Wednesday, June 29, 2016

#SOL16: Love is a Story in Five Parts

from my art journal, 6.29.16 (gesso, acrylic paint, archival ink, found papers, digital remix)


Once upon a time there was a man who loved his wife and son as he loved life and then he died.
Too soon.
Too early.
Too suddenly.


The man suffered as did his wife, his son.
They suffered together
and apart.

Who are they now--this man, this wife, this son?
What happens to what we cannot name?


This a story of the misplaced; a link in the communion of stories.


Once upon a time there was a man, a woman, and a boy.
They suffered together
and apart.

They suffered and they loved.


The best stories have large holes.  Holes so big we wander in and out--getting lost in the best possible way.
We tell stories to say out loud what we did not know.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

#SOL16: Closure is Too Final

from my art journal, 6.27.16 (gesso, acrylic glaze medium, acrylic paint, archival ink, found papers)

Closure is too final. 

To grieve is to first hold loss
tightly fisted to the heart. 
There waves of sadness
and longing
overwhelm and silence
our world.

Are we even living? we wonder. 

And still life pulses
and one day we too 
begin to hear 
beneath the tumult
of grief, faint
possibilities sounding. 

all the while love remained, 
opening wide spaces 
for kindness and clarity to grow. 

To live with loss 
is to honor the love
we most grieve.
This moment of grace 
helps us to gain 
our feet and stand; 
helps us to see
why there can be no closure. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

#SOL16: Living with Loss

from my art journal 6.25.16 (gesso, textured paste, acrylic paint, stabilo pencil, newspaper)
Storytelling has always been a way to find meaning about loss. - Pauline Boss. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Kindle Location 1264).


All week I have been emotionally off. At first I thought it was a result of experiencing Father's Day this year without Rob.  And this may well be the source of the discomfort. But now I think it is more complicated then that.


Tonight as I was out walking I decided to listen to the most recent episode (PAULINE BOSS — THE MYTH OF CLOSURE) from Krista Tippett's On Being. Pauline Boss, family therapist, developed the theory of ambiguous loss--a type of loss that is felt by survivors of a missing person (ex., a child who is kidnapped) or a psychologically unavailable person (ex., someone suffering from dementia). At the beginning of the episode, Boss said this:

There is no such thing as closure. We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And it's OK. 

The statement, "We have to live with the loss" brought me to tears. Immediately.  I kept walking and listening and I was crying.  My response was large and immediate.

I have wanted to get over Rob's death, to put aside this pain, and in some ways felt obligated to do so especially when repeatedly asked how Devon and I are doing. For me, that question creates a context that suggests Dev and I should be getting better--getting through the grief as if all of this had an ending.  As I listened I thought about how a week ago I discussed living with loss with the therapist I am seeing. I discussed this huge idea as if I had it all in hand and as soon as I left the office I promptly forgot all about the conversation we were having with the idea that loss never ends, rather we learn to live with it.

I blocked the entire conversation from my mind and went about the week. Consciously, I did not attend to exploring what living with loss might mean, how the idea of loss may change, and the ambiguity associated with loss and living with loss.

This is work before me.  Tonight I have questions to consider, nary an answer to be found and that is enough.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

#SOL16: Birds

from my art journal, 6.24.16
(gesso, acrylic paint, alcohol inks, stabilo pencil, marker, digital remix)

Birds like me.

When I walk, a lone bird, often a cardinal, will land nearby. It used to be that birds would quickly lift as I neared, but that no longer happens, not since Rob died and I began to walk daily. Now birds stand still as if they might have a message I most need to hear.


Birds do not visit me in groups.

Yes, they still gather on wires above and spread across the lawn during the early morning hunting for worms.  From the opened window I can hear them calling to one another. But when I walk, birds arrive solo, reminding me that we have but this present moment.

Be still, each bird seems to say. Be here.


Birds are more bridge than not.

They are an evolutionary bridge between the dead and us with their wings spanning a distance you and I cannot travel. The cardinal, I've been noticing, finds swift flight and slips the gravity of this world foregrounded in the patches of sky revealed between a tangle of tree branches.

And I ask, Who better to tell us where the dead go?


Birds don't always sing.

Against the rising moon, the birds have grown quiet alongside the darkness. Without their song, I have gotten lost among the light and shadow mistaking the foreground for the background. I have traveled beyond a place of comfort. And still I want to ask, What happens to the dead?


Birds get lost.

They don't follow the cardinal rose.  Direction is more myth than truth. What is essential still rests--not in their wings--but in our mortal hands.


Birds are rarely foolish, unlike me.

Some moments I feel stripped, a bit crazy, daft even. Grief will do that for in a world where a man like my husband can die so suddenly, all things good and dire are possible.

Friday, June 24, 2016

#SOL16: A New Dating System

Bold Sun (M.A. Reilly, Montepulciano, Tuscany, August 2013--two years before Rob's diagnosis)

Sometimes in late afternoon, when the sunlight falls across the west-facing windows at home, I am moved to recall the last three weeks of Rob's life and I think that maybe, just maybe, I dreamt it all. I mean how could it be real? For even now, his death, the awful 5 months of failed medicine, the pain he endured, having to tell our son his dad would die and die soon and seeing him collapse on top of his father and knowing what it cost Rob, frail from the illness and the attempted cures, to catch his son's weight. He caught his weight and held him steady.

All of that feels so far away, save the love.  The love was so intense the last months of Rob's life. Some days I wonder if I haven't been in a deep shock these last few months and am now emerging like a winter coat you take out in late October to air. Here in the heat and glare of an early summer day, winter feels impossible--just like the 21 days I sat beside the clunky hospital bed that claimed a good portion of our family room and watched Rob as he would reach his arm into the air grasping at something I simply had not the eyes to see. At these times the late day light would be sparse, almost cool, as it fell across the linens on his bed. I loved how the shadows shifted and moved against the purity of the white blanket.

My husband was finally home--home after spending 50 days in hospitals. You must understand that the regular rhythm of day and night gets so disrupted in a hospital, especially as Rob was housed in intensive care when he first arrived. He had been taken from our house by ambulance the morning of December 30th because he could no longer stand up and he was brought back by ambulance on February 17th after the terminal prognosis. A resident, a young man, told us Rob had five days to a couple of weeks to live. He repeated this until finally I had to ask him to leave the room, to leave us alone. I remember telling him, "You are not helping. Please go." Yet, by the 17th, I was so relieved to finally have Rob home that I did not and could not fathom having to give him up forever. It seemed as if the two of us had forgotten he was dying.


In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion remarks "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it" (p. 188). And now I know this is a sad truth. It is impossible to understand the permanency of your husband's death.  It is ridiculous to waste time trying. Having spent most of the last 29 years with Rob it is more illogical than truth to not have him here planning our summer holiday. Now that Devon is out of school and the days are hot and sunny, I keep anticipating that I will find Rob seated at the round kitchen table scribbling in one of the many notebooks he kept, a pile of maps ready to be explored.

We loved to travel and thought little of getting in the car and just going. No destination, save an initial direction.

During the last three weeks we had together, I was so immersed in caring for him, operating minute-to-minute mostly in deep shock with little sleep and even less food that the implications of his death were not a reality I could attend to. I was only in my mid-50s and widowhood, I foolishly thought, was preserved for older women, not me. A few weeks after Rob died, I was paying for movie tickets and thought, "How can I be a widow? I'm too young to even get a senior discount."

But there are blunt reminders that in fact I am a widow. This week my brother collected Rob's ashes from the funeral home.


Life pulses on dragging me along with it. Most days I occupy myself with painting, walking, grocery shopping, making meals, watering the plants, talking with Devon and friends, visiting others, reading and writing . None of these things feel normal as there is no normal now. Normal has imploded. Even time has been reorganized into a new dating system: before the diagnosis and after.  For example, two years before the diagnosis we ate dinner in a small restaurant in Sant'Albino tucked away in Tuscany. We talked about coming back to live after we retired never knowing that Rob would be dead long before he could retire. A year before diagnosis, Rob and Devon brought three huge hamburgers with fries from a Ruby Tuesdays in Brunswick, Georgia. We were traveling home after spending time in Florida and passing the night at an Embassy Suites.

But all of that is moot. Life as I knew it ended on August 20th, 2015 at 8:20 in the morning. It was then we learned Rob had cancerous lesions on his spine. We thought he would need just some radiation--28 days we had been told. It would be several weeks later that the full horror would be named: stage 4 lung cancer which would be further complicated by poorly treated staph infections, thoracic surgery, and spinal surgery. Each year roughly 160,000 people die from lung cancer here in the United States. It is the cancer that kills the most people. There is no cure.

Friends, acquaintances all ask, How are you doing? They ask this with genuine care in mind and I find I pause before responding as I don't really know what to say. You would think I would have come up with a pat answer by now but here's the thing, there is no single answer and none feel accurate anyway. With each inquiry, I feel as if I should be further along with grieving than I am. Yet after Rob's death nothing seems to make a lot of sense and this is what is so difficult.  Nothing makes sense, least of all the death of such a vital loved man.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

#SOL16: Healing

from my art journal, 6.22.16 (acrylic paint, ink, stabilo pencil, and Word Photo app)
The quotation is from King Lear.

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what feel, not what we ought to say.
- William Shakespeare - King Lear 


This past Sunday was emotionally difficult. It was Father's Day and my son at the very tender age of 17 no longer has his dad.  A month after Devon turned 17, Rob died. I worry about how I am ever going to fill the immense void that Rob's death has caused in our son's life. I walked through Monday largely as if I was hung over, reclaimed a bit more of myself by Tuesday morning, and felt good by Tuesday afternoon. What I want to say here though is less about the pain that punctuated the last few days and more about the resiliency that frames both Dev's life and my own.

Yesterday, we went to Steven's Institute so Devon could meet with a few professors. He reports that the meeting went well and he said that he learned that being able to program in several languages and building his own computers may not be as common a set of skills as he first thought. After his meeting we ate dinner at a local Cuban restaurant. The meal was fun.  Having time with Devon to just talk and joke and eat good food and have no dishes to clean up ended well a good day. I thought of Rob, missed him, and knew that he would have approved of the day and would have been proud of both of us.

C. S. Lewis describes grief as being like "a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape."  Some days, like holidays, are a terror. Most days have some pocket of sadness, as well as visions of possibilities. A range of emotions inform my days as I awaken from the nightmare of Rob's illness and death.

As we were driving home from Hoboken, Devon said to me that he is once again becoming interested in creating projects for himself.

"It's been so long since I wanted to stay up to 3 a.m. to figure out solutions for a problem or to frame a project. Now I do again. I'm filled with an energy I thought I had lost," Devon tells me.


Each of us is healing. Before us are possibilities to name.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

#SOL 16: The Death Knell

from my art journal 6.18.16
(gesso, newspaper, acrylic paint)

Tonight I boxed up books for recycling.  12 boxes of books. I went through hundreds of books deciding on the ones that did not hold sentimental value. Devon then carted the boxes outside. There must be more than 10,000 books in this house and each one seems to be a story that hurts to remember. Tomorrow is recycling and I am trying to put this house in order.  I also organized the walking aides Rob left behind: a cane, a four-pronged cane, two folding walkers, a rolling walker, and a transport chair. They are in the garage and will be ready for pick up on Friday by a Vietnam Veterans group.  Each walking aide tells the abbreviated story of the progression of the cancer as it wrapped itself around my husband's spine, slowly and surely compressing it. Wobbly in October. Unsteady in November. Unable to walk at all by the end of December. On Thursday, I'll pack up the clothing Devon has outgrown and the odd pieces of clothing that remain of Rob's and these too will be donated to the Vets.

For some reason all this cleaning and organizing has me remembering when we first learned Rob had cancer.  The phone call came on the morning of August 20, 2015 at 8:30. I answered and handed the phone to Rob. Our family doctor was the first to tell Rob that he had cancer. Lesions on the spine. During those first few weeks, we walked around knowing such a partial story. We were cancer neophytes. It would be four weeks later before we would learn that the cancer Rob had was stage 4. What we did not know was that each passing moment marked the last time Rob would ever see that month.  There would be no more summers for my husband. No more springs.  We passed through those seasons never knowing that he would not see another. Not knowing he was even sick.

Rob learned he had stage 4 lung cancer in the early fall and he was dead before spring arrived. He lived for two seasons. That's all. And during that time he was so very sick fighting staph infections, undergoing thoracic surgery and then spinal surgery that he was taken from Devon and me well before his death. He was only able to receive one chemo treatment because of the infections and that one treatment was not enough to stem the rush of the cancer through his body.

Before he died, Rob asked me to pursue legal action as he and I were equally sure that his life had been cut short due to the surgeon who placed an infected port into his chest on September 14th and the infectious disease doctor who cleared him for chemotherapy at the end of October declaring that the staph infection had been cured. A week later Rob was back in the hospital as the staph infection had not been cured and now there was a huge abscess that rested close to the right ventricle of his heart--threatening his life.  An infection that had eaten through his fifth rib. He would suffer a cardiac incident that night and would be transported to the cardiac intensive care unit. All of these infections and surgeries made it impossible for the cancer to be treated. While Rob fought these, the cancer progressed. I'm glad Rob never learned that because his diagnosis was stage 4, there were no legal avenues open to pursue.  I have been told by attorneys that it simply doesn't matter how neglectful each doctor may have been. A diagnosis of stage 4 is its own death knell and the negligence by doctors is no longer actionable.

My husband never had a chance to fight the cancer as he was too busy fighting the illnesses that began with the insertion of an infected port into his chest in mid September.

Who knows what might have happened had Rob had the chance to fight the cancer, especially given the new immunotherapy treatments that are now available to fight lung cancer. Rob had been scheduled for his first immunotherapy treatment the day Devon turned 17. Unfortunately, he could not be given the treatment as he spiked a fever.  Less than a week later we would learn that the diagnosis was terminal. Three weeks later, my husband would be dead.

Monday, June 20, 2016

#SOL 16: Moving through Grief

from my art journal, 6.19.16 - The Wisest Know Nothing
(stabilo pencil, gesso, acrylic paint, newspaper)
Grieving is largely days of normalcy punctuated by deep sorrow which gives way to feeling sad. Sometimes the triggers are known, like yesterday was Father's day, and sometimes the triggers are not. When grief sets in, I feel like I have been lying most days, faking this life I am making without Rob. Pretending that the loss is manageable when the loss feels so huge. This is what yesterday was like. This depth of sorrow feels as if I might die and no one can fill what has been lost, make me whole again. No one, except myself. And so, I also knew that the feelings would dissipate and I would feel differently again. I knew this because I have been through this pain before and I have marked it, named it. I knew even when I was sobbing that I would feel more normal than not, just not at the moment.

So what do I do when sorrow is deep?  I feel sorry for myself for awhile and I don't will away the tears.  But I don't allow feeling sorry for too long. It simply isn't helpful. In fact, feeling sorry for myself fuels the hurt. When I remember this and can identify what I'm doing as feeling sorry for myself, I get moving and doing instead.

Yesterday I meditated before anyone was awake in the house and then Jane and I hiked before she left to return home.  I prepped a few pages in my art journals with gesso and I wrote and posted on this blog. Writing helps me to name what I don't know I'm actually thinking. Naming is powerful.

Later in the day I suggested to Devon that we go visit my brothers and Dev drove us north for our visit and got a little highway driving under his belt (he did very well). Being with my brothers is bittersweet as it is still strange to see them and not have Rob there.  Yet, we talked and as we did the grip that was tightening around my stomach eased. When we got home I made dinner and Dev and I ate and talked as we do most nights. I did laundry, watered plants, cleaned the kitchen, and I felt really sad throughout most of it.  Now and then I came across something of Rob's and cried a bit. Later in the night, I returned to painting with the idea of painting what I was feeling. The result I have posted here: The Wisest Know Nothing.  Like writing, making art also helps to ease the pain.

When I was ready to sleep and had turned off lights, I felt a bright blue light cover me.  Yes, cover me. I thought at first this must be because I had moved from light to darkness but I know not to doubt what I do not know. Watching Rob die and listening to what he had to say as he edged closer and closer to death has taught me that mysteries abound and that we cannot know all there is--all the possibilities simply through our five senses.  During the night I recall waking and for the first time, feeling as if Rob was lying next to me. This was so comforting.

Today feels more normal than sorrowful. I woke, meditated and wrote. For today, this is enough.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

#SOL16: Father's Day

Rob and Devon.  2003.

In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it.
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language, 1977


The summer is just about here. And Rob is not. A few days ago was Bloomsday and it was a day Rob and I would celebrate. To say my husband appreciated James Joyce would be an understatement. Earlier that day, Dev asked,  "You okay? You look sad."

And I did feel sad. And that sadness hung around a bit--a weight I never really wanted and then as my mind got busy elsewhere, the feeling of sadness dissipated.

Last year, Rob wanted a new shaver for Father's Day and I know that he received that, along with something less practical--a copy of Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building.  It is the less practical that I am grateful for a year later. The Timeless Way of Building explores a theory of how to bring conflicting ideas, scenes, patterns into balance. It is a book about tensions and ease.


from my art journal, 6.19.16
(newspaper, gesso, stabilo pencil and acrylic paint)
Across this first year, each change of season, each day that comes and goes marks Rob more gone. When I think of this I get a sick feeling as if somehow all of this has been a mistake, a very bad mistake.  How could Rob be dead? It is still unfathomable. It hurts in so many ways to create new memories, ones that have not been made with Rob.  He was so very vital. His absence is a hole, not fillable.

As the days unfold, each step is a measurement that distances me from this last difficult year and yet time is less linear and more curved.  A year ago we did not know Rob was ill and likely I barbecued that day and we ate and laughed and looked forward to summer's arrival and to planning the trip to Portugal we had intended to take last November that we never were able to do.

And now a new Father's Day has arrived and each holiday between today and a year from now will unfurl in ways I simply cannot not know.  My husband was an an amazing father to our son. Amazing. He loved Devon with a fierceness that words here simply cannot capture.

The hard thing about grief and often about life--is the intensity of feeling. Sometimes a holiday blindsides me, no matter how 'prepared' I think I am.

Flame to flesh. And then the healing that comes with movement.


I move to keep things whole. I love how Mark Strand wrote about moving, how he situates the relationship between movement and absence.  Some ways I move is by walking, some ways are by paint across paper.  I think about Alexander who wrote that "[d]rawings help people work out the intricate relationships between parts.  

That is what grief mostly resembles.  Grief is the working out of intricate relationships between parts.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Come On Congress: Do The Right Thing!

from my art journal, 6.15.16 (acrylic paint, gouache paint, digital manipulation of text type copied from Mother Jones)

Is it possible for our Congressional representatives to do the right thing and ensure our safety?  Come on Congress turn your back on the NRA and do the right thing--the job we elected you to do.  So proud of Senator Cory Booker from NJ, Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other Democratic senators who are bringing the gun debate to the senate floor.

We can help.  We can use the power of the vote.  Friends, it is imperative to vote out our Congressional representatives who fail to stand up for us, but rather are in bed with the NRA. Shame on them.

For me that means working hard to ensure that Representative Scott Garrett from the 5th Congressional District is not re-elected. He has an A-rating (93%) from the NRA. An A rating.   Instead I will be voting for Josh Gottheimer in November.   We cannot wait for Congress to do what is the right and rational thing to do.

We can do this.  Check out your representatives' NRA Rating.  You want to see an F rating.  Here's a link. Just scroll to find your state.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

#SOL16: Tell Them We Ate Love

from my art journal 6.14.16 We Ate Love (gesso, acrylic, collage papers, archival ink, pan pastel)

This morning I had to turn off the radio.  I had to.  I also skipped the Facebook posts that focused on the dead in Orlando--that identified those beautiful dead boys and girls, men and women.  Some just 19 years old.  Some just 20 years old.  Just a few years older than my own son.  Having lost Rob recently, my ears are tuned to hear and record the shocked-voice of the family members who were interviewed on NPR.  Months from now someone will tell them what they said for they will have no memory of it.


Shock insulates and that is perhaps a small mercy.

Instead, this afternoon I painted in my art journal. I thought about those who survived--about their luck, their courage, their will.  I wanted to celebrate those who live.  I kept thinking about a few lines from a poem by Shokry Eldaly, "A History That Has Not Yet Come to Pass."  The opening lines resonated and allowed me to make a small tribute to the survivors.

#SOL16: After Rob

Below is a poem that captures an early morning after Rob died. I  wrote it and paired it with two pages from my art journal. It has been a long time since I actually wrote poetry and it was a bit scary to face the page. A special thanks to Carol Varsalona for the occasion to write poetry and the encouragement to do so.

from my art journal, 6.8.16  (acrylic paint, ink, gesso)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

#SOL16: Restless

Two pages from my art journal, 6.9.16: She Had a Lot On Her Mind 
(acrylic paint, gouache paints, archival ink, pencil, gesso)


There's a restlessness that comes with grief. Suddenly I become aware that my foot is tapping, or I'm walking about the house without intention. Grief is unspent energy. Some days I find it hard to concentrate and to attend to matters. Concentration happens best when I am working with children or teachers, walking/hiking, working in my art journal, or cooking. Intensity matters.  In a letter to his niece, Henriette Lund in 1847, Søren Kierkegaard advised,

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being, and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it (p. 412).
Since Rob died I have walked each day.  This past week I got caught a mile or so from my car in a rain storm. I had forgotten how private it is to walk in rain. At first loneliness permeated my days. Now I find loneliness is yielding.  In Perseverance,  Margaret Wheatley writes how loneliness can transform into a willingness to be alone.  Two separate feelings. She explains,

Loneliness eventually transforms into a willingness to be alone, even a desire for the space and peace available when nobody else is there. But to get to this lovely place, we first have to let loneliness be there, wait for it to pass through, and then notice that it’s gone, that we quite like the space we’re in. 
It reminds me so much of Kathleen Norris's advice in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography about letting a place happen to you. Walking anchors me to the earth and soothes the loneliness by allowing me each day to commune with nature at the moment.


It was just an old, oversized atlas that I found on a bookshelf at home when I was packing up a collection of books for teachers at a school. The atlas was Rob's and now it has become one of my art journals. I find working in multiple journals at the same time to be more productive. I can prep a two-page spread in one book and as those pages dry, I can work in a different journal.

I enjoy working on paper that Rob had handled. I notice how the maps and print bleed through the thin layer of gesso I apply and this often adds to the design and the ideas that emerge as I work.  I almost never know what I will be creating and the blank page is sometimes difficult.  Now and then I just go ahead and mark a few pages and this allows me to begin to see a potential narrative I night want to follow.

The journal is a place for self expressions and discovery. After Rob died, I needed to work with my hands.  The painting and collage making provide a means to ease the restlessness while focusing my attention. I often get lost in art making for hours.

My art journal is place for experimentation--a place where I can try out new techniques I am learning, invent methods, make lots and lots of errors, cover up mistakes (thank goodness for gesso) and start over again.  The work I am making is amateurish and there's a frustration to that and yet, there is also an odd satisfaction. The art journal also is a place where I work out things I may be feeling, but not naming.  It is sort of like my life after Rob. In many ways these last few months have been largely about practice, about acting as if.

At first, the weeks following Rob's death found me partially paralyzed with fear.  I seemed unable to make even the simplest of decisions.  In the time that has past though I am feeling braver, more willing to cultivate new interests.  I wonder if in seeing Rob die it hasn't liberated me from fearing my own death.  Rather than guard against death, I know that at some point I will die.  In some ways this liberates me to live more fully.

Work Cited
Kierkegaard, S. (1978). Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers: Autobiographical, 1829-1848. Howard V. Tong and Edna H. Hong, Translators. Indiana University Press.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

#SOL16: Poetry, Rob and Love

Two-pages from my art journal: 6.10.16 (gesso, acrylic and gouache paints, ink, pencil, collage papers)

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
      - William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree 


The first date Rob and I went on was to a poetry festival in northern New Jersey. It was 1988. We met in graduate school--both of us were English majors. I cannot recall which poets we heard that day, but do recall thinking that I had surely met the most fascinating man I would ever know. That day, in between the verses, Rob spoke to me about Joyce and Einstein, Stravinsky and Yeats, Heisenberg and Gödel, Creeley and Olsen. Years later we would name our dog, Maximus, after Olsen's three-volume masterwork.  The first time I returned to Ireland so many years after I left that orphanage in Dublin, Rob drove us to Lough Gill in County Sligo so that we could row out to Innisfree and hear the bee-loud glade.

Literature was a backdrop to the lives we made, the love we grew.  After Rob and I decided to marry I told him had we had an actual ceremony that required invitations, we could have simply sent out, "yes I said yes I will Yes" à la Molly Bloom. But I am getting ahead of myself, ahead of this narrative that is taking shape.

On that blustery fall day in 1988, it felt unseasonably cool even though there was bright sunshine or at least that's how I remember it.


Memory is fairly faulty, unreliable and I so wonder how it is I will remember Rob in years to come. What is it that will remain as time moves along? What will I recall? Savor? Desire? In The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, George Bonanno explains,
Memories of people and places are not objects in our heads. They are clusters of snakelike neurons, arranged in branching pathways throughout the brain. The strength of a memory has to do with the connections of the neurons, their links to other ideas and other memories. The more elaborated the memory, the easier it is to find its neural address (p. 17).
Rob is surely a gorgeous snake living in my mind, as our lives were so entwined. Bonanno explains that calling forth positive memories can be a source of comfort and healing for the bereaved. Living in the home Rob, Devon and I made for the last 14 years, every square foot is a reminder of my husband. His eye glasses remain on his desk. His Walter Benjamin books--the last books he was reading--are stacked now on a shelf in the living room. The comforter he wrapped himself in, sits next to me. I am sitting in a reclining chair as I write this--the same one Rob sat and slept in after he was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer climb the stairs to our bedroom. We did not know then that he would never again see the upstairs of our home after mid October. Washing Rob's hair one Friday morning was the last thing we ever did up upstairs together.  And today I am so grateful that it was with such care and tenderness that I washed his hair--as if some part of me knew.

Later that day we would go to see a neurosurgeon who would tell us that Rob did not need spinal surgery at that time. Three months later, his partner would operate on Rob and a month later my husband would come home to die.


I have been sorting through books. For some reason it feels important to gather all the poetry books in our house and put them together--a feat we attempted but never quite got done.  And this handling of poetry has me remembering. It's a late winter's day--the last year I will teach high school and Rob came to read to my students.  He showed up with his knapsack over a shoulder opened, hair tied back, and a fistful of loose papers--poems he had brought to read. He stood there wearing a leather jacket, a striped shirt he had left untucked, a pair of dark brown corduroy jeans that hugged his ass just so, and a worn pair of work boots and of course, his glasses that made him look a lot like John Lennon. By then we were so in love, so in lust and I recall how beginnings are always so much fun.

After I introduced him to my senior students he promptly climbed on top of a desk and began reciting some poem in the voice of the upper-crust English. About 30 seconds in he abruptly stopped, looked down at the students and told them that poetry need not be so lofty, so foreign. And with that he got off the desk and sat alongside the students and read some of his poems, gesturing with his hands as he read.  He read about getting clean and sober. He read about the way faith feels on the streets of the lower West Side. He invited students to read and before long a poetry slam was in the making.

Later that day, as we drove to my home, he would ask me what it was like to be a teacher.
"You always seem to really, really like what you do," he said to me. Rob seemed to marvel at this as if for him enjoyment and work did not occupied similar or adjacent spaces.
"Well, of course I do."
When Rob turned 40 he sold the three-generation family business in Hell's Kitchen and we tightened the proverbial belt as he became a teacher. For 20 years he taught: college students, middle and high school students, and teachers. No matter where we would travel, or what restaurant we might be eating in--some student he taught or a parent of a former student would greet him and quickly explain to Devon and me what an amazing teacher Rob had been.

I know.


On that fall day as we sat alongside one another, listening to poet after poet, I felt we were fated and it scared me.  I had never known an attraction so electric, so present-moment. By that next fall we would live together and a year later we would marry and then become parents to Devon. Throughout all of this that love that felt so palpable that fall day become more complicated as it deepened.

Loving Rob was like hearing a much-loved poem. Each time, regardless of the number of times, the poem still takes you by surprise. You marvel at its
             quick beauty and fiery depth. You marvel
at what you most needed
               and did not know.

Rob lives in my deep heart's core.

Thinking of Muhammad Ali

I listened yesterday to the memorial/celebration of life service for Muhammad Ali.  It was so very moving, especially the presentations by diverse faith leaders. If you did not have an opportunity to hear it, here's a link.

Below is an entry I made today in my art journal.

Two-page spread in art journal, 6.11.16: "Ali in Brooklyn"
(gesso, stabilio pencil, acrylic, watercolor, newspaper, photo transfer)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

#SOL16: Fire

Rob in the Redwood Forest (Devon took picture)

Last Saturday night my dreams were filled with flames and soot, crackling timber and unbearable heat.  I dreamed about a wild fire burning out of control in what I think might have been the Redwood Forest in California. I kept trying to get to Rob who was caught in the forest too and each time I thought I would surely fail to reach him, the scene would reset.

I thought the dream was my attempt to save my husband.  Now I suspect I was saving myself.


Years ago, Rob, Devon and I spent a late December day in the Redwood Forest. None of us had been there before. It was few days after Christmas and Devon must have received a camera and throughout the rather cold and somewhat rainy day, Rob continued to show Devon how to use the camera.  He did this with not only patience, but an odd joy. And we posed
ever so often for Dev to snap a picture. It was such an ordinary day. It had been our 17th wedding anniversary.


All day long, the scent of fire stayed with me, an odd companion at that.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

#SOL16: Turning to One Another

Rob and Devon on Martha's Vineyard

...To climb these coming crests/one word to you, to/ you and your children:/stay together/learn the flowers/go light     --Gary Snyder, "For the Children"


Worrying about death is counter-productive. Rob and I imagined a future--the continuation of the work we so loved and the day when we would more or less retire. That future, though, always stopped short of death. We did not imagine our own or each other's death. In fact it would be correct to say we were completely unprepared for Rob's illness and hurried to have a will made in the closing weeks of his life. I'm so grateful now that we didn't waste time on what we neither controlled nor could know. In some ways the best revenge, if that's even the sentiment I'm after, is to live and love fully and to learn how to turn to one another.

Turning to one another helps us to confront the waves of grief that well up after loss. In so many ways, having Devon in my life and needing to care for him and be cared by him has been enormously healing. Life marches on with a teenager in the house as it does for the surviving spouse. Connecting with others helps.

In the two months prior to Rob's death I began writing and publishing blog posts that chronicled what was happening and how I was feeling. People I have known and others I have never met began to comment. Those comments mattered more than I think I could know at the time as they formed a lifeline that kept me present in the world, when I least had the presence of mind to do so. I did not know then that some who read this blog were in turn reading posts to other family members, sharing posts with friends. Learning this has been healing as all these acts connect us, connect me to you, and I suspect you to others.

During the six months Rob was ill, we were confronting on a daily basis some new horror, and a steady group of friends and family stood beside Rob, Devon and me and so many times held us up. Towards the end of Rob's life my brothers came to the house daily spending the day and evening with us and two friends, Robyn and Jane, more or less moved in, while other friends saw to the myriad of things I simply didn't even know needed seeing to. There were friends who came early in the morning to get Devon and bring him to school. Friends who grocery shopped for us. Friends who arrange for kind people from the town I live in to build a ramp so that I could get Rob out of the house if need be and helped me to find reliable care for Rob for the few mights I did so. Other friends brought food. Others simply texted a quick message of love. Against all the grief this helped us to feel happy.


Jane tells me that her son, Peter shared Robert Waldinger's research (The Harvard Study of Adult Development) about what makes for a happy life with her. The crux of the research is that happy people have the constancy of a handful of others they can count on and be present with regardless of what is happening and not happening. Waldinger the director of the project that has stretched across 75 years says,

...The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period. 
We've learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected...
...And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it's not just the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship, but it's the quality of your close relationships that matters. 

In a grief group I attend each week, others there have commented about the surprise they felt given how soon I sought out the group. It was 8 days after Rob died that I joined the group. Believing in the necessity and goodness of others is what I have learned being married to Rob, raising Devon, and being an educator. Teaching, like a good marriage, is first about love and the solace that comes from being a teacher is the single most important 'outcome' that gets made in classrooms and schools daily. It did not occur to me that I should wait to seek the comfort of others. I'm so grateful now I did not wait. I knew it would be hard to be so raw, so vulnerable in front of others I did not know. But here's the thing: they recognized me by my story, my grief, my loss and the connection was rather immediate.


In The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavment Tells Us About Life After Loss, George Bonanno, a clinal psychologist at Columbia University writes, "We are not accustomed to thinking of grief as a process of finding comfort. The idea seems a bit odd, but this is precisely what resilient people tend to do" (p.72). I had not connected comfort seeking with resiliency but see how they might be linked.

Finding comfort requires action. It requires courage. I cry easily. Just thinking about Rob is often enough for me to tear up and cry. Doing this publicly remains disquieting. Nonetheless, seeking comfort also is allowing me to heal. I feel this too in my bones: Rob's death will not kill me. Frankly, I wasn't always sure of that.  Dying from a broken heart felt very, very real.

A significant turn, that I did not see as a turn happened a couple of weeks ago when I began to remember Rob beyond the memories of his last week of life.  I was listening to Devon talk after his prom and I naturally began talking to Rob in my mind and this led me to thinking about the many times Rob and I secretly shared joy about our son. No one else will love this young man as we do. What I could not know then was the significance of that remembering. The  memory of Rob's last weeks and breath were so seared in my mind. For weeks I would relive his end. I would think about him and those thoughts were limited to the last few weeks of his life.  I couldn't remember before this. He was Rob who was so sick. Rob who no longer could walk. As I listened to Devon wax on about the prom, an earlier memory of Rob surfaced. I could see him, his head back, ponytail lying alongside his shoulder blade as he lifted Devon and turned toward me. I lifted the camera and caught the joy. And Rob took such joy in Devon's exuberance with being on holiday. We were on Martha's Vineyard early that April and Devon was just three years old. In my mind, I could see Rob twirling Devon through the air and hear their laughter. And perhaps that is what broke through the grief first: Rob's laughter. Of the hundreds of photos I made of Rob, almost all capture him smiling and laughing. He was a man who laughed easily.


As I write this I'm reminded of Margaret Wheatley's words on healing, comfort, and  leadership--words we so need today. At the close of her book, Turning to One Another, she tells us,

"Remember, you don't fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together." 

I love that sentiment especially the understanding that not only is there human goodness, but we can and ought to rely on it. What losing Rob is helping me to learn is that people need to stay together. We need to turn to one another. As Snyder writes, "learn the flowers/go light".

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Hillary Wins!

Girls Allowed (M.A. Reilly, 2016)

Such an historic evening. A win to savor.

Because She's a Woman...Huh?

Vote (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

I cringe each time I hear a woman qualify her vote.  For example, earlier this morning a woman being interviewed on NPR offered, almost apologetically, her admission that she's voting for Hillary Clinton, "not because she's a woman (rather long pause), but because she has so much experience." Since Secretary Clinton began her campaign, the response from many have been to silence gender as if gender in the United States might somehow not be relevant.

Does gender in America not matter?

I voted this afternoon in NJ for Secretary Clinton.  I did so, in part, because she is a strong woman and we are deeply in need of a strong, smart, capable, and experienced leader.  Hillary Clinton's life speaks clearly to the courageous action she has had to show in order for her to be poised to be our next president.  Her victory is a victory for all women, especially for our daughters. That ceiling she is cracking has been in place for as long as there has been the United States and there are a legion of men (and sadly) women who don't want to see it cracked.  I say break on through.

We need a woman to lead. It certainly helps that she is also the most qualified of the 18+ candidates who have made a bid for president and truly the most qualified candidate who has run for president in my life time. Advocate for women and children, First Lady of Arkansas and First Lady of the United States, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. There is no person running for president with these or equal qualifications. No one. And all the recent comments that experience now doesn't matter is more bunk, more examples of how insidious sexism is. If Hillary Clinton were male, the tenor of the primaries would have been different and the derogatory, sexists and often empty rhetoric that has been generated for years would have been silent.  Just recall the Benghazi hearings (our tax dollars at work).

Gender matters.

Sexism isn't limited to being an interpersonal matter.  Rather, it is an institutional one.  It is what allows both women and men to report with ease that they will vote for a qualified man they don't "like", but will not do the same for a woman.  It is sexist rhetoric that fuels such dispositions like:  "I won't vote for Hillary because she's not 'likable.'" or "Clinton is too aggressive" or what I heard last night, "Clinton is flat. She doesn't inspire passion like Bill and Bernie."or " I'm not comfortable with her as president. I would feel safer with  ______ (fill in the name of a man)."


One only needs to see the plethora of reports that continue to show that a woman doing the same work as a man in the United States is paid less. Given the lack of movement on current pay gap it will take close to 100 years to close that gap.

100 years. Can your daughters wait that long?  Can our country? Can the world?

Sexism is coloring this election as it colors our lives. It is always present.  Misogynistic ideology has been given new voice. Katha Pollitt, expressed this well earlier this year in The Nation when she wrote:

Choose Bernie if you like—I won’t say a word against him. But don’t reject the first woman in history who could win the White House because she doesn’t fit your notion of how women should behave. Men put a thumb on the scale for men all the time: It’s called being “gender neutral” while defining leadership in male terms. (Can you imagine a 74-year-old democratic socialist named Bernice Sanders making a run like Bernie? The jokes write themselves.) And overt misogyny still exists. You’ll never persuade me that “Bernie bros”—the men who harass female Hillary supporters with patronizing, insulting, and sometimes-obscene tweets and posts—are just Internet will-o’-the-wisps. But if you want hard numbers, how about this: According to Gallup, 8 percent of people say they would never vote for a qualified woman for president. That’s nearly one in 12 voters. But if one in 12 female primary voters is choosing Hillary just because she’s a woman—and not also because she’s experienced, super-smart, shares their values, and looks more likely to win the general—I would be surprised.

Now is the time for a woman to lead and that woman is Hillary Clinton.  I look forward to seeing Secretary Clinton become the first President of the United States.  I only wish Rob could see this history being made. He would have proudly casted his vote for Hillary today.