare.  The noise and banter of the other diners was just the beginning.  We were so out of place in our grief.  We had no business being in public let alone, joining in this most familial of holidays.  It was brutal and to a person we couldn't wait to get out of there.

Now it's one year later and I am hosting Thanksgiving in my new home, expecting 25 family and a few friends and I am in a good place.  I've survived my year of firsts and am moving into my future with optimism.  If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I've always had a grateful heart amidst the trials.  On this day, as ever, I am thankful for the steadfast people who walked with me this last year, sharing my inner life and the pain and grief there.  Your love and compassion, words and silences, your steady presence and understanding of my anguish have helped me heal.  You have made all the difference and I love you.  Thank you!

Sunday, November 18, 2012


by Bennett Conrad 

"I have good news and bad news, which do you want to hear first?"  "The good news!" my sister and I exclaimed. 

"Well, Donna, Jeff, David, Rob, Jamie and Grandma are all coming for a long visit."

"Great" we replied.  

"Don't get worked up because the bad news will bring you down.  Dad's cancer is getting a little overwhelming, so Dr. Kossman took him his off chemotherapy."

"You're not saying what I think you're saying, are you?"

"Yes, and it's very sad."

Mom stopped talking and began to cry.  So did Olivia and I.

"First Libby, then Grandpa, and now Dad!" I yelled in outrage.

"I know, it really sucks," whimpered mom.

"Why now? It's almost Christmas and then his 50th birthday." I croaked.

"Bennett, we'll be able to see him before he's gone."


"Yes, at the hospice center."

Two days later... he was still as a statute, but he was clinging onto life.  Grandma, David and two of my aunts sat around his hospital bed trading stories about Dad and saying quiet prayers.  David, my uncle, held my dad's cold hands for about 5 whole hours.  Then the worst, the cruelest, maddening part of the day came, we had to leave.  I stood up, walked over to Dad's bed and whispered in his ear, "I love you."  Suddenly, Dad sat up and opened his eyes; he looked grand, like cancer hadn't laid one poisonous gnarled little finger on his great life.  He took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, "I love you too."  Then he slipped back into unconsciousness.  I was the last person to ever speak with him. 

We got into our car and slowly drove away; devastated.  And that was the last time I ever saw my father.  Philip Taylor Berry Conrad died on November 15th a year ago today.  I will always remember him as a cunning and loving father, a blindingly fast and strong athlete, and one of cancers bravest, fiercest, and most determined competitors. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Life is Beautiful

“Life is Beautiful” directed by and starring Roberto Benigni is the story of a devoted father and his son who end up in a Nazi concentration camp.  In an attempt to hold his family together and help his son survive the horrors of the camp, the father imagines that the Holocaust is a game and that the grand prize for winning is a tank.  At the time the movie came out I didn't have any children, but just watching the previews and imagining what the father had to go through, the pretending and the elaborate charades, it was unbearable to watch, let alone consider being in that position myself.  And the title?  I knew what it was suggesting but I just couldn't get there at the time.  I love movies and will watch most anything across all genres.  I've never seen this movie and I probably never will.  At first I just didn't want to "go there" but now, it's a moot point.  

See now, I get it.  Life is beautiful.  Although I haven't been through anything nearly as horrific as the Holocaust I know what it is to want to protect your children.  Protect them from seeing their young, strong, capable father slowly wasting away in front of them.  Shield them from the realities of depression and cancer and chemotherapy and grief that encroached on our lives and their childhood.  And yet.  To deprive them of these basic truths of their lives would have been to deprive them of all the beauty that is life.  I don't need to see the movie because I've lived that story.  I don't need to watch it unfold on screen and ask myself "what would I do in a similar position?"  I was refined in the crucible of Phil's unrelenting illness and death.

I am a mother and although my first instinct will always be to protect my children, I also take into consideration what is ultimately best for them.  When a teachable moment comes along I seize it, because in their lives, as in mine, it is what it is.  With Phil's cancer, we were all dealt a shitty hand, he more than anymore.  But I tell you, the way that man played his hand was inspiring to watch and be a part of.  I am changed forever.  If I'd shielded Bennett and Olivia from that by pretending or sugar-coating it, it would have diminished what he was teaching them in the face of his greatest challenge and what I believe will be some of their greatest life lessons going forward.  Phil was showing them that life is beautiful and worth fighting and suffering greatly for.  He was showing them that love is beautiful, that family matters, friends matter, faith matters.  He taught them how to suffer with dignity and die well.  Phil lived a life of love and was a good father to his children to the very end.

Thank you Phil, you are beyond beautiful.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Steel Nation

My Sunday Best

It's quite easy for people to find our house when coming over for the first time.  We're the one's with a Steelers banner hanging in the front yard.  We understandably stirred up some interest with our neighbors when we put it up and it's definitely been a conversation piece.  Although The Chargers aren't remotely on par with The Steelers we still have some die-hard fans here.  My parents for one have been season ticket holders for over 45 years.  They even flew to Miami for that joke of a Super Bowl.  My brother Stephen drives down from Redlands (a couple of hours away) to enjoy the season tickets next to my parents which he bought from their best friends when they became available.    

Until we put up the banner we hadn't heard much from our neighbors.  The street is wide and quiet and though folks had waved and smiled as they drove by no one had actually introduced themselves yet.  Something about hanging that banner tipped the scales and one by one they started making their way over to say something.  Comments ranged from "what's with the banner?", to "that's my son's favorite team", to my personal favorite from my next door neighbor's father-in-law, "the Steelers made me a lot of money in the 70's!"  

Inevitably Bennett or I would explain why we had the banner up in the first place.  Our Daddio was from Pittsburgh, he had died in November, and we all bleed black and gold.  Anyone who had even the slightest problem with it would have quieted down after that I'm thinking.  I married in to this passion for the Steelers and it's a great legacy from Phil that I share with my Pittsburgh friends.  It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced it - being a part of Steel Nation.  But it is everywhere.  The kids and I see Steelers bumper stickers, license plate holders, T shirts, paraphernalia of every kind down here.  

To be fair, tomorrow I'll be wearing my #14 Dan Fouts jersey when The Chargers take on The Raiders (boo hiss), having been raised watching the Titans Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and John Jefferson in the era of Air Coryell.  However, when the Chargers have six Super Bowl rings that's when I'll hang their banner in front of my house.

Game Changer

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


After writing the last post I went back and read the blog I posted at this time last year.  It was very instructional and surprising at the same time.  It reminded me to consider perspective yet again.  As I well know but often forget, things can change very quickly, in a matter of minutes.  Other times they change imperceptibly, particularly when we are marking time and hoping for a specific outcome.

This time last year Phil had a normal bone marrow biopsy and a PET scan showing that his lymphoma had regressed and he was responding well to his chemotherapy.  There was a small area in his chest which appeared to be residual scar tissue but otherwise he was looking fairly good.  We were referred to UCSD for a bone marrow transplant consultation where we set those wheels in motion.  We were cautiously optimistic even though the lymphoma continued to plague Phil with effusions.

And it was around this time last year that Phil went to Atlanta for a buddies trip - to see his high school friends whom he'd been getting together with for years.  It was a calculated risk, that trip.  He had developed new swollen lymph nodes prior to his departure which we weren't certain about.  By the time he came home from that trip he was drastically altered.  He came home with another pleural effusion and over the course of the next 2 1/2 months he'd deteriorate quickly despite an incredible will to live.  

Two and a half months.  I don't recall things changing so quickly or declining so rapidly.  Each day was crammed with so many things to attend to, appointments to keep, endless emotional ups and downs.  It was all so surreal and time took on the quality of suspended animation.  It's no surprise to me that I lost sense of time.  As my counselor so aptly put it this week, "don't be surprised by your capacity for storage.  You had to put a lot of stuff away for later because of the chaotic nature of your life at that time."  Well, I've been doing a good deal of unpacking lately.  All of the sudden there seem to be a lot of packages showing up on my front door. 

I don't think it's any coincidence that it is happening as I am rounding the bend into the anniversary of Phil's death.  The routine of school, the approaching holidays, the heat and humidity - everything conjures up memories of those last days.  As I lit a candle the other day the scent of it instantly took me back to our rental house on Lomita.  I saw Phil in repose on our red couch, his feet swollen and propped up on pillows, in his hand the cup of "juice-water" he continually drank in those last days.   I felt the bond of the circle of friends and family gathered there with us, surrounding him with immeasurable love and care.  Those last days were time multiplied.  

Now, as I go through the stuff that's showing up for me (my storage unit so to speak) I'm increasingly anxious to get through this year of firsts.  To get it over with and start into the next year, the year after Phil died.  Yet when I pause to reflect I realize I don't want to miss one moment of the next 2 1/2 months this time around.  At this point last year I was inconsistently available for my children's needs emotionally.  Thankfully there were other wonderful adults who stood in the gap.  Now it's just us, Sally, Bennett, and Olivia day in and day out.  

In these last weeks something subtle and sweet has been slowly developing between us a midst the anguish and anger we feel ~ feelings we too quickly take out on one another.  We are all quite tired.  We are collectively ready for a change.  For our little threesome a crucial part of moving forward in change will require that I consistently be there for them as the painful and sad moments ahead intensify.  "Life is change, growth is optional."  I want to continue to show them the way through to growth and healing.  May it be so.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lost in the Supermarket

Yesterday I found an old notebook that I used to keep track of things when I was preparing to move down here from WA.  It held lists of house repairs, donations for the Goodwill, things to save for our garage sale, crap to haul to the dump, items to give away to friends.  There was a tremendously long TO DO list in Phil’s handwriting that I had dictated to him while we were driving in the car one day.  This was followed by page after page of errands that I had run in the days and weeks leading up to our departure ~ groceries, packing lists, dentist and doctor visits, car tune ups, and friends to whom we’d need to say good-bye.  There was even a pro and con list of reasons for moving to San Diego.

And then, on one lone page, tucked among these lists, was a notation long forgotten. 

Phil – another illness?

You see, at that point Phil was already in the beginning stages of what would eventually be diagnosed as lymphoma.  But at the time his symptoms were non-specific, very uncharacteristic for lymphoma and frankly, confounding.  While packing up and making the transition to CA he and I were also trying to figure out what was going on with him.  He saw his internist, a neurologist and a specialist in Seattle.  He went to the ER in incredible pain.  The best we could come up with by the time we left was that he might be developing another autoimmune disorder.  In reality, it only took about 6 more weeks for the lymphoma to clearly declare itself.

I’ve talked about my little journals before.  How they held my notes during his illness and contained my brain when I had little to no sleep and couldn’t trust myself to remember details.  They funded each and every blog post I wrote during that terrible hard time.  They are a record of his treatment, his intense suffering, his humility and ultimately his release.  They are sacred because they contain notations like the one I found yesterday that might pull me up short, but remind me of other times and other places that were real and were different.  They show me that time passes and things do change.  More on that later. 

There is a song lyric that Phil would quote from time to time when was overwhelmed or couldn’t make a decision.  “I’m all lost in the supermarket.”  Such genius lyrics these are, from The Clash.  It became a code between us when we were at a loss, literally or figuratively.  We loved the idea of feeling lost in the "supermarket", a metaphor for our everyday life.   When you can't understand what's going on with you or in your relationships and that stops the normal flow of your days - the "shopping" as it were.

Well, Daddio, I'm all lost in the supermarket.  

I feel like this more often than I'd like to.  Suddenly it's like I can't do what I was easily doing everyday and it's because of something that's lacking in me, and those voids aren't easy to fill.  What's lacking stems from the tremendous hole in my life where you used to be.  That’s obvious of course, but I'm struggling to understand how I lost so much of myself in your death.  I have been profoundly diminished.  

I still can't bring myself to hang any pictures of Phil in the new house.  Like a bad part of town or a corner of the woods you wouldn’t be caught in after dark, I've been skirting around that area of life for the last little while.  I've given myself lots of reasons why I haven't put any up but truth be told, I've been hiding out.  It's just too painful.  There are a few scattered pictures sitting on shelves but the entire folder full of pictures that I collected for his memorial sits untouched in my fire proof safe.  And I can’t bring myself to hang our wedding picture.  It still sits in my closet, right where Trenna put it when we moved in.  One small example of all lost in the supermarket.  

Phil is gone.  Now we are three. I get up every day and lean into the future with my kids.  I'm much more easily frustrated. I lose my temper and yell more.  I pick my battles and try to do my best.  It's ridiculously hard being a single parent, being a 45 year old widow, desiring to be fabulous on occasion all the while recovering from a nuclear disaster.  I do have good days, don't get me wrong and we are making progress.  I’m getting closer but I’m also shocked by where I find myself.  I don’t judge it, but I’m shocked by how little progress I've made.  The relief of his death and the end to his suffering has now passed.  Now I'm on to a deeper grief ~ missing the healthy and vibrant man I loved and lived with all those years before.  I’m just beginning to really grieve.  It's a good, hard and very sad development.  

But I trust my journals, things do change, eventually.  They always do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hard Love

Hey Daddio,

It’s July 22, our wedding anniversary.  Seventeen years ago we stood together in my parent's beautiful garden and stepped into our adulthood together, right?  We both knew when we met each other that “this time it was different” and we got serious about dealing with our shit.   I want to thank you for taking the lead in that, for being the one to say it first, that we needed to have a spiritual foundation in our lives as well as identify the issues that would characterize our life together.  You were right about so many things and were always willing to talk about them, admittedly sometimes for far longer than I wanted to, but you were a great communicator and I was blessed by that more often than not.  Your insights are sorely missed around here. 

Remember our vows?  They were not particularly conventional: everything was in there - in sickness and health, good times and bad, 'til death do us part and all that.  But we also promised to annoy and disappoint each other, to let each other down, to frustrate and fail to deliver and totally drop the ball.  We knew who we were and how we were and we went in with our eyes wide open.  And being imperfect people, all along the way, we delivered on our promises to annoy, frustrate, disappoint, anger, and fail one another, again and again.   

Still, despite all that,we had no idea what a crucible our marriage would turn out to be, did we?
Do you remember that wedding we went to when the pastor said, "There are hard marriages and there are bad marriages”? The unspoken message being I guess that the “good” marriages are the hard ones?  

We had a hard marriage Phil. It wasn't all bad and it wasn't anyone's fault.  We were just two imperfect people doing their best to deal with the crap that life threw at them; working to overcome the worst parts of themselves and striving for deeper intimacy, hoping to operate with more kindness in relationship.  But damn honey!  We had 8 miscarriages, you had so many ridiculously unfair health issues, and our chosen profession, though rewarding, was incredibly stressful and we had some seriously difficult employers. I struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder for far too long and just as we were starting to turn a new page in our life together, the unthinkable happened. 

In more ways than I fully appreciate that’s when our marriage really started to get good.  When everything became crystal clear all the accumulated bullshit of the previous years - the petty grievances and the real ones - were dropped by the side of the road.  Stripped down to the bare essentials of who we were and staring the possibility of “‘til death do us part” brought us to an intimacy that we’d never known and we came to see and know each other in a new light.  We had everything to lose, everything to gain.  For me, I experienced and understood what it meant to really live selflessly for you.  It was one hell of a way to get to that place of unconditional love, a place I thought I’d been before.  Believe me, I hadn’t. 

Looking back now, I have to admit to you that sometimes I was so spent, it seemed like the most exhausting work to keep at it, to stay in relationship.  It would have been easier to just withdraw into myself.  To turn away, close off.  But you pursued me and continued to talk to me, wanting to connect and be in relationship until your dying day.  That was always you Phil.  Always vulnerable, always trying to make it better, always pursuing.  

In the end, somehow, while enduring chemotherapy and the ravages of an all out assault on your very being you found the strength to continue to pursue me when I was exhausted, spent and at times, disappointing.  We found a way to pursue and find each other in the moments and in the reprieves.  Ultimately, I am proud of what we accomplished together.  They were sixteen great, hard loving years.  We became better people during our life together.  We have an incredible son and daughter who live on with fierce spirits just like ours.  They are doing fine and will do great things with their lives, because of you and I in them.  They will have lives full of joy and sorrow and laughter and love because that is what life is!  Like us, they will know who they are and how they are and will live and love with eyes wide open.

Phil, in your absence, and with no more chances to share in the fruits of our mutual labor with you, it now seems obscene to complain at all.   I count myself a victor who came away from our beautiful crucible with a lion’s share of lessons learned.  How I take them forward will be the way I honor you and the life we shared together. 

Happy Anniversary, you were an incredible and faithful partner. Thank you for loving me hard!

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Rest Is Still Unwritten

I’ve heard memoirs described as a roadmap for being a human.  Memoirs tell others what it felt like to have a certain experience – the good ones don’t claim to be the authority on that experience but they are bold and certain in their own particular truth and honesty.  A good memoir, in my opinion, when it’s finished, convinces you that it will be like this for you too perhaps, when “it” happens. Or, I know you know what I’m talking about because you felt it, and maybe, just maybe, you couldn't put it into words, so here the words are for you, finally.

For me and what became my cancer memoir, writing about Phil and the long process of his sickness, degrading health, the shock and even surprise when his death itself occurred ~ both the certainty that the suffering would eventually end and the hope and confusion about when, why and how, those parts came relatively easily.  The way the world always seemed to be cast in shadow offered endless perspectives to draw from for insight and commentary.  But now, most days there’s not much else I can say about it, Phil’s death.

Now I am in the land of grief – the process, the journey, the wandering.  There are no more facts or figures to report.  There are no more updates or data to interpret.  The need for my clinical skills is long past and I am left with the plain story of survival, coming to grips with the fact that my life will forever be divided into “before” and “after”.  Even my children are moving on in their grief, with the resilience of youth and the blessing that time affords them in the abbreviated economy of their lives.  My old life ended at the same moment that Phil’s did and it will never come back.  The loss of a spouse has been described as the loss of one’s “present” ~ I so totally get that. 

 I look around now and can’t help but see how people move through life as though their days aren’t numbered. As I continue to hear news of deaths or tragedies and how they shock people into another mental state, “the shallowness of sanity” is exposed again and again, just as it was for me.  As Alice went “through the looking glass”, so too did I undergo a radical change in perspective.  There is no going back to life as I lived it.  There were a multitude of things I set down in order to carry the weight of Phil’s illness and death and I realize I don’t ever need to pick them up again.  I consider that insight a divine gift, a silver lining to all of this – a very costly, but divine gift. 

How incredible too that this new mental state offered me an opportunity for tremendous growth!  As my wandering gains focus in this new headspace I have choices I get to make.  I have been given a fresh start, a new perspective, and what lies ahead is my future, full of possibilities and endless potential.  I’ve been blessed with another precious gift from this wreckage.  Yes, the wreckage remains but I am learning to dive it better with each descent.  I'm finding that I can come up for air more often and for longer periods of time.   Yes, I am grieving the loss of my "present" life but what I have gained is the expanse of the rest of my life.    

For me and my house, the rest is still gloriously, unwritten.   

Monday, June 11, 2012

Camp Erin

I'm not entirely sure what I expected to hear from Bennett when I picked him up from camp on Sunday but I knew he'd have an incredible story to share.  I'd made arrangements for Olivia to be with friends so he and I could have the drive home alone together.  She and I had driven him to Camp Erin on Friday after school - a bereavement camp for kids who have experienced the loss of a loved one, sponsored by The Moyer Foundation and San Diego Hospice.  We had to straighten out his name tag (his first and last name are always getting switched around) but it was smooth sailing after that.  It was classic Bennett from then on, "Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out Mom, I've got this".  He was all set to make friends and "do camp".  And do camp he did.  

By all accounts, Bennett stepped deeper into himself this weekend and tempered the core strength and self awareness of his that has burgeoned this year.  One after another his counselors told me what a pleasure it was to have him in their cabin and what a natural leader he is.  They told of Bennett putting his arms around kids who were struggling with their grief, just sitting with them or encouraging them with a kind word.  And of how he led their cabin in the "GaGa" tournament victory (some high-action ball game, the hit of the weekend for all the campers)!  A wounded healer and athlete, he is his father's son in so many, many ways.  

On the way home Bennett filled me in on all the fun stuff they did - the canoeing, the pillow fights, the food, the farting, and the ghost stories.  He shared about the grief work - the memory board where he put Phil's picture and told his story, the lanterns they built and sent floating into the lake, the art projects they did together to commemorate their loved ones.  And about losing his voice because he laughed and yelled and screamed so much.

And then he turned the conversation to his whole life, outside of camp.  The things he said and the way he connected the dots and made sense of who he is and what's happened to him thus far in life... amazing.  As his mom, I'm not worried.  My son knows who he is.  He isn't looking to anyone outside of himself for validation or approval.  

He loves his dad and misses him but his life isn't going to be defined by Phil's death.  

As I told him, he is so far ahead of the game with that going for him.  I am so proud.  So in love with him.  So thankful.  

God is good, all the time.    

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

It Ain't That Hard

I heard Deepak Chopra speak many years ago when I was a PA student at Duke.  It was a silent snowy day and campus was eerily quiet.  I didn't see a soul until I entered the SRO auditorium and even then there was a subdued atmosphere, everyone whispering in hushed tones and huddled together for warmth.

The topic of his lecture is lost to me now but there is one thing that remains with me from that night.  He was talking about road rage and our hurried life style in this country; how we are always rushing to and fro, how what we are all about is more important than anyone else's business.  He challenged us to think about the person in the car that cuts us off, the car that won't let us pass, the driver that flips us the bird.  He challenged us to consider what their emergency is.  Maybe, just maybe, they are in crisis and have fewer tools in their tool box than we do.  Maybe, just maybe, they are in need of grace and we can give it to them.  Maybe, just maybe, they are going somewhere more important than we are.  Maybe, just maybe, we can exhale and let them go by us and we will be better off for having done so.  

Yesterday I was returning a video to the Red Box at 7/11 and I couldn't find a parking space in the lot.  There was a pick up truck blocking the lane and a red-faced young kid was shouting at the driver to move her ass out of the way, waving his arms and swearing a blue-streak the whole time.  The driver was so flustered in her attempts to do so that she backed up over the curb into the bushes.  As I found a spot way out of the way and walked over to the rental return I crossed by her and saw her crying.  Her passenger called out to me, "Excuse me, can you help us?"

It turns out they had been driving around for over an hour looking for a street that was several miles away.  He was overdue for dialysis and had missed his bus so his wife was driving him -- she spoke no English and he was legally blind and couldn't drive himself.  They were so far out of their element.  I rummaged around in my car, found a highlighter and wrote directions on a paper plate.  Hopefully they made it to their destination.    

I thought of Deepak. 
I thought of all the times people had stopped to help Phil and I.  
And I thought of all the times I've been disappointed by people who can't see beyond themselves.  

It's pretty simple.  As my snarky and wonderfully loving friend Anita posted yesterday on her Facebook Status: "Guide to not being an asshole: Don't be an asshole.

Love wins every time.

Friday, April 27, 2012

That Place

It's been a particularly rough few days for me. The kids are fighting more, my fuse has become short, and I wear lethargy like a lead apron.  The boxes are becoming more and more difficult to face each day.  The high of moving is gone and we are all feeling the downturn.  There is much more to it of course.  There always is.

We've made several trips back to the rental to gather up straggling items, do a final walk through, take out garbage and set aside our Amvets donation. On each visit I've remarked to myself how glad I am to be out of that place with it's crumbling pathway walls, waist high weeds, wobbly faucet, 1950's insulation and chronic smell of smoke and ash.  That place that until two months ago had no heat. That place so poorly managed.  That place where Phil died.

If you ask the kids are they going to miss that place they'll say "No" very emphatically and might even call it a slum.  I'd have to agree with them.  But our hearts are sorely hurting for having left that place all the same.  For no matter the condition of that house, it was our last home with Phil.  It was the place where we witnessed his final hours of courage and humility and the place we gathered to share our heartbreak and sorrow.  It was the place where neighbors cradled us in their collective arms and cared for us day after day after day.  From this point forward we will only move further away from that place ~ which is both good and sad.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Life is a gift.

It's Monday morning now and it's clear that the vacation is over. Life is a gift, let us live and love accordingly.

I received horrible news last night that a lifelong dear friend of my family had died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving behind a wife and two daughters in their early 20's. He was in his early 60's, a surfer and runner and very full of life. He, like Phil, wasn't supposed to die young. And he, like Phil, was one of the really good guys. He loved the Lord and made the world a better place by being in it.

Now his wife and daughters will embark on the journey the kids and I are on - learning to live without a husband and father they thought would be there. Diving deeper into a faith they've only begun to plumb the depth of. And coming to terms with the edges of themselves that are raw and uncomfortable and need grace and mercy in the most difficult of moments when they are fatigued, overwhelmed, grieving and missing their loved one.

But having walked this road ahead of them I know a few other things they will find on their journey as well. They will find good Samaritans who will feed and cook for them, wash their laundry, clean their house, take care of needs they don't even know they have. They will find peace and comfort in memories and in the letters and cards that come their way. God will comfort them with deep refreshing sleep that defies explanation given the circumstance. And He will provide sweet moments of relief from the pain in the form of joy for old friends reconnecting and reunions with loved ones to shoulder the burden of sorrow.

As I dropped my kids off at school this morning they were so eager to run off to share their vacation experiences with their friends. I hadn't told them about our friend's passing yet. There will be time for that this afternoon. I wanted them to have their day today. For me, I have had a different attitude toward life for a while now and this just solidifies it. I agree whole-heartedly with my sister Anita who says she has no more naïveté thinking everyone is going to live a long life. There have been too many early deaths in our circle.

Life is a precious gift. Let us live and love accordingly.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Burgh

The kids and I just returned from what they are calling the vacation of a lifetime. We spent six days in Pittsburgh for a celebration and memorial of Phil's life followed by almost two weeks in Orlando to enjoy "the happiest place on earth" as well as Universal Studios and the wild beauty of the St John River and the promise of gators. The entire trip was a sacred, healing and outrageously fun time for us and was filled with moments of emotional connection and communion with the friends who loved Phil so well. Each of us was deeply affected by our time spent with those friends and I am so grateful, on behalf of my children especially, for the stories, love and affirmation that were poured into us.

Our time in Pittsburgh was exactly as I hoped it would be. There were not too many tears but instead numerous good stories were shared and I had the chance to meet a lot of the people from Team Conrad whom I'd come to love over the last year. Rob Hamilton and Jeff Breland's eulogy's were eloquent and individually captured the spirit of friendship they shared with Phil. And the video montage that Brad Bruckman put together encapsulated the times of Phil's life wonderfully - hearing Phil speak at the end took me by such surprise that I was immediately besought with tears. It was both a gift and a sad reminder of what we've lost.

I lost count of the times I heard people comment on how much Bennett looks and acts like Phil. Of how he has Phil's vibrant spirit and character. As his mother it made me proud and overjoyed for him to hear this and I loved seeing him beaming as he heard it repeated over and over again throughout the parish hall. And Olivia, quiet and contemplative by my side, missed nothing as she heard every compliment about her beauty and gentleness. The "buddies" as Phil called the guys who went on yearly trips together, made sure she heard what a miracle her dad thought she was and how much love he held in his heart for his special girl. It was love, love and more love.

As some of us gathered later to share leftovers, raise glasses in Phil's honor and continue sharing stories, the tears shed were more of laughter than anything else. Phil left quite a few whoppers behind and gave us ample material to work with. And, as if it were ever in question, he has the best friends. In the midst of coming together to mourn the too-soon passing of their dear friend, they were also having a really good time being together and celebrating this place called Edgewood that gave them a sense of shared identity, belonging, community, and connection. Be it comparing a Vinnie Pie to Mineo's pizza or rehashing the latest Pen's game against the Flyers, these Pittsburghers are the real deal - they bleed black and gold for sure. And to a person, they love life, they loved Phil and they let us know again and again how much he loved us.

Bennett commented that he felt like royalty while we were in Pittsburgh. The mere mention of his dad's name seemed to open doors and gain him access to things. When we went to Mineo's for pizza one day he mentioned to them that his dad worked there in high school. The next day at the memorial the owners came up to him and Olivia and invited them to come in to make pizza's and spend some time behind the counter. They had the time of their lives and came home with T-shirts and ball caps to boot! While there Bennett made plans to come back for a summer job and was already negotiating a salary.

Phil's brother Jamie had written a letter to the folks who now live in their childhood home, asking if we could stop by for a look. Steve, the owner, was incredibly gracious and opened his home to a dozen or so of us and gave Bennett a Pittsburgh hat and Olivia a bag of Jelly Bellys. We spent an hour walking the property, checking out the house and even crawling into the attic which David had called home for awhile. Jamie and Jeff Breland pointed out the various marks on the doors from stereo wiring and David cleared up some mysterious decals left behind in the attic for Steve. It was great fun and awesome for the kids to see where and how Phil grew up. Across the street was Jeff's house and the family there also graciously let us in, during their five year olds birthday party no less. Just another example of the friendly small neighborhood they grew up in that remains today. Standing in those homes was spiritual and bringing my children there was important.

By the time we left Pittsburgh for our adventure in Orlando we'd played in Frick park several times, eaten Mineo's AND Vincent's pizza, I'd seen the Pen's play and we'd seen some of the amazing architecture and history that makes Pittsburgh so beautiful. Bennett now knows where Mike Tomlin lives and he and Olivia have new Steeler gear to wear home. Pittsburgh and it's people have wound their way into our hearts big time and there is no question that we now bleed black and gold too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Brothers Trips

Spring is in the air everywhere you look around here in San Diego.  The vibrant swathes of purple ice plant growing on the sides of hills can be seen from miles away and the daffodils are already fading in some gardens.  The burst of new buds are on the trees and we've had several glorious sunshiny days that have seen us at the dog beach in short sleeves and sandals.  Our weather clearly had something to do with San Diego being named America's Finest City.  

It was usually about this time of year, when these botanical events started taking place, that Phil would start talking with Jamie and then David about doing a brother's trip.  Granted, when we lived in Washington, this conversation often didn't roll around until late June given our climate-challenged vegetation...  But you get the picture.  Once Mother Earth started to wake up from her winter slumber, so did Phil.  He and his brother's had a tradition of hitting the high country together every few years to enjoy nature's beauty and get away from it all for a while.  Mostly, it was an opportunity to spend deliberate, thoughtful, focused time together.  No cell phones, no television, no women or wives or kids, no jobs or stress.  Just three men and the mountains and the sky and their words.

These were some of the best times of Phil's adult life.  These trips and his buddy trips.  There was just something about men getting together in nature and sweating it out together that really spoke to Phil.    He loved to push himself physically and to do that in a beautiful environment only made him happier and seemed to make the effort easier.  Nature always had a hold on his heart and soul.  Anyone who has heard him talk about Mt. Timpanogas in Utah or about Sundance in Deer Valley has seen the look in his eye.  Even at our beginning, he courted me in Duke Forest and along the shores of Lake Jordan in Chapel Hill, on long hikes through the woods as we talked for hours about everything and nothing.  

So it is fitting that his brothers are paying a tribute of sorts to Phil and their mutual love of the outdoors and fitness by riding in a fundraiser for Leukemia and Lymphoma.  If you haven't heard about it yet or would like to honor Phil in this way, check out their fundraising page below.

I hope you have many enjoyable remembrances of Phil and his lust for life as you experience spring this year.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Matter of Perspective

Today it seems that every area of my life needs attention and there aren't enough hours in the day let alone enough psychic energy to bring to the fore.  It stems from buying a house and trickles down from there with things like printing/signing/faxing documents for loan papers, includes calling my landlord to repair the leak that exists in my laundry room since the heater was installed as well as doing umpteen loads of laundry before taking my adolescent-chew-anything-and-everything hound to the dog park before I make a rash adoption plan for him because I don't want him to ruin my new house.  Then there's the social security administration that has complicated my life by not paying the kid's portion of benefits this month so that I have to spend hours on the phone with them rectifying the situation (not to mention the fact that I need to get this is in order pronto for my underwriters!).  

Did I mention that my car is starting to smell bad and is a debris field from the last week of frenzied activity of rushing to school in the mornings and baseball practices in the afternoons?  Oh, and Bennett missed two days of school last week with asthmatic bronchitis and then spent 3 hours in the ER last weekend so he could get 3 stitches in his head after hitting it on the bathtub.  Juvenile antics, that's all I'm going to say.  He asked me if Daddy would be proud of him for how brave he was getting his stitches and it pained me to tell him that Daddy wouldn't be too happy to be in the ER at 2 a.m.  Sorry little buddy but the truth hurts sometimes.  Oh, and that'll be $500 please.  Thanks. : )  

I detail all the above because I very easily get caught up in the crap of my life.  There is more I could tell you that went on these last few weeks but I feel badly just reciting a litany of complaints.  I know my life is hard because of my grief process and my new found singularity but I also know I must pray and fight against the tendency to focus on the negative.  It is all soooooooooooooo easy to do.

So, let me tell you about some wonderful women God has placed in my life.  Melanie is a teacher in my son's grade (4th) and she lives just down the street.  God put a burden on her heart to ask me if I wanted to do a bible study with her and another mother, Elizabeth, she knew from a previous classroom who was also a widow.  Melanie was bold and followed God's lead and I said yes!  Melanie has an infectious charm and energy and for those of you in WA, reminds me of Sammie Simons!  She has a smile and a hug for everyone and is positive and radiant and loves the Lord.  She is a few years older than me and I immediately considered her a friend and mentor.  She loves my children and her family is incredible!!  We have met several times and although Satan tries to foil our plans we continue to find ways to get together although I still haven't met Elizabeth!!

Julie also meets with us and she has 3 wonderful kids who are unique and fit so well with my kids.  "O2" is Julie's daughter Olivia and my Olivia's buddy from first grade.  She and her sister Josie and "O1" love to play American Girls together and have all-girl parties complete with signs (No Boys Allowed)!  Julie's son Max and Bennett are all-boy and play Little League together, ride BMX and shoot air soft guns when they are not playing on the Wii or Playstation.  It's a lovefest all around.  And Julie is real.  She is honest and open and wanting more and is in continual pursuit of the Lord as well. She is spicy and sassy and fun!  Did I mention that she and her husband own a fantastic sushi restaurant?

Jann also lives right up the street and has taken me under her wing in so many small ways. Every once in a while my phone will buzz with a text and it's Jann, checking in on me to see how my heart and my head are.  She always checks on my migraines and my spirit and I love her for that.  She knows how bad both can get and she never forgets me.  She also has a real sweet spot for Olivia and has watched her for me several times, creating some beautiful fun crafts with her and treating her like a real special guest.  Jann consistently prays for us and know's what it's like to raise strong-willed children.  Her presence in the background is comforting and encouraging.

Lastly and not least, Trenna continues to be my stalwart bedrock.  She was, she is and she will be there.  My love for her grows more with each passing day.  I wouldn't have made it through any of this without her confident grace and reassurance.  God was a genius ~ knitting us together at the age of 6, for such a time as this!

So there you have it.  Things can seem pretty bad circumstantially but it's the people around you that make the difference.  I don't have Phil by my side but God has provided a cloud of powerful women to fill in the gaps and they are mighty indeed.  I know I need to focus on what He has given me amidst all this trouble the world deals out.  Because one thing I know for sure, this world will continue to deal out trouble.  Grab your friends and give thanks to "God, who causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them."  Romans 8:28

Monday, February 6, 2012

Home is Where the Heart Is

I bought a house this week and it is beautiful!  It's far nicer than anything Phil and I looked at when we briefly house hunted in July of 2010.  At that time what we could afford were older homes that were very small or that needed a good deal of "sweat equity" as Phil liked to call it.  Once he was diagnosed with lymphoma we quickly shelved our dream of buying a home and tried to protect our little nest egg as best we could, not knowing what was in store for us.

Now here we are, the kids and I, all these months later, on the cusp of moving into our new home, our "forever home" as Bennett puts it, all made possible by Phil's sacrifice and death.  Kinda sad.  Kinda crazy.  But mostly, it's amazing and shows how provisional his love was.  Even in death, he is taking care of us and he's made my "workplace" for raising our kids even more precious.  We will be in a beautiful home that is convenient to everything, spacious and comfortable, perfect for entertaining and yet quiet and tranquil.  There is even space for our beloved-behemoth-hound Zack and for the gardening to come.  There is sunshine all around and I will never have to move if I don't want to.  Ahhhh. 

Thank you Phil!  We will talk of you here and tell stories of your incredible life.  We will rest here when the going gets tough.  We will laugh and have fun here!  By putting a roof over our heads and giving us a safe and secure place to rest our heads and our hearts you have given us a place to rebuild our lives and heal our broken hearts.  We will move on confidently in life without you here with us because you have provided the means for us to do so.   As we move into our new home we will be taking you with us, in our hearts and memories, forever.  You have our love, always.  

Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy Birthday Babe!

Today is Phil's birthday, he would have been 50.  His dying young is a tragedy in itself but it hurts more today to know that he didn't even make 50.  Phil always acted and looked younger than his age and people were usually shocked to find out that he was as "old" as he was.  We tended to run with a younger crowd and as the oldest of our friends he actually took pride in being one of the most physically fit ~ although being Phil, he never flaunted it or rubbed anyone's face in it.  It is just who Phil was.  When we met in 1994 he had just moved from Park City, UT to Durham, NC for PA school and had been doing a lot of high altitude trail running.  He'd spent hours at a time running the ski trails for fun... a total nut job I tell you!  When he met his classmate  David Huish, a fellow trail running madman from Farmington, Maine, it was Kismet (a Turkish word meaning fate or destiny).  They immediately sized one another up and ran each other to their limits, getting lost on their first run together in the Duke forest and running further than they probably intended too ~ loving every minute and forging a friendship that would carry them through the challenges of PA school, young married life, their careers, starting families, and the crucible of cancer.

When he was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes several years ago (an autoimmune adult onset type) Phil became even more zealous about his fitness and controlling his blood sugar became extremely important to him.  His HGB A1C (hemoglobin A1C - a measure of blood sugar control) was always excellent and below what was desirable for him.  He exceeded expectations and went the extra mile, making sure that his health came first.  He was always on time for check ups, always reading about his disease, and always running, biking and exercising.  

So it was shocking when he of all people got sick.  It was not supposed to happen to Phil.  He took such good care of himself.  He looked younger than he was.  He was strong. He didn't deserve it.  But that's the thing with cancer.  No one deserves it.  And that's the thing with getting sick.  No one sees it coming and no one is immune.  It just happens and it happens to good, strong people who you love.

All week I've been anticipating feeling sad and having a difficult time with today.  But then this morning I heard a story on NPR that helped me feel better.  A husband and wife were talking about their 18 or 20 yr old son who had died of mononucleosis and the wife's tremendous grief for 5 years after.  She said that one day her husband asked her if she'd known ahead of time that this would happen to them, would she have traded the short time they had with their son?  Without missing a beat she said "No, I wouldn't trade having loved him for a second."  

That's what I needed to hear this morning.  I wouldn't have traded a minute loving and knowing Phil either.  Today is about celebrating that Phil lived, not that he died.  He lived life fully and fought hard to continue living.  I miss him because he left such a huge impression on my life and that of my kids, family and friends.  Join me in celebrating a life well lived and cut short too soon.     

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thinking About You

"Do you think of Phil very often?" was the question my sister asked me as we were wrapping up our New Year's weekend together.  It was with some difficulty that I struggled to answer.  You'd think it would be a simple "yes" or "no" but instead I spent the next several minutes trying to put into words what my experience has been during the last six or seven weeks since he died.  It was a challenging task because I am embarrassed to admit that I don't think of him as often as I think I "should".  

I struggle to describe exactly what my grief has been like.  Phil died in mid-November and before I knew it along came Thanksgiving, usually my favorite time of year.  Then there was the rush of Christmas and the challenge to make it as special and joyful as possible for the kids.  It all ended up a mixture of many stressful, surreal and thankfully, a few beautifully sublime moments.  (So long 2011, don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out).

Then just a day or so ago a friend sent me a link to an interview with Patrick Swayze's wife detailing her grief and the struggles she had taking care of him during his 22 months with pancreatic cancer.  I read that she initially thought of Patrick every three or four minutes for the first few weeks.  Holy crap!  I can't even imagine what that was like.  I so don't relate!  At first blush I felt bad that I wasn't like that.  

But something dawned on me and I felt immense relief at my insight and I took compassion on myself for not having dwelled on Phil these last weeks.  You see, from the moment Phil received his diagnosis I'd done nothing but think of him.  My life's dreams and passions ceased to move forward and all hands were on deck for the fight for Phil's life.  So began my journey with balancing the battle with cancer, motherhood and maintaining my sanity ~ all of which I kept spinning like plates in a carnival side show.  So now, to step back emotionally and not think of Phil all the time, let alone every three or four minutes, is a respite I have needed for a long time. To give myself permission to not feel guilty about it has been liberating.  And it's not the first time I've had to give myself this kind of permission...sheesh.  

In point of fact, what has happened is a transposition of sorts.  Now I think of my children most of the time.  I think of their grief and the anger they are exhibiting and of how I can parent them better especially now that I am alone (though not).  I constantly think about their future and of all the things I now need to provide for them in accordance with the collective vision Phil and I had together to shape their budding characters and to fill their thirsty souls.  And I reflect often on the difference between what they actually lost when Phil died and what I am unwilling to see them let go of along with that loss (their innocence, integrity, tenderness, compassion, faith).  In recognizing the immense responsibility and privilege that is mine to raise these kiddos, I accordingly give myself permission to ask for help, pray, and cry as needed.  

I often think of Phil in response to the overwhelming responsibility I feel to continue parenting these remarkable children "in the way they should go so that they will not stray from it".  I miss him every day and am only just beginning to understand my grief and the grief of my children.  None of us have the same response to his death and since each of them are rapidly growing and changing, I have to be on my toes all the time.  If I were to think of Phil every three or four minutes I could not do what I have to do to get on with the business of living ~ and leading all of us on in that.  And I find that for me personally, what I read recently rings true~ 

"People cry not because they are weak but because they have been strong for so long".